The two-voice poem, or dialogue poem, became a full-time resident in the Literature and U.S. History class Bill Bigelow and I co-taught for years. Our love affair with this poem started when Gail Black, our colleague in the Language Arts Department at Jefferson High School in Portland, Oregon, gave us “Two Women,” a poem written by a working-class Chilean woman in 1973, shortly after the overthrow of Salvador Allende, Chile’s socialist president. The poem was originally published in Sojourners magazine. The paired voices of the two Chilean women—one poor and one rich—show how the historical events in their country changed their lives, from Allende’s election to his overthrow.
The poetic format of the dialogue poem helps students get at something fundamental about social reality: Different social groups are affected differently by the same historical events. Writing the poem alerts students to inequality—from the coup in Chile to slavery in the United States to immigration policies. This disparity can be seen in the Chilean women’s dialogue:
I am a woman.
I am a woman.
I am a woman born of a woman whose man owned a factory.
I am a woman born of a woman whose man labored in a factory.
I am a woman whose man wore silk suits, who constantly watched his weight.
I am a woman whose man wore tattered clothing, whose heart was constantly strangled by hunger.
I am a woman who watched two babies grow into beautiful children.
I am a woman who watched two babies die because there was no milk.
I use the dialogue poem to evoke discussion about literature as well as history so that students can understand how race, class, and gender differences impact their own lives as well as the lives of historical and literary characters. Students explore the contradictions between social groups as they focus on inequality by contemplating and writing from diverse perspectives. When writing these pieces, students can also discover surprising commonalities between groups.
Students need the solid foundation of content knowledge prior to writing this variation on the persona poem. Because Bill and I asked students to partner up to write the poem, the assignment also facilitated collaboration between kids. The poem forced them to return to the materials we studied as they struggled together to make sense of the history or literature, discussing both overview and detail to create their poem. To make this piece work, students must pinpoint the conflict, or inequality, so they have something to write about.
Because of the history of inequality in our country, there is no shortage of topics. In a unit on slavery and resistance, for example, our students focused on dialogues between enslaved women and women in the “big house,” slave and master, and abolitionists with differing positions about how to end slavery. In The Grapes of Wrath, students constructed conversations between tenant farmers and bank owners, Ma Joad and the sheriff. In the young adult novel Esperanza Rising, students identified the inequality between the field workers and the owners/bosses, but also between workers who went on strike and those who didn’t, between the authorities who rounded up and deported Mexicans and the deportees. The sharp edges of class in Mexican society created friction between Esperanza, whose father owned land, and Miguel, whose father worked the land.