English 619:002 / Spring 2004 / Susan Tichy / George Mason Univers/ity / Mondays 4:30-7:10 / Robinson B-442



Guidelines for Poems & Excercises

Make your own system  /  Exquisite Corpse Collage


Make Your Own System

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 that material.
  • First, 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 that number -- or the fifth sentence, or whatever. If you've listed a page number higher than the number of pages in the book, subtract the number of the book's last page from that higher number and use the page number that results. You could vary this method, and get shorter fragments, by taking the first five words on each page.

A 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.

    • Write your poem as a single periodic sentence, whose grammatical completion is delayed but always anticipated, so that the conclusion of the grammar conveys a sense of logical or emotional conclusion as well. Neruda's early 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.

E-Mail 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 revealed.

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:
  • Choose 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.

  • Each 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 words appear.

    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 only its last line to your collaborator.

  • Your 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.

    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.

  • Whatever 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 the end of round one. You write a new couplet from a new page & send off the last line. Etc.
  • The 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.
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.