Recent American Poetry

prompts for short papers

General guidelines

Collins  /  Giscombe  /  Nowak  /  Kim  /  Spahr  /  Mullen

Bervin  /  Allen  /  Mehmedinovic  /  Turner  /  Dent  /  Templeton

General Guidelines

Your response paper will be very short. Do not write an introduction. Do not repeat yourself. Do not insert passages from the poem. Your goal is to be specific and to say as much as possible in a few paragraphs.

500-600 words / typed / double-spaced / header / word count / stapled

If you wish, you may attach a copy of the poem(s) with marginal notes. Often this is an efficient way to convey your observations about sound and structure. For example, if your marginal notes marked a rhyme scheme, you could refer to the rhyme scheme in your paper without having to describe it.

Choose a very specific topic. You may want to argue an idea about the poem(s), or you may want to explore something that puzzles and interests you. In either case, you need a specific thesis or hypothesis. Do not merely paraphrase the poem or write generally about "what it means."

Choose one or two poems to write on. You must ground what you say in evidence from the poems, not in general, unsupported assertions.

Each week, I will post prompts for writing about the book we are addressing. Please respond to one of these prompts. If you want to write on something else, e-mail your idea. Be sure to phrase it as a specific thesis.

You don’t need a title, though you may use one if you wish. At the top of the page, type a header that looks like this:
Your Name
Poet’s Name

Title or first line of the poem(s) discussed / page number(s)
# of the prompt you are responding to

Word count

Begin with a thesis for your response.

For example: “Rhyme is one way Niedecker makes us pay attention to ordinary speech.” Or, “Niedecker uses rhyme to make ordinary speech sound wise and pithy, even poetic.” These are good beginnings because they cut to the chase. They let us know immediately what you found when you looked at the relationship between rhyme and phrases of what sounds like “ordinary speech.”

If you start with a sentence like “I’m going to look at the relationship between rhyme and spoken language,” or “Rhyme is important in Niedecker’s poems,” you’re starting your paper too early in your thought process – before you have made your discoveries. You may need to write the paper before you can write a good thesis sentence, because you don’t know at the outset what you are going to find.

"This poem could have several meanings" is an even more general beginning, located even further back at the dawn of thought about the poem.

Launch immediately into the meat of what you want to show me. Assume that I already know what poem you are talking about (it’s in your header) and that I can read the poem on my own.

500-600 words / typed / double-spaced / header / word count / stapled

Prompts for Martha Collins' Blue Front

1. Collins’ use of sentence fragments and conflicted or incomplete syntax make the reader work to get the story (to paraphrase one reviewer). Some have said this method of composition emulates the testimony of those who have survived or witnessed a traumatic event. Others say it emulates Collins’ own experience as she researched, learned, and tried to comprehend.

What do you think? Choose a passage of the book (1-3 pages) and discuss the relationship between the fragmented text and either a sense of testimony or a sense of discovery.

2. Several aspects of the book might remind you of the concept of an unreliable narrator--evidence and suppositions about past events can be contradictory, syntax can be contradictory and conflicted, information can be changed or expanded on later pages.

Find two or three passages to discuss together in these terms. Is language itself an unreliable narrator? Is the poet (or her stand-in, the book's ostensible narrator) unreliable? If you answer No to both those questions, just who or what is "unreliable" in the narration?

3. One device Collins uses frequently is the list or catalog. Some, like the one on page 28, condense history into a series of events, each delivered in a single phrase. Others, like the one on page 25, focus on one specific moment and expand it, almost in the manner of a camera zooming in on the details in a scene.

Choose two lists and compare them. You might consider questions such as: Do they condense or expand? Are they primarily descriptive (such a list of businesses on the street) or do they also advance the narrative? Are they constructed in phrases that are grammatically parallel, and, if so, what affect does this have?

4. One way Collins followed her line of “wondering” was to approach what she was learning at the level of language. She took individual words that were key to the story of what was done to Will James and began to list and explore their possible meanings. The eight poems that resulted, each one titled by a single italicized word, are, in some ways, lists of possible meanings—or, more accurately, they have such lists imbedded in them.

The eight poems are on pages 6, 18, 24, 38, 47, 54, 58, and 73. First look at the eight poems and think about their titles. What are the eight words, and what do they mean in relation to the book as a whole? Then, choose one poem and unpack its meanings and its language. List the definitions and idiomatic phrases imbedded in it (a dictionary will help at this stage). Now, briefly discuss how those meanings are used in the poem to create “the meaning of the poem” in a larger sense.

5a. If you are familiar with sonnets and their structure you can also think about those eight poems in this way. They are not exactly sonnets, but each has fourteen lines of uniform length, which creates an indisputable allusion to the form and tradition of the sonnet. What’s up with that? Why frame those particular poems in the tradition of the sonnet?

Choose one poem to discuss. Can you find any further shadow of sonnet in it? A sonnet-like rhetorical structure, perhaps? A turn, as in a Petrarchan sonnet? A two-line conclusion, like the couplet of a Shakespearean sonnet? (We will come back to this question later in the semester, when we talk about sonnets.)

