|Make Your Own
For this exercise you
must, as the poet Jackson Mac Low says, make your own system for
collecting material out of a text. You may collect sentences, phrases,
or words. The key is to choose your text subjectively, but make
your method objective. You will then produce drafts of two poems from
choose a text that has resonance for you, whether aesthetic, moral,
philosophical or otherwise. Don't choose a poem, but there are no other
restrictions: newspaper, biography, travelogue, a novel.
- Next, devise a method
for selecting from it words, phrases or sentences. It is important that
you make your own system, but here are some examples. The only thing you may not do is
choose text subjectively, by how much you like it. (We'll do
that for other poems, but in this one it's important that you use
invent and use an objective method for pulling text.)
- Choose a key word, then select the first word that
begins with your key word's first letter, followed by the first word
that begins with the second letter, etc. For example, if your key word
was "select" and you used these instructions for your source text, you
would list says, excercise, low, examples, collecting, this. If
you were using a longer source text (as you probably will be) you could
get a wider sampling of its diction by taking your words in order
instead of taking first words. That is, the first word starting with
's', the next word after that starting with 'e', and so forth.
- Choose a book as your
source text. Quickly, without much thinking, write
down a list of page numbers. Take the first sentence on each page with
number -- or the fifth sentence, or whatever. If you've listed a page
higher than the number of pages in the book, subtract the number of the
last page from that higher number and use the page number that results.
could vary this method, and get shorter fragments, by taking the first
words on each page.
quick comparison of these two systems reveals that what system you
choose will have a lot to do with how random the resulting text will be
and what kind of work you might do with it next.
- To produce your first
poem, you may work with your pulled material in any way you wish --
order it at random, order it by a system, order it subjectively, break
it up, repeat it, whatever. But you can't add anything.
- To produce your
second poem, work with the same material, but this time you are free to
modify it and to intercut it with original lines or phrases. For this
draft, aim for about a 50/50 split. Some suggestions --
- Interlayer your poem with illocutionary effects --
that is, with words and phrases that either address the reader/listener
directly or signal the presence of a speaker. Examples might be cue
words like listen or look, self-tagging phrases like all
I'm saying is
or that isn't really what I meant. Walt Whitman and Marianne
Moore are two of
many poets who use this method to good effect.
- Interlayer your poem
with rhetorical effects associated with argument or logical exposition,
words like then,
therefore, however, or phrases like it stands to reason, anyone can see that.
your poem as a single periodic sentence, whose grammatical completion
is delayed but always anticipated, so that the conclusion of the
conveys a sense of logical or emotional conclusion as well. Neruda's
poems in book one of Residence on Earth provide
examples of this.
- Forget rational
closure, but use methods of aural closure: repetition, variation from
and return to a pattern, metrical regularity, a strong rhyme or other
increased density of sound effect at the end of the poem, etc.
- Remember, you should not be producing a poem
that is mostly your original work with just just a few of the found
words or phrases dropped in.
Exquisite Corpse Collage
The original Exquisite Corpse was a game played by surrealist painters.
One of them drew the head and shoulders of a body, then folded the
paper so only the bottom edges of the drawing showed. The next one
began his drawing from those visible edges and drew the torso of a
body, then folded the paper in the same way. The third began his
drawing from the visible edges of the torso and drew the legs. Only
when all were finished could the paper be unfolded and the whole body
An Exquisite Corpse in words is created by writing two or more lines of
verse, then folding the page so only the last line shows. The second
writer continues from that line and writes two or more lines of her
own, then folds the paper so only her last line shows. The next writer
continues from there. Unlike a body, an EC poem can continue around a
bar room indefinitely.
Your EC should be a bit more intentional than a bar game, but the exact
rules are up to you. You may want your procedures be completely random
and objective, or completely subjective and personal. Personally, I
like combining elements of each.
Please keep a careful record of your rules and planning. Examining your
method and what kind of poem resulted from it will be a large part of
what the rest of us gain from reading it.
Here are your steps:
collaborators -- I suggest you work in pairs or in trios. You may
include poets from outside this class, so long as they commit to the
project and to the time frame. It's important to work with someone you
like to hear from!
- Choose a
number of lines for each bit of verse you'll create. In these
directions I'll assume you are writing couplets and working with only
one other person.
- Choose a
title, a subject, a theme, or an idea. Make it broad -- e.g. "Africa,"
"Getting Home," "Arrivals & Departures," etc.
collaborator chooses a book as a source text. The books need not be
related in any obvious way to your title or idea, but you may wish one
of them to be. Don't tell each other what books you've chosen.
- Choose a
method for generating page numbers. Examples I've used or discussed
with collaborators: lottery numbers from a country associate with your
theme, numbers derived from birth and death dates on the obituary page
of a chosen newspaper, longitude & latitude of selected locations,
winning and losing poker hands, dictionary pages on which selected key
You may have to modify your system to create usable numbers above or
below certain thresholds, depending on your system and the length of
your books. Whatever your system, each person should use the same page
number through each round.
- To begin:
turn to the designated page of your book and choose text from that page
from which to compose a couplet. You and your collaborators may also
set the rules for how that's done. Will it be random & objective?
Wholly subjective? Must you choose whole phrases or lines? or may you
choose and recombine individual words? May you use a word twice that
appears but once on the page? etc. At this stage you should not change
the found text in any way: i.e., don't change a pronoun or the tense of
a verb or the number of a noun.
- Once you
have a couplet, record it in a word processing file, or someplace else
you won't lose it. Then send
last line to your collaborator.
collaborator duplicates the process, using the same page number from
his or her book -- however the new couplet must also follow in some way
from the line you've sent.
your rules, and whatever the outcome, your collaborator sends back to
you only the final line of his or her new couplet, and that's
of round one. You write a new couplet from a new page & send off
the last line. Etc.
This is where it gets interesting. You are holding one card and playing
one card, and your partner has to play next. Will your second line be
narrative? a single image? a list? Will it be enjambed, offering a
phrase that must be completed? And will your partner respond at the
level of narrative? image? rhyme? rhythm? One of your rules could be
that the poem will be metrical.
Once you have
finished an exhange, first put together the whole sequence of couplets
and see what you have. Keep a copy of this unedited version. At this
point you have more procedures to agree on. Who edits? What kind of
editing is allowed? etc. Keep copies of your steps during editing.
length of each exchange may be determined arbitrarily in advance, or
may be determined by the numbers you are using. You may wind up with a
single poem or with a set a poems derived from different sets of
numbers, different books, or any other scheme you devise. You may want
to postpone some of these decisions until after the process has begun.