Poem: . . . as Light Refracted Through Prisms

A freeway prof’s commuting rumination, post-teaching . . .

If a poem is a light, the poet is just one prism through which the poem refracts; each reader is another prism. If the poem’s working well, it will throw off light in all directions.

D-Kuru
By D-Kuru (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 at (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/at/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“One Story, Three Genres” Exercise

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

The_three_bears_pg_14

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. Free write for ten minutes and begin to convert your summary into either a short story, a poem, or personal essay.

Hybrid Assignment in Introductory Creative Writing Class

For my intro to creative writing class at William & Mary this semester, I’m asking students to write one hybrid work as their final workshop piece. Often I feel like these introductory classes set up limits for students, but I wonder if allowing them to see genre as something that’s a little more fluid will encourage continued reading across the genres, an understanding that writing techniques can be used across genres, and creativity with the execution of their ideas. They will be reading a few hybrid texts at the end of the semester, too. The hybrid assignment will also give us a chance to review what we’ve gone over about the three genres by forcing us to consider their respective challenges. I think it will also give students the opportunity to tackle issues they faced across multiple assignments. Say they struggled with point of view in their poetry and concrete details in their nonfiction, but the poems presented strong images and their nonfiction offered an unwavering first-person. Perhaps they’ll be able to double up on their strengths through a hybrid work.

Regardless of the success of their pieces, I hope that we can have a great discussion that will prepare them for debates about form and theory in upper-level, genre-specific courses. Additionally, I don’t want to have a situation where I say, “You’ll discuss these forms if you choose to continue taking creative writing courses.” I want to be able to answer these inevitable questions thoroughly, not offhandedly in a minute or so in the middle of a workshop. Besides, you never know which discussion might excite a student about writing. Maybe those slippery hybrid genres are what really interest some students and they might not know it until you offer it to them!

Staggering Assignments

Distillation by Alembic, 1910. (Published before 1923 and public domain in the US.)
Distillation by Alembic, 1910. (Published before 1923 and public domain in the US.)

In my poetry class, I decided to stagger revision assignments throughout the semester instead of assigning a final portfolio, because I wanted:

  1. to avoid end-of-the-semester-grading fatigue, in order to ensure that I was always fresh and never rushed in grading;
  2. 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);
  3. to give students a better, ongoing sense of how they are progressing in the course;
  4. 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.

“No River, No Bridge: Writing Poetry, Writing Nonfiction” Handout and Exercise

Ermakov, Dimitri (1846-1916).
Ermakov, Dimitri (1846-1916).

I taught a class titled “No River, No Bridge: Writing Poetry, Writing Nonfiction” at Appomattox Regional Governor’s School’s Writers’ Fest yesterday. We discussed hybridity of poetry and nonfiction, as well as the ways in which poetry can take on and explore “truth” using essayistic strategies without the requirement of “fact.” Several students came up afterward to show me their exercises, and one told me that she felt like it was one of the best things she’s written. The class ranged from high school students to adults.

In this course we will examine works of poetry and creative nonfiction in order to open up these genres to hybrid works. We will discuss features that are shared by the genres, how to bend the rules, and look at some examples before doing an exercise.

With over forty students in a one-hour class, we had these objectives:

  1. Examine definitions of genre and the elements therein.
  2. Think about the function and aims of each genre.
  3. Read excerpts of texts that bridge the gap between poetry and nonfiction.
  4. Write some assays—yes, some attempts—that use both poetry and essay strategies.

Examine definitions of genre and the elements therein. We looked at definitions of essays and lyric essays and Edward Hirsch’s definitions of line, lineation, lyric, prose poem, and stanza from A Poet’s Glossary. We looked at these definitions because they seek to define and, therefore, draw boundaries. We needed to know these definitions in order to explode these boundaries. In particular, we looked at Hirsch’s definition of line, in which he quotes Longenbach:

“Poetry is the sound of language organized in lines,” James Longenbach asserts in The Art of the Poetic Line (2008). “More than meter, more than rhyme, more than images or alliteration or figurative language, line is what distinguishes our experience of poetry as poetry, rather than some other kind of writing.”

