Exercise: 20 Little Poetry Projects

(An exercise by Jim Simmerman, taken from The Practice of Poetry, Robin Behn and Chase Twitchell, eds. Will post some recent strangeness later.)

Give each project at least one line. You should open the poem with the first project, and close it with the last, but otherwise use the projects in whatever order you like. Do all twenty. Let different ones be in different voices. Don’t take things too seriously.

  1. Begin the poem with a metaphor.
  2. Say something specific but utterly preposterous.
  3. Use at least one image for each of the five senses, either in succession or scattered randomly throughout the poem.
  4. Use one example of synaesthesia (mixing the senses).
  5. Use the proper name of a person and the proper name of a place.
  6. Contradict something you said earlier in the poem.
  7. Change direction or digress from the last thing you said.
  8. Use a word (slang?) you’ve never seen in a poem.
  9. Use a piece of false cause-and-effect logic.
  10. Use a piece of “talk” you’ve actually heard (preferably in dialect and/or which you don’t understand).
  11. Create a metaphor using the following construction: “The (adjective) (concrete noun) of (abstract noun)…”
  12. Use an image in such a way as to reverse its usual associative qualities.
  13. Make the persona or character in the poem do something he/she could not do in “real life.”
  14. Refer to yourself by nickname and in the third person.
  15. Write in the future tense, such that part of the poem seems to be a prediction.
  16. Modify a noun with an unlikely adjective.
  17. Make a declarative assertion that sounds convincing but finally makes no sense.
  18. Use a phrase from a language other than English.
  19. Make a nonhuman object say or do something human (personification).
  20. Close the poem with a vivid image that makes no statement but that “echoes” an image from earlier in the poem.

The ones go best that let go, over and over, of whatever one thought to mean. Simmerman comments:

I created this exercise for my beginning poetry writing students who … seemed to me overly concerned with transparently logical structures, themes, and modes of development at the expense of free-for-all wackiness, inventive play, and the sheer oddities of language itself.

I created the exercise in about half an hour, simply listing, in no particular order, a lot of little sillinesses I had seen and liked, or had not seen but thought I would have liked, in poems here and there.

Here’s a poem by Simmerman that completes the twenty projects in order.

Moon Go Away, I Don’t Love You No More

  1. Morning comes on like a wink in the dark.
  2. It’s me it’s winking at.
  3. Mock light lolls in the boughs of the pines.
    Dead air numbs my hands.
    A bluejay jabbers like nobody’s business.
    Woodsmoke comes spelunking my nostrils
    and tastes like burned toast where it rests on my tongue.
  4. Morning tastes the way a rock felt
    kissing me on the eye:
  5. a kiss thrown by Randy Shellhourse
    on the Jacksonville, Arkansas, Little League field
    because we were that bored in 1965.
  6. We weren’t that bored in 1965.
  7. Dogs ran amuck in the yards of the poor,
    and music spilled out of every window
    though none of us could dance.
  8. None of us could do the Frug, the Dirty Dog
  9. because we were small and wore small hats.
  10. Moon go away, I don’t love you no more
  11. was the only song we knew by heart.
  12. The dull crayons of sex and meanness
    scribbled all over our thoughts.
  13. We were about as happy as headstones.
  14. We fell through the sidewalk
    and changed colour at night.
  15. Little Darry was there to scuff through it all,
  16. so that today, tomorrow, the day after that
    he will walk backward among the orphaned trees
  17. and toy rocks that lead him
    nowhere I could ever track
    till he’s so far away, so lost
  18. I’ll have to forget him to know where he’s gone.
  19. la grave poullet du soir est toujours avec moi
  20. even as the sky opens for business,
    even as shadows kick off their shoes,
    even as this torrent of clean morning light
    comes flooding down and over it all.

Examples from my students’ poems here and here.

Six Hungry Ghost Abatement Protocols

Wrote this up for a job app and thought I’d post it here—after revising blogwise. Medium is so message.

