by Susan Karwoska
There are days in the classroom that require a heavier lift. You can feel it the moment you enter: there’s a sleepy, low-energy vibe. It could be that it’s a rainy Monday morning after a beautiful spring weekend. It might be a midwinter afternoon and the radiator is knocking away, heating the room to a soporific 80 degrees. Or, these past two years, it could be that it’s been another long day on Zoom and you can sense the exhaustion emanating from the faces on your screen.
When I teach poetry in elementary school classrooms—either online or in-person—I try, as much as possible, to stay attuned to the level of engagement, and, if I sense the need for it, to make adaptations on the fly. “Voilà” is a lesson I keep in my pocket for just such a day.
The lesson is based on the poem The River by Haitian poet René Depestre (1926 – ) which I found in a compilation of translations and writing responses (called Cyclops Wearing Flip-Flops) put out by the wonderful Center for the Art of Translation. I’ve used their translation of Depestre’s poem to develop a lesson for younger students, although it could easily be adapted for older students as well.
The River Translated from the French by Anita Sagástegui Voilà. It’s done: I have become a river. This will be a great adventure to the sea what name will they give me on the maps? where did this course of unknown waters begin? what sky does it reflect upon its streams? what joy, what hunger, what pain? My apologies to all geographers, I didn’t do this on purpose I just loved to watch the water flow upon all of the thirsts there are many thirsty people in the world it is for them that I’ve become a river. I never liked to see tears fall— being a river, who knows? perhaps I could fall instead. I never liked to see blood pour— being a river I could be poured instead. My destiny may then be to carry away all suffering to the sea!
There is something about that word, voilà, at the start of the poem that generates a little magic. Almost all the kids recognize the word right away. It conjures the image of a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat, or discovering a mysterious quarter behind your ear. Sometimes I’ll ask for volunteers to read just the first line, using their best “magician” voices. The poem has a real momentum to it—the words in the first stanza especially seem to rush out, flowing like the water they describe—and hearing it read aloud almost always lifts the energy in the room.
Some of the students might recognize that voilà is a French word. I tell them that the closest English translation would be, “There it is!” or “There you are!” Whenever I teach this poem I find that the students are really excited by the way it makes no explanation for the surreal transformation it describes. It’s as if, by saying “Voilà. It’s done” the poet casts a spell, allowing him to become whatever he wants to be.
There is something about that word, voilà, at the start of the poem that generates a little magic.
In Depestre’s case, he wants to be a river. I ask the students why he might have made that choice. They point out the “great adventure to the sea” the poet hopes to have. “Anything else?” I ask. They look more closely at the poem and we talk about the things the poet says he could do as a river. He could provide water for those who are thirsty. He could carry away the tears of those who are crying. Perhaps, as he says in the last few lines, he could even “carry away all suffering to the sea!”
At this point I tell them that as well as being a poet, Depestre was also an activist who worked hard to make his country a better place for all its people. I ask them to keep in mind, as they write their own voilà poems, that his choice to become a river was not only about changing himself, but also about giving himself the power to change things in the world around him.
Voilà Poetry Lesson
To start, I ask the students to think about something in nature that they would like to become.
- An animal? What kind? A tiger? A bear? A cat?
- A tree? A leaf? A flower? A mountain?
- Something in the sky? The moon? The sun? A star?
- A stream? A rock? A tree? A butterfly? A bird?
What will you say to transform yourself into this new being? I ask them next. I offer that they can use Voilà to start their poems too, or choose their own “magic” words, and then we brainstorm a possible list. This alone generates a lot of fun energy!
- Here I am! It’s done. I have become…
- It’s happened. …
- There you go. …
- Snap! …
- Amazing! …
- Surprise! …
- Look at that. …
- Who knew? …
- Imagine that! …
- Ta-da! …
I remind the students that using these words means they don’t need to think about how the change would happen. They just need to snap their fingers, so to speak, and consider it done!
Next, I invite them to close their eyes for just a minute and imagine being this new, changed self, so that they can describe it, using all the writerly tools at their disposal. This should be quick—like a brief guided meditation—to get their imaginations fired up before they put pencil to paper.
