Writing Exercise: Body Memory

Note: My Grad Poetry Workshop, which is made up of five first-year and five second-year students, wrapped discussion on Felicia Rose Chavez’s The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop yesterday. The following exercise allows students to practice moderating their own workshops (#2); to attempt an iteration exercise, which I assigned on the advice of Chen Chen (#4–6); to negotiate line breaks (#5); and to connect their bodies to the writing process (#7–9). As it was our second meeting of the semester, it was also a fabulous opportunity for the students to get to know one another and build trust prior to their first workshop next week. The exercise likewise prepares them to read Kazim Ali’s “On the Line,” which I assigned as homework. Ali writes, “we should talk about the line separate from [what] came before it or after it.” The outcomes: insight into sound and lineation, as well as lots of laughter.

“To be alive, you must exercise mobility, engage the senses, and laugh every now and then….For so much of our lives we’re schooled into stillness”

—Felicia Rose Chavez, The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop (pg. 75)

  1. Split into pairs. (A first year with a second year.)
  1. Take turns reading aloud your poems to one another. After doing so, share with your partner what you hoped (or are hoping) to do with the poem; your partner must engage in deep listening (not talking) as you tell them about the poem, answering some or all of the following questions:
    1. Where did you get the idea of this poem? From an image, a phrase, a concept? Something else?
    2. When did you write the poem? Under what conditions did you write the poem?
    3. Did the poem go where you expected it to go or not? Do you think this is a good thing for the poem? Why or why not?
    4. What are things you really like about this poem? (Be as specific as possible here and really go in for celebrating yourself and your craft!)
    5. How would you like to change the poem in its next draft?
  1. Now, you’re going to read aloud your poems to one another for a second time. After doing so, you and your partner will locate approximately six words in a row that are the most musical, that have the best “flow.” The passage doesn’t have to be a full sentence and it doesn’t have to make “sense.” Circle them.
  1. Copy out the passage in your daily writing journal at least five times as it appears in the poem (with original line breaks). 
I wrote on the board an example from one of my poem drafts
  1. Now, write the passage another five times; this time, add in line breaks in five new ways. (You can use virgules, i.e. “ / ”, to indicate line breaks if you’re having a hard time formatting it as you would in a word processor.)
Line break play
  1. Return to your partner. Read aloud the original version of the lines and all five new versions, emphasizing the line breaks through pauses or changes in your vocal intonation. Discuss:
    1. How do the lines change when they are broken in new ways? Does the meaning change? The tone? The rhythm?
    2. What sounds really catch your attention? 
    3. Outside of the context of your original poem, what is your favorite version of the passage? Which one engages your body the most? Its sense of dance and rhythm?
  1. Create a series of movements that “act out” the passage, its rhythm, and its line breaks. These movements can be as literal or abstract to the text as you like—just make sure to be as creative and silly as possible!
  1. Practice the movements, speaking aloud the words as you do them until you have them memorized.
  1. Perform them for the class, which will cheer you enthusiastically!