Monday, April 25, 2011

Writing Prompt #5: PoemWeek

Don't forget that we won't be meeting this Wednesday and Friday, as I'll be out of town fulfilling a number of professional obligations.  As promised, here's a writing prompt that will last you the entire week.  This assignment will play with your faculties for remembering and forgetting — both will be important facets of the overall process.

You'll start today with a poem — this can either be a new one or one you've written previously, and for your own sake shouldn't be too long.  Write down a brief description of the poem (perhaps 2-3 sentences long): its emotions, its action, its setting, its development, its abstract concepts, etc.  

Every day for the rest of the week, you'll attempt to reconstruct the original poem from memory — if necessary, you may consult the description you've written, but you can't refer to the poem itself or the new drafts that you'll write each day.  Keep going until the week is up.  Then once the final version has been written, take a look at your other drafts and make comparisons: what elements were preserved throughout and which changed?  This is where the length is key, because your poem shouldn't be so short that you can memorize it off the bat and then simply repeat that every day, and yet it shouldn't be so long that you'll have trouble remembering the basic elements.  To create a final version to post to Blackboard, you'll want to bring together all of the novel elements of those variant drafts into one version, and you might want to write a little note to go with the poem talking about how the work was altered.  Feel free to make use of repetition (if you get different interesting versions of lines and/or sections) or to work with large-scale variation if there are very significant differences among your drafts.

Much like last week's prompt, this assignment is intended to help you more effectively write around a given topic or idea, generating a larger, more complex body of raw materials, ideas, actions, images from which you can draw as you craft subsequent drafts.  The revision process will be even more important here as you recompose your poem from memory, working through problems with organization or phrasing and/or finding new ways to proceed.

A short-term version of this prompt is to attempt to recreate a poem from memory — any poem, from one of your own to work by your favorite poet to something workshopped in class today.  For this assignment, however, I'd like you to do the full-scale seven (or five) day version.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Writing Prompt #4: A Set Lexicon

One main way in which poetry differs from prose is the importance of every last word, phrase and even punctuation mark.  We want our language to be as vivid and imaginative as possible, and at the same time to have a pleasing sonic interplay with the words surrounding it, however this isn't always easy to achieve on the first pass.  Likewise, throughout the first round of our workshop we've stressed the importance of specificity, of concreteness, as a way to make our work seem more real, more visual, more appealing to our readers.  Taken together, this is quite a tall order — how exactly are you supposed to do all of these things at once?  Well, one way to start is to think intently about language.

So today's prompt — inspired in part by our having recently seen several workshop poems that exemplified and/or needed attention to this technique — will ask you to cast a wide net for poetic to gather the raw materials of language you'll need for your poem.  Because I'm going to ask you to explore the intricacies of the language subset pertaining to one idea, one thing, one place, etc., I'm calling this exercise "A Set Lexicon."  For this prompt, an object poem might be your best bet, though you could also do a landscape/scene, or work around an abstract emotion — there are lots of possibilities, so find the one that works best for your needs.  

As a hypothetical example, consider the word "apple."  What sorts of ideas come to mind when you hear that word?  Perhaps color, so you might start by thinking "red, green, yellow" and then hit a wall.  So you shift gears again — "sweet, tart, juicy" — now aside from taste, what other senses can you bring into play?  "Waxy, crunch, bite, firm, shiny."  What visuals might you get?  "An apple orchard, a worm in an apple, an apple on the teacher's desk, the apple waiting in your lunch bag."  What phrases come to mind?  "The apple of my eye.  An apple a day keeps the doctor away.  The Big Apple."  What about cultural associations?  "Eve and the forbidden apple.  William Tell shooting the apple off of his son's head."  What specific words or names do you think of? "Mackintosh, Fuji, Braeburn, Granny Smith, Winesap"  Keep going until you run out of ideas, writing everything you come up with down.  Now go back and look over your list: here you have some really wonderfully vivid raw materials with which you can construct a poem, so do so!

