I laid out several recentish collections of poetry on my desk, and then formed them into a pile. I picked up the top book, and looked for words in the text that made for an interesting line, and then kept going until I was done with that particular poem. Then I grabbed the second book, shuffling the pile immediately. You don't have to do any of this. I just wanted to make this totally random.
I am writing these poems in a notebook which I've called "What I'm Currently Reading". I write each mini-erasure in one color ink pen, switching colors every time I switch books.
I haven't finished my poem yet, but here are my first two pages of mined lines/stanzas, and the corresponding text they came from:
Logic is ten percent recovered from bone
opened to crude reason
The brain monsters a residence
in the captive ritual of absence
imagine your head is god
soft fontanels of youth
break this smoking hole
beyond churchless quiet
deliver me past noticed
the abandoned bed of shy recognition
These days you sleep in an older language
Nothing pretending to be sick but comfortable
Behind angry forgiveless power
each death: a lost howling
There is no ruthless in blame
who sang a permission of filling pages
I'm barely made of childhoods
a form of architecture I found ragged
If I scratched forth yesterday's treachery
by factually exposing each death defying twitch
If I interrupt a word in fullest wiggling tumble
feathers made of plastic grace
singing clamor and providence
fragment unthreatened as a tombstone
dug up in sin
I am transparent in summer
Always speckled weird that tastes superior
I wonder if some seaside faded fireflies
will calmly mention the sleep they do not believe will arrive
Poems excised from:
1. Sam Sax "On Trepenation" (http://www.wintertangerine.com/on-trepanation/)
2. Rachel McKibbens "Deeper Than Dirt" (https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/deeper-dirt)
3. Major Jackson "Dreams Of Permanence" (https://newrepublic.com/article/61818/dreams-permanence)
4. Matthew Zapruder "Poem For Massachusetts" (http://floatingwolfquarterly.com/5/matthew-zapruder/5/poem-for-massachusetts)
6. Rachel McKibbens "Letter From My Brain To My Heart" (http://quondam-dreams.blogspot.com/2013/03/you-have-my-permission-not-to-love-mei.html)
7. Li-Young Lee "Trading For Heaven" (https://books.google.com/books?id=W2WcAwAAQBAJ&pg=PA41&lpg=PA41&dq=li young+lee+trading+for+heaven&source=bl&ots=65nbEzC0w3&sig=h0RkP4aLLzGb0wdWuraPQJIxxYI&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiG8aKSmbPYAhUQMd8KHexGAlUQ6AEISTAF#v=onepage&q=li-young%20lee%20trading%20for%20heaven&f=false)
8. William L. Boyd "Backup For A University"
9. Patricia Lockwood "The Hunt For A Newborn Gary" (https://books.google.com/books?id=g7SKDQAAQBAJ&pg=PA20&lpg=PA20&dq=patricia+lockwood+hunt+for+a+newborn+gary&source=bl&ots=fp-3C-zzQS&sig=pjvUfxocm0oC9hY6xB68W2BLIY8&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiFg6b7mbPYAhVCZN8KHXThAfgQ6AEILjAB#v=onepage&q=patricia%20lockwood%20hunt%20for%20a%20newborn%20gary&f=false)
10. Danez Smith "Faggot Or When The Front Goes Up"
11. Matthew Zapruder "I Drink Bronze Light" (https://pen.org/i-drink-bronze-light/)
12. Major Jackson "Tour Of The Food Distribution Point, Ifo"
I often find myself getting stuck in the same writing patterns. Even when I'm writing about people or subjects I haven't tackled before, I use similar verbiage, images that cropped up in previous poems. And that's okay. Lots of writers get famous by having a style that allows themselves to repeat images across entire manuscripts. Self-referentialism isn't the worse thing that can happen, but it can be tiring to write, especially if you're not doing it on purpose. So for January, my goal is to write at least eight poems that don't necessarily sound like poems I've already written. Here are the eight prompts I'll be working with to alter the way I write:
1.) The Grand Erasure. Erasures can be great, but they're tough. Typically, an erasure takes an existing poem, or essay, or speech, or story. The poet then takes a marker or scissors or some implement and whittles the words in the poem down until it creates an entirely new piece of art. (examples: Form N-400 Erasures, Trump Inauguration Erasure, Louis CK's Apology Erasure, and this entire website of erasures)
We're not getting that specific at all.
