Text & Context: A Poetry Workshop at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

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Text & Context participants sharing their new poem drafts in the Resnick Rotunda. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Last night I taught Text & Context, a poetry workshop sponsored by the Philadelphia Poetry Collaboration, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art‘s Final Fridays: Rebel, Rebel night. I prepared a handout with four poetry exercises inspired by pieces in the modern art wing of the museum for registered and drop-in participants. We had a total of twenty-seven participants, with the youngest participant at 7 years old. Although the exercises were meant for adults, they were easily adapted to younger participants, especially the acrostic and self-portrait poems.

I have included the writing exercises below, with photos of the motivating artworks. Because we only had two hours for the workshop, we were unable to get to the fourth and final writing exercise, inspired by Marcel Duchamp, called “Readymades.”

Writing Exercise 1: “Acrostic to What”
Artwork(s): “According to What” (1964) by Jasper Johns
Room: 177
Time: 20+ Minutes

Jasper Johns (1930– ) introduces words into this work by painting them on the canvas and allowing their ghosts to haunt the backdrop. In this writing exercise, I’d like for you to select one word from this piece and free-write an acrostic poem. In A Poet’s Glossary, Edward Hirsch contextualizes and defines acrostic poetry as “From the Greek: ‘at the tip of the verse.’ A poem in which the initial letters of each line have a meaning when read vertically. The acrostic reads down as well as across.” Here is a very quick (and unpolished example):

Just this: the gift-hibiscus
Anguished by the cold context of
Soil in a slow thaw, spring’s unguent tongue.
Poignant is a word that implies the poisoned well
Emotion, only it needs a human eye—
Raw and farsighted, mirrored to the about-face of desire.

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“According to What” by Jasper Johns, 1964. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Writing Exercise 2: “Memory Piece (My Heart)”
Artworks(s): “Memory Piece (Frank O’Hara)” (1970) by Jasper Johns
Room: 177
Time: 20+ Minutes

In 1967, Jasper Johns met Frank O’Hara, a poet of the New York School, art critic, and assistant curator at MOMA. Let’s read O’Hara’s poem “My Heart” and locate some visually associative connections between the poem’s images and Johns’s sculpture, “Memory Piece (Frank O’Hara).”

This poem is part self-celebration, part anti-apology, with a finalizing dash of ars poetica, that is, a poem about writing poetry. Ultimately, however, it is a self-portrait, one that fills in the speaker’s personality by degrees. Could we, however, think about Johns’s sculpture as a kind of figurative portrait of O’Hara? If so, what does the artwork imply about its subject?

Free-write a poem titled “Memory Piece (My Heart)” and use the epigraph, “After O’Hara and Johns.” In this poem, I’d like for you to create a self-portrait that is literal, as in O’Hara’s “I wear workshirts to the opera,” but also figurative, as this sculpture of Johns. What images describe you without describing you? Try to move back and forth between literal and figurative statements. Here’s a model of these two alternating moves:

All of my clothes have
at least one missing
button. Lately I’ve been a zipper
broken off its track. I drink
coffee on an empty stomach and peel
a rind on a clementine to find
rind upon rind underneath.
I am bad at self-portraits
because I have trouble looking
the stranger the mirror makes
me in the eye.

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Poetry Workshop: Text & Context participants writing in gallery 177. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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“Memory Piece (Frank O’Hara)” by Jasper Johns, 1970. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Writing Exercise 3: “Impress Me”
Artworks(s): “Sunflowers” (1888 or 1889) by Vincent Van Gogh
Room: 161, Resnick Rotunda
Time: 20+ Minutes

Think of something beautiful, startling, or grotesque you’ve recently seen from which you couldn’t turn away. It could be a flock of white birds rising from a snowy field or a deer skull on the side of the road, a clear vase on a basement shelf in which a spider has built a web or an evening shadow that crossed over a beloved’s face. Take five minutes to jot down every concrete detail you remember from that scene, no matter how small or insignificant.