Robert Pinsky, former U.S. Poet Laureate
One of the best examples of this sort of technique in action is Robert Pinsky's classic poem "Shirt."  Here, we see him take a simple concept, the shirt, and take it in a number of strange associative directions.  Some of my favorite parts of the poem, however, are devoid of narrative — instead they're the places where Pinsky weaves clever music out of the specific parts of the shirt, all of the special, arcane language that applies to it.

Now, you might not necessarily write a ton of poems in this fashion, but what it's priming you to do is activate that list mode when you find yourself stuck for a specific word that'll serve as a hook for your readers, or when you're revising a poem and seeking to clear up any vague language.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Workshop Schedule: Round 2

Friday, April 15

Emily Schwieterman (lead reviewer: Francis Pospisil)
Samantha Ewing (lead reviewer: Emily Schwieterman)
Johnneca Johnson (lead reviewer: Anabel Morales)

Monday, April 18

Chris Wiggins (lead reviewer: Claire Hayden)
Chris Todd (lead reviewer: Brandy Huber)
Elyse Terrell (lead reviewer: Taylor La Rocca)

Wednesday, April 20

Brandy Huber (lead reviewer: Samantha Ewing)
Taylor La Rocca (lead reviewer: John Zajac)
Anabel Morales (lead reviewer: Morgan Anderson)

Friday, April 22

Claire Hayden (lead reviewer: Elyse Terrell)
Lucas Bezerra (lead reviewer: Johnneca Johnson)
Francis Pospisil (lead reviewer: Chris Todd)

Monday, April 25

Samantha Wilson (lead reviewer: Ashley Cagle)
Ashley Cagle (lead reviewer: Chris Wiggins)
Morgan Anderson (lead reviewer: Samantha Wilson)

Wednesday, April 27: No Class — Professor Conference

Friday, April 29: No Class — Professor Conference

Monday, May 2

Jamie Fox (lead reviewer: Jenny Otto)
Jenny Otto (lead reviewer: Lucas Bezerra)
Chelsea White (lead reviewer: Jamie Fox)

Wednesday, May 4

John Zajac (lead reviewer: Chelsea White)

Writing Prompt #3: Joe Brainard Remembers. Do You?

The late, great Joe Brainard (shown here outside of New York poets' oasis Gem Spa) was well-known as both an artist and writer, though far more prolific as the former than the latter.  While much of his literary focus was directed towards covers and illustrations for books by his New York School friends (including Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett,  Anne Waldman, Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery) he did leave behind one modest yet indelible masterpiece: I Remember.  First published in three small volumes from the independent press Angel Hair — I Remember (1970), I Remember More (1972) and More I Remember More (1973) — that were brought together in its present form in 1975.  I Remember has continued to captivate audiences in the intervening decades, with Paul Auster praising it as "one of the few totally original books I have ever read," and both Georges Perec and Gilbert Adair creating book-length interpretations of their own.

The power of I Remember lies in its simplicity and imitability.  Consisting of hundreds of short prose passages, each consisting of a single memory and beginning with the words "I remember," Brainard's book calls out for us to mimic his form, documenting our own lived experiences in a similar fashion. Here are some selections from the book, cut and pasted from web sources:

I remember when, in high school, if you wore green and yellow on Thursday it meant that you were queer.

I remember when, in high school, I used to stuff a sock in my underwear.

I remember that for my fifth birthday all I wanted was an off-one-shoulder black satin evening gown. I got it. And I wore it to my birthday party.

I remember my first sexual experience in a subway. Some guy (I was afraid to look at him) got a hard-on and was rubbing it back and forth against my art. I got very excited and when my stop came I hurried out and home where I tried to do an oil painting using my dick as a brush.

I remember my parents’ bridge teacher. She was very fat and very butch (cropped hair) and she was a chain smoker. She prided herself on the fact that she didn’t have to carry matches around. She lit each new cigarette from the old one. She lived in a little house behind a restaurant and lived to be very old.