6. Choose one page or section that is primarily narrative and one page or section that is primarily lyrical and discuss how they work together. The passages need not be consecutive.

Does one expand on something introduced in the other? Does the later one in some way explain the earlier? Do images or motifs reappear? How are the two passages connected?

7. Choose an image or motif (such as laundry or colors, or a particular phrasal construction) and trace its recurrance throughout the book. Depending on what you select, you may not be able to include all its uses, but do select examples from a large span of  pages, not just a few that fall back to back.

What does this motif mean when it is first introduced? How does it develop in subsequent uses? When it recurs, does it work as a kind of shorthand, to remind you of a whole set of ideas? By the end of the book, has its meaning changed? expanded? been explained?

Prompts for C.S. Giscombe's Giscome Road

1. This book abounds with metapors for itself. It's a movie; it's a map; it's jazz; it's an inverted rewriting of The Heart of Darkness; it flows like water; it traces and tracks. Choose one of these metaphors and discuss a passage of the book (1-3 pages) as an example of how the metaphor works in the text. What words signal the metaphor? What concepts does the metaphor carry with it?

2. This book uses collage techniques you may recognize from Collins--fragments, overlapping or incomplete phrases, bits of quotation from sources, and so forth. These techniques make you read actively and work at assembling meaning out of the ingredients. In contrast to that affect, the diction and phrasing are easily accessible and the lines move in a relaxed, relatively unemotional rhythm. How does that combination of qualities affect your reading? What tone is created? Do you think more, or feel more? If both, how do the lines lead you to that? Choose a single page and consider these questions in detail.

3. The pronoun "I" doesn't appear in the book until page 27. Before that, the narration seems sometimes impersonal, sometimes as if a speaker is clearly present but effaced. Sometimes you can track his presence through his absence, as in the incomplete syntax on page 21. How else does the narrator make himself known to us? What euphemisms or metaphors does he use for himself? What is the affect of the this effacement? And what is the affect when "I" suddenly appears on page 27?

4. "The name" is sometimes the narrator,sometimes Robert Giscome, and sometimes just what it says, "the name" they share. Choose two passages where "the name" appears and discuss its meanings. OR Consider it this way: For African Americans, what special meanings attach to the idea of naming or claiming one's name? Choose one or two passages where "the name" appears and discuss its meaning(s) in relation to that history.

4. Both Collins and Giscombe use actual text from historical sources to build their poems. The quotes supply information, a texture of language and attitude from the past, and sometimes even the start of a lyric riff--a set of repetitions or some sound play. Choose a passage from each book, where language from a source is included in the poem, and compare them. You may choose passages that resemble each other, or passages where contrast is marked. Some questions to consider: How long is each quotation? Is it presented autonmously, or woven into the syntax of a sentence composed by the poet? Does the poet write variations on the quoted text? Is the quoted language presented ironically? If not, what is the tone surrounding its use? What is the affect of using quotations, instead of just working the information from sources into the poem(s)?

5. Space and time are intensely interrelated in this book, which sometimes prompts readers to create their own metaphor to explain the relationships. One student said the different physical locations imply narrative because the speaker must move through time from place to place. Another pictured a sphere, with Giscombe's mind at the center and points of time/space pasted on the surface. In this model, he visits those points in time and space, then returns to the center where his thinking takes place. Choose one of these models, or create your own, and discuss the portrayal of time and spce in a passage from the poem.

6. In African American history, what is the significance of going North? How is Giscome Road positioned in relation to that history? Choose one or two passages from the book to support your answer.

7. Maps! They are everywhere in this book, and in many forms. Examine the maps as they progress through the book (including pages 35 & 37 & the foldout on 58). Discuss briefly the difference among maps and how their sequence relates to the progress of the text. Then choose one map and discuss it in more detail. What is represented? What missing? What is the scale? What appears at the center, or most prominently? What ideas in the poems are represented here?

Prompts for Myung Mi Kim's Under Flag

Myung Mi Kim says that any reading is a good reading for someone encountering work such as hers for the first time. "Just tell me what you are thinking," she says, we'll go from there. Here are a few possible paths:

1. Choose a dominant and recurring motif or image and trace it through two or three poems. Examples might be: voices; speech or language; memory; belonging and/or not belonging; here and/or there (with here and there not always the same); the body; maps and location; emmigration/immigration; human figures in a place (landscape, room, house). What meanings does the image or motif pick up as it passes through the book.

2. Choose one poem, or even a passage from a poem, and make notes on every association you have with the words and images and phrases you find there. Go right out to the edge of common sense or likelihood. Look for double meanings, puns, ironies. Look for words that are connected by how they sound and consider if they are also linked in meanings.

Develop an idea about what you’ve found. You might want to put forth your own interpretation of the poem, or you might just want to catalogue the possibilities. Don't feel you have to find a single meaning or solve the poem as if it were a puzzle. Meanings can circulate and remain multiple. If you want to organize your reading around a central question, try one of these:

2a. Choose one poem and discuss the relationship (as you see it) between Kim's style of writing and the subject(s) of the poem. Good choices might be: "Under Flag," "Food, Shelter, Clothing," "Into Such Assembly," "Body As One As History," "Demarcation."