Take at least five books of poems. Open the first book at random. Locate a word on the page that speaks to you, then find another word nowhere near it that might follow, keep doing this until you have at least the beginning of a phrase, maybe as much as a stanza. Now open a second book and do the same thing. This second book that you've randomly opened to might continue the theme or it may not offer anything remotely similar. That's ok. We're not trying to get a whole poem out of these erasures, we're mining for images and phrases we may not have come up with. Don't steal an image. If a poem says:
A bear opens a refrigerator with an app designed for otters
but the refrigerator doesn't care
It opens for anyone hungry
It does not care who calls it cold
Sometimes we have to be cold to preserve the parts of ourselves
other people need
you should not take "a bear opens a refrigerator" or "the parts of ourselves other people need". Instead maybe "a bear...designed for...hungry...calls...to preserve...need"
That's probably not something you would have come up with without seeing it in someone else's poem.
The idea of a Grand Erasure is to get maybe ten of these phrases or stanzas, and then use as many of them as you see fit to write a new poem or poems. There's no rule about using all of what you've scavenged. You can rework the phrases or images you find however you want. Don't be a slave to what you've removed, let it guide you to a poem that you wouldn't have otherwise written.
2. Remix To Sing
This is a pretty basic prompt that I don't use as often as I should.
Take a piece of your own work, or a poem you love by someone else, and create a new poem using only the words from that text. You don't have to use every word, but use as many as you can to say something different (not necessarily taking the opposite stance from the original...make it surreal...take a poem about frogs and make it a love song to Florida if the text allows it). As with any of my prompts, don't feel boxed in by the rules. If you want to use a word more times than it appears in the actual text, go for it. Is it lacking the preposition you want? Add it in.
You might not end up with your finished product purely by remixing. You may get done with the remix, and think it doesn't do what you want it to. That's okay. Now you have the beginning of something you wouldn't otherwise have. Tear out what you don't what. Add transitions that are absolutely not from your original text. Scrap 3/4s of the poem, but keep a series of images or phrases that you like. Discover that, out of this three page poem that you chose, that there's only a five line section that you like. Congrats, you have a five line poem. Save the rest in a word doc or notebook for later.
3. The iPod Shuffle
You can use Spotify, or a CD shuffle, whatever technology you have that allows songs to show up at random.
Take the first ten (or twenty, or whatever number you like, it's your life) titles of songs that come up. Use all those words in a poem. But it can't be a love poem. It can be about something or someone you love, but it can't be about A Nebulous You, or a pick-up line poem. It can be surreal. It can be about work. Anything but a love poem.
Ok, and then also use all those words for a love poem. Who am I to tell you what to do with your words?
And remember, if you don't like the first ten (or however many you choose) titles that come up, shuffle again.
4. Taming Your Thesaurus
There are prose writers and poets who cherish their their thesauruses. They utilize the most ornate lexemes to manufacture profound testimony from tedious abstractions.
They make me tired and unimpressed.
Find one of these fancy poems, and thesaurus it down to its most base language.
(Here's one of my favorites.)
Take that poem skeleton, and use your thesaurus (or thesaurus.com if you, like me, burned your thesaurus in a fit of rage during the 90s) to find synonyms that you would never use. Now use them. Choose the five (or ten, or two...it's your life) words that most repel you, and find a way to work it into a poem you don't hate. It can just be a random word in your poem, it can be the title, the whole poem can just be about how much you hate that word/those words.
I buy most of my books in bookstores. When I do order a collection of poetry online, I tend to order the cheapest copy available. Not just to be frugal, or to take the most advantage of online shopping, but because many of these books come used, often by students who have filled the margins with notes.
These notes are usually Hella Basic. Which is fine. It might be their first time experiencing poetry. Or they were forced to take this class and have been told to take notes, but have no idea what parts of a poem are important. Or they are experts and their notes are well-researched and fascinating, and drive me to explore more.
The copy of Yusef Komunyakaa's Talking Dirty With Gods that I received was Hella Basic. But without me having to do any editing, they produced a poem I quite like. These are the notes with the linebreaks, punctuation, and capitalization as they appeared in the book. Stanza breaks occur when there are many notes for one poem, although there are some stanzas that represent several poems, which only had one note in them.
A Young Reader's Guide To Yusef Komunyakaa's
Talking Dirty With Gods, As Written By A Young Reader
Judas in the Bible
hanged himself on.
He stands for a betrayer
-a skinning knife
monster made of different parts
God of doors that had 2 heads
formalist - relation to title?
sociological - sum up main points?
river of the dead
consequences of childlike behavior --> (indecipherable)
copy animal's abilities
-King of the gods
off as the victim
-fire center of attention
-large disastrous fire
-used many disgui - bull
Zeus = Jupiter
by wolves & are
the founders of
the city of ROME
-a museum in flame
}we start believing
<strike>he gets aroused</strike>
-act of having weight
to her children
:City of the dead
b/c that's where
all the artifacts
are: The sarcophagi
vials of ash, etc.
