Perugia in the Classroom: The Making of a Reading Companion

By Amelia Burton, Perugia Press 2022 Summer Intern

Perugia offers free classroom companion guides for most of the press’s books, which feature a sample poem, discussion questions, writing prompts, and more. The reading companions are primarily geared toward supporting the use of Perugia Press books in college classrooms, though the guides would also be great to use in writing groups, and even for independent study. One of my tasks as a Perugia intern has been to expand these resources to include more of Perugia’s books. 

This summer, I worked on the reading guides for Finding the Bear, The Disappearing Letters, and Perugia’s new book, the forthcoming American Sycamore. It was particularly interesting to work on both the oldest and newest Perugia publications. Reading them back to back, I got a taste of how wonderfully various Perugia’s books can be, like a brief but beautiful tour through twenty-six years of contemporary poetry. However, the most enriching part of this process was simply seeing the other side of poetry education. I found the classroom guides very similar to the discussion questions I have been asked in my poetry classes at Smith, questions that are expansive, encourage rich discussion, and allow for multiple interpretations of the same work. Thus, I was excited to take on the challenge of creating questions for others to dig into.

The first step is always to deeply read the book. I like to read a few poems, and then pause and digest. I re-read poems that are especially dense with meaning. I pay attention to the themes the poems dwell on and the narratives that arise between the poems as I attempt to string together connections throughout the book. Before I write any questions, I make a list of ideas that could grow into questions: a theme, a poetic device or form, a pairing of poems, a particular line. Then I work backwards to make questions. I imagine what a discussion of this particular poem, theme, line, or device would look like, and then ask myself what question would prompt that discussion? How can I lead the reader’s attention to key details, while still leaving room for new answers? Because, of course, the questions never have one right answer. The best questions should have many answers, just as there are many ways to interpret a poem. 

The poetry prompts are also, in a way, questions with many answers, except the answer is the poem written in response. I think back to the prompts I have been given in my creative writing classes, especially those that could be completed quickly, either in class or for homework, but then left me with a poem that I could expand on later. The goal is not to immediately inspire a finished piece, but to kickstart the creative process, so at least one has a great start toward a potentially incredible poem.

If you are interested in teaching a Perugia Press book in your classroom, facilitating a book group discussion, or would simply like some thoughtful questions to ponder while you read on your own, you can find free, downloadable PDFs of the reading companion guides under the Classroom tab. To inquire about any of Perugia’s poets giving a reading or visiting your class (in person or virtually), or to request a desk copy, adopt a text, place a bulk order, or ask about the press’s classroom discounts and policies, contact Editor/Director Rebecca Olander.

Editor’s note:

In addition to the three companions mentioned above that were created by 2022 summer intern Amelia Burton, we’ve recently posted new companions for the collections Grayling and Guide to the Exhibit (both created by summer 2021 intern Sam Brown) and Begin Empty-Handed and Through a Red Place (both created by former board member Sarah Sousa). Thank you to Amelia, Sam, and Sarah, to summer 2020 intern Adrie Rose for designing the template for the reading guides with me and for composing the first twelve companions, and to current board member Beverly Army Williams for creating three companions and for editing all of these resources, lending her expert teacher‘s eye to the task. Each companion is approved by the book’s author, and we hope you enjoy using them to enhance the experience of reading Perugia Press’s collections.