Letter Poems (from Getting the Knack by Jim Stafford and Stephen Dunning)

What do you already know about letter poems?
Plenty.  You know how they begin.  Like letters thenmselves.  Letter poems
can start with a greeting.  "Dear Somebody."
You know how the usually end--with some way of signing off "Yours truly" or
Sincerelym" or "Hang by your thumbs."
So in a sense, knowing about the letter poem's beginning and end, all you
need worry about is the middle. Right?
Wrong.  Probably the main qualities of letter poems come from who the letter
is addressed to and who signs it.  In ordeinary letters written ot real
people, there's usually a known relationship,  The writer (you) are writing
a friend, a relative, an insurance agen.  You and fridn, relative, or
insurance agent have a history, and that hsitory6 shapes how the letter
goes.  "Dear Cousin Malcolm," it might begin, if it's to a cousin you've
never met,.  "Malco-mio" if you've know him all your life.
Before you decide which letter poem to write, we want you to write drafts of
three letters under rules somewhat different from the usual ones.  You are
not writing to make plans, or to exchange news, or to ask for somethingl
You're writing to say something interesting and to say it in a not-prose way.

Step 1
On scratch paper, doodle around, putting down names of famous/interesting
people no longer alive.  WE thought Queen Lizabeth I, Vince Lombardi, Booker
T. Washington, Emily Dickinson , Adolph Hitler, Coshise, James Dean,
Florence Nighteingale, John Lennon, Bessie Smith...
Your list will be fresher.  Try for eight or ten names.
Or maybe there's some "thing" or "force" out there that interests you.
Wind, we thought of.  Lightnning,, Dolphin, Shadow, Birch tree, Preducide,
Earth. Sweet-tasting things.  Jot down four or five of these.
NOw look over all the anmes on your page.  If you could write to only one of
those persons or things, who or what would it be?

Step 2
Draft a lett to that name.  One page max.  It will begin:
In your lett, tell_______ who you are and what's on your mind.  Do you want
advice?  To ask a question about his her its life or situation?  Straighten
her/him/it out on a few matters?
Serious or sill?  Distanced or intimate?  It's up to you.
In this draft, when you atalk about yourself, the real you is talking.
REveal somethings, if you dare.  GEt close t real feeling.
Sign your real name at the bottome.
Here's an example of a letter we wrote to a baseball pitcher named Art
Herring who played for the St. Paul Saints in the 1930's

Dear Art Herring,
My mean cousin Rhonda was acting a little weird at the family reunion last
week, asking would I rather be you, Willie Mays, or President. Rhonda and I
were at that game where you set a record--hitting four consecutive doubles.
That was the day Rhonda swiped my root beer, my hot dog, and said sh'd break
my arm if I told.
Ronha and I haven't gotten along these past fifty years.
Even so, I answered truly I'd rather be you, and I would.  The only time Ive
seen history made was the day you hit those four beauties.  Also, youw ere a
saint to us kids.  Twice you signed programs, once you gave me a ball,.
Want to see it?
Please answer one question.  You were a pitcher, and got those four doubles.
But most pitchers can't hit a lick.  Why is that?
Rohonda says you won't answer.  But I get dinner on her if you do.
Your fan,
Stephen Dunning.

Step 3
On scratch paper, draft a letter as if it were written BY a foumous person
or thing.  Maybe the names you jottend earler will give you the right famous
writer.  But this would be good time to add names.  Whose letter would you
like to read?
Finally, of course, you have to choose one writer--Mother Teresa, Winter of
91, Rudolph Valentine, Moon.  And once the writer is set, you must decide
who's going to receive it.
That recipient could be you yourself.  If you want to hear from
somebody/soemthing famous, here's your chance.
Say that your name is Jose McNulty.  The litter might begin:\
Dear Jose,
It will be signed by the famouse person/thin of your choice.
There's another possiblity. What if some famouse person/place/thing, living
or dead, wrote to another "dittto?"  Anm opera great from the past writes to
a young singer debuting at the Met?

Step 4
Draft a letter written by that famous person/thing. One page or less.

Dear William Stafford:
You ask me to analyze your dream, the one in teh open where the animals ran
and something else ran.  Hoofs went loss, loss, loss, and the muscles that
would die snorted strong.
What these things were, in your dreams, they were horses.
You will cevied a bill for my usual fee.

Signmund Freud

Step 5
If you dare, bring true feelings into the third draft, and write it to
someone or something you really care about.  Draft a letter to someone known
to you but not to us, or to something you know in a special way--a neighbor,
a teacher.  That river near your home.  
Express affection, fear, curiosity, or hope.  OUtrage or gratitude, pride or
shame.  The feelings should be your own, the person you write them to should
be someone who matters to you.

Here's an example of what we mean

dear Husband,
I write Personal on the envelope.
Someone else opens and reads
The letter I meant only for you.
First time in a month we take
Tiem for wine in a bar.  Your
Briefcase sits between us, you
Touch papers in your pockets,
Scrunch your eyes, look around,
At work, the operator won't put
Me through to you.  You are in
Conference, in Cleveland, in-
Communicado.  You never call
Back.  Dear distracted executive
Husband of mine, your doors are
Closed.  You're hiding. Come out.

Your Very Worried Wife.
by Dorothy Schieber Miller
and Stephen Dunning

Step 6
Choose one of your drafts the one you like the most, and work on it.
Letter poems draw attention to themselves by looking different from regular
poems, by being as much concerned with imagined things as real things, and
by their language.

Blah blah blah--the usual revision stuff.

Hope this helps.

Nancy G. Patterson
Portland Middle School, English Dept. Chair
Portland, MI  48875