I remember the first time I got a letter that said “After Five Days Return To” on the envelope, and I thought that after I had kept the letter for five days I was supposed to return it to the sender.

I remember the kick I used to get going through my parents’ drawers looking for rubbers. (Peacock.)

I remember when polio was the worst thing in the world.

I remember pink dress shirts. And bola ties.

I remember when a kid told me that those sour clover-like leaves we used to eat (with little yellow flowers) tasted so sour because dogs peed on them. I remember that didn’t stop me from eating them.

I remember the first drawing I remember doing. It was of a bride with a very long train.

I remember my first cigarette. It was a Kent. Up on a hill. In Tulsa, Oklahoma. With Ron Padgett.

I remember my first erections. I thought I had some terrible disease or something.

I remember the only time I ever saw my mother cry. I was eating apricot pie.

I remember when my father would say "Keep your hands out from under the covers" as he said goodnight. But he said it in a nice way.

I remember when I thought that if you did anything bad, policemen would put you in jail.
I remember Dorothy Collins.
I remember Dorothy Collins’ teeth.
I remember planning to tear page 48 out of every book I read from the Boston Public Library, but soon losing interest.
I remember my grade school art teacher, Mrs Chick, who got so mad at a boy one day she dumped a bucket of water over his head.
I remember Moley, the local freak and notorious queer. He had a very little head that grew out of his body like a mole. No one knew him, but everyone knew who he was. He was always ‘around’.
I remember liver.
I remember when hoody boys wore their blue jeans so low that the principal had to put a limit on that too. I believe it was three inches below the navel.

I remember one football player who wore very light faded blue jeans, and the way he filled them.

I remember when my father would say ‘Keep your hands out from under the covers’ as he said good night. But he said it in a nice way.

I remember the chair I used to put my boogers behind.

I remember ‘queers can’t whistle’.

I remember how many other magazines I had to buy in order to buy one physique magazine.

I remember a girl in school one day who, just out of the blue, went into a long spiel all about how difficult it was to wash her brother’s pants because he didn’t wear underwear.

I remember a pinkish-red rubber douche that appeared in the bathroom every now and then, and not knowing what it was, but somehow knowing enough not to ask.

I remember a little boy who said it was more fun to pee together than alone, and so we did, and so it was.

I remember ‘dress up time’ (Running around pulling up girl’s dresses yelling ‘dress up time’).

I remember a fat man who sold insurance. One hot summer day we went to visit him and he was wearing shorts and when he sat down one of his balls hung out.

I remember that it was hard to look at it and hard not to look at it too.

I remember a very early memory of an older girl in a candy store. The man asked her what she wanted and she picked out several things and then he asked her for her money and she said. ‘Oh, I don’t have any money. You just asked me what I wanted, and I told you.’ This impressed me to no end.

While these excerpts aren't all contiguous (they're pasted from three different places) you can get a sense of how certain themes and ideas carry over from one remembrance to another, and also how one memory can spur another, whether directly or obliquely.  Also, while all of these memories relate to Brainard's childhood, there are great many in the book that are more contemporaneous, dating from a few weeks or a few years ago vs. a few decades ago.

So for this assignment, I'd like you to stoke the fires of your memory and see what comes out.  Don't feel any restrictions in regards to length — you can be as long or as short as you'd like.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Keeping on Pace

A quick heads-up regarding the speed of posting poems: please remember that your poems should be posted three (3) days prior to your workshop so that your classmates will have plenty of time to respond to them.  We all have busy schedules and while we want to give honest effort in responding to the workshop poems, we can't do so if they're posted right before the class itself.  Looking at the boards, for example, I see that only one of tomorrow's poems is posted.  I've created threads for next week's workshops as well, so please post your poems as early as possible.

Additionally, I'm quite impressed to see that the majority of you have kept on pace with workshop responses (looking at the number of thread participants, it seems like all but a few people have posted comments on each poem).  So I won't have to do what I did last term — namely, spending a full two hours going through, thread by thread, and logging who did and didn't respond — I'm going to start tallying responses week by week.  This weekend, I'll go through the first week's workshops, and I'll continue a week at a time throughout the term, so if you haven't yet posted responses to those poems, please do so as soon as possible.

