Writing Exercises: “Poem of My Humiliations” and “Admit It”

ENG 326 Writing Poetry: Intermediate
University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Fall 2017

9781555977788.pngNote: My intermediate poetry class is wrapping up their discussion of Erika L. Sánchez’s Lessons on Expulsion. All three of these poems appear in the final section of the book, and they model two approaches of the  “function” of a poem. In the first exercise, students will list humiliations and embarrassments in a move toward candor and intimacy, and, in the second, they will think about the rhetoric of the imperative, its insistence and (sometimes) hesitance.

10/19 Writing Exercises: “Poem of My Humiliations” and “Admit It”

We will do two back-to-back writing exercises based on three poems by Erika L. Sánchez“Poem of My Humiliations” for the first, and “Circles” and “Six Months after Contemplating Suicide” for the second—if time allows.

Writing Exercise #1: “Poem of My Humiliations”

  1. Re-read “Poem of My Humiliations” (62) by Erika L. Sánchez. Discuss.
  2. Craft a poem that is a list of things that humiliated or embarrassed you (only use things with which you’re comfortable sharing). You must create single-sentence stanzas with no line breaks.

 

Writing Exercise #2: “Admit It”

  1. Re-read “Circles” (64) and “Six Months after Contemplating Suicide” (72). Discuss.
  2. Write a poem in which you use the imperative mode (an insistent instruction)— “Admit it”—to the self or (a real or imagined) beloved.

Writing Exercise: “Praise House”

ENG 326 Writing Poetry: Intermediate
University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Fall 2017

Note: My intermediate poetry class is wrapping up workshop on their third poems and they are getting ready to turn in their fourth workshop poems this Saturday. This exercise is meant to allow them time and space to try something new (some have wondered aloud about if there can be “happy” poems) and draft something they can develop into their workshop piece. I always allow my students to revise in-class writing into their workshop poems, as this gives the class (optional) scaffolding of their assignments and helps to alleviate pressure surrounding “writer’s block.” (Side note: I don’t believe in writer’s block, as it often boils down to students second guessing themselves before they even begin, but they believe in it, so I want to help them overcome that fear in whatever way I can.)

 

9/28 Writing Exercise: “Praise House”

  1. Read “Praise House: The New Economy” by Gabrielle Calvocoressi and “To a Fig Tree on 9th and Christian” by Ross Gay.
  2. Freewrite a poem in which you praise a moment or a whole lot of things that you love or for which you are grateful.
    • Note: This exercise introduces you to a new form, the praise poem, while also giving you the option of continuing to cultivate your skills at using a poetic catalog (i.e., a list) in your poems.

Writing Exercise: “99 Problems”

ENG 326 Writing Poetry: Intermediate
University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Fall 2017

Note: My intermediate poetry students completed this exercise at the beginning of class on the third day we discussed There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker. Six students shared their work, and some of them framed their poem as “99 Problems” whereas others framed it as a countdown or as a list of tweets experienced on social media. This exercise presented a lot of flexibility, and it allowed students to think about implied narratives rather than explicitly rendered narratives.

9/21 Writing Exercise: “99 Problems”

  1. Let’s spend a little time discussing “99 Problems” on pgs. 66–69 of Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things
    1. What is her strategy for moving from one “problem” to the next?
    2. What are your thoughts about the form of the list poem?
  2. Write a list poem. You can either use the “99 Problems” as a frame, or you can write a list poem with some other function.

Writing Exercise: “I Mean…”

ENG 326 Writing Poetry: Intermediate
University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Fall 2017

 

There-Are-More-Beautiful-Things-Than-Beyonce-2ndEdNote: My intermediate poetry students completed this exercise at the beginning of class on the second day we discussed There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker. Four students shared their work, and all of them wrote their best poem so far in response to this exercise. These poems were full of such unexpected turns and provocative declarations.

This exercise could easily be adapted for other kinds of classrooms, especially because the poem “Welcome to the Jungle” is available online (linked below), in addition to the book. That being said, I highly recommend the book and all of Parker’s work, and it has been especially popular among my undergraduate students.

9/19 Writing Exercise: “I Mean…”

  1. Let’s read “Welcome to the Jungle” by Morgan Parker and discuss.
    1. What do you notice about the way that this poem is constructed?
    2. What about the grammar (including punctuation)?
    3. How does Parker get from one statement to another? Let’s look at it statement by statement, line by line, paying special attention to the associative leaps between each statement.
  2. Freewrite a poem. Your only three parameters are that 1) you cannot use punctuation and 2) you have to start with a declarative statement that 3) you will later have to requalify (e.g. “With champagne I try expired white ones / I mean pills I mean men” and “had a party had fifty parties”).

Writing Exercise: “Ain’t There One Damn Song That Can Make Me Break Down and Cry?”

ENG 326 Writing Poetry: Intermediate
University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Fall 2017

8/17 Writing Exercise: “Ain’t There One Damn Song That Can Make Me Break Down and Cry?”

  1. Re-examine the lyrics of the favorite song you brought into class, and respond to the following questions in your writing journal:
    1. What genre is the song? What are the requirements (instrumentation, performance, subject matter, etc.) of a song in this genre?
    2. Do you recognize in this song any of the key poetic concepts/terms we went over earlier today in class? This might include figurative language, concrete language, cliche, etc. Try to identify at least two.
  2. Beginning in class and continuing over the weekend, write at least one verse and chorus as an imitation of your favorite song.
    1. An imitation borrows one or more features of a work, including but not limited to structure and subject matter.
    2. In writing these lyrics, you must include at least two passages that exemplify the key poetic concepts/terms we went over in class today.
  3. Share these in class next Tuesday. You can read them aloud or, if you’re feeling it, you (or a designated performer) can sing or rap your lyrics.
  4. On Tuesday, we will discuss how listeners of music are often more equipped to read and write poetry than we initially realize, and then we’ll explore the ways in which we can develop these skills so that they are more conducive to the expectations of poetry readers.

