This May, as part of our celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we have asked several respected teachers and writers of Asian American poetry to share favorite writing exercises with us. This Friday’s installment was contributed by Eileen R. Tabios.
My favorite writing prompt is based on Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day Feature. I once signed up to receive daily emails of their chosen “word-of-the-day” (you can also subscribe here). I used their daily word as a poem title. With that title—and subject or theme or however I responded to it—I’d then write a prose poem. As a secondary strategy to this prompt, I suggest writing a complete poem (or at least its first draft) in one sitting. Relatedly, I suggest the prose poem form, as I don’t wish the issue of line-breaks to interrupt the flow of the poem.
Trying not to interrupt the flow—and energy—of the poem is important, so feel free to add any strategies that would facilitate this. Chinese-American poet Arthur Sze, for example, has shared how he often doesn’t bother capitalizing “I” when writing his first drafts so as not to intrude on the flow of the poem (I don’t recall if he called it “flow” but that’s the net effect).(1)
I like several things about this prompt’s conceptual underpinnings. First, it helps to take you out of self-focus as the site for poetic inspiration. More poets need to realize their personal lives really aren’t that interesting to others (which is why, when I address biography and autobiography in several of my recent books, it’s not because I’m talking about myself, so much as because I’m disrupting conventional ways in which biography unfolds across genres—from the poem to the memoir to the third-party biography). Not that I’m dissing confessional or such types of poems; I’m suggesting this prompt as another way to generate poems where having a title or idea given to you necessarily forces you to address something that may or may not have been of personal concern. In this way, the prompt metaphorically writes the world into the poem rather than the poet writing something at the world.
The flow of the poem, too, should be word-based. Merriam-Webster gives you the first word. Each succeeding word and
, later, phrase, then sentence, should be based on the word or words immediately prior to it. A little stream-of-consciousness, sure. Korean-American artist Theresa Chong had a painting process a few years ago that visually captures the approach I’m suggesting. Basically, she stood up a wet painting against a wall, wet with the color black. She then took a paintbrush with white paint and tipped dots of white paint along the top edge. The white paint dots would slowly flow down the wet canvas to create a series of white stripes against black. The result were visually arresting and palpable—even evoking music, as Chong, a former cellist, hadhoped. Yet, as Chong says, it was gravity who was the painter. Similarly, this prompt facilitates poems that aren’t so bound by the poet’s particular concerns at any point of time—thus expanding the site of authorship. Here is a sample painting from this series by Chong, which later she renamed “Black Lightning” after I chose it as the cover image to my first book BLACK LIGHTNING: Poetry in Progress (Asian American Writers Workshop/Temple University Press, 1998):
I consider Merriam-Webster’s single word-of-the-day to be like the white dot and the poet, then, to be writing as gravity, which is to say, to be writing as energy. Of course, all words are inherently subjective and we human beings, as Chinese-American poet & conceptual artist Tan Lin once told me, can never get away from the “I”. But with this approach, the poet can end up surfacing things in hir writing that may have been lurking in hir subconscious, which is to say, something that ultimately was of personal concern. Here’s one example of a poem I wrote using this process when I received “contretemps” as the word-of-the-day (which is defined as “an inopportune or embarrassing occurrence or situation”):(2)
Tables with flattened moons for the rest of impolite elbows. Or babysitting elbows. Burgundy veins ripple through marble surfaces. Smoke evaporates into hazelnut scent. Your porcelain cup surrounds the interrupted spiral of lemon skin. Hotel in a city across a bridge, on the other side of an area code, past some presumed boundary. But we were seen. I knew my arms stretching from sleeveless silk still flushed from your fingerprints in an earlier scene (where bruises were hunted). I was reaching to lay a palm against the edge of your smile. Which faded before my touch as we were seen.
I suggest the 10-minute (or less) first draft as a suggestion for the poet, in order to practice writing on the nerve—that is, rather than first thinking about or determining a “topic,” the poet just immediately responds to something: in this case, a random word. A writing with no preconceptions brought to it, with the writing based more on a visceral response to randomly-offered language than on self-determination, can have an unexpected(ly pleasing) effect, and hopefully will develop more energetic torque as the writing becomes very dependent on the underlying linguistic flow (obviously, if one gets stuck on a word, the energy goes flat).