Been working about a year on a manuscript called Six Hungry Ghost Abatement Protocols. It’s a study of creative process done at a crossroads of word and image. In which crash prose passages go through a series of verbal and visual metamorphoses—extraction, precipitation, illumination, inspiration.

My thought here is that even well tamed verbal structures possess a wildness inherent in language. In that wildering I feel less that I am writing and drawing poems than that the poems are drawing me out and writing me down.

Themewise the book takes on the Buddhist figure of the hungry ghost, a being of insatiable hunger, unassuageable suffering, to trace some connections among desire, attachment, loss, release. Process and content are very interwoven here: renunciations asked of the poems in their proceeding, as each gives way to a successor, are kin to renunciations they wrestle with in mind.

The transformations in their turns.


Extraction

I begin with a passage from my journal, streamlined and depunctuated, for instance this dream transcript.

I’m with R. on roads in the mountains ∙ at the
base of a ski hill we are looking at trail maps ∙ a
web or net of red lines thrown down over a
volcanic core ∙ a whole series of them side by
side ∙ each to the left steps back a bit further ∙
takes more in ∙ the gradations so fine I have to
take more steps across to get to the map that
has what I want to show than I thought to ∙ at it
I point to the road or trail on a southwestern
shoulder of a mountain ∙ One branch goes west­-
ward ∙ that’s somewhere we’ve been ∙ one goes
rightward across the valley of the Stehekin
though we’re in Colorado ∙ that’s the trip I’m
talking about ∙ somewhere else I am saying how
full the colours were up there ∙ Even in winter ∙
a lake in the mountains ∙ sunlight on it and me
through firs on the far side ∙ bleached wood of
fallen snags half-submerged in the water ∙ in
the foreground tall as I am so I must be crouch-
ing ∙ brilliant red blueberry leaves ∙ a few in a
bare bush ∙ the colours give life to the sun and
to me ∙ then in a car with R. driving in and
away from the mountains ∙ he says he doesn’t
use trails when hiking ∙ he just pulls over to the
side of the road and starts bushwhacking up ∙
because of how his mother taught him hillwalk-
ing ∙ she was crazy or maybe just very intense ∙
I laugh too loud ∙ say ∙ But that was in Scotland
where they cut down the forests centuries ago ∙
do you really want to bushwhack through fir
thickets ∙ I wake picturing different sorts of fir
woods ∙ an impassable thicket of small dead
densely interwoven branches ∙ a stand of ma-
ture trees ∙ spacious and cool ∙ a floor of moss

Next I mine this source material for word clusters that bear poetic charge. Here’s the same prose with the mined bits prominent.

I’m with R. on roads in the mountains ∙ at the
base of a ski hill we are looking at trail maps ∙ a
web or net of red lines thrown down over a
volcanic core ∙ a whole series of them side by
side ∙ each to the left steps back a bit further ∙
takes more in ∙ the gradations so fine I have to
take more steps across to get to the map that
has what I want to show than I thought to ∙ at it
I point to the road or trail on a southwestern
shoulder of a mountain ∙ One branch goes west­-
ward ∙ that’s somewhere we’ve been ∙ one goes
rightward across the valley of the Stehekin
though we’re in Colorado ∙ that’s the trip I’m
talking about ∙ somewhere else I am saying how
full the colours were up there ∙ Even in winter ∙
a lake in the mountains ∙ sunlight on it and me
through firs on the far side ∙ bleached wood of
fallen snags half-submerged in the water ∙ in
the foreground tall as I am so I must be crouch
ing ∙ brilliant red blueberry leaves ∙ a few in a
bare bush ∙ the colours give life to the sun and
to me ∙ then in a car with R. driving in and
away from the mountains ∙ he says he doesn’t
use trails when hiking ∙ he just pulls over to the
side of the road and starts bushwhacking up ∙
because of how his mother taught him hillwalk-
ing ∙ she was crazy or maybe just very intense ∙
I laugh too loud ∙ say ∙ But that was in Scotland
where they cut down the forests centuries ago ∙
do you really want to bushwhack through fir
thickets ∙ I wake picturing different sorts of fir
woods ∙ an impassable thicket of small dead
densely interwoven branches ∙ a stand of ma
ture trees ∙ spacious and cool ∙ a floor of moss

I compile my extractions to make a shorter stranger paragraph.

