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Poetry Workshops

These are some of the workshops that Hilary taught.

Adults Workshops:
Metaphors Workshop
Photo into Poem Workshop
Children's Workshops:
Political Nursery Rhymes
Rolling Simile Poem
Rolling Haiku
Self Portrait Workshop
Nesting Rhymes Poem
Adventures in Poetry: Writing Poems with Students (a 467 KB PDF Manuscript)


Our everyday language is woven of metaphors. Note the verb woven implies our language is a cloth, and thus this sentence has a hidden metaphor in it. The despised cliche is colorful metaphor that keeps on living and becomes overused and hackneyed: eg:the hands of a clock, tied to his mother's apron strings, a check that bounces, an election won by a landslide, how fast time flies, mad as a hatter (chemicals in the hat maker's trade often made them crazy).

1 usually start off with a request for similes that come to mind (after establishing students know the difference between a simile and a metaphor.) Simile -eg: happiness is like a butterfly, it only lasts a while. Metaphor -eg: happiness is a butterfly. School is like a circus --Ã school is a circus.

Then I have students write similes and turn them into metaphors.

Feelings are particularly inarticulate, wordless and almost always best expressed in metaphor or simile. We have general words for emotions like love, hate, awe, compassion, pity, but they are abstract words, not specific enough. You could say you love your mother, your dog, pepperoni pizza and Hawaii. To verbalize the exact feeling, you could say "my love is like a red, red rose" or a yellow rose, a violet, or even pistachio ice-cream. in such cases, the speaker/writer borrows the vocabulary that belong to something else and uses it to say what s/he wants to convey.

Metaphors work in a bewildering number of ways and do a bewildering variety of jobs, sometimes so complexly that a conscious analysis would need three pages of prose to follow and describe how their effect is achieved. They may illustrate or explain (the body is a plumber's nightmare); they can emphasize, heighten, shock, communicate information or ideas (see Sharon Old's The Unjustly Punished Child where the child's character is hardened like steel (iron & charcoal).

Metaphors can carry a tone, a feeling or attitude, they can act as a language of associations as they do in Trumbull Stickney's (1874 - 1904) poem, Sir, Say No More.

Sir, say no more,
Within me 'tis as if
The green and climbing eyesight of a cat
Crawled near my mind's poor birds.

The eerie sensation communicates perfectly though a critic might work all day to untangle the threads the image knots up so simply. (from Writing Poems by Robert Wallace)

Exercise: Write a poem about yourself, the sway you seem to others and the way you see yourself, using metaphor in place of adjective eg
"On the outside, I am a rock
Inside, I'm a cotton sock. " etc
Or: My head is baseball, my head is homework,
My head is Madonna strutting on a stage.


Photo into Poem Workshop

To do this exercise, you need to spend some time locating a photograph that snags and holds you, that something in you answers with interest and resonance. It need not be a "good" photograph-in fact, sometimes, the botched one will have more resonance. You might choose a photograph that someone has taken of you or of some-one you know. Judith McCombs has a wonderful poem on a photograph of her father and his ex-girlfriend who was not her mother, on what might have been but did not happen. Or you can use a photograph from an artistic or journalistic magazine (DoubleTake and National Geographic are good sources.) Or a photograph that docu-ments a historical event. Miles David Moore's fabulous poem "Dead Boy in the Road to Fredericksburg" is written on Matthew Bradley's photograph of a casualty of the Civil War. See Guest Poets.

"…to see something in the form of a photograph is to encounter a potential object of fascination. Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy." -- Susan Sontag, On Photography

When you have found your photograph, spend some time writ-ing out just what you see in it: objects, landscape, people, clothes, trees, architecture, light, and shadow. In a sense, you will have to narrate the photograph, or at least make images so that we can, literally, see what you are talking about without seeing the photograph. Then, using the same photograph, write different poems from it, from some of the following perspectives or points-of-view:

1. the photographer.
3. someone or something in the photo-graph.
5. yourself addressing the poem to someone in the photograph.

An additional shift in perspective can be uncovered by writing poems in which you manipulate time.

1. Write what happened just before the photograph was taken.
2. Write what happened as the photograph was being taken, outside the range of the camera.
3. Write the poem as if you have found the photograph years after it was taken.
4. Write exactly the same poem in three versions: in the present tense, the past tense, and the future tense.

John Szarkowski writes, "Photography is a system of visual edit-ing. At bottom, it is a matter of surrounding with a frame a portion of one's cone of vision, while standing in the right place at the right time. Like chess, or writing, it is a matter of choosing from among given possibilities."

