George Ella Lyon: “Where I’m From”

George Ella Lyon

See photo credit below.

Kentucky writer George Ella Lyon’s 1993 poem, “Where I’m From,” is one of my enduring favorites.

I love the many details Lyon includes – from her grandparents’ names (Imogene and Alafair) to favorite family expressions (“Perk up!” and “Pipe down!”), from the place names associated with her youth (Artemus and Billie’s Branch) to lessons learned at Sunday school (“He restoreth my soul /with a cottonball lamb / and ten verses I can say myself”).

I suppose Lyon doesn’t tell a story exactly, not a “once-upon-a-time” story with a beginning, middle, and end.

But her 29-line poem does indeed tell – or pay homage to – the family stories that make up who she is. The intimacy of the poem and its “thinginess” – “fried corn and strong coffee” – give it an unexpected texture and depth for a piece so short.

Perhaps the best part of this poem is the thousands of poems it has inspired. A popular teaching tool and writing prompt, “Where I’m From” can be the starting point of your own poem telling the story of your family and of your own beginnings.

Lyon writes, “People have used it at their family reunions, teachers have used it with kids all over the United States, in Ecuador and China; they have taken it to girls in juvenile detention, to men in prison for life, and to refugees in a camp in the Sudan. Its life beyond my notebook is a testimony to the power of poetry, of roots, and of teachers.”

I’ve used the poem successfully many times in university classes, and even the most unengaged students suddenly sit up and pay attention when I share this poem. When I ask them to write their own “Where I’m From” poems, a quiet descends on the classroom, and pens start moving across the page. Students who have never contributed in class email me later to share their poems. It doesn’t get any better than that!

Want to try this in your own classroom? Lesson plans and just a few of the “Where I’m From” poems that have been inspired can be found on Lyon’s website. You can also check out Lyon’s book, Where I’m From: Where Poems Come From, a hybrid of memoir and how-to writing guide.

Where are you from? Let Lyon’s poem inspire you!

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Listen to George Ella Lyon read “Where I’m From.” The audio clip runs 1 minute, 30 seconds.

Photo credit: Photo by Ann W. Olson