One of the most humbling experiences for a teacher is to try to help a student who wants to succeed, but can't. When I was earning my credential years ago, I had an assignment to serve as a tutor at a local high school, and I wound up paired with a special-needs student who wanted to write a confirmation letter to his bishop. The boy -- his name was Daniel, I think -- had a sweet disposition, an admirable work ethic, and a genuine desire to excel in class and better his prospects in life. He simply could not write. Due to his disability, any attempts to write a coherent message turned into near-gibberish on the page.
He and I tried several strategies, from using colored pencils for different types of sentences to having him recite his words into a voice recorder and then transcribe them. He eventually completed his letter, but largely through my editing and prompting. After my brief assignment, I never saw him again, and I hope, at least, that he found his place in the Catholic faith.
That experience became the inspiration for my latest poem posted in the Journal of Radical Wonder. "One Word," which first appeared in the magazine Cadence Collective and later in the book Angels in Seven, is a fictionalized account of my sessions with Daniel. Actually, it's a third-person piece, with the student now a middle-aged English-learner and his teacher a sympathetic high school girl. Poems have a way of dictating their own reality once the writing begins.
During the occasional times when I get interviewed about poetry, I often receive the question of how long poems take to write. "One Word" is what I refer to as a "speed poem" -- one whose inspiration, composition, and revision cover a short period of time, maybe just a few minutes. Allen Ginsberg famously coined the phrase "First thought, best thought," but I find that poems seldom work that way; most of the ones that I eventually submit for publication go through an arduous process. Every so often, though, that process hits a fast-forward button of sorts. "December," which appears on the Poetry Foundation's website, came out between bites of food at the UCI cafeteria in 2001; "Blues Man," which is featured on the same site, took years of false starts and reworking. Looking at the poems themselves, I would never know which one took longer to write. We can churn out 1,000 words effortlessly or agonize over a dozen; writing is mercurial that way.
In the case of "One Word," I may have benefited from momentum; I wrote it in 2015 during a summer workshop in Cape Cod with Marge Piercy, and the class had just done an exercise about ending every stanza of a poem with the same word. That assignment made me think of Daniel, who had a stubborn idea in mind and sought to find a way to express it. Writing is play for some, work for others. Perhaps I wrote this poem to remind myself of that.
This is the blog of Michael Miller, a longtime journalist, poet, publisher and teacher. Check here for musings, observations, commentary and assorted bits of gratitude.