One way of revising poems is to shake up the original poem, to see it from different perspectives, to re-see it. Sudden shifts in perspective open a poem up to us again and help us to surpass our resistances to revision: stubbornness, attachment to predictability, and the touching, understandable love of our own first seeing. One way of "practicing" revision is to work a poem that has the same focus of attention through several different points of view. While the focus of the poem remains the same, we can see how we speak it, revising by generating new poems. Photos provide a stable focus and seem to be especially suited to writing with these kinds of shifts.

Maggie Anderson says, "Any photograph is a record made by a person who was shifting around something shifting that they saw." When we look at a photograph, we shift around what the photographer has made to stand still. Imagine the lives that came to that point of time in the photograph, imagine the "what might happen and did not", imagine the lives after that point in their timelines and you will find your poems.

Wishing you shifting cones of perception,
Hilary Tham 2000

Hilary Tham 2/7/99



Sometimes, using a poem with strong unusual grammar structures can be a challenge that starts the creative juices flowing. I took Marianne Moore's poem "The Mind is an enchanting thing" which had an unusual amount of similes and came up with "The Male". I followed the structure of the poem until the fourth stanza at which point my poem took off on it's own. Take a poem you like and write a poem using the grammatical structure of that poem... substitute a different noun for a noun, adjective, verb, adverb etc. Have fun with it.


The male is an easy loving thing
is an easily loved thing
like a new puppy
eager to please, ardent in adoration
like Isaiah preaching in the valley of dry bones.

Like that same puppy
new returned from obedience school,
or the kitten that smells on you
iridescent scales of fish, the male
feeling his way around your body, your heart,
walks beside Woman leashing his gaze from others.

He has not Woman's memory
that can remember without
Like a tree falling in the forest
with no one to hear, her voice
will become background music to his ears,
a fly's weak buzz between window panes.

Why are the women lying down like fields
while the wintry sun shines thin and bleak
and the wind blows cold with the smell of snow?

His is the force of a storm,
hard rain, the brevity of excess. His love
is like the peacock's tail
roused by genetic code, driving
to propagate itself against extinction.

The male burrows, impelled
like the wasp that lays its eggs
in the flowering fruit of the fig,
and dies there in the fig.
The male struts his peacock walk,
bows and dances to female rhythms, knows
his loins will dance against hers, and flesh
will form and come alive
on the mounds in Death's Valley.

So the women lie down like fields
while the wintry sun shines thin and bleak
and the wind blows cold with the smell of snow.

by Hilary Tham

Children's Workshops


Political Nursery Rhymes

The Clerihew is a comparatively new form of verse. It got its name from its inventor, a writer of detective stories, E. C. Bentley, whose middle name was Clerihew. Clerihews are short; they are never more than four lines and they always begin with the name of a famous character But the facts about him/her are seldom right. In fact, they are grotesquely - and purposely- wrong. Henry Taylor has just come out with a whole book of clerihews titled Brief Candles. I recommend it highly.

Edward the Confessor
Slept under the dresser.
When that began to pall,
He slept in the hall.
-- E. C. Bentley

Said Sir Christopher Wren,
"I'm having lunch with some men.
If anyone calls,
Say I'm designing Saint Paul's."
-- E. C. Bentley

When Alexander Pope
Accidentally trod on the soap,
And came down on the back if his head
Never mind what he said.
-- E. C. Bentley

Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Lived upon venison;
Not cheap, I fear,
Because venison's deer.
-- Louis Untermeyer

Francesca de Rimini
Lived in a chiminey,
Full of ghouls in the gloam.
But still, home is home.
-- Louis Untermeyer

Although the Borgias
Were rather gorgeous,
They liked the absurder
Kind of murder.
-- Louis Untermeyer

Once there was a young lad named Bill
One day, he climbed an Arkansas hill
He then thought, "I want fame."
To bad it would lead to America's shame



Bill Clinton, an Arkansas man,
took part in a terrible scam.
With Whitewater dough he bought stuff like a sauna,
and besides that he smoked marijuana.
-- Nate Raines
Timothy Viegh says, "I am not the bomber,"
America thinks,- "He's a goner,"
His sister says, "He's the guy,"
If they believe her, no more will he be able to lie
-- Geoff Roulil

Lisa Gnugnoli wrote a poem,
The poem made no sense.
She crumpled it up and threw it away
And then jumped over a fence.
-- Lisa Gnugnoli

Bill and Hill went to Capitol Hill.
Bill fell down and broke his crown
and the propaganda soared
and is soaring still.
-- Mike Welsh

Bill Clinton had a dream
That he was punching a door.
When he woke up,
He was punching Al Gore.
-- William Mendoza


