This is the second part of prompts written by Zanne Langlois based on Devon Moore's Apology Of A Girl Who Is Told She Is Going To Hell.
Part One is here.
Devon Moore: Apology of a Girl Who Is Told She Is Going to Hell Part II For the rest of Devon Moore’s collection, I’m going to base these next prompts on themes and patterns, rather than connecting them to specific poems.
The most fundamental theme in the collection is loss. An alternate title poem for her collection could have been “For the Lost.” Many of the poems are like negative space drawings, in which Moore defines the outline of the space a person leaves. In most, but not all of the poems, the lost person is her father. It is in many ways an elegy, but without the pastel shades and blurred edges of the the filter we often apply to the lives of the recently dead. At various places, she refers to the task of the poems as resurrection, taxidermy, and patricide, revealing the complexity of grief over the loss of a parent, particularly a parent who had been missing from their child’s life in crucial ways even when they were alive. Many of the poems walk the line between grief and regret, and show the ways in which the second amplifies the first.
Prompt: Write a negative space poem. Describe the shape of the hole left when a person close to you either died or left. It doesn’t have to be grief-shaped. It could also show what there is space for now that there wasn’t before. Maybe there’s a new appreciation for something, or something you started together has stayed in your life even after the person is gone (as in “Gardening with Gravity”).
Prompt: Find a small item left by someone who has died and imagine it as a sign of their presence. What is it? How and where do you find it? What do you do with it? What do you do because of it?
Another theme is miscommunication and misinterpretation—what we think we are saying vs. what it heard, and vice versa. Some of the poems explore the way kids misinterpret things because of their naivete, while others focus on the miscommunication between adults, especially those in romantic relationships.
Prompt: write a poem in which every line could be interpreted two ways, and those two ways would cause conflict between the people communicating if one was meant but the other was heard. Perhaps have the gap between the two possible meanings be a harbinger of what is to come. Bonus: use a few homonyms to show the nature of a relationship. “Going to Ocean” uses current and currant. Explore the different things two words that sound exactly the same can mean, and explore miscommunication and mismatch through them.
Here it occurs to me that I’ve been focusing almost entirely on content, as opposed to craft or structure. Most of Moore’s poems are written in free verse, with the exception of one villanelle, which I’d read a number of times before I realized it was a villanelle, which made me like it even more. But for the most part, I can’t really identify a structure in the poems. What does come through is a specific voice. The speaker in Moore’s poems often has a slightly breathless sound, like a child who is telling a story they are excited about—run-on sentences, non-sequitors, illogical or overly logical conclusions. As when a child tells a story, all the details get the same level of importance, even if their significance varies greatly.
Prompt: Describe two or three specific emotionally charged moments from your childhood. Your parents announcing their divorce, the arrival of a new sibling, the loss of a relative or a pet. The first time through, describe the event from a place of adult understanding, to capture the bones of the moment. They go back and translate it into the thought patterns / speech patterns of a child at that age. Maybe 6 year-old you is explaining what happened to 30 year-old you. Maybe they are even trying to comfort 30 year-old you with their explanation.
Prompt: Identify someone in your life who has a very distinctive way of speaking, in terms of cadence, diction, sentence structure. Write a poems in their voice, in which you directly address the reader. Think about what filler words do they use between their ideas, how long their sentences tend to be, where they pause, etc. If possible, write about a topic they care about.
Moore’s poems are full of everyday objects that pin the poems to a particular time period— Okinawan saucer, ruby slippers, Nintendo, mandarin orange scented soap, Bouncing Betty, snowglobe, etc. These objects do a lot of the emotional work in the poem, sometimes as talismans, sometimes as symbols, sometimes as props that identify the setting of the poem.
Prompt: List 20 objects that define the first decade of your life, both personally and culturally. Some brand names, some items specific to your family. Items at your relatives houses that you coveted, items in your house you were not allowed to touch, items you touched every day, items that only came out on holidays. Food items, toys, clothing, furniture, etc. Now use at least 10 in a poem. Here are some places to start: 1) Find the time capsule you buried in yourself as a child. Pull out each item and explore the memories it evokes. In what part of your body is each one stored? Maybe it’s an archaeological dig. 2) Create a museum diorama of your childhood. Maybe a series of them. What do the descriptions on the wall next to each exhibit say? 3) Where are these objects now? What happened to them after they disappeared from your life? What disappeared with them?
When I was eight, my parents sent me to basketball camp, and that One Year, I was good at it. Not prodigy good, but As Good as the other kids my age. So my parents planted a basketball hoop next to the end of the driveway. They bought me a ball. My uncle was connected to The Celtics, so I got to go see two games up close with my friends. Like, Bird/McHale/Parrish/Ainge/Johnson era Celtics. I realized I was never going to grow into one of these giants, so I lost my heart for the game. I still played HORSE with my friends, and shot free throws, and had the occasional half-court matches that were literal streetball. I moved on to tennis, which I became Good Enough in.
In reading Clint Smith's Counting Descent, I realized how many collections I've been reading this year contain basketball poems. The previous generation of poets that I read seemed more focused on baseball, and I think I'll get to that discrepancy in future posts. But basketball comes up so often, and in such different ways, that I decided I should devote a post to examining basketball poems. Not providing an essay of why *I* think basketball poems are important, but giving a series of questions and discussion prompts about when basketball appears and why. Again, not to provide answers but to get readers talking. I've chosen the following poems to focus on:
Clint Smith: Full Court Press
Hanif Abdurraqib: All The White Boys On The East Side Loved Larry Bird
Sherman Alexie: Defending Walt Whitman
Jon Sands: The Show
John Murillo: Practicing Fade-Aways
Janae Johnson: My Court
1. What do you know about basketball? I don't need to know the statistics you know. Do you know statistics? Do you watch the game on television? Do you play it? Did you used to play it? Why did you stop playing or watching? What basketball terms do you know? Do you have a favorite player? If you played, is there a move or position you were known for? There is no shame if you have no basketball experience. This is simply to remind yourself of your own knowledge before we go further.
