Saturday, March 26, 2011

Poetry Prompt #49 – Playing Pinocchio

Long-time Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn once said, "You'll never get mixed up if you simply tell the truth. Then you don't have to remember what you have said." There’s wisdom in that statement even if it doesn’t address the ethical and moral aspects of untruthfulness. All of that aside, this week’s prompt focuses on how you can use a lie to create a poem. One goal will be to use a lie you’ve told to reveal a truth about yourself. For this prompt we’ll play Pinocchio!

1. Before you begin, think for a moment about the shape-shifting nature of truth, lies, white lies, fibs, and lies of omission.

2. Now make a list of lies you’ve told. Move out of your comfort zone and be completely honest (it’s okay – the list is for your eyes only). Think about real lies – not fibs or white lies told to spare someone’s feelings or to avoid unnecessary conflict – we’re talking “whoppers” here!

  • Do you remember a lie that you told as a child?
  • Did you ever cheat on a test in school and lie about it?
  • Have you ever lied to avoid something you didn't want to do?
  • Have you told a lie to avoid judgment or to make yourself look "good."
  • Have you lied to improve your image?
  • Have you lied to someone you loved?
  • Have you protected yourself with a lie of omission or selective truth?
  • Do you recall a time when you lied because you lacked the courage to tell the truth?
  • Have you ever lied and then not remembered the details, making it impossible for you not to be caught?
  • In what ways have you lied to yourself?

3. For each lie you list, remember the consequences.

4. Pick one of the lies you listed and write a poem about it. What does this lie tell you about yourself?

Alternative Ideas

1. Write a total fantasy, a poem based on fabulous fibs and delightful deceptions.
2. Make up a scenario that you’d love to live. Not the truth, of course – a fantasy. You might try prose poem form for this.
3. Write a poem about a liar you’ve known.
4. Write a poem about a time that someone lied to you.
5. Write a poem about Pinocchio (Geppetto’s wooden puppet who came to life and whose nose grew whenever he told a lie).

Something to Think About

Lies are successful when they control language to achieve the effect of truth. How do poets control language to make their poems believable? Have you ever read a poem in which the words, phrases, lines were beautiful but somehow just didn’t hold up under close scrutiny? Have you read poems in which phrases and lines sounded contrived or manipulative, almost as if they were listening to themselves with a kind of smug satisfaction? What is it that makes a poem “ring true?”

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Poetry Prompt #48 – Reality TV

Reality television is a popular TV genre that presents supposedly unscripted dramatic or humorous situations, documents real events, hosts competitions, and features both ordinary people and stars.

Interestingly, a recent SAT test contained an essay prompt that asked students to write about reality TV. (Article)  This "pop culture prompt" generated discussion in the media, and made me think that it might be interesting to try something similar for a poetry prompt. Have you ever watched a reality TV show? Do you watch one regularly? Take a moment and think about your life (family, work, friends, leisure activities) in the context of a TV reality show. Is there anything in your life that you might compare to  "American Idol," "Dancing with the Stars," "The Bachelor," “Real Housewives,” or any other reality show? (Reality TV Shows)

Your poem:

1. Imagine your life as a reality show in which you're the star.

2. Who are your "supporting actors?"

3. Write the script for an episode in the form of a poem (or experiment with prose poem form, see prompt #47). Be creative with this. Design your own format. Base the episode on something that really happened, an actual life experience that you've had. You may be serious or funny.

If the reality show prompt doesn't quite do it for you, here are a few options to consider:

1. Write a poem about the ways in which your life resembles a sit com.

2. Write a poem about television. Read "To Television" by Robert Pinsky and "Watching Television" by Robert Bly.

3. Write a poem about a particular television program that you either enjoy or dislike.

4. Write a poem in which you make parallels between a television program and your own life.

5. Go in the opposite direction! Forget about reality and write a poem based on your idea for a television fantasy.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Poetry Prompt #47 – Prose Poems

"Which of us, in his ambitious moments, has not dreamed of the miracle of a poetic prose, 
musical, without rhyme and without rhythm, supple enough and rugged enough to 
adapt itself to the lyrical impulses of the soul, the undulations of the psyche, 
the prickings of consciousness?”

(from Petits Poèmes en Prose by Charles Baudelaire)

The term prose poem seems contradictory, but the form is one that's been around for a long time and is currently enjoying a renaissance of attention. A prose poem has one foot in prose and the other in poetry, but it commits completely to neither. A prose poem is a poem that resembles prose, a type of open-form poem presented in paragraphs with lines that break with the margins. Prose poems contain both complete sentences and intentional fragments. Based in reality, they often give a nod to the surreal. 

