This essay was commissioned by SAL on the occasion of our program featuring Judy Blume in the 2014/15 Literary Arts Series, on June 11, 2015. It was written by WITS Writer-in-Residence Rachel Kessl…
I am a Writer-In-Residence at Washington Middle School, a public school in Seattle’s Central District, through Seattle Arts & Lectures‘ Writers In the Schools (WITS) program. Inspired by the discussions the 7th grade students at Washington Middle School were having around race and police violence after we read Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again,” and my own obsessive listening to Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp a Butterfly, and Brian Mooney’s “Why I Dropped Everything and Started Teaching Kendrick Lamar’s New Album” article, I decided to use this album as a poetry writing prompt. In class we listened to the last two minutes of the last track on the album, “Mortal Man.” Towards the end of “Mortal Man” Lamar interviews Tupac from beyond the grave by using excerpts of Tupac’s answers from a 1994 interview. This track concludes with Lamar reading Tupac a poem. He prefaces it by saying it describes his world. I gave students a copy of this to read along as we listened to it together, encouraging them to write all over their copy, to talk back to the text with their annotations.
Excerpt from “Mortal Man”
By Kendrick Lamar
The caterpillar is a prisoner to the streets that conceived it
Its only job is to eat or consume everything around it,
in order to protect itself from this mad city
While consuming its environment the caterpillar begins to notice ways to survive
One thing it noticed is how much the world shuns him, but praises the butterfly
The butterfly represents the talent, the thoughtfulness,
and the beauty within the caterpillar
But having a harsh outlook on life the caterpillar sees the butterfly as weak
and figures out a way to pimp it to his own benefits
Already surrounded by this mad city the caterpillar goes to work on the cocoon
which institutionalizes him
He can no longer see past his own thoughts
When trapped inside these walls certain ideas take roots such going home,
and bringing back new concepts to this mad city
Wings begin to emerge, breaking the cycle of feeling stagnant
Finally free, the butterfly sheds light on situations that the caterpillar
never considered, ending the internal struggle
Although the butterfly and caterpillar are completely different,
they are one and the same.
Students worked in small groups to de-code this extended metaphor. They asked questions and broke down what they thought Lamar was talking about. What do the caterpillar and the butterfly represent? What is the institution he refers to? Is there a message he is trying to get across? I encouraged them to disassemble the poem like genius.com does with song lyrics. Each group presented their interpretations, explaining how they reached their conclusions, and answering questions from their classmates. We spent quite a bit of time discussing all their different ideas and how an extended metaphor works.
After this discussion, we read Terrance Hayes’ “The Carpenter Ant”.
THE CARPENTER ANT
BY TERRANCE HAYES
It was when or because she became two kinds
of mad, both a feral nail biting into a plank
and a deranged screw cranking into a wood beam,
the aunt—I shouldn’t say her name,
went at the fullest hour of the night,
the moon there like an unflowered bulb
in a darkness like mud, or covered in darkness
as a bulb or skull is covered in mud,
the small brown aunt who, before she went mad,
taught herself to carpenter and unhinged,
in her madness, the walls she claimed
were bugged with a tiny red-eyed device
planted by the State or Satan’s agents, ghosts
of atheists, her foes, or worse, the walls
were full of the bugs she believed crawled
from her former son-in-law’s crooked mouth,
the aunt, who knows as all creatures know,
you have to be rooted in something tangible
as wood if you wish to dream in peace,
took her hammer with its claw like a mandible
to her own handmade housing humming,
“I don’t know why God keeps blessing me,”
softly madly, and I understood, I was with her
when the pallbearers carried a box
made of mahogany from her church to a hearse
to a hole in the earth, it made me think
of the carpenter ant who carries within its blood
an evolved self-destructive property, and on its face
mandibles twice the size of its body,
and can carry on its back, as I have seen on tv,
a rotted bird or branch great distances
to wherever the queen is buried–Kingdom:
Animalia, Phylum: Arthropoda, Tribe: Camponotini,
the species that lives on wood is, like mud, rain,
and time, the carpenter’s enemy, yes,
but I would love to devour the house I live in
until it is a permanent part of me,
I would love to shape, as Perumthachan,
the master sculptor, carpenter and architect
of India is said to have shaped, a beautiful tree
into the coffin in which I am to be buried,
I know whatever we place in a coffin, the coffin
remains empty, I know nothing buried is buried,
I don’t know why God keeps blessing me,
I don’t know why God keeps blessing me.