2. Write a poem about your experience with basketball. It is perfectly acceptable for your experience to be "I have never cared about basketball, and don't want to think about it."
3. How is basketball important to the story in Clint Smith's "Full-Court Press"? Not just in general, but in the language he uses in the first two stanzas of Part 2, where the first stanza is a group of kids playing basketball, and the second is a group of kids sitting around after basketball.
4. Describe an experience where you were in a group of people whose primary relation is a game, sport, hobby, or fandom. Is the language different from your usual day-to-day vernacular?
5. In Hanif Abdurraqib's "All The White Boys On The East Side Loved Larry Bird", he talks about being referred to by a racial slur as a small price to pay/for my name in the newspaper. Discuss a time where someone boosted your signal but used dehumanising language to do it. How did you feel and how did you react? Were your feelings and your actions at odds? Have you ever used language that you later realized was dehumanising or insulting when your goal was not to hurt someone?
6. In Abdurraqib's poem he opens with how Larry Bird put his finger up to celebrate before the 3 even went in. Talk about a time when you celebrated prematurely. Did it work out for you?
7. In Smith's poem, a group of people come to his neighborhood and bring hate speech that they intend as both playful and hurtful. In Abdurraqib's he goes to someone else's neighborhood/school and they throw the same hate speech but with no playful intent. Which hurts you more: when someone brings hate to a place where you usually feel in control? or when you are vulnerable in a place you have no allegiance to?
8. How has hate manifested itself in an activity you love? Has has it changed your relation to the activity? Are you more protective of it? Less interested in it? Do you feel the need to love the activity but detach yourself from the other people involved?
9. In Sherman Alexie's "Defending Walt Whitman", he plays a fictional game of basketball with a famous poet. Bring a famous historical or fictional character into something you feel passionate about. It should not be a person already associated with the activity. So, you can't play basketball with Larry Bird but you could play Chess or Call Of Duty with him. You can't race against Florence Griffith-Joyner, but you can play Scrabble with her or work together to solve a puzzle.
10. Alexie talks about the high number of military people involved in the basketball games on The Reservation. Is there a demographic crossover in the activity that you love that isn't expected? Maybe there are a lot of comic book fans on your hockey team? A lot of divorcees and widows in your poetry slam community? Don't examine Why the circles in the Venn Diagram overlap, just celebrate all the people who show up in the middle.
11. Alexie's poems includes images of the players and what they look like both on and off the court, while Abdurraqib's focuses more on the terminology of the court, and the aftermath of the games. When it comes to an activity you're passionate about, what's more important: the paradigm of the activity or the people who participate in it?
12. In all three of the poems so far, personal culture has intersected with the culture of basketball. We all have some cultural identity that affects the way people see us: race, gender, ethnicity, age, religion, sexual orientation, different physical abilities, etc. Instead of just writing about how you think people see you and the activity you are passionate about, ask a dozen or so people you know, but you do not know through your passion/activity, to describe the type of person who participates in your passion/activity. How do their imaginings of the type of person who likes your activity differ from the way you see yourself?
13. In Jon Sands' "The Show" a group of sixth graders taunts him and his friend for being old people playing a young person's sport. Has someone else ever made you feel that you were too young or too old to love what you love? Have you ever been the person either mocking someone for not being age appropriate, or think you were kindly dispensing wisdom to someone that you believed was not age appropriate to their activity? If you've been both, have a conversation across those two times.
14. In Sands' poem, he was older being taunted by a younger generation. In Smith's, a group of older kids invite him to play. Talk about a positive experience you've had when someone from a different generation either invited you into their activity or activity-based clique or when they complimented your skills in a way that made you feel that you were transcending generations.
15. In Smith, Abdurraqib, and Sands's poems, the person playing has been driven to self-examination by an outside force. Forget those people. Why do you continue to do what you love?
16. In John Murillo's "Practicing Fade-Aways", he discusses both the times he is alone practicing basketball, and the time he is playing with others. When you were invested in your passion (which might be now, but might be in the past), did you practice so that you could look better when you participated in the activity, or was the practice what you loved but you did the activity to justify the time you spent practicing? Do you love the work or the performance? (Both is an acceptable answer, provided you can prove it's true.)
17. In the opening stanza of Murillo's poem, he describes a court that's been well-used and mostly worn away. Do you tend to find yourself attracted to an activity that's new or has recently experienced a resurgence, or do you like something that's not currently en vogue or at its peak relevance?
18. In the third stanza of Murillo's poem, a player he admired is stabbed to death. Has someone you were close to ever disappeared from the community built around your activity? It doesn't have to be tragic (though that's valid). Maybe they just got tired of it before you did. Or maybe they were so skilled that they moved up to a level you can't/couldn't achieve. How did their absence change the way you felt about the activity?
19. Janae Johnson's poem deals with the erasure of gender in basketball. As he never heard of Cheryl/just Reggie refers to two for the most famous, Hall Of Fame players in the game, Reggie and Cheryl Miller. There is a massive blind spot in fandom when it comes to gendered sports. Apart from the Olympics, womens' sports are rarely televised or commemorated in trading cards or video games. Write about a gender experience within your passion. Maybe it's an inspirational story, maybe it's about a time you messed up and didn't give proper respect. Go somewhere unexpected (as long as it's not problematic).
20. Gloryhounds are the worst part of team sports/activities. Even when they're talented, watching one person dominate a field is only fun for so long. What's the worst gloryhounding you've ever experienced.
21. All of these poems seem focused on the narrator's passion for the sport that they are playing in. Only ohnson and Abdurraqib's draw the larger world's mythology of the game into their poems (Larry Bird at the beginning and end of Abdurraqib's poem, the Millers in Johnson's). Write about an important moment in the activity that you love that doesn't involve yourself or someone you know personally.
22. Ok, now take the incident from Prompt #21 and draw it into your sphere of experience, either as metaphor, allegory, or parallel to your own involvement.
23. Write about the day you stopped being actively involved in this activity you loved. If it hasn't happened yet, imagine what it will take to convince you it's time to move on.
