Saturday, May 28, 2011

Wound, Burn, Glacier: A Poetry Exercise


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:
My boyfriend sleeps beside me, and his face is peaceful in
the blue light of my laptop. His lashes are long and I bend
down to kiss them. Because I'm used to telling him every-
thing, I whisper aloud the things I find on the Internet.
Things like, "A wound to the carotid artery results in a loss of
consciousness in under a minute," and, "They burn the organs
they remove during autopsy, unless the family wants them put
back in, for religious reasons." When he startles, his glacier
eyes wild with panic, I stroke his head. "Sssh," I whisper, "it’s
me," as if that should comfort him. He blinks at me and then
grabs me around the ribs and crushes his face to my chest. I
keep stroking his hair, whispering, "The human body contains
about five liters of blood."
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.
my face is not like yours
it does not light up when the phone rings
it has never been kissed
it sees things as they really are
it leaks the results to loved ones
before organ transplants go through
my face removes smiles from children and
disrobes religious men and
says "sssh" after the first chords of "happy birthday"
my face only blinks when it matters
my face is not like yours
my face is not like anybody's

—Exercise by David Hosack     [please do not copy or quote ... thanks]
face
light
kiss
things
results
organ
remove
religious
sssh
blinks
face
· · · ·
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:
I push my face into that crook and I feel you
bending against me, limbs locking automatically.
You're telling me awful things, about your mother,
about your sister. You whisper because this
is an open wound. Our hearts beat together. . . .
The tip of your tongue burns as it reaches the
scalding thoughts at your temple. They remove
themselves, but linger, wanting a way back in.
Our eyes catch. I have nothing for you — yet
you search me. I can't comfort you, I can only blink —
and my ribs tighten like ropes around the beating organ
that contains every humane wish I had for you.

—Exercise by Mandy Paris     [please do not copy or quote ... thanks]
face
bend
telling
whisper
wound
burn
remove
back in
eyes
comfort
ribs
human
Mandy's poem is a heart-rending portrayal of a vulnerable and touching moment shared by two people. Her closing image of the heart both as literal, physical organ and as the metaphorical, metaphysical "font of love," is breathtaking. Brava, Mandy.

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.

Thank you!





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:
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]


boyfriend
laptop
kiss
Internet
loss
minute
remove
reasons
wild panic
comfort
face
whispering
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 . . . I need still to find out what's really at stake for the character.

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" . . . new poetic responses/exercises by the poet Catherine Pritchard Childress. Check it out!


9 comments:

Erin McReynolds said...

Very interesting results, Vince! Your exercise not only conveys the potency of language, but of rhythm—and of course the inextricable relationship between prose and poetry. (When the words I want aren't coming, I dose up on poetry.)

Vince Gotera said...

Erin: Thanks! Wouldn't have worked half as well without your cool text. Glad you liked how it worked out. --Vince

mandy! said...

I love the varied results. Such an interesting exercise. Thanks for letting me participate, even if I couldn't do it in the original spirit of the assignment! - Mandy

Vince Gotera said...

Mandy, no, it worked out perfect. What you wrote shows what the larger possibilities are for such an exercise outside of a class. So that's great ... and THANKS!

Anonymous said...

I am a graduate student in literature and creative writing. I have been looking for things to pull me out of my comfort zone, so to speak. This is a great exercise. Although I wouldn't hold my effort up against the ones posted above, I thought I would share what your exact exercise and 10 or fifteen minutes yielded for me.


Ragdoll

Peace eludes her hard earned sleep,
she lashes out incoherent words, flailing
limbs tell long buried secrets of a past
he tries to whisper away with hush nows,
there theres, croon clear the blighted artery
of memory that burns clean to the surface -
a childhood. Family forgotten by light, encircles
her with startling clarity in the void of night
wild as the twisted vines, heavy with grapes,
where she blinked tears drawn by mama’s hand,
clinging to crushed remnants of whiskey-free days,
stroking the pale straw hair of a faceless doll.

Vince Gotera said...

Anonymous, I wish I knew who you were (are). This is quite good ... stands up well to the others above. I really like "croon clear the blighted artery." Would you leave your name? Or get hold of me some other way? Thanks.

Catherine said...

Thank you. My name is Catherine Childress. I am a graduate student at East Tennessee State University. childress@goldmail.etsu. edu I actually ended up with what I think is a much better poem using this exercise. I would be happy to hear from you. Thank you again for your kind assessment of my work.


This is the poem that resulted from working with this exercise and a little more time :

Oeuvre

A real boyfriend would’ve cared I was only twelve,
that it would be a long time before I wasn’t jailbait,
never had a slow, wet kiss full of wrestling tounges,
been able to find my G-spot or even know I had one,
that what he had planned for the backseat would wound
more than the pink crescent between baby-fat legs.
A minute of his own pleasure would remove the thin layer
of dignity I cleaved to with the zeal of backwoods religion,
sacrificed for a few quick, dry strokes of his manhood.
Would have offered a grease rag for the blood and comfort
in his arms, instead of flopping his chest on top of me
again and again pounding out his body of work.

Vince Gotera said...

Catherine, I'm so sorry I've taken so long to respond.

Both of these are tremendous responses. I really appreciate the seriousness of the poems, how they deal with such personal topics with dignity and elegance.

Could I possibly feature these two pieces in a continuation blog post? In fact, if you want try the exercise once more, it might be interesting to see what other beauty you might create.

Let me know, won't you?

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