Individual students then tried out a few metaphors of their own with the extended metaphor prompts below. We tried comparing our neighborhoods to a thing or an animal that seems to embody it. We compared a person’s voice or movements to that of an animal or object. We described an abstractions, a feeling or situation, by comparing it to a tangible thing.
OPEN THE DOOR WITH METAPHOR WORKSHEET
Kendrick Lamar and Terrance Hayes compare people and situations they are in to insects, cocoons, coffins, and trees to illustrate their experience. The word metaphor comes from the Latin metaphora which means “to carry over.” A metaphor “carries over” the idea of one thing to another. (BONUS question: Do you know another word that begins with meta-? And happens in Kendrick Lamar’s poem!)
If your neighborhood were an animal, what animal (mammal or insect or bird or reptile) would it be?
My neighborhood is a ______________________________________________________
Terrance Hayes compares his aunt (a human) to an ant (the creature). Think of someone you know well. What animal does her/his voice remind you of? What kind of animal does s/he move or behave like?
My ________________________ is a ___________________________________________
Her/his voice reminds me of __________________________________________________
S/he moves like ____________________________________________________________
Poets use metaphors to illustrate and describe a concept, such as loneliness or hope:
“I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high over vales and hills”
“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches on the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all…”
What are you feeling—anger, admiration, respect, thanks, bewilderment? What object or non-human animal could represent this feeling, (be a mascot for it)? If you are feeling friendly, maybe you can write as the potato sprouting eyes. Shy or threatened? –perhaps try writing as a roly-poly bug.
What concept or feeling could these things be metaphors for?
a rattlesnake a potato a hippo a mailbox a maggot a wolf your sneaker a roly-poly a spinning top a lost sock
My ______________________________ is a __________________________________ (feeling) (animal or thing)
EXTEND your metaphor – continue writing in the voice of one of these things you have compared your neighborhood, or a person you know, or a concept to. Ask yourself:
How did you come about? _______________________________________________
What has your life been like? _____________________________________________
What are some things you like, or dislike? Why? _____________________________
What sounds do you make? ______________________________________________
How do you move or change? ____________________________________________
Now take this PRE-WRITE and use the images and ideas you came up with to write a poem using your EXTENDED METAPHOR. It may rhyme or not. Use the space below and more paper if you need it. GO!
STUDENT WORK TO COME OUT OF THIS EXERCISE
Extended Metaphors from Ms Lockenvitz’s 7th graders:
“My neighborhood is a raccoon
because everyone comes out at night.”
“My neighborhood is an owl
it’s sailboats’ soft “woo-woo” in the dead of the night.”
“My neighborhood is a spiderweb—
they are everywhere, like, everywhere—
connected by the simplicity and beauty.”
“My neighborhood is a cricket
because it’s quiet then has sudden loud noises
“My neighborhood is a pack of dogs.
We are quiet until you approach us.”
“My neighborhood is a bird’s nest
because it has lots of construction—
the birds taking out old sticks
and replacing them with new.”
“My sister is a snake, not scared of anything.
Her voice reminds me of a loud shriek
she moves like a slithering, sneaking
to kill with her shrieking voice.
“My sister is a scorpion.
Her voice reminds me of a cackling rooster.
She moves like a cobra, silver, slithering
ready to attack.”
“My sister is an elephant.
Her voice reminds me of the slam of a locker.
She moves like an unwinding scroll.”
“My friend is a rat, a quiet, noisy,
annoyed little rat. Her voice
a squeaky toy.”
“My mother is a bald eagle—
her voice reminds me of an eagle calling out to her babies.
She moves swiftly into danger,
she moves fast and loud to protect.”
“My calm feeling is a roly-poly, minding its own business.”
“My curiousity is a leaf
discovering the world.”
“My boredom is a lost sock under my bed waiting to be found.”
is a rattlesnake
through the earth, scratching
my head, thinking my life
is such a mystery.
I see the green figure,
I flip into a ditch
and slaughter her throat.”
“My regret is an alarm clock.”
“Nostalgia is a fleeting Monarch butterfly.
It pops out of the blue and flutters in your stomach. It materializes…then fades…”
I am thrilled to be a part of this performance, along with Sierra Nelson, Ed Skoog, Kary Wayson, and Katie Ogle!
Anne Carson & Robert Currie in Performance TUESDAY, MAY 13, 2014, 7:30 PM Town Hall Seattle