In this writing exercise inspired by Solmaz Sharif’s Look, students will explore using found language in order to create compelling dramatic situations.
Writing Exercise: “Look It Up”
Select 4–5 words from Solmaz Sharif’s poems in Look. (These could be the DOD terms in small caps or her language.)
Look up each of these words in the Oxford English Dictionary, available through the Taylor Memorial Library. Take notes on each of the definitions. Reflect: Did you know all of these definitions? Do you use these words differently?
Write down these 4–5 words. What dramatic situation would include all of them?
Free-write a poem in which you use all 4–5 words. Try to use the words in such a way that they make sense for this dramatic situation.
Share. (Let’s type some of them up in the Group Notes document.)
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.
In this reading exercise, students are responding to and annotating different literary devices and features—including dialogue, active voice, unique diction, etcetera—in the opening pages of five chapters (13–18) of the class’s icebreaker text, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
In this exercise, I ask my Craft of Prose students to think about the ways in which one element of their worlds—sports—can reveal a great deal about cultural values in addition to demonstrating some of what’s possible. With the class having just read about the Quidditch World Cup in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and been introduced briefly to other examples of games popular fiction, they will create their own sport, have a partner demonstrate, in a charades-like fashion, how that sport works, so that the writer m then ask themselves if they effectively described the sport in “All in Good Sport.”
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 breaks, tone, concrete details, etc.) that will make it easier for them to talk about poetry throughout the course.
Class: Introduction to Creative Writing (The College of William & Mary) Genre: Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry Purpose: To consider how writers of three genres go about approaching similar subject matter; to introduce distinctions between the genres; and to introduce key drafting and revision considerations based on reading from Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing Readings: Chapters 1 (“Invitation to the Writer”) and 7 (“Development and Revision”) in Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing
Pick a favorite nursery rhyme, myth, or religious tale that you know by heart. Write a brief summary of the story in 2 to 5 sentences.
If you were writing this narrative as a short story, how would you change it? What elements would you include? How would the style change?
If you were writing this narrative as a poem, how would you change it? What would be your first steps to writing the poem? What would you leave out? What would you add in?
If you were using this narrative as a basis for nonfiction, how would you frame it? How can you approach this subject matter in that way?
Free write for ten minutes and begin to convert your summary into either a short story, a poem, or personal essay.
I gave the following two exercises to my Writing Poetry students in the last month. Because these exercises encourage students to build their poems upon concrete description, I’ve presented them together.
Class: Writing Poetry (Virginia Commonwealth University) Genre: Poetry Purpose: To explore strategies employed by authors we’ve read as well as situate poems in concrete details, settings, and narratives Readings:Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey and When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz
“The Side of the Road” Exercise
“What matters is context— / the side of the road”
—Natasha Trethewey, “What the Body Can Say”
Only using concrete details, describe as much as you can about your hometown or your current neighborhood without editorializing. For instance, if you believe something is “pretty”, describe those features that create its aesthetic appeal (the fleur de lis ornamentation on the porch railing, the ivy trellised up the front of the house, etc.). Your readers will likely know how you feel about the looks by how you describe what’s there. (7 min.)
Look at what you’ve written and underline those concrete details that seem signficant to a reader’s understanding of the place. Meaning, the descriptions must provide us with a clue about what’s going on there or what someone is like. Ex. On China Street in Oregon Hill, there’s a house that has abstract acrylic paintings nailed on the siding. Across the street, a small sherbert green house flies a Confederate Flag above its porch junked up with a recycling bin full of Miller Highlife and several ashtrays full of cigarette butts. In the window is a sign: “Roomate Needed / Must like Dogs” accompanied by a phone number. What does each detail reveal about the invidiuals that live in each house? What does it reveal about the neighborhood? (2 min.)
Say someone from another part of the country—or even another neighborhood—visited you here. Speculate about what that person would notice about the area. What would excite them? What would trouble them? (3 min.)
Consider what assumptions that person might have about you based on your affiliation with the place. (3 min.)
Rewrite all of this in lines, cutting out excess wording and ending on one of the telling images you previously identified without explaining what it means. Think of Trethewey ending “Again, the Fields” with “his hands the color of dark soil.” If I wrote about the two houses in Oregon Hill, I might end with this image: “the paintings and the flag will both fade in the light of day.” (5–7 min.)
