by Matthew Burgess
“Now I shall discuss an important feature of playing. This is that in playing, and perhaps only in playing, the child or adult is free to be creative.”
–D.W. Winnicott, Playing & Reality
Poetry, as we know, has magical powers, and one of them is to startle us into seeing with new eyes. The same is true of visual art. One of my heroes, the visionary Pop Artist nun and educator, Corita Kent, put it this way: “A work of art makes you alert to what you hadn’t noticed in the ordinary things…so that the distinction narrows between what is ordinary and what is extraordinary.” The aim of this “Talk to the Hand” exercise is to refresh our perceptual apparatus through a series of drawing and writing prompts. The steps are structured with this intention in mind; we want students to be so focused on the task at hand that they slip out of self-consciousness and into play—into process. Intermittent reminders that ‘this is an experiment’ or to simply ‘see what happens’ help to allay any fears about the outcome or worse, product.
One of the twists of this exercise, however, is that everyone ends up with a poetry broadside. A broadside combines poetry and visual art on a single page, sometimes handprinted as a letterpress or screen print to be framed and displayed. Less formal broadsides–made with a copy machine or printed on sturdier paper—can be a great way to showcase and celebrate student work. The “spontaneous broadsides” that emerge from this exercise tend to be chaotic, even messy, but they radiate an aliveness that reflects the students’ play.
I first attempted this lesson in October 2019 with an undergraduate poetry workshop at Brooklyn College. We had been reading poems by Pablo Neruda, Sharon Olds, Lucille Clifton, and William Carlos Williams, as well as Ross Gay’s incredible collection, Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude. The theme of this particular sequence of the course was on the body and the physical world—writing as an act of attention, presence, and praise. More recently, I have adapted this lesson for use in other contexts, including an online class with MFA students at Columbia University who are interested in teaching imaginative writing.
The Meditative Lead-In
A good way to begin is with a short meditation. If you feel nervous or shy about doing this kind of thing, so do I. At Brooklyn College, I often teach in the same room that Allen Ginsberg taught for many years, and it’s well known that he began each workshop with a period of meditation. I am not Allen Ginsberg, and I feel shy about asking students to do this. Will they find it cringey or oppressive? But each time I’ve done it, students don’t resist as much as I fear they might. In fact, they embrace it.
One straightforward meditation I use is a simple “body scan.” With eyes open or closed, breathing calmly and deeply, I invite my students to bring their attention to their toes. I pause for a moment and move upward: ankles, knees, thighs, stomach, lungs, heart, fingers, shoulders, jaw, ears, eyes, crown. Something along these lines. When we reach the top of the head, I invite students to open their eyes and to notice any sensations in their body, if perhaps they feel more centered now than when they entered the room.
The Read Aloud
Now we read a “mentor text” aloud. You could choose any poem that brings focus and praise to the physical body, such as Neruda’s “Ode to the Cranium,” Lucille Clifton’s “homage to my hips,” William Carlos Williams’ “Smell!” or Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Anodyne.” (Shout-out to a wonderful lesson using this poem as a mentor text by Aracelis Girmay in Spellbound.) We don’t delve deeply into an analytical close reading; mostly I allow the poem to cast its particular spell while inviting a few observations about the author’s descriptions of the body. How does the poet make the body visible and visceral using descriptions and metaphors? Does the poet address some body part directly? Do you see any examples of personification and apostrophe?
Free-Drawing into Free-Writing
Here things begin moving at a pretty swift pace. The point is not to rush students, but to immerse them in one activity after another. The instructions and the music are designed to invite play and to keep the inner critic at bay.
- Distribute a single sheet of white drawing paper to each participant as well as two colored markers, pencils, or crayons of their choosing. I suggest using sheets that are larger than the standard loose-leaf size: 18” x 24” or 11” x 17”. (Online: ask students to bring a sheet of paper and colored utensils to class.)
- With the music cued, I give simple yet clear instructions: for the duration of the song, we are going to hold our dominant hand open, observing it closely while we slowly sketch it with our non-dominant hand. You can use or adapt the following instructions: Try to keep your eyes focused on your open hand the entire time, in a relaxed and meditative way. Trace the outlines and inner lines with your eyes while following along with a continuous line drawing. While you might see your drawing out of the corner of your eye, don’t focus on it, and don’t try to make the drawing “resemble” your hand. The challenge is to allow your eye to travel across the surface of your hand, observing it, while you move your non-dominant hand across the surface of the paper. See if you can allow these to sync up: to let the hand move as the eye moves.
- Play the song. I recommend something without lyrics—upbeat but not frantic, meditative but not mournful. Join your students in the activity so they can see that you’re doing it too. This can last for approximately 3 – 5 minutes.
- When the song is over (or you fade it out), ask students to set these drawings aside—for now—and to open their journals or notebooks to two facing pages. Let them know that we are now going to fill the left-hand side with a series of brief, spontaneously written “lists.”
- Ask the following questions, allowing students a brief period to “free write” answers in the form of notes or lists. One of my students at Brooklyn College, Nathan Reder, shared his responses with me, and I include them below as examples.