The roads in are look thrown down over a side
of them a bit further ∙ so fine I have to map that
too ∙ each step I want more a mountain road to
where the valley of what else I am even in win-
ter sunlight on it and me bleached wood in the
water in a crouch ∙ a lake fallen through firs in
the foreground ∙ brilliant bare red bush ∙ then in
a car with the mountains hiking us ∙ art a moth
taught us ∙ Just be at rest as you hack through a
rent sort of small dead ∙ the trees here really do
wake an interwoven densely spacious impasse

And perform the same extraction operation on this paragraph. This time my record of the process becomes a visual poem in its own right at hang on a threshold between signal and noise.

The roads in are look thrown down over a side
of them a bit further ∙ so fine I have to map that
too ∙ each step I want more a mountain road to
where the valley of what else I am even in win-
ter sunlight on it and me bleached wood in the
water in a crouch ∙ a lake fallen through firs in
the foreground ∙ brilliant bare red bush ∙ then in
a car with the mountains hiking us ∙ art a moth
taught us ∙ Just be at rest as you hack through a
rent sort of small dead ∙ the trees here really do
wake an interwoven densely spacious impasse

Extracted text stays black, a corona of greyscale text persists about it, the rest of it’s let fade to the colour of the page.


Precipitation

The second round of extraction yields a material enough enriched for the next transformation—precipitation of a verse poem. In this process material drawn from the prose paragraph descends and settles into verbal strata.

RED KING

Look so fine.
I want what else I am brilliant at.

Red
king, hack us through these
here red trees.

Each step bit them.
Am really in a rough pass.
Winter oven.

I count myself free, making this one, to arrange words and lines as I wish. But only get to use words I can plausibly find in the source paragraph. I interpret “plausibly” often quite and sometimes really very generously.


Illumination

A book made just of these poems seemed a cold prospect, too procedural, not human enough, so I started to think and feel my way towards companion poems—poems born of those already made, but freely, with no constraint or set procedure.

At first nothing came. One morning, though, staring at an extraction record in frustration, I started drawing lines around the black text, then round the grey. I thickened lines and emphasized the faces and forms I began to think I saw. The result was a monstrous assemblage of eyes and mouths, horns and spikes and tusks. Faces predominated, mostly in profile, and I found them both frightening and endearing. They seemed spirits caught up in all sorts of longing and yet capable of illumination.

I decided to trust the weirdness and began to do the same with other extraction records. Sometimes the process yielded a compost of half-formed faces. Other times, I came to a single form, as here, where illumination got me a frog.

Image - Frog Star

The extraction process may be familiar from Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os and Jen Bervin’s Nets, the precipitation process from Srikanth Reddy’s Voyager. Likewise these illuminations owe a debt to the work of Tom Phillips in A Humument. But as far as I know these methods haven’t been combined in this way or directed to quite these ends. Quite possibly for good reason.


Illumination

The ghosts showed me the way to the fourth poem, the companion poem, which I hear as the voice of their suffering as it grows aware of itself. No constraints now except that the poem share a page with its illuminated precursor.

STAR FROG

The
size of the real
is fly

That we
never were
may be

the only
thing we need
never

fear
say I an unironic self
digesting fly.

The term “inspiration” may want scare quotes. One point here is to challenge our still persistent notion of the poet as a solitary figure fashioning her art ex nihilo. But still I feel that something in these poems draws a deep breath.


All Together Now

The four poems together make a two-page spread.

Upper left: prose scarred by an extraction process
Lower left: verse precipitated from the extracted ore
Upper right: illumination of the extraction scars
Lower right: verse inspired by the longing of the image

Click on me!
Click on me!

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 —

GLEAN

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

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?