While one can write several individual poems based on this prompt, scale matters. Which is to say, I’d also suggest doing this over a long period of time. (I think I did this for about a year or so during the time when I was adhering to this prompt). And by having chosen one form—in this case, the prose poem—it’s possible you’ll end up extending the possibilities of that one form. In my case, for example, continually writing sentences for a prolonged period of time ended up with my exploring other ways to instill breaks within the prose poem paragraph that do
es not utilize line-breaks. Here’s an example of such a result.
—after “Extracts From the Life of A Beetle” by Frank Andre Jamme; translated by Michael Tweed
She did not doubt. he knew she lacked. the thinnest membrane as a shroud. to protect against rain. capsizing. as if a section of the pin-pricked sky. ruptured. so that water fell. as if from a giant bucket. capsized. “I’m trying to be responsible. now. I am 50 years old.” he said. She ducked. her permed head. beneath his chin. He let his chin. become an umbrella. For. other things hold the potential to capsize through. the rip in the sky. like peacocks lacking tails to strut. like “overly red masks.” like a stranger waking behind my skin. like a stranger waking behind your skin. They fuck each other. with open eyes.
Of course, one improves with practice. Perhaps the last poem I wrote in this series was “Yen.” If you compare “Yen” (below) to the early poem “Contretemps” (above), there is a discernible increase in
complexity and expanse in the later poem. If practice doesn’t make perfect, it still allows for increased suppleness in making poetic leaps and in allowing for a variety of nuances—all of which can serve a poem well.
Your nipples surprised me with their two-inch circumference. I recalled the sun over Istanbul. And stopped bemoaning my failure to feel the pea beneath a thousand mattresses. Your nipples delighted me with their two-inch circumference. I recalled the moonshine you taught me to drink after we revved up the Harley to rupture night’s diplomacy. And stopped bemoaning my thighs’ inability to define the word “sleek.” This day lacks room for doubt as you have proven your yen for me, me, me. Otherwise, Pumpkin, how would I know the measurement of your nipples’ circumference. And how three strands of black hair mischievously wave beside your left nipple. On your otherwise bald chest. Atop your belly as smooth as a dune on Fire Island before the wind whips up a storm. Before the wind blows porcelain off the shelves to distribute fragments on the floor that will cut into my skin. So that when I breach Oriental rules of civility to turn my soles towards my face I will see the Pollock masterpiece I will have painted gleefully with blood. Pumpkin, I want even to bleed for you—my body is just the beginning of my stake at the poker table. Whose game I will win to help you finance your dental bill. To help you buy a new suit. Pinstriped and custom-made to mold the air over your nipples. With a circumference as wide, exponentially, as the vision we cast upon each other. The net we cast because we desire. Because we want so much we have stopped seeing the asshole on the moon Because we want to wet each other past the limits of “forever.” Which requires old-fashioned Romanticism—and still we don’t balk. Because we desire to know the aftermath of infinity. To calculate pi to exactness. To fly toward the sun with wax wings if it means mutual osmosis between us in order to know all of the world. And what exists beyond explosion and implosion. What exists in-between and outside. Because after my tongue measured the circumference of your nipples, my teeth clung. Pumpkin, you reared into the dying caused only by witnessing Beauty when my teeth bit then clung.
Last but not least, this prompt might help the poet expand his or her vocabulary and isn’t that a good thing since a poem’s raw material includes . . . words!
Nota bene: relatedly, though I went back to this draft later to insert link references and poems as well as do some minor editing, I wrote my (first draft) in one 10-minute sitting. Just. Going. with the flow.
Eileen R. Tabios‘s books include 18 print, 4 electronic and 1 CD poetry collections, an art-essay collection, a poetry essay/interview anthology, a short story book and a collection of novels. Recent releases are The Thorn Rosary: Selected Prose Poems (1998-2010), edited with an introduction by poet-critic-painter-scholar Thomas Fink and with an afterword by poet-scholar Joi Barrios-Leblanc, and SILK EGG: Collected Novels. More information about her is available through Shearsman Books. Two of her most important online projects are Galatea Resurrects: A Poetry Engagement and POETS ON ADOPTION. Visit her blog at http://angelicpoker.blogspot.com. Her poem “Disaster Relief (#2)” appeared in Issue 1 of Lantern Review.
(1) BLACK LIGHTNING: Poetry in Progress by Eileen R. Tabios (Asian American Writers Workshop/Temple University Press, 1998)
(2) The three prose poems cited in this post were first published in I Take Thee, English, For My Beloved (Marsh Hawk Press, 2005).