Happy last day of poetry month!

Many of this month’s exercises have focused on either music, image, or narrative. Today, let’s add layers to our poem by working with all three.

Pick a poem that’s been giving you problems, and then do one exercise from each category. You can either start from the original draft each time, or you can build on each previous exercise.

For example, you could start with Day 8 (image), then do Day 21 (story), and then Day 25 (music).

If you get a chance, let me know what you’ve been up to this month, whether you’ve used any of these exercises or whether you’ve been writing from some of the fine prompts that other people have posted. I’d love to hear from you.

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Yesterday’s exercise was based on Ada Limón’s “The Echo: Same-Language Translation” in Wingbeats II. The idea was to take a poem that you love, and translate it into your poem.

Today, let’s do the same thing–except find a poem that is written in a style that is as different from your own poem as possible.

For example, if you like to write in very short lines, choose an excerpt by Whitman. If you prefer long lines, try Emily Dickinson or H.D. If you like to write in a narrative voice, look for a post-modern lyric. You get the idea.

Again, spend some time with it–read it closely, listen to its sounds and the way it moves. Does it make you feel uncomfortable? Where?

Now, translate that poem into your own poem.

What new images arise? What new language?

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Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about listening, about inviting conversation–as opposed to talking at.

This next exercise is a two-parter, today and tomorrow. It comes from Ada Limón’s “The Echo: Same-Language Translation” in Wingbeats II. And it’s inspired by stories of writers who do not read–or do not read in their own genre–because they’re concerned about being influenced by others’ works. I don’t know whether these reports are true, or whether they’re a kind of literary urban legend.

I think of poems as being in conversation with other poems, and for me reading is the best way to expand my perceptions and get me into the zone.

Okay, enough with the diatribe.

Take a poem you’ve been having trouble with. Read it, and then set it aside.

Now, find a poem by someone else–a poem that you love. Spend some time with it–read closely. Absorb the title, the first line, the way each line carries to the next, the movement of the poem as a whole. Listen to the sounds and the way the sounds emphasize or play against the words’ meanings.

Translate that poem into your own poem–trying to forget, as much as possible, your original poem.

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Today, an experiment: Write about your poem. Imagine that you need to tell someone about what you’re working on without actually showing it to them.


I’m hoping that it will help you find what’s missing–if anything’s missing.

I took a poem to class yesterday and realized that in one or two places, the poem jumps too abruptly. In those places, it needs an image to help the reader make the transition. I went back through my eight other drafts and found nothing (I cut out a lot for a reason). Instead of starting from a line or an image that’s already there to generate new material, I’m going to write about what I’m writing about to help me figure out what’s at stake.

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I like to revise problem poems by picking out five or six postcards from my big box of images and writing from those disparate images, writing in the margins, compiling, sorting, cutting. The idea is to explore what is disjointed and how it can be juxtaposed to create both tension and harmony.

Today, let’s start from a more cohesive perspective. This is inspired by Rebecca Wee’s “On Toehold, on Curious Rocks: The Poem as Collage” in Wingbeats II.

Start with your poem. Choose two or three things in it. Write five statements for thing.

It’s even better if you can include some research. For example, if your thing is a red wheelbarrow, when did the wheelbarrow first appear in history?

Speaking of history, is there a date that connects to one of these things, or to something else in your poem? Look up that date, and write a few facts about that, too.

Add all this to the end of your poem, write it or print it out, and then cut it into strips–one line per strip.

The lines have lost their associations. Play around with them, reorder them. What new associations do they find? When you like the way a group fits, use glue or tape to keep them together. Keep playing. Have fun!

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