And compared it to the prose poem definition:

A composition printed as prose that names itself poetry. The prose poem takes advantage of its hybrid nature—it avails itself of the elements of prose (what Dryden called “the other harmony of prose”) while foregrounding the devices of poetry. . . . Baudelaire used prose poems to rebel against the straitjacket of classical French versification. He dreamed of creating “a poetic prose, musical without rhyme or rhythm, supple and jerky enough to adapt to the lyric movements of the soul, to the undulations of reverie, to the somersaults of conscience.” Baudelaire’s prose poems—along with Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations (1886) and Malarmé’s Divagations (1897)—created a mixed musical form (part social, part transcendental) that has been widely and internationally practiced in the twentieth century. “There is no such thing as prose,” Malarmé insisted in 1891. “There is the alphabet, and then there are verses which are more or less closely knit, more or less diffused. So long as there is a straining toward style, there is versification.”

We thought about these paradoxes, discussed why lineation makes a poem a poem, as well as considered some alternative definitions. We then examined Hirsch’s definition of “lyric”—

The lyric poem immerses us in the original waters of consciousness, in the awareness, the aboriginal nature, of being itself. . . . The lyric, which offers us a supposed speaker, a person to whom we often assign the name of the author, shades off into the dramatic utterance

—in juxtaposition with a discussion of point of view in essay.   Think about the function and aims of each genre. When I think about the intersections and differences of poetry and nonfiction, it’s helpful for me to illustrate the two genres with metaphors.

  1. Poem as a river. With all of their musical elements, I think of poems as a river—something fluid, flowing, that rushes and eddies, deltas, and empties out to sea. Poems are one of our oldest forms of literature and therefore seem natural to our landscape of language.
  2. Essay as a bridge. The essay, an analytical form, builds upon its subject piece by piece, element by element, fact by fact, experience by experience. We might think about this strategy as similar to building pillars with blocks, hammering planks together, supporting and trussing.

We might use these metaphors to understand hybrid works—nonfiction prose poems, lyric essays—better. Sometimes a poem is a river we want to cross; we see and hear the rushing water, but we want to examine it from a sturdy vantage point where we stay safe and dry. Some music comes into the poem, but we rely on the exposition that essays provide. Adversely, we could be in the water, prone to the rapids, splashed in the face, paddling fiercely. Just trying to stay afloat in the overflow of language, of experience. There are times, however, where we might pass under the shadow of a bridge, have insights into reason, into conquering this flow, bridging one experience to another.   Read excerpts of texts that bridge the gap between poetry and nonfiction.

  1. “Say It, Say It Anyway You Can” by Vievee Francis (two versions—the prose poem version from Rattle and the lineated version that appeared in her collection Horse in the Dark). Let’s take a look at this poem, which started off as a prose poem and then became a lineated poem. Discuss the poet’s possible reasoning for lineating the poem. What are the effects of the two forms?
  2. An excerpt from Citizen by Claudia Rankine and an excerpt from Bluets by Maggie Nelson. Talk to me a little bit about what these prose forms borrow from poetry. Are they poetry? (How were they marketed? How were they identified?) Is it enough to say something is poetry? Nonfiction? Are these true hybrids? How would you categorize it? Does it need to be categorized?

Write some assays—yes, some attempts—that use both poetry and essay strategies.

“No River, No Bridge” Exercise

  1. Select an everyday object that’s in your house. Ex. a television, a pair of jeans, a can of kidney beans. (1 min.)
  2. Now describe the object using all of your senses, with only concrete details. Do not use any metaphors or other figurative language. (2 min.)
  3. Imagine how the object was made. Write a step-by-step description of its fabrication. (3 min.)
  4. Imagine the harvesting, mining, or creation of the raw materials that went into making this object. (i.e. the shearing of sheep for your wool sweater or the mining of silicone to make your iPhone). Describe. (2 min.)
  5. Now talk a little bit about how you came to own this object (and talk about not remembering how you got it, if that’s true.) Tell us the backstory. Or, what connotations does the object have? Do you have specific memories associated with it? (2 min.)
  6. Now describe the object using only metaphors. (“My pair of jeans is muddy water reflecting sky, a bird with clipped wings . . . ”) (2 min.)

Share and discuss: How has the object changed in each iteration (concrete description, origin story, deconstruction, entrance, emotional connection, metaphorical naming)? Which form (poetry or essay) better conveys these approaches? Why? How can we combine these strategies?

