Writing Exercise: “Of Violins and Violence” for Poetry Workshop

With a subscription to Poetry magazine as one of the required texts for my Poetry Workshop class, students will have read “Violins” by Rowan Ricardo Phillips prior to completing this exercise, “Of Violins and Violence,” based around the tension between similar sounding words.

“How to Become a Writer” Exercise

For the second day of class in ENG 2031: Craft of Prose, students will begin the day by reading an excerpt from Lorrie Moore’s piece “How to Become a Writer” and then write directions for themselves about becoming a writer in this “How to Become a Writer” Exercise on Google Drive.

Introductions and the Alias of Imagination for First Day of Craft of Prose

Note: In an effort to keep this blog updated regularly, I’m going to be storing my writing exercises and handouts in my Google Drive. I will post these exercises as a link here.

This single document includes two components:

  1. An introduction questionnaire, allowing students to tell me a little about them, their needs, and their preferences.
  2. A Writing Exercise in which students introduce themselves by creating a fake or exaggerated writer’s bio or acknowledgments page, titled “Alias of Imagination.”

Students will read two of Michael Martone’s flash CNF pieces titled “Contributor’s Notes” and “Acknowledgments” by Paul Theroux. This should be a fun way for students to tell one another about themselves while exercising their skills on the page.

Poetry Reading Calibration and a Writing Exercise for the First Day of Poetry Workshop

Note: In an effort to keep this blog updated regularly, I’m going to be storing my writing exercises and handouts in my Google Drive. I will post these exercises as a link here.

This single document includes three different components:

  1. An introduction questionnaire, allowing students to tell me a little about them, their needs, and their preferences.
  2. A Poetry Reading Calibration Exercise, featuring Ari Banias’s poem “A Sunset.”
  3. A Writing Exercise titled “Home” after the Safiya Sinclair poem by the same name.

I’m giving these exercises on the first day of class in order to get a better sense of where the students are in terms of their poetry knowledge and reading ability. Additionally, I wanted to introduce them to some terminology (e.g. line breakstoneconcrete details, etc.) that will make it easier for them to talk about poetry throughout the course.

 

“Rivers Into Seas”: Line Into Meaning

Small outboard stranded on a sandbar in the Colorado River, ca.1900

Genre: Poetry
Purpose:
To push the boundaries of the line, sentence, and punctuation to add subtext and texture to poems
Readings:
Lynda Hull, Claudia Emerson, Ocean Vuong, Tarfia Faizullah, Jamaal May, Ross Gay

*This prompt was given to Mary Szybist’s workshop at the 2015 Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop

In this prompt, I’d like for you to explore the ways in which you can complicate your poems with subtext and refine them with dramatic, imagistic, and rhythmic textures through the relationship between the line/form and the sentence.

  1. Write a heavily enjambed poem about deceit, doublespeak, a fallible memory, or letting someone down easy. Each line of this poem must make its own kind of sense separate from the sentence(s) to which it belongs. Each line may support, nuance, or buck against its parent syntactical meaning(s). Take a look at Lynda Hull’s “Rivers Into Seas.” In order to examine this phenomenon, it might be helpful to read the poem for its sentences initially, and then reread it line-by-line with an exaggerated pause at each break. What lines assert themselves as a complete thought, sentence, or image? How does that relate to the syntax?
  2. Write a poem that takes the first prompt further by including little or no punctuation. Choose whether or not you’d like to introduce alternatives to traditional punctuation, through in-line white space (also called visual caesuras) as found in Claudia Emerson’s “Midwife”; line breaks, like those in Ocean Vuong’s “Ode to Masturbation”; capitalization at the start of sentences; or some combination. (Keep in mind that in-line white space also can be used as a means to emphasize certain images or phrases; to modulate the reader’s pace; or to imitate an action taking place in the poem.)
  3. Write a poem in two columns. The columns must make (a certain) sense if read together and apart. See “Aubade Ending with the Death of a Mosquito” by Tarfia Faizullah and “I Do Have a Seam” by Jamaal May.
  4. Write a poem in one sentence or run-on sentence that uses the line as a break for breath that befits the action of the poem or the way in which the speaker might tell the story. See Ross Gay’s “For Some Slight I Can’t Quite Recall.”