Rolling Simile poem:

The whole group sits in a circle and each participant writes a simile with a second line that makes the connection for the two, however wild. Or the class is divided into groups of 2, 3 or 4 and each group comes up with and writes a couple with a simile in the first line and the connecting statement in the second line. eg: Justice is like Ray Charles, both are blind. The whole point is to play with images and language and have fun. Usually a concrete thing is compared to an abstract noun like emotion or homework. Then pass the paper to the person to the right (or left) and keep going. The next person writes another simile using one of the two compared nouns in the first simile, adding a line as the raison d’être. Everyone should be writing on a paper at all times. After each paper has about 6 similes, they should write a wrap-up or concluding simile and then have each read aloud the paper in hand. The fun part is the reading
aloud of the poems of course.

Rolling simile poems by some of my Yorktown High School students

Writing poetry is like bungee jumping
In both, you take a risk.
Bungee jumping is like a child in the womb,
both are dependent on the strength of the cord.
A child in the womb is like an unborn egg,
both are fragile.

Justice is like Ray Charles
both are blind and ohh! so funky.
Talent is like being born with blue eyes, you either
have 'em or you don't.
Talent is like a headache,
you can’t see it but you can feel it.
A headache is like a bagpipe,
shrilly irritating.
A bagpipe is like a car, something I don't have.
A dancer is like water, both are
free and flowing, and can go
wherever they choose.
Water is like spring, arousing joy in sparrows
and sprites alike.
Spring is like fire,
radiant and bursting with life.
Fire is like inspiration - both can spark
a priceless possibility.
Inspiration is like a shooting star, both come and go.

Women are like jello: I can make them jiggle yet I don't
Know how they're made.
Jello is like men: clear, transparent and melting away.
Men are like tools, reliable and trustworthy if well kept,
but faulty with all forms of age.

The mind is like a mechanical pencil,
it won't write until you fill it with something.
A mechanical pencil is like telling a lie,
it never works.
A lie is like the truth - it
can shield you for a time.
The truth is like me, honest and pure.
I am like a caterpillar, wanting to
emerge from my cocoon.
A caterpillar is like the world,
bursting forth in renewal and light.
Newspaper is like hell, always
ripping and tearing you apart.
Newspaper is like a hand of poker, you
never know what you're going to get.
Life is like a game of poker, even if
you get dealt a bad hand, you're stuck with it.
A game of poker is like a guy,
stupid in concept, insincere and complete with beer.
A guy, a certain guy, is like a young child,
clumsy and cute, unaware of how special he is.
A young child is like a puppy trying to catch his tail
and smiling clueless at the world.
Sadness is like a blanket, covering all
it touches.
A blanket is like a mother,
offering security at any time.
A mother is like a warm cup of hot cocoa,
warm and soothing.
A warm cup of hot cocoa is like a best friend.
Both make you feel happy, comfortable
and welcome.
A best friend is like the sun on a warm spring day,
bringing a wide smile to my face.
A warm spring day is like birth, the reincarnation and
regeneration of life.
Steam is like a sizzling gasp of breath.
Breath is like a person's first love,
satisfying a longing desire.
Love is an eternal spring, it changes you forever.
An eternal spring is like herpes,
it won't go away.
Herpes is like an annoying younger brother;
it comes out from hiding at the most
inconvenient times.
Taking a test is like sawing your arm off
to save your life. You lose either way.
Sawing your arm off to save your life is,
like, a big chunk of wood.
On slick roads, my car handles like a hockey puck.
A hockey puck is like a chocolate but no candy center.
Friends are like chocolate cake, you can never
have too many.
Chocolate cake is like heaven -
always amazing you with each
taste or feeling.
Chocolate cake is like life with so many
different pieces.
Chocolate cake is like happiness,
you can never get enough of it.
Happiness is like a cold shower,
shocking yet exhilarating.
A cold shower is like an empty forest,
cool, quiet yet musical in the experience.

