WITS Voices: I Am – Self-Portrait in Objects and Personal Geographies
By Rachel Kessler, WITS Writer-in-Residence
“The function of art is to do more than tell it like it is – it’s to imagine what is possible.”
How do we present ourselves to the world? This is an important question for sixth graders entering middle school. I like to open residencies by engaging students in a fun drawing and writing experiment that gives them an opportunity to reveal and envision who they are.
This fall and winter, Amanda Roenicke welcomed me into her 6th grade Language Arts classes at Washington Middle School. These kids did not know me and were still getting to know one another while adjusting to the hustle and scramble of middle school. It is scary to share ourselves, even in the best of circumstances. The best way to move past and through fear and writer’s block is to get the pen moving on the page.
In this exercise I learned from one of my mentors, the incredible teaching artist Darwin Nordin, we loosen the hand and mind and room by quickly putting lines on a piece of paper. We begin with a fast and loose continuous line contour drawing technique. The idea is to trace the contours of one’s own face without looking at either the paper or subject, but drawing by feel, one uninterrupted line, keeping the pen connected to the paper. I demonstrate:
These drawings look weird! There is no way to make it look “good” or “perfect” or even much like a face. It is just fun and a little silly. Everyone quickly executes a strange single line contour drawing of their own face. Then we have a 30-second art show. Everyone holds their Picasso-esque drawing up above their head, and we all look around the room at the unique results. We set those aside for a moment. We will return to these lines on the page later.
Next, we brainstorm using this quick list of things, leaving a few lines between each. This is snappy – I ask students to fill in the first thing that comes to mind.
If I were a candy, I would be a ___________ (I give examples: Big Hunk, Sour Patch Kid)
If I were a mode of transportation, I’d be a _____________ (hovercraft, helicopter, horse)
If I were a weather system, I’d be a ____________ (hurricane, drizzle, fog, thunderstorm)
If I were a tool, I’d be a _________ (typewriter, whisk, jackhammer, pencil, walkie-talkie)
If I were a cartoon character/superhero/mythical beast, I’d be______
Now we go back and write two to three PRECISE describing words or phrases about each of those things. I demonstrate and encourage using all five senses to tell about that thing.
Big Hunk – huge and chewy, tastes like honey, sticks in teeth, smells sweet;
Helicopter – blades beat air, giant insect hum, phwap-phwap-phwap, surveillance;
Drizzle – no umbrella needed, tiny droplets, hushed pitter-patter, frizzy hair!
Typewriter – heavy machine, clicketty-clacketty, fingers tap out letters, inky, and so on and so forth.
So, before we even start to read the mentor text or talk about what to write, students have words on the page—a great list of dynamic images and sensory descriptions, which we will return to later.
Everyone in class receives a photocopy of N. Scott Momaday’s beautiful self-portrait poem, “The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee” (below). For 6th graders, a little background and context for this poem is helpful (I gleaned information about the poem and poet from poets.org, poetryfoundation.org, and Wikipedia).
We read this poem out loud, each student reading one line so the poem moves around the room in our mouths:
The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee
by N. Scott Momaday
I am a feather on the bright sky
I am the blue horse that runs on the plain
I am the fish that rolls, shining, in the water
I am the shadow that follows a child
I am the evening light, the lustre of meadows
I am an eagle playing with the wind
I am a cluster of bright beads
I am the farthest star
I am the cold of dawn
I am the roaring of the rain
I am the glitter of the crust of the snow
I am the long track of the moon in a lake
I am a flame of four colors
I am a deer standing away in the dusk
I am a field of sumac and the pomme blanche
I am an angle of geese in the winter sky
I am the hunger of a young wolf
I am the whole dream of these things
You see, I am alive, I am alive
I stand in good relation to the earth
I stand in good relation to the gods
I stand in good relation to all that is beautiful
I stand in good relation to the daughter of Tsen-tainte
You see, I am alive, I am alive
Something happens as students follow the poem, anticipating which line will land on them. They hear the list of “I am’s” ring out and notice patterns emerge. In one class, when we hit the line, “You see, I am alive, I am alive,” a few students burst out in chorus. From that point on, we all read the line together, an emphatic response to this list poem of incredible things that the author contains.
Momaday’s delight in the images he finds in nature inspires students to leap right in and write their own list poems. Some students choose to use the list of bright objects and sensory descriptions they brainstormed during the warm-up. I demonstrate how they write, “I am…” and can insert a line or image from their warm-up brainstorm. The poem almost writes itself.
