Teen Arts Workshop Writing Exercises: “Beyond Rhyme: Poetry’s Music” and “Speech Bubbles: Poetry 10 Ways”

The Warren County Cultural & Heritage Commission asked me to teach as a part of their Teen Arts day. Although post-blizzard school delays prevented us from taking full advantage of my two planned workshops, the exercises and lesson plans I prepared for the day are collected here for other educators’ use.

9:30–11:00 AM: Beyond Rhyme: Poetry’s Music
How do we make our poems “flow”? How many word fireworks can we set off in a single line of poetry? In this workshop, we will explore the sounds and rhythms of free-verse poetry by listening to poems, trying out new techniques, and writing our own new poems.

  1. Introductions:
    • Who are you?
    • What school do you go to?
    • Why did you take this class?
    • What’s your favorite word?
  2. Discussion:
    • What is poetry?
    • What makes poetry poetry?
    • What makes poems sound good? How do they “flow”?
    • Some vocab: rhyme, cadence, assonance, consonance, alliteration, anaphora
  3. Reading and Discussion of Sounds:
  4. Writing Exercise:
    • Free write a poem on any subject. For every noun you use, you must select one that has at least one sound similar to the previous adjective, verb, or noun. Example, from “Inversnaid”: “This darksome burn, horseback brown.” The noun “burn” borrows the sound of r- in “darksome,” as does the noun “brown” from “horseback.” Additionally, the latter noun also borrows the b sound from “back.”

11:30 AM–1:00 PM: Speech Bubbles: Poetry 10 Ways
Ever heard the phrase, “The medium is the message”? In this poetry workshop, we’ll try our hand at writing poems using different mediums-posterboard, postcards, typewriters, and on our toes-to see if we can appeal to different parts of our brains and become more creative.

  1. Introductions:
    • Who are you?
    • What school do you go to?
    • Why did you take this class?
    • How (and on what) do you usually write?
  2. Writing Exercise: Poetry 10 Ways
    • Station 1: Writing by Hand. Freewrite a poem of at least 4 lines on unlined paper.
    • Station 2/3: Landscape/Portrait. Freewrite a poem on the index card laid out horizontally, and then rewrite it on another index card laid out vertically.
    • Station 4: Big Concerns. Using a pastel, freewrite a poem on a piece of posterboard. Try to “size up” your handwriting to the size of the paper.
    • Station 5: Boxing It In. Using the colored pens, I’d like for you to take one of your poems written at a previous station and underline the most important five words in that poem. In another color, I’d like for you circle all the nouns. In another color, I’d like for you to put a square around all the verbs. In another color, I’d like for you to put an X through at least three unnecessary words in the poem.
    • Station 6: The Snake Eating Its Tail. At this station, you will partner with another student. Rewrite one of your previously drafted poems in pencil on a piece of paper. Swap poems with your partner, and then erase 5 to 7 words from your partner’s poem.
    • Station 7: Address. Select a friend or a family member to whom you have a lot to say. Write a poem to them on the provided cards.
    • Station 8: Cut! Copy out one of the poems you brought in previously. Use the scissors to cut it in half.
    • Station 9: Walk It Off. Go out into the hall. You will compose a poem in your head while you walk to the end of the hall and back. Try to come up with one word per step. Record yourself (using your phone or mine) speaking aloud the poem.
    • Station 10: Type It Up. Come to this computer workstation and type up one version of one of the poems you have written today in this Google doc. Your only parameter here is that you must introduce new line breaks.

 

Station 1: Writing By Hand

Station 2/3: Landscape/Portrait

Station 4: Big Concerns

Station 5: Boxing It In

Station 6: The Snake Eating Its Tail

Sation 7: Address

Station 8: Cut!

Station 9: Walk It Off

Station 10: Type It Up

 

“I look in the mirror and hold up my mangled hand”: An Adversarial Persona Exercise

Jack_dempsey_ring_loc_50497v
Genre:
Poetry
Purpose:
To consider how persona, point of view, voice, argument, and empathy can support and/or complicate one another
Readings:
“Skinhead” by Patricia Smith

  1. Watch Patricia Smith perform “Skinhead”: https://youtu.be/Klb5TniRGao. Discuss.
  2. Jot down some notes about a situation in which you found yourself in direct opposition with someone else. Perhaps it’s as extreme as the violent racism in Smith’s poem or as routine as having the same seat number assignment as another person on a flight. The best situation is one in which the conflict was never or not easily resolved. (2–5 min.)
  3. Describe the diction that person uses and provide some examples. (1–2 min.)
  4. Now freewrite in the voice of that person as if he or she is addressing you. What would they say? How would they defend themselves against complaints about their actions toward you. (5–7 min.)
  5. Share your efforts. Did the exercise of writing in their voices change your opinions of your adversaries? What does this reveal about poetry’s ability to engage in empathy? Do your opinions carry into your rendering of their voice?

