Diagnosis: Double vision. When it comes to honing high schoolers’ poetry chops, it can be tough to teach them to look at life from a different perspective. “One of the most difficult tasks for any poet is to give voice to an experience that’s not your own,” says Ross, who himself has struggled to finish a cycle of poems written from the perspective of torture victims. Teens assuming others’ voices for the first time can find the process “a little clumsy,” Ross says.
Symptoms: Out-of-body inexperience. Students’ abbreviated life stories often lack perspective. “They’re only 16 or 17 years old. They’re not 50,” says Ross, 50. So when teens try to feel for the voice of another, “they can sometimes try too hard,” says Ross. When writing as an elderly woman, for example, “they want to make it really clear that she’s old, so they give her every ailment, every cane,” he says. “It’s something they’re not familiar with, so they make it overly obvious.”
Treatment: Hormone therapy. What teen poets lack in age, they can make up for in angst. “The intensity of their feelings…might be much more profound,” says Ross. “A breakup with a friend or boyfriend can mean that the whole world stops.” Ross encourages his students to look into themselves before imagining others. “I’ll tell them to think about the overall theme of the poem and ask them to think about a time when they’ve experienced that same thing but in a different context,” says Ross. “If you’re writing about helplessness, you don’t need to look very much further than your own life. We’ve all felt helpless.”
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