Hirsch writes that “The poetic image is always delivered to us through words. Poetry engages our capacity to make mental pictures, but it also taps a place in our minds that has little to do with direct physical perceptions.” I would go further and insist that images are those tangible details in a poem that have extra meaning—what we might called “resonance”—than just their thisness, their thereness. They are the glittery surface images on a dark, deep well. That dark deep well contains our memories, the primary source of our meaning-making.

Read “In a Station of the Metro” by Ezra Pound, which emphasizes the image as the crucial and working element of a poem.

Go back through your draft and interrogate each and every detail: which ones are significant? Which are superfluous? Which details imply other details? Cut all those details that are just facts about that scene, and leave all of those details that ascend to the level of images. Remove all explanation, what we would call exposition, out of the poem. Allow the images to stand alone.

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“Sunflowers” by Vincent van Gogh, 1888 or 1889. Philadephia Museum of Art.

 I would like to thank Steven Kleinman and Sarah Blake from the Philadelphia Poetry Collaboration and Jenni Drozdek and Claire Oosterhoudt of the Philadelphia Museum of Art for all their work supporting and organizing this event. Special thanks also to Alexis Apfelbaum of PPC and Justine of the PMA for their on-the-ground assistance, organization, and knowledge.

Craft of Poetry Writing Exercise: “Thank You”

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Writing Exercise: “Thank You”

  1. Select a single line or image from one of Jenny Johnson’s poems in In Full Velvet.
  2. Free write a poem that begins with this line or image co-opted from Johnson. This can be phrased exactly the same way that she phrases it, or you can change it up to best suit your own poem. Remember that this is a starting point, and you should feel free to move away from this inciting image.

Poetry Writing Exercise: “Don’t Be Afraid: Self-Elegy or Self-Celebration” for Master Class I Have Been a Pleasure: On the Self-Elegy and Celebration

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Today, before a reading, I will teach a poetry master class at Warren County Community College called I Have Been a Pleasure: On the Self-Elegy and Celebration. With a handout, we will begin by considering and reconsidering the definitions of elegy, praise poems, and ode from Edward Hirsch’s A Poet’s Glossary, making connections between each of these forms and their motivations, and then reading the following poems:

  1. “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman
  2. “For the Anniversary of My Death” by W.S. Merwin
  3. “On Leaving the Body to Science” by Claudia Emerson
  4. “Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh” by Thomas James
  5. “Elegy for My Sadness” by Chen Chen
  6. “Beyoncé Prepares a Will” by Morgan Parker
  7. “Someday I’ll Love Roger Reeves” by Roger Reeves
  8. “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong” by Ocean Vuong

 

Writing Exercise: “Don’t Be Afraid: Self-Elegy or Self-Celebration”

  1. Title your poem “For the Anniversary of My Death (After Merwin),” “Elegy for My Sadness (After Chen),” “[Your Name] Prepares a Will (After Parker),” or “Someday I’ll Love [Your Name.”
  2. Free-write a poem borrowing the dramatic situation from one of the poems we have read today, using a similar title in homage to that poet. A couple of considerations:
    1. Will you write to yourself as a you or as an I?
    2. Are you lamenting or celebrating yourself?
    3. Is this a poem of greeting or goodbye?
    4. If you are writing a self-elegy, are you elegizing your whole self or only a part? A time period? A sense of self? A place? Another person?
    5. If you are writing a self-celebration, are you performing the act of Narcissus looking into the pool or is there something more potent beneath the surface at which you’re really looking?
  3. Share.

Erasure and Revision Exercise: “Dear ________”

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Students in my online, 24PearlStreet “Every Phantom // A Story: Erasure and Revision” course explored erasure as a political and social justice act and then completed “Dear       ,” an erasive poetry exercise, last week after reading the following assignments:

  1. “The Near Transitive Properties of the Political and Poetical: Erasure” by Solmaz Sharif.
  2. “Reaching Guantánamo” by Solmaz Sharif.
  3. Look at “The Race Within Erasure,” a Powerpoint presentation by Robin Coste Lewis, with special attention to her erasure, The Pickaninny Wins!
  4. “Will There Be More Than One Questioner?” by Nick Lantz.
  5. “We Redacted Everything That’s Not a Verifiably True Statement from Trump’s Time Interview About Truth” on Jezebel.

