Teachers Act Up!

Thoughts on Teaching, Language, and Social Change from Melisa "Misha" Cahnmann-Taylor

Monthly Archives: January 2017

Poem to Remember to Read on Thanksgiving

I’m going to assign a “thank you” poem assignment.  This one takes the cake, the pumpkin pie right off the turkey head.  This poem was published below on Perez’ website and is up for a prize from Rattle where it is written in couplets.





Thank you, instant mashed potatoes, your bland taste

makes me feel like an average American. Thank you,

incarcerated Americans, for filling the labor shortage

and packing potatoes in Idaho. Thank you, canned

cranberry sauce, for your gelatinous curves. Thank you,

Ojibwe tribe in Wisconsin, your lake is now polluted

with phosphate-laden discharge from nearby cranberry

bogs. Thank you, crisp green beans, you are my excuse

for eating apple pie ala mode later. Thank you, indigenous

migrant workers, for picking the beans in Mexico’s farm belt,

may your children survive the season. Thank you, NAFTA,

for making life dirt cheap. Thank you, Butterball Turkey,

for the word, butterball, which I repeat all day butterball,

butterball, butterball because it helps me swallow the bones

of genocide. Thank you, dark meat for being so juicy

(no offense, dry and fragile white meat, you matter too).

Thank you, 90 million factory farmed turkeys, for giving

your lives during the holidays. Thank you, factory farm

workers, for clipping turkey toes and beaks so they don’t scratch

and peck each other in overcrowded, dark sheds. Thank you,

genetic engineering and antibiotics, for accelerating

their growth. Thank you, stunning tank, for immobilizing

most of the turkeys hanging upside down by crippled legs.

Thank you, stainless steel knives, for your sharpened

edge and thirst for throat. Thank you, de-feathering

tank, for your scalding-hot water, for finally killing the last

still conscious turkeys. Thank you, turkey tails, for feeding

Pacific Islanders all year round. Thank you, empire of

slaughter, for never wasting your fatty leftovers. Thank you,

tryptophan, for the promise of an afternoon nap;

I really need it. Thank you, store bought stuffing,

for your ambiguously ethnic flavor, you remind me

that I’m not an average American. Thank you, gravy,

for being hot-off-the-boat and the most beautiful

brown. Thank you, dear readers, for joining me at the table

of this poem. Please join hands, bow your heads, and repeat

after me: “Let us bless the hands that harvest and butcher

our food, bless the hands that drive delivery trucks

and stock grocery shelves, bless the hands that cooked

and paid for this meal, bless the hands that bind

our hands and force feed our endless mouth.

May we forgive each other and be forgiven.

Big league or did he say bigly

Here is my draft poem for class this week where we read Roethke’s “Dolor”–I tell my students to check their syllable counts (assignment is 10+ this week per line); review for “cliché,” power up verbs, make sure there’s music, grounded imagery, that their politics not be too heavy handed (or to absent).

I say: Work your words.  They matter.

response to this article and so much more: NYTimes Article


Sentence Diagram Dolor (draft)

after T. Roethke



I have known the relentless rules of grammar,

walls drawn between verbs and their subjects, direct

objects like trailing spouses, the burden

of adjectives describing hand sizes, pricking

nouns’ softened bellies, lead mistakes blurred

by pink erasers’ bluster, tear of ruled

paper, narrow blue lines, red cheeked errors

mudded with white out, the wet waiting to reclassify.

And I have winced at the confusion of phonics:

“big league” or did he say “bigly” to boast cuts

in taxes, regulations, speed by which we sign

protest, beg language to govern again, coordinate

bent and broken lines to unify and rise.

January 20, 2017

“Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good. What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take “everyone on Earth” to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale”

Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Estes’ writing gives me more hope than my own, but I feel this poem draft gives room for my sadness to breathe and is a “calm thing that one soul can do.”  W.C. Williams wrote:

“It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.”

And this morning, I read Williams’ poems and wrote.

Eight a.m., January 20, 2017, Arlington, Virginia [new draft]


Gauzy curtain, through transom glass,

mailboxes on crotchety legs,


curbed, trash-can rule breakers,

burdened electric wire sag,


persistent squirrel squeak

beneath higher than thou branches,


white-breasted nuthatches squalk,

din about dim, misplaced spring, orange


cloud-gashes, a blaring bandstand day, tumbled

like pebbles of grief-stricken sky.

Write. It feels good.

My poetry class met on Monday and it’s now Thursday. This morning is the first day I sat down to write a new poem (in too many weeks, months?).  I am sad I waited this long but I think I waited because I needed the courage to rev the engines again, to clear the room of the haunting voices that say: you can’t write, what have you got to say? nothing will be good when you start, so why start now?

But this morning the house is quiet, I rise early and I remember my instructions to the students: find a place to sit and write regularly for a few minutes each day.  Sit in the same place.  See how it changes as you document what you see.  Write without editing, just write.  Then you will find your ten best lines, 5 or more best couplets to write an observation poem as we discussed in “Nantucket”  (by W.C. Williams). [*merged assignment learned from great mentors Anne Waldman and Robin Becker].

So here I am and after having written this first draft on the first “warm” morning we’ve had in North Georgia in awhile. I feel a sense of relief.  I saw things.  I put them into words.  I felt the symbolism or the emerging symbolism of my day to day world.  It is pleasing, just the way it is pleasing to exercise –AFTER it is over.

So I urge my students (and myself): start.  If you have already started, or have a regular writing practice, good for you! It does take time to find one’s words, to find exact language that is not something that comes on a cereal box.  It’s hard work to name our worlds in our own ways.  But it’s worth it to discover one’s own voice and then to be able to inspire that in our students, and the students of our students.  In this political economy of twisted words and half truths, it’s vital to touch base with the power of language, of truth “worked out” and sweaty on the page.

Please write.  Do it for you, for your students, for me.  It takes time so please don’t wait any more (like I did).  And please ask me, ask one another: did you write today? 3 minutes? 5? It doesn’t take long to get in the habit. We may discover ways we can add our small observations to the larger world, how to bear the grief and pain of it and celebrate joy.


It’s not a poem yet but at least there are words to mark the passing of time.  Here they are –no line breaks, a little judgement–in their drafty first day back form.  I hope to return to this same seat tomorrow.


Kitchens, draft one.

My eyes used to linger only on the dining table:narrow legs, flimsy hold, small length, middle gash of liquid stain. Now I see transom glass and pressed tin, selecting exact specifications of my next dwelling–pregnant pantry, counter space berth, a centered island where I can watch dishes while my children grow to party like adults, envisioning their own someday kitchens, rising to a deep sink bowl, undermounted to quartz, a touch faucet for messy hands, a dishwasher that whispers, as if this truly were a retreat, sanded floor ocean lapping against new barstools, sunbathing beneath glowy pendant balls hanging down from the sky. And can lights, lots of cans. These are the distractions to content ourselves while our filthy rich politicians get served heavy appetizer platters in their many domiciles.   No one tells you the underside of the dream kitchen–that it will someday fail. Too many cords where they do not belong, the fluorescent green color giving way to something new or ‘retro’. No one mentions how a kitchen dirties, no matter how much storage, the milk still spills, spoiling floors, leaving its rank smell behind. How the cookie trays rust. How to replace things. I’ve learned to want the next one and the next one, to wish for another light here, a shelf there, a new heavy gadget and a corner to set it. I finally have a fancy electric mixer that does all the work. But someone has to mix then clean while another one eats and eats and eats.


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