I am ice cream
cold and sweet
I am thunder so quick
you can’t even react before it hit you
I am an ant
small but very strong
I am a small little Nerd, sour but sweet
I am a raindrop slowly dripping off the roof
I am eraser that can take away your mistakes
I am defying gravity
I encourage students to find a title for their poem within one of their lines.
I am the one that gets stuck to your teeth
I am Mike-n-Ikes
I am colorful
I am the one that gets stuck to your teeth
I am a hoverboard
I am fast
I am fun
I am hot
I am yellow
I am the sun
I am loud
I cut stuff
I am a chainsaw
One student chose to pay homage to Momaday with this title:
The Delightful Song of Unique
I am a small gummy bear jumping up and down
I am a fast mustang zooming through the streets at break of dawn
I am the bright sun that lights up the day
I am as rich as Bruce Wayne
I am a superhero called Batman, saving Gotham City from villians
I am a funny sponge
I am a puppy so fuzzy, friendly, and cuddly
Students pick up on the repetition in the list poem form and use its music.
I am a flower blowing in the breeze
I am a dragon ready to burn you to a pulse
I am a car zooming across the street
I am a tiger who tiptoes with ease
I am a rhino that pushes you like a doll
Inspired by the leaps Momaday makes in his poem, some students move beyond their brainstorm and add more images:
I Am Poetry
I am the stomp to the ground that reveals the crowd
I am the rhythm and shake of my hips
I am the beautiful blue waves to the ocean
I am the move and wiggle and waggle of my arms
I am the singing along to the music
I am the ending of the story
Unprompted, these young writers describe the feelings associated with the images.
I am the breeze on a warm sunny day. I am
the sun on a rainy day. I am
the pineapple at the bottom of the fruit salad. I am
the ice cream that comforts your heart when it’s broken. I am
and no one can take those things away from me.
They use the self-portrait list form to weave a narrative.
I am a hard jawbreaker, I am
a warm breey day, I am
a hockey stick that flings the puck into the net, I’m
the hard rubber puck that bounces from stick to stick, I am
the frosty white grass, I’m
the thin sharp blade that glides through the ice, I am
the joy after scoring a goal, I’m
the clear shiny lake, I am
the emotion after winning the championship.
Some poems quickly move into metaphysical territory.
I am the wind in your hair,
The darkness around you.
I am the light that brings life,
The color in your eyes,
I am your mind thinking,
The lungs you breathe with.
I am your beating heart,
I am your spirit.
Students write about the apparent contradictions they contain:
I am a simple bean
with rainbow shell
eagle racing winds
-Mai Mai W.
And, these imaginative sixth graders cannot ignore all the possibilities the headlines offer, with hilarious results:
I am a bomb ready to blow
I am a brain thinking of crazy ideas
I am a windy tree never going to tip
I am a sponge soaking up life
I am a pair of sunglasses blocking the sun
I am a Ferris Wheel not going anywhere
I am a hammer smashing things to the ground
I am Donald Trump
Then there are those young poets, who find a springboard in the form and go on to create something way beyond the prompt, discovering a secret world within, mapping it out on the page, writing out the riddle of self.
I am like a soft winded ocean breeze—
I am hard shell crystal crabs.
I am smoothly sharp
like clear glass. I am
a cold home for particular animals. I play with
the hot summer beach. The sand
my sunscreen. People collect me for my unique
style. Every time you put your ear to me you hear
the soft sound of sparkling water
my home is the titanic ocean
but just got swept away.
We hunt in packs sometimes
our intelligent bright yellow big color guides our prey to us.
We go slow. We like to run to the sun
and catch home. Our lights guide roads
so we can see
the destiny we
strike around the world and let loose. We arrive
At last, we return to the single continuous line contour drawing of the face. I show them a few examples of how to transform these lines into a map. We start by filling in the places where lines intersect with color.
We also find vague shapes of the things in our poems and emphasize the shapes by outlining them.
We start to write lines of the poem right onto the face or the blank space around or inside it, paying attention to the way we write the letters, using font to create voice.
There are many ways to embroider and braid the text of the poem with the lines of the face. I encourage students to cover the entire page, layering colors and texture.
Add a compass rose:
Draw topographic lines:
Use all the visual language of maps to write a personal geography.
Rachel Kessler is co-author of books Who Are We? (with 7″ record) and TYPO, made as co-founder of poetry performance collaborations Vis-a-Vis Society and Typing Explosion, respectively. Her work has appeared in The Stranger, USA Today, Tin House, Poetry Northwest, Narrative and elsewhere. Inspired by everyday occurrences, she has performed poetry in parks, on buses, disguised as a tree, aboard water taxis, in phone booths, hair salons and public restrooms.