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

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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.

Imitation, Imitation Exercise

Minerva by Elihu Vedder (1897)
Frontispiece of The Colours of Animals by Edward Bagnall Poulton, showing Mimicry in South African Butterflies (1890)

Class: Beginning Poetry (Tinker Mountain Writers’ Workshop)
Genre: Poetry
Readings: Their selection
Time: 50+ minutes

Ask that the students bring in one of their favorite poems. (My students brought in “Meditation at Lagunitas” by Robert Hass, “Fever 103°” by Sylvia Plath, and “[Carrion Comfort]” by Gerard Manley Hopkins.) Have each student read the selection to the class and lead a discussion on the poem’s features, movement, and form.

Consider some of the ways one can write imitations:
  1. Imitate all or many of the strategies of that specific poem.
  2. Imitate general features of the poet’s style.
  3. Write a poem in the persona of the poet. (His/her general voice, not just the voice on the page.)
  4. Do a loose imitation using one element of the original poem. This could even include response poems, poems with lines of that poet, etcetera.
Then have them do the following exercise:
  1. Write an imitation of the poem you brought in. (15 min.)
  2. Write an imitation of one of the other poems. (15 min.)
  3. Discuss. What imitation strategy did you choose? Why? Did you find yourself more able to imitate your selection or another’s? Why? Which imitation was hardest? Can you more easily discern some of your own fundamental orientation to language, ticks, go-to strategies, etcetera through the imitation process?

One Motivation, Five Poems Exercise

Minerva by Elihu Vedder (1897)
Minerva by Elihu Vedder (1897)

Class: Beginning Poetry (Tinker Mountain Writers’ Workshop)
Genre: Poetry
Readings: A tailored poetry packet
Time: 50+ minutes

Think about a poem that you’ve been wanting to write for a long time but haven’t been able to successfully accomplish. It works best if this is a personal memory or other narrative.

Discuss each of the following approaches and the read their respective suggested poems:

  1. Anecdotal: A simple story in one setting, usually in plain speech. See “Black” by Alan Shapiro.
  2. Imperative: A second person address with instructions, based on an extended metaphor or literal. See “How to Live in a Trap” by Eleanor Ross Taylor.
  3. Meta: A response to an event that takes into account writing’s inability to fully capture the event. See “Photograph of September 11th” by Wislawa Szymborska and “The streetlamp above me darkens” by Tarfia Faizullah.
  4. Figurative: A characterization of an event or action through metaphor. See “Boy Breaking Glass” by Gwendolyn Brooks.
  5. Collage: A poem that uses multiple of these approaches and usually isn’t afraid to associate away from and back again to the original motivation. See “My Story In a Late Style of Fire” by Larry Levis of “Across the Sea” by Dana Levin.

After discussing each approach, take ten minutes to write your narrative using only that approach. Move on to the next one and repeat.

At the end, ask yourself: How did the poem change? Did the poem become more or less imaginative? Which one do I like the most? Why? Share.

In Medias Res Exercise

Belauscht (1874) by Carl Wilhelm Hübner

Class: Intro to Creative Writing
Genre: Drama
Readings: Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Time: 45+ minutes

1. Have students pair off. One person per group should be in charge of transcription.
2. Leave the classroom. Take the students to a common area on campus like the student union, cafeteria, or the quad. Once you are there, have the groups split up and walk through the crowd. Encourage them not to linger in any one place. They should write down the most compelling and/or bizarre sentence they hear someone say. Examples: “I ate a whole pound of Swedish Fish and it cost me like 35 dollars!” “How old are you?” (10 minutes.)
3. Return to the classroom. Have each group pass their transcribed line to the group on their right.
4. On the board, write down a pair of character roles in a specific setting for each group. I gave my classes the following character/setting sets:

a. Two waste disposal workers on the back of a garbage truck.
b. A veterinarian and the owner of a pet in the exam room.
c. The host and a contestant on the game show.
d. A teenager with driver’s ed instructor in the car.
e. A police officer and an arrested person in cruiser.
f. A priest and a congregant in confession booth.
g. Two single people on a speed date at a bar.

5. Each group should read aloud the line passed to them. Assign character/setting sets to the groups based on these lines. Play it safe and assign the characters/setting to lines that seem natural, or see what happens if you make unexpected pairings. (Hint: Students often have more fun with unexpected pairings.)
6. The line provided will serve as the first line of the scene involving their assigned character/setting sets. Each student should assume the role of one of the characters. Each will respond to their partner’s line by passing the paper back and forth. (30 min.)
7. Share.

This exercise allows students to work collaboratively to create a narrative through dialogue, a skill that many of my students cite as the hardest thing to accomplish in their first plays. Additionally, their time in the crowd locates them in conversational rhythm and dynamics so that the information about the plot doesn’t seem unnatural to the conversation. The assigned lines provide them with an inciting action as well as a clue toward their new character’s personality. The hope is that once they are writing on their own, they will be able to recreate these investigative processes on characters of their own.

Archaeology Exercise

Woman putting a letter in a post box, United States of America.
Caption: “FOR YOU, MY DARLING. COPYRIGHT BY A.L. SIMPSON 1909.”

Class: Writing Out of the Ordinary
Genre: Poetry/Nonfiction
Readings: Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely
Time: 40 minutes

I place many objects in the table or assign them at random to students. All of the objects are old: postcards, advertisements, mugshots, taxidermy instructions, a dried beaver face, etc.

1. Select a piece of ephemera from the center of the table.
2. Describe the object. What does it look like? What is/was it used for? How old is it? (5 min.)
3. Who owned this article? Who encountered it? Speculate on their perception/reaction would have been to the object. Would the object have some special importance to them? Would they have ignored the object? Describe a situation in which the object was previously encountered. Is it similar or different to your initial reaction? (10 min.)
4. Have you ever encountered something like this before? Make parallels to your experience with similar objects. Ex. If it’s an advertisement, talk about an experience or reaction to another advertisement. (10 min.)
5. Is there a public and/or private issue that this object and your memory causes you to consider? Does it make you think about identity? The ephemeral nature of life? A shift in culture or fashion? Cruelty? Art? Talk us through your thought process. (10 min.)
6. After thinking about this object in the context of speculation, memory, and meditation, has the object changed in meaning for you? Do you appreciate it more or less? (5 min.)

***Bonus step: Now switch objects with the person on your right. Describe this object. How does this new object compare or contrast to your old object? Does it raise similar issues?