This past semester — Spring 2011 — I taught a Beginning Poetry Writing course at the University of Northern Iowa. A few minutes before class was to start one day, I realized I had neglected to prepare an in-class poetry exercise, something to get students in the zone, as they say. Looking around my office for last-minute inspiration, my eyes lit upon the most recent issue of the North American Review, which brought to mind the fine short story "VIVA!" by Erin McReynolds.
I leafed quickly through Erin's story, looking for a paragraph that had fascinating words in it. I found one that contained the words blue light, wound, burn, glacier, Sssh, crushes. Bingo! Here's that paragraph as it appears on the page, with the exact lineation:
I quickly xeroxed the half of the page bearing the paragraph (making sure Erin's entire name was visible) and then wrote instructions on the remaining white space: Write a 12-line poem using one word from each line in the paragraph shown. The chosen word from each line needs to appear in the same line in the poem. E.g., if you use the word "Internet" it should appear in line 4 of your poem. If you use "chest" it must appear in line 11. Okay? Ready, set, go. I left the 13th line of the paragraph out because it was short and thus had relatively few words. In class, I also told the students they could slightly alter the words, for example, changing "sleeps" to "sleeping."
Here's an image of that actual sheet (click on it to see a larger version); the handwriting shows how truly impromptu the exercise was.
Impromptu or not, the exercise was incredibly successful. The 12-line exercise poems the students wrote in the course of about ten minutes were quite good, probably due in great part to the haunting strangeness of Erin's paragraph. After the semester, I looked back at the course and saw this exercise as one of the high points in the class. Via e-mail I asked the students if they would be willing to share in this blog entry what they wrote in response to this exercise. Two volunteered: David Hosack and Mandy Paris. My thanks to both of you.
Here is Dave's exercise; the words borrowed from Erin's paragraph are in gray at the right.
David has written a fascinating poem here. I like how he drew from Erin's paragraph an obsessive focus on the face, that idiosyncratic image we advance into the world each day. Notice how Dave finds unusual and striking attributes for the face; my favorite is how the face can say "'sssh' after the first chords of 'happy birthday'" — how we can short-circuit each other's happiness with just a look. Also, Dave makes a savvy rhetorical choice here to abandon the "rules" in the last line: by not using one of Erin's words in his twelfth line, he ends the poem with a convincing and meaningful closing. Bravo, Dave.
Mandy, she told me, is usually meticulous in holding on to completed course materials but couldn't locate what she wrote that day. I remember that her exercise was as strong as Dave's. Instead Mandy offered to write something new in response to the exercise. Here is that poem, written at home with more practice, with more than ten minutes grace:
The day of the exercise, I wrote along with the students, as I usually do. I was amazed that in three or four minutes, this surfaced:
P O E M R E M O V E D
while being submitted for publication.
Please come back later. The poem may
return at some time in the future.
I'm an aficionado of crime fiction, especially when it centers on forensics. For example, just today I finished a Patricia Cornwell novel featuring medical examiner Dr. Kay Scarpetta. In any case, I guess I'm well-primed to write about this topic. But what really surprised me was how much of a "real" poem this exercise was. I plan to work on this poem more: I need to work out who the speaker is and why he's where he is. Line 10 is an allusion to (perhaps a re-working of) a line in Yusef Komunyakaa's poem "Facing It"; I need to figure out if that echo helps or hurts the poem. Etc.
Since I had a few more minutes — the students were still writing — I tempted and challenged the muses by trying again. Perhaps lightning might ... well, you know. Here's what came of that second attempt:
Not as good, quite a bit clunkier. Too much abstraction. (Probably my students who are reading this now are laughing, knowing how I rail so much against abstraction.) I don't seem to know what the poem's really about until close to the end. But for a five-minute writing, not bad. The fascinating thing here, I think, is that I've got the seed of a short story here: a man who, perhaps obsessively, tries to control his relationship with his girlfriend because of a traumatic childhood. Obviously nothing earthshaking there
Mary Wonders Why
Her boyfriend was just too sweet,
leaving on the screen of her laptop
pictures of dancing hearts and kissing
birds. All drawn lovingly from the Internet.
He never thought of any losses
between them, not in a minute.
He removed all possibility of anger
and defeat from them. Had his reasons.
His childhood was wild and panicked:
alcoholic father, angry mother, comfort
a rarity. He couldn't face it again
now. His jagged and scarred past always whispering.
—Exercise by Vince Gotera [please do not copy or quote ... thanks]
Well, that's all for today. I just wanted to tell you about an exciting learning moment in my class. Please don't copy or quote anything from the exercise poems above. They are only drafts. Thank you for your cooperation with that.
Oh, about the exercise itself. This word-from-line-from-found-text approach is not my invention. I first learned it in a Teaching Creative Writing class taught by Sena Jeter Naslund over two decades ago at Indiana University. Thanks, Sena! In any case, you can find many (probably better) versions of this exercise in books and online. Do try it yourself, though. You might be pleasantly surprised at what you end up writing. There may even be a "real" poem waiting for you to do this exercise. If you do use this exact exercise, I'd like to hear how it turns out.
Please write a comment below. I'd love to hear what you think. Hope you're having a great weekend!
Added 31 December 2011: There's a "reboot" of this in-class poetry-exercise topic in the post titled "Wound, Burn, Glacier ... Revisited"