Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Writing Exercise # 39

First, let me tell you that I read the poem that inspired this prompt about five years ago, and it turned my organs around. My insides shifted. I felt it, people! Like a goon, I forgot the title of the poem, as well as its author, but thankfully, my friend Marty knew what I was talking about when I said, "What's that amazing poem about _____ and it had a piano in it?"

Yesterday, I was thinking of how lazy we get in our writing. How, when we're exhausted sometimes, we end up getting all literal and boring. So, let's remember what it is we do again.


1. Similar to the imagery/personification exercise I created way back when, create for yourself a word bank. Think of five to ten beefy words you want to work into today's piece of writing, then decide what objects/people/places/animals best fit each word you have chosen. I usually devote an entire page of a journal to a word. I have "Things That Are Alone" or "Things That Are/Sound/Feel Red", or "Colossal" "Emptying" "Muscled" etc. S T R E T C H that noggin. Get out of that literal box! Swing from that chandelier of a brain you have! Eventually, you won't need a list or journal. Your brain will automatically reach for things beyond itself.

(Sometimes my class would just build a list poem aka "catalog verse" with these items, like "Sixteen Things In A Lonely House" or we'd talk about how, in poetry, certain objects have become universal symbols for other things and we'd design a kookier version for our own writing. The moon is a symbol for femininity or longing or something unreachable, sure. Easy. But what about a pocket wrench? An empty elevator? An unused tube of lipstick?)

This is also where you can remind yourself to allow objects in the poem to set the tone of your writing. I talk about this a lot, I know, but I really feel it is important as writers to keep in mind that everything is capable of witness. In the poem Signs by Samantha Thornhill, "finding a shoe in the woods" is a symbol of fear and anxiety. Robert Hass' A Story About The Body has an unsettling end (I won't give it away) that sits with you long after the prose is finished, because the objects he chose are saturated in private symbolism; they will mean different things to different readers. Classy!

2. Choose a moment you have witnessed between strangers. If you can't think of one, make one up--if you must, choose a moment between friends or family members, but DO NOT involve yourself.

3. Change the scene around. Move it to a different place. Have the event happen in a tight space, like an elevator or a medicine cabinet. Or onstage. In the ocean. Or on a high wire. Or in the library. Let the surroundings constrict or magnify the voices and movements of the people.

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As always, you are the conductor here. There are no rules or guidelines in these exercises, just nudges. Keep the poem in present tense, that's all I ask. Title the poem with either a word or symbol from #1, or with the setting from #3. Let items from your word bank flower the atmosphere. Make sure that, whatever the event is, it adapts to its surroundings. It might struggle, it might prosper. But make sure it is forced to evolve.


(This exercise was inspired by the magnificent C.D. Wright poem Tours.)