2b. Focus on sound. How does sound organize the poem (or passage)? Does it keep disparate things communicating with each other? Does it attract you to the poem so you become a bit more patient with its relative lack of control over reading and interpretation?

2c. Focus on the political or historical meanings in the poem or passage. What do you recognize? What do you discover by reading? How does the way the poem is made relate to the experiences it narrates or alludes to?

3. We often talk about whether an "I" in a poem is easily equated with the poet, or is a created version of the poet's self, a dramatic character named "I." Other times, no "I" is present, but we feel the presence of a sensibility -- the one who does the seeing and the thinking and the feeling. In Kim's poem's, a sense of individual self can be very tenuous -- unless, of course, you take the whole style of the book as a powerful presence of her mind. Choose a poem or a passage and discuss what sense of self you get from it. Some choices:  "Body As One As History," "And Sing We," "Into Such Assembly."

Prompts for Juliana Spahr's This Connection of Everyone with Lungs

1. In the Tarpaulin Sky review, Alexis Smith characterizes the narrator of as speaking from "the position of remote witness/intimate relation to what happens on the planet, to our fellow human beings, examining the complicity and helplessness inherent in this position." How does this compare to the position of the poet/speaker in Kim's Under Flag?

Choose one poem from each book and compare them. You may wish to consider such questions as: Does the poem have one speaker, or many? Is the reading experience smooth (making easy transitions) or rough? With what kind of language does each poet represent suffering? How does each poet construct a sense of distance, or nearness, to events? What passages move you most, haunt you, or make you think the most? To what degree is your reading influenced by what you know about each poet's biography?

2. Whitman wrote in a period of national expansion and optimism (especially before the Civil War, when he wrote the early versions of what we now call "Song of Myself"). Spahr adopts the inclusiveness of his lists, yet says (in the interview with Michael Boyko) that she especially likes the list as lament. That interview concerned a different book than the one we have read, yet her statement does shed some light on her other work.

Choose a passage of Whitman and a poem or passage of Spahr and compare the ways they use lists and catalogs. Start by comparing their contents, but take your thinking farther. Consider such questions as: Are the lists cumulative or contrastive, or both? Are they ironic? Do the lists create a large sense of scale, or a kind of zooming-in examination of detail? How does the poet seem to feel about the scale of things suggested by the list? Could the lists be reordered to the same effect? What senses are involved? What is concrete and what abstract, in the list or in the rest of the poem? How does the poet use his or her own presence in the poem? How is intimacy with the reader created?

2a. You may wish, instead, to compare Spahr's uses of lists to Collins'. Choose one of Spahr's poems and one passage from Collins. Refer to Prompt #3 for Collins, for ways to analyze her lists.

3. Anaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of each line (or sentence or stanza), sometimes exactly, sometimes with slight variations. It is a common device in Hebrew poetry. Thus, in English poetry, it comes to us from the Bible. Often it is used to organize lists, but its presence adds other elements. For example, the repeated phrase can serve as a marker of return or renewal, a reminder of scale or of forward progression, or as a kind of intensification of emotion.  Choose one poem and discuss how Spahr uses anaphora. You may want to compare her use of it to Whitman's, or to that of another poet with whom you are familiar.

4.  British reviews are generally much livelier than American reviews. In her review of Spahr, Sarah Gridley plays "good cop/bad cop" with her reactions to this book. Choose one poem from the book, to which you have mixed reactions, and discuss your thoughts about the poem in this manner. What does the generous reader say, the one who wants the best outcome for both poet and reader? What does the cynical reader say, the one who doesn't believe in best outcomes, or who doesn't believe in this book?

5. Choose one poem and examine the pronouns. How do they connect or disconnect poet and world, poet and reader, reader and world?

6. This book is not written in lines, but in verse paragraphs. Choose one poem and discuss its organization. Do the paragraphs work like stanzas? Are they organized by logic? by sound? by content of images? How do the sentences build rhythm? What does the white space do?

Prompts for Harryette Mullen's Muse & Drudge

In my notes on Mullen I said that meaning is organized tangentially, that it is layered, relational, and nonlinear, and that its chains of association are built up in sound as well as meaning. For any of the prompts below, choose 1-2 pages of Muse & Drudge and begin by unpacking as many puns and phrases as you can. Just list them, at first. This will give you the raw material to work with in shaping your paper. For example, in these lines

self-made woman gets
the hang -- it's a stretch
she's overextended weaving
many spindly strands on her hair loom

you could find the phrases “self-made woman” (gender-switch from the stock phrase self-made man), “get the hang of it,” “it’s a stretch,” “she’s overextended,” and the word “heirloom,” as well as a possible allusion to fairy tales in which women weave.

Once you’ve unpacked your entire page (or two), develop a few of the chains of meaning available in your four (or eight) quatrains. In my example, one idea that’s immediately suggested is a hanging, or lynching. The self-made woman + possible fairy tale allusion might also suggest the long history of controlling independent women by accusing them of witchcraft or similar crimes.

