On Writing Poems – part 3

Stealing. In part one I wrote about poetry as a practice, and touched on using your body as an instrument in that practice. Part two was about facing the blank page, and using a simple structure, the I Remember Poem, to generate text so you can then begin to craft a poem in your regular practice. Part three will discuss another way to generate text for your poetry practice. Stealing.

Appropriated Poetry is a sub-genre of poetry I became very interested in while in my MFA program. I believe I take that term from my old teacher Jack Collum in referring to types of poems such as: found poetry, overheard conversation, cut-up, mistranslation, etc. When I first encountered the concept, I had a knee-jerk judgemental reaction to it. I was tied to the overarching concept that poems were ideas. My ideas, to then be crafted into something, a poem. While discovering the power of appropriated poetry I shifted my thinking toward the, to me, more honest feeling that poems are words. The craft comes in shaping words into things that may generate feelings and ideas, not the other way around. I think of it not so much like sampling in music, more like sculpture with found material. It impacted what I thought about how I wrote in, and used my journal; and how I dealt with facing the blank page, the subject of this little entry in the On Writing Poems series.

Here are four Appropriated Poetry exercises for when you are facing the blank page with no seeming direction.

Found Poem. Everywhere we go we are surrounded by words. The cool thing about words is we can’t look at most of them without affixing meanings to them that have been drilled into us over our lives. On the other hand, as words pass us by on signs and billboards and wayfinding materials and advertisements all day long, all of our lives, we do begin to look at them without seeing them, disassociating meaning from them in the traditional sense. Like the day I was cycling on a Seattle road that steeply dipped down below a wooden trestle I was approaching. A train carried jet fuselages north to south, giant white tubes in a long dotted line passing from my left to right at eye level. On each white tube was the word Boeing in blue. Boeing, Boeing, Boeing, Boeing, I repeated. To name a plane company after the sound a ball makes hitting the ground, I thought.

One word is hardly a poem though. (A picture maybe, if I’d had a camera.) Look for notes left in library books, half-torn stickers on telephone poles, items in the trash at the side of the street. Years ago, in Boulder I had a crush on the person in the checkout line at my local little market. One day after leaving with two things I didn’t need because I saw they were working and wanted to interact with them, I looked at the receipt and decided it was a poem I named Lara after this cashier I never knew. Be attentive to the feelings that arise in you associated with unlikely objects, such as a receipt. Also don’t be creepy. If you aren’t going to talk to the cashier, stop going to that line.

Overheard conversation. We are likewise surrounded by words not printed or pressed into paper, not stuck on stop signs, not skittering down the breezy lane. Whether we’re on a city bus, in the market, in front of the TV or radio, there’s even more language floating invisibly all around us. We are very good at blocking a lot of it out. As an exercise, keep your journal out and record things you hear. Again, don’t be creepy. But sometimes people are letting their guards down around you and expressing real, in the moment, emotion of all kinds. Take note of the ones that linger in your head a bit. Hear turns of phrase unlike your own. Hear how directly, and how indirectly people express what they are feeling. Think about what environment you are in while experiencing this exercise, and don’t be creepy, and don’t belittle people in this practice. This exercise is about finding real human language in others when you can’t find it in you. Take this language and enter it into your regular poetry practice. Maybe it’s phrases, maybe an entire narrative. Perhaps a few haiku. Use it.

Cut-up. Please don’t cut up books. Photocopiers and digital solutions exist. That said, get your cutting matt and craft blade out, this one feels like real art! Especially if you use real paper and tape, glue, etc. Step one in a cut up is to choose the material(s). This is like a painter choosing their pallet of colors. The item you cut up is what your poem will be largely made of, so consider the direction you’d like to go. An article you found particularly moving? A news story? A catalog entry? A coaster from your bar? The bus passing by? (Maybe you grabbed a picture!) Meet me at the next paragraph once you’ve chosen.

Decide how to cut your piece up. All words individually? Groups of 7 words? Complete lines from left to right? Punctuation included? In shapes with no regard for the words themselves? Sometimes I’ve written down my options and then rolled dice to choose. Also, decide how to combine the words. Make silly rules. You have to use every word and every punctuation mark! Or, every line has to start with the letter F! Or whatever, you get it, if you need help getting started arranging them, make up a silly rule to help.

Let the words or phrases strike you as you look at them, dissociated from their author’s intent. Let certain words you’ve never seen together strike you as you move them around, mixing and combining them, and saying them out loud. Two seemingly unrelated words jammed right up next to each other can bring a surprising image along for the ride. This exercise especially is great at getting comfortable letting words direct you. It’s a two-way street, poetry craft. We shape the poem, but the words can also direct us, if we let these sometimes surprising new meanings come to life. We can enter a feedback loop of sorts where the poem breathes, and comes alive and begins to tell us how to write it. Take note if this fleeting experience happens to you.

Mistranslation. This is for the more nerdy of you. Take writing of your own, or of someone else, something you’re inspired by, and translate it into a foreign language. Particularly one you don’t already know. Get a translation book, take some time, and even if you don’t know what you are doing, just translate it, as best you can. Cool, right? Now, once you’ve done that, translate this first translation into a third language. 

If you do not know more than one language, you should now have an original item, plus the first and second translations, neither of which you can truly understand beyond the translation book you used. Take this second translation and now translate it back into your original language. Let the translator book guide you, not your memory of the original piece of writing in your native language. When done, you should have the original piece, the first translation, the second translation, and now the third translation, which you can read again. Is it the same as the original? 

I have known people who speak a surprising number of languages. If you are one of these folks, continue with this exercise of translating until you run out of languages, then go back to your original. Or stop wherever you like, you have a nimble mind and can make your own decisions.

I find this exercise less often leads directly to a poem, and more often just leads into a nice frame of mind for working with words. Sometimes you can learn a new turn of phrase this way. Or invent one. 

These are just four ways to face the blank page using exercises derived from Appropriated Poems. As always, stay open minded, kind, and generous as you write poems. Consider thinking of your own language as found language, and see if you are surprised with what your own words can tell you. Stay tuned and next time I’ll discuss something else on writing poems.

Published by pedalpoet

Poet, writer, and songwriter living in Seattle, WA

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