Police Poetry Workshops

Police with billy club postcard with writing
A postcard (circa 1900–1920), found at a Richmond-area antique store

In addition to prison poetry workshops, let’s do police poetry workshops. I believe that poetry—all art—has the ability and responsibility to guide others into new perspectives. In “Tide of Voices: Why Poetry Matters Now,” Mark Doty says:

People who read imagine the lives of others. Literature makes other people more real to us. It invites us to notice differences but, even more so, points toward commonality.

Reading makes us more attuned to the needs, wants, and experiences of others and, therefore, has the potential of making us more conscientious citizens. I am the daughter of a former police officer and I was raised as the stepdaughter to another. Of course, there are good cops out there who genuinely strive to protect citizens. That being said, with the recent events in Ferguson—both the shooting of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson and the police response to the community’s riots—and in Staten Island—the chokehold death of Eric Garner—I’m concerned about the tendency toward violence and discrimination by our nation’s law enforcement.

As mentioned in my previous post, last year I encountered a cop who told me he had a book of poetry in his car. He asked me questions about poetry and what he should read. When I shared this story via social media, poet Staci R. Schoenfield led me to the idea of police poetry workshops when she said she suggested “arming police with poetry.”

Could poetry have a meaningful impact on police officers? What if we were to offer poetry workshops for law enforcement? While prison poetry workshops have been established in many communities across the nation, it strikes me that it also assumes that convicts are the only ones in need of these exercises in creativity, empathy, and imagination. While I’m certain that these prison or probation poetry workshops are doing vital and important work, why not also address the other side? Perhaps poetry workshops won’t alter systemic problems in the justice system, but they could have a meaningful impact on individual officers or groups of officers. In response to the recent deaths of black men at the hands of police, Claudia Rankine writes: “Because white men can’t police their imaginations, black men are dying.” Can we change this through poetry?

When I posted the idea for this program on social media, a friend posted a link to Art At Work’s “Thin Blue Lines” project and poetry calendar.  Art At Work is “a national initiative to give municipal governments the powerful resource that comes from direct creative engagement.” They partnered with Portland, Maine’s police department and asked their officers to write poems that were then published as calendars. This is the only initiative that I know about right now that directly engages police officers in writing poetry, but if you have any information about similar programs in your area, please contact me using the form below.

I’m looking into the possibility of starting a police poetry workshop in my own community, and I encourage others to do the same. As I find out more information, I will post it here.

“Cadenza” Exercise

C. Reimers- Das Leipziger Gewandhausorchester im Lichte der Satire, 19 Karikaturen, lithographiert von Blau & Co., Leipzig um 1850 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.

  1. Provide students with a glossary of musical terms, such as http://www.classicalworks.com/html/glossary.html, or a selected list. (Italianate terms preferable.)
  2. 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)
  3. 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)
  4. The students will then take home the poem and revise it. Share again at a later date.

On Writing Poems, Workshop, and Reading Like a Writer

ON WRITING POEMS, WORKSHOP, AND READING LIKE A WRITER

Reduction of the Flesh from Health and Beauty for Women (1923)
Reduction of the Flesh from Health and Beauty for Women (1923)

Class: Writing Poetry (Virginia Commonwealth University)
Genre: Poetry
Purpose: To introduce my students to the expectations of the course while providing them with some insight into the process of reading, writing, and workshopping poems.

On Writing Poems

In this course, I will not assign topics or subject matter for your poems. This is meant to give you the greatest freedom on the page to discover your obsessions and “fundamental orientation toward language,” as psychologist D.W. Winnicott calls it. (Poet Tom Sleigh eloquently talks about this concept in relationship to poetry.) If you want to spend all semester writing poems about abandoned amusement parks around the world with lots of white space and dashes to indicate absence and something severed or cut off from the world, go for it. As long as you turn in at least twelve lines on time for each of your seven poem assignments, I have no qualms about the subject matter or style. Some of you may find that your natural orientation toward language is one of concision and twelve lines is all you can muster; others will write voluminously. Some with short lines, some with long. That said, don’t worry about “finding your voice” in this course. In fact, I hope that many poets don’t ever “find their voice” but rather chase the echo of the voice they have in their heads. That way they don’t get too comfortable with the way they write, and they are free to keep challenging themselves to create something new every time they sit down to the page. So every time you write about an abandoned amusement park, challenge yourself to make that poem as unique as that locale.

