Today’s prompt is inspired by a series of ekphrastic studies I’ve been writing on images of “women at bath.” In compiling these sketches, I’ve observed, among others, paintings by Degas, Picasso and the woodblock artist Hashiguchi Goyo, searching for visual elements that might bring a fuller sense of description to my writing.
The traditional mode of ekphrasis—that is, the “making of poetry from art”—involves describing or imaginatively inhabiting a painting, sculpture or photograph; in this way, the poet more or less lends their descriptive craft to that of the visual artist. What I’ve been investigating, however, is how iconic images (such as Picasso’s “Blue Nude”) can be broken up into elements that recur in various, refracted ways across images, then worked into a poem’s narrative fabric in a way that doesn’t necessarily foreground itself as ekphrasis.
In the past, we’ve talked about writing postcard poems in our Weekly Prompts, solicited them from readers as part of the LR Postcard Project, even published them in issues of the Lantern Review (see Tamiko Beyer’s “Dear Disappearing” in Issue 1, Rachelle Cruz’s “Postcard Poem #067” in Issue 3). So it should come as no surprise that — with the holidays fast approaching — this Friday’s prompt is about writing the holiday postcard.
It’s not what you think… if this is what you’re thinking:
It was about a year ago that I posted this prompt on Allen Ginsberg’s American Sentences, thanks to former classmate Jessica Tyson; this week’s Friday Prompt is courtesy of another recent UW MFA graduate, Talia Shalev. She’s derived the exercise from a chapter in the anthology Contemporary American Poetry: Behind the Scenes(Longman, 2002), edited by Ryan Van Cleave, and writes:
Spend an hour in an urban setting that’s somewhat foreign to you. A Laundromat. A bus terminal. A French pastry shop. Record your observations and thoughts. Spend another hour in a more rural setting, such as a chicken farm, an apple orchard, or a fishing hole. At the very least, find a garden or park! Record your observations and thoughts.
Write a poem about the urban setting that uses words, ideas, and images exclusively from your rural setting, and then write a poem about the rural setting that uses words, ideas, and images exclusively from your urban setting. Does forcing yourself into using unusual vocabulary choices allow you greater freedom? Does it make intuitive leaps easier? How might this translate into your other poems?
What I find compelling about this prompt is the way it forces the “translation” or “transmutation” of observational detail from one context to another—a gesture that can be taken in a number of directions. The same process can be used to navigate not only the in-betweens of rural and urban settings, but also the private and the public, the mainstream and the “minority,” the high and the low. While I think it’s important that the prompt remain grounded in specific locales (ie. places that can be physically inhabited by the poet), it seems totally possible that a person could make the same linguistic leap from, say, one part of town to another—and in the process, cast light upon new ways of constructing difference, culture and place.
This week’s prompt is less of a prompt and more of an invitation to check out this book on poetic structure published by the Teachers & Writers Collaborative. Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns is a collection of essays by noteworthy poets like D.A. Powell and Prageeta Sharma, which discusses the use of “the turn” in poetry writing; that is, the energetic leap or shift that occurs as the mind works through form to create dynamic patterns of thought. In his introduction to the essays, Michael Theune says:
Poetic structure is, simply, the pattern of a poem’s turning. As such, poetic structure identifies a vital feature of poems: the best poems very often include convincing, surprising turns… [I]n a lecture called “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry,” Randall Jarrell claims that “a successful poem starts from one position and ends at a very different one, often a contradictory or opposite one; yet there has been no break in the unity of the poem.”
One of the structures discussed in Structure & Surprise is the retrospective-prospective structure, a two-part structure that begins with a retrospective discussion of the past and then moves toward a future orientation that shows, as the essay’s author, Mark Yakich, puts it, how “inconstant and dizzying” time really is. While you’re welcome to browse the list of structures on the book’s extraordinarily helpful website to find one that might work better for whichever writing/revision process you’re currently in, I’d recommend trying this particular approach for starters.
