Failed Ideas Rise Again!

I’m compiling a document called “Ignoratio Elenchi” (“missing the point”) with fragments of interesting things that framed failed poems. My hope is that this daisy-chain of failed, poetic dramatic situations will come together as something new, maybe a lyric essay on and demonstrating failure. This project must be something like a grappa, that liquor made from the unwanted skins, seeds, and stems of grapes that would foul wine. Let me go ahead and propose this form: a Grappa, a lyric-prose hybrid that trellises together failed lines, ideas, and dramatic situations. Most of the time my failed poems fail because I have too much of a set idea or firm situation—a boa muscled by truths, intentions. In a new form perhaps, by their prismatic triangulation, they will be elevated beyond their specificity, re-rendered to bewilder.

“The Craft of Prose” Fall 2015: Course Description, Required Texts, and Grade Requirements

Instructor’s Course Description
As a means of exploring the craft of prose writing, we will read, analyze, and imitate two living writers: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Jesmyn Ward. By reading two, book-length works by each writer—a short story collection and book-length essay by Adichie and a novel and memoir by Ward—we will see how these writers develop their unique styles across genres and locate how their personal concerns inform their fictional narratives. Additionally, we will supplement these texts with short stories and essays by some of the most influential prose writers of the 20th century to understand the history and development of American prose over the last one hundred years. We will translate these immersive reading experiences into writing skills through discussion, exercises, and workshop. Several times throughout the semester, students will turn in original writing for workshop, a collaborative discussion about writing techniques and their effects on readers, and later revise two of the pieces using the comments received in workshop. You should bring to this class a hard work ethic supported by curiosity and generosity. We will base our discussions on how texts work rather than what they mean, after Francine Prose’s ideal of “reading like a writer.” My approach to teaching writing is founded on the belief that our writing skills must be practiced and cultivated, and that one must continually challenge one’s aesthetics, habits, and concerns throughout one’s writing life in order to write anything of consequence to one’s readers and, perhaps more importantly, one’s self.

Required Texts

  • The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Anchor, 2010. ISBN: 978-0307455918
  • We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Anchor, 2015. ISBN: 978-1101911761.
  • The Best American Essays of the Century, ed. Joyce Carol Oates. Mariner, 2001. ISBN: 978-0618155873.
  • The Best American Short Stories of the Century, ed. John Updike. Mariner, 2000. ISBN: 978-0395843673.
  • Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward. Bloomsbury USA, 2014. ISBN: 978-1608197651
  • Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward. Bloomsbury USA, 2012. ISBN: 978-1608196265

Grade Requirements

  • Class Participation (10%)
  • Group Presentation (15%)
  • Four Workshop Pieces (40%)
  • Two Revisions (15%)
  • Two Imitations (10%)
  • Discussion Board Participation (5%)
  • Final Reading (5%)

“Babylon: A Place You’ve Only Heard Of” Exercise

"Abbildung der Stadt Babylon" ("Picture of the City of Babylon"),  Erasmus Francisci, copper engraving on paper, 1680

“Abbildung der Stadt Babylon” (“Picture of the City of Babylon”), Erasmus Francisci, copper engraving on paper, 1680

Class: Introduction to Creative Writing (The College of William & Mary)
Genre: Nonfiction
Purpose: To examine how place becomes setting and to cultivate an “outsider’s” point of view
Readings: “Goodbye to All That,” “Babylon,” and “No Man’s Land” from Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land and “Goodbye to All That” by Joan Didion

 

  1. Think about a city or country that you’ve never heard of but have never been to. This can be a real (Saigon), mythic (Troy), or imagined place. Describe what you know or imagine to know about this place. Write for 5 minutes.
  2. Now think about your hometown. Describe it as you remember it, including the homes, the landscape, the stores, the values, etc. Write for 5 minutes.
  3. Write a paragraph that considers similarities between the place you’ve never been and your hometown. Write for 3 minutes.
  4. Is there something notable or notorious about your hometown? Write for 3 minutes about how outsiders might view your hometown. Is there something unique to your hometown and therefore strange to outsiders? Would an outsider have prejudices against your hometown? Write for 3 minutes.
  5. How might you be like the outsider with the place you’ve never been? Write a meditation on these similarities for 5 minutes.

“Nobody Knows Your Name” Exercise

Kabuki Marquee (1822) by Utagawa Toyokuni I (Japan, 1769-1825)

Class: Introduction to Creative Writing (The College of William & Mary)
Genre: Nonfiction
Purpose: To explore the self as a character and subject
Readings: Chapters 8 (“Creative Nonfiction”) in Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing and “Nobody Knows Your Name” of Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land

Do you know the story of your name? Its meaning and its history? Do you know why your parents named you what they named you? Are there other famous people with your name? Is your name particularly popular or obscure? What does your last name say about your ancestry, if anything? What are misconceptions about your name? Is your name easily mispronounced or misspelled; if so, give us a narrative about someone getting your name wrong. Are their misconceptions about you based on your name? How would address those who make judgments on a person based on their name? If you don’t know what your name means, speculate and/or invent your own personal meaning for your name based on your experiences, the sounds in your name, etc.. Do you define your name or does your name define you? Write for 10 minutes.