Some General Rules About Writing Poems

  • Always put your name on your poems. We’re going to have a lot of paper floating around every workshop week, and we want to be sure we know who belongs to the poems.
  • Do not write with end rhymes. Only the truly skilled will be able to handle full end rhymes with any kind of zest and originality. For the rest of us, we’ll be forever shackled to “moon” and “soon.” For the purposes of our class, we’ll write primarily in free verse so that you can get into the habit of writing regularly and freely. That said, if you want to continue studying poetry, I encourage you to investigate form, prosody, and rhyme on your own or in a Form and Theory of Poetry class.
  • Please only use standard fonts. That means Times New Roman, Garamond, Arial, and maybe Cambria, Baskerville, Caslon, or Book Antiqua. If you turn in a poem in Comic Sans, Papyrus, Chiller, or similar fonts, I will return it to you until it’s in an appropriate typeface.
  • Never, ever, ever, ever put your poems in different colors or accent them with clip-art. This isn’t fun. This is distracting and irritating.
  • Eschew abstractions. Yes, some of the very best poets do engage with abstractions, but they do it in ways that engage the tangible. “Love” in Sylvia Plath “set [her] going like a fat gold watch.” It didn’t “descend from the cerulean blue heavens on the wings of temptation.” Fat gold watch = good writing. “The cerulean blue heavens” and “the wings of temptation” = terrible, terrible. For the purposes of this course, I want you to use clear, specific, and significant details. Fat gold watch = clear, specific, and significant detail. Love = abstraction. “The cerulean blue heavens” and “the wings of temptation” = flowery, overblown, cliché, abstract, highly coded, unrealistic, and uninteresting language. We will talk about this throughout the semester.
  • Slam poetry and spoken word are compelling art forms, but they are not a part of this course. Think about it this way: You wouldn’t expect to make sculpture in a painting class, so why would slam poetry—a form of performance art—fulfill requirements in a class about poetry on the page? If you want to talk about slam or spoken word, please make an appointment with me, and I’ll be happy to talk about these topics.
  • Always read your poems aloud when you write, edit, or revise. You’ll be surprised how much your poems will begin to engage the part of you that’s geared toward rhythm and sound. You’ll hear internal rhyme and hear where the poem slows down or speeds up. You might even find where there’s some grammatical hiccups, and it allows you to distance yourself from your head. When you read aloud your poems, you become audience to your own poem. This distance will make it easier for you to recognize what’s working and not working, too.
  • Sometimes you have to kill your darlings. This phrase has been in almost every writing workshop in the last one hundred years, but it still remains true. Say you love one section of your poem and you’ve crafted a compelling narrative around that section, but the section you love so dearly derails the narrative by waxing poetic. You may have to remove it to save the poem. But hold onto it. You never know when a new poem might come out of it.
  • Sometimes the best revision is to start a new poem. Regardless of whether or not a poem makes the cut, you should learn something from the process of writing it and sharing it with others. What we learn from one poem we take with us into the next, and the next, and the next. We’ll talk more about revision as the first one’s due, but keep this in mind throughout the semester.
  • Your poems don’t have to be perfect. Isn’t that a great feeling? This is a workshop after all, and everything should be in progress. Don’t turn a poem in that you feel is finished, because you’ll likely find that it’s not. This only leads to disappointment. Besides, when your peers are asked to comment on something, they will. Even the most famous poems would be taken to task in a workshop setting. But that’s okay. This is a place to receive constructive criticism. Not praise.

On Writer’s Block

I don’t believe in writer’s block as a phenomenon. I believe that what we call “writer’s block” is simply second guessing oneself before getting anything on the page. Sometimes the best way to start writing is to start writing. Sound like a paradox? It’s like feeling sluggish about going on a run because you haven’t gone on a run. If you don’t know what to write about, go out on the Compass and people watch. Start writing about someone there. Read the newspaper and write in the persona of the Congressman arrested for a DUI. Describe the condiments on the table at The Village. Start somewhere, and you’ll get somewhere. Often what’s troubling us or what excites us most will come out in whatever we’re writing about, overtly or subtly. The roller coaster has to climb the hill before it can achieve its speed.

