I’m compiling a document called “Ignoratio Elenchi” (“missing the point”) with fragments of interesting things that framed failed poems. My hope is that this daisy-chain of failed, poetic dramatic situations will come together as something new, maybe a lyric essay on and demonstrating failure. This project must be something like a grappa, that liquor made from the unwanted skins, seeds, and stems of grapes that would foul wine. Let me go ahead and propose this form: a Grappa, a lyric-prose hybrid that trellises together failed lines, ideas, and dramatic situations. Most of the time my failed poems fail because I have too much of a set idea or firm situation—a boa muscled by truths, intentions. In a new form perhaps, by their prismatic triangulation, they will be elevated beyond their specificity, re-rendered to bewilder.
Writing Exercise: “Thank You”
- Select a single line or image from one of Jenny Johnson’s poems in In Full Velvet.
- Free write a poem that begins with this line or image co-opted from Johnson. This can be phrased exactly the same way that she phrases it, or you can change it up to best suit your own poem. Remember that this is a starting point, and you should feel free to move away from this inciting image.
- Writing journal, with plenty of paper and/or your laptop
- A previous draft of one of your poems
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:
- Heavy Enjambment
- Sentence Fragment
- Lack of Punctuation
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.
Note: This semester, I will share my ENG 2030: Craft of Poetry Writing Exercises as images, since they live all together within a Course Reader document on Google Drive. On the first day of class, my ENG 2030 students completed this “Possibilities” writing exercise as a supplement to their personal introduction. The questions about Szymborska’s poem likewise allow me to get a good calibration of what things they know or don’t know about poetry and poetic craft.
I visited Rachael Stewart’s creative writing class at Elgin Community College today, where I asked students to pay intuitive attention to where lines are broken. I wrote the first stanza of “Inverstaid” by Gerard Manley Hopkins without lineation on the board. I asked them to put line breaks where they think he broke them, and then I asked them to break the lines so that the end rhymes would be subverted. We then discussed how lines have meaning and sentences have meaning, how they can complement one another or come into conflict. We then read Ellen Bryant Voigt’s “The Bear” to talk line break and punctuation, and then Lynda Hull’s “Ornithology” to chart the musicality of free verse.
On Wednesday, November 16, I gave the lecture “It’s Alive: Why Poetry Still Matters” at Rutherford Hall in Allamuchy, New Jersey. Here are the materials for that talk:
This talk also transformed into my November 2016 blog post for Ploughshares, “Truth & Dread: Why Poetry Still Matters & The Risk of (Too Much) Empathy”:
Can the act of empathy, learned from literature and poetry, become an act of appropriation when we take it to our lived lives? This is a question I haven’t been able to answer. Each of us is not a sun around which others revolve; we cannot, like black holes, pull everything into us without risking erasure, of others, of ourselves. Perhaps more than the practice of empathy, poetry offers us the opportunity to listen, and not just in the way that it appeals to the same areas of the brain music stimulates, and not just in the way that we can hear the cadence and rhythm and sounds of poetry. Perhaps poetry offers us the opportunity to hear its many speakers, to not so much as internalize each of their voices and experiences as to confirm them, to say, you are you, you are a voice, I hear you.
On The Atlantic, Lindsay Lynch writes about typesetting letterpress and the en space in “How I Came to Love the En Space”:
To understand letterpress printing, imagine that every letter you see on your screen is an object, a tiny piece of metal. Not only is every letter an object, but every space between every letter is also an object. Every space between words, every space between lines—every bit of white space is an object. When typesetting, a printer has to think about negative space as something tangible.
This is where the en space comes in. An en space is a rectangular piece of metal or wood whose primary purpose is to be smaller than the metal or wood type being printed. The en space isn’t type-high—it doesn’t sit proud like an ordinary character—so it doesn’t catch ink when it’s run through the press. It just holds printable type together in a tight grid, creating spaces between words. It is never seen, but without it, everything printed would be nonsense.