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'Who I Am': Poetry Not Wasted On The Young


In the 14th century, Petrarch wrote about love; in the 17th century, John Donne wrote about God. Today, poet Elise Paschen is turning her attention to yet another most universal of human experiences: awkward adolescence.

Paschen is the editor of Poetry Speaks Who I Am: Poems of Discovery, Inspiration, Independence and Everything Else ..., a new book and CD compilation of poems that speak to life as a tween.

"There are poems about when you feel like you hate your mother, poems about loving your mother, poems about when you lose a grandparent, poems about sibling rivalry," Paschen tells NPR's Renee Montagne. "We wanted to really give the broadest spectrum of subjects."

Also in the mix are poems about the pressures of school, including Carl Sandburg's Arithmetic ("If you ask your mother for one fried egg for breakfast and she/gives you two fried eggs and you eat both of them, who is/better in arithmetic, you or your mother?") and Rita Dove's Flash Cards, in which a 10-year-old girl can't help but think of flowers while her father quizzes her on her math homework.

"She's obviously a whiz kid, but at the same time, she's in math class daydreaming," Paschen says of Dove's narrator. "She actually wants to be writing her poem."

Another theme the collection explores is the pain of puberty. In Parneshia Jones' Bra Shopping, a girl and her mother go in search of the girl's first bra:

"The bra lady and my mother discuss how the bras fit just right and will do the trick with no bouncing at all/ Mama thanks the lady for torturing me and we leave the nightmare that is the bra department."

"When we first heard it, I thought, 'Wow, good for Parneshia that she can turn this subject into something that we can laugh about now,' " Paschen says. "But at the time it can be very humiliating and heart-wrenching being with your mother and the bra lady."

And then, of course, there is the adolescent desire to escape -- escape your homework, escape your parents and escape your own body.

In Stephen Dunn's The Sacred, a teacher asks a class for the place they escape to. Everyone is quiet until one student speaks up and says it's his car.

"The car in motion," Dunn writes, "music filling it, and sometimes one other person/who understood the bright altar of the dashboard/and how far away/a car could take him."

It's a poem for young people who are dying to get away to a place where they can be themselves -- and aching for the driver's license they need to get there.

Most of all, it's about waiting for the day you can finally fly free -- a part of adolescence that, car or no car, everyone can relate to.

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