What took me completely by surprise was that it was me my voice, in my mouth. – Elizabeth Bishop, “In the Waiting Room”

I have been sitting on the floor with a class of first-graders for nearly an hour, when a girl waves both hands wildly above her head. “Miss,” she exclaims, “I am so thirsty with talk.” We are working our way towards metaphors, but her inspired declaration reminds me once again that these students don’t really need me to “teach” them poetry. They just need some water.

In this essay, water is a metaphor for encouragement. It is fuel. It is forgiveness and celebration. In most classrooms, the girl’s grammar would be corrected. But correcting that kind of fresh language leap when we are talking poetry would only insure that no sparkling words splash so freely from her mouth next time. As the guest poet in her class, I am a permission slip, cheerleader, and grateful witness to this kind of “talk.”

Doing this work in classrooms around Texas has convinced me that most students are thirsty for a safe place to explore the music of words. They are thirsty enough to dive deep into meaning, to rub different ideas together until they shine. They are thirsty with their own experiences. My job is to point them towards the places where these poetic seeds already wait.

And some flowers grow and some flowers die. Because some people didn’t water the flowers. –Gina

Gina Dang’s family comes from Vietnam, and they work as shrimpers in Galveston Bay. She is in an English as a Second Language program in Galveston that serves students from some twenty different countries. During a recent workshop in her class, I was struck by the second-grade students’ grasp of thoughtful word choice that poems require. As limited English speakers, they must grapple daily for just the right word to use in the classroom as well as on the playground. They also know something about silence.

Silence like fog The silence is my rough rock. Silence like one of the deep in the forest. Silence like alone in the darkness. Silence is my half of my alone life. –Jennifer

Jennifer is this Korean student’s “English name.” Like others in the class, she uses it to avoid mispronunciation of her given name and to fit in with her American classmates. On the first day of the residency I tell the class that a poem is a place where they can name the way they see the world. “If it is your experience and feeling,” I explain, “how can someone say it is right or wrong?”

Adolphus quite doesn’t believe me. “I can write about Wal-Mart?” he asks doubtfully. “Why do you want to write about Wal-Mart?” I reply and inwardly cringe. “Because I can go there with my mother,” he whispers. He arrived in Texas only weeks earlier, and was reunited with his mother after several years apart due to war in their native Liberia. “Sure you can write about Wal-Mart,” I tell him, and remember my own return home after living for a year in neighboring Sierra Leone. The first week back I burst into confused tears trying to decide among the twenty-some kinds of peanut butter on a Wal-Mart shelf. At least for these first weeks, Wal-Mart is Adolphus’ metaphor for the United States, for the overwhelming parade of new things passing by his wide eyes.

I like my feet. They help me to walk. I like my hands. They help me to choose something with mother at Wal-Mart. I like my eyes. They help me to see a butterfly. –Adolphus

For Hyun Moon Song, living in the United States is watching the World Wrestling Federation on television. He insists that I address him as Stone Cold Steve Austin during class. As a warm-up exercise we all write our names vertically and use the letters to begin each sentence and see what is “hiding inside” them. Hyun makes an intricate list of W.W.F. personalities. I rarely restrict student topics, but have been known to put a moratorium on Pokémon, Disneyland, and rainbows. This, however, was the first time I got to censor the W.W.F., at least for one afternoon.

Brooding, beautiful Shumalia Virani sits next to “Stone Cold” and writes, “Sure I’m from Pakistan but I / hate to fight…. I sit on my rock / to get my angry out. / I am like a horse…. I kick / and roar and everyone stares.” Next to her Vivian Byrd tries out her given name and prints, “Jinju means pearl and / I like my name a lot. Do / not think that you are dumb / just look to your / faith and heart.”