Prose poems are usually compact; they bear a physical resemblance to prose but move away from typical prose techniques in favor of poetry-like imagery and/or emotional effect. The prose poem's allegiance to poetry is unmistakable in sonic impression, internal rhyme, assonance, alliteration, figures of speech, and imagery. Prose poems vary in length from a single paragraph to more than a page.

Louis-Jacques-Napoléon “Aloysius” Bertrand introduced prose poetry into French literature in 1842 with Gaspard de la Nuit. In 1869, Charles Baudelaire published Petits Poèmes en Prose (Little Poems in Prose) and gave prose poetry its name. The form was firmly established in France by Arthur Rimbaud (Illuminations, 1886) and Stéphane Mallarmé (Divagations, 1897), and interest spread throughout the literary world. Other prose poets include Paul Fort, Oscar Wilde, Rainer Maria Rilke, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Amy Lowell, Kenneth Patchen, Charles Simic, Robert Bly, John Ashbery, and Mark Strand.

Your prose poem:
1. For starters, think in terms of a single paragraph as your goal for this prose poem. Approach your subject knowing that you won’t be concerned with meter, stanzas, or line breaks. Your prose poem will take the shape of a paragraph (be sure to justify both the left and right margins), and it will contain complete sentences and sentence fragments.

2. For content: think about a particular image that remains clear in your memory.

3. Now think about how that image entered your memory. Where were you?  Was anyone with you? What happened? How did you feel?

4. Write a paragraph based on the image and about the experience. Bear in mind that your poem’s “muscle” will lie in the strength of your sentences. You will need to express thoughts and subtleties in ways that might be hampered by line breaks.

5. Pay particular attention to poetic devices (simile, metaphor, alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme, repetition, onomatopoeia, symbolism). Focus on describing the image and your feelings.

6. You may tell a story, but remember that the storyline is second to the language you use to tell it. There are two caveats.
     A. Your prose poem shouldn’t read like a diary entry.
     B. Be careful not to go over the top with poetic devices and poetic language.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Poetry Prompt #46 – Condense & Compress

(Photo Courtesy of Charles DeFanti)

Have you ever noticed how great poems communicate much more than the sum of their words? This is precisely what makes them great. Poems, however, easily become flabby (more bulk than bone) when they're cluttered with too many words and too many details.

In poetry, condensing and compression are about making poems more compact, less wordy. They are skills that enable poets to use the fewest possible words and to extend beyond literal understanding into nuances and associations that offer deeper meanings. In poetry, less really is more. As Dylan Thomas wrote, "The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps ... so that something not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash or thunder in." Those holes and gaps can't happen in an overwritten poem.

In planning this week's prompt, I came across an interesting article and an idea to boost awareness of condensing and compression in our poems. From the article (Click Here to Read It): "Allen Ginsberg was a full believer in condense, condense, condense – which is a Pound dictum..." 

The article continues (and this is what caught my attention), "Check Allen's poetry for articles (remember "a," "an," "the"?) and you'll see where he starts – these bitty words all but disappear in his work, which not only condenses but gives a rushing sense of immediacy to his work." The article goes on to discuss Ginsberg's reaction to haiku, a genre that I credit with teaching me much about condensing and compression. Ginsberg's answer to haiku first appeared in his book Cosmopolitan Greetings in the form he called "American Sentences." According to Ginsberg, an American Sentence is simply one sentence that contains seventeen syllables (the writing of which is a great way to focus on condensing and compression). 

So here goes – our prompt this week is to create American Sentences in the manner of Allen Ginsberg, and then to look at our already-written poems with an eye toward condensing and compressing them.

Before you begin, be sure to read some American Sentences

Part I

1. Pick 3-5 topics.
2. Write an American Sentence on each topic you chose (have fun with this and be aware of how you condense  and compress).

Part II

1. After you've written a few American Sentences, take a look at some of your already-written poems. Think about how you might condense and compress to improve them.
2. Are there unnecessary prepositions that you can lose?
3. Are there articles (a, an, the) that you don't need?
4. Are there conjunctions (and, but, although, when, while, yet, because, for, until, etc.) that your poems can live without?
5. Do you include more details than necessary? Do you "tell" with words rather than "show" with effective imagery?
6. How can you condense and compress to create greater immediacy, energy, and power?

Friday, March 4, 2011

Monk Books - Mark Strand's Mystery and Solitude in Topeka

Book launches are always exciting, and I was very happy to be present at 192 Books in Chelsea, NYC last night for the Monk Books debut of Mark Strand's new and beautiful Mystery and Solitude in Topeka. Monk Books was founded in October 2010 by Adam Fitzgerald and Bianca Stone, and this first volume is a tour de force by both the poet and the publishers. Nine prose poems accompanied by four of Strand's original collages are presented with understated elegance – an exquisite combination of pictures and words that has been printed in a limited edition of 200 copies – definitely a future collector's item!