Weekly Prompt: Ordering, Reordering, Reversing.

Ordered Stones
Sea Stones: Ordered, Reordered, Reversed

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.

Weekly Prompt: Playing With Perspective

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!

Weekly Prompt: Writing Through Form

Few of us ever sit down to write and think, “Wow, I feel like writing a double abecedarian today!” or “I’m not sure why, but this feels like a sestina type of morning.”  If you’re anything like me, you have a somewhat removed relationship to form: you know it’s out there, and have grown up loving sonnets and sestinas, but you’re steeped in contemporary free verse and it’s not often that you turn naturally toward the formal constraints of meter, rhyme schemes, and patterns of repetition.  What I’ve discovered however, is that using form (or multiple forms, even) as part of a drafting process can be tremendously helpful.

Take this process, for instance.  I begin with a page and a half of rough, ill-formulated free verse (part of my stream-of-consciousness generating process), cut everything that seems extraneous, then apply a ten-syllables-per line rule that reads roughly like iambic pentameter.  Some lines feel forced, others buckle with newfound muscle and verve.  In certain places, the syntax torques into interesting patterns and the language tightens with sharpened verbs and image.  I extract all the lines that are working well and weave them into a pantoum.  The language overlaps, recontextualizes, and surprising new meanings are forged and unforged.

My pantoum reveals the weaknesses of specific lines, so I cut them, keeping only the lines strong enough to stand alone.  Strong enough to pass, if you will, the “test” of the pantoum.  What’s left is a hodge-podge of lines and my poem looks like a newspaper with the headlines cut out, but one or two stanzas remain untouched.  I smash them into a rough fourteener form, then work and rework the language until what emerges—hammered, refined, and carefully tuned, is a new poem.  I am pleased.

Your process (or experiment) doesn’t have to be as involved as the one I’ve just described.  Writing through form (where form is not the final destination, but rather, the means by which one reaches the poems one really wants to write) can be as simple as: free verse to blank verse, or free verse to haiku to heroic couplets.  Be creative.  Mix and match, invent unexpected combinations of form (ie. “What do you get when you cross iambic tetrameter with an elegy?”).  Some pairings may prove disastrous, but no worries.  Since you’re writing through form as part of a drafting process, even the most awful results can be redirected in the next draft.

Feel free to either post a sample poem or share a few process notes from your attempts to write through form.  Good luck, and have fun!