What does one think of when one hears the word home? The word alone holds a breadth of meanings and associations. It is not simple to pin down, and for many people it doesn’t signify a single experience or emotion. Abstractions like this one often lure students in with their seeming universality. In an effort to communicate the largeness of their ideas, they rely on large words, which can inadvertently lead to vague language. This exercise for beginner poets aims to demonstrate the power of concrete images and specific detail and their ability to communicate abstraction. Instead of resisting abstraction, we use imagery to explore it.
In his poem “Things Stuck in Other Things Where They Don’t Belong,” Chen Chen begins by writing, “My mother one afternoon in a cowboy hat, sitting on a Texas bale of hay.” From this initial image, the speaker continues to give us a rich tapestry of detail and imagery, through which we learn that the speaker spent a year living in Fort Worth, Texas, after moving with his family from China and before moving to Massachusetts. Home is moving and mysterious, and sometimes out of place, but also filled with pretend “soups” made of soy sauce, Tabasco, and mud, motel visits, and a childhood friend. Through this precise detail, we as readers get to see a clear image of this shifting childhood home. The poems “Back Home” by Patricia Smith and “Providence” by Natasha Trethewey both explore homes in the aftermath of a hurricane, but they take distinctly different styles and tones. By exploring these very different works on the same topic, students can begin to recognize and discuss the way even small elements of a poem, like line breaks and word choices, help create a distinct mood. Each poem presents us with a sense of home, but each one also invites us to participate in a unique experience.
The students then write their own “home” poem, through which they communicate their sense of this word through concrete imagery alone. Inevitably, the poems created vary widely. For example, one student wrote about driving from their hometown to college, and when talking about the exercise said that college is more of a home to them than their hometown. Another student used the beauty and clutter of the physical house to communicate the busyness of their large family, while yet another focused on describing the people in a home as a way to explore the addiction of a family member. The students had an opportunity to share their work and what they discovered through it, and I pointed out how much each poem differed from the next. Their poems clearly resonated with one another, and they had the opportunity to see how much a single abstraction can shape-shift as it moves from person to person. By focusing on images and detail, they allowed us to see and feel their specific home.
This exercise also serves as a great opportunity to see how specific imagery can illuminate universal themes. As a writing student, writer, and teacher, I have always found that this paradoxical truth is best discovered through original work and workshop. Some students chose to continue working on this prompt and transform it into their first workshop poem of the semester. During workshop, many students pointed out how much they enjoyed and could envision small details in the poems. Through this exercise, students began to gain confidence in the imagery of their own world and in their ability to communicate through it.
As a workshop leader, I find myself constantly repeating the same advice that was given to me: “Trust your images.” But this trust can be difficult to call on in a class of strangers and when trying to make sure one communicates a tension-filled, interesting idea. This exercise helps students take the plunge. Instead of focusing on the doubt-filled, perfectionist part of one’s brain, encourage students to focus on the images of a place or feeling they know, and try to put us in that space. In these poems, the vague idea of “home” is replaced by a real, living world. The power to create resides in images that are already alive in a writer’s memory.
- Begin by reading a few poems that involve a distinct sense of home or place with the class. Here are a few I recommend:
- “Providence” by Natasha Tretheway
- “Back Home” by Patricia Smith
- “Things Stuck in Other Things Where They Don’t Belong” by Chen Chen
- “State Bird” by Ada Limón
- Discuss the way these poems use image and language to create a sense of place and tension.
- Give students their prompt: Write about “home,” in whatever sense you want to think about it, using only concrete images to give your reader a sense of this home.
- Have students briefly share their writing with a partner. I have felt that this step is important, since I usually do this exercise early in the semester and students are often more comfortable sharing with the group after talking one-on-one.
- Allow students to share with the whole class. They can read all or part of what they wrote, or they can share what they learned or explored through the exercise.
- Give students the option to transform this exercise into a workshop poem if they want to continue working on it.
Emily Cinquemani is a recent graduate of the MFA program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she teaches. Her poetry has most recently appeared in 32 Poems, Nashville Review, Meridian, and Cherry Tree.