Prompt: write a two-part poem that uses the retrospective-prospective structure to narrate a past event or memory. Midway through the poem, shift to the present tense to “acknowledge some kind of change” (p. 72) that allows the speaker to either look prospectively into the future, or reconsider the past through a different lens.
Some families hike, some families play board games, some families get together to roll dumplings. My family goes fishing. And we always have. My dad fishes with gear inherited from his dad, whose rod and net have been mended and re-mended so many times I wouldn’t be surprised if they were passed on from his dad’s dad. Certainly, the rhythm of baiting the hook, casting the line and settling back to wait for a bite is something passed through generations.
My brother and I remarked on our last fishing trip that, when waiting behind a cast line on the side of a lake somewhere, it’s as if we sit waiting not only with each other and our dad, but with his dad as well—who passed on many years ago. There’s a kind of comfort in this ritual, as if when gathering to bait and lure our lines, we gather to join the family members–both passed on and present—who have practiced these same steps through time.
Use a family anecdote, or a family ritual, as a leaping-off point for saying something about how your family or the world works.
If it helps, think first about the material reality of the ritual you intend to write about. If it’s fishing you’re thinking of, research the anatomy of the fish. Find out how its breathing apparatus works, what it is exactly that lines those “frightening gills.” Learn the jargon of fisherfolk: the brand names of the bait, the particularities of lures and bobbers and lines. Think of this as an opportunity not only to, as Laux and Addonizio put it, “sa[y] something about how your family or the world works,” but also to say something about how the ritual itself works.
Don’t enter the poem planning to say something earth-shattering (about your family, or anything). Enter the poem with respect for the ritual in question, those who have conducted it in the past and the materiality of its “steps” as they unfold. More often than not, it’s by examining the mechanisms of our lives that we reach fresh insight—but let this come to you through the writing.
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Note: Also see Iris’ February prompt about the family rituals we engage in when “turning the year.” Though we’re still a ways off from New Year’s, many of us still feel the seasonal “turn” of fall (especially with Daylight Savings approaching!), and have our own private rituals built around welcoming this time of year.
As I’ve been working on coding, laying out, and putting together Issue 3 (which in many ways has proven to be a much more technically challenging endeavor than our previous two issues), the question of order/ordering has continually been at the forefront of my mind. How important decisions about order are when presenting a group of poems, or images! Juxtaposition means everything: placing even one small poem strategically can entirely change and elevate the overall energy of an issue, an anthology, a collection. And (to apply this thought to the level of craft) how much more so with regards to the arrangement of lines, images, stanzas, within each poem itself! At this year’s Kundiman retreat, Oliver de la Paz showed me how the placement of a single poem within a manuscript would affect the impact with which certain images in it would be perceived by a reader—and that revising with attention to order, both on a inter-poem and intra-poem level, was therefore very necessary. And during workshop, Kimiko Hahn suggested that one of the Fellows try reversing the order of the lines in her poem, a simple change that which—when applied, completely reshaped its arc, and brought the whole piece alive in a new and fascinating way.
Of course, reversing the order of a poem’s lines does not work the same magic in every case—it worked on the poem that we were discussing because it allowed the strange linguistic impulses of the final lines to speak better and thus made the arc of the new version much less tidy and more texturally interesting. But the results of this simple revision exercise got me thinking about how to apply it to my own writing. How many times have I shuffled and reordered stanzas in a poem that feels stuck, only to find that the arc of the poem was still either falling flat? Oftentimes, my last thoughts as I draft a poem may be some of the most complex, the most evocative, and so reversing a poem, image by image, or even line by line, could be a very useful way to at least read the images in the draft from a different angle, and thus to reenter the revision process on a fresh foot.
Today’s prompt is an example of more shameless, deliberate “stealing” from the advice of teachers whom I admire.
Prompt: Take a poem whose arc or movement feels “stuck” and reverse the order of the images or lines as way to re-envision the “map” of the poem. Alternately, if you are working on a manuscript, try reversing or changing the order of poems, or experimenting with reversing lines within the opening and closing poems to see whether the impact of this reordering reveals anything new and luminous.