Today's prompts come from the third section of Wanda Coleman's collection, Bathwater Wine. Bucky Sinister was the first person to recommend her work to me, and I loved that first book, Mad Dog, Black Lady, so much that I went out and bought as many of her books as I could.
Firesong, 1964: Choose a historical figure who you associate with a color. Deconstruct both the color and the historical figure, and see if you can intertwine the deconstructions.
Mojave Winter: How are your clothes like punctuation or pieces of grammar?
A Rage Revivified: I don’t know how many types of knots there are. It’s probably finite. But there are knots to tie shoes, knots to dock boats, knots to braid friendship bracelets, knots for ties, so many, many knots. Focus on one type of knot. What is it supposed to do? What tasks would it not be good for? Is there a weight to the knot that would cause you not to use it?
Provisos: Ghost Line: when the book is closed/the words starve
Bad Eyes & The Wrong Prescription: There are shoes built for certain dances. There are clothes that evoke certain styles of music. Which type of clock is in a person’s work or home speaks volumes. Build a correlation between an item of clothing or an appliance and how it relates to a person or a type of art.
Essay On Language (5): Logorrhea is speech that is so repetitious that it becomes incoherent. Incoherent speech repeating itself not for purpose but for repetitiveness’ sake. Everything speech repeated until its purpose is incoherent. Incoherent everything. Repetitive speech for purposes’ sake. Use logorrhea for your own purpose. Repurpose repetition for the sake of incoherent speech. Speech the purpose’s repetition for speech’s sake.
Dangerous Subject: How do you prepare to keep yourself safe when you walk into a situation you suspect will be dangerous? This can be the type of attire/equipment you use before climbing or riding a bike, or can relate to how you prepare to avoid a difficult conversation.
I Imagine The Angels Of Rage: Find a poem with a very distinctive form. Unapologetically steal the form for your own poem (but credit the poet you stole it from). Decide whether there are parts of the form you can strip away until the poem is solidly your own, or if you like it as is, in which case, always refer to it as “(Title Of Poem) after (Poet’s Name) (Original Poem Title)”.
Regurgitations: Think of a story you heard in your life from several different sources. Maybe a friend’s parents were divorced, and the friend, the parents, the neighbors, and your own parents all had wildly different explanations for it. Maybe a favorite teacher disappeared from your town, and the school wouldn’t talk about it, so the kids all made up their own mythology. Tell us all the different versions of this story you heard. Make up some of your own, while you’re at it.
Love Bandit (2): Write a series of half pick-up lines or backhanded compliments. Interweave them into new meanings. For example “You must be tired because I can see my reflection in them.” or “If I were a watermelon you’d be the best a man can get.”
Espantelepsis: We’re all going to die eventually. (Eeyore face) Imagine there is an afterlife that allows you to see the places and people you left behind. Except you have no concept of how much time has passed since your death and when you are seeing them again. How does this affect you?
Sunset Liana: Describe your relationship with someone using only physical objects you’ve shared. You can talk about a bed you shared, but not what you did in it. A kitchen table but not what you said at it. Your DNA but not what you’ve done with it.
Woman Alone But Not Lonely: There are people who make food using highly detailed recipes, and those who just wing it. If you are a recipe person, describe an event in your life where you uncharacteristically winged it. If you’re a winger, describe something that you absolutely have to plan out before you attempt it.
Marriage By Capture: Write a dialog about sex, in which neither person mentions sex, but that is clearly what they’re discussing.
The Ron Narrative Deconstructions: Ghost Line: I called the wind. It called back
Negative Portions: So many poems are heartache. The lover that ripped my heart out. You tore out my heart. There’s a hole where my heart used to be. Etcetera ad nauseum. Ok. So let’s say someone did tear out your heart. Did they replace with it anything? Did something grow their of its own accord? Don’t let that space remain hollow, tell us what is there now that the heart is absent.
I Died With My First Blow & Was Reborn Wrong: Remember that part where we all die. This time, let’s say that reincarnation is real. But that you can see what your next self is doing. And they are FUCKING it up. Address them. Tell them how you would do better.
Intruder: Break into someone else’s poem or collection of poetry. Rearrange things so that they’re more to your liking. Leave. What have you brought back with you?
Clint Smith's Counting Descent is a lesson in poetic memoir. It hits the This Is Who I Am core of poetry from several different angles. It doesn't rely on tricks, or abstracts, or unnecessarily poetic language. It's straight-forward while still being complex and nuanced. You get a feel for the type of person the writer is and you want to know more about him. He's not broken, or horribly flawed, he's human, and growing up in a world that he increasingly understands, does not value parts of his identity as much as it values others'.
The prompts I've created all focus on identity. But not race. Even though race is a fundamental part of this collection. I want to be clear that this is not because I don't value poems about race. It's that writing about race is much harder than writing these prompts. You can Totally use these prompts to also write about race and how it affects you, but if you're not prepared for that, you can avoid it.
I might use some of these prompts to talk about sexual orientation and gender identity but those aren't implicitly written into an of the prompts I've come up with so far. That might change down the line, but right now, I would rather say "Confront a stereotype that you are unfairly labelled with" than "write about a time where being gay affected your life".
Something You Should Know: What was the first job that didn’t matter to you? What does that say about you and/or the job in question? Was it a person at the job that made it unpleasant? The customer base? A physical task? The general idea of the job? How long did you put up with it anyway? How did you finally get out?
What The Ocean Said To The Black Boy: There are bogus stereotypes for all us. Be they based on race, gender, orientation, nationality, hair color, height, weight, w’evs. Confront a stereotype that you’ve had applied to you. Refute it or embrace it. Definitely show, don’t tell with this one. Leave all the telling in the title.
For The Boys At The Bottom Of The Sea: Staying with the example from the previous poem, give advice to members of your community who the stereotype applies to. What qualifies you to give them this advice? Why should they listen to you?
