by Peter Y. Chou, CPITS Poet-Teacher

Since Valentine's Day was just around the corner, I did a workshop on Love Poetry with my 9th grade students at Menlo-Atherton High School. I began the class reciting one of my favorite Rumi's Quatrains:

The moment I heard my first love story
I began searching for you,
not knowing how foolish that was.
True lovers don't meet somewhere out there,
but are in each other all along.

— Jelaluddin Rumi (1207-1273), Quatrains 1246

Then I read two short love poems— e.e. cummings' “open your heart” and William Stafford's “Passing Remark.” These poems were included in the two-page handouts along with love poems by Shakespeare, Elizabeth Browning, John Ciardi, Kuan Tao-shêng, and my poem “Cupid.”

I told the students to read the above poems, circling words & phrases which “move your heart” and then (1) Use these key words as trigger points for your own Valentine Poem, which could be either a Love Letter Poem to someone you love, or a Declaration of Love poem to the world or (2) Imagine yourself as Cupid, shooting your love darts to make any couple fall in love for keeps or make someone fall in love with you.

What attracted the students were not the above two exercises, but the pink sheet of Valentine Heart Mints I created in Adobe Illustrator with hearts extruded in Adobe Dimensions so that the mints looked three-dimensional. I arranged the mints alphabetically: All mine, Ask me, Be mine, Be true, Call me, Dear, For keeps, For you, Go away, Heart of my heart, Hug, I do, I hope, I'll tell, I'll wait, I will, It's love, Kiss, Kiss me, Love, Love me, Love you, Miss me, My girl, My love, My star, No way, On fire, Smile, Stay, Sure love, Why not, Yes.

I went around the classroom and had each student pick a candy valentine mint from a bowl at random (some students peeked or wanted another word). I told them to start their love poem with the candy mint they selected and use up as many of the other mints as they desired on the printed pink sheet. If they didn't like the word they chose, they could use any word on the page to begin their poem.

Paul Carter's poem "Be True to Yourself" has the echo of Shakespeare's Hamlet“ thou shall not be false to any man.” His second stanza using ten of the candy mints hearkens back to Plato's idea (Timaeus) that our soul comes from a distant star. It's interesting that Shakespeare placed “star” at the center (7th line) of his Sonnet 116.


Be true to yourself before another.
Be true to life before another.
The truth for keeps
a hug for keeps.
I hope for the truth
and I'll wait for you.

Be true, be mine—
Dear, for you I'll wait.
Be true
heart of my heart.
I will love you
my star.

— Paul Carter

Bodey Dressler's poem "Hug" was inspired by the candy mint word he picked from the bowl. He didn't use any of the other words on the pink page, but his poem feels warm like a teddy bear:


I need a hug to warm me up
and even that day I don't want to get up.

There once was a time I was falling down,
and all I got was a fat frown.

And then I got a hug that warmed me up
and made me feel happy all the way up.

— Bodey Dressler

In my first workshop, I told the students about my freshman English Professor at Columbia, Kenneth Koch, who started a Poetry-in-the-Schools program in New York City. I used his recipe of beginning a poem with the line “I wish...” and read my own “I Wish I Were a Tree” written a day earlier. One of the students, Elena, wrote: “I wish I could write a poem, but I can't.” When I handed her poem back the following week, I wrote: “Your one-line poem is honest and simple. Honesty and simplicity is the heart of good poetry. Keep trying.” So I was amazed that in this second workshop, she wrote:


If I were Cupid I'd fly through the sky
for love that's not there.
Pull out my arrow
Pull our my bow
and then Love is there.

— Elena Bustamante

This time I wrote on her paper: “The angels will accept you for Cupid's job. You'll shoot away the hate in people's hearts and true love will be everywhere!”

For this Love Poetry Workshop featuring Mints, I had included only love poems of a personal nature and left out my favorite Platonic love poems in my handouts. I didn't read my own “Valentine Heart Mints” poem that ended with “my love, my star” so students could be more grounded in their Valentine poems. What awed me was that even when I asked them to direct their love to someone personal, some students wrote about universal love. I am touched that these young hearts were great enough to embrace everyone and everywhere, even to the distant stars.

Footnote: To create simple valentine hearts on the computer with a word-processing (Microsoft Word, Claris Works, etc) or page-layout software (PageMaker or QuarkXPress), use Zapf Dingbats font: ™ (option 2) for a that looks like a playing card, and § (option 6) for a more rounded that's big enough (36-pt to 72-pt size) to type words in them (using reverse type). For those who don't have Adobe Illustrator or Dimensions software, a 3-D heart could be simulated using the Shadow effects in the font menu in Microsoft Word or the font style menu in Claris, PageMaker or QuarkXPress. For a more realistic 3-D heart, I used QuarkXPress 3.3 to offset the (upper right), shaded it gray & sent to back for drop shadow. I then created a separate text box and placed the words in front.

Peter Y. Chou— from A Tree in the Sky:
California Poets in the Schools 1995 Statewide Poetry Anthology

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