“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?

Police Poetry Workshops

Police with billy club postcard with writing
A postcard (circa 1900–1920), found at a Richmond-area antique store

In addition to prison poetry workshops, let’s do police poetry workshops. I believe that poetry—all art—has the ability and responsibility to guide others into new perspectives. In “Tide of Voices: Why Poetry Matters Now,” Mark Doty says:

People who read imagine the lives of others. Literature makes other people more real to us. It invites us to notice differences but, even more so, points toward commonality.

Reading makes us more attuned to the needs, wants, and experiences of others and, therefore, has the potential of making us more conscientious citizens. I am the daughter of a former police officer and I was raised as the stepdaughter to another. Of course, there are good cops out there who genuinely strive to protect citizens. That being said, with the recent events in Ferguson—both the shooting of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson and the police response to the community’s riots—and in Staten Island—the chokehold death of Eric Garner—I’m concerned about the tendency toward violence and discrimination by our nation’s law enforcement.

As mentioned in my previous post, last year I encountered a cop who told me he had a book of poetry in his car. He asked me questions about poetry and what he should read. When I shared this story via social media, poet Staci R. Schoenfield led me to the idea of police poetry workshops when she said she suggested “arming police with poetry.”

Could poetry have a meaningful impact on police officers? What if we were to offer poetry workshops for law enforcement? While prison poetry workshops have been established in many communities across the nation, it strikes me that it also assumes that convicts are the only ones in need of these exercises in creativity, empathy, and imagination. While I’m certain that these prison or probation poetry workshops are doing vital and important work, why not also address the other side? Perhaps poetry workshops won’t alter systemic problems in the justice system, but they could have a meaningful impact on individual officers or groups of officers. In response to the recent deaths of black men at the hands of police, Claudia Rankine writes: “Because white men can’t police their imaginations, black men are dying.” Can we change this through poetry?

When I posted the idea for this program on social media, a friend posted a link to Art At Work’s “Thin Blue Lines” project and poetry calendar.  Art At Work is “a national initiative to give municipal governments the powerful resource that comes from direct creative engagement.” They partnered with Portland, Maine’s police department and asked their officers to write poems that were then published as calendars. This is the only initiative that I know about right now that directly engages police officers in writing poetry, but if you have any information about similar programs in your area, please contact me using the form below.

I’m looking into the possibility of starting a police poetry workshop in my own community, and I encourage others to do the same. As I find out more information, I will post it here.

Interesting Subject Matter & the Artful/less-ness in Presenting It

Grandpa Glenn just chillin' on his goat cart. Photo taken around 1916. Globe, Arizona.
“Grandpa Glenn just chillin’ on his goat cart. Photo taken around 1916. Globe, Arizona” from freeparking.

Class: Writing Poetry (Virginia Commonwealth University)
Genre: Poetry
Purpose: To talk about not relying simply on the drama inherent to subject matter or narrative
Readings: “Song” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly and student poems

Before beginning workshop today, I read aloud Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s poem “Song” to the class as a way to open up the conversation about their own use of inherently compelling or dramatic subject matter. Of course, Kelly’s goat, whose head has been severed from its body and hung in a tree by a group of boys, is interesting; but it’s only a good poem for the ways in which Kelly works with sound, imagery, and lines. As this isn’t a close reading of the poem, I won’t go in depth about our discussion, but we did consider how poems with interesting dramatic situations, narratives, or images might fool us into thinking they are “good” poems simply because we remember the content. I urged my students to consider Kelly and her artfulness in presenting compelling subject matter when they write their own poems; to not simply rely on something that seems “meaningful”; to make it meaningful through their presentation.

“Cadenza” Exercise

C. Reimers- Das Leipziger Gewandhausorchester im Lichte der Satire, 19 Karikaturen, lithographiert von Blau & Co., Leipzig um 1850 I haven’t had a chance yet to give this exercise to my Writing Poetry students, but I hope to give this to them by the end of the semester. A “cadenza” is a soloist’s improvisation that later gets written into a piece of music. It’s my hope that this exercise will produce in-class improvisation that later becomes a revised poem.

Class: Writing Poetry (Virginia Commonwealth University)
Genre: Poetry
Purpose: To consider how pace and sound relates to emotion, tone, and intensity.
Readings: One might provide the students with musical examples in lieu of readings.