“No River, No Bridge: Writing Poetry, Writing Nonfiction” Handout and Exercise

Ermakov, Dimitri (1846-1916).

Ermakov, Dimitri (1846-1916).

I taught a class titled “No River, No Bridge: Writing Poetry, Writing Nonfiction” at Appomattox Regional Governor’s School’s Writers’ Fest yesterday. We discussed hybridity of poetry and nonfiction, as well as the ways in which poetry can take on and explore “truth” using essayistic strategies without the requirement of “fact.” Several students came up afterward to show me their exercises, and one told me that she felt like it was one of the best things she’s written. The class ranged from high school students to adults.

In this course we will examine works of poetry and creative nonfiction in order to open up these genres to hybrid works. We will discuss features that are shared by the genres, how to bend the rules, and look at some examples before doing an exercise.

With over forty students in a one-hour class, we had these objectives:

  1. Examine definitions of genre and the elements therein.
  2. Think about the function and aims of each genre.
  3. Read excerpts of texts that bridge the gap between poetry and nonfiction.
  4. Write some assays—yes, some attempts—that use both poetry and essay strategies.

Examine definitions of genre and the elements therein. We looked at definitions of essays and lyric essays and Edward Hirsch’s definitions of line, lineation, lyric, prose poem, and stanza from A Poet’s Glossary. We looked at these definitions because they seek to define and, therefore, draw boundaries. We needed to know these definitions in order to explode these boundaries. In particular, we looked at Hirsch’s definition of line, in which he quotes Longenbach:

“Poetry is the sound of language organized in lines,” James Longenbach asserts in The Art of the Poetic Line (2008). “More than meter, more than rhyme, more than images or alliteration or figurative language, line is what distinguishes our experience of poetry as poetry, rather than some other kind of writing.”

And compared it to the prose poem definition:

A composition printed as prose that names itself poetry. The prose poem takes advantage of its hybrid nature—it avails itself of the elements of prose (what Dryden called “the other harmony of prose”) while foregrounding the devices of poetry. . . . Baudelaire used prose poems to rebel against the straitjacket of classical French versification. He dreamed of creating “a poetic prose, musical without rhyme or rhythm, supple and jerky enough to adapt to the lyric movements of the soul, to the undulations of reverie, to the somersaults of conscience.” Baudelaire’s prose poems—along with Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations (1886) and Malarmé’s Divagations (1897)—created a mixed musical form (part social, part transcendental) that has been widely and internationally practiced in the twentieth century. “There is no such thing as prose,” Malarmé insisted in 1891. “There is the alphabet, and then there are verses which are more or less closely knit, more or less diffused. So long as there is a straining toward style, there is versification.”

We thought about these paradoxes, discussed why lineation makes a poem a poem, as well as considered some alternative definitions. We then examined Hirsch’s definition of “lyric”—

The lyric poem immerses us in the original waters of consciousness, in the awareness, the aboriginal nature, of being itself. . . . The lyric, which offers us a supposed speaker, a person to whom we often assign the name of the author, shades off into the dramatic utterance

—in juxtaposition with a discussion of point of view in essay.   Think about the function and aims of each genre. When I think about the intersections and differences of poetry and nonfiction, it’s helpful for me to illustrate the two genres with metaphors.

  1. Poem as a river. With all of their musical elements, I think of poems as a river—something fluid, flowing, that rushes and eddies, deltas, and empties out to sea. Poems are one of our oldest forms of literature and therefore seem natural to our landscape of language.
  2. Essay as a bridge. The essay, an analytical form, builds upon its subject piece by piece, element by element, fact by fact, experience by experience. We might think about this strategy as similar to building pillars with blocks, hammering planks together, supporting and trussing.

We might use these metaphors to understand hybrid works—nonfiction prose poems, lyric essays—better. Sometimes a poem is a river we want to cross; we see and hear the rushing water, but we want to examine it from a sturdy vantage point where we stay safe and dry. Some music comes into the poem, but we rely on the exposition that essays provide. Adversely, we could be in the water, prone to the rapids, splashed in the face, paddling fiercely. Just trying to stay afloat in the overflow of language, of experience. There are times, however, where we might pass under the shadow of a bridge, have insights into reason, into conquering this flow, bridging one experience to another.   Read excerpts of texts that bridge the gap between poetry and nonfiction.

  1. “Say It, Say It Anyway You Can” by Vievee Francis (two versions—the prose poem version from Rattle and the lineated version that appeared in her collection Horse in the Dark). Let’s take a look at this poem, which started off as a prose poem and then became a lineated poem. Discuss the poet’s possible reasoning for lineating the poem. What are the effects of the two forms?
  2. An excerpt from Citizen by Claudia Rankine and an excerpt from Bluets by Maggie Nelson. Talk to me a little bit about what these prose forms borrow from poetry. Are they poetry? (How were they marketed? How were they identified?) Is it enough to say something is poetry? Nonfiction? Are these true hybrids? How would you categorize it? Does it need to be categorized?

