ENG 326 Writing Poetry: Intermediate University of North Carolina at Greensboro
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.)
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Warren County Cultural & Heritage Commission asked me to teach as a part of their Teen Arts day. Although post-blizzard school delays prevented us from taking full advantage of my two planned workshops, the exercises and lesson plans I prepared for the day are collected here for other educators’ use.
9:30–11:00 AM: Beyond Rhyme: Poetry’s Music
How do we make our poems “flow”? How many word fireworks can we set off in a single line of poetry? In this workshop, we will explore the sounds and rhythms of free-verse poetry by listening to poems, trying out new techniques, and writing our own new poems.
Who are you?
What school do you go to?
Why did you take this class?
What’s your favorite word?
What is poetry?
What makes poetry poetry?
What makes poems sound good? How do they “flow”?
Some vocab: rhyme, cadence, assonance, consonance, alliteration, anaphora
Free write a poem on any subject. For every noun you use, you must select one that has at least one sound similar to the previous adjective, verb, or noun. Example, from “Inversnaid”: “This darksome burn, horseback brown.” The noun “burn” borrows the sound of r- in “darksome,” as does the noun “brown” from “horseback.” Additionally, the latter noun also borrows the b sound from “back.”
11:30 AM–1:00 PM: Speech Bubbles: Poetry 10 Ways
Ever heard the phrase, “The medium is the message”? In this poetry workshop, we’ll try our hand at writing poems using different mediums-posterboard, postcards, typewriters, and on our toes-to see if we can appeal to different parts of our brains and become more creative.
Who are you?
What school do you go to?
Why did you take this class?
How (and on what) do you usually write?
Writing Exercise: Poetry 10 Ways
Station 1: Writing by Hand. Freewrite a poem of at least 4 lines on unlined paper.
Station 2/3: Landscape/Portrait. Freewrite a poem on the index card laid out horizontally, and then rewrite it on another index card laid out vertically.
Station 4: Big Concerns. Using a pastel, freewrite a poem on a piece of posterboard. Try to “size up” your handwriting to the size of the paper.
Station 5: Boxing It In. Using the colored pens, I’d like for you to take one of your poems written at a previous station and underline the most important five words in that poem. In another color, I’d like for you circle all the nouns. In another color, I’d like for you to put a square around all the verbs. In another color, I’d like for you to put an X through at least three unnecessary words in the poem.
Station 6: The Snake Eating Its Tail. At this station, you will partner with another student. Rewrite one of your previously drafted poems in pencil on a piece of paper. Swap poems with your partner, and then erase 5 to 7 words from your partner’s poem.
Station 7: Address. Select a friend or a family member to whom you have a lot to say. Write a poem to them on the provided cards.
Station 8: Cut! Copy out one of the poems you brought in previously. Use the scissors to cut it in half.
Station 9: Walk It Off. Go out into the hall. You will compose a poem in your head while you walk to the end of the hall and back. Try to come up with one word per step. Record yourself (using your phone or mine) speaking aloud the poem.
Station 10: Type It Up. Come to this computer workstation and type up one version of one of the poems you have written today in this Google doc. Your only parameter here is that you must introduce new line breaks.