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.

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 Discussion Exercise: “What Is a Poem? What Is Poetry?”

Note: In this in-class discussion exercise, my ENG 2030 students were able to interrogate the questions “what is poetry?” and “what is a poem?” by looking at different texts, some poetic and some religious and some musical, in order to answer the question. The links to the texts are below the directions.

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  • A traditional Irish blessing.

May the road rise up to meet you.

May the wind always be at your back.

May the sun shine warm upon your face,

and rains fall soft upon your fields.

  • These passages of religious texts (Qu’ran and Bible).

And until we meet again,

May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

Have you considered him who turned away?

And gave a little, and held back?

Does he possess knowledge of the unseen, and can therefore foresee?

Or was he not informed of what is in the Scrolls of Moses?

And of Abraham, who fulfilled?

That no soul bears the burdens of another soul.

And that the human being attains only what he strives for.

And that his efforts will be witnessed.

Then he will be rewarded for it the fullest reward.

And that to your Lord is the finality.

And that it is He who causes laughter and weeping.

And that it is He who gives death and life.

 

Return, O LORD, deliver my soul: oh save me for thy mercies’ sake.

For in death there is no remembrance of thee: in the grave who shall give thee thanks?

I am weary with my groaning; all the night make I my bed to swim; I water my couch with my tears.

Mine eye is consumed because of grief; it waxeth old because of all mine enemies.

Depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity; for the LORD hath heard the voice of my weeping.

The LORD hath heard my supplication; the LORD will receive my prayer.

Let all mine enemies be ashamed and sore vexed: let them return and be ashamed suddenly.

 

 

 

  • Benjamin Bagby performing excerpts from Beowulf with harp accompaniment:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fall 2016 Required Texts & Course Descriptions

ENG 2015: Poetry Workshop

American poet C.D. Wright once wrote: “If I wanted to understand a culture, my own for instance . . . I would turn to poetry first. For it is my confirmed bias that the poets remain the most ‘stunned by existence,’ the most determined to redeem the world in words.” In this course, we will hold poetry to this noble standard, as an amplifier for the voices in our culture and an invocatory rendering of our world. In doing so, I’ll ask you to not only read and write poetry but also begin to look at your surroundings as a poet would. This requires close examination of images, scrutiny of your thoughts and feelings about subject matter, and consideration for other points of view. Additionally, you will be asked to think deeply about language, in terms of its meanings, its sounds, its rhythms, and its forms. You should bring to this class a hard work ethic supported by curiosity and generosity. As a means of introduction to the craft of poetry, students will submit original poems for workshop, a collaborative discussion about writing techniques and their effects on readers.  In addition to workshop, you will be asked to engage with the writing of contemporary poets, to read like a writer would. I’ve chosen Poetry magazine as our required text so that you will have a lens through which to examine the current landscape of American poetry and to see that even today poets are still trying to “redeem the world in words.”

Required Texts

  1. Hirsch, Edward. A Poet’s Glossary. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. ISBN: 978-0151011957.
  2. Poetry magazine student subscription, available at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/subscribe

 

ENG 2016OL: Online Prose Workshop

This course will focus on the prose forms of the short story and personal essay, and emphasize drafting and revision. Students will respond to published prose and write their own pieces for workshop, a collaborative discussion about the effects of a writer’s choices on readers. You should bring to this class a hard work ethic supported by curiosity and generosity. We will base our discussions on how texts work rather than what they mean, after Francine Prose’s ideal of “reading like a writer.” We will use Megan Mayhew Bergman’s collection of short stories, Almost Famous Women, and Zadie Smith’s collection of essays, Changing My Mind, as a touchstone for learning writing skills and discovering genre conventions. My approach to teaching writing is founded on the belief that our writing skills must be practiced and cultivated, and that one must continually challenge one’s aesthetics, habits, and concerns throughout one’s writing life in order to write anything of consequence to one’s readers and, perhaps more importantly, one’s self.

Required Texts

  1. Bergman, Megan Mayhew. Almost Famous Women.  Scribner, 2015. 256 pages. ISBN: 978-1476788814.
  2. Smith, Zadie. Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. Penguin, 2010. 320 pages. ISBN: 978-0143117957.

