In Naomi Shihab Nye’s beautiful poem “Valentine for Ernest Mann,” she says that “poems hide” and that we must “live in a way that lets us find them.” At the end of the poem, she urges: “Maybe if we re-invent whatever our lives give us/we find poems. Check your garage, the off sock/in your drawer, the person you almost like, but not quite/And let me know.”
In my writing classes, I urge students to live in a way that lets them find their stories and poems: to be open, hopeful, observant, humble, and awestruck by the world. For this poetry box activity, I want them to image a life that exists in the cast-off items that one might discover in the garage or the sock drawer, to create a life from those items, and to imagine a narrative relationship between the items and this fictional character.
When I ask students to write, they often want to write about the big abstracts (LOVE DEATH FEAR JOY WAR), but I am continually urging them to pay attention to the little concretes. To shore up my argument, I invoke Anton Chekov who said, “Don’t tell me about the moon. Show me the glint of light on broken glass” or Tim O’Brien who beautifully describes the big abstraction of War by saying, “And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It’s about sunlight. It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow. It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen.”
And so we start with the concrete. I plunder Goodwill stores and antique haunts for things I can stuff in a gift box and wrap up. Six or seven things go in each box, including one natural thing in the collection, such as a pebble or a pine cone. I put in old pictures, charms, trinkets, glass and several item of ephemera. Then I wrap the boxes in whatever gift wrap I have stashed about.
Once students select a box and before they open the box, I ask them to write about what they think is in in the box. I give them about two minutes of writing time for this. Then they open the boxes and catalog each item and describe it as objectively as possible. I urge them to look over each item and detail it exhaustively, using both sensory details and cultural or social associations. This usually takes about ten minutes.
Once all the pieces have been placed on the table in front of them, cataloged and described, students write a character sketch about the person who owned these items. I give them about seven minutes to write a fully-fleshed out profile of this person. After they do this, I ask three or four students to share their character, using the artifacts as evidence for particular personality traits and/or lifestyle choices they have given their characters.
Then I ask them to focus on one particular item in the box, the one thing in the box that was the most precious to their character. “What is the item that this person carried with them through every move, every bad marriage, every child, job, house? What item was this person holding, in her hand, his wallet, her purse, his backpack, when he or she died?” They select the item, and I ask them to jump or wade out into a poem that tells the story of this item and its relationship to the fictional character who owned it.
Most the poems that are born in this activity eventually become swallowed up by something longer – a piece of flash fiction, a short story, the beginning of a one-act. I might tweak this assignment in the future to start with the items first and ask students to write from the items or about the items instead of developing the character first. Students become attached to the character and the story leads from that.
There are a lot of variables that could be used with this lesson. You could give students boxes and ask them to create their own “artifact box,” collecting five or six items that are emblematic of their own life, to generate writing for a memoir or vignette. Some teachers have used the idea of items in a box to create “Me Musuems” for first-of-the-year ice breakers or to use boxes as a means to analyze literary characters.