- What are some words or phrases that describe your hand/s?
(“knobby, worn, dead skin, thick, wide, veiny, mine”)
- What are some metaphors and similes that you can create to describe your hand/s? (“primitive, like squeezed putty, nimble dancers, like a foundation upon which anything can be built”)
- Write down any specific memory or memories directly related to your hand/s, such as: memorable things you’ve touched in your life, accidents involving your hand/s, a time when your hands braced you from a fall, etc. (“hands stopped working after lifting and moving docks, quick to catch something thrown at me, written a ten-page paper in eight hours, fell asleep after resting my head upon them”)
- Write a brief expression of gratitude to your hand/s using the second person “you.” (Apostrophe) Thank it for something it has done for you or enabled you to do. (“Hands, you support me and others when we fall; You may not always be quick enough, or small enough, or good-looking—so I’ll never be a hand model—but you are mine; I will always stand by you or you will help me stand so that we will always be each other’s.”)
- At this point, I pause for a moment and invite students to set down their pencils and shake out their hands. To take a breath. But only for a moment or two before I give them the next instruction: For the next 5-7 minutes, free-write to your hand, using as much or as little as you wish from the notes we’ve just written. Don’t think too much as you write—just let your pen or pencil move across the page and see what happens. Try to keep your pencil moving for the duration. Once again, join your students in the activity.
- When the time is up, I give students a moment to read what they’ve just written quietly to themselves, while I do the same.
- Next I ask students to retrieve their spontaneous hand drawings and to take out the other colored marker, pencil, or crayon.
- For the final step I give the following instructions: Choose an excerpt from the piece you just wrote, or transcribe it in its entirety, and using this new color, write the lines on top of, around, or beside the drawing of your hand. I play one more song for the final activity.
Before concluding, I invite students to share their spontaneous poetry broadsides. I emphasize the fact that this has been an experiment—that these are not meant to be “works of art” but rather reflections of the creative process. What emerges, however, is often beautiful in its own right, a demonstration of what can happen when we allow ourselves to be spontaneous—to play—without trying to control the outcome. Without fail, a number of students are eager to show and share what they’ve made, and I see their expressions of delighted surprise. Some are more inclined to share the poems than the sketched hands, and I welcome that too. Regardless of the result, this exercise can be a foundation for further exploration. I invite students to expand, revise, or shape their “hand poem” for homework, or to write an ode to some overlooked or underappreciated part of the body.
Here are some student examples:
Ode to the Writers
Gnarled and knobby
fingers like squeezed putty,
backs like veiny granite,
dead skin and wide palms,
you will never make money on your looks.
I keep you clean and kept
but the base will remain the same.
There are some unique features you possess,
the loud noises you make
to remind me you’re there,
the quickness you exert
like nimble dancers,
your connections with my wrists
I can’t soon forget,
lest you stop working
when the work is too heavy or much.
Yet, that is what you are good at:
being communicative and dependable.
I know that when I call on you
I can be sure to do anything I set my mind to.
You are mine and I hope you never let go.
Ode to My Hands
Never are they free
until the rest of the body
Like tall reeds in harvest,
can hold the yoke
that is me.
Don’t you understand
why I never give you rings?
you won’t like the weight
of thick chains on your slim bodies.
Yet you never cease to say no
to the things that might break you.
Didn’t it hurt when that staple
Don’t you think
those callouses are ugly?
I didn’t notice the freckles
that lightly adorn your back
until last week.
Ode to my Hands
Sometimes you think faster than my mind.
Perhaps you’re not as scared.
Hands, my heart complains about you. You
Make her nervous
With your constant reaching,
Not meant for hands.
Hands, you never seem to want
As you stick your fingertips into the
Toaster, rescuing peanut-butter-burnt
You rescue me, hands,
Lift weights that would otherwise
Crush my shoulders.
My knees aren’t as strong as you.
Hands, rough like Triscuits,
Thick like biscuits,
You callous, veiny,
Tired, but not exhausted,
A selection of other spontaneous broadsides:
– Matthew Burgess
– Emily Simon
Matthew Burgess is an Assistant Professor at Brooklyn College. He is the author of a poetry collection, Slippers for Elsewhere (UpSet Press, 2014), and four children’s books: Enormous Smallness: A Story of E. E. Cummings (Enchanted Lion Books, 2015), The Unbudgeable Curmudgeon (Knopf, 2019), Drawing on Walls: A Story of Keith Haring (ELB, 2020), and The Bear and The Moon (Chronicle, 2020). He has edited an anthology of visual art and writing titled Dream Closet: Meditations on Childhood Space (Secretary Press, 2016), as well as a collection of essays titled Spellbound: The Art of Teaching Poetry (Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 2019). More books are forthcoming, including Make Meatballs Sing: The Life & Art of Corita Kent (ELB, June 2021), Bird Boy (Knopf, July 2021), and The Red Tin Box (Chronicle, 2023). A poet-in-residence in New York City public schools since 2001, Matthew also serves as a contributing editor of Teachers & Writers Magazine.