Writing on Command: Inspiring the Next Generation of Poets

It is a little known fact that when first asked to write a poem for the Statue of Liberty, Emma Lazarus declined.

It is a little known fact that when first asked to write a poem for the Statue of Liberty, Emma Lazarus declined. When first approached by her friend, Constance Cary Harrison, about writing a poem for the Bartholdi Statue Pedestal Fund (otherwise known as the fund which raised money for the base of the Statue of Liberty), Harrison reports that Emma responded with a stern no followed by a line I often wish I could claim as my own: “I don’t write on command.” Harrison implored Emma to think of the Eastern European immigrants of which she was so fond, and that was all it took to open the floodgates of Emma’s mind. Within two days, “The New Colossus” was born. 

At the beginning of my time working as an educator for the AJHS this summer on our Emma Lazarus programs with the Fresh Air Fund and Education Alliance, I felt the feeling that Emma experienced upon being asked to write a poem to honor the Statue time and time again. The difference between me and Emma is that I didn’t feel it for myself, I felt it on behalf of the students I have had the joy of working with every day for the last two months. Every day, the inimitable Rebeca Miller (dressed up as Emma Lazarus) and I work with kids between the ages of 7-13 to write poems of their own. The theme of our program is time-travelling. Our 45-minute lesson begins with learning a bit about Emma’s life and what inspired her to write “the New Colossus,” then we travel back to 1874 to meet with Emma herself, followed by 15 minutes of poetry writing. When we reach the final phase when we ask students to write their own poems, I hear Emma voicing the thoughts of our students and saying “I don’t write on command.” It’s been two months and the only voice that has told me that it will not write is the voice in my head. Sessions that begin with students saying that they don’t like poetry quickly moves into kids eagerly picking up their pens, putting their fingers to the keyboard, or sharing what’s in their mind when they learn that they can write poetry about whatever it is that is important to them. 

I have learned some lifelong lessons over the last two months. Truth be told, spending a full hour with Emma Lazarus over the course of a week, getting her writing advice, and understanding that the creative process isn’t easy is something that has allowed me to feel permission to think outside the box, use my own feelings to motivate my writing, and view my experiences as important enough to share. I see in the students that they feel the same way. Teaching this class has shown me the power of giving students a voice by telling them that what they see, feel, hear, and experience in the world matters. Not only does it matter, it is completely unique to them. Students who have never done poetry before are excited about how they can use their poetic voices. Students who “aren’t good writers” wear the widest smiles when Emma Lazarus tells them that they created something beautiful with their minds. 

Two months into this project, I have moved from feeling like Emma being asked to write “on command,” to Constance Cary Harrison in the moments after she received Emma’s completed poem in 1883. What a bittersweet moment it must have been knowing that on the one hand, the Statue of Liberty was given the voice it deserves while on the other hand knowing that it was almost left without that gentle but dignified voice redefining strength in the New World.  It is bittersweet knowing that while these children are producing poems that give voice to the experiences of their generation, were it not for this program, it never would have happened and 700 students would have no idea that they have a voice worth standing on a pedestal and sharing with the world. 


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