- What color are you? What are you made of? If an animal, what is your fur like? Are you big? Are you small? How do you move? Do you fly through the air? Do you run fast? Do you flow like water? Do you prowl? Or tip toe? Or do you stay in one place, like a mountain, or a tree? How does it feel to be this new thing?
At this point the students are usually eager to get writing. Once they have started their poems by describing their transformations, I ask a few questions to help them continue, writing them on the board as well so they can refer to them if they want to, but making sure to let them know they are also free to follow where their imaginations lead them.
- Tell us what you would do, I say, once you have transformed yourself into something new.
- How would you spend your time?
- Where would you go?
- What would you think about?
- Is there a way you would try to help people, like the river in the poem?
- Ask a question about yourself, as Depestre does in his poem (What name will they give me on the maps?)
- Give a winking apology for some trouble you might cause in your new incarnation. Like Depestre’s apology, I say, (My apologies to all geographers, / I didn’t do this on purpose) you can have a little fun with this sorry/not sorry line.
- Tell us what matters most to you in this new form, or what you most enjoy doing.
Make sure to leave some time at the end of the lesson for students to share their poems!
One of the things I like most about this exercise, besides how it wakes up a sleepy classroom, is how it is accessible to beginning writers while also offering plenty of inspiration to more advanced writers, as can be seen in the student poems below. I also appreciate how it gives students the opportunity to turn their gaze both inward and outward, encouraging them to imagine a self transformed and to consider how they might use the power conferred by this transformation.
Student Voilà poems
The Waterfall By Isah, 3rd grade Impossible! It’s done. I have become a waterfall. Here I am. I have become grand and beautiful, an amazing combination of white and blue, and so large I don’t know whether to like it or not. I feel bad for all those daredevils who try to ride down me, they will certainly perish. I love being admired by tourists and people who live here. I wonder if I will get bored, after all I can't move my body, just my water. I love being the cause of something I love, like a rainbow.
The Flame by Elise, 3rd grade Here I am. A flame. Untouchable. Unbeatable. I am used for warmth. And defense. For years, and years to come. I send trees crashing to the ground, covered in ash. I send blazes rushing through buildings and spinning down streets. I stop cars. Start tears. But people don’t know how important I am. I can keep balance. Keep everyone having a purpose. What am I made of? Why aren’t I friendly? It’s just how I am. A flame. An unforgiving flame.
The Wolf by Arman, 3rd grade Grrrrr, I am a Wolf ready to strike I am a hunter and a predator I am a fighter and a warrior I am nimble and agile I am stealthy and quick Apologies to hunters and poachers but you won’t hunt me today! I defend my territory from lowly humans and other lower creatures I fight and howl with pride of my race I am invincible.
The Bull by Christopher, 3rd grade Wow it’s done. I have become a Bull. I have big horns. I am a mean animal when you make me angry. I am not sorry to anyone, it's just my way of living.
The Wind by Eleanor, 3rd grade Amazing! I have become the wind. I will travel around the world and blow through anyone who gets in my way. I am fast, swift, and even kind. I wonder, will people give me a name? Will people ever notice me? Or will I always be their invisible friend?
The Mountain by Henry, 3rd grade Who knew? I have become a mountain! I am big, bulky, and grey. I am very old (because I am a mountain). I cannot move. I have little humans walking around me all the time. Why am I a mountain? Because I am!
I Am a Storm by Stella, 3rd grade It has happened. I have become a storm. I am the black of a forest, the light of the sun, and the swirling color of a rainbow. I tear through the sky big bold and strong Stomping and shouting what I am feeling all night long. I control the four winds north, east, south, and west blowing them along.
Susan Karwoska is a writer, editor, and teacher. She is the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) Fellowship in Fiction; a Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Workspace residency for emerging artists; and residencies at the Ucross Foundation and at Cummington Community of the Arts. From 2005-2014 she was the editor of Teachers & Writers Magazine and currently serves on its editorial board. She is also on the board of the New York Writers Coalition and has served on NYFA’s artist advisory board. She writes and edits for a variety of publications and organizations, works as a writer-in-the-schools, and lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she is at work on a novel.
Featured photo by Octavia Beale