Exercise: Strange surfaces

Write a fragment, prose or verse, on an unconventional surface. In other words, what Emily Dickinson does in The Gorgeous Nothings, you do too, on some other inscribable surface.

For instance, you might take a paper bag and cut a shape from it. Triangle, rhombus, hourglass, angel wing? Make sure it has interesting surface features. Seams and ledges and creases.

Then to write on it a text that heeds the shapes available. Do you ride right over seams between paper zones? Or arrange your thought to accommodate ledges, flaps, secret corners? Does the form of the surface maybe inflect the words you set down there?

The distinction between prose and verse starts to decay here.

FOR ADVANCED USERS (that’s anyone). Pay attention also to your writing implement. Dickinson’s envelope poems leave traces of her process — for instance, some variants were surely pencilled in later, after the whole was composed, if the quality of pencil line (darker, slimmer) is any guide at all.

The word for it’s materiality — that the matter matters.

Etymologically, matter is mother.

Hebrew: Adam = “red earth.”

Haida: human = “ordinary surface bird.”

We’re earth children you and I. Squawk and g’night.

Exercise: Punctuation poem

Next week we turn to the gorgeous Gorgeous Nothings, a collaboration across oceans and generations by Emily Dickinson, Jen Bervin, and Marta Werner. My students’ first exercise will be:

Compose a poem made entirely of punctuation. Then write a short paragraph describing what the poem “means.” Treat the paragraph as a creative extension of the piece — as playful creative nonfiction, not straight-faced literary analysis. Be ready to present both the poem and your explanation to the class.

The examples they’ll have “read” are retrieved from Rasula & McCaffery’s Imagining Language — up next.

On erasure practice (II)

Yestereven, erasure marked typographically, as with Carson and Schwerner, giving a feel of fidelity, though that’s often mock. Also, erasure as palimpsest, as in Bervin’s Nets, the source poem receding into the page but not altogether invisible.

The maybe most austere mode is just to leave the page untouched in its white or creamy presentness. That’s Ronald Johnson’s approach in Radi Os, his seminal erasure of Milton’s Paradise Lost


If austere is one end of a spectrum, and illuminative the other, somewhere in the middle’s any practice that retains the erasure marks, making what art of them they propose. Can find a precursor to that in this page from Johnson’s draft copy of Paradise Lost


It’s a question I’ve messed with some in Overject, erasures I’ve tried out of a minor Anglo-Saxon poem sequence variously called “Maxims” or “Gnomic Verses” or (by me) “Proverbs.” Here I work up the redaction marks to make some funny (and some not-so-funny) faces.


At the illuminative end of the spectrum (both ends and all middles presided over majestically by Wm. Blake) must for sure be Tom Phillips’s A Humument.

Fun fact. My college roommate, Johnny Carrera, my first year at Oberlin, recently had a show with Phillips at MassMOCA. And that’s all for tonight, mes amis, dormez bien.

On erasure practice (I)

Gonna hit erasure practice hard next week with my class. So thought here to summate. So much, to lift a word or three from a forebear to this sprawly lineage, depends on how you mark the missingness of what’s missing.

There’s a typography angel (sic) taken by Anne Carson in her Sappho —


Okay wow so the first clump suddenly recalls me to the borderline people in my life. And the second clump to how I’ve answered them. Well anyway I do love the aberrant slant in the image. Too, Armand Schwerner in his Tablets


Brackets, ellipses, squares, circles, squared circles, enlisted to mark the polyambience of what’s missing, or imagined to be. Though nothing is really missing, is the message, as I take it, of erasure practice. The blank page a perfect poem no one has ever managed to write.

Then there’s the palimpsest, where the new poem greys out, but doesn’t quite white out, the old. Jen Bervin’s erasures of Shakespeare’s sonnets in Nets work here, both stilly

imageand movingly, as here, where the palimpsest of it flickers in and out. That’s it for tonight, happy sultry (for here) weather all, more tomorrow.

An upward headed poem

So I promised an upward facing compost poem in counter to a sad East. Here, I think’s, it. First the compost heap —

Up I say to mad friends and now stop ∙ stay
seated ∙ turn round ∙ spot the ash river a sad
king thought to face at a right angle and be wed
to war in these rockscape hills ∙ to each angel
comes a kind of rest ∙ a Hell no lucent woman
or man may be other to ∙ so I own that inmost
forge where in woods a road runs to an island

And then the worm work —


No man island.
At each weed angle
dew be angel.

In hell-wrought
urn, in these ash even,
a kind of May.

Allusion too of course is composting. None of them here were deliberate, and that they showed up spontaneous, is the clearest sign of my over-education any could wish for. Donne in line 1. Dogen in lines 2 and 3. Cleanth Brooks in lines 4 and 5. Argh! Well but I still like it.

Postscript Sept. 30. And, line 6, William Carlos Williams’s “Locust Tree in Flower,” which I taught just today, on which, something soon, very soon, very very soon.

Exercise: Chasing your tail in the word hoard

Write the editors of Imagining Language, from which the passage [they’ve just read] from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is taken:

At the center of the episode is a hen scratching open a letter in a compost heap…. Any proto-narrative aspect of the Wake is subordinated to its manifestly epic ambition, which is the production of a polyglot interlingua, a massive reservoir from which all languages derive and into which they ultimately return.

In other words, well, in other words. Language itself as the mother of all compost heaps. As in all compost heaps, there are lines of affiliation, lines of ascent and descent. This exercise gets you working with that. It’s some hard work first, and then some free play.