-b/c its the
city of angels
wealth, <strike>& business</strike>
-partial shadow <strike>+ an eclipse</strike>
-egyptian god <strike>the end</strike>
of the afterlife/death
-a stone coffin
-a sailor that was always drunk
-A faun-like God
of sheep & flock.
He was <strike>in</strike> linked to
God of <strike>Isis</strike> Thionisis
Also known as the one
that discovered music
[He made people fall
in love (like Cupid)]
- you are in
on it. you're
part of the
-------difficult to define
}He wAs pAn
being moved on
in love affairs.
-touch - sexual
die > obstacle
For her to
to hear her
T: women try to escape
the fate lives they live
---out of the dead
curled milk - sour
action of having sex
-action of having sex
sounds? of sex?
- Americans - open to sex
pain of last love
sin + temptation?
-->demon in the form
of a man (indecipherable) woman
to seduce one in dreams
-not 1st time!
50s & 60s
--inability to move on
doves in chimney
-found in chimney
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.
Visual formatting is important to me, so when I first opened Jon Pineda's Little Anodynes, I was skeptical. All of his poems are little gutters of words two inches wide. All of his poems. I was skeptical. The quotes on the back of his book are arranged in two two inch gutters. I was skeptical.
But I like his amuse-bouche style memoirettes. Though the poem they inspired ended up being much longer than his.
A History Of Smoke
The third time your roommate almost burns
down the house
in a grease fire You wake up
to a smoke filled bedroom Worse than onions
rotting on the kitchen counter Inexplicable
spoons buried in the soil of house plants
There is no fire yet
Turn the stove off and douse the pan
obviously before you go to work
smelling like irresponsible
Like the failing restaurateur
desperate for insurance Work all day
with that resin of averted tragedy
clinging to what you will later remember as what used to be
your favorite shirt When you get home
blow out each room
Soak the curtains in perfumed soap
Buy a new filter for the vacuum Mop
every surface in the kitchen until every sponge is kombu
Keep the roommate
Evict the behavior
Try and remember
a brand of cigarette that you both hate
the smell of Say parliaments are your father’s
whiskers left in the sink Newports are
the last roommate who tried to burn
down your house Not with a grease fire
but with candles and grief
and the haunting of a dead mother Grieving
with smoke Cooking
with smoke Everyone you love is charcoal
briquettes Wood chips at the base
of your temper Everyone kindling
camels are tomato flavored
fruit roll ups People forget
tomatoes are fruit Don’t linger on fruit
as an insult Don’t consider yourself
a tomato Don’t imagine
your past as smoke
Say salems are You know what
don’t say salems at all
not because of its proximity to
witches Their burning Their smoke
Don’t say salems
because of course another ex asked you
to buy salems and hide them Openly
gay Closeted smoker Only in emergencies
you were to produce a single salem He already had
a lighter waiting He was a state of constant emergency
You were a telemetry nurse
A cigarette machine Say
you never love the fire just
the aftermath The stench Say cling again
but don’t know for certain if you speak
of the lovers or the smell
Stay up all night trying to understand yourself
Lose your sense of chronology until you can only remember
when you are by the flavor of cigarette wisping or pluming or whatever
word describes the barely visible traces of burning tobacco but fail to
consider the weight left in its tiny wake
Remember the camel lights who lived
in your bed just long enough for you
to quit smoking You hated the smell of camel
lights for a decade
You hated the smell from the moment you met him
You were always a marlboro man
Masculinity dreamed up by an advertising executive
who believed filtered cigarettes were too feminine
The circumcised cock as a cowboy hat Your addiction was
always rock hard They say
you never quit wanting cigarettes
and mostly you think
they’re right After two hours in a dead car
with a stranger who had ruined her life
ruining one of your friend’s life you called the man you stupidly loved
and begged a cigarette for the first time
in ten years The first inhale was like kissing him again
Wrong the moment
your lips parted so you kept them together
for as long as you could
Breathing each other
You made it halfway
through the cigarette before giving him the option of taking it from you
or letting you crush it beneath your shoe
He didn’t want it back
You haven’t wanted a cigarette since
But you buried you face in his pillow
every time he left his bed that you slept in
breathing in everything killing him
as if it was keeping you alive
It was so familiar
The first man you stupidly loved was the same
brand But you were so younger
enough to be happy dying
with each other You couldn’t taste the rot of you
The first day the world turned without him
you slept on the couch with his fucken marlboro
spiced sweatshirt over your face to block out
the unrelenting morning He told you he’d call you
and maybe you’d beach day Or maybe
you’d smoke on the patio
until night wisped You waited by the phone
until you couldn’t decide whether you were angry or sad
And when you found out he decided to die without you
you soaked his sweatshirt with the butane of your grief
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?