As you think about the poems, remember that your task is not to find a secret narrative, but to find layers of meaning and to get some practice thinking and writing about ways of making meaning through sound play, puns, double-entendres, and jokes.

Turn in these notes along with your paper. It is a required first step for all the prompts below.
1. Misrecognition and cultural slippage are important in these poems, in several ways. White culture misreads Black culture, and vice versa. Familiar words and phrases are misquoted or misspoken. Men and women speak at cross-purposes. Anger and satire go disguised as fun. Choose a page or two of Muse & Drudge in which "mistakes" in speaking and hearing are prominent, and discuss its ways of making meaning.

2. Answer the last question, but focus especially on sound. How do puns and sound play serve as crossover points from one meaning or set of meanings to another? (pages 24, 40, 47, 48, 49, 51, 55, 63, 64 are a few to consider)

3. Mullen has said that "a people is many individuals," and that the "I" in this book is never an autobiographical or confessional self, but always the collective "I" of tradition. One place we find such a "collective 'I'" is in the tradition of the blues. Choose 1-2 pages of Muse & Drudge and discuss them in relation to the blues. If your knowledge of the blues is vague, do a little online reading (and be sure to cite your sources).

4. Critics have a number of ways of describing the passages of intense sound-play in Muse & Drudge. Mullen herself has called it "scat singing." Scat is a kind of wordless, improvised jazz singing, sometimes described as a way to imitate instrumental solos. Some people think it developed from the music of West Africa, using voice to replace complex drum rhythms. Do a little reading on line, and listen to a few examples, then discuss a page or two of the book in that context. Don't forget to cite your sources.

You can start here, with Ella Fitzgerald scat singing in 1969.

5. Being female is just as important in this book as being Black. Choose a page or two of Muse & Drudge and discuss it as either an expression of female identity or an analysis of female/male relations. (pages 21, 24, 34, 35, 39, 47, 51, 62, 63. 73, 74, 77, 78, 79 are just a few that suggest themselves)

6. Read Barbara Henning's interview with Mullen (on the page linked above). Choose 2-4 pages of Muse & Drudge and discuss them in relation to quilting, in the terms Mullen proposes.

7. In the Hogue interview, Mullen says that in Trimmings she was working with language as clothing and clothing as language. Choose a poem from Trimmings and discuss it in those terms. Before you form a thesis or begin your essay, follow the same process of "unpacking" the passage that I outlined, above, for reading Muse & Drudge.

8. If you read S*PeRM**K*T and would like to write on it, here's an option. This book has been described as a race-conscious critique of the perfect American family. Mullen has said that each paragraph puts at least two disparate things together. Choose a page from the book and analyze it in terms of those two statements.

Prompts for Jen Bervin's Nets

Be sure to read my notes on fragments and cancelled text. You will need those notes to understand these prompts.

1. In my notes I asked: "Why not just write your own short fragmentary poems and leave Shakespeare out of it?" Answer that question by concentrating on a single page of the book. Follow these steps, and make a few notes at each step, before going on to the next.

First, look at the page and consider my questions (in paragraph 1) about the visual affect of having both poems visible at the same time. Next, read the Bevin poem; read the sonnet; reread the Bevin poem; reread the sonnet. Consider how each poem changes when read in conjunction with the other. Third, articulate a thesis about how the two poems interact. Be sure to cite specific evidence from the text(s) in your argument.

2. In my notes, reread the paragraphs numbered 1, 2, & 3, regarding appearance, close reading, and sound. Perform a detailed close reading of one of Bevin's poems, according to the methods suggested.

3. In paragraph 7 I asked: "What about the sonnet form?" Reread that paragraph and then choose one page of the book to read in the context of the questions I posed. Follow a method similar to that outlined in prompt #1 to articulate a thesis. Be sure to cite specific evidence from the text(s) in your argument.

4. Another way to read this book is to look at Bevin's poems as a sequence on their own. Follow my advice in paragraph 4 and read the whole book out loud, from start to finish. Then, choose a series of pages (not the whole book) and develop a thesis about how they work together. Two groupings I find meaningful are #129-137 and #138-150, but you may find others. Be sure to cite specific evidence from the text(s) in your argument.

Prompts for Ed Allen's 67 Mixed Messages

In all these questions, I ask you to consider how the form makes the poem what it is. Here are some questions to consider.

Does the meter feel close to natural speech, or more self-conscious? Is the diction ordinary, or drawing attention to itself? What are the rhyme words? In each pair, consider which word comes last--is it the most ordinary? the funniest? one that feels "natural"? one that feels contrived? What about the acrostic words, the first words of each line?

Considier, too, the poem's syntax, and whether the lines are end-stopped or enjambed. Where are the strongest caesurae (pauses within the line), and how do they work in conjunction with form and meaning? Do syntax and line conspire to place emphasis on key words? or to de-emphasize key words? Do you read the poem quickly or slowly? Does the poem end with a resounding "click" of closure? or trail away? or drift?

How does the poem use the sonnet structure? What distinguishes the octave (first eight lines) from the sesten (last six lines)? What happens at the volta (the turn) between the two? Within the octave, what distinguishes the first quatrain (4 lines) from the second quatrain?

