Sadly, poet John Ashbery died this week. He wasn't a huge influence on me or my writing, but I often enjoyed how he chose to evoke feelings rather than use a traditional narrative.
To celebrate his memory, I read one of his more recent collections, A Worldly Country . Here are twenty prompts based on the first twenty poems from the book.
1. Worldly Country: Imagine a day where complete chaos has run over the world. Not a violent apocalypse, but a day of complete inexplicable weirdness. But just One Day of it. The next day, everything's back to normal. What caused that day? And what happened during it? Will we ever know how it got back to normal?
2. To Be Affronted (directly from the text of the poem): Imagine a movie that is the same/as someone's life, same length, same ratings./Now imagine you are in it, playing the second lead,/a part actually more important than the principals'./How do you judge when it's more than/half over?
3. Streakiness: Imagine that it's not people who prefer to go out in good weather, but weather conditions that prefer to come out only for certain people. What's their criteria? Do clouds have a different agenda than the wind?
4. Feverfew (directly from the text): What if we are all ignorant of all that has happened to us?
5. Opposition To A Memorial: Describe, in detail, the quality of an intangible concept. For example, what would "I can't find my cellphone" look like if it were a house. How would you envision "How am I going to explain this to my mother?"
6. For Now: Forgive yourself for something you did out of ignorance. Still keep yourself accountable, and lay out a way you can, in some way, account for that mistake.
7. Image Problem: If your life was a novel, let's assume it was divided up into chapters. Where does your fist chapter end? Why there?
8. Litanies: Make a short list. A list of days, or seasons, or flavors in a single packet of Skittles. Something manageable. Now decide which of those things is The Best of them, and offer that thing praise, and excuse it any shortcomings it might have.
9. Like A Photograph: Everyone reading this has, at some point tripped, and then carried on as if nothing had happened. If you have mobility issues, maybe your transport very temporarily stopped working. What was your inner-monologue like immediately following the issue? Did any part of your actions or speech betray that monologue?
10. A Kind Of Chill: Even non-human animals must get bored of their jobs from time to time. Narrate a nature documentary of an animal with ennui.
11. One Evening, A Train: Dismiss someone or something from your presence. Let it know, in no uncertain terms that they/it is not only no longer needed, but no longer allowed near you.
12. Mottled Tuesday: Something is about to go horribly wrong at a grocery store or retail establishment. Watch it unfold. Tell us about it.
13. Old Style Plentiful: Passive Aggressive Notes was a popular website about a decade ago. Write an extremely passive aggressive ode to something or someone you like, but which is driving you crazy.
14. Well-Scrubbed Interior: Is there a part of you that you feel is understaffed? Maybe your temper could use more employees, or your heart needs a new manager. Write a want-ad to fill the positions you can afford to fill.
15. Cliffhanger: In all plays, even Hamlet, the scenery/is the best part. Describe the scenery in your favorite play, movie or book. Focus on the scenery. If you can somehow make that tell the story without using any dialog or describing people's actions or motivations, then you are a true professional.
16. The Ecstasy: If history was a single building, what would it look like? Would you want to stay there? For how long?
17. Filigrane: Give an evacuation order for part of your past. Explain how it will benefit from leaving you. If the spirit moves you, give it conditions for the possibility of its return.
18. Ukase: Write a celebration of nature using a thesaurus for at least 1/3rd of the words in the poem. You don't have to slot the frilliest words, just the vocabulary you wouldn't commonly chisel.
19. Casuistry: What would happen if morning didn't come when it was expected? What would come in its place? How would you handle it?
20. Andante Favori: The end of summer can be a depressing time, particularly when you're a kid and have to say goodbye to all of your summer friends (or are summer friends mostly a construct of living in a seasonal economy tourist trap?). Tell us about how the change of a season affected your emotional well being.
My John Ashbery books mostly sit on the shelf, muttering softly to the neighboring books. I think A Worldly Country could tell by the way I lifted it from between its neighbors that its author was dead.
I read through it, maybe for the first time since I bought it. Maybe for the first time ever. I came up with a series of prompts based on the writing. And now, here is a poem that was slated to be a Maggie Nelson interaction. It may also end up being a Maggie Nelson poem , but for now it is definitely a John Ashbery interaction.
2. Burying My Head In The Pillow
The capital of sleep has been walled off
whatever tyrant is currently
wearing the shiniest tiara.
The passengers on the train
that no longer stops
don't even bother
to look up from their crossword puzzle
to reminisce about what isn't
so much lost
as currently unavailable.
is a thirteen letter imaginary
word for the shade of whatever color
you imagine represents the exhaustive
collapse of willpower to try and improve
society. No one has solved it yet.
Even the birds obey
the wall's strict existence.
The trees argue over whether
the sun will even bother to show up tomorrow
since all of mornings checks have bounced this month.
Don't forget your sweater.
Not that you're forgetting things. I'm just saying that
today would be a terrible day to start.
An ongoing conversation between writers and the text that they're reading.