Know Thyself:

Make a list.


Have you enjoyed National Poetry Month as much as I have? I’ve been on a long bar tour and supporting literacy in Tulsa Public Schools. The fundraiser is called “Literarily Intoxicating,” and was created by Russell Maloy (Premium Brands and Spirits) and Heather Dusenberry (Justin Thompson Restaurant Group). Several mixologists created customized cocktails in the spirit of their favorite authors, and a portion of each cocktail sold benefits the Reverse Selfie Project. It’s been a pretty raucous celebration of local talent and brilliant wordsmiths.

I digress…

Speaking of the Reverse Selfie Project, this week’s topic is teens and tweens. And speaking of adult beverages, I’ve got some good news about your teens, the Gen Z crew.

Let me tell you, friends, in high school, I tended to make a mess of things. College, too. In fact, I was kind of an airhead until I started studying poetry during my master’s program. Through writing, I learned the ancient Greek sages were true when they said the meaning of life is to know thyself. Through writing, I found why I was here on this planet, and had a clear trajectory of where to focus my attention.  But don’t take my word for it, lots of people from all spectrums of history speak to this ephemeral thing we call passion…

“Without passion man is a mere latent force and possibility, like the flint which awaits the shock of the iron before it can give forth its spark.” —Henri Frederic Amiel

“If you can’t figure out your purpose, you can’t figure out your passion. For your passion will lead you right into your purpose.” —Bishop T.D. Jakes

“I would rather die of passion than of boredom.” —Vincent Van Gogh

“There is no passion to be found playing small—in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” —Nelson Mandela

My passion is teaching.

Watching someone learn is a moment of awe for me, like watching a flower bloom or compound interest accrue. I think my purpose is to help kids who are having a hard time figuring out their purpose, and our workshops aim to use language as a tool to focus on their passions. “Thought,” T.S. Eliot said, “is the silent switch that sets man’s destiny into motion.” … and it’s no doubt that thinking critically can change the trajectory of their lives.

And that’s what the Reverse Selfie Project intends to do. For a generation of students who have never been without technology at their fingertips, this is a 6-week creative-and-critical thinking workshop that offers students something different…a safe space to grapple between the self they present to the world and our real self who is usually kept safely locked away from the scrutiny of others, and quite often, from themselves.

Since we are living amongst the rise of a Kardashian-rich and value-poor culture, our hope is to turn these student’s perspectives around from self to community…. because, when we are the center of our world we cannot see (or serve) the real world.

Teens have never been younger.

If you thought millennials were hard to handle as they infiltrated your work force, then you’ll be uber excited for Generation Z. The good news is about your teens is that contrary to teenagers of past generations, Generation Z’ers — broadly defined as people born between 1995 and the mid-2000s — aren’t drinking alcohol, having sex, driving, or going out without their parents nearly as much. The bad news is that today’s teens are in no hurry to grow up, a new study finds.

According to psychologists Jean Twenge and Heejung Park, today’s 18-year-olds act more like 15-year-olds from years past. Good news: the findings largely back up Generation Z as less reckless. Bad news: they are more socially isolated than generations prior. The good news: I’ve got some ideas for you.

Write to empty yourself.

Writing in groups, reading, and revising together is a great way to practice articulating our ideas and standing up for what we say. By aligning our gifts to the needs of the world, we are better suited to map a path toward accomplishing these things. Or, if you’re alone, writing in “stream of consciousness” form – set a timer and just write whatever comes to mind without stopping your pen from moving – is a good way to clear the cob webs and see what you’ve been feeling. It all starts with the language we use in our heads, on the page, and in our delivery.

Read to fill back up.

Reading poetry can be a good tool for filling the gaps of isolation. Poems, the patterns in poems, show us not just what somebody thought or what someone did or what happened, but what it was like to be a person. To be so anxious, so lonely, so inquisitive, so goofy, so preposterous, so brave. That’s why poems can seem at once so durable, so personal, and so ephemeral, like something inside and outside you at once.

After all, it is Jack Kerouac who teaches us how to meditate; Pablo Neruda who teaches us how to love others beautifully, selflessly; Bukowski who teaches us not to be afraid of ugliness; and Sylvia Plath who teaches us not to be afraid of loneliness.

Now you try.

Here’s a peek into our Reverse Selfie Project, and an exercise that might be fun to try with your teen/tween. In week 5 of our workshop with our students, we pair the poem “How to be perfect” by Ron Padgett with a List Poem writing exercise. Also, the undercurrent of our workshop is a discussion about legacy.

Step one. Read.

Read Ron Padgett’s “How to be perfect.” It’s a long one, so make sure you click the link and read it in it’s wonderful entirety. Ron Padgett, who originally hailed from Tulsa, eventually made his home in New York City’s East Village and became a vital part of the Second-Generation New York School Poets, a group that included Ted Berrigan, Brainard, and others.

Step two. Discuss.

  • What lines stand out to you? (Reference: Use Colgate toothpaste in the new Tartar Control formula;  Make eye contact with a tree; Be kind to physical objects.)
  • What new vocabulary words did you learn? (Reference: Extirpate)
  • How does the title alter your representation of the poem? What if it was titled “How to be Ron Padgett” instead? (Reference: Know that the desire to be perfect is probably the veiled expression of another desire—to be loved, perhaps, or not to die.)
  • Point out the imagery being used.
  • Point out examples of the five senses.
  • Discuss how your personal details create your life, or your legacy.

Step three. Write.

  1. You’re an expert in one way or another, so tell us how you think it should be. Write a list poem called “How to be perfect.”
  2. Try to be as elliptical as possible and let your mind wander around to all the multifaceted places of your life.
  3. Reject cliché. (Unless it’s making a statement, or it’s for a purpose).
  4. Paint pictures using words; create images (using your five senses helps).

Step four. Enjoy.

  1. Read the poems aloud to each other.
  2. Point out your favorite lines.
  3. Feel free to say, “expand on that” and keep the conversation going.

Mostly, enjoy the threadbare details that amass your whole self. Use poetry as a means for collecting them.

Thank you so much for hanging with me during National Poetry Month.


*** photos were taken during our Reverse Selfie Project workshops at Edison, Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences, and Street School Tulsa. For more information about the project, or to request a project at your school, go to

Victoria McArtor holds an MFA from Oklahoma State University, is a former adjunct professor for the University of Tulsa, and is co-founder of a poetry and collaborative arts nonprofit, MUSED. Her work can be found in over a dozen literary journals and magazines including World Literature Today, The Cincinnati Review, and the Denver Quarterly. Her book, Reverse Selfie, has inspired a critical-and-creative writing workshops held in high-risk and alternative high schools. 

Categories: Guest Blog