I have recommended Gary Soto before in a Pencil Tips post about his short story collection, Baseball in April. But when I recently came upon his collection of poems for young adults, A Fire in My Hands, I knew I had to write about Soto’s work again. A Fire in My Hands was re-issued in an expanded edition. All middle school and high school English teachers need a copy of this book.
Soto is one of my favorite authors. His words beautifully capture the essence of everyday life. Every poem in A Fire in My Hands is a wonderful example of how to create poetry from one’s life experiences. Soto shows us how to notice every detail of a visit to a drugstore with someone you care about. How to see a blimp float across the sky on a hot August day, “quietly as a cloud, /Its shadow dark enough to sleep/ Or dream in.” Soto elevates the everyday to palpable moments of epiphany.
In the introduction, Soto advises young writers to look into their own experiences for inspiration. This is not new advice for middle school and high school students. But Soto knows how to convince them. He says, “Some of you may argue that your life is boring, that nothing has happened, that everything interesting happens far away. Not so.” Soto’s poems demonstrate that every moment is worthy of being captured in a poem. Every feeling is important.
Each poem is accompanied by an anecdote, sharing the memory that inspired it. Soto is honest about changing the facts to capture emotional truth in his poems. This layout is a wonderful model, showing how a poem develops from its original inspiration.
The interview at the end of the book “Chatting with Gary Soto” is a must-read for anyone interested in teaching poetry. Soto discusses his process and motivation. He explains the difference between a lyric poem and a narrative poem. But most of all, he reveals how writing poetry feeds his soul.
A Fire in My Hands models everything we want our students to emulate in their writing. Get it for yourself. Share it with your students.