Write some assays—yes, some attempts—that use both poetry and essay strategies.

“No River, No Bridge” Exercise

  1. Select an everyday object that’s in your house. Ex. a television, a pair of jeans, a can of kidney beans. (1 min.)
  2. Now describe the object using all of your senses, with only concrete details. Do not use any metaphors or other figurative language. (2 min.)
  3. Imagine how the object was made. Write a step-by-step description of its fabrication. (3 min.)
  4. Imagine the harvesting, mining, or creation of the raw materials that went into making this object. (i.e. the shearing of sheep for your wool sweater or the mining of silicone to make your iPhone). Describe. (2 min.)
  5. Now talk a little bit about how you came to own this object (and talk about not remembering how you got it, if that’s true.) Tell us the backstory. Or, what connotations does the object have? Do you have specific memories associated with it? (2 min.)
  6. Now describe the object using only metaphors. (“My pair of jeans is muddy water reflecting sky, a bird with clipped wings . . . ”) (2 min.)

Share and discuss: How has the object changed in each iteration (concrete description, origin story, deconstruction, entrance, emotional connection, metaphorical naming)? Which form (poetry or essay) better conveys these approaches? Why? How can we combine these strategies?

Prompts: “The Conversationalist,” “Just a Phase,” and “Witness” for Creative Nonfiction Writing

Phrenology diagram. From People's Cyclopedia of Universal Knowledge (1883).

from People’s Cyclopedia of Universal Knowledge (1883)

A student wrote to me over the weekend to request a prompt for my Intro to Creative Writing‘s 5–7 page creative nonfiction assignment. Although I usually encourage students to locate their own subject matter as it’s a critical skill and they’ll likely care more about their handpicked subjects, I came up with several prompts that I’ll hold onto for future students who need a place to start.

The Conversationalist
Is there a story or several stories that you like to tell friends or new people you meet? Is the subject matter related or disparate? Write the story/stories that you tell, and the narrative of telling these stories. How have people reacted? Reflect. Why do you tell these stories? Do you find yourself wanting to create a certain impression on listeners? This piece, as it has three narrative components, has a lot of promise for fulfilling the page requirement.

Just a Phase
Was there a time that you tried to “be someone else,” to adopt a different personality? Describe in detail. Did you change your clothes? Your hair? Your interests? Your speech or accent? Many of us go through identity crises especially as adolescents. What did you do while you tried this out? Did you go somewhere? Did you make a fool of yourself or pull it off? When did you realize it wasn’t right for you? Why change? Do you feel nostalgic now? Show this.

Witness
Have you ever witnessed something violent, unsettling, or scary? Write about this and your reaction after. How long did it affect you? How did it change you? Did you intervene? Why or why not? Do you regret your decision to become involved or not involved? (See “Accident, June 1948” by Seamus Deane for an example.)

Homing In On Home Exercise

Garage met Chauffeurswoning te Zandvoort (1916) by Guillaume Frédéric la Croix

Garage met Chauffeurswoning te Zandvoort (1916) by Guillaume Frédéric la Croix

Class: Intro to Creative Writing
Genre: Creative nonfiction
Readings: “Notes from a Native Daughter,” “Los Angeles Notebook,” and “Goodbye to All That” by Joan Didion; “Bread” by Jane Brox
Time: 24 minutes

1. Describe the home you spent the most time in as a child including its location, distinctive features, the people, the food, the weather, etc. Be as thorough as possible. (7 min.)
2. Is there something that people often assume about the place that isn’t true? Write an anecdote about a time that someone made a presumption about where you were from. (i.e. Every evening while I had bronchitis I stopped at a pub in Mayfair to have a shot of Jack Daniel’s to ease my coughing before bed. The first night, the bartender asked to see my ID. When I handed him my Tennessee driver’s license, he said, “A Tennessee girls drinks Tennessee whiskey,” and, laughing, “Do you like your country music too?”) (5 min.)
3. Why do you think that outsiders often assume these things about your home? Speculate about why that is, how long that’s been true, and if it will continue to be true. Why or why not? Use this as a means to tell us a little bit of history about the place you grew up. You can use historical facts, family stories, gossip, rumors, etc. (7 min.)
4. If you weren’t from the area, how would you view your hometown? Would you visit or move there? Consider several possibilities. (5 min.)

This exercise allows students to look at a subject from different angles as well as helps them access something personal through exterior descriptions. In much the same way that they saw Didion revealed through the places she talks about (California’s Central Valley, Los Angeles, and New York), students should realize that, by the details they choose to talk about and the perceptions they reject or defend, they do some work to define themselves as well as the place, subject, and—perhaps most importantly—a conflict.