Read this page by Arnie Sanders, for a quick introduction to some of the sonnet's traditional themes and tactics. Others are elaborate comparisons and hyperbolic declarations. How many do you find in Ed Allen's sonnets? Do any play a part in the sonnet you want to discuss?

1. In his statement about the book, Allen expresses an interest in children's rhymes, stories, and verses, and quotes Robert Frost's famous dictum that a poem is "a momentary stay against confusion." Choose one of Allen's sonnets and discuss it in these terms. Be sure to discuss how the structure of the poem is a stay against confusion, not just how its content deals with confusion. You might focus on rhyme and meter, or on the structure of a sonnet, but be sure to include acrostics, in any case.

2. Acrostics are often considered slightly silly--or suited for minor poems written to flatter someone or to celebrate an occasion. There is also a tradition of writing acrostic poems containing one's own name. How does the acrostic's lack of seriousness take part in the tone of this book? How does it interact with the more respectable traditions of sonnet? Choose a poem and discuss how the two (o so different) forms interact. Depending on the poem you choose, you may also want to consider Allen's fondness for children's verse as part of this question.

3. Choose one poem from the book and discuss how Allen uses rhyme and meter and/or the sonnet form to handle the narrator's conflicted emotions and desires. You might choose his ambiguous sexuality; the interplay between sexual desire and intimations of his own age and mortality; the contrast between his desire for Suzie and thoughts of his ill friend; or some other form of emotional or intellectual dissonance. Be sure to discuss how the form works in relation to the content--don't just summarize what the content "says."

4. Which poem do you find funniest? Saddest? Creepiest? Strangest? Choose one superlative, choose one poem, and discuss how rhyme, meter, sonnet structure, and acrostics work to make it what it is.

5. A few of Allen's sonnets are overtly tied to Shakespeare's; others share motifs, without attaching themselves to any one poem. Choose one sonnet by Allen to discuss in relation to Shakespeare. You can work with a simple pair, or discuss a motif that you find in several of  Shakespeare's poems. (You may substitute another poet's sonnets, if you know them.) Be sure to talk about form and structure, not just content.

6. Reviewers of this book express widely different opinions of its success, even of its intentions. Those who like it best seem to endorse its dark humor and literary playfulness, and to read what seem like "bad rhymes" or flat or contorted syntax as part of the humor, or part of the play of literary allusions (which go well beyond Shakespeare and the sonnet tradition). Choose a sonnet you suspect others might judge "bad" and defend it, OR choose a sonnet you suspect others might judge "good" and show why it fails. In either case, be sure to include discussion of form as for any other question on this list. You may also want to consider whether part of your judgement depends on what role the sonnet playss in the book's storyline.

Prompts for Mark Nowak's Shut Up Shut Down

To respond to these prompts, choose one section ("$00 / Line / Steel / Train," "Capitalization," "June 19, 1982," or "Hoyt Lakes / Shut Down") and then choose one poem from that section. (For convenience, I am calling each numbered portion of a titled section a "poem." You are free to argue that only parts of each section qualify as poems.)

 Be sure you can answer these questions about the section you are writing about: What is the meaning of the title? What event/s are the subject or occasion of the poem? Note that each section has its own bibliography.

(Due to time constraints, we will not discuss "Francine Michalek Drives Bread".)

1. In some sections, typography seems to distinguish the words of Nowak's sources from his own words. In others, the typography seems to distinguish different sources from each other. Write a paragraph about the use of typography (bold, italic, normal, bracketed, etc) in one section of the book, then choose a single numbered poem from that section and discuss its typography in detail.

Questions to consider: what does each typeface represent? Do the sources appar to be primary (the words of people directly involved in events) or secondary (the words of journalists, scholars, or historians)? Some sections also have other types of material, such as explications of grammar or histories of the usage of particular words. Some have words within brackets. How do the different typefaces and sources interact to provide information, tell a story, or create a voice (or voices) for the poem? How is the voice or attitude of the author conveyed? What is the overall affect of mingling these sources into a single paragraph?

2. Some sections employ both prose paragraphs and lines of verse. Write a paragraph about the use of or relationship between prose and verse in one section of the book, then choose a single numbered poem from that section to discuss in detail. What is the function of the verse (or fragmented) lines, as distinct from the function of the prose? Is voice different in the two? Do you respond differently to the two--different kinds of thinking? different emotional response? What is the overall effect or affect of experiencing those different modes of response on a single page? If you are writing about "June 19, 1982," you should also consider how rhyme and soundplay relate to the book's other methods and themes.

3a. In "Hoyt Lakes / Shutdown" the poems are paired with photographs. Write a paragraph about the relationship(s) between text and photos, in general, then choose one poem/photo pair to discuss in detail. Is the poem a kind of caption or commentary on the photo? or is the photo simply another element in the poem's collage? How would the poem be changed if it were printed without the photo?