Vocation Means “To Call”: On Teaching and Writing

A nurse and a surgeon, both wearing gown and mask. Etching by H.A. Freeth.  (This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom.)
A nurse and a surgeon, both wearing gown and mask. Etching by H.A. Freeth. (File via Wellcome Images.)

The plastic surgeon had thumbed three syringes of lidocaine into my cheek and made his first incision when he asked me what I teach. It was late spring 2013, and this was the first of several surgeries I’d have in the coming year and a half to remove melanoma, expand margins, and later reconstruct what another doctor called my architecture. “Oh-eh-ree,” I said, drooling-numb, but he didn’t—or pretended not to—understand. He squinted at his work, like a copyeditor examining a comma, and warbled, “Come again?”

My lips refused the consonants, especially that p, but after several gos, a few tugs on my cheek, and the doc’s distracted grafts of discernible words onto my guttural sounds (chemistry? herbology?), he gasped into a full belly laugh, the scalpel bobbing above my right eye.

I’m not sure how I would’ve made an expression then, or what it would’ve conveyed, but he caught it. “Ohh, you’re serious. Sorry, ” he switchbacked. “I just didn’t know that anyone reads that anymore, must less teaches it!”

That cosmetic surgeon, more anti-Muse than Jacob Marley, wraiths into my mind every time I encounter and attempt to answer the question Is poetry relevant?, a favorite wheelspinner among cosmopolitan op-eds. Although the doc’s latex-pinched fingers anviled my head against the exam table as he excised the mole, my shoulder devil still swaggered—Tell him, “Hey, buddy, I deal in real beauty”—but even that defense seemed to helium up the misconception that the work of poetry is delicate—lace doily stuff.

Prior to going back to clinical surgery, I’d spent thirty minutes or more with patients who were open—even loud—about their Botox and lipo treatments at the receptionist’s window. The waiting room had felt more like that of a salon or spa than a doctor’s office: all gossip, emery boards, beauty magazines, and cell phones. I’d passively protested by re-reading Ovid’s Metamorphosis. And the irony wasn’t lost on me.

Later that day, I wrote a poem that exemplifies the essential connections I’d like to make between my work as a poet and as a teacher, and, in its discussion, offers one of my student’s rebuttal to the doctor’s dismissal of poetry.

I’d like to share the poem for you now, and then I’ll illustrate some of the practical and conceptual ways teaching has nuanced my writing and clarified my feelings about poetry’s relevancy. The poem is called “Reading Ovid at the Plastic Surgeon’s” and it begins with an epigraph from Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room.”

 

Reading Ovid at the Plastic Surgeon’s

                    I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.

No one else with a book, the slick
weeklies gossip amongst

themselves on the side
tables as the ticker rolls the Dow

Jones down down down under
a profile of the marathon

bombers (the older, a boxer). Jove
argues for the removal of a race

of peoples that do not please
him: What is past

remedy calls for the surgeon’s
knife. He will take a hunk of my

cheek (cancer) and though I can’t
see mid-procedure, I imagine

the site as an apricot, bitten.
This, a survival mechanism—

romanticism. David says,
If you’re out

in public and you don’t want anyone
to talk to you, bring a book

of poetry. Even as I enter the confidence
of the room, I avoid my

reflection in the window, for there,
most of all, I see myself as only I can,

as only the eye will have me—
as light, as light alone.

I chose that Bishop quote not only because of its situational associations—she’s looking at a National Geographic while waiting on her Aunt Consuela at the dentist—but because of its implied self-assessment: if she scarcely dared to look to see what it was she was then, then we might assume she does look to see what she was, and therefore is, in the poem.

In my poem, I wind up on the notion that all we see of ourselves is really just light, something untenable and transcendent. In this way, all our memories of self and personal experience are memories of light. It makes what we witness—violence, racism, greed, the degradation of our own bodies—both less threatening (it’s just light) and more so: What are we dealing with if we’re not dealing with something that we can trap, contain?

Although “Reading Ovid at the Plastic Surgeon’s” doesn’t take on teaching as its dramatic situation, the way that Philip Levine’s “M. Degas Teaches Art and Science at Durfee Intermediate School, Detroit 1942” or Claudia Emerson’s “Student Conference” do, the poem outright invokes advice from one of my own teachers and teaching mentors—David Wojahn, whom I assisted in two classes and who served as my thesis adviser in grad school—as well as exemplifies both practical and conceptual effects on my writing of teaching, namely a shift toward musical plainspokenness and the realignment of empathy’s presence and function in my poems.

