poem RENOVATION: Search for new meaning in old writing evolves into teaching tool

Anger for an   
Unbalanced Oven Rack

by Kelly de la Rocha
at age 17

A small change.
Five sweet potatoes
instead of six.
Two on one side 
of the roast,
three on the other.
He took with him
the stability
of a once solid oven rack. 
Yeah, a small change,
but god it was weird 
to see him go.
He threw the closet clothes 
on the bed and 
the hanger heads tangled together
almost mockingly.
The littlest walked in, 
smiled at the hangers.
He wanted to shake her,
tell her there was nothing 
to smile about.
But he untangled the hangers 
in a shaky way
and bounced back
a cellophane smile
Closet empty
he left.
Just left.
Gone just before the roof 
started to leak.
It figures.
Nobody here knows how
to fix it.
And then there’s the oven rack. 
It’s such a small change 
but no one’s quite sure 
what to do about that either.

Unbalanced God

(Created using words from the Oven Rack poem) by Kelly de la Rocha at age 55

Then, stability was an unbalanced god, the mockingly sweet     other.
What was once untangled     tangled together
with gone.
The almost solid     bounced   away    
Nothing      nobody left.
He left      anger     three closet hangers. Change walked in–weird, shaky
and smiled.
Yeah, it’s here.
Just smile back.

Anger For an Unbalanced Oven Rack is the first poem I ever wrote. I was 17. My parents were divorcing. I was grieving the end of childhood and a newly empty chair at the dinner table. Laying my confusion and sorrow down on paper helped me heal.
Forty years later, it still does.

I grew up to become a journalist and a published poet. Words are lifelong friends that have taken me places I’d never have imagined they could. Not long ago, they led me in pursuit of a dream that has grown into poem RENOVATION, an educational tool inspiring classrooms full of students.

During the pandemic, I began searching for new meaning in my Oven Rack poem. Eager to see if I could create an updated version using the original, I printed it onto magnetic paper, cut out the words, stuck them on my refrigerator and rearranged them. The result was so revelatory, I knew I had to share the concept. A friend generously volunteered to translate my idea into an interactive website, and in early 2022, poem RENOVATION was born.

Every day, poemrenovation.com presents visitors with a scrambled snippet of literature. Users select words that resonate with them, then move them around on a digital canvas. The rules? There are none. The objective? Simply to create.
Site visitors can share and save their creations, reveal each day’s passage in its original form and learn more about it. Selections are culled from works ranging from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew to pieces by up-and-coming wordsmiths. The site is free to use and ad-free.

I thought poem RENOVATION would find a Wordle-like following, but to my surprise, teachers have gravitated to it, citing not just the educational value, but also the social-emotional learning benefits rule-free word fun can provide.

I began introducing poem RENOVATION to high school and middle school English classes, although initially terrified at the prospect. The site’s not flashy. There are no fancy graphics, there’s nothing to blow up and no way to earn the highest score. I had visions of kids falling asleep at their desks.

Thankfully, that has not been the case. Students have consistently been enthusiastic and their creations are unique and amazing. When I ask if anyone wants to share their work, so many hands shoot up.

Time and again, I’ve seen shy students open up when they use poem RENOVATION. I’ve seen those who struggle with writing find a sense of accomplishment. I’ve seen that spark of realization when a student discovers their voice. I’ve seen myself in every single one of them.

poem RENOVATION is now a staple in multiple classrooms in New York and California. I’m working to obtain funding to enhance the site and to raise awareness, so it can benefit even more students. I feel so lucky to have a way to share my love of language with a new generation.

I can’t wait to see where words take all of us next. G&S


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