3b. To see the photos associated with "$00 / Line / Steel / Train" you have to look at the web site linked on the syllabus. There you will find samples from the series Nowak is referencing though, alas, not the exact photos. One aspect of the photos that Nowak has taken up is the idea of the frame. By including some things and excluding others, a frame (whether literal or conceptual) defines what we look at. You might also wish to read commentary on the photos, and to consider their status as documentary and/or art.

Write a paragraph about the photographs and their general relation to this section of Nowak's book, then choose a single poem to discuss in relation to the photos and to the idea of framing. Questions to consider: What happens when an image (any image) is "framed," literally and metaphorically, as "art"? What happens when particular human experiences are reframed according to different categories, like class, race, and gender? What about "personal experience" vs. "history"? "personal failure or misfortune" vs. "economic necessity"? "suffering" vs. "statistics"?

4. Nowak appears most personally present in the first section, "$00 / Line / Steel / Train." Compare this section to Collins' Blue Front. How is the poet's personal connection to the material presented? How is collage used to mediate between personal and collective experience? You might wish to consider questions raised in prompts #1 and #2, as part of this question.

5. Compare "June 19, 1982" to Mullen's Muse & Drudge. How intense is this soundplay in comparison to hers? What is the effect of using this kind of language on the same page as the information, and different voices, of the prose? How is the reader's thought process different int the two texts? You might wish to consider questions raised in prompt #2, as part of this question.

Prompts for Semezdin Mehmedinovic's Nine Alexandrias

Check out what Wikipedia and other sources have to say about the Egyptian city Alexandria, particularly its great library. How does the title poem, "Nine Alexandrias," invoke the original Alexandria? Is it a metaphor for something in the here-and-now? Or is it the other way around, is the poet's train journey of metaphor for something else, suggested by the idea of Alexandria?

1. Metaphors allow us to see double: the “real world” of the narrative and something else. In many of his poems, Mehmedinovic uses narrative vignettes or brief descriptions to show us the metaphor as it forms in front of his/our eyes. Choose a poem that fits this description and discuss how its metaphor works. Be sure to state a specific thesis about metaphor in the poem.

2. In Mehmedinovic's poems, everything is emotionally understated, even the most horrific experiences narrated in his earlier book, Sarajevo Blues. He is, instead, interested in a poetry of ideas, and in some poems even his own emotions are treated as components in the formation of an idea. Choose one poem and discuss its understatement. Be sure to form a specific thesis about the poem's ideas and how understatement helps to convey them.

3. In the Practice interview, Mehmedinovic said:

"Communist and nationalism are two opposite ideologies in the way they view time. Communist ideology exists only in the future. It preaches that everything good is waiting for us in the future (a particularly common phrase, for example, was: a 'bright future"); nationalist ideology uses the past; data about national importance and glory is displayed in important events from the national past. Based on my experience of these two ideologies, I know that all ideologies are attempting to keep the masses, as far as possible, from the present moment, that is, away from reality. I think that the real subversion is to write from the present moment, to be situated in reality."

Choose one poem and discuss it in relation to this statement. Be sure to cite specifics. Feel free to use additional quotations from the interview.

4. The interviewer then asks Mehmedinovic about the images in his poems, to which he replies:

"An image of the outside world that appears in a line of poetry is not indifferent; it contains within itself a precise feeling that is integrated into that image.  Poetry is more sufficient when it mediates emotion by way of the image from the outside world, than when it tries to directly describe emotion as the content of our inner world.  The task of the poet, if I may put it that way, is to name that emotional condition.  The effort to name emotions that were possibly not named in the language before."

 Choose one poem and discuss it in relation to this statement. Be sure to cite specifics. Feel free to use additional quotations from the interview. You will notice, for example, that I carved out this quote in a way that separates it from more explicit statements about the relations of poetry and politics. You may wish to restore the quote to that context before you write about it.

5. And yes, once again, we have poems in front of us that bear some relation, however slight, with the idea of the sonnet and the sonnet sequence. The poems in the title sequence, "Nine Alexandrias," are, each of them, fourteen lines. (Those that appear at first glance to have more than fourteen lines actually just have a few long lines that exceeded the printer's margins.) Can you make a meaningful argument for their relationship to sonnets? (NOTE: Students often assume all sonnets up till now were about love. That is not true, so though a non-love subject matter may be part of what you discuss, don't make that fact your main point. Dig deeper.) [NOTE: SEE CREATIVE PROMPT #2 FOR MORE THOUGHTS ON SONNET-LIKE STRUCTURE IN THESE POEMS]

6. Mehmedinovic has always been influenced by ideas that might be lumped under the term "internationalism," -- in literature as well as in politics. In the Practice interview he speaks of receiving his first influence by American Beat poets via German writers who had been influenced by them. In the earlier interview quoted in my notes on Mehmedinovic he paints a positive picture of New York as a place where writers of diverse origin and multiple languages cohabit. These ideas are paralleled, perhaps, in his description of the Bosnian language as an "open" language, one that freely adopts words from other languages. In keeping with this sense of a free movement of ideas across national and linguistic borders, Mehmedinovic's poems are packed with allusions to writers, artists, and locations from... everywhere.