  1. Provide students with a glossary of musical terms, such as http://www.classicalworks.com/html/glossary.html, or a selected list. (Italianate terms preferable.)
  2. Each student should select a term, study its definition, and then conceive of a poem that demonstrates the qualities of the term. The poem could embody these qualities with form, syntax, diction, sound, prosody, or any combination thereof. This term must serve as the title of the poem. For instance, “Sonata” might produce a poem in four parts that each differ in tone and pace. (30+ minutes)
  3. Students should share their results with the class for feedback on whether or not they embodied the musical terms in their poems. Open up a discussion about how line breaks, forms, and syntax/diction create a kind of music in poems and how these can be manipulated to produce certain tonal/emotional effects in addition to those implicit in dramatic situations. (10–15 minutes)
  4. The students will then take home the poem and revise it. Share again at a later date.

Workshop Privacy Policy

“Board Room of the Admirality” (1808).

A few years ago I had a student post a fellow class member’s poem to Facebook. When I found out, I went to administration and we handled the issue according to university policy, but I felt a shockwave of distrust rumble through the class. Some members felt like they didn’t have a “safe space” in which to share their creative work. Others may not have even known what was going on, but I felt it in every workshop, reading discussion, and exercise.

In an effort to prevent this from happening again, I created a privacy policy for my syllabi, as this kind of breach has the potential to be both plagiarism and cyberbullying. I’ve tweaked it since with the help of a colleague last year and, again recently, on my own. I’ve shared it below. I encourage all educators to use something like it for your classes—and for yourselves.

WORKSHOP PRIVACY POLICY
Under no circumstance should students share the work of their peers outside class. This includes but is not limited to electronic distribution through email, forums, and social media (Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, etc.); physical distribution through printing, photocopying, and hand copying; submission to and/or publication in journals, magazines, anthologies, or books; and appropriation of the work to fulfill requirements in this class or others. In all cases, I will drop your final grade by at least, but not limited to, two letter grades in addition to any repercussions mandated by the University.

Two Poetry Exercises: “The Side of the Road” and “A Pig Is A Pig Is An Idea”

Map of Henrico, VA showing Fortifications Around Richmond North and East of the James River, detail.

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

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“The Side of the Road” Exercise

“What matters is context— / the side of the road”
—Natasha Trethewey, “What the Body Can Say”

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.)
  4. Consider what assumptions that person might have about you based on your affiliation with the place. (3 min.)
  5. 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.)

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A Pig Is A Pig Is An Idea Exercise
[Note: This is a variation on my “Headliner” exercise.]

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.

  1. 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)
  2. 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)

  3. 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.)
  4. 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.

  5. 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.)

One Motivation, Five Poems Exercise

Minerva by Elihu Vedder (1897)
Minerva by Elihu Vedder (1897)

Class: Beginning Poetry (Tinker Mountain Writers’ Workshop)
Genre: Poetry
Readings: A tailored poetry packet
Time: 50+ minutes

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:

  1. Anecdotal: A simple story in one setting, usually in plain speech. See “Black” by Alan Shapiro.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Figurative: A characterization of an event or action through metaphor. See “Boy Breaking Glass” by Gwendolyn Brooks.
  5. 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.

“Fame Makes a Man Take Things Over” Exercise

Drawing of Stage Door Johnnies (1894)
Drawing of Stage Door Johnnies (1894)
Class: Writing Out of the Ordinary
Genre: Creative nonfiction
Readings: A packet of persona poems and dramatic monologues
Time: 10 minutes

1. Pick a celebrity, sports star, cartoon or comic book character, product mascot (ex. Count Chocula, the Geico gecko, etc.) or newsworthy individual (Octomom, Charles Manson, etc.).

2. Create a mundane problem for that character or person. (Kobe Bryant can’t open a jelly jar. Elvis Presley can’t fit into his old slacks. Speedy Gonzalez gets stuck in a mouse trap.)

3. Free write for ten minutes in the voice of that character as they’re attempting to resolve the problem. What concerns them? Are they worried about their public image? How does this problem relate to bigger problems for them? What sorts of language do they use? Are they thinking about the problem at hand or something else? Where are they at? More specific questions: What are they wearing? What kind of jelly is Kobe Bryant trying to get into? Strawberry or grape? Who set the trap for Speedy? Has Elvis tried dieting? (Hint: You don’t have to answer these specific questions, but be sure to take leaps like this with your own characters.)