Jazz is like a frozen pond, always smooth-cool.
A frozen pond is like sleep, tranquil, still and full
of surreal possibilities.
Sleep is like teflon, elusive and difficult to grasp.
Teflon is like cool man because it doesn't get hot.
Cool man is like a styro-foam cup, it works well until
he gets too much pressure.
New York is like a polar bear swim,
cold at first but refreshing and exhilarating
once you're in all the way.
A polar bear swim is like an ice-cream headache - ouch!
An ice-cream headache is like a broken bone,
throbbing, pulsing with pain.
A broken bone is like a traffic jam, both keep you from
doing something quickly.
Life is like a traffic jam, always
stopping and going.
A traffic jam is like me - always
frustrated with itself.
Josh is like a leaky faucet, he never stops.
Crying is like running a marathon,
it's painful while you're doing it but you feel
great after you finish.
A marathon is like a really bad RV show.
You think it's over, but it only gets worse.
A really bad TV show is like your mother;
You can't turn it off.
Your mother is like a running brook,
always there and always clean.
A running brook is like a car-
it can go in any direction.
Life is like a running car - always
ready to go.
Life is like an improvisationary violin solo; you make it up
as you go along and make lots of mistakes.
A violin solo is like fingernail clippings flowing
through slate pipes.
Slate pipes are like chalkboards. When you scratch them,
they screech.
Chalkboards are like moving to a new house;
anything that was written before can be erased
and rewritten.
Moving to a new house is like reading a new book.
They have endless possibilities.
Books are like life. We see ourselves
through others' experiences.
Friendship is like Advil,
candy-coated, but bitter on the inside,
nonetheless soothing in the long run.
Advil is like constructive criticism,
hard to swallow, but eventually, you
will be better because of it.
Constructive criticism is like a swim workout;
you know it will help you in the long run but
it'll make you cringe.
A swimming workout is like mud wrestling,
all fun and games but hard to clean up after.
Mud wrestling is like football - pointless.
Football is like macho homo-erotic violence.

My thoughts are like a river.. always flowing
and never ending.
My thoughts are like the weather;
sometimes cloudy & sometimes clear.
The weather is like a box of chocolates;
you never know what you're gonna get.
Chocolates are like surfing in the waves,
absolutely wonderful.
Surfing in the waves is like a rolling simile;
you never know where you'll end up
'til you get there.


Rolling Haiku

This is great with kids/adults who have practiced writing haiku a little. Every one takes a paper and writes a haiku on it. Pass the paper. The next person writes a tanka (2 lines of seven syllables) below the haiku, using one thing or word from the preceding stanza. Pass the paper.
Next person writes a haiku related to one of the nouns in the tanka. So the order goes Haiku - tanka - haiku - tanka -haiku - tanka - haiku - tanka until about 6 - 10 people have had a say on each paper. Since everyone starts a paper, everyone should working on a rolling haiku to at any given moment during this exercise. Have students read aloud the group poem they wrote the last stanza for.

Variation on this exercise is to have the group begin with a starter haiku -- the same one for all and you/they will be amazed at how many different directions each poem goes from the same starting point. After the completion of the rolling haiku, each student can write their chosen
rolling haiku on a rice-paper scroll (one stanza per section) and draw a Chinese brush and ink image to complete the group work.

Sample rolling haiku:

Cuckoo singing loud.
I have nothing to do now,
Neither does the weed.

Weeds in the field grow and grow
Being old, I shrink and shrink

In the fields, weeds and
a lone black crow crying out
“There is nothing to eat”.

Nothing is good to eat when
you’ve the ‘flu or mother scolds.

Listen to the child
crying, abandoned in the
backyard with dead grass.

The winds blow cold and white.
We shall have snow by and by.

A snowy morning.
Chewing dried salmon – alone.
Happy by myself.

Happy sound of children’s play
in snow. I stay by the fire.

--- Hilary Tham 2/25/99


Self-portrait Workshop

Children love to think and write about themselves. I begin with an Art Activity: I have students draw a self-portrait using hand mirror and markers, crayons / pen/ pencils. It can be a serious self-portrait or a
modernistic, “wacky” portrait.I tell them after they have drawn their portrait, I’ll like them to look at the face in the mirroe and the face in the picture. Things to think about: What do you notice first, any distinguishing mark that stands out? What do you like best about your face/ hair etc. What do other people usually compliment you on?
What aspect of you would you wish different? Jot down thoughts, phrases, words.

I tell students they can write in the third person or personify the feature—e.g. “This face gets up in the middle of the night
This face goes to bed in the morning. This face goes boldly where feet don’t want to go. and so on..”

Or Write a poem about something triggered by looking at your drawing. It can be a physical feature e.g. "My Nose"
My nose is like a hook
In the center of my face
Catching smells.
By Anna J, Copetanalos, Drew Elem. School 1998

Additional Writing exercise: Now draw a self portrait of your face as it may look in 20 years, or 30 years. Think about cycles… seasons. Use 3 similes at least ( from visual, sound , smell , taste or touch).