1. Research

First you create a research document. Start by going to the Online Etymology Dictionary at www.etymonline.com. Type in the search window a word you like. I’ll use “compost” (what else). I get several entries, but the one with the most interesting material is

compost (n.) late 14c., compote, from Old French composte “mixture of leaves, manure, etc., for fertilizing land” (13c.), also  “condiment,” from Vulgar Latin *composita, noun use of fem. of Latin compositus, past participle of componere “to put together” (see composite). The fertilizer sense is attested in English from 1580s, and the French word in this sense is a 19th century borrowing from English.

I boil this down to the material I think I can use—

Compost. From OF composte, “mix of leaves and manure for fertilizing land.” Also “condiment,” from VL componere, “to put together” (see composite).

That goes in my research document. You do likewise. And do the same with five more words, choosing each new word from the entry you just made. For instance, from my entry on “compost,” I might choose “condiment,” for which etymonline.com gives me this:

condiment (n.) early 15c., from Old French condiment (13c.), from Latin condimentum “spice, seasoning, sauce,” from condire “to preserve, pickle, season,” variant of condere “to put away, store,” from com-  “together” (see com-) + -dere comb. form meaning “to put, place,” from dare “to give” (see date (n.1)).

 Boiled down, that becomes

Condiment. From L, “spice, seasoning, sauce,” from “to preserve, pickle, season,” variant of “to put away, store,” from com– “together” + dare “to give” (see date).

I move from “condiment” to “season,” from “season” to “timber,” from “timber” to “domestic,” and from “domestic” to “despot.” Boiled down I have:

Season (v.). “Improve the flavor of by adding spices,” from OF assaisoner, “to ripen, season,” “on the notion of fruit becoming more palatable as it ripens.” Applied to timber by 1540s. In 16c., also meant “to copulate with.”

Timber. From OE timber “building, structure,” later “building material, trees suitable for building,” and “trees or woods in general.” From PIE *deme-  “to build,” possibly from root *dem- “house, household” (source of Greek domos, Latin domus; see domestic (adj.)).

Domestic (adj.) From MF and L “belonging to the household,” from domus “house,” from PIE *dom-o- “house,” from root *dem- “house, household.” Cognates include Sanskrit “house”; Greek domos “house,” despotes “master, lord”; Latin dominus ”master of a household”; Lithuanian dimstis “enclosed court, property.”

Despot. From OF despot, from ML, from Greek “master of a household, lord, absolute ruler,” from PIE *dems-pota, “house-master,” pota cognate with L for “potent.” “Faintly pejorative in Greek, progressively more so as used in various languages for Roman emperors, Christian rulers of Ottoman provinces, and Louis XVI during the French Revolution.”

2. Mess around

Do whatever pleases you with this research base. Take the most surprising synonym (e.g., that “to season” once meant “to copulate with”) and write a paragraph in which you use the one to mean the other. Write a poem that gets you from the first word in your research document to the last word (how to get from “compost” to “despot”? is there something despotic about compost? something composty about a despot?). Make a paragraph out of nonsense sentences generated by homophonic translation (e.g., for “domestic,” “Be long in thee, how sold, from dumb us, house, from pie …”). Or make a 5×5 panel of words gleaned from your entries, such as

court          timber        pickle         season        manure

potent        emperor     …

Or turn your research into a family tree in which words are arranged as parents and children and cousins and stray animals. Or write a couple of sentences in imitation of Joyce — wringing every possible pun out of every syllable. Or something not thought of here or ever before.

Exercise: Worm in the compost bin

We’ve talked [my students and I] about erasures that read horizontally and erasures that read vertically. The former preserve more of the gist of the source text. The latter create a more fully new thing, though some of the ground tone of the source, somehow, remains.

I’ve also proposed that composting, broadly construed, includes what we usually think of as “inspiration.” Because what is inspiration but suddenly, in a flash, connecting disparate elements of your own experience, and finding them transformed in each other’s company?

This exercise draws those two gists together: reading vertically, composting your own experience. First, find some of your own prose, between 75 and 150 words, and type it up as a column around three inches wide, give or take half an inch. You should sense a resonance in the prose, an electric charge, though it may fall here and there into cliché, overwriting, or banality.

Transcripts of dreams work well. So do journal entries that have a lot of concrete, specific detail. Here’s an example, a transcript of a dream:

A pathway, root-broken pavement, branches
hang down on both sides, willow branches in
new leaf with towering clusters of tiny white
aromatic flowers. I bring a branch to my face.
The scent is beautiful, pervasive, it floods me
and I begin to cry with a peace I suddenly
know has always been with me. I tell a doctor
on an island and he readies a needle over my
heart on a point called penetrating fragrance.

Kinda sentimenty, with that peace bit, but lots of concrete words to work with. Now, print your source text out, and burrow vertically for word sequences that please you, whether or not they make sense to you. (The pleasure they give is the sense they make.) You can select sequences by circling with a pen; I’ll approximate that in my example by greying the unselected text:

A pathway, root-broken pavement, branches
hang down on both sides, willow branches in 
new leaf with towering clusters of tiny white 
aromatic flowers. I bring a branch to my face. 
The scent is beautiful, pervasive, it floods me
and I begin to cry with a peace I suddenly
know has always been with me. I tell a doctor 
on an island and he readies a needle over my 
heart on a point called penetrating fragrance.

It took me several tries to get to that; print out a few copies, and go through as many times.

Once you have some vertically chosen text that pleases you, arrange it in lines, making what will look to an outsider like a poem received from the Muse, though you’ll know better. Finally, give it a title. In my example:


A path down it
low beautiful cry ways
land to a point. Branches
branch tiny white branch to flood
sudden tell a fragrance

And there’s your poem. Composting? Inspiration? Who can say?