On Finding Subject Matter and A Poet’s Life (On Writer’s Block II)

A student in a class once asked, “My parents never divorced. I don’t know a single person who’s died, and I’m happy. How can I write a poem?” How can you not? Flannery O’Connor wrote: “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” That means both good and bad things. And being a poet doesn’t mean you have to slug fifths, chain smoke, listen to jazz, and say, “Yeah, man.” That’s a stereotype, a hold over from the 50s. (And one that’s brilliantly parodied in Roger Corman’s 1959 B-movie, A Bucket of Blood.) Yes, it’s harder to write a joyful poem than a dark poem, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. And, surely, you’re capable of great feats of imagination and empathy. Remember Mark Doty wrote: “Literature makes other people more real to us.” I say: Writing poetry makes other people more real to us.

Why Workshop?

Workshop allows you to receive comments from peers about the effects your poem—what’s working and not working—has on a reader. In the same way that Hollywood tests films before releasing them to theaters, you have a “test audience” for your work. As you are all submitting and responding to poems in this workshop, the class should establish a trust that will allow you to be receptive to and comfortable providing feedback. The format should also encourage you to do things on the page you wouldn’t normally try. Additionally, and just as importantly, you will become more adept at talking about poetic craft. In my own undergraduate and graduate workshops, I often learned just as much by reading, thinking about, and responding to my peers’ poems as I did in my own workshops. Therefore, writing your own poems and reading others’ poems are equally valued in this course. Here you will not only become better writers, you will become better readers of others’ work—and your own.

8-Minute Workshop Procedure

  • Poet reads poem aloud for workshop so that it’s fresh in all of our minds. Note: After reading aloud the poem, the poet cannot speak until prompted by the instructor at the end of the workshop.
  • A workshop participant should provide a brief synopsis of the subject matter, narrative (if there is one), and/or the major associative leaps. If anyone else disagrees with the synopsis, that opinion should be voiced as well. Contradictory understandings of what the poem is about will let the poet know that some more work needs to be done to set up the poem.
  • The class should locate and analyze what’s working well in the poem.
  • The class should locate and analyze what’s not working well in the poem. (Hint: Sometimes, asking questions about what the author intends is the best way to reveal a poem’s inadequacies.)
  • The instructor will open up the floor to the poet to ask or answer questions.

What Are Helpful Comments?

  • “The couplets [two-line stanzas] reinforce our attention on the two characters that are present in the poem.” This demonstrates that you’re thinking about how poetic form can support subject matter.
  • “The metaphors here don’t seem to be in the same wheelhouse as the subject matter.” This demonstrates your attention to significant details.
  • “I’m not sure exactly what’s happening in this stanza. I can see two possibilities, which are…” This demonstrates your willingness to engage in speculation and your desire to really understand how the poem works.

What Are Unhelpful Comments?

  • “You need a comma here.” At this stage, nitpicking small grammatical features isn’t useful to the workshop. It will take up time that we could use talking about more important issues that will help the poet in revision and new work. Even if you fix all the commas, it doesn’t matter if the poet has to take apart the poem and start from scratch. But if you must direct the poet’s attention to this sort of thing, write it on your copy of the poem. Don’t be Captain Obvious and point out something that, in all likelihood, the rest of the class has noticed.
  • “We all love our mothers, so we can really see this happening.” See the “On ‘(Un)Relatability’” section of this document. It’s essentially the same thing.
  • “I just don’t like the speaker.” Perhaps the author intended you not to like the speaker. Demonstrate your ability to discuss the poet’s intentionality and speculate as to how the speaker’s “unlikeability” works within the poem.