Shift in Diction

Back when I was in graduate school and my primary job was to write, David suggested that I read texts that were in, what he called, “English that isn’t English.” This meant Scots-language poets like Hugh MacDiarmid and Kathleen Jamie; the Matthew’s 1537 Bible; and early translations of the Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th-century Germanic witch prosecution manual, and the Turba Philosophorum, an early alchemical text from the 10th century. The texts’ language and, in some cases, their content reinvigorated language’s inherent mystery, that alchemical reaction between sound and meaning, and re-formed the traditional bridge between poetry and incantations, spells, etc. The effect was not unlike that of repeating a word over and over again—banana, banana, banana, banana, or, for you Tennessee Williams fans out there, “Stella! Stella!” It gestures toward the effacement of meaning and the solidification of the word into thingness apart from what it signifies. I want my poems to retain mystery, and to be both about the words and what the words convey, but many of the poems I wrote in graduate school, that later landed in my first book Signaletics, absorbed archaic, obscure, and esoteric language from my reading. Here’s a short passage from another poem that takes reading as its subject matter, titled “Reading Joyce on U.S. Flight 2309.” And, as an aside, I can’t help but wonder how much of a co-conspirator Joyce was in this dictional antiquarianism . . .

Behind you, encorona, the sun,
& I in the grass, looking up, saw a plane
insectile (without my glasses)
fly through your head
in one ear & out the other.

An illusion. The first love poems I knew were

prayers. What then of free fall’s
rash grace, wings sheared & released
into other trajectories? (Daedalus winds
the alleys, gathered as wreckage
in the arms of a harlot.)

“Encorona”: in a crown of sunlight! that nearly scientific “insectile”! These dense linguistic renderings forfeited the attention of some readers, particularly casual ones who value the kind of poetry that penetrates the blood-brain barrier of emotion in seconds flat. (My book’s emotion has more of a extended release effect, and often manifests itself as anxiety about violence in the Middle East and, closer to home, against the body and identity.) In an ultimately positive review of Signaletics, one reviewer suggested the missteps in the book were those places when I used “five-dollar words.”

I still believe this dictional maneuvering was appropriate for the project, as many of the book’s poems situate forensics or, at the very least, the body as its subject matter. The use of such diction mimicked the effect of coming to an obscure piece of “evidence” and having to make sense of it from its context. Additionally, it insists on language’s sovereign thingness—a body itself with tandem mysteries.

Although I wouldn’t go back and change a thing about that first book, I don’t think I could ever write the same poems again. Perhaps it was the death of my half brother in April 2012 followed by my diagnosis of stage-4 melanoma—really misdiagnosis, at least of its severity—in May 2013. Around the same time, however, I also began teaching with regularity, first at VCU and later as the Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College.

In the classroom, I found myself realigning my linguistic tendencies in order to make the theory and craft of writing accessible and relevant to my students. I began to value and the teachability of and to spend more time with poems my own post-gradschoolian tastes splashed the “dull as bathwater” judgment on. Suddenly plainspokenness, especially the way it subverted my students’ feelings of inferiority and gave them access to an art form that they’d previously thought archaic in and of itself, became as rich as the elaborate linguistic confections of poets like Hart Crane or H.D. I found that plainspokenness also, in its way, taught students how to read more labyrinthine sentences with totemic diction, at least in how it increased students confidence in their abilities to read poetry. One poem that I teach often—which was also taught to me—is by Belle Waring, who passed away earlier this year, that begins its first sentence in the title:

It Was My First Nursing Job

and I was stupid in it. I thought a doctor wouldn’t be unkind.
One wouldn’t wait for a laboring woman to dilate ten cm.

He’d brace one hand up his patient’s vagina,
clamp the other on her pregnant belly, and force the fetus

through an eight-centimer cervix.
She tore, of course. Bled.