I'm really enjoying Yusef Komunyakaa's Talking Dirty With Gods but the poems are so short, and so similarly themed that it didn't take long for me to stop wanting to come up with prompts based on these poems, preferring, instead, to just read the book. Here are the prompts I came up with before I called it quits.
1. Hearsay: Star, he's the sperm bank's/Most valuable donor. But contrary/To what you may have heard, this/Bellerophon, he isn't a great lover. What are two titles that you might imagine would intersect but don't.
2. Homo Erectus: Komunyakaa discusses primitive men who bash the skull/Of another man's progeny to retain power in a group. What's the worst thing you'd be willing to do to keep whatever level of power you consider yourself currently having?
3. Utetheisa Ornatrix, the First Goddess: Ghost line: she's a snag/Of silk from a blood orange/Kimono
4. The Centaur: Write a poem about a part of you that keeps another part of you from achieving your goals. The brain/heart, brain/genitals, heart/genitals, are the easy ways out. Try and focus on two other parts of you that come into conflict.
Today's prompts are from the first two sections of Jon Pineda's Little Anodynes, which kept showing up as a recommendation based on other poetry books I'd ordered, so I decided to check it out.
1. First Concert: This is a pretty literal prompt. What's the first concert you remember going to? Nevermind how it relates to the type of music you like(d). What details of the concert do you remember that aren't related to the actual songs? The smells, the view, the community of people. What was it like?
2. Prayer: When was the first time you experienced public nudity that was not your own. Something that felt out of place, be it a streaker, a person getting changed on a beach. You can start with how you feel, but what about how they felt? Were there other people around? Do you remember whether they seemed to be reacting similar or differently than you?
3. Notes For A Memoir: Another literal prompt. Write down a small detail of memory that you think would make an interesting aside in your memoir. Don't expand on it yet, just give us the kernel.
4. Strawberries: Have you ever held a baby? It doesn't have to be a baby human. Puppies, kittens, cubs, alligator hatchlings, whathaveyou. What was it like? Do you have any desire to do it again?
5. Ceiling And Ground: What's something you threw away in the spur of the moment that you know you can never have back? Have you ever needed it since?
6. Collectors: What was something you treasured as a child that, as an adult, you now don't consider valuable?
7. Silence: Is there a pet or person who you once thought was important to you whose name you've since forgotten? Tell us a story about them.
8. The Ocean: Have you ever picked up a conch (or similarly sized) shell and put it against your ears? Did you hear the ocean? If not, what did you hear? If so, what did you imagine that meant? What do you wish you could hear if you were to find a conch shell right now?
9. Sealed Letter: One of my favorite Calvin & Hobbes serials is about him eating a shocking amount of Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs in order to get a beanie hat, which he waits impatiently for. When the beanie arrives and isn't as great as he'd hoped, he, like many children and all cats, ends up playing more with the box than the toy. What's the most disappointing thing you've ever waited for? -or- if that's too much of a downer, What's the most fun you've ever had with a cardboard box?
10. There Is An Edge To Each Image: Have you ever had to get stitches to close a wound? (Whether or not it's from snitching is inconsequential) Do you still have a scar from it? I've had a small divot in my forehead since I broke it open on the edge of a coffeetable when I was three years old. I mostly forget it's there, but sometimes when I look in the mirror, I remember precise details about that night that I don't think I would ever remember if not for the seeing the scar. What's your scar story? Try and stick with physical scars. Emotional scars are a different prompt.
11. Distance: You've almost definitely seen a commercial or infomercial about a poverty stricken area where a supposed charity organization asks you to make donations to help save a child's life. How do those commercials make you feel? Have they always made you feel that way or has your reaction evolved over time?
12. Ellipses: When you're high up on a mountain, or ascending in a plane (or a hot air balloon if you're freaky like that), and the world seems super zoomed out so that the people look like ants, or maybe the houses look like ants and the people have shrunk invisible? Write a poem that zooms out on the world that way, like you are so far above it (literally, not snobbishly) that it's difficult to make out its consequence.
13.. My Place: Describe your laughter or the laughter of someone you love.
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 dehumanizing 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 dehumanizing 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 Johnson 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.
An ongoing conversation between writers and the text that they're reading.