The Boy And His Ball: Narrate a sporting event, concert, or show as if was the most epic, important piece of history ever recorded. Use a thesaurus and dense images (I don’t usually recommend this). It can be as sincere, surreal, or satirical as you wish.
Soles: Ok, here you go, the inevitable meta prompt about how writing is hard. Here’s the thing, though, you have to describe how challenging writing can feel, but you can’t talk about writing. Try not to go too metaphorically obvious: mountain climbing, sky diving, etc. Try and be creative: buying a house, navigating a strange city, fucking. But, um, if you do use any of those three, you totally have to give me credit in your manuscript.
Ode To The Loop-de-Loop: Address an intangible thing that frightens you. Investigate its purpose. Ask why it won’t leave you alone.
My Jump Shot Be: Write about a talent or trait that is singularly yours. Something you do like nobody else. Write a poem at least a page long where every stanza starts with a “My (talent) is like” statement.
Full Court Press: I think everyone has this moment. A friend or an older kid in the neighborhood says something to you that you should either be offended by, or should never say around adults. But no one taught you this. So you go and say this word/phrase/expression/idea in front of Someone Who Knows Better, and they Educate You. Who first gave you this phrase/word/idea/expression? Did they know it was going to get you in trouble? Did they assume you already knew to never say this to The Wrong Person? Is this something perfectly acceptable for them, but not you to express? Who told you you messed up? How did they try to make it feel? How did it actually feel? What is your relationship with the expression now? With the people/person who taught it to you? With the person who taught you it was wrong?
What The Cicada Said To The Black Boy: Pick an animal you identify with on a metaphoric level (e.g.: a snail if you like to hide in your house, a kangaroo if you’re an overprotective parent who gets in a ridiculous number of fights). What would that animal say to you if it spoke your language, and knew you identified with it?
Ode To 9th & O NW: Tell us about a street you lived on. Go all the way in. Let us feel like we know that street, that we should be as nostalgic or afraid of it as you are.
What The Fire Hydrant Said To The Black Boy: Do you ever feel like you’ve blended into the background? How about that, no matter how hard you try, you always stick out, like an ear with a bandage on it? Do you ever feel like everything around you depends on you for survival, but tries to make you clandestine? Find something in your environment that functions the way you feel you do. What can you learn from it? What would it say to you if it could speak your language?
Counting Descent: Use numbers and math to describe your family. Where they come from. What they do for their livings. How they relate to you. What you imagine or hope will happen for (collective) you in the future.
Keeping Score: Does your family, or coworkers, or group of friends have a game that you play frequently? Card games, board games, role playing games (outside of the bedroom, please), sports, puzzles, looking for certain types of cars or license plates on long road trips. Tell us about the game and if/why it’s important to (collective) you.
A Lineage: Who were you named for, and is it important to you?
Counterfactual: Write about a lesson you learned on a field trip, school outing, or road trip with the family.
When I first conceived of the interaction projects, I asked people to recommend their favorite collections of poetry. I got some great suggestions. But I also wandered around the bookstores and libraries in Cambridge and checked out Employee Recommendation shelves. It was on one of these shelves that I saw Gregory Pardlo's Digest. I read a few pages, I bought it, I went back to work, I finished my shift, I stayed at work until I finished reading the book. I reread a few poems on the bus ride home. I too pictures of a couple of poems and texted them to a friend who was looking for new poetry collections to read. He called me. We talked about the book for an hour. I hadn't had that particular response to a poetry collection in probably years.
Rereading the first half of the book this morning, it still engages me in a way many books do not. I'm going to try and do some of these prompts, based on his poems, myself in the near future.
Written By Himself: Pardlo repeats “I was born” statements that all expose the different parts of his humanity. None of them contradict each other. He does not ever change the place or circumstances of where he was born in such a way that his mythology changes. For example, he talks about being born “in a roadside kitchen skillet” and, later, “across the river”, never saying whether the roadside kitchen skillet is in a kitchen across the river. They might be the same place. They might not. This is one of the parts of mythology that I enjoy, that many people avoid when creating myth. Mystery. Referring to events using specific images or plot points, but not pinning events down to a specific location, or describing the physical attributes of the characters in such a way that two readers are likely to have the same image of the character in their heads. Create your own mythology of self that uses metaphor and hyperbole to describe who you think you are/have been, but try to avoid anything resembling a fact, or giving physical characteristics.
Marginalia: Find a sectioned document (a guide, a political document, legal papers, etc.) that’s important to you. Maybe it supports something you believe in. Maybe it’s something you’ve fought against your whole life. Maybe it’s a self-help guide that is so inaccurate for you that it makes you laugh when you are depressed. Write a poem for each section of the document. It’s okay to change styles/narrators/opinions/form between sections. Lead the readers on a journey that will make them want to see the document for themselves.
Attachment Atlantic City Pimp: Taxonomize a profession or enthusiast that you have close knowledge of. Get very specific about how you see the traits of your subject. It’s important that this is a type of person you have expertise in, as you don’t want to resort to stereotypes, though you can refer to the stereotype existing and comment on how accurate they are.
For an extra challenge, taxonomize a profession or enthusiast through the lens of a friend, family member, or existing fictional/historical character that you are also very familiar with.
Corrective Lenses : Creative Reading And (Recon)textual/ization: Write a field guide for how you read books. What goes into your selection process? Do you choose books by writers, genre, friends recommendations, bestseller lists, cover art? Do you buy books blind, or do you read a bit in the store/library/online before committing to buying it? How far into a book must you delve before giving up? What would make you give up on a book? What traits would make you recommend a book to other people? Do you make across-the-board recommendations, or do you always tailor your suggestions to specific people? Do you take notes? Highlight? Dog-ear pages? Where do you read? Have you ever been in a book club? How did you enjoy reading assigned work in school? Does what type of book you read depend on your mood?