This week’s prompt is inspired by two things — which happen to be closely related. First, the group of beginning poetry students I had the pleasure of teaching this spring. Second, the end of the school year, which, for those of us tied to the academic calendar, signals a shift in many things: schedule, work pace, travel & place, life rhythm…
Midway through spring quarter, a group of my students developed a writing prompt, or “pitch,” in which they asked their classmates to write a poem that paid particular attention to sound. In class, we’d been discussing Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1994), in which she introduces the concept of “sound families”: vowel and consonant sounds divided further into mutes, liquids, etc. I’d asked the class to develop their own families of sound, based not only on Oliver’s taxonomy of vowels and consonants, but on their intuitive sense of language as well — what sounded “spiky,” what sounded “smooth;” what sounded “purple” versus “yellow,” and so forth.
What emerged from this class session was the following prompt: write a poem whose use of sound dramatizes a change, or shift, in mood and circumstance. I found this to be a brilliant way of getting the class to explore the use of dynamic structures in their work, as well as to think about the possibilities of sound in enacting meaning.
After all, why not use sound to signal change? When frightened, it’s our ears that prick up first — sounds acquire sharper, more jagged edges; loud noises reverberate in a clanging, dizzying cacophony. The change of a season, the death of a loved one — these are dramatic moments that shift the ways in which we understand our surroundings and, thus, alter our sense perception of the world.
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Write a poem that dramatizes a shift or change, not simply in its narrative or rhetorical structure, but in its sonic textures as well. Think about the relationship between sound, speaker, and tone; ask yourself how your piece’s aural qualities can become a dynamic force that alters the mood or circumstance of your poem.
This May, as part of our celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we have been asking teachers and writers of Asian American poetry to share favorite writing exercises with us. This week, in acknowledgement of the fact that the work of reading and theorizing Asian American poetry is as important as the work of writing it, we’re changing things up a bit by adding a perspective from the world of literary criticism to the mix. For today’s Curated Prompt, we have the privilege of collaborating with one of our regular guest contributors—Asian American Literature scholar and Stanford professor Stephen Hong Sohn—as he writes about one of his aesthetic interests and shares, for the very first time, a sample of his own (hitherto secret!) creative work.
Alexis Kienlen’s She Dreams in Red begins with my favorite kind of poem: the “food pornography” poem, which immediately problematizes issues of authenticity and Asian American identity. The lyric speaker often contemplates ethnic heritage as routed through her mixed-race background. What does it mean to so unabashedly crave ethnic foods, the lyric speaker seems to ask? What can one claim ownership over, and what can one not?
Here is an excerpt from the opening poem, entitled “Chinese Café”:
“i want to savour pork dumplings,
dribble hoisin, garlic and black bean sauce over rice,
want to twist and drip noodles into my mouth,
lick my lips” (11).
The ending of the poem leaves us with this line: “this Chinese café stays open all night,” and we, as voracious readers, couldn’t really be happier.
Marking ethnicity is always a challenge within poems, but many Asian American poets such as Li-Young Lee and Aimee Nezhukumatathil have been able to explore gastronomic tropes with much complexity, and often with much humor. At once, we understand that food can mark ethnicity, but that it can also be deconstructed or employed to complicate superficial consumptive habits. Food also provides a particularly rich terrain of vocabulary. As someone who can’t cook myself, I find cookbooks endlessly fascinating and endlessly ethnic. Frank Chin once made a scathing critique of writers who employ food pornography as a way to mark themselves as native informants, but it’s difficult to know when excess is intended or not. For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll intend to push this excess, as Kienlen does when craving those “wontons” and “custard tarts” (11). Here is a food pornography poem I’d like to share:
Vietnamese food pornography poem #2: the sacred and profane
on this misted early morning
the haze ever so beta-particulate
japan’s nuclear crisis compared to Chernobyl
but culinary erotics distract me
the sensuous curve of the baked egg tart from Kang Lac
hand pressed pork puffs and steaming pork buns
so coy under the dim lights of Asian Garden Mall
Yum Cha Café boasts the understated elegance
of coconut crusted mochi balls with taro curd filling
flirtatious with such pliant, feathered skins
next door, Bánh Mi Saigon delivers me
into succulent hybridities: liver pâté, cold cut meats,
pickled carrots and turnips, all on French baguettes
postcolonial oriental cosmic
can i be so apolitically gastronomic
in these electromagnetic times
what intersections do i allow at Bolsa and Magnolia?
