This week’s prompt is taken from leading Language poetry practitioner and theorist Charles Bernstein‘s “Experiments” (handily compiled by the University of Pennsylvania’s Electronic Poetry Center). It asks you to venture into uncertain linguistic territory where meaning ceases to guide your composition (or in this case, translation) process and, instead, turns the reins over to sound.
We all know what homophones are, words that mean differently despite their (usually identical) sonic qualities (see/sea, their/there), and this exercise is one that relies almost exclusively on the odd transmutations of meaning that can happen when two words sound the same but signify different things… in different languages.
Though you will be working to translate a piece of poetry from another language into English, because the translation method is based on homophones and sound patterns rather than denotative/connotative meanings, your process will undoubtedly yield some wacky — but wonderful! — results.
We loved the freshness of Tamiko’s exercise, and the way that it challenges the writer to combine the particular vocabulary of one activity with the extremely close, almost manic, focus, of an “obsession.” As poets, we all have obsessions to which we find ourselves returning again and again, and Tamiko’s prompt provides a great way to step out of the boxes we draw for ourselves in order to approach a familiar topic from a new angle.
First, make a list of your obsessions – the topics you find yourself writing or thinking about again and again.
Now, think of a specific thing that you know how to do well – knitting, rock climbing, photoshop, fixing cars, etc. Make a list of as many words specific to that activity – the specialized vocabulary of it – that you can think of.
Finally, choose one of your obsessions (not related to the activity you chose) and write a poem about it, incorporating as many words from the second list as you can.
Tamiko will receive a copy of Lisa Chen’s Mouth, courtesy of the folks at Kaya Press. Congratulations, Tamiko, and thanks once again to all who submitted!
This week, we’re featuring the prompt submitted by LR reader Aaron Geiger, whom we’ve chosen as the first runner-up in our National Poetry Month Prompt Contest (sponsored by Kaya Press). We really enjoyed the genre-bending nature of this exercise and thought it was a fun and unusual approach to the challenge of writing narrative poetry.
Find one of your favorite short stories or essays; perhaps even one you might have written. Make sure it is a story that you know, or that you are going to read thoroughly. Deconstruct the elements of the story into a form suitable for a poem that is no longer than 20 lines.
Rules: you must maintain one of the plot devices, and you can only use words that appear in the story. The purpose here is to show how dense and vibrant poems are, and how much they can convey with a few carefully chosen words. Can you recontruct the “essence” of a short story or essay in a poem?
Thanks once again to all who submitted, and congratulations, Aaron!
Happy Good Friday, and (early) Easter, to those who are celebrating this weekend. We’ll see you on the other side of Monday morning.
Chris’s prompt was short, but we felt that it aroused a number of interesting possibilities. It made me, in particular, think of the “beautiful witch” archetype that’s present in so many myths, legends, fairytales, and folklore (from the Greek sirens to Snow White’s stepmother) and which is often sinisterly underwritten by the deep-seated fears of people in power (men, whites, imperialists, US ‘nativists’, etc.) about those who are ‘under’ them (women, racial or political minorities, colonized and indigenous peoples, immigrants, etc.). In some cases, especially under colonial rule (and here I am thinking particularly of the line of questioning that Barbara Jane Reyes explores in her books Poeta en San Francisco and Diwata), culturally powerful local figures have been forcibly re-coded as demons, monsters, exiles by imperial powers. How the faces of those obscured behind such imposed masks of monstrosity might be reclaimed, even amidst the violence cast upon them by history, is something with which many writers of color, women writers of color, immigrants and descendents of immigrants, colonized peoples and descendents of colonized peoples, must wrestle on a daily basis. Chris’s prompt thus resonates with me in the sense that it asks us to explore the possibility of celebration, even from within (and, in fact, despite) a position in which individual identity has been marginalized by culturally- or socially-imposed images of monstrosity.
Take something that (or someone who) is frightening and write a poem about why it (or he or she) is beautiful.
If you’d like to investigate the approach I’ve described above a little further, here are a few books that deal with rehabilitating the voices of figures who carry the weight of “monstrosity” in some way :
Thank you to all those who submitted prompts to our National Poetry Month contest! We’ve chosen three runners-up and one winner, and will be announcing them week by week as we post the ideas that they submitted.
This week, we’re featuring, as one of our runners-up, a prompt derived from an idea that was submitted by LR reader Janet. We were intrigued by Janet’s entry, an exercise which involved plugging elements of one’s memory of a childhood meal into the form of a recipe, and have elaborated upon and expanded that idea slightly to produce this week’s prompt. (The text of Janet’s original exercise can be found here).
Write a poem that recalls the recipe for a meal from childhood or which uses such a recipe to frame your memory of that meal. Be sure to include, besides the actual ingredients that went into that recipe, descriptions of more intangible elements, such as the people, the place and emotions that were present when you ate that meal.
Congratulations to Janet, and thanks again to everyone who entered our contest.
Please check back again next Friday to see a prompt from our next runner-up!
This week’s prompt is about using features of the visual world as a way to write across historical moments, geographic space, and time. This is a technique I’ve been using a lot in my recent work, and when putting the finishing touches on a fellowship application essay this week, I found myself articulating for the first time why this approach is such a powerful one.
At times, making poetry becomes a kind of transcendent experience. Tracing certain images through time shows the way in which all experience is radically unified—by screens, wires, flashes of light, images of transubstantiation, to name just a few.
