August 6, 2007

Postcards from Carolyn

Dear ones, I have finally located one of my exercise lists, and hereby share it with you. some of these are mine, some come from friends, but all have been found useful. Here it is:
love, carolyn

Try writing poems using these exercises:

1. Write an “epistolary” poem, (the word is the same as the “epistles” or letters from the apostles in the new testament). This is a poem in the form of a letter to another person, often omitting the salutation (“dear....”) but in other respects, resembling a letter. The poet Richard Hugo wrote a number of these.

2. Write a poem in answer to a letter you receive from someone (or, if you read some interesting published letters, try answering one of them in the form of a poem).

3. Write a “persona” poem, in which you become someone else and speak in the poem as that person (Amelia Earhart? a Civil War nurse? a trapeze artist in the circus? Sir Walter

4. Choose eight or ten words at random from your “loved words” list and try writing a poem, quickly, in ten or twelve lines, using these words. Then check your list to see if there are any interesting substitutions you can make.

5. Take two poems you have written which are related in some way, cut the lines apart, and splice together a new version, then re-write the poem according to the new version, so that you produce one long poem.

6. Try writing a poem that provides instructions on how to get somewhere or do something (recipe, directions, assembly, or how to recover from a death, a lover, an addiction, etc.)

7. Write a poem that re-tells, or “transforms” a story or myth. (Try biblical stories, classical myths, fairy tales, etc.). Anne Sexton’s book “Transformations” might be a model for this.

8. Write poems “in the style of” poets from your anthology (that is, the private anthology of favorite poems you make as you read). (There should be a little italicized line, indented between the title and the text of the poem, saying “after so and so”.

9. Write a poem in which you tell what happens in a dream (without telling the reader it is a dream).

10. Write a series of short, linked poems, illuminating (without commentary) episodes from your memory of childhood.

11. Keep a travel diary on a trip (jotting down words, phrases, place names, events), and when you return write a sequence of poems which are dated in the form of a diary, and which illuminate your journey in some way.

12. Choose a work of prose that you especially admire, and, pulling phrases from that work, compose a poem from the phrases. Between the title and the text of the poem, insert an indented, italicized “credit line”--from “ “ by so and so”

13. Write a poem in which you begin by situating yourself in a particular place (on the roof of your house, in your room, etc.), describe that place, and then, by association, “travel” imaginatively somewhere else, and end the poem by returning to the place you are. The poem should be long enough that the reader is surprised to come back. John
Ashbery’s poem “Guadalajara” is a good model for this.

14. Write poems based on interesting black and white photographs from the past. Look
at photography books by Atget, Lange, Weston, Bourke-White, Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, etc.

15. Research the history of your current home or hometown, and write a poem based on an interesting historic event you learn about. I once wrote about a fire which burned my town completely in 1872.

Revision suggestions:

1. Read each line of the poem separately, to be sure that it is interesting by itself. Cut words from the end of the line or add words from the beginning of the next line if you think it would improve the inherent meaning of the line.

2. Look at each word in the poem, and see if you can substitute a more interesting, specific word. Tree might become sycamore. River might become the Shenandoah. Bird might become gull, cardinal, finch, vulture.

3. Eliminate unnecessary commentary and description. If you have the word “snow,” then you already imply (and can eliminate sometimes) “winter,” “cold,” “icy” etc.

4. Be careful not to eliminate important articles (a, the, an) or conjunctions (and, but).
Or you your poem will read like a newspaper headline.

5. Check to see if the opening lines and closing lines are necessary. Sometimes the true poem begins most interestingly with the third line, and ends with the third from the last.

6. Check to see if all the stanzas or strophes are necessary. Sometimes you can cut the whole stanza, and strengthen the poem.

7. If the poem is in stanzas, sections, or parts, cut them into individual pieces and play with their arrangement. Sometimes the poem is better if arranged a different way (while keeping all the sections). Sometimes this is how you discover whether any can be cut.

8. Subject all adverbs to intense scrutiny (as to whether they are necessary) “ran quickly” might be better expressed as “hurried.”

9. Subject all adjectives to strong scrutiny (as to whether they are necessary) “white snow” is redundant. “Snow” would suffice all by itself. (“Black wind” , however, is interesting, because unusual, unexpected...)

10. Read the poem aloud several times, and mark with a highlighter pen those places which were more difficult to read (tongue-twisters). Examine them and see if you can improve them.

11. If you are not certain whether your poem is in proper syntax and is grammatical, type the poem out as prose and check the sentences for completion and proper usage, then re-line.

12. Check to see that the sentences within the poem (which might go on for several lines), are, in fact, complete sentences (or have a good reason why not).

13. Try writing the poem in a different “person”— switch from “he” to “I” or vice versa.

14. Check the verb tenses to see whether they are consistent and/or correct.

15. See if compound verbs can become simple verbs (for compression) “I would run” might be able to become “I ran”, etc.

16. Check for spelling errors.

17. Check for consistency in spacing between lines.

18. Check to see whether the poem is well placed on the page.

19. In sending poems out to be published, always send clean, correct versions.

20. Break any of the above rules except #19 if you think it is necessary to the poem.

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