Writing Exercise: Body Memory

Note: My Grad Poetry Workshop, which is made up of five first-year and five second-year students, wrapped discussion on Felicia Rose Chavez’s The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop yesterday. The following exercise allows students to practice moderating their own workshops (#2); to attempt an iteration exercise, which I assigned on the advice of Chen Chen (#4–6); to negotiate line breaks (#5); and to connect their bodies to the writing process (#7–9). As it was our second meeting of the semester, it was also a fabulous opportunity for the students to get to know one another and build trust prior to their first workshop next week. The exercise likewise prepares them to read Kazim Ali’s “On the Line,” which I assigned as homework. Ali writes, “we should talk about the line separate from [what] came before it or after it.” The outcomes: insight into sound and lineation, as well as lots of laughter.

“To be alive, you must exercise mobility, engage the senses, and laugh every now and then….For so much of our lives we’re schooled into stillness”

—Felicia Rose Chavez, The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop (pg. 75)

  1. Split into pairs. (A first year with a second year.)
  1. Take turns reading aloud your poems to one another. After doing so, share with your partner what you hoped (or are hoping) to do with the poem; your partner must engage in deep listening (not talking) as you tell them about the poem, answering some or all of the following questions:
    1. Where did you get the idea of this poem? From an image, a phrase, a concept? Something else?
    2. When did you write the poem? Under what conditions did you write the poem?
    3. Did the poem go where you expected it to go or not? Do you think this is a good thing for the poem? Why or why not?
    4. What are things you really like about this poem? (Be as specific as possible here and really go in for celebrating yourself and your craft!)
    5. How would you like to change the poem in its next draft?
  1. Now, you’re going to read aloud your poems to one another for a second time. After doing so, you and your partner will locate approximately six words in a row that are the most musical, that have the best “flow.” The passage doesn’t have to be a full sentence and it doesn’t have to make “sense.” Circle them.
  1. Copy out the passage in your daily writing journal at least five times as it appears in the poem (with original line breaks). 
I wrote on the board an example from one of my poem drafts
  1. Now, write the passage another five times; this time, add in line breaks in five new ways. (You can use virgules, i.e. “ / ”, to indicate line breaks if you’re having a hard time formatting it as you would in a word processor.)
Line break play
  1. Return to your partner. Read aloud the original version of the lines and all five new versions, emphasizing the line breaks through pauses or changes in your vocal intonation. Discuss:
    1. How do the lines change when they are broken in new ways? Does the meaning change? The tone? The rhythm?
    2. What sounds really catch your attention? 
    3. Outside of the context of your original poem, what is your favorite version of the passage? Which one engages your body the most? Its sense of dance and rhythm?
  1. Create a series of movements that “act out” the passage, its rhythm, and its line breaks. These movements can be as literal or abstract to the text as you like—just make sure to be as creative and silly as possible!
  1. Practice the movements, speaking aloud the words as you do them until you have them memorized.
  1. Perform them for the class, which will cheer you enthusiastically!

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.

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.