As I said on our first day, a workshop is a social contract — a symbiotic agreement that your peers will give the same serious attention to your work that you give to theirs — and most of you seem to be getting this perfectly.  Failure to respond to your colleagues' work in a timely fashion is one of the biggest ways in which your grades might be negatively impacted at the end of the term, and rather than get buried in late responses in weeks 9 & 10, you can save yourself a lot of trouble by making up any missing work now.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Writing Prompt #2: Voices of the Other, Voices of the Inanimate

"Je est un autre" ("I is another") — Arthur Rimbaud

Poetry is often seen as a non-fictional genre, even as an autobiographical genre, and though the perspective we often write from — especially when we use the pronoun "I" — is our own, that doesn't necessarily need to be the case.  When reading others' poetry, it's important to remember that the voice isn't necessarily issuing from the poet herself, and conversely, this is a useful reminder that we need not always be bound by our own point of view when writing.

A persona poem is one written from a fictional perspective, not unlike an actor getting into a role.  It might take the form of a short vignette (like both of William Blake's poems titled "The Chimney Sweeper") or a longer character study (like Randall Jarrell's "The Woman at the Washington Zoo," or Frank Bidart's epic "Herbert White," a favorite poem of James Franco, who made a short film based on the poem).  A persona poem might also be written from the perspective of an animal (like Gregory Corso's "The Mad Yak" or Philip Levine's "Animals Are Passing From Our Lives"), or could be written from a fictional perspective about a real person (or a preexisting character from a novel, film, myth, etc.), implementing a technique that's called "historiographic metafiction" (or "metapoetry," in this case).

You might even go so far as to write a poem from the point of view of an inanimate object (like Richard Brautigan's "The Sawmill" or Howard Moss' "Einstein's Bathrobe"), though in this case you'd still want to suffuse it with as much character, as much voice, emotion, perspective, etc. as you'd give to a fictional character you'd created. 

So here are many different options for writing a work that comes from a voice other than your own.  For this week's assignment, you might want to just write one poem of any sort, or try both a persona poem and a poem from the perspective of a non-living object, or maybe two persona poems written almost in dialogue with one another (two sides of the same story, perhaps).  Regardless of the approach you take, make sure your response is posted by the end of the week.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Rest of Workshop Round One

Here's the workshop schedule for the remainder of our first round.  As we discussed in class today, instead of trying to pack in four rounds this quarter, we'll keep this more ambitious pace of three 12-minute workshops a day until the first round is over, then slow down for the last two rounds with two longer workshops a day.  We'll set up the schedule for round two as we get close to the end of this one.

I've also created threads for all of next week's workshops.  Please remember that you should post your poems three days before the workshop date (or as close to then as possible) so that your peers will have plenty of time to respond to your work.

Monday, April 4:

Chris Wiggins (lead reviewer: Samantha Ewing)
Francis Pospisil (lead reviewer: Claire Hayden)
Anabel Morales (lead reviewer: Chelsea White)

Wednesday, April 6:

Claire Hayden (lead reviewer: Morgan Anderson)
Jamie Fox (lead reviewer: Johnneca Johnson)
Taylor La Rocca (lead reviewer: Anabel Morales)

Friday, April 8:

Lucas Bezerra (lead reviewer: Brandy Huber)
Johnneca Johnson (lead reviewer: John Zajac)
Samantha Ewing (lead reviewer: Taylor La Rocca)

Monday, April 11:

Ashley Cagle (lead reviewer: Chris Wiggins)
John Zajac (lead reviewer: Francis Pospisil)
Brandy Huber (lead reviewer: Ashley Cagle)

Wednesday, April 13:

Jenny Otto (lead reviewer: Samantha Wilson)
Samantha Wilson (lead reviewer: Chris Todd)
Chris Todd (lead reviewer: Jenny Otto)