“Think Lagunitas business” Exercise

Postcard of the United States Weather Bureau buildings and tavern at the summit of Mt. Tamalpais, Marin County, California, circa 1906. (Source: NOAA Photo Library)

Postcard of the United States Weather Bureau buildings and tavern at the summit of Mt. Tamalpais, Marin County, California, circa 1906. (Source: NOAA Photo Library)

Class: Introduction to Creative Writing (The College of William & Mary)
Genre:
Poetry
Purpose:
To consider how language is the raw material with which all writers work and to consider the unique challenges that poetry in translation offers
Readings:
A packet of poetry in translation

A native speaker of a foreign language that you do not speak has given you a literal translation (that is, a word-for-word rendering) of a poem written by a poet who writes in her language. The native speaker has asked you to further translate the poem so that it makes sense and is a good poem.

The poem’s original language is from a unique language family and shares no roots with English. Because of this, there are some words that are almost untranslatable in English; the native speaker has done her best to provide you with some sense of those words, sometimes substituting phrases or even metaphors for individual objects. Additionally, because the grammar of the original language is so unique, the sentence structure often doesn’t work in English. Not only will you have to find translations for individual words, you’ll have to make sense of those words in foreign syntax.

You read the translation*…

Think Lagunitas business

Loss innovation. It seems that the old way of thinking. The idea, for example, eliminates the sense that the general idea of ​​light. The resurrection of the dead birch, black, the face of the first month, or any other theory of the world tribal carved sad because the skills to deal with the clown Beck, anything associated with Blackberry Blackberry word complaint if it does in this world, it is. We talked last night, my friend, marina trouble hearing sound thin. After that, I knew it from the start, and judges, and chin, hair, and the woman, and you, and I am his wife, and I remember that I love you still, it was several times small shoulders in his hands, and was surprised to see the face of violence, such as the drought and salt and the river of my childhood and Willow Iceland, sad songs levels, such as mud fish, we have a little money should pumpkin orange. It is difficult to deal with. It is necessary if we want to get an external desire eternal. And did the same to him. Reminds me a lot, and his hands and the length of the bread and said that his father hated him because he was asleep. Time was the word supernatural, flesh and body. Love, lunch and dinner, and BlackBerry.

*In order to produce this text, I ran Robert Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas” through several different languages (Maori, Chinese Traditional, German, French, Arabic, Finnish, Irish, and Icelandic) in Google Translate before translating it back into English.

The native speaker has also noted that the original poem was in one stanza and contained thirty-one lines. The literal translation, however, is in prose. She has converted the original poem into prose in order to preserve some semblance of the original syntax, and she hints that most of the lines contained between seven and ten words, except the last line, which only contained four.

You get to work and set about your translation systematically:

  1. You assess the overall tone of the poem, considering if it’s joyful, melancholic, bittersweet, or meditative.
  2. You then summarize the poem, identifying its:
    1. setting;
    2. speaker;
    3. addressee (if there is one) and/or audience;
    4. primary themes;
    5. and motivations and/or stakes.
  3. You now notate those places in the poem in which there seems to be some kind of shift in setting, direction, and/or tone. (This could also include an associative leap between images or thoughts. If you notice one of these leaps, briefly summarize the connection.)
  4. You then start the hard work of translating the poem, sentence-by-sentence, for clarity. At this point, you might begin to take some liberties with the text. As you’re revising the sentence, decide if you want to:
    1. change any words or phrases so that the poem will seem more accessible to North American readers (i.e. an American might write “truck” when an English translator would write “lorry”)
    2. or change any language that doesn’t seem essential to the overall meaning of the poem but that might make the poem sound more musical.
  5. Now begin to format the poem for line length, breaks, and stanza structure. Decide whether or not you want to try to mimic the poem’s original format. (If not, make a case for it.)
  6. Share your translation.

