Federal Writers’ Project Found Poetry

American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940

Works Project Administration Federal Writers’ Project @ LoC

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Examples of Subjects:

“This collection of life histories consists of approximately 2,900 documents, compiled and transcribed by more than 300 writers from 24 states, working on the Folklore Project of the Federal Writers’ Project, a New Deal jobs program that was part of the U.S. Works Progress (later Work Projects) Administration (WPA) from 1936 to 1940. Typically 2,000-15,000 words in length, the documents vary in form from narratives to dialogues to reports to case histories. They chronicle vivid life stories of Americans who lived at the turn of the century and include tales of meeting Billy the Kid, surviving the 1871 Chicago fire, pioneer journeys out West, grueling factory work, and the immigrant experience.”

Turn just one of these amazing life stories into a found poem.

Targets — I can…

  • Communicate a clear purpose or theme in my poem; readers can understand and appreciate my poem.
  • Create an impact with my poem; readers experience the desired reaction or emotional response.
  • Use language from the original sources effectively and creatively; I go beyond the obvious or predictable.
  • Create imagery by using vivid and strong words; my word choices are varied, powerful, and precise.

As you know from past projects, a found poem is the “literary equivalent of a collage” (poets.org). “Found poems take existing texts and refashion them, reorder them, and present them as poems” (poets.org). “A pure found poem consists exclusively of outside texts: the words of the poem remain as they were found, with few additions or omissions. Decisions of form, such as where to break a line, are left to the poet” (poets.org).

Create about 20 lines of found poetry from one of the life histories collected by the Federal Writers’ Project during the Great Depression. Read aloud as you arrange. Arrange the words so they make a rhythm you like. Space them any way you want. Shape them poem however you like. Your job is to arrange the language you found so as to re-create it into something new, something yours.

Reflect the stories of America collected and chronicled during the Great Depression. Make the experiences of those who shared their stories with the Federal Writers’ Project during the Great Depression come to life again in your work.

As you refine and polish your poems, you may add a minor word or two if you need to, but only a word or two. You may also make other minor changes, for example tenses, possessive, plurals, punctuations, and capitalizations.

Print out and turn in a hard copy of your poem.

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