When my daughter was in 3rd grade, she had the most marvelous poetry teacher, who visited the school through a terrific program called California Poets in the Schools, which has been bringing professional poets into K-8 classrooms for 46 years. The poet, Karen Benke, was extremely special. She had a way of coaxing whimsical language and deep, unconscious connections from children, sometimes with the aid of “word” tickets that would appear from a velvet pouch she carried. When in doubt, the muse could usually be summoned with the help of a word ticket.
Now Karen has published a book, Rip the Page! Adventures in Creative Writing, to help poets young and old summon their muses, with a full range of completely fun poetry exercises and triggers that will work when you’re stuck, or just want to stretch out and have fun. She and a host of well-known poets contribute notes and ideas in a very warm, encouraging and easy-to-read format.
Closer to games than assignments, a lot of the exercises offer ways to slow down and ask oneself questions like, What does that color feel like? What was my favorite age? What’s it really like to be a stone? There are ways to loosen up, such as making lists, creating recipes, using gross-out words, and trying not to make sense. There are encouragements to go deep and write about what hurts, or what you’re grateful for, or something you’ve never told anyone before.
Different forms are played with, such as odes and haiku. Karen shows that words can be visual — They can be piled on top of one another. They can form the shape of an object. They can reach to infinity. Exercises let poets write just for sound, and explore repetition of language. There are illustrations of concepts like similes, spoonerisms, alliteration, juxtaposition, point of view, going beyond cliches, calling on all the senses, and all kinds of tools that poets can use to make their writing more alive and the act of writing more fun.
Rip the Page is definitely fun. It’s about stretching and expressing ones uniqueness with games, prompts and tons of ideas that would encourage even the most reticent writer. Karen’s joy and enthusiasm for writing, children and life are completely contagious. The book unfolds like a series of magic tickets. You could open it anywhere and summon the imagination and courage to do something out of the ordinary like catching a whisper or letting the moon speak.
She also recently hosted a poetry, music and performance event as a collection drive for Operation Backpack!, a charity she created to send backpacks to children in Colima, Mexico, a mining town in the mountains south of Puerto Vallarta, where her aunt, Barbara Rounds, volunteers and where children cannot afford backpacks for school. Look for a future post about the Operation Backpack! event, which was, like Karen and Rip the Page, warm, inspiring and fun.
Photos by Susan Sachs Lipman