Yesterday’s exercise surprise me. I had much more success with the syllable version than with the other two. Maybe because I did it first, or maybe because it forced me to tighten more. Did you try it?

Today’s exercise is based loosely on Cole Swensen’s “A Different Dictionary” in Wingbeats II. For this exercise, you need a dictionary–print is great, but online can work.

Now, if you were in a classroom, Cole would hand you a page with a lot of definitions on it. Some examples from her exercise in the book:

shadow: a ghost sunbathing
twilight: the curve of a closed eyelid
star: one of those things that slipped your mind
midnight: ebony houses carrying us away

But we aren’t in a classroom. Instead, here is a workaround.

Choose 5 words–a mixture of nouns and verbs–from the poem that you’re working on. Write them down all over the page (think collage instead of list), and write down their dictionary definitions (the first or second definition, if it has many). This will help get the word in your head and give you something to push against.

Choose 5 words from a poem that you love, or a poem that intrigues you. Again, write them down, with their dictionary definition.

Now, choose 10 words randomly from the dictionary. The idea here is to get words that are not immediately associated with a specific context. Write down their definitions.

You have 20 dictionary definitions, or denotations–devoid of context. Let’s get to the fun part–the connotations.

Write the 20 words down on slips of paper, or index cards. Shuffle them, or put them in a hat.

(Intermission: If possible, put a little time in between the first part of the exercise and this next part.)

Draw one of the slips of paper, or turn over the top card, and write a new definition, a metaphor, like in the examples above. Give yourself about 20 seconds per word–not long enough to sit and worry.

When you’re done, choose your favorites. Will any of these images fit in the poem that you started with? Are they leading you to a new poem? If you aren’t ready, try writing them next to those original definitions on your page. Take ownership of them–and have some fun.

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Happy Monday! Yesterday’s exercise was hard for me. I want to try it again. But first, moving on…

Today, let’s practice line breaks.

The line guides the reader and also the pace of  the poem.

The line break adds tension to the poem.

Playing with the line breaks helps you add tension, and it can also identify words that the poem doesn’t actually need.

Today’s exercise is basic: Make a new copy of your poem in a prose block. (Tip: If you’re using Word, press Ctrl+H, and then replace ^p or ^l with a space.) Then try the following:

Break the lines based on a number of syllables. You can choose a number, or you can choose the perfect stopping place for your first line, and use that number of syllables. The goal is to use that number of syllables and still be happy with your end words. (If you don’t like to end a line on “of” or “the,” what can you add or delete to avoid that?)

Break the lines based on the number of beats–let’s say, five, even though your line might not be iambic pentameter. I’ll propose one rule here: Don’t add–unless your poem suggests something wonderful that hadn’t come through before. In other words: No filler. Yesterday’s exercise gave you some work with hearing beats, but if you’re still uncomfortable, check out this interactive tutorial.

Take a look at the two versions of the poem. If possible, read them out loud. What’s working? What isn’t? Where do the line breaks feel forced?

Rewrite your poem with the line breaks that feel right to you. Check whether the poem wants to fall into stanzas. Compare this new version with the others, including the original.

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Today’s exercise is based on Sandra Soli’s “Let There Be Music” exercise in Wingbeats II and also a workshop I took with Dorianne Laux.

If the poem you’re writing or revising had a song to match, what song would that be? What song do you want it to be?

Choose a song–or a poem–and then write or revise the poem to match the song’s rhythms. For example, if you were to write a song to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which begins

I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?

the rhythm would go something like this:

da-Dum da-Dum da-Dum da-Dum
da-Dum da-Dum da-da-Dum da-Dum
da-Dum da-Dum da-Dum da-Dum da-Dum Dum…

Think stressed and unstressed syllables as musical notes–half notes and whole notes, syncopation. What sounds work best for them?

How can you mirror the song’s voice in your poem?

This gives you a constraint and a sort of template, and it can push you into new territory. Fair warning, though: it isn’t as easy as it sounds–especially if you choose to use a poem as a rhythm source. So don’t stress out. Just have fun with it and enjoy the music. If you get stuck in the poem that you’ve been working on, use that same source song or poem to write a new poem.

When you’re done, read your poem out loud to see how well it fits the song–and vice versa.

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Yesterday’s exercise was hard for me. Did you try it? I felt really excited when I saw all the words reversed, but then I had trouble making them into anything anyone could read. Maybe I had trouble letting go of the original poem.

Today, let’s use repetition to get us into the poem and add power.

True confession: I spent years avoiding repetition–not wanting the same noun or verb to appear even twice in the same poem. I still strive to avoid inadvertent repetition. But today’s exercise is not about that.

Repetition is comforting to the reader or listener (“Ah, I know this! I’ve heard it before!), and I find it’s also comforting when writing, because it provides an automatic scaffolding on that blank page.

First, let’s try anaphora: try repeating a short phrase, especially at the beginning of lines. Yes, it can be a list poem, or very much like one–or not! One example of a poem using anaphora is “A List of Praises,” by Anne Porter. Or “October (Section 1),” by Louise Glück, where the repeated word is “didn’t.” And then there’s “Jubliate Agno,” by Christopher Smart and “Jubilate Agno,” by David Lee.

Some words to get you started:
If (or If not)

Or choose a word that already appears once or twice in your poem. Celebrate it! Use it again! How far can you stretch it?

Then, can you add a refrain, a line that appears two times, or more? My favorite example of a poem that uses a refrain is “Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100,” by Martin Espada.

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It’s the end of the workweek, which can feel a little crazy–in a tired way and in a looking-forward-to-Saturday way.

Today’s exercise is based on “an Exercise in Derangement,” offered by Carmen Giménez Smith in Wingbeats II.

It’s a way to play with syntax, to push it a little, and it’s simple in concept:

Rewrite your poem, or an excerpt from your poem, backwards–every word. It will not make sense. Don’t worry.

For example, if the last stanza of my poem is

Into this living we walk,
one prayer, one step in the sand,
a path through the beach grass.

I’ll write

grass beach the through path a
sand the in step one prayer one
walk we living this into

and on to the beginning.

Now, for the moment, let go of the poem it was. Let it be something new. Go through and change it to make some somewhat recognizable sense and pull new images out of it. Delete what no longer fits. Move things around. Have fun!

What did you come up with? If you go back to your original version, does the inversion provide you with revisions of phrasing or new images?

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