Day 7: Revising by defining

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.