Four Improvisations On Ursa Corregidora: Research a relationship that’s important to you. It can be two celebrities, it can be family members, it can be the relationship between a movie and its audience, anything you are fascinated by. Now create four blank sonnets (fourteen line poems with roughly the same syllable count per line…but don’t freak out about iambics or how many feet are in each line) about the relationship. They should all be from the same character’s perspective, and about the same incident. But they should tell us different things about both the speaker and the subject. For example, if you were to wright Four Improvisations on Ike Turner, you might write about the day Tina Turner finally left him. Part one might be her take on the actual day she left him. Part two might be her looking back on the day she left him from the day she released her first solo work. Part three might be watching the day she left him as depicted in the movie What’s Love Got To Do With It. And maybe part four would be looking back on the day she finally retires. The first phrase in each sonnet, and the final word in each sonnet, should be the same. Also, seed each poem with five specific words/images that appear in all four parts.
Copyright: Tel the story of a historical even from four different characters’ perspectives. It’s ok if all of them have similar views on the event. The purpose of this exercise is not to show that the event means different things to different people, it’s to work on establishing unique narrative voices. For example, if you write about four Patriot’s fans reactions to Super Bowl LI, they all probably loved it. They were all probably incredibly nervous. Maybe one of them is religious and talks about praying during the game. One is very hyperbolic and uses a lot of cliché phraseology. One promised herself that if the Patriots won, she would propose to her partner. And one came from Atlanta and had been bullied by Falcon fans while he lived there. It’s your universe, make all four narrators as specific as possible, and have them employ memorably different language in each of their sections. Bonus points if you can incude one distinct phrase in all four parts.
Renaissance Man: Write a poem heavy with description. It can be of a person, place, or event. Use as much assonance, dissonance, alliteration, and consonance as possible.
Shades Of Green: Envy And Enmity In The American Cultural Imaginary: Write a dry, academic description of a movie or book that you love. Drain all the humanity from it. Use sociological language. Try to invoke passion for the movie/book in your readers without displaying any passion in the text. Let it be clear from how well you know this subject, that the passion was in the watching and the researching.
Copenhagen, 1991: The start of a good love story or buddy comedy is a specific inciting incident. Something amazing should have happened when they first met. Write about a first date, or first time hanging out with someone that is filled with specific images and lines of conversation that make it clear that the two characters are destined to be involved with each other’s life for an extended period (it can be forever, it can be years, it can be for two weeks of summer camp). Never use the word love or friend. Never discuss how they look at each other or other common signifiers about people caring. Let their dialog and the images do that for you.
Ghosts In The Machine: Synergy And The Dialogic System: What does the number zero mean to you?
Palling Around: Write about a text, e-mail, phone call, letter, or conversation that you regret having. Something that forever changed your relationship with a person. Don’t discuss hat changes occurred, or what your relationship was like before. Focus on the actual message you regret. Whether you were worried you were fucking up as you made/sent it, whether it didn’t occur to you until just after it went out, or whether it wasn’t until much later that you figured out your mistake.
Raisin: Discuss a time you took someone you care about to a play, a movie, a poetry slam, a concert, some cultural event you love. What was your purpose in taking them there? Did they enjoy it? Did it change the way you interacted going forward?
Philadelphia, Negro: Write about a time someone you cared about took you to an event that was out of your experience zone. Something you didn’t imagine you’d be at all interested in. Did you become interested? Instead of focusing on your relationship with the person who brought you, discuss how it altered your perception of the thing they exposed you to.
Cassandra de Alba was the first, but not the only, person to recommend I read Ada Limón's Bright Dead Things. Usually, when I like a poet's work, it's because there are lines that stay with me, or I enjoy how they engage with form. Limón's work doesn't fit into either category. Her writing is very straight-forward, most of the poems in this collection are one stanzaed free verse. She's very good at evoking feelings without using any poetic tricks.
I wanted to follow up Phillip B. Williams with someone very different, and, initially started an interaction with a different poet's work, but it didn't inspire prompts or my desire to keep reading it. Limón's book was fairly near it on the shelf, so I picked it up, and immediately remembered why I enjoyed reading her work. The first section of her book is all about place, and how we are affected by our physical geography and changes to it. Prompts flowed right out of this collection. I hope the inspire you.
How To Triumph Like A Girl: Ada Limón prefers lady horses to guy horses. I prefer medium and large dogs to small dogs. Do you have a specific preference that isn’t rooted in prejudice against the other option(s)?
During The Impossible Age Of Everyone: What place is the most important place to you in the world? Not necessarily your home but a place that you would gladly spend a great deal of time in, even if you associate it with painful memories. What was that place like before you were born? After you were born but before you found yourself there? Forget how the place changed you, did you change the place? What do you hope it will be like in the future?
The Last Move: Moving from home to home, city to city can be traumatic for anyone. Or it can be a hugely positive force of change in your life. Citing a specific move, or moves, explain how you get comfortable making a place your own. What things can you not imagine ever getting used to? Did you eventually?
Mowing: What’s your favorite activity that most people label a chore? Why do you enjoy it? Can you imagine other people enjoying it as much as you?
The Rewilding: There remains the mystery of how the pupil devours/so much bastard beauty. Abandoned property.///This land and I are rewilding. Describe yourself as a landscape. How have you changed/are you changing?
The Good Wave: Sometimes watching a sporting event, a movie, or a concert can be disappointing. If you’re fortunate enough to be with family or friends, or acquaintances who have the potential to become friends, you might find conversations to divert yourself from boredom or impending mild sadness. What are these things you talk about? Why do you think they unite you?
Down Here: Different regions of the world, or the nation you live in, or the state/province you grew up in, or even the neighborhood where you were raised, have different colloquialisms. Describe your first encounter with a phrase that you either embraced in your vernacular, or else absolutely loathe, and refuse to ever say.
How Far Away We Are: Oh, the weather. Sometimes it’s too hot to even consider going outside and moving. Sometimes it’s too cold to fathom going outside at all. But we do. We throw on layers of clothes and trek to our jobs, or we pack our bathing suits and breezy shirts and head out to a lake, a beach, some shady park, an air conditioned movie theater. Why do you brave the elements when you could just stay at home and regulate your temperature to the best of your ability? Or do you? Have there been times when you’ve stayed at home while the people you care about folly into extreme weather? Or are there times when your friends or family think you’re crazy because the weather doesn’t affect you the way it affects them? Talk about the weather and whether you choose to let it control you.