“Encounter” Exercise

"Stumps of trees cut by the Donner Party in Summit Valley, Placer County" Grayscaled albumen print, half stereograph. (1866) via the Library of Congress

“Stumps of trees cut by the Donner Party in Summit Valley, Placer County” Grayscaled albumen print, half stereograph. (1866) via the Library of Congress

Class: Introduction to Creative Writing (The College of William & Mary)
Genre: Fiction
Purpose: To explore Burroway’s concept of “Character as Image”; examine potential of non-verbal communication; and situate the reader to receive information along with a character
Readings: Chapters 4 (“Character”) and Gabriel García Márquez’s “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” in Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing

Two characters come upon one another in the middle of a forest. Something bad—but not melodramatic*—has happened to one character and that character needs help. When the first character tries to tell the second what’s wrong, it’s revealed that the two characters don’t speak the same language. (This could include sign language.)

Write a scene from the point of view of the second character (first person “I”) while the first character tries to communicate the problem using only gestures, drawing, or other non-verbal communication. Additionally:

  • the second character cannot know what the problem is before the first character reveals it in this scene;
  • the second character should notice details throughout the interaction that reveal more about the first character (i.e. clothing, appearance, possessions, etc.)
  • the second character may or may not—or even cannot—help.

*Challenge yourself to come up with a problem that doesn’t involve far-fetched plot lines, flat characters, and easy conclusions. This means it would be best to avoid killers, aliens, and monsters. Think about more ordinary but equally tension-filled situations like a farmer whose lost a bull, a teenager who has a flat tire but doesn’t know how to change it, a hunter who accidentally shot his buddy in the foot, etcetera.

“Cadenza” Exercise

C. Reimers- Das Leipziger Gewandhausorchester im Lichte der Satire, 19 Karikaturen, lithographiert von Blau & Co., Leipzig um 1850 I haven’t had a chance yet to give this exercise to my Writing Poetry students, but I hope to give this to them by the end of the semester. A “cadenza” is a soloist’s improvisation that later gets written into a piece of music. It’s my hope that this exercise will produce in-class improvisation that later becomes a revised poem.

Class: Writing Poetry (Virginia Commonwealth University)
Genre: Poetry
Purpose: To consider how pace and sound relates to emotion, tone, and intensity.
Readings: One might provide the students with musical examples in lieu of readings.

  1. Provide students with a glossary of musical terms, such as http://www.classicalworks.com/html/glossary.html, or a selected list. (Italianate terms preferable.)
  2. Each student should select a term, study its definition, and then conceive of a poem that demonstrates the qualities of the term. The poem could embody these qualities with form, syntax, diction, sound, prosody, or any combination thereof. This term must serve as the title of the poem. For instance, “Sonata” might produce a poem in four parts that each differ in tone and pace. (30+ minutes)
  3. Students should share their results with the class for feedback on whether or not they embodied the musical terms in their poems. Open up a discussion about how line breaks, forms, and syntax/diction create a kind of music in poems and how these can be manipulated to produce certain tonal/emotional effects in addition to those implicit in dramatic situations. (10–15 minutes)
  4. The students will then take home the poem and revise it. Share again at a later date.

Two Poetry Exercises: “The Side of the Road” and “A Pig Is A Pig Is An Idea”

Map of Henrico, VA showing Fortifications Around Richmond North and East of the James River, detail.

I gave the following two exercises to my Writing Poetry students in the last month. Because these exercises encourage students to build their poems upon concrete description, I’ve presented them together.

Class: Writing Poetry (Virginia Commonwealth University)
Genre: Poetry
Purpose: To explore strategies employed by authors we’ve read as well as situate poems in concrete details, settings, and narratives
Readings:Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey and When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz

*

“The Side of the Road” Exercise

“What matters is context— / the side of the road”
—Natasha Trethewey, “What the Body Can Say”

  1. Only using concrete details, describe as much as you can about your hometown or your current neighborhood without editorializing. For instance, if you believe something is “pretty”, describe those features that create its aesthetic appeal (the fleur de lis ornamentation on the porch railing, the ivy trellised up the front of the house, etc.). Your readers will likely know how you feel about the looks by how you describe what’s there. (7 min.)
  2. Look at what you’ve written and underline those concrete details that seem signficant to a reader’s understanding of the place. Meaning, the descriptions must provide us with a clue about what’s going on there or what someone is like. Ex. On China Street in Oregon Hill, there’s a house that has abstract acrylic paintings nailed on the siding. Across the street, a small sherbert green house flies a Confederate Flag above its porch junked up with a recycling bin full of Miller Highlife and several ashtrays full of cigarette butts. In the window is a sign: “Roomate Needed / Must like Dogs” accompanied by a phone number. What does each detail reveal about the invidiuals that live in each house? What does it reveal about the neighborhood? (2 min.)
  3. Say someone from another part of the country—or even another neighborhood—visited you here. Speculate about what that person would notice about the area. What would excite them? What would trouble them? (3 min.)
  4. Consider what assumptions that person might have about you based on your affiliation with the place. (3 min.)
  5. Rewrite all of this in lines, cutting out excess wording and ending on one of the telling images you previously identified without explaining what it means. Think of Trethewey ending “Again, the Fields” with “his hands the color of dark soil.” If I wrote about the two houses in Oregon Hill, I might end with this image: “the paintings and the flag will both fade in the light of day.” (5–7 min.)

