Students must have such fun when Karen Benke enters the classrooms of California elementary and middle school to engage them in writing poetry. Many of her exercises have become Rip the Page, a book meant for young people as well as those who are young-at-heart. I fall into the latter category and found lots of fresh ideas in this engaging book.
Benke includes "Word Lists," "Try This" experiments to spark new ideas, "Suddenly a Story" pieces to inspire readers to collect and pay attention to truth and lies, "Definition Decoder," and "Notes" from writers like Naomi Shihab Nye and Lucille Clifton who share their thoughts on what it takes to put one's voice on the page.
As Shihab Nye says, "Each one of us is packed full of details which might like to glitter for a moment. The world around us is packed full of intriguing, connected details. Writing helps them have a place to shine."
Other beloved poets offer inspiration as well: Pablo Neruda for his odes and questions, and Charles Simic for the riddle of a stone.
"If you peek under the tent of life, what do you hear? What do you see? What makes you sneeze?" are among Benke's questions that encourage and entice answers from a part of the mind you may not have visited before. "Take a walk on the near and far side of your life," Benke advises. Such questions and answers can be shared with the young people in one's life and used in various settings where writers gather. Benke reminds readers to share what you've written "with the wind or a cloud. Stand under a tree. Let your voice grow tall, wide, confident, loud."
Children inspired this book and it is their sense of adventure, fun, enthusiasm, and spontaneous, from-the-heart responses that make it such a treat for any age. Poems by children are also included to show how the bending of rules reveal a voice, a longing, and a unique expression.
While much of the book is full of the delight of inventive and inspiring prompts and advice, there are some poignant moments as well. In the "Suddenly a Story" sections, Benke tells stories of herself and her students. One of them, a student named Rachel, says she doesn't like writing about herself. She's better at remembering her dad who died. Benke gave her permission to write about anyone and so Rachel wrote "straight through until recess." Some of Rachel's tribute to her father is included in "Memories Never Die" with a prompt for readers to write about someone special.
In another of the "Suddenly a Story sections, Benke encourages writers to "pick something that felt or still feels HUGE to you."
Blank squares in the book are meant for writing in. There are also pages for ripping. It's unlikely I'll rip pages out of the book but I can see that young people might enjoy the prompts on the blue pages. Those are the pages they have permission to rip—if the book is their own.
It's really helpful, as we age, to have type of the size that's used for children, because it's so much easier on the eyes. Lots of white space and inventive fonts make this a pleasing and inviting book for all ages. The delightful writing prompts, stories and definitions, along with encouragement, reveal the many amazing ways one can access memory and imagination and discover one's voice.
Karen Benke is a writing coach, free-write facilitator, and poet-teacher in the California Poets in the Schools program. She is the recipient of a teaching grant from Poets & Writers, Inc. and a four-time grant recipient from the Marin Arts Council Fund for Artists. Visit her website.
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