The Quiet Machine: I have a friend who I very much care about who rarely responds to texts, calls, or e-mails. Not just with me (I can take a hint, Frank!) but with everyone. But, in person, they only stop talking to engage in active listening. This dichotomy of their level of communication can be extremely frustrating, even when you think you’ve gotten used to it. What is your stillness like? When do you go quiet? Or do you feel you’re mostly quiet? In that case, what makes you get loud?
I Remember The Carrots: Kids are socially stupid. It’s inherent. Even your genius niece, who gets along so well with other children as soon as she meets them, messes up occasionally. We need to be taught the nuances of how to be considerate people. Tell about a time when you were small and did something wrong, and were caught and scolded for it. Did you rebel against this idea? Defend your actions? Cry? Promise yourself you’d never do anything like it again? Have you done anything like it again? Now that you are older, have you ever been the person who witnesses and must deal with the repercussions of a child’s social error? Did it remind you of your own mistakes? Did you factor this into how you interacted with the child? Do you wish you’d done it differently?
The Tree Of Fire: Have you ever been in a place that you frequently inhabit/travel to, and suddenly notice something about the place that you didn’t notice before? Did it change your perception of the place? Did it change your perception of yourself for failing to notice it previously?
Someplace Like Montana: Life sometimes feels long and unexpectable. There are places we could never imagine ourselves going. What are those places for you? Where can you not imagine ever calling home? Why?
State Bird: In the United States, every state has a state bird, a state motto, a state song, a demonym (what you call people from that state), an export they’re famous for. Do you know yours? Why do you or don’t you know yours? Did learning about them change the way you felt about the state where you were born/where you live now/where you (once) consider(ed) home?
Downhearted: Have your opening line/image be something that you think is clearly either incredibly sad or incredibly funny (or both if you’re that sort of person). Deconstruct why you think it brings out that emotion in you. Does it bring out that same emotion in other people? Has there ever been a time when you felt someone had The Wrong Emotional Reaction to something that you thought was universal? How did you handle that?
Miracle Fish: When I was in my single digit years, I went to a Catholic graduation ceremony where kids my age, who’d passed some sort of course, lined up and received eucharist for the first time. I thought all the kids were supposed to do this, so I lined up along with them, even though I wasn’t Catholic. The priest knew this, and even though I followed the ritual that other children were doing, the priest shook his head when I put out my hands. I wasn’t ashamed that I wasn’t allowed what was probably crappy bread and cranberry juice; I was ashamed that nobody warned me that the ritual wasn’t for me. Have you ever misunderstood a ritual? Maybe you didn’t know that someone like you was not supposed to engage it, or maybe you were invited but you did it wrong. How did it make you feel? Did you ever attempt the ritual again?
The Saving Tree: Describe an area you’ve been to where something looked out of place. It might be a giant piece of technology sticking out of an otherwise natural looking landscape, or a bright pink house amongst a street of beige. Which do you appreciate more: the place or the thing that doesn’t look like it belongs?
What It Looks Like To Us And The Words We Use: Buildings are abandoned all the time. What abandoned type of property would you most like to own. What would you do with it?
Thief Of The Interior Part 3: When I lay out a book, I’m making an early 1990s rock album. I don’t mean I’m growing my hair long, mumbling incoherently, and raging against the machine that pays me to rage, I mean I’m trying to make each poem connect directly with both the one that precedes it, and the one that follows. Often the final line or image from a poem is somehow echoed in the title, first line or image of the next poem.
I don’t write them that way. I don’t finish up a poem with “syphilis” and then write a poem about STDs. I find a poem that I wrote two years ago about a relationship that ends with the word “broken”, and follow it up with “The Fix”. It feels like the most honest way for me to create a manuscript. It feels truer than chronology, and tighter than sectioning a book off by themes, as I often get exhausted when an author has twenty pages of poems about the death of their dog, and then fifteen about sex, followed by twenty pages about 9/11. I’d rather read the heartbreaking poem about the dog, a 9/11 poem, a sex poem, and then another poem that includes the dog’s death. I am way more likely to go back and reread a poem that is echoed ten or more pages later than I am to get invested in a whole section about dead dogs. I realize this goes against my previous post about how brilliant Part 2 of Thief Of The Interior, and the work of Patricia Smith are, but those are two high caliber exceptions to a rule. For the most art, I hate themed collections. The Father is my least favorite Sharon Olds collection, even though I love her poems about family in Satan Says, The Gold Cell, and The Dead And The Living.
I acknowledge that arranging a book for my reading pleasure instead of traditional organizing methods means I am assembling the manuscript For Me. Making it easier for me to contextualize than a reader who might want all of my dead dog poems in the same space. I think, if we are honest, we always write and assemble our books for ourselves. We're just glad when we find that there others who appreciate how our brain chemistry functions.
The third section of Williams’s Thief In The Interior is a masterpiece of ‘90s albuming, with each final line /image feeding directly into the following poem.
In many ways, this is how a successful suite is written. It’s not the only way to write a suite, but I think it makes the process simpler. Writing five poems on a specific theme can be challenging. So why not write one poem on any topic you like. When the poem is complete, look at the last line. Is that a good starting point or inciting image for another poem. It can be thematically related, or it can have the tethering image/line be The Only Connection between them.
Write a five poem suite using the final lines and opening lines as connective threads. Bonus points if you can get the last line of the last poem to echo the first line of the first poem.
Examples from Williams’s Thief In The Interior Part 3:
Who could turn their backs to them and survive connects to I was told I could turn my back to them
We offer to pay. She says “No. Tell him.” connects to No, tell him--
to enter, turn the knob though the knob will burn connects to I go to turn the knob of a burning skull
under skin, over thought, in the tremble of my hand connects to Hands trembling, they wash their bodies
and from which the shade of “resist, don’t” can be found. Connects to “Resist, don’t”: the difference between what one thinks
Part II: Witness: Everyone has a news event that hits them hard. Maybe something that happened close to somewhere you feel home, or maybe a tragedy happened to someone who reminds you of yourself or someone you love. This can be a story you’ve already written about more than you planned, or one you’ve been afraid to write about. Write a poem in any style you choose and write until you have written as much as you can from that angle. Now write it again from a different angle. Keep going until you cannot possibly think of another angle to write from.
