A poetry organization wants to acquire new memberships especially from unrepresented minorities. They put out ads and ask members to invite anyone they know who is younger or part of unrepresented groups to attend the next meeting. The meeting is in the middle of the state, a region with few minorities and even fewer that belong to this group. It is a two-hour ride by car from the urban areas of the state to the site of this meeting. What is the poetry organization failing to understand? Discuss.

The owner of a lodge on a lake up north in Wisconsin has a family interested in buying a cabin that is for sale on the same lake. The owner is a former bank executive from Chicago. He knows the former town sheriff lives next door to the cabin for sale. The sheriff is a close friend of the man selling the cabin. The family wanting to buy is Jewish. The lodge owner calls the former sheriff to warn him that the couple that is putting in an offer on the cabin is Jewish. What happens next? Discuss.

A woman from Milwaukee has a friend who lives up north near Lake Superior. They meet at poetry conventions every year. The Milwaukee woman keeps urging the friend from up north to come visit. The friend says she is afraid. One year the conventions will be in Milwaukee. The friend finally says she will come, but only if the friend from Milwaukee will meet her at the edge of town and drive in with her. Discuss.

A county sheriff warns friends away from a particular restaurant in a small town. Many people with cabins have signs shaped like arrows with their names on them that point toward where they live. These friends do not. The friends are University professors who have a law professor visiting with them at their vacation cabin. The visiting law professor is African American. The hosts are Jewish. Discuss.



  1. Trent

    a thoughtful illustration of the phrase~
    I notice how it has a kind of reverse engineering mode. Goes from the poetry group “making a concerted effort” for opening up, to more intensive efforts to lock out.

  2. Chelsea Stickle

    Love the word problems form you’ve borrowed here. I’m interested in the region specificity here. It’s a smart choice. I’d read more of these.

  3. Dennis Holmes

    Martha, the repeated phrase “Discuss” about these four carefully laid out “problems” (and love that construct, or shell!), is rich with irony. In the sense that most people (Americans?) do NOT want to discuss these topics. And possibly furthermore, will not! So this is brilliant in the sense of that set up. More, please! Or perhaps useful as one of the examples that Freesia provided in yesterday’s course- you could place these all into boxes? Lines drawn, etc.

  4. Freesia McKee

    Hey Martha,

    Good to “see” you here!

    These word problems say something powerful about oppression’s predictability. You are not saying what happens, but we have expectations and can fill in the blanks. Racism is redundant, pitifully unsurprising. And yet, “What happens next?” is a chilling question.

    Martha, I can see you expanding this series into a chapbook. (Possible title for the entire chapbook could be your current title: “Word Problems.”) I don’t want to be too prescriptive, but I do think the other comments from our class indicate that we would all read more of these.

    Another thought: are there other math problem shells that would lend themselves to poems? Pie charts, line charts, y=mx+b, etc.? Lots of possibilities here.


  5. Meg Tuite

    Hi Martha! WOW! This is such an excellent example of how to bring the shit to the surface without emotion. And yes, that ‘discuss’ at the end of each one is another gut punch! I agree. More of these would be outstanding! LOVE!

  6. Sara Comito

    Hi Martha, Never not timely – unfortunately. I adore the implicitly non-confrontational confrontation here. It will be interesting to see what a general audience does with these highly open-ended thought experiments that are subtly leading nonetheless. Is this something you just started on for this workshop? I also think some graphical elements could be cool with these too.

    • Martha Jackson Kaplan

      Hi Sara. Thanks. Yes, for this workshop, and yet, I have thought about these often because the anecdotes are CNF, more N than F. Sort of “true Wisconsin” takes. I love the idea of graphics. Have to think about how to do that. But the presentation in shell format, that entirely from this workshop. I also had not actually written the anecdote portion but have always thought about these incidents as archetypical of elements of Wisconsin.

  7. Jonathan Cardew

    Wonderful, Martha! I love the essay prompt aspect, “discuss,” and have always found that ‘command’ slightly annoying and vague (what if I don’t want to discuss…).

    Loved seeing Wisconsin in here, and this location specificity really gives this piece an edge.

    I think this is a real winner, and I think in your revisions, you should consider playing with that ‘discuss’ refrain even more (maybe even have some really short prompts with discuss.



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