 

ENG 2031: Craft of Prose

In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan that “the city must never be confused with the words that describe it.” In this course, we will shoot high and aim to write so richly and uniquely about our fictional worlds that they will be rendered in our readers’ imaginations as palpable, the words and places indistinguishable, symbiotic, “real.” We will take as our lodestars a number of texts, including Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a short story collection by Centenary’s fall 2016 visiting author Megan Mayhew Bergman, and one of the Harry Potter novels. We will translate these immersive reading experiences into writing skills through discussion, exercises, and workshop. Several times throughout the semester, students will turn in original writing for workshop, a collaborative discussion about writing techniques and their effects on readers, and later revise one of the pieces using the comments received in workshop. Additionally, we will play host to Centenary’s Fall 2016 visiting writer, Megan Mayhew Bergman, and prepare accordingly. You should bring to this class a hard work ethic supported by curiosity and generosity. We will base our discussions on how texts work rather than what they mean, after Francine Prose’s ideal of “reading like a writer.” My approach to teaching writing is founded on the belief that our writing skills must be practiced and cultivated, and that one must continually challenge one’s aesthetics, habits, and concerns throughout one’s writing life in order to write anything of consequence to one’s readers and, perhaps more importantly, one’s self.

Texts and Supplies

  1. Bergman, Megan Mayhew. Almost Famous Women.  Scribner, 2015. 256 pages. ISBN: 978-1476788814.*
  2. Calvino, Italo. Invisible Cities. Harcourt, 1978. 165 pages. ISBN: 978-0156453806. +
  3. Everett, Percival. I Am Not Sidney Poitier. Graywolf Press, 2009. 234 pages. ISBN: 978-1555975272. +
  4. Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Scholastic Paperbacks, 2002. 752 pages. ISBN: 978-0439139601.*
  5. Russell, Karen. Vampires in the Lemon Grove: And Other Stories. Vintage, 2014. +
  6. Writing Journal

 

ENG 3099: Special Topics: Literary Editing & Publishing

“Editing, like writing, is fundamentally about composing a world,” Peter Gizzi writes in his essay “On the Conjunction of Editing and Composition.” In this course, students will learn how this act of composition takes place, from submissions to printing, by reading first-hand accounts of editors in the profession and through practical application. This reading intensive course will challenge you to read like an editor rather than a reader, writer, or critic, and ask you to consider how literary magazines contribute to literary culture. You will be exposed to many different types of editing styles, and you will be asked to begin to cultivate your own approach to editing a literary magazine or journal while being introduced to all the skillsets needed to create a publication. We will use literary magazines as a case study for all of our publishing inquiries, but we will likewise touch upon the book-publishing process and market. The class will include an investigation into the history of literary magazines; editorial meetings in which students will evaluate and debate sample pieces; papers that analyze literary magazines, editorial roles, and the state of contemporary publishing; and a final editorial project in which student groups will “compose a world” through a mock literary magazine by developing its mission, design, and content. In many ways, this course acts as a kind of introductory practicum for students interested in pursuing future publishing opportunities as editors, production editors, and as writers.

Texts and Supplies

  1. Lupton, Ellen. Thinking with Type, 2nd edition. Princeton Architectural Press, 2010.
  2. Kurowski, Travis. Paper Dreams: Writers and Editors on the American Literary Magazine. Atticus Books, 2013.
  3. Art supplies, paper, etc. and whatever else you may need to create your final editorial project.

“No River, No Bridge: Writing Poetry, Writing Nonfiction” Handout and Exercise

Ermakov, Dimitri (1846-1916).
Ermakov, Dimitri (1846-1916).

I taught a class titled “No River, No Bridge: Writing Poetry, Writing Nonfiction” at Appomattox Regional Governor’s School’s Writers’ Fest yesterday. We discussed hybridity of poetry and nonfiction, as well as the ways in which poetry can take on and explore “truth” using essayistic strategies without the requirement of “fact.” Several students came up afterward to show me their exercises, and one told me that she felt like it was one of the best things she’s written. The class ranged from high school students to adults.

In this course we will examine works of poetry and creative nonfiction in order to open up these genres to hybrid works. We will discuss features that are shared by the genres, how to bend the rules, and look at some examples before doing an exercise.

With over forty students in a one-hour class, we had these objectives:

  1. Examine definitions of genre and the elements therein.
  2. Think about the function and aims of each genre.
  3. Read excerpts of texts that bridge the gap between poetry and nonfiction.
  4. Write some assays—yes, some attempts—that use both poetry and essay strategies.

Examine definitions of genre and the elements therein. We looked at definitions of essays and lyric essays and Edward Hirsch’s definitions of line, lineation, lyric, prose poem, and stanza from A Poet’s Glossary. We looked at these definitions because they seek to define and, therefore, draw boundaries. We needed to know these definitions in order to explode these boundaries. In particular, we looked at Hirsch’s definition of line, in which he quotes Longenbach:

“Poetry is the sound of language organized in lines,” James Longenbach asserts in The Art of the Poetic Line (2008). “More than meter, more than rhyme, more than images or alliteration or figurative language, line is what distinguishes our experience of poetry as poetry, rather than some other kind of writing.”