This is not a one-day exercise, this can take weeks, months, or years.
How long does it take a city to discover/Grief is a knife.
You cannot love a god/that you fear.
The second section of Williams's Thief Of The Interior is a series of connected poems about the death of Rashawn Brazell. A factual reporting, a poem in the voice of the duffel bag where Brazell's body parts were found, a letter to Rashawn's mother. Williams interacts with the story from an array of angles. It reminded me both of Patricia Smith's Blood Dazzler and the section of her more recent collection, Incendiary Art, that deals with fathers who drown their daughters.
These long form odes to the dead, intertwined with news stories to explain the unpoetic horror that inspired the poems, are emotionally draining in the most necessary ways.
These poems are difficult feats. No one trying to do the above exercise should feel failure or disappointment in not ending up with a long form poem like Williams's or Smith's. If you end up with one short poem or even one good line that you wouldn't have come up with if you hadn't tried to interact with the story from a multitude of angles, then you have succeeded.
Zanne Langlois is a teacher, a poet, a former Champion of Champions at The Cantab Lounge. I'm super excited that she's joined in on the project. Here is the first part of her list of prompts based on Devon Moore's Apology Of A Girl Who Is Told She Is Going To Hell.
The audience I am mostly thinking of is high school students who think they hate poetry, but I think Devon Moore would be just as effective for an adult who is sure they hate poetry. I’d choose this collection because it speaks the innocent morbid tongue of children—the one we were all fluent in until the age of eight, when we traded it for the far less useful language of adults, which is, of course, why we think we hate poetry. In addition, her language is not-too-in-love-with-itself, which is refreshing, and removes one of the barriers to the traditional canon: the “you must be this tall to go on this ride” sign, something adults erect to keep you from the fun. Moore does not make us hand over an ID to gain entrance to her poems.
Just scanning the table of contents brings to mind the half-logic of a child describing their dreams: “Inside the House with the Upside Down V Shaped Roof” and “The Caged Girl Wishes that the Man in the Volcano was Free Like Her.”
I’m going to go through the collection chronologically, because of course I am.
“Red”: At first it seems like the mother in the poem is in danger (or perhaps beyond danger, depending on how you look at it.) She is “a body of a woman on a beach,” but it turns out the speaker (a child) is the one in danger. Write a piece where our extreme concern for one character is abruptly transferred onto another. You could also write a poem in which you imagine one of your parents as a young person, before whatever happened happened.
If you need help identifying a thing that happened, think of a naive mistake we only make once, but never quite get over. In Moore’s poem, it is the bleaching of a favorite dress, a dress that made her mother feel beautiful.
“Remembering Why I Wanted to be Human”: The first line of the second stanza is a great first step down a strange road—”I never told you about when…” You could just run with that, or if you need a little more direction, imagine your child-self (the you you were before whatever happened happened) visiting a psychic. What might they have said about your future? Write the fortune in the cryptic, image-driven way a psychic might speak, but have it accurately predict what happened. The psychic in Moore’s poem says “star child, you have many exits.”
“For Knives, Bridges, and Balconies”: Ask a series of questions and give surreal answers, kind of like riddles. From the poem: “Question: What couldn’t you help but do in a room where one wall / is a window? Answer: See all the other rooms you’re not in.”
Make a list of all your ex-lovers, then describe each one in a single image that captures the essence of the relationship and / or what went wrong. From the poem: “the back of your soon-to-be-ex-lover was a ledge. You are still backing away.”
“Inside the House with the Upside Down V-shaped Roof”: I think I’ve yet to find the door to this poem, but I’m enjoying walking around the outside of it, peeking in the windows. So, list the things you are keeping, as slightly surreal or cryptic images: “Hands stained purple with onions, a mustard seed hanging about a neck”
A Word a Person Couldn’t Know”: Like the title suggests, describe something you experienced as a child, before you had a word for it. Use images from childhood to capture the emotions. Ruby slippers, things a child can understand the physics of, like why what is under an umbrella is a different color from what is not.
“The Caged Girl Wishes that the Man in the Volcano Was Free like Her”: This takes place in a carnival. That alone should take you all sorts of creepy places. You are a five-year-old with way too much empathy to be safe here. Go ahead, walk around. Lose your parents.
Catalogue every wish for the coins in the bottom of a wishing well or fountain or anyplace people try to exchange their spare change for something you can’t buy. No need to provide context for the wishes.
“Exhibit”: Become an item stored in the archives of museum, but not on display. Also, become an item displayed, but not really seen. Also, read this poem. It’s so good.
“Anti-Sonnet”: Take a mythological creature: Sasquach, the Lochness Monster, Elvis—what might be a logical explanation for the sightings? “The chupacabra may just be a coyote with a demodectic mange / killing goats in Texas” Why do we need them to be something else?
“Swans and Geese”: Go back to the list of exes. Turn the explanation they (or you) gave for ending things into some kind of metaphorical image that avoids euphamism. “Your happiness [...] / was a mirror that reflected back to me / my own absense, so I wanted to break it. No that is not / what he said, but what was meant. What he really said was space, / there is a need for space”
Ok. That brings me up to page 17 of 78 amazing pages. And it also brings me up to bed time. TBC...
For today's interaction, a series of prompts inspired by the first section of Phillip B. William's Thief In The Interior, a book which I picked up purely because it had cover art by one of my favorite artists: James Jean, but which has become one of my favorite collections of poetry. Williams messes with forms in truly inspired ways while still making great, accessible poems.
I'm not sure, yet, if this would be the first book I'd present to a Poetry 101 class, but it would definitely be one I taught early in the semester to get people into enjoying poetry, and would reference frequently near the end of the semester when I tried to inspire final projects.