An image is a detail that allows us to feel as if we “see” rather than understand what happened or is happening in a literary work. It’s imitative of the tangible. It suggests meaning rather than explains it. It can be within the “real world” or it can be figurative, Natalie Diaz’s men “leaning against the sides of houses” (realistic) or the coins “We are born with spinning coins in place of eyes” (figurative). In understanding how image often serves the function of both providing us with concrete details, narrative, and/or abstract ideals, thoughts, or emotions, complete the following exercise.
Describe the narrative implied by one of the following real headlines. Be sure to use descriptive details that will reveal the place/setting. In doing so, try to be as objective as possible. Only describe what’s happens as it happen. Remove any commentary or statement of meaning. Focus only on tangible details and action. You may have opinions about the people, animals, or objects involved, but don’t reveal them. Through the attention to details, you may even empathize with these characters. (15 minutes)
Pig in Australia Steals 18 Beers from Campers, Gets Drunk, Fights Cow
Hiker discovers an abandoned town inside Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park
White Ohio lesbians suing sperm bank over mixed-race baby
Donkeys reunited at Polish zoo after sex scandal
Two die, three injured after woman drops cell phone in toilet (China) Swiss Town: Have Cave, Want (Social and Outgoing) Hermit
Davidson Co. home catches fire after man smoking tries blowing his nose (North Carolina) Jogger hospitalized after being hit by airborne deer (Dulles, Virginia) Alejandro Melendez Puts 911 Dispatcher On Hold To Complete Drug Deal (Cleveland, Ohio) Philly Bomb Scare Caused By Hotdogs At Ballpark, Mascot Implicated
Reputed Colombian Drug Lord Complains Of Claustrophobia From His Prison Cell In New York
Man In Wheelchair Robs 7/11 Of Condoms (Dallas, TX) Asian elephant cured in rehab of heroin addiction (Beijing, China) Python Kills Intern Zookeeper (Venezuela)
Now go back through your description and circle any images you find. Make a column for at least three of the images you identified. Underneath them, write down what the image literally represents to the reader and then record the literal and abstract connotations that might arise from each image. For instance, if you wrote “the pig’s jowls, bearded in foam” for the first headline, you might come up with this: (10 min.)
Literal Representation: the pig has just been drinking beer that produced the foam Connotations: the pig has rabid qualities; the beard implies a kind of personification, taking on of man’s roles/behaviors; the pig is out of control; the speaker is in awe of the scene and endangers herself by looking this closely at the pig; the pig is fat because of the word “jowls”; “jowl” is used in butcher charts, so therefore this pig is meat, it’s a commodity; the pig is adorned with things outside its natural habitat and therefore this poem suggests that there’s an intersection between nature and humanity; etcetera.
Based on these literal and abstract connotations, select the image from your list that best represents you personal feelings about the people, objects, and/or actions in this narrative. Now rewrite the poem and end only on that image without explanation. (10 min.)
Think about a poem that you’ve been wanting to write for a long time but haven’t been able to successfully accomplish. It works best if this is a personal memory or other narrative.
Discuss each of the following approaches and the read their respective suggested poems:
Anecdotal: A simple story in one setting, usually in plain speech. See “Black” by Alan Shapiro.
Imperative: A second person address with instructions, based on an extended metaphor or literal. See “How to Live in a Trap” by Eleanor Ross Taylor.
Meta: A response to an event that takes into account writing’s inability to fully capture the event. See “Photograph of September 11th” by Wislawa Szymborska and “The streetlamp above me darkens” by Tarfia Faizullah.
Figurative: A characterization of an event or action through metaphor. See “Boy Breaking Glass” by Gwendolyn Brooks.
Collage: A poem that uses multiple of these approaches and usually isn’t afraid to associate away from and back again to the original motivation. See “My Story In a Late Style of Fire” by Larry Levis of “Across the Sea” by Dana Levin.
After discussing each approach, take ten minutes to write your narrative using only that approach. Move on to the next one and repeat.
At the end, ask yourself: How did the poem change? Did the poem become more or less imaginative? Which one do I like the most? Why? Share.