Choose a poem that includes a reference of this kind -- perhaps one that was new to you -- and discuss how that "other" person, place, or artwork takes part in the poem. How does it help make the poem a poem of ideas? Examples abound, but some choices might be "Fountain," "Flag," "Sufism," "Pound," or "Open Dialogue" (be sure to read the introduction to the book about this one).

8. Discuss the sequence "Nine Alexandrias" as an American road trip. Be sure to form a specific thesis about the sequence's structure or content in relation to this genre -- perhaps by focusing on one particular aspect of the poems or of the genre. Don't just rephrase the prompt ("it's like a road trip") and call that your thesis.

9. The poems in the second section, "This Door Is Not an Exit," are about survival and the strangeness of exile. Despite their stylistic differences, the poems have a great deal in common with Myung Mi Kim's portrayal of immigrant experience in Under Flag--including, for example, the feeling of being invisible or unknowable to those around you, the work of reconciling past and present (particularly in relation to war experience), a heightened consciousness of language and communication, and a particular attachment to concrete images. Choose one poem from "This Door Is Not an Exit" and compare/contrast it with one poem or passage from Under Flag.

Prompts for Brian Turner's Here, Bullet

Two interviews with Turner.

1.  Turner himself has compared his role to that of "embedded" reporters in this war, saying "I really wanted to just share the events themselves as much as possible, like an embedded poet." On the blog I linked off the main syllabus page, he shares some notebook entries associated with some of his poems, and says that his personal experience is not as important as the larger events he was part of.

Poems that embody that "embedded" feel most closely are those that seem to be witnessed (not, for example, based on something he has read, or on a story told to him) even though the speaker's role in the scene is either not mentioned or made to seem unimportant. Choose a poem in this mode of impersonal witnessing and discuss the affect of this voice.  Questions to consider: How is the poet's sensibility made known to us? Does the poem make you feel as if you are with the speaker, looking out through his eyes? or as if something is being described objectively?  What clues suggest that the description is not objective? Do you find this mode more or less affective than poems in which the speaker plays an active role in events?

2. In the same interview, Turner says he deliberately stayed away from politics or "preaching." In fact, the book is wholly silent on the question of "why." Neither the reasons for the war nor the personal motivations of characters in the poems are considered. War is presented as a landscape of Hell, into which we humans choose or are forced to go. Choose a poem that seems to you particularly full of that silence about "why" and discuss it. What is intensified by not addressing cause or motive? What is lost? Does this approach seem more or less "honest" or "responsible" than a poem that takes on motive and cause?

3. On the blog, Turner writes: "I was definitely a participant in the events taking place (well, many of them). But the book isn't centered around me. I knew that my own story wasn't that important in the larger scheme of things. In the larger scheme, incredibly tragic events were taking place all around me. I needed a language of witness. Something bare, something brutal. Something tender, when something tender was needed. I needed a language that was of the world I was living in and not one that I had honed and superimposed over the events taking place."

Choose a poem or a pair of poems to demonstrate both the brutal and the tender in Turner's poems. How is each feeling conveyed? How do they interact with each other? Do they balance, or does one dominate? What is the affect of mingling these tones? Which feels more "real"? Pay attention to details in the poem--imagery, line and line break, sentence length and structure. How do these elements contribute to the tone?

4. Many of the poems consider interactions between the living and the dead. In some cases, death does not even seem like a certain category: those thought dead might be alive, or vice versa. Ghosts walk the streets, and the dying experience moments of intense clarity and vision. What do the living want from the dead? What do the dead want from the living, or want at the moment of dying? How do the answers to those questions define what death is? Choose one poem to discuss.

5. Many of Turner's poems dramatize the ways people unknown to each other come together in death, or at the moment of life/death. Examples are on pages 15, 17, 26, 27, 30, 42, 55, and elsewhere. Choose one of these poems and discuss the relationship between the characters. Don't just retell the story of the poem, but examine its structure and all the ways Turner creates connection. You may want to look at sentence structure, imagery, metaphor, cause and effect, rhythm, even grammar. You might also consider whether the relationship is humanizing or dehumanizing, frustrating or redemptive.

6. Go here and read Turner's postings on the Poetry Foundation's blog site, in which he stresses the importance of learning about each other's worlds. In particular, he says his poem "R&R" is an artistic conversation with Hashim Shafiq's poem "The Mountain." Both poems are erotic, and both poems are fantasies. What else do they have in common? What is different between them? Some questions to consider-- What does Turner's poem "say" to Hashim's? Do you read Turner's poem differently after reading Hashim's? Why is the poem called R&R? What is the role of this poem in Turner's book as a whole?

7. Several poems (including the title poem) use metaphor and imagery to mingle the terms of langauge with the terms of death, weaponry, or violence. Choose one poem and discuss the relationship between language and death, language and life.

8. Is something different revealed in the dream poems? Something about war? life? death? desire? Choose one poem to discuss.

Prompts for Tory Dent's HIV, Mon Amour

In the interview with Grace Cavalieri, Tory Dent said writing "cheered her up" because in writing she was always learning something, finding surprise, just as a healthy person does, in a normal life. Bear this in mind, as you think about the poems.