 

Writing Exercise: “Dear               ”

  1. Write a letter in the persona of a loved one of someone imprisoned. Say everything this person needs to say in your initial draft.
  2. Print off the poem, and act the part of the censor. With a Sharpie or dark pen, strike out passages that seem to pose pertinent and specific information.
  3. Post the original poem and the censored version, along with a paragraph-long reflection that considers which version is more evocative, more like a poem.

Erasure and Revision Writing Exercise: “Love Poem Lost”

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The Heracles Papyrus (Oxford, Sackler Library, Oxyrhynchus Pap. 2331), a fragment of 3rd century Greek manuscript of a poem about the Labors of Heracles.

Last week I had my 24PearlStreet Erasure and Revision students burn, soak, and rip up handwritten copies of a new love poem. I called these “environmental erasures,” inspired— or, rather, after—Sappho’s surviving verses on papyrus fragments. Here are the directions:

“Love Poem Lost”

  1. 1. Draft a poem addressed to a (real or imagined) lost love. This can be a romantic love or a love based in friendship, someone once known or a teenage celebrity crush.
  2. Write out by hand or print three copies of the poem, and then perform the following acts of environmental erasure, taking pictures along the way:
    – Burn: Go into a safe, open environment and hold a match or lighter up to strategic places on the page.
    – Soak: Use water, wine, coffee, vinegar, or some other liquid to ruin or occlude portions of the page. (Works best on free-flowing, not ball-point, pen ink.)
    – Rip: Tear up the poem into quarters. “Lose” at least two of these quarters.
  3. Post pictures from each act of erasure, along with paragraph-long reflection about the process. What happened to your poems in each of these environmental erasures? What was brought out? What was subverted?

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

 

Craft of Poetry Writing Exercise: “Exercising It Out”

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Students’ Materials

  • Writing journal, with plenty of paper and/or your laptop
  • A previous draft of one of your poems

Room Setup
Six “stations” will be set up at even intervals around the room, each with its own set of instructions. They will be identified by the following names:

  1. Anaphora
  2. Heavy Enjambment
  3. Sentence Fragment
  4. Lack of Punctuation
  5. Cut
  6. Splice

Instructions
There will be six rounds of writing, each lasting 10 minutes. For the first round, Group 1 will be at Station 1: “Anaphora,” Group 2 at Station 2: “Heavy Enjambment,” etc. For subsequent rounds, the groups will rotate to new stations in numerical order. Students should have their previous poem draft and writing notebook at each station. Upon arriving at a station, each group member should read and follow the instructions on the card. After completing the assignment, you should have revised your previous draft into a whole new poem. If there’s time, each student should share their new, revised poem.

Station 1: Anaphora
Read your poem draft, and circle a phrase that is the most charged, most crucial to your poem. Re-write the poem and introduce a repetition of this phrase or syntactical unit. Read Joy Harjo’s “She Had Some Horses” for an example.

Station 2: Heavy Enjambment
Locate all of the end-stopped lines in your poem and circle them. Remove half of those end-stopped lines by breaking the line elsewhere in the sentence and thereby introducing enjambment. Take a look at Ross Gay’s “Love, I’m Done With You” for an example; pay special attention to incidence of enjambment in the first seven lines.

Station 3: Sentence Fragment
Turn at least two complete sentences in your poem into sentence fragments. See Chen Chen’s “Self-Portrait as So Much Potential” for an example of a poem that employs many sentence fragments.

Station 4: Lack of Punctuation
Remove the punctuation in all or half your poem, like Morgan Parker in “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” or “If You Are Over Staying Woke”  respectively.

Station 5: Cut
The poet Jean Valentine tapes her poems up on her door after she initially drafts them. Every time she passes the poem, she cuts one word. In the next ten minutes, cut at least five words from your poem. Read her poem “God of Rooms” for inspiration.

Station 6: Splice
Steal 1–2 lines full or partial lines from a group member’s poem. Try to make them work in the dramatic situation of your poem. Check out Matthew Olzmann’s “Letter Beginning with Two Lines by Czesław Miłosz” as an example.