Nesting Rhymes poem

Take a word (of three or more syllables) write it on the blackboard and have students brainstorm what other words come to mind or may be found as anagrams in the word, eg EMOTION, MOTION, OCEAN, SHUN. or AGGRAVTION, GRAVEL, RAVEL, RAVE, AVE in descending syllabic run. THEN write a poem using those words for a poem that is rich is assonance. The point of this exercise is to take the mind from normal patterns of thinking or following an idea along logical paths. This way, you make strange and fun leaps to other words that are nested inside the big word. They can reverse the order in the poem so they go from simple one syllable word to that big word. Like ask, raid, rude, mosque, made, quad, masquerade. Clincher is tell them the poem does not have to make sense for this exercise.

Variation: Challenge them to write a 12 line poem, 4 stanzas of 3 lines each.. Each stanza uses a diminishing rhyme. e.g. stanza one, the first line would end with the word obtrude, the second line end with rude, and the third line end with rue. Stanza 2 would use another nesting rhyme set: its lines would end in 1)learn, 2)earn, 3)ear. More ambitious students could use the same ONE nesting rhyme for all four stanzas.


Nesting rhyme: - vagrant – grant – rant – ran - ant

Sample poem:
Walking without care, I saw this vagrant
On the corner of Fourth and Grant
and ran when he began to rant
“Gimme an ant, gimme an ant!”

List these on board as examples of possible nesting rhymes to use and have them do a practice run on the blackboard of their own nesting rhymes.

Disappear –apple - pear – ear
engine – nine – gin – in
quaver – aver- ave
gravel – ravel – rave – grave – lave
prayer – pray – pay –rare
seasoning – season – sea – son
reverberate – berate – revere – rate - ever – bear – be
kalaidescope – scope – code – kale – slide – cope – cop
bramble – ramble – ram – ROM
charmer – harm – arm
engagement – gage – age – mage
scaffold – scoff – scold - fold – old
scatter – cater – scat sat – cat
intertwine – tine – twine – wine – wire – tire – inert
cockatrice – rice- ice
incandescent – descent – scent – cant – cane – Cain



Children love rhyme and rhythm. Limericks satisfy these and hone their enjoyment of poetry. A most popular nonsense verse form, usually associated with Edward Lear. The poem consists of 5 lines rhyming aabba. Lines 3 and 4 are some times written as a single line with an internal rhyme.
- - / - - / - - /(a) - - / - - / - - /(a)
- - / - - / - - /(a) - - / - - / - - /(a)
- - / - - / - - /(a) - - / - - / (b) - - / - - /(b)
- - / - - /(b) - - / - - / - - /(a)
- - / - - / - - /(a)

There once was a dog named Bob
Who wanted to eat a frog
But the frog was quite fat
So they both just sat
So there they sit, the dog and the frog.
Chris Kaas
There once was a president named Bill,,
White water drove him up a hill,
All the lawyers were talking,
About sending him walking,
But he managed to escape without frill.
-- Thomas Woo

Hillary and Bill
Hillary and Bill went up the hill
to fetch a pail of whitewater,
when Congress found out,
Bill suffered a drought,
and all of his respect was slaughtered.
-- Yohan Ferdinando

Thee blind mice, Three blind Mice
See how they run, See how they run.
They all ran away from the president’s tricks
Who taxed all their glasses and walking sticks
Have you ever seen such from an Arkansas hick
Three poor mice, Three poor mice.
by Todd Orabowsku
There once was a man named Paul
He wanted to go to a costume ball
He decided to risk it And go as a biscuit
But a dog ate him up in the hall.
- Zach La Plante

There once was a bald man named Tom
He smelled just like a stink bomb
His teeth was all yellow
T'was an ugly young fellow
And he got all his looks from his mom.
- Jesse Knipling

There once was a man named Mike
Who really wanted to fight
He fought so much
He punched his huge lunch
And that's what happened to Mike.
- Tony Santelli

There once was a girl named Jill,
She married a guy named Bill.
They had a lot of years Without any tears
And their favorite food is krill.
- Newton Graca

Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down
and broke his crown
And Jill went looking for a lawyer-
--Hilary Tham

Pres. Bill Clinton felt quite blue,
He dreamed that pretty Paula said she'd sue.
He woke in a fright
On a white house night
And found his dream girl had spoken true.
- Hilary Tham
Nursery Rhymes make wonderful templates/ structures for political satires.

Mayor Marion Barry,
His wife so contrary,
How does D.C. grow?
With bullet shells, and deep drug wells
and pretty policemen all in a row.
- Rebecca Miller

Rub-a-dub dub
Bill Clinton in a tub
With a woman drinking champagne.
Along came his wife
With a really big knife
And that was the end of his campaign.
- Samara O'Shea