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)
Split into pairs. (A first year with a second year.)
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:
Where did you get the idea of this poem? From an image, a phrase, a concept? Something else?
When did you write the poem? Under what conditions did you write the poem?
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?
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!)
How would you like to change the poem in its next draft?
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.
Copy out the passage in your daily writing journal at least five times as it appears in the poem (with original line breaks).
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.)
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:
How do the lines change when they are broken in new ways? Does the meaning change? The tone? The rhythm?
What sounds really catch your attention?
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?
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!
Practice the movements, speaking aloud the words as you do them until you have them memorized.
Perform them for the class, which will cheer you enthusiastically!
Note: This will be my first meeting with my combined intermediate and advanced, undergraduate workshops. I hope that this exercise will open up our class in such a way that we get to know one another better and we begin to discuss meaningful craft elements. Like all of my writing exercises and readings beyond the required, book-length texts, this information is provided to students through a Google Document I call the “Course Reader,” which I update throughout the semester so as to provide necessary materials and instructions while developing a log for the course, the latter of which is especially meaningful for students who need to refresh on a class experience and/or who missed a class. I also like to have a record of our conversations, and so after each class I usually provide a quick, bullet-pointed list that recaps our conversations and/or important class decisions.
ENG 326/426 Writing Poetry: Intermediate/Writing Poetry: Advanced University of North Carolina at Greensboro
For “Spin,” students will be negotiating subtext, rumor, dramatic irony, subjectivity, objectivity, and context in our readings and their own work. Students will discuss the elements of reportage and rumor in their icebreaker text, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and then discern the difference between Rowling’s subtext and the subtext, however erroneous, read into the actions of the protagonists by other characters. Students will likewise watch a clip from the 1966 film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and identify elements of dialogue, actions, body language, and gestures that reveal subtext, and then they will do a writing exercise in which they describe the innocent actions of a character in public and then re-describe them in the point of view of a law enforcement official, private investigator, reporter, or suspicious bystander who misconstrues, willfully or automatically, the actions of that innocent person.
In the “Debate” writing exercise, students are asked to create two characters—political candidates—with unique syntax and diction in order to debate a phony issue, like whether muffins should actually be called cake, for example. In doing so, they learn how to format dialogue; to progress action through dialogue; and how to demonstrate a character’s values, motivations, and background through dialogue.
Last week, my Online Prose Workshop read “Hepburn and Garbo” (pgs. 151–165) and “Ten Notes on Oscar Weekend” (212–221) in Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind;“Upon This Rock” from John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead; and “LookingAround” from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. They then completed the following reading discussion:
Changing My Mind is a series of occasional essays. Select one of Smith’s essay from your Introductory week assignments and one from the Week 1 assignments, and compare and contrast the occasions for these pieces. How do the occasions for each piece change the tone of the piece? (Hint: describe the tone of each piece and then make the connection between each essay’s occasion and its tone.) Please upload this by 11:59 pm on Saturday, September 17.
This week, they are completing a writing exercise called “Pop Art”:
Freewrite 250 words about your experience encountering something to do with pop culture. This could be about the time you met a celebrity or the time you camped out for tickets for a concert. It could even be about watching the VMFAs in your pajamas on the couch. Please upload this by 11:59 pm on Saturday, September 24.
Tomorrow, I’m teaching a one-day course called “Walk the Line: The Tension Between Line & Syntax” at the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center in Sleepy Hollow, New York. We will consider the relationship between poetry’s vehicles of meaning: the line and the sentence. In doing so, we’ll investigate the ways in which these structures support, nuance, and deny one another to achieve resonance, depth, and subtext within a poem. This course will be generative, with exercises that rely on close reading and formal manipulation of texts, as well as the drafting of new pieces. Whether you want to learn more about what your favorite poets are doing with their poems or discover how to break lines in your own, this course will insist that poetry is a craft, honed by exercises and study.
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.
In “Step 1,” I’m asking students to develop their skills in the imperative and descriptive moods so that a character and/or narrator can demonstrate or walk through an concept or action. They will base their preliminary discussion on “The Unforgivable Curses” chapter of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the semester’s icebreaker text, as well as read the opening pages of Lorrie Moore’s “How To Be an Other Woman.” In doing so, they will likewise refer to some of the terminology we’ve gone over in previous classes—diction, syntax, dialogue, concrete details, point of view—and demonstrate their understanding of that terminology by relying on those literary concepts to make an effective piece.
In this exercise, I ask my Craft of Prose students to think about the ways in which one element of their worlds—sports—can reveal a great deal about cultural values in addition to demonstrating some of what’s possible. With the class having just read about the Quidditch World Cup in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and been introduced briefly to other examples of games popular fiction, they will create their own sport, have a partner demonstrate, in a charades-like fashion, how that sport works, so that the writer m then ask themselves if they effectively described the sport in “All in Good Sport.”