Of course, I worried that content here would dispel the immersive attentions of students who find the words “vagina” and “cervix” still funny, but, on the other hand, when I include this poem in a packet, my students always say its among their favorite poems they’ve ever read. They gravitate toward its candid exposition of narrative and the speaker’s fear, not to mention the conversational asides like “of course” that make the speaking feel authentic and, arguably, intimate, as if she’s telling the story to them herself. The poem later notes with some irony that the doctor was an elder in his church and that, upon delivering a stillborn baby, he “flipped open” the blanket . . .

to let the mother view the body, according to custom.

The baby lay beside her.
He lay stretched out and still.

What a pity, the doctor said.
He seized the baby’s penis between his own forefinger and thumb.

. . .

Look, said the doctor. A little boy. Just what we wanted.
His hand, huge on the child, held the penis as if he’d found

a lovecharm hidden in his grandmother’s linen.
And then he dropped it.

The doctor leaves without telling the baby’s father, forcing the speaker, inexperienced and in shock, to deliver the news. With mostly long, end-stopped lines in couplets, the poem doesn’t look like the whittled poetic miniatures my students read in high school, and while it does use literary devices like simile, nothing feels ornamental.

This exposure to and engagement with uncoded diction and plainspokenness—that means what it says and says what it means—particularly influenced my poems about my half-brother’s death and my cancer, including “Reading Ovid at the Plastic Surgeon’s.” Too much poeticizing didn’t seem appropriate for the subject matter, and I found myself—appropriately, as my students had pushed me in this direction—wanting to tell these poems to an audience not unlike my students, who desired vulnerability in both emotion and language. Because of teaching, my relationship to language has pangeacally realigned, away from the interior and intuitive to the conversational and exploratory.

If I had written “Reading Ovid at the Plastic Surgeon’s” prior to this shift, I would’ve likely landed on a revelation of an image delivered so that the image felt estranged from the reader through a dictional obscurity, as a means to mimic the speaker’s own feelings of estrangement from her own image. Now, however, I can produce this effect without obscure diction, so that the reader doesn’t have to extrapolate what the speaker is thinking from the image but receives this information from the speaker herself: “I see myself as only I can, // as only the eye will have me— / as light, as light alone.” This, of course, means that the reader doesn’t only have to connect to the speaker intellectually but is actively acting upon an empathetic response.

Empathy and Relevancy

Teaching hasn’t only engineered technical shifts in my writing, it’s also influenced my the function of empathy in my poems.

I once had a student who balked at a short story called “Section 8” by Jaquira Díaz, a fierce rendering of a Latina girl’s struggle with juvie and her sexuality. “This isn’t relatable,” my student scoffed, “I don’t know why we’re reading it.”

At that moment, I banned the word “relatable” from my classroom, as it presupposes that all literature must appeal to all readers’ personal experiences and rejects the possibility that it’s the reader’s job to do that relating. (And it is the reader’s job!) I likewise vowed that all of my class texts would expose students to a variety of voices and backgrounds, as a means to honor Mark Doty’s notion that “Literature makes other people more real to us.”

As I’ve read more diverse texts with my students, our conversations include both craft issues and social concerns. In my fall Writing Poetry class, my students and I looked at poems that were in conversation with the events in Ferguson, poems like Jake Adam York’s “Postscript,” Lucille Clifton’s “Jasper Texas, 1998,” and Danez Smith’s “Alternate Names for Black Boys.” When one student, whose primary class persona was charismatic Devil’s Advocate, then said that he felt that poetry wasn’t relevant and couldn’t enact any change, several other students, all young women, jumped in before I could propose a counter-argument. “If poetry can help one person understand someone else a little bit better, it matters. It’s relevant,” my student N. insisted.

It’s with this in mind that I take to the classroom and the page, with the hope that I demonstrate empathy and generosity in my own work, bridging the gap with my poems rather than delineating the distance, just as my students have done so in our classroom discussions. I believe that my newest poems, those in my forthcoming second collection Groundspeed and my in-progress hybrid book Bluff, make the personal political, after my student’s idea and with the hope that, like one poem teaching us how to read another, knowing me through my poems will help readers know one another.