Bound: Write a poem with your vernacular: how you, personally, speak. Don’t try and model your speech after a movie, or a writer you like, or how you imagine other people hear you, use your own unfettered grammar, without stylizing spelling. Allow yourself to interrupt yourself, make an incomplete thought if you would make an incomplete statement in conversation. The subject can be anything you care about or would talk about with friends, or it could be you trying to explain yourself to someone who communicates differently.
Can I be only one thing at once? Embrace your own dichotomy, and your inherent contradictions. This is not a Who I Want To Be/Who I Really Am exercise. This is a Who I Am Sometimes Clashes With Who I Am exercise. How do you balance your own opposing desires or actions? Do you?
Black Witch Moth: When most people approach nature poems, they merely report what’s around them. Many of us have seen wind through grass, water streaming over rocks, a fucken flower growing between cracks in a fucken sidewalk. So what? Write about something visual in your environment (which does not have to be a pretty lake, or a graveyard, or some distant mountain range) and explain why we should give a fuck about it. You don’t have to say “There is a graffiti mural on this wall that I love. Here is why.” You can point out the mural and write about something else in your life, or in the news that you relate to the mural. Maybe the flower growing through rocks inspires other writers to consider how something beautiful can grow in an unexpected place, but to you, it evokes a feeling of despair that there aren’t any other flowers around to hang out with, and it seems as though it will be inevitably crushed.
Let the earth take in the boy as it with the bull.
Ignus Fatuus: Write a poem about the way you love, without mentioning a specific person you love. Specific bitterness or fond individual memories have no place in this poem. It’s not who you love, it’s how you love. If it has gone right for you, how did you learn to allow it to go right? If it hasn’t yet gone right for you, how does it always seem to go wrong. Don’t blame the other person (even if it’s totally their fault), find a behavior or recurring action of yours that plays a part in things going right or wrong for you. This about the way you love, not the way others are loved by you.
Imitate the varied stars that/have failed to guide us; now imitate everything/beneath the stars
First Words: What deliberately dangerous thing have you done in your life? Nothing as abstract as “loving someone imperfect” or “being real with the people I love”, we’re talking skydiving into crocodile-infested waters, putting a fork in an electrical socket. Something that gets the adrenaline pumping that has a reasonable chance of serious physical injury or death. Why did you do it?
thunder’s umbrage: using as few words as possible, personify the weather in a way you haven’t encountered before
Then As Proof The Land: For me, the word spiders actually means good luck to me. I don’t mean that when someone goes on a journey, I wish them spiders (though I may start doing that), I mean that when I talk about spiders, I am not talking about fear or entrapment, which some people associate with them, I am talking about how, usually, when I notice spiders in unusual places, something positive then happens in my life. So I might use the verb spiders instead of portend. What image or word means something particular to you that isn’t inherent in its definition?
Because when I write “tree” I mean fire/of autumn.
Inhertance: Spinning Noose Clears Its Throat: Write a poem where the first word is also the last word. Make sure it is a thematically necessary word to your poem.
I am leery of shape poems. It is very rare that they transcend their gimmick. Phillip B William’s example here far transcends gimmick. If you can, write a shape poem that will convince me that Williams isn’t the only genius to ever pull this off.
As far as I’m concerned, freedom/Desires no promise. Simply feet, strange horizons.
Vision In Which The Final Blackbird Disappears: When a person dies or becomes victim of major trauma, people who know that person often seek to validate the person’s existence by saying things like she was so smart, she could have been a doctor or he had such a great heart, he would have made a wonderful teacher without taking into account that the person probably didn’t want to be either of those things. So often, we speak about people we don’t know as well as we imagine. Have you ever heard someone talk about your desires or ability in ways that make you uncomfortable? Using third person, explain the difference between the person they have made you out to be and the person you feel you are.
his hands a chorus of heat and recoil
Inheritance: The Force Of Aperture: Using a photograph, audio, or video as a starting point, explain how your country of birth is dangerous to you.
Did aesthetes go blind when the myths looked back?
God As Failed Figuration: Portray a single image in a poem. Let this one moment in time signify an important belief you have. Keep the poem as short as possible.
Inheritance: Anthem: Take a story that’s important to you. A specific memory. Write two poems: one with lot of imagery, word-play, and metaphor; the other a straight-forward account of what happened to you using no hyperbole or poetic devices.
Myth does not/radiate from the target,/rather the target calls/myth to its core
Sonnet With A Cut Wrist And Flies: Deconstruct a poetic form. Make it your own.
from which all darkness was made legible
A Spray Of Feathers, Black: This poem is a sonnet, a terza-rima, and an anagram because Phillip B Williams doesn’t fuck around when he writes in form. Blend (don’t Frankenstein, blend) two or more poetic forms into your own creation.
Look how a lilt of dust is built to serve/sits on the lips like a song with no verse
Prayer: Everybody wants prayer to heal the sick, help feed their greedy desires, enact vengeance. Maaaaaan, ain’t no god got time for all those boring prayers. Prayer for something specifically yours. A series of things you don’t think anybody else has thought to ask for. If there is a god answering prayers, make them laugh enough to consider granting your creative requests.
Help me distinguish between approaching blizzard/and his breath against my ear
Misericorde: Bees and I have an arrangement. I don’t fuck with them, they don’t fuck with me. Any time a bee or hornet or wasp shows up in my writing it’s signifying danger. Unlike the spiders mentioned earlier, this is not an unusual association to have with the sharp little bastards. The title of this poem refers to “a long, narrow sword used in medieval times to deliver the death stroke to a seriously wounded knight.” Bees won’t kill me (I hope!) but the comparison between the bee stinger and the misericorde fascinates me, and I wouldn’t have made the connection if I didn’t Google the poem’s title. Go ahead and embrace a trope-ic image in your poem but pair it with a piece of trivia not widely known.
A sweet burn nets the room
An ongoing conversation between writers and the text that they're reading.