One of the things that makes a poem, and any piece of writing, come alive is the use of specific details. Often my students will write in generalities, my dog, my car, my room. Once we’ve been writing together for a while I try to teach them to go a bit deeper with their poems and use the specific details that will show me the difference between a German Shepherd and a Poodle, between a puddle of water and the ocean, between a beat up old Chevy Impala and a shiny new Lexus just driven off the showroom floor.

It’s easiest to start with something you know well and I like to do this exercise with both a place and event. Today let’s focus on a place. For kids I usually suggest their room but they’re free to pick anywhere they want – grandma’s kitchen, church, their best friend’s basement. And then I ask them to make a list of everything they can remember about that one place, including at least one line for each of their senses. As you might tell by now I start a lot of poems with a list because while writing a poem might feel hard, making a list is usually pretty easy. Some people call it brainstorming but I usually get confused when I look at those mind maps with words going off in all sorts of different directions. A list feels orderly and yet it can still be all over the place.

So first I suggest a list of at least 10 things they remember about the place and I encourage them to use sensory details. And sometimes it’s easy to go back to the “I remember” prompt and just start the list like that. Then they can build the poem.

Here’s my brainstorm of being in my library here at home:

Some of the books are old and have that wonderful old musty book smell
It’s dusty and the windows are dirty and I don’t care
The clerestory windows let in tons of light
the picture window lets me see the lush garden
It feels like a safe place to breathe
Even with windows closed, I can hear the birds chirping
the dog is snoring,
my computer humming
A cobweb is hanging off the ceiling fan, a few more on some of the top bookcases
I’m sipping cinnamon tea
The dog is chasing something in her dreams, legs are running
I’m feeling tempted to go rearrange books
I’ve got a stack of poetry books next to me on the floor
I don’t have room on the shelves for any more books
I need get rid of some books but I don’t want to let any of them go
the room feels like a hug from an old friend when you walk into it

And here is a rough trio of haiku from the brainstorm. Alas, not many specific details but then that’s what revision is for. 🙂

ordinary day
surrounded by dusty books
gratitude fills me

gratitude fills me
snoring dog chases squirrels
birds sing songs of spring

birds sing songs of spring
calling, come outside, breathe
this is the real work

Your turn.