I spent last week teaching at Camp ArtWorks, a writing camp through Elizabethtown College and their Bowers Writers House. Each day I taught four sessions, each with 3–4 participants aged 13–17. For the first two days, we focused on sound in poetry; the next two days, we explored the lyric essay; and, finally, the last day we held a wrap-up and Q&A session that allowed the students to share.
Below, I’ve included the descriptions of each experience and the writing exercises the campers completed under them. My full lesson plan for the week, including the in-class reading list, is available on my teaching drive.
Making Poems Sing
How do poems move? How do they flow? In this class, we’ll learn how to make original poems that, through their rhythm and music, sound great read aloud. Throughout the experience, we’ll use our voices as much as our pens to compose. (No singing talent required.)
Writing Exercise: “Possibilities”
Write an imitation of Szymborska’s poem “Possibilities.” In doing so, try to imitate the structure and form of the poem, retaining the anaphoric construction of “I prefer” throughout your poem, but create your own images and actions that are the objects of the “I prefer” statements.
Writing Exercise: “Tuning Fork”
Free write four lines on any subject. Your only parameter is that for every noun you use, you must select one that has at least one sound similar to the previous adjective, verb, or noun. This will create a “chain” of similar sounds that allow your poems to sound good read aloud. Let’s look at some examples together:
“The river flows like a bow and arrow, taut / As a tamed tangle”
From Rosal, a similar technique: “I rolled twenty-two deep, every / one of us lulled by a blade / though few of us knew the steel note / that chimed a full measure if you slid / the edge along a round to make it // keen.”
Share your lines with the group, and let’s talk about the effects of your sound chains in relationship to the subject matter and the reader’s perception of the poem’s emotion and tone.
What Has the Head of an Essay, and the Body of a Poem?
The Lyric Essay, that’s what. In this class, we’ll uncover the riddle of this new genre, and we’ll tell our stories through it, borrowing ideas and techniques from personal essays and story-poems. Bring your best stories, and a sense of humor.
Writing Exercise: “Memory2”
Pick a memory that you don’t quite understand or an experience that bothered you in some way. You could have been embarrassed, or you might have been too young to understand the consequences. Share with the class.
Write a paragraph in prose about the memory, as if you were to write a personal essay.
Re-write the memory in poetry. What details get left out? What language arrives? How is the telling different? Do you use any other strategies?
Writing Exercise: “Finding a Way In”
Re-examine the memory you chose for the “Memory2” exercise, and create a list of 5–7 objects, details, and images from that memory. For instance, my childhood memory of seeing a man hit a boy in the Target and then witnessing my mother chase the man recalls red, my mother’s purse, the toy aisle, fluorescent lights, the rings on the man’s hand, etc.
Start with the object most distant from the action and event, and describe everything about the object, from its appearance to your vantage upon it, in one paragraph.
Write a single paragraph about each object, working your way toward the action at hand. (For example, I would begin with the color red in the store, then maybe talk about the fluorescent lights, then talk about my mother’s purse that she dropped on the floor, and then describe the man’s rings.) At the end, you should have 5–7 paragraphs and the beginnings of a lyric essay that tells the truth but tells it slant, after Dickinson.
(Note: You may use some of your language from your previous exercise, if it works here.)