Tuesday, April 22, 2014


Assign three poems for your students to read before the next session. These poems ought to have some common threads, in terms of the writing style or content, but that’s not required. In the meantime, cut 15 words out of each poem. (This exercise assumes a class size of 15 students.) (Adjust as needed.) Choose words carefully: pick nouns that might double as verbs; avoid too many modifiers; include a few muscular verbs but you’ll probably want to err on the side of choosing more nouns than anything else; don’t worry about prepositions, articles, or conjunctions; select a rich vocabulary. When done, place the cut-out words from each poem into a separate envelope. That is, the 15 words from Poem A should go into their own envelope, the 15 words from Poem B should go into their own envelope, and the same for the words from Poem C. Arrive at class with three sealed envelopes in hand, A, B, and C. You could always type-up the words in a festive font, if you’re the benevolent sort.

Lead a discussion of the three poems. For this exercise, I had chosen “Colorado Blvd.” by Lorna Dee Cervantes, “Santa Fe” by Joy Harjo, and “The Colonel” by Carolyn Forche. I dig these three pieces. Two of the three were written in prose, and the Cervantes poem, which employs line breaks, offers the tidy block of its one stanza. The narrators describe similar worlds, in which they, as women, face danger or cope with marginalization; contemplate escapes or seek justice; dream with all the resources of their imaginations or bend the rules of time or narrate startling transformations. Leave about 40 minutes for the writing exercise.

Now you get to haul out the three envelopes. Send them around the class. Every student should select one word from each envelope. Once the envelopes have circulated around the room, every student should possess one word from each poem, and three words total. Ready a stop watch. Students should incorporate the three words into a couple lines of poetry, or a sentence, before two minutes have elapsed. Run a tight ship. Once the two minutes have expired, students should pass their three words to the person sitting beside them. The three words, therefore, will “rotate over” to the student’s neighbor. Once they have received their three new words, students should write another couple lines of poetry or another sentence—you got it—in two minutes or less. Keep practicing this ritual until the word groupings make a full rotation around the room, until the poets receive their original three words. At that point, the exercise should stop. Your students might have guessed at where the words came from, but at this point, you can tell them.

The exercise forces students to work swiftly, and to emulate a compelling vocabulary. Every two minutes, of course, a fresh set of words arrives and requires the student-poets to be inventive, to fit the new words into the emerging poem. The language, itself, tends to establish the poem’s situation, and by its very nature, the exercise creates surprise: the three new words must be puzzled into the whole. Students, in my estimation, should train themselves to write from certain rich vocabularies, and should cultivate the habit of altering rhythms and word choices from line to line. “Evolution ain’t just a theory that governs the animal kingdom.” The exercise created buzz. The poems jumped. We read them raw and loud. I call this the second best poetry writing exercise in the world, since I happen to have devised the best poetry writing exercise in the world, as well. If you’d like to know about that one, well then: buy me a stout.


DUSIE said...

I knew Forche's was from 'The Colonel' Funny huh? Just from the three words on top, pistol, bell and fooling…!


Indeed, and of course, the vocabulary influences the writers to emulate what they've just discussed.

It'd be one thing to give students a set of words, (fine in its own way), but then another thing altogether that it follows a discussion of the word-hoard, if you will.


DUSIE said...

this is a found exercise… I included something like it when I did a course with Kaia Sand … I think I called it paper bag poetics… poetry to go! (cut up poems were inside)… way fun!


it is a version of the found exercise -- what i liked best was that the students had all the same words -- and the rotation of the words around the class created a good atmosphere. anyhow, as i said, it's the second best exercise. i know what the best is -- but it'll take a stout to pry it loose.


DUSIE said...

i want to know the best (in yr humble stout imbibed opinion ;)


in which case -- we shall meet someday for a stout!

will you too have a stout? i think one needs to receive the #1 writing exercise details w/ stout in hand!


DUSIE said...

sure thing! stout away! somatic poesy style!