Students in my online, 24PearlStreet “Every Phantom // A Story: Erasure and Revision” course explored erasure as a political and social justice act and then completed “Dear ,” an erasive poetry exercise, last week after reading the following assignments:
Last week I had my 24PearlStreet Erasure and Revision students burn, soak, and rip up handwritten copies of a new love poem. I called these “environmental erasures,” inspired— or, rather, after—Sappho’s surviving verses on papyrus fragments. Here are the directions:
“Love Poem Lost”
1. Draft a poem addressed to a (real or imagined) lost love. This can be a romantic love or a love based in friendship, someone once known or a teenage celebrity crush.
Write out by hand or print three copies of the poem, and then perform the following acts of environmental erasure, taking pictures along the way:
– Burn: Go into a safe, open environment and hold a match or lighter up to strategic places on the page.
– Soak: Use water, wine, coffee, vinegar, or some other liquid to ruin or occlude portions of the page. (Works best on free-flowing, not ball-point, pen ink.)
– Rip: Tear up the poem into quarters. “Lose” at least two of these quarters.
Post pictures from each act of erasure, along with paragraph-long reflection about the process. What happened to your poems in each of these environmental erasures? What was brought out? What was subverted?
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.
What isn’t said in a poem is just as meaningful—just as much a craft choice—as what is said. As poets, we so often go to the page with the intention of telling our readers something; this approach, however, often positions us between the reader and the text, like a person narrating a movie in front of the projector. In this course, we will investigate the ways in which poems “write themselves” and how images, without the aid of expositional transitions, create their own narratives, after Cesare Pavese’s idea of the “image narrative.” We will discover the impact and implied meanings of white space in poems, and we will investigate the strategies of other poets in revising through redaction and compression. We will look at erasure texts-texts that have been redacted into new texts-by poets like Mary Ruefle and Robin Coste Lewis, and consider the legacies of poets, like Sappho whose work survives only in fragments. Throughout the course of the eight weeks, participants will be asked to draft at least six new poems, unwieldy and wild and uninhibited, that in subsequent weeks they will slowly revise, re-form, and compress; through these long-term revision strategies, participants will be able to introduce subtext and depth to their poems, while honing their craft and style.
In “In Medias Res,” students write and re-write a scene in the three different points of view from a YouTube video of a man texting and running into a wild bear. They likewise create a character profile for their point of view character to navigate Anne Lamott’s suggestion of an “emotional acre.” In doing so, they negotiate the scope, immediacy, and language of each point of view, and consider how “in the middle of things” each point of view feels.
My third manuscript, previously called Bluff, has a new title: Hollow Point. At 74 pages, it’s all ready except for a few revisions and the addition of some more poems in the person of Othello‘s Emilia.
After talking about Janet Burroway’s Image chapter in Imaginative Writing, my class took our discussion to the white board to consider problems with translating experience and ideas in language, the fundamentals of significant detail, and the precision of language.
I asked them to consider all of the possible meanings for each of these sentences:
“Joe had some water.” —He drank some water; he has water to drink; he had water for watering his plants, etc.
“Joe had a glass of water.” —He drank the glass of water; he had a glass of water to drink, etc.
“Joe had a glass of water on the table.” —He had water to drink on the table and he hadn’t finished drinking it.
We explored the slippery nature of the word “had” in all of these cases, and then we thought about how context could change the sentences. We considered the difference between “a glass of water” versus a “water glass,” how the second doesn’t necessarily mean that the glass contains water, rather it could designated as a glass for water. Additionally, having the read come to “glass” before “water” would help form the image for the reader as it provides the container before what’s contained inside it.
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.
In my poetry class, I decided to stagger revision assignments throughout the semester instead of assigning a final portfolio, because I wanted:
to avoid end-of-the-semester-grading fatigue, in order to ensure that I was always fresh and never rushed in grading;
to alleviate students’ end-of-the-semester stress, so that they would be able to concentrate on revising individual poems rather than meeting basic requirements of a portfolio (better— instead of more—work at a time);
to give students a better, ongoing sense of how they are progressing in the course;
and to situate revision as an integral and ongoing part of the writing process that goes hand-in-hand with writing new poems and reading.
Structuring the course in this way, I felt like I was able to give more feedback, and my students’ revisions improved. In previous courses, a revision unit at the end of the semester suggested that revision was an afterthought to the writing process. By having students revise throughout the semester, workshop directly correlated to students’ next steps and, in their self-assessments, they often referred to feedback they received from their peers. Workshop, therefore, was explicitly linked to revision; it wasn’t the end but the means of their creative work—not a junkyard, but an alchemical machine.
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.
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)
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)
The students will then take home the poem and revise it. Share again at a later date.