*

A Pig Is A Pig Is An Idea Exercise
[Note: This is a variation on my “Headliner” exercise.]

An image is a detail that allows us to feel as if we “see” rather than understand what happened or is happening in a literary work. It’s imitative of the tangible. It suggests meaning rather than explains it. It can be within the “real world” or it can be figurative, Natalie Diaz’s men “leaning against the sides of houses” (realistic) or the coins “We are born with spinning coins in place of eyes” (figurative). In understanding how image often serves the function of both providing us with concrete details, narrative, and/or abstract ideals, thoughts, or emotions, complete the following exercise.

  1. Describe the narrative implied by one of the following real headlines. Be sure to use descriptive details that will reveal the place/setting. In doing so, try to be as objective as possible. Only describe what’s happens as it happen. Remove any commentary or statement of meaning. Focus only on tangible details and action. You may have opinions about the people, animals, or objects involved, but don’t reveal them. Through the attention to details, you may even empathize with these characters. (15 minutes)
  2. Pig in Australia Steals 18 Beers from Campers, Gets Drunk, Fights Cow
    Hiker discovers an abandoned town inside Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park
    White Ohio lesbians suing sperm bank over mixed-race baby
    Donkeys reunited at Polish zoo after sex scandal
    Two die, three injured after woman drops cell phone in toilet
    (China)
    Swiss Town: Have Cave, Want (Social and Outgoing) Hermit
    Davidson Co. home catches fire after man smoking tries blowing his nose
    (North Carolina)
    Jogger hospitalized after being hit by airborne deer (Dulles, Virginia)
    Alejandro Melendez Puts 911 Dispatcher On Hold To Complete Drug Deal (Cleveland, Ohio)
    Philly Bomb Scare Caused By Hotdogs At Ballpark, Mascot Implicated
    Reputed Colombian Drug Lord Complains Of Claustrophobia From His Prison Cell In New York
    Man In Wheelchair Robs 7/11 Of Condoms
    (Dallas, TX)
    Asian elephant cured in rehab of heroin addiction (Beijing, China)
    Python Kills Intern Zookeeper (Venezuela)

  3. Now go back through your description and circle any images you find. Make a column for at least three of the images you identified. Underneath them, write down what the image literally represents to the reader and then record the literal and abstract connotations that might arise from each image. For instance, if you wrote “the pig’s jowls, bearded in foam” for the first headline, you might come up with this: (10 min.)
  4. Literal Representation: the pig has just been drinking beer that produced the foam
    Connotations: the pig has rabid qualities; the beard implies a kind of personification, taking on of man’s roles/behaviors; the pig is out of control; the speaker is in awe of the scene and endangers herself by looking this closely at the pig; the pig is fat because of the word “jowls”; “jowl” is used in butcher charts, so therefore this pig is meat, it’s a commodity; the pig is adorned with things outside its natural habitat and therefore this poem suggests that there’s an intersection between nature and humanity; etcetera.

  5. Based on these literal and abstract connotations, select the image from your list that best represents you personal feelings about the people, objects, and/or actions in this narrative. Now rewrite the poem and end only on that image without explanation. (10 min.)

Conversing Across the Chasm Exercise

An altercation concerning wives (1814)

An altercation concerning wives (1814)

Class: Beginning Poetry (Tinker Mountain Writers’ Workshop)
Genre: Poetry
Readings: Each others’ poems
Time: 30 minutes

  1. Each class member should respond to a poem written by the person seated on their right. They can argue or interrogate an idea, provide an anecdotal narrative that relates to the first person, or work associatively away from the original kernel to access something new. Participants should remember their addressee’s personality, concerns, and
  2. The next step has two variations. Students should then write a response to:
    • the response to their own poem so as to create a dialogue between the two poets, or
    • the response written by their original addressee so as to create a chain of communication.
  3. Share.