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Weekly Prompt: “Stealing”

2011 June 24

On the subject of "stealing" poems from the observed world: a "steal-worthy" orthographical variation? (Bag reads "Roos Beep").

Today’s exercise is less of a prompt and more of a practice, but having just returned from the 2011 Kundiman retreat—at which Oliver de la Paz announced on the first day that he fully intended to “steal” from each of us, and where Kimiko Hahn shared a lovely collaborative variation of a “stealing” exercise during my final workshop of the weekend—I wanted to continue the chain and extend the same thought to you.

Perhaps the term “stealing” is a bit harsh-sounding—”recycling,” “quoting,” or “riffing” might be more a more genteel way to put it, since what it involves is not outright plagiarism, so much as a process of exploring new avenues through “sampling” and strategic mimicry—but somehow it still feels apropos, as the delightful discovery and surprise that occurs when one takes something that one admires and puts it into a different context, tinkers with it, uses it as a launching pad or a frame, embeds it, or layers it with one’s own work, does in part come from the feeling that one is doing something utterly subversive.  Socially and culturally, we tend to envision the artist as a lonely figure who operates entirely self-sufficiently—the work, and its every element, must come out of her head and her head alone.  But in fact, in our daily lives as artists, we are engaged in a perpetual process of “stealing”: we observe things in the world around us—the quality of light on a bedspread, the deep crease in a parent’s forehead, the conversation between a pair of girls at a nearby table, the color of a house, what the host is saying on TV, the sound a cash register makes when it opens, the texture of a wall at the train station, the funny taste of food when one is sick, a joke that fell flat at a party—we process them, we file them away, and these things which we file away filter themselves, eventually, into our creative work.

Painting students routinely practice their technique by studying and copying the work of the masters.  DJ’s “sample”  lyrics and melodies from other people’s songs, and composers regularly embed bars containing musical “quotes” from famous themes into new pieces.  So why not be intentional about the act of “stealing” in writing poetry?  While in one sense,  “stealing” can be an homage to the work of someone we admire, it is also a necessity of creative life and the hallmark of an open, actively collaborating community.  If we had nothing to learn from one another, then community would not be necessary.  But there is always more to learn, always new and different ways to stretch oneself creatively—things that are best accomplished when one is actively reading, communicating with, interacting with, and responding to the work of others—and thus, the writer, as a matter of deep necessity, must situate him or herself within some sort of literary tradition or community (whether real, virtual, or residing amongst the shelves of a well-read library).

Today’s prompt (which is itself “stolen” from Kimiko Hahn’s workshop!) has two parts—the first, to be completed as an individual exercise, and the second, to be shared in the context of a group of writers. Many thanks to Oliver and Kimiko, respectively, for sharing the wisdom of “stealing” with us, and for allowing me, in turn, to “steal”  their ideas so that I can share them with you here.

Exercise:

1.  Read someone else’s poem and hone in on a specific line, image, or aspect of its craft that you admire. Create a writing prompt for yourself that challenges you to write a new poem that makes use of that line or stylistic technique.  For example, if you admire the way that the poet uses enjambment, challenge yourself to write a poem that makes similar use of enjambment.

2. Variation for a workshop or group of writers: have everybody in the group read the same poem and create an exercise for themselves as in part (1).  Afterwards, the workshop members should share their newly-devised prompts with one another to create a suite of connected exercises, or “gifts” to one another (to use Kimiko Hahn’s wording).

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