Their E.S.L. class is a well-watered oasis, but many of these students spend most of the school day feeling dumb, or simply misunderstood. Our search for their poetic voices provides a focus on language away from grammar, spelling, and even the insistent sing-song end-rhyme that defines poetry for many young people. The occasional verb tense confusion of these young poets ironically illuminates the “at-oneness” of time so common in lyric poetry. It heightens moments of singing poetic attention and seems eerily appropriate for the immense change happening all at once in their young lives.

I remember I never drank milk when I was little…. I remember I can’t speak English at all. I remember when I arrive in the California airport and said to American Army, ABCDE…. When I was six years old. I remember I learned English. And now I live in United States. –Jin Woo

Whether he knows it or not, the structure of Jin Woo Kim’s poem equates living with being able to communicate and more importantly with being heard. Sometimes I try to remember the epiphany of those initial efforts at speech, that first moment when the word “juice” produced a cold sweet drink. Indeed, something transformational happens when we are able to put our experience into words and be understood.

The divided yet rich cultural experiences of bi- and often tri-lingual students is unique. But the striking clarity of emotion present in their poems is not so different from that of any child before he or she grows up and learns all of the rules. When talking to groups of teachers or other adults about my work, I often ask how many of them remember “ever writing a poem.” Most raise their hands and sometimes recall a structured class assignment or maybe a sappy high school declaration of desire. Sometimes I ask how many have written a poem since then. The room becomes silent. Where does the power to trust our own voices go?

I take into myself… the power to know the languages as me being a mix-breed. For I am Spanish, Aztec, Gypsy, Hispanic My power shines with a purple light/light of tranquillity… I’m the kind of person no one listens to and commences yelling… better and perfect is what I live for…. –Wendy

I will settle for better at the Bexar County Juvenile Justice Academy where I have led workshops for the past several years. Students are sent to the Academy by the court system for a range of mostly nonviolent felonies. This is usually a student’s final chance to make it in an academic setting before being sent to a full-time detention facility. Their poems flame with equal parts anger and confusion. Again, I find, they are looking for water, for permission to speak their own truth.

The flame the flame it’s like it’s in my head. My brain feels like it wants to die. Everything is wrong and nothing is right because everything I say everyone says it’s not true so I got it in my head that everything I do or say is wrong and not true so now my head is all messed up but it’s not me. It’s just my life… something wrong just got inside my head. –Carlos

I begin this workshop by asking students to recall an early childhood memory. Seven of the eleven students in the room say their first memory is being removed from their parents’ or grandparents’ homes. As we begin to write, a girl titles her poem, “Hands of a Man.” Later she says, “it took ten years for my mom to believe what he did to me.” It seems like they have all witnessed the violent death of someone that they knew. They look blank when I say a poem is one thing that can never be taken away. Their silence is a space where someone used to live.

And I saw the black roses. All my family was there to see me fall to my knees. I remember wanting to scream and shout but nothing ever came out. –Viola

After class, an eighth grade girl reveals that she is pregnant. I am stunned by her callousness about the future. “My cousin just had a baby,” she says. “And so she only got to go to the carnival twice this year.” She is thirteen and the carnival should indeed be her biggest concern right now. I want to tell her to wait. I want to tell them all that there is plenty of time to grow up. There is also plenty of time to diagram sentences, to write reports and essays. They will all learn to do that. There is less time to sit here together and celebrate how good words that we need to say can taste rolling around in our mouths.

The palm of my hand looks like the great canyon, it is thick like a rock, no one no one has the same hand as mine no one. —Josh

In his third grade E.S.L. class, Josh stares into space for a good twenty minutes before scribbling something on his paper with a stubby chewed-up pencil. He underlines the title three times, “The Pom of my Hend.” He looks up and says, “I couldn’t think of a place that is important to me so I just wrote about this place here, inside my hand.” I tell him that is the most important place of all. He smiles and ask if he can do another poem. I think he believes me.

Jenny Browne works as a poet-in-residence in the Poets in the Schools program, sponsored in part by the Texas Commission on the Arts. Her first collection of poems, Grass, was just published by Pecan Grove Press.