“Ornithology” Poetry Analysis and Imitation Exercise

Class: Introduction to Creative Writing (The College of William & Mary)
Genre:
Poetry
Purpose:
To become more scrupulous readers of poetry

In order to prepare my Intro to Creative Writing students for talking more about poetry with regard to the author’s intentionality before their poetry workshop, I’m asking them to read and examine the poem “Ornithology” by Lynda Hull. They then have to answer questions about specifics in the poem. I’ve provided these questions via track changes in Microsoft Word:

Ornithology Poetry Analysis Exercise screenshot - 1 Ornithology Poetry Analysis Exercise screenshot - 2 Ornithology Poetry Analysis Exercise screenshot - 3

Once they respond to these questions on their own, we will then discuss the possibilities. My hope is that they will see the value in discussing the possibilities rather than strive to make proclamations about what the poem is or what it’s doing.

After they complete the analysis, I’m going to ask them to try to write an imitation of at least ten lines (the formal unit that’s repeated throughout the poem) with special attention to sound and rhythm.

“Babylon: A Place You’ve Only Heard Of” Exercise

"Abbildung der Stadt Babylon" ("Picture of the City of Babylon"),  Erasmus Francisci, copper engraving on paper, 1680
“Abbildung der Stadt Babylon” (“Picture of the City of Babylon”), Erasmus Francisci, copper engraving on paper, 1680

Class: Introduction to Creative Writing (The College of William & Mary)
Genre: Nonfiction
Purpose: To examine how place becomes setting and to cultivate an “outsider’s” point of view
Readings: “Goodbye to All That,” “Babylon,” and “No Man’s Land” from Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land and “Goodbye to All That” by Joan Didion

 

  1. Think about a city or country that you’ve never heard of but have never been to. This can be a real (Saigon), mythic (Troy), or imagined place. Describe what you know or imagine to know about this place. Write for 5 minutes.
  2. Now think about your hometown. Describe it as you remember it, including the homes, the landscape, the stores, the values, etc. Write for 5 minutes.
  3. Write a paragraph that considers similarities between the place you’ve never been and your hometown. Write for 3 minutes.
  4. Is there something notable or notorious about your hometown? Write for 3 minutes about how outsiders might view your hometown. Is there something unique to your hometown and therefore strange to outsiders? Would an outsider have prejudices against your hometown? Write for 3 minutes.
  5. How might you be like the outsider with the place you’ve never been? Write a meditation on these similarities for 5 minutes.

Generative Poetry Workshop Proposal and Call For Help

I really want to teach a generative, one-week intensive creative writing workshop about composition practices. I’ve even written a course description/proposal, with a (rough, working) title:

Composition: What Poems Are Made Of, How Poems Are Made. A generative workshop in which students will draft their own poems using various methods. From composing aloud to writing by hand, typing on a typewriter to typing on a computer, scribbling on butcher paper to limiting oneself to a postcard, we’ll consider how each practice produces different effects on the page. Does composing aloud make the poem more musical? Does a word processor give us greater mobility across the page? For guidance, we’ll start by reading process narratives and poems by published poets, and consider how writing practices and technologies have altered poetry’s content and form.

I think the course would be really wonderful for discovering how our writing processes appeal to different parts of the brain. Students can take these exercises back to their normal writing practice, where they can try out different forms, effects, and content. Who knows, it might be an antidote to “writer’s block.” It will also provide me with an opportunity to engage in this approach of teaching poetry and provide me with insight into using drafting mediums as a pedagogical tool.

Does anyone know of any organizations looking for proposals for short-term intensives? Where would you pitch the idea? I’m thinking it might work best in a non-academic environment.

“Nobody Knows Your Name” Exercise

Kabuki Marquee (1822) by Utagawa Toyokuni I (Japan, 1769-1825)

Class: Introduction to Creative Writing (The College of William & Mary)
Genre: Nonfiction
Purpose: To explore the self as a character and subject
Readings: Chapters 8 (“Creative Nonfiction”) in Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing and “Nobody Knows Your Name” of Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land

Do you know the story of your name? Its meaning and its history? Do you know why your parents named you what they named you? Are there other famous people with your name? Is your name particularly popular or obscure? What does your last name say about your ancestry, if anything? What are misconceptions about your name? Is your name easily mispronounced or misspelled; if so, give us a narrative about someone getting your name wrong. Are their misconceptions about you based on your name? How would address those who make judgments on a person based on their name? If you don’t know what your name means, speculate and/or invent your own personal meaning for your name based on your experiences, the sounds in your name, etc.. Do you define your name or does your name define you? Write for 10 minutes.