And compared it to the prose poem definition:

A composition printed as prose that names itself poetry. The prose poem takes advantage of its hybrid nature—it avails itself of the elements of prose (what Dryden called “the other harmony of prose”) while foregrounding the devices of poetry. . . . Baudelaire used prose poems to rebel against the straitjacket of classical French versification. He dreamed of creating “a poetic prose, musical without rhyme or rhythm, supple and jerky enough to adapt to the lyric movements of the soul, to the undulations of reverie, to the somersaults of conscience.” Baudelaire’s prose poems—along with Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations (1886) and Malarmé’s Divagations (1897)—created a mixed musical form (part social, part transcendental) that has been widely and internationally practiced in the twentieth century. “There is no such thing as prose,” Malarmé insisted in 1891. “There is the alphabet, and then there are verses which are more or less closely knit, more or less diffused. So long as there is a straining toward style, there is versification.”

We thought about these paradoxes, discussed why lineation makes a poem a poem, as well as considered some alternative definitions. We then examined Hirsch’s definition of “lyric”—

The lyric poem immerses us in the original waters of consciousness, in the awareness, the aboriginal nature, of being itself. . . . The lyric, which offers us a supposed speaker, a person to whom we often assign the name of the author, shades off into the dramatic utterance

—in juxtaposition with a discussion of point of view in essay.   Think about the function and aims of each genre. When I think about the intersections and differences of poetry and nonfiction, it’s helpful for me to illustrate the two genres with metaphors.

  1. Poem as a river. With all of their musical elements, I think of poems as a river—something fluid, flowing, that rushes and eddies, deltas, and empties out to sea. Poems are one of our oldest forms of literature and therefore seem natural to our landscape of language.
  2. Essay as a bridge. The essay, an analytical form, builds upon its subject piece by piece, element by element, fact by fact, experience by experience. We might think about this strategy as similar to building pillars with blocks, hammering planks together, supporting and trussing.

We might use these metaphors to understand hybrid works—nonfiction prose poems, lyric essays—better. Sometimes a poem is a river we want to cross; we see and hear the rushing water, but we want to examine it from a sturdy vantage point where we stay safe and dry. Some music comes into the poem, but we rely on the exposition that essays provide. Adversely, we could be in the water, prone to the rapids, splashed in the face, paddling fiercely. Just trying to stay afloat in the overflow of language, of experience. There are times, however, where we might pass under the shadow of a bridge, have insights into reason, into conquering this flow, bridging one experience to another.   Read excerpts of texts that bridge the gap between poetry and nonfiction.

  1. “Say It, Say It Anyway You Can” by Vievee Francis (two versions—the prose poem version from Rattle and the lineated version that appeared in her collection Horse in the Dark). Let’s take a look at this poem, which started off as a prose poem and then became a lineated poem. Discuss the poet’s possible reasoning for lineating the poem. What are the effects of the two forms?
  2. An excerpt from Citizen by Claudia Rankine and an excerpt from Bluets by Maggie Nelson. Talk to me a little bit about what these prose forms borrow from poetry. Are they poetry? (How were they marketed? How were they identified?) Is it enough to say something is poetry? Nonfiction? Are these true hybrids? How would you categorize it? Does it need to be categorized?

Write some assays—yes, some attempts—that use both poetry and essay strategies.

“No River, No Bridge” Exercise

  1. Select an everyday object that’s in your house. Ex. a television, a pair of jeans, a can of kidney beans. (1 min.)
  2. Now describe the object using all of your senses, with only concrete details. Do not use any metaphors or other figurative language. (2 min.)
  3. Imagine how the object was made. Write a step-by-step description of its fabrication. (3 min.)
  4. Imagine the harvesting, mining, or creation of the raw materials that went into making this object. (i.e. the shearing of sheep for your wool sweater or the mining of silicone to make your iPhone). Describe. (2 min.)
  5. Now talk a little bit about how you came to own this object (and talk about not remembering how you got it, if that’s true.) Tell us the backstory. Or, what connotations does the object have? Do you have specific memories associated with it? (2 min.)
  6. Now describe the object using only metaphors. (“My pair of jeans is muddy water reflecting sky, a bird with clipped wings . . . ”) (2 min.)

Share and discuss: How has the object changed in each iteration (concrete description, origin story, deconstruction, entrance, emotional connection, metaphorical naming)? Which form (poetry or essay) better conveys these approaches? Why? How can we combine these strategies?