Craft of Poetry Writing Exercise: “Exercising It Out”


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

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.


“Rivers Into Seas”: Line Into Meaning

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

Genre: Poetry
To push the boundaries of the line, sentence, and punctuation to add subtext and texture to poems
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.”

“Ornithology” Poetry Analysis and Imitation Exercise

Class: Introduction to Creative Writing (The College of William & Mary)
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.