Thus the child sweating at night, afraid for her parents’ safety at the hands of a Communist government, is not as alone as she once thought. She clenches her sheets, dreams of centipedes whose scaly bodies become an endless braid, and yet the pattern of her nighttime torment finds an uncanny double in the long stretch of wire wound and barbed around her grandparents in a 1945 American internment camp.
Different time and place, same image. Same condition. To me, this thinking represents a kind of radical, redemptive vision, one that suggests experience is not so fractured as we believe it to be. By undoing logics of nation, political geography, and even chronology, it offers us an imaginative vision that is wholly other, wholly whole.
Your poem doesn’t need to trace as emotionally loaded an image as barbed wire or braided centipedes — the example I’ve chosen is an extreme one, used to illustrate the point that the visual qualities of our surroundings can actually echo past moments, other places, different realms of experience. Tracing these features can reveal unexpected linkages between unexpected circumstances.
In some ways, this isn’t that different from using a person’s name, or a particular scent, as a way to shift the narrative frame of a poem from one setting to another. It’s just that here, the “catalyst” is visual.
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Prompt: Write a poem that “shifts” in some way — through time, across space, between points of view, to show the unexpected relationship between separate worlds of experience. Use a visual cue, object, or feature of the speaker’s surroundings to recall them to a different “place,” however you choose to interpret it. If you like where the poem is going, let that same image lead to multiple shifts. Pay attention to other visual features in the “worlds” you explore as well, but keep in mind that not all images are as rich with potential as some.
Post your ideas, attempts, or even just a short list of “visual cues” you think other readers/writers could use in tracing their poetry across experience.
Today’s prompt is a bit unconventional in the sense that it won’t ask you to dig into a particular element of craft or technique, but rather to engage in a larger conversation that’s developed in the past few weeks about creative writing, race, and the difficulty of navigating the relationship between the two — especially here, in America, in the 21st century.
If you aren’t familiar already with some of the questions and accusations that have risen from the fairly controversial discussion between Claudia Rankine and Tony Hoagland… well, you should be. Rankine’s personal website gives a thorough account of the back-and-forth between herself and Hoagland in the period leading up to AWP (just click on the link to “AWP” listed under “Criticism”), and the Poetry Foundation blog offers a succinct account of the conversation as well.
Take a moment to familiarize yourself with the conversation, then read the text of Rankine’s open letter:
I’ve adapted today’s prompt from Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux’s handbook The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry, which I use in my introductory poetry class to teach important craft concepts such as image, metaphor, and description. It’s a fairly simple exercise–more of a starting point, really, from which to begin exploring deeper notions of presence, absence, and the manner in which memory “ghosts” poetic vision. Feel free to respond to the prompt as is, or elaborate upon/disregard its restrictions as you see fit.
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Think of a pair of old shoes. Describe them in a way that will make the reader think of death, but do not refer to death explicitly in the poem. If you wish, you may think of a specific pair of shoes that belongs to a specific person, but do not mention the person by name or indicate your relationship with them.
If you’ve been following the Lantern Review Blog for a while, you’re already familiar with the ekphrastic poem, that is, a poem written in response to a work of art. This prompt is a variation on the idea of ekphrasis and, like this prompt from two weeks ago, gives you an opportunity to play with perspective (except with higher stakes).
Pick a photograph of a meaningful occasion in your family’s history. A wedding, for example, or a baby shower. Maybe even a funeral; just choose an image that tells a story and features more than one member of your family. Look carefully at the people in the photo and think about their personalities, voices, idiosyncrasies. What family folklore comes to mind when you look at each individual? Now think about who’s not in the photo. Someone who passed away recently, or who has been deceased for decades. Someone who missed the occasion because they had something else to attend to, or forgot to show up.
Now write from the point of view of the absent party. Proceed in whatever way feels most natural to the voice of the person whose absence you’ve identified — this may mean you’re working mostly with direct address, description, narrative, or a combination of modes. You may find yourself experimenting with the voice of the dead, the voice of a divorced parent, or that of an uncle who cut himself off from the family. The idea is to forge a new perspective from which to consider your family’s history, one that would otherwise go unaddressed by more normative modes of “telling” family lore.
So you’re drafting a poem and nothing seems to be working. Fifth draft, sixth draft… the language drags, the images remain hackneyed. But here’s a thought: have you considered experimenting with point of view?
Though this is something you probably had to do in middle school, I’ve actually found that shifting the narrative center of a poem (unless, of course, you’re not working with a narrative center, in which case you’ll just have to keep on drafting) can bring new energy to a drafting process gone slack.
I wouldn’t recommend doing this too early in the process – I’ve come to think of this “trick” as something of a last resort, like when I’ve done all I can to work through a poem and still don’t feel it’s arrived. For example, earlier this week I was working on a fairly straightforward poem about a family in a hospital watching their dying father take communion: the wife waited, the child sat. The chaplain poured the grape juice. The chaplain blessed the grape juice. The chaplain passed the grape juice.
Things were getting a little boring. So I switched it up and forced the narrative into a second person point of view. All at once, it wasn’t “the man dying,” but you. And you were dying. Working through the poem with this fresh perspective forced much of the material (about half the lines, I’d say) from the narrative, but also demanded that certain details be added. What do “you” hear when you’re at death’s door? How do “you” perceive your family?
Whether or not you stick with the perspective switch after you’re done with the exercise, hopefully you’ll find that this has forced you to write toward a different set of expectations and demands. Work to make the individual versions as distinctive as possible, and have fun!