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.
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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.