Writing a poem using "Ladder for Booker T. Washington"

Image credit: Martin Puryear. Ladder for Booker T. Washington, 1996. Wood (maple and ash), 432 inches x 22-3/4 inches x (narrowing to 1-1/4 at top x 3 in.). Fort Worth Modern Museum of Art. Note: though the ladder appears to rest on the ground, it is suspended. The larger end is 3 feet above the ground and rises up.

This post might inspire a classroom lesson, dinner conversation, or a visit to a contemporary museum.

Begin by looking at this image and ask, "What do you see?" This question invites description and listening to each other, and that's important because we see different things. We bring a variety of life experiences and awareness forward when we say out loud what we see. Spending time on description prepares us for the second question, "What is it about?" Answering the second question is an exploration in interpretation, multiple interpretations and a worthy lesson in itself.

I'm writing about this now because last weekend I participated in a poetry lesson held at the University of New Mexico and led by Valerie Martinez, poet laureate of Santa Fe. It was a "story-telling experiment. The exercise was oral, written, visual, and performative. She asked us to individually and communally explore the story behind the image and relate that story to our own lives. One aspect of the excise was called "looping." This is what she did, the best I can recall.

We entered the room and found a ladder form made with painter's tape on the floor. She asked us each to take a place on the ladder. We did. Then she invited us to say our name and make a statement about why we chose the place we stood. Some stood on the edge, some in the middle on an imagined fulcrum. One person straddled the edge. Another stood on the bottom rung while a few brave ones held on with tiptoes as if ready to leap off the simulated ladder. Then we returned to our seats to begin writing.

Valerie invited us to get comfortable, and said, "Don't worry about what you write. Let your writing take you in" and then she gave us this prompt:

When I open my mouth.
When I don't.

(Isn't that a loaded prompt?)

She said to begin writing without stopping. 

"Write whatever comes. If you stop, keep writing the word that you stop on over and over until something comes." 

We wrote for about 5-7 minutes. 

When the time was up, she said, "Stop. Read over what you just wrote. Find the most interesting combination of words and underline or circle them. Drop down two spaces and copy those words exactly and begin freewriting again using those words as a prompt. Write until I tell you to stop."

We wrote. She said, "Stop. Find the most compelling phrase or words and underline or circle them. Drop down two spaces and begin writing again." We did this 3 times.

Then from that last writing, we chose one line or phrase, the most poignant, rich or fun combination of words. We wrote our selection on a strip of paper. Then one person read his/her line and taped it to the wall. Whoever felt their line was next, read and then taped it to the wall. We continued until each person's line had a place on the wall. As a group performance, we read the entire poem with fluidity and expression, each line read by its composer.

Resources to build on this exercise:

Barrett, Terry. Making Art: Form and Meaning, Chapter 2, Meanings and Interpretations, p. 32 - 33. New York: McGraw-Hill. 2011.
Tarkington, Booth. "Freedom of Speech." Saturday Evening Post Essay. February 20, 1943.
Washington, Booker T. Up From Slavery: An Autobiography. 1856-1915.