vendors at food stalls gesture in Vietnamese
frown, furrowed brows, shrugged shoulders
i profess that i am purely Korean
retreat into a bustling noodle shop
where my psychic sukiyaki emits a spectral glow,
brains scrambled in sinewy ramen, measured in sieverts
tripe floats on radioactive, soupy currents
bulgogi strips infesting this curry-flavored broth
as i later salt my phở with iodine and wasabi
Now, let’s see your version of a “food pornography” poem.
Prompt: write a poem that engages greedily, lasciviously—even pornographically—with the sensual pleasures of consuming “home” or “ethnic” foods in order to challenge, reimagine, or push familiar culinary markers of ethnicity into the realm of playful excess.
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Stephen Hong Sohn is an Assistant Professor of English at Stanford University.
Last May, the LR Blog featured the Angel Island poems in our APIA Heritage Month “Poetry in History” series. In the post, Iris explains:
Often called the “Ellis Island of the West,” Angel Island served as the site for processing as many as 175,000 Chinese immigrants from 1910-1940.
Detainees were separated by gender [and ethnicity!] and locked up in crowded barracks while they awaited questioning, for weeks or months — sometimes, for years — at a time. To pass the time, many immigrants wrote or carved poems into the soft wood of the barrack walls.
The poems vary in theme, form, and in level of polish, and serve as a testimony to the experience of detention, chronicling everything from hope to anger to loneliness, to a sense of adventure.
At the time, I had never visited Angel Island or read any of the poems inscribed on the walls of the immigration station, but last week I made the pilgrimage: flew to San Francisco, drove to Tiburon, took the ferry, made the hike, etc. It was an odd experience—I arrived at the dock at the same time as two groups of fifth grade history students, meaning that I toured the immigration station with them and heard all sorts of hilarious comments: “Who fought who during the Civil War? China and America?” as well as some not-so hilarious ones: “Chinese, Japanese, itchy knees, money please…” a sing-song chant I remember hearing about from the mid-twentieth century, around the time the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed. Amazing, really, what little impact four decades of activism have had on prevailing attitudes about who is/n’t included in “America” and why.
This week in my intro comp class, my students read a chapter from Natalie Goldberg’s book Writing Down the Bones, in which she urges aspiring writers to use specific language in their descriptions, arguing that, just as a person deserves the dignity of being called by the name that is unique to them, an object, an idea, or whatever it is that becomes the subject of one’s writings, also deserves the dignity of specificity (77).
I like this idea—that to write specifically is not only to render a subject more vividly, but it is to render that subject with an ethical hand: truthfully, respectfully, with acknowledgment of its dignity. There is much talk in the arts of how to create ethically, with genuine concern for the dignity and humanity of the subjects that we handle in our work. I like the idea that to write ethically involves more than paying attention to the greater political implications of our words; that such concerns are extremely important, but that as writers, in order to render these themes well, we also have a responsibility to pay close scrutiny to the elements of craft—if we are not paying careful attention to the colors and tonalities of our words, to the very palette with which we wield our art, then we are not honoring the subjects of our writing, either. How that attention to detail pans out, of course, will be very different in every case (there is, in my opinion, no monolithically “correct” definition of, or approach to, solid craft). But the idea that the attention and respect which a writer pays to his or her subject will be conveyed in the detailed inflections of his or her work seems very wise to me, indeed.