Writing Exercise: Body Memory

Note: My Grad Poetry Workshop, which is made up of five first-year and five second-year students, wrapped discussion on Felicia Rose Chavez’s The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop yesterday. The following exercise allows students to practice moderating their own workshops (#2); to attempt an iteration exercise, which I assigned on the advice of Chen Chen (#4–6); to negotiate line breaks (#5); and to connect their bodies to the writing process (#7–9). As it was our second meeting of the semester, it was also a fabulous opportunity for the students to get to know one another and build trust prior to their first workshop next week. The exercise likewise prepares them to read Kazim Ali’s “On the Line,” which I assigned as homework. Ali writes, “we should talk about the line separate from [what] came before it or after it.” The outcomes: insight into sound and lineation, as well as lots of laughter.

“To be alive, you must exercise mobility, engage the senses, and laugh every now and then….For so much of our lives we’re schooled into stillness”

—Felicia Rose Chavez, The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop (pg. 75)

  1. Split into pairs. (A first year with a second year.)
  1. Take turns reading aloud your poems to one another. After doing so, share with your partner what you hoped (or are hoping) to do with the poem; your partner must engage in deep listening (not talking) as you tell them about the poem, answering some or all of the following questions:
    1. Where did you get the idea of this poem? From an image, a phrase, a concept? Something else?
    2. When did you write the poem? Under what conditions did you write the poem?
    3. Did the poem go where you expected it to go or not? Do you think this is a good thing for the poem? Why or why not?
    4. What are things you really like about this poem? (Be as specific as possible here and really go in for celebrating yourself and your craft!)
    5. How would you like to change the poem in its next draft?
  1. Now, you’re going to read aloud your poems to one another for a second time. After doing so, you and your partner will locate approximately six words in a row that are the most musical, that have the best “flow.” The passage doesn’t have to be a full sentence and it doesn’t have to make “sense.” Circle them.
  1. Copy out the passage in your daily writing journal at least five times as it appears in the poem (with original line breaks). 
I wrote on the board an example from one of my poem drafts
  1. Now, write the passage another five times; this time, add in line breaks in five new ways. (You can use virgules, i.e. “ / ”, to indicate line breaks if you’re having a hard time formatting it as you would in a word processor.)
Line break play
  1. Return to your partner. Read aloud the original version of the lines and all five new versions, emphasizing the line breaks through pauses or changes in your vocal intonation. Discuss:
    1. How do the lines change when they are broken in new ways? Does the meaning change? The tone? The rhythm?
    2. What sounds really catch your attention? 
    3. Outside of the context of your original poem, what is your favorite version of the passage? Which one engages your body the most? Its sense of dance and rhythm?
  1. Create a series of movements that “act out” the passage, its rhythm, and its line breaks. These movements can be as literal or abstract to the text as you like—just make sure to be as creative and silly as possible!
  1. Practice the movements, speaking aloud the words as you do them until you have them memorized.
  1. Perform them for the class, which will cheer you enthusiastically!

Poetry Reading Calibration and a Writing Exercise for the First Day of Poetry Workshop

Note: In an effort to keep this blog updated regularly, I’m going to be storing my writing exercises and handouts in my Google Drive. I will post these exercises as a link here.

This single document includes three different components:

  1. An introduction questionnaire, allowing students to tell me a little about them, their needs, and their preferences.
  2. A Poetry Reading Calibration Exercise, featuring Ari Banias’s poem “A Sunset.”
  3. A Writing Exercise titled “Home” after the Safiya Sinclair poem by the same name.

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 breakstoneconcrete details, etc.) that will make it easier for them to talk about poetry throughout the course.

 

Course Descriptions & Reading Lists for ENG 2015: Poetry Workshop & ENG 2016: Prose Workshop

ENG 2015: POETRY WORKSHOP

Instructor’s Course Description
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 a couple of poetry collections and The Best American Poetry 2015 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

  • The Best American Poetry 2015, ed. Sherman Alexie. Scribner, 2015. ISBN: 978-1476708195
  • Charms Against Lightning by James Arthur. Copper Canyon, 2012. ISBN: 978-1556593871*
  • Poems by Elizabeth Bishop. FSG, 2011. ISBN: 978-0374532369
  • A Larger Country by Tomás Q. Morín. Copper Canyon, 2012. ISBN: 978-0966339598*
  • Miscellaneous poems/packets on Moodle

*Arthur and Morín will be reading at Centenary College on September 23, 2015.

 

ENG 2016: PROSE WORKSHOP (ONLINE)

Instructor’s Course Description
This online course will introduce students to a variety of prose forms: flash fiction, the short story, personal essay, and memoir. Using Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing as a technique and terminology guide, students will analyze published prose and write their own pieces for workshop, a collaborative discussion about the effects of writers’ 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.” 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

  • Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft by Janet Burroway. Longman, 2014. ISBN: 978-0134053240
  • The Best American Short Stories 2014, ed. Jennifer Egan. Mariner, 2014. ISBN: 978-0547868868
  • The Best American Essays 2014, ed. John Jeremiah Sullivan. Mariner, 2014. ISBN: 978-0544309906
  • Miscellaneous readings on Moodle