Some General Rules

  • Always refer to the “speaker”/”character” of the poem. We never assume that Suzie Q. the author is the same as the Suzie Q. of the poem. (Even if we were workshopping Dante, we’d always say “the speaker” or “the character of Dante” in the Divine Comedy.) This helps us focus on the craft of the poem and not the circumstances behind it and therefore protects confidentiality and makes your peers more willing to share their work with you.
  • Focus on how language is working (or not working) in a poem. This takes practice and a lot of experience with reading poetry, but now’s the time for you to start to think about language
  • Workshop is not therapy. None of us are licensed professionals and, besides, we’re more interested in how you put together that poem than what motivated it.
  • Workshop is also not the place for you to exercise your personal beliefs on politics, religion, sexuality, etcetera. When we talk about poems, we talk about how they are crafted, regardless of whether or not you agree with the subject matter. Should I see or hear any response to a poem that attacks the poet’s personal beliefs, I will address this matter, at the very least, with a deduction to your participation grade.
  • On that note, the class should never—never, never—workshop the poet and/or the poet’s beliefs/actions. We will be reading a lot of poets who represent many different aesthetics, beliefs, and lifestyles in this course. If you can’t get past the subject matter or the context, you will never be able to appreciate good poems.

On “(Un)Relatability”

For the purposes of this course, the term “relatable” and all of its derivatives (“I can/can’t relate to this”) is prohibited. The poet Chad Davidson has summed up my concerns about “relatability”:

Here’s the rub: whether or not someone in a workshop relates to someone else’s poem is of very little consequence to me or to the poem. It’s the reader’s job to go in there and get some of that relation. A failure to relate, in my book, is a failure of the reader, not the poem. There may be all sorts of other problems with the poem, but relatability is never one of them.

Example: I am not a Danish prince with an existential (if quite eloquent) crisis. Hence, I cannot relate to Hamlet. Neither am I a whiny, self-important, late-medieval Tuscan on a journey through hell. Hence—mi dispiace, Dante—sorry, buddy, but can’t relate. I’m not even Catholic.

. . . Put another way, the idea of relating to a poem is absolutely the lowest common denominator of judgment. More so, it’s just a cover for what we really mean: I don’t understand the poem or I am uncomfortable with the poem or, perhaps most disturbingly, I just don’t care about the poem. All of those questions we can handle in a workshop. That’s in fact what the workshop is for.

(To see the rest of his essay “Can You Relate?,” go to: http://www.32poems.com/blog/7048/prose-feature-isnt-life-enough-three-takes-workshop-part-1)

Reading Like a Writer

Francine Prose, in Reading Like a Writer, reminds us that “language is the medium [writer’s] use in much the same way a composer uses notes, the way a painter uses paint. I realize it may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.” So, in reading like a writer, we’ll look at language as a set of raw materials in much the same way that any craftsman would look at raw materials. A boatmaker might say, “This wood has a fine grain, except for this spot here, this knot, that’s a weak spot.” What words stick out in the fine grain of the sentence? A cook might say, “Cinnamon and fish don’t go together.” We might say, “This long line that takes forever to read doesn’t go well with your subject matter of a piano falling fast from an open window.” See how that works?

One Motivation, Five Poems Exercise

Minerva by Elihu Vedder (1897)
Minerva by Elihu Vedder (1897)

Class: Beginning Poetry (Tinker Mountain Writers’ Workshop)
Genre: Poetry
Readings: A tailored poetry packet
Time: 50+ minutes

Think about a poem that you’ve been wanting to write for a long time but haven’t been able to successfully accomplish. It works best if this is a personal memory or other narrative.

Discuss each of the following approaches and the read their respective suggested poems:

  1. Anecdotal: A simple story in one setting, usually in plain speech. See “Black” by Alan Shapiro.
  2. Imperative: A second person address with instructions, based on an extended metaphor or literal. See “How to Live in a Trap” by Eleanor Ross Taylor.
  3. Meta: A response to an event that takes into account writing’s inability to fully capture the event. See “Photograph of September 11th” by Wislawa Szymborska and “The streetlamp above me darkens” by Tarfia Faizullah.
  4. Figurative: A characterization of an event or action through metaphor. See “Boy Breaking Glass” by Gwendolyn Brooks.
  5. Collage: A poem that uses multiple of these approaches and usually isn’t afraid to associate away from and back again to the original motivation. See “My Story In a Late Style of Fire” by Larry Levis of “Across the Sea” by Dana Levin.

After discussing each approach, take ten minutes to write your narrative using only that approach. Move on to the next one and repeat.

At the end, ask yourself: How did the poem change? Did the poem become more or less imaginative? Which one do I like the most? Why? Share.