Discovering American Scrapbook

Bringing poetry to life through performance


American Scrapbook is a play full of poems performed on stage with seven actors, props, sets, sound effects, and lights. But instead of one story, it tells many different stories, like mini-plays, built from the poems.

The play features all kinds of poems (also called verse) from short to long. Some have rhyming words or a pattern. Some don’t (that’s called free verse). Some tell a story or just describe a moment.  All are by American poets. By creating art with their words, these poets have passed down mementos of history, life, and experience in America. That means these poems belong to you, and every American, too.

Think About

In honor of President Kennedy, the poems in American Scrapbook are organized around four big ideas, or themes, that were important during his administration. These are Reflections, Nature, Civil Rights, and America.  Poems from each section of the

She just could have said, “I don’t want to feel lonely.” But instead, poet Naomi Shihab Nye (who started writing poems when she was six) wrote:

That’s the power of poets. By reflecting on their own feelings and describing them in ways that might surprise us, they sometimes help us think about ourselves—one of the things President Kennedy liked about poetry. Read the poems in this section, and see what feeling you think each poet is trying to express.

President Kennedy cherished nature and enjoyed many outdoor activities like sailing. He believed in protecting wilderness areas for all Americans, and as President, he increased government spending for natural resources. The Kennedy family also liked animals and had a pony (called Macaroni) for Caroline plus dogs, a cat, a canary, and two parakeets. Nature was important to them in both life and poetry.

After reading the poems in the Nature section above, imagine you are the costume designer for the performance. Plan simple costumes for the actors playing the porcupine and the hound. If you get to see the performance, compare your ideas to what you saw on stage.

Civil Rights
It’s difficult to imagine now, but when John F. Kennedy became president in 1961, African Americans did not have equal access to public places like schools, restaurants, and buses. Kennedy was the first president to ask Americans to support equal rights for all citizens regardless of race. Congress passed civil rights legislation one year after Kennedy died.

Some of the poems in the play were written many years before the presidency of John F. Kennedy, yet they seem like they capture the experiences, worries, and hopes of people in a troubled time in American history. Read the poems by Langston Hughes (an African American poet who often wrote about life in America), both published in 1921. How do they reflect the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s?

When President Kennedy took the oath of office, he took leadership of America—the nation, land, and people—something poets have long used their words to try to describe. And they come up with very different ways of doing it. To get an idea, read these two poems from the play. Compare the ways each poet has expressed the idea of America. 

Go Deeper

Performing a Poem
There’s no right or wrong way to perform a poem. (And that’s what’s so fun about it.) But the person who wrote the play and the director (the person who plans how the play will work on stage) tried to imagine what each poem means and how they could show that meaning on stage. They had to choose between using one actor or several and also what kind of sounds, images, costumes, and movements to use to dramatize the poem.

When you come to see the play...

Listen for…

  • quotes from President Kennedy.
  • how sound effects help you imagine some poems.
  • how the actor speaks

Watch for…

  • how lighting tells you the scrapbook is coming to life.
  • projected images that help tell the story of some poems.

Think about…

  • why some people say poetry is meant to be spoken.
  • how the poems capture or fit into the sections or "chapters" of the play. 
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