It’s poetry month at the writing academy and I want the students to practice describing things accurately. From a suggestion in Robert Wallace’s Writing Poems, I’ve decided to use the first springtime oranges as objects to describe. We read a few haikus, first, to get an idea about how an accurate description of a thing can say something about the poet (or more).

I like to keep things simple at the writing academy.

I cut an orange in half, then I cut one of the halves into four pieces and arrange everything onto a translucent plastic plate. The plate is yellowish, the tabletop is golden, the walls of the classroom are sunkist and dimpled. The orange-half lies in the middle of the plate, wet side down, a softly cratered planet swaddled in orange, four smiling eighths in close orbit. I’ve given each student an eighth of his or her own and instructed them to describe the orange in their own words, according to the orange’s terms.

“See the orange, write the orange,” I say. “Eventually you’ll have material for a haiku.” It’s not a very helpful thing to say, and I feel stupid saying it, but the students are much younger than I am and by the time they figure out it’s a stupid thing to say, they will have forgotten that I ever said it. I don’t know how else to tell them to write what they sense in this orange and not write what they already know about oranges.

The students are unsure. They are skeptical about seeing the orange and writing it down. They want to take notes first. They want to write topic sentences according to their notes.

We’re stuck.

“Can we eat it?” a student asks.

“Of course.”

Everybody drops their pens and takes up an orange slice. They giggle about breaking the rule that prohibits food during class, smiling widely behind their orange slices. Eating it is easier than writing about it. In no time we reduce our slices to hunks of fragrant peel and we don’t have anything else to do but write about the orange and what we’ve done to it.

Afterward we read aloud what we have written. We all agree that the orange is delicious, tart, sweet, juicy, and we’re all surprised at how the orange’s sharp tang fills the room and how its pulp clings to our teeth.