1. In the interview, Dent says the Magnetic Poetry Kit poems are a metaphor for her situation, because she must write someting interesting or beautiful out of a limited vocabulary, a limited set of possibilities--and she never cheats by including other words. They are also close, in spirit, to other exercises in writing with a predetermined lexicon, and demonstate the power that can emerge in the struggle between strong emotion toward a subject and the unyielding constraints o poetic forms and procedures.

2. When she became ill, Dent was working on a PhD in Art History, so works of art and ideas about art are part of her vocabulary. Choose a poem, or passage of a poem, that references one or more artist, photographer, film, or work of art. Look up the names and works, reading enough to discover the conceptual link that makes the allusion(s) work in the poem. Explain that link to us, and show how works of art and ideas about art contribute to the overall meaning(s) of the poem.

3. Dent's poems employ extended, sometimes startling comparisons, in the form of metaphors, similes, and analogies, following in the tradition of the "metaphysical conceit." This term was invented to describe the work of 17th c. poets such as John Donne and George Crashaw--though it was never used by the poets themselves. Choose one poem, or passage of a poem, in which a metaphor or comparison extends long enough that you could say it organizes the meaning of the poem....and discuss it. You should do two things--first, walk us through the  unfolding meanings and metaphoric relationships, and then say how this method relates to the poem's (or the book's) subject. Why this kind of poetry for this subject?

Use this page <>as your introduction to the metaphysical conceit--scroll down to "Backgrounds II: Metaphysical Poetry" and read that whole (short) section.

4. Walt Whitman used long lines, catalogs of imagery, and a voice of embrace and possibility to celebrate mid-19th c. American possibility. In "Howl" and other poems, Alan Ginsberg used similar techniques to evoke Whitman's legacy as a critique of mid-20th c. American hypocrisy and small-mindedness. Dent used some of the same modes, and moods, though her long lines are differently crafted and the poems are more narrative than either of those predecessors. Choose a poem, or passage, and discuss it in relation to either Whitman or Ginsberg. How is the long line working? How are catalogs and other techniques use to accumulate images? How does her tone compare? In her narratives of restriction and diminishment toward death, how does the ghost of Whitman speak to us?

5. Dent has called "HIV, Mon Amour" "a book of psalms written for an atheist," and says they may be read in order (1-14) or in any order a reader chooses. Choose any one poem from the series and discuss it in relation to psalms. You should look up psalms--their definition and uses--in addition to using your own ideas about them.

6. In "HIV, Mon Amour" the lines are long and somewhat arbitrary in where they break--another use of form as a metaphor for the poet's illness and restricted possibilities. She did not call them "prose poems," by the way, but considered the line length and regular 15-line stanza as structural to the poem. Choose one poem and discuss the uses of line. Consider what happens within single lines, and what happens across the line breaks. What is combined? What is separated? What rhythms do you hear? What sound relationships? How does the form work to shape meaning(s)?

7. "Part I: The Pressure" includes several short lyric poems, that serve almost as commentaries on the long narratives. Discuss "Voice as Gym-Body," "Omen," "Palea," or "Clash" in relation to the narratives presented in one of the longer poems. How does the shorter, more lyrical poem depend on or develop from the longer poem(s)? What does it add to the book's overall arc of experience? How does its form relate to its subject?

Note: "Voice as Gym-Body" is a pantoum --also spelled pantun -- originally a Malaysian form. If you choose that poem, look up the form.

And: If you want to write about "Family Romance", look up the phrase in its Freudian context.

Prompts for Fiona Templeton's Cells of Release

1. Imagine that you have asked Fiona Templeton: "Why do this on site? Why not just write about these issues in a normal way?" and she has replied (as she wrote in "Notes on Making Cells of Release") : "Art and body both are matter." Use one or two passages from the book to demonstrate what she means by this.

2. At the beginning of "Notes on Making Cells of Release" Templeton alludes to the difference between "the seeing one" who views the work whole and gets it, vs. "the reading visitor" who enters into "the dance of details." Choose a run of several pages (including at least one cell, at least one corridor, and at least one photo). First, give us the "view"--how does the whole thing work? What do you get from the photo? From imagining the physical act of writing? From placing these pages in relation to the floor plans at the front of the book? Then, select one shortish passage and explicate it in detail.

3. At the center of the book, one cell speaks for itself on a blank page. What leads up to that speaking silence? And what comes after? Briefly describe the approach (starting from "To Corridor Ceiling, which begins "I had chosen these cells...") and briefly describe what comes after Cell 38 (through the long Corridor poem that follows Cell 31). Then, choose one short passage from before, and one from after, to demonstrate your general points.

4. Choose two passages, one from the first half of the book and one from the second half, to discuss Templeton's development of one of these ideas --
-the body imprisoned and the body writing
-inside/outside as unstable categories
-connection and relationship as defining the human

5. Choose a passage in which Templeton explicitly addresses the ethical questions that arise when artists represent experiences of extreme suffering, such as torture and rape. Discuss the passage in detail, and then place it in relation to the overall project of Cells of Release.

George Mason University

English 390:001

Spring 2008

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Susan Tichy 

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