Text & Context: A Poetry Workshop at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

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Text & Context participants sharing their new poem drafts in the Resnick Rotunda. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Last night I taught Text & Context, a poetry workshop sponsored by the Philadelphia Poetry Collaboration, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art‘s Final Fridays: Rebel, Rebel night. I prepared a handout with four poetry exercises inspired by pieces in the modern art wing of the museum for registered and drop-in participants. We had a total of twenty-seven participants, with the youngest participant at 7 years old. Although the exercises were meant for adults, they were easily adapted to younger participants, especially the acrostic and self-portrait poems.

I have included the writing exercises below, with photos of the motivating artworks. Because we only had two hours for the workshop, we were unable to get to the fourth and final writing exercise, inspired by Marcel Duchamp, called “Readymades.”

Writing Exercise 1: “Acrostic to What”
Artwork(s): “According to What” (1964) by Jasper Johns
Room: 177
Time: 20+ Minutes

Jasper Johns (1930– ) introduces words into this work by painting them on the canvas and allowing their ghosts to haunt the backdrop. In this writing exercise, I’d like for you to select one word from this piece and free-write an acrostic poem. In A Poet’s Glossary, Edward Hirsch contextualizes and defines acrostic poetry as “From the Greek: ‘at the tip of the verse.’ A poem in which the initial letters of each line have a meaning when read vertically. The acrostic reads down as well as across.” Here is a very quick (and unpolished example):

Just this: the gift-hibiscus
Anguished by the cold context of
Soil in a slow thaw, spring’s unguent tongue.
Poignant is a word that implies the poisoned well
Emotion, only it needs a human eye—
Raw and farsighted, mirrored to the about-face of desire.

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“According to What” by Jasper Johns, 1964. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Writing Exercise 2: “Memory Piece (My Heart)”
Artworks(s): “Memory Piece (Frank O’Hara)” (1970) by Jasper Johns
Room: 177
Time: 20+ Minutes

In 1967, Jasper Johns met Frank O’Hara, a poet of the New York School, art critic, and assistant curator at MOMA. Let’s read O’Hara’s poem “My Heart” and locate some visually associative connections between the poem’s images and Johns’s sculpture, “Memory Piece (Frank O’Hara).”

This poem is part self-celebration, part anti-apology, with a finalizing dash of ars poetica, that is, a poem about writing poetry. Ultimately, however, it is a self-portrait, one that fills in the speaker’s personality by degrees. Could we, however, think about Johns’s sculpture as a kind of figurative portrait of O’Hara? If so, what does the artwork imply about its subject?

Free-write a poem titled “Memory Piece (My Heart)” and use the epigraph, “After O’Hara and Johns.” In this poem, I’d like for you to create a self-portrait that is literal, as in O’Hara’s “I wear workshirts to the opera,” but also figurative, as this sculpture of Johns. What images describe you without describing you? Try to move back and forth between literal and figurative statements. Here’s a model of these two alternating moves:

All of my clothes have
at least one missing
button. Lately I’ve been a zipper
broken off its track. I drink
coffee on an empty stomach and peel
a rind on a clementine to find
rind upon rind underneath.
I am bad at self-portraits
because I have trouble looking
the stranger the mirror makes
me in the eye.

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Poetry Workshop: Text & Context participants writing in gallery 177. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
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“Memory Piece (Frank O’Hara)” by Jasper Johns, 1970. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Writing Exercise 3: “Impress Me”
Artworks(s): “Sunflowers” (1888 or 1889) by Vincent Van Gogh
Room: 161, Resnick Rotunda
Time: 20+ Minutes

Think of something beautiful, startling, or grotesque you’ve recently seen from which you couldn’t turn away. It could be a flock of white birds rising from a snowy field or a deer skull on the side of the road, a clear vase on a basement shelf in which a spider has built a web or an evening shadow that crossed over a beloved’s face. Take five minutes to jot down every concrete detail you remember from that scene, no matter how small or insignificant.

Hirsch writes that “The poetic image is always delivered to us through words. Poetry engages our capacity to make mental pictures, but it also taps a place in our minds that has little to do with direct physical perceptions.” I would go further and insist that images are those tangible details in a poem that have extra meaning—what we might called “resonance”—than just their thisness, their thereness. They are the glittery surface images on a dark, deep well. That dark deep well contains our memories, the primary source of our meaning-making.

Read “In a Station of the Metro” by Ezra Pound, which emphasizes the image as the crucial and working element of a poem.

Go back through your draft and interrogate each and every detail: which ones are significant? Which are superfluous? Which details imply other details? Cut all those details that are just facts about that scene, and leave all of those details that ascend to the level of images. Remove all explanation, what we would call exposition, out of the poem. Allow the images to stand alone.

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“Sunflowers” by Vincent van Gogh, 1888 or 1889. Philadephia Museum of Art.

 I would like to thank Steven Kleinman and Sarah Blake from the Philadelphia Poetry Collaboration and Jenni Drozdek and Claire Oosterhoudt of the Philadelphia Museum of Art for all their work supporting and organizing this event. Special thanks also to Alexis Apfelbaum of PPC and Justine of the PMA for their on-the-ground assistance, organization, and knowledge.

Craft of Poetry Writing Exercise: “Thank You”

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Writing Exercise: “Thank You”

  1. Select a single line or image from one of Jenny Johnson’s poems in In Full Velvet.
  2. 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.