Weekly Prompt: Engaging the Image

Using Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish” as a model, write at least 20 lines of detailed, concrete observation that describes a single object.  Move past the obvious and think instead how you can describe the thing as if seeing it for the first time.  Using tools like sensory detail, metaphor, and simile, defamiliarize the object to the extent that it becomes an object of wonder—terror, even.  Hone your powers of observation by delving into the fantastical, allowing your subconscious to reveal what’s most strange or troubling about your subject of scrutiny.

Work with all of the senses (including the imagination) to allow your reader to really see the object—and then to see it again, even more closely.  Avoid abstractions and “I” statements, communicating instead a sense of the “I” through the types of concrete detail included in the poem.

After finishing your initial draft, return to the piece and think how you can invest specific details with greater emotional resonance (ie. in describing the worn laces of a man’s boot, how can you actually address the nature of his relationship with his father?) through word choice, tone, and pacing.  Expand on one (or two) of your most promising details and develop an original, full-fledged image (for example, the severed ears in Carolyn Forche’s “The Colonel,” or the lantern-heads in Victoria Chang’s “Lantern Festival”), one that functions as objective correlative to the subject matter of the poem.

Alaskan Rainbow Trout


Weekly Prompt: Borrowed Headlines

A man-moth? (Image from a 2007 hoax).

This week’s prompt is inspired by the story behind Elizabeth Bishop’s famous poem “The Man-moth,” whose concept (and title) were derived from a newspaper’s misspelling of the word “mammoth.”  While reflecting on the poem in a 1962 piece, Bishop mused,

“I’ve forgotten what it was that was supposed to be “mammoth.” But the misprint seemed meant for me. An oracle spoke from the page of the New York Times, kindly explaining New York City to me, at least for a moment.”

In “The Man-moth,” Bishop allows the content of the newspaper’s article to be subsumed by the wonderful strangeness of the misprint’s language.  She excavates the question of what a man-moth might be, and builds an alternative universe around the idea.  We are given a portrait of a subway-dwelling creature that is all eyes and all secrets, to whom the bustle of the surface world is threatening, but who finds comfort in the racing and lurching of the subway trains:

“Then he returns
to the pale subways of cement he calls his home. He flits,
he flutters, and cannot get aboard the silent trains
fast enough to suit him. The doors close swiftly.
The Man-Moth always seats himself facing the wrong way
and the train starts at once at its full, terrible speed,
without a shift in gears or a gradation of any sort.
He cannot tell the rate at which he travels backwards.”

I am interested in the idea of what might be done with borrowed and revivified language of this sort.  The newspaper-based exercise that I’ve delineated below is only one place to start, but I imagine that one could also get equally interesting results with another type of source: copy from internet advertisements, perhaps?  the names of dishes on menus?  informational text from a museum, zoo, or aquarium exhibit?  The possibilities are pretty well endless.

Prompt: write a poem that takes, as its title, a headline or article title that has been borrowed from a newspaper.  What fresh or alternative meanings might be excavated or derived from the headline’s syntax?  Feel free to tweak (splice, loop, embellish) or even completely ignore the article’s actual contents.

If you’re looking for a place to start out, here are some titles of New York Times articles that I recently came across, which I thought might make for interesting titles of poems:

Eight Million Bodies in the Naked City
Two New Paths to the Dream: Regeneration
Illinois: Invader Carp May Have Been At Home
What the River Dragged In
The Senate’s Important Lunch Date
Broadway and the Mosque

Weekly Prompt: Private Vocabularies

Everyone has a private vocabulary (or vocabularies) to which only they and those that they know are privvy.  Some of these “private” terms are particular to an individual person’s worldview or imagination (I have a friend who refers to internet survey memes as “salsa”), while others develop in the context of relationships with a particular group of people (whenever our 12th grade calculus teacher told us to “put away the Martian,” my classmates and I knew that he meant for us to stop doing other classes’ homework while his back was turned).  A private vocabulary can be deeply personal, and can link us to the awkward idiosyncracies of our families (as Paul Muldoon has reflected in his poem “Quoof”), or it can serve as a fruitful site from which creative production can bloom into entire alternate worlds (as in Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Man-Moth,” or Lewis Carroll’s “The Jabberwocky”).  Private vocabularies can be nonsense-based, or they can be based in mistranslations, in grammatical inconsistencies, or in innovation born of the need to fill linguistic gaps.  This, I think, can be especially poignant for those of us from immigrant families in which a language other than English, a mixture of English and other language(s), or a non-standard version of English, was commonly spoken in the home.

Write a poem that draws on a word or set of words particular to a private vocabulary of your own.

Here’s an excerpt from my attempt, which draws upon the first time that my younger brother (who grew up calling me Jaibo, his variant of the Chinese word for older sister), addressed me by my “real” (legal) name.

Losing the Nickname

My real name
fell from your mouth
so stiffly I thought
perhaps you’d coughed.
“Ah-ris,” the sound
of it seemed to stick
in your gullet, balled up
behind your gums. 
The word clattered
from your tongue,
scratchy, a stale clump
of bread bumping along
through uncombed carpet . . .

As always – if you attempt this – we’d be flattered if you shared an excerpt of your results in the comments.  Happy writing!