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.
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
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.
Writing Exercise 2: “Memory Piece (My Heart)”
Artworks(s): “Memory Piece (Frank O’Hara)” (1970) by Jasper Johns
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.
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.
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.
Writing Exercise: “Thank You”
- Select a single line or image from one of Jenny Johnson’s poems in In Full Velvet.
- 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.
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:
- “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman
- “For the Anniversary of My Death” by W.S. Merwin
- “On Leaving the Body to Science” by Claudia Emerson
- “Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh” by Thomas James
- “Elegy for My Sadness” by Chen Chen
- “Beyoncé Prepares a Will” by Morgan Parker
- “Someday I’ll Love Roger Reeves” by Roger Reeves
- “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong” by Ocean Vuong
Writing Exercise: “Don’t Be Afraid: Self-Elegy or Self-Celebration”
- 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.”
- 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:
- Will you write to yourself as a you or as an I?
- Are you lamenting or celebrating yourself?
- Is this a poem of greeting or goodbye?
- 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?
- 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?
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:
- “The Near Transitive Properties of the Political and Poetical: Erasure” by Solmaz Sharif.
- “Reaching Guantánamo” by Solmaz Sharif.
- Look at “The Race Within Erasure,” a Powerpoint presentation by Robin Coste Lewis, with special attention to her erasure, The Pickaninny Wins!
- “Will There Be More Than One Questioner?” by Nick Lantz.
- “We Redacted Everything That’s Not a Verifiably True Statement from Trump’s Time Interview About Truth” on Jezebel.
Writing Exercise: “Dear ”
- Write a letter in the persona of a loved one of someone imprisoned. Say everything this person needs to say in your initial draft.
- 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.
- 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.
- Writing journal, with plenty of paper and/or your laptop
- A previous draft of one of your poems
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:
- Heavy Enjambment
- Sentence Fragment
- Lack of Punctuation
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.
In this writing exercise inspired by Solmaz Sharif’s Look, students will explore using found language in order to create compelling dramatic situations.
Writing Exercise: “Look It Up”
- Select 4–5 words from Solmaz Sharif’s poems in Look. (These could be the DOD terms in small caps or her language.)
- Look up each of these words in the Oxford English Dictionary, available through the Taylor Memorial Library. Take notes on each of the definitions. Reflect: Did you know all of these definitions? Do you use these words differently?
- Write down these 4–5 words. What dramatic situation would include all of them?
- Free-write a poem in which you use all 4–5 words. Try to use the words in such a way that they make sense for this dramatic situation.
- Share. (Let’s type some of them up in the Group Notes document.)