I’ll let you in on a secret. My mother has always hated William Carlos Williams’ poem “This is just to say…” She always thought the speaker in it did something terribly annoying (eating someone else’s treat) and wasn’t truly sorry.
So, when you encounter a classic poem you dislike, what can you do? Write a parody of it! For a great example, read Kenneth Koch’s answer to “This is just to say…” entitled Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams. So, how does Kenneth Koch make this poem so funny? He finds a game in what WCW is doing and escalates it to an absurd level! In WCW’s poem and Koch’s poem, the game is a pattern—the speaker is apologizing for doing something annoying to the person to which the poem is addressed. Koch escalates by making each instance more offensive. He also throws in details about the original poem and the author of the poem which adds to the absurdity, for example, the “the firm March wind on the porch was so juicy and cold,” alluding to the plums in the original poem. Also note the crowning laugh in the parody, that the speaker is so cruel that he would injure the other person in order that he would have a patient (WCW was a doctor as well as a poet).
For another example of a parody, take a look at Billy Collins’ poem Workshop. This one is a bit more complex of a parody, and not of one poem in particular, but it is also a lot of fun.
So for this prompt, I encourage you to take a classic poem in which you notice an interesting pattern (you don’t have to dislike it, really), and try to escalate that pattern in a new poem humorously. Try to carry out that pattern at least in three different instances to heighten the effect. Make sure to make your parody obvious, so someone who has read the original poem will recognize the allusions you are making to the original. Have fun with it!
Tuesday evening I attended a Dharma gathering at Shambhala NYC. It was pleasant to meditate in a group setting and listen to David Nichtern speak, especially since I haven’t attended Shambhala in a while. I got the opportunity to ask David Nichtern a question about meditation and creative pursuits (including writing) and had a great conversation with him about spontaneity and creativity. He signed a copy of his new book Awakening from the Daydream, and inside it he wrote a koan of sorts “Spontaneous means being properly prepared.” What a fascinating concept!
So how can we prepare ourselves to be ready for the muse, to be spontaneous in our writing? By practicing daily, or as often as we can. Natalie Goldberg describes an exercise in her book on creative writing, Writing Down the Bones, where you do a free write for a certain length of time on a regular basis, just writing the first thing that comes to mind, and keeping the pen moving on the page. My prompt for you this week is to try this exercise for at least 15 minutes. Maybe even try doing it once a day for week! Some of what you write may not be worth revision later, but sometimes you will generate seeds which you can develop further. The important thing is to turn off the judge or the editor during the free writing session, and just allow your thoughts to flow.
This time of year we commonly reflect on the past and think of the future. Let’s take a look at Tina Chang’s poem The Future is an Animal. In the poem, the speaker is both reflecting on the past (by mentioning the origin story of man) and also dreaming about the future. Can you do both in a poem, both reflection and prediction? Perhaps you want to start by creating an unusual metaphor for the future. Title your poem “The Future is ___.” Make sure to pick something concrete, like a boat or a spoon, and have fun with it!
We can often get inspiration from other writers, even sometimes by borrowing lines or phrases from others. There is actually a form of poem called a cento which is made up entirely of lines by other poets, it is a patchwork of sorts. Check out Simone Muench’s Wolf Cento for example. If you like, you can try creating a cento on your own, but today in workshop, I want you to merely borrow a title of a poem- take it from the title of another book or poem, and without consulting the original text, write your own version. If you choose, after you’ve written the poem, you can rename it to something more original, or leave it the way it is.
Think of a group of people with specialized knowledge, like cooks or chemists. Think of what advice they might give us about life, and how their knowledge might influence what they say. Write a poem in the voice of the people you have chosen, and allow their knowledge to extend past what you’d usually consider their domain to be. Title the poem What the ___ Know, filling in the blank with your group of people. For inspiration, read Robert Polito’s What the Dead Know.
How do you envision the future of our world? Whether you have children or not, I want you to write a letter to our children, to the future of the species. What wisdom do you have to share? For inspiration, read Good Bones by Maggie Smith.Pay attention to the techniques she uses, such as anaphora (repetition). Of particular interest is the metaphor of a realtor trying to “sell the world” to the children. Does this metaphor ring true to you? Can you come up with a metaphor of your own about what you want to communicate to our children?
Can you allow another voice other than the speaker’s to enter the poem and influence it? Study the poem of Emilia Phillips, Reading Ovid at the Plastic Surgeon’s, with a quotation from Ovid, and the voice of another character named David. How do these quotations interact with what is happening in the poem? In your poem today, allow one quote of literature and one voice of another character to enter the poem and steer it in new directions.
I got the chance to see Carl Dennis read his poem The God Who Loves You on Thursday night, at the Pulitzer Prize winners’ poetry celebration at Cooper Union. In this poem, we learn that one person has other potential futures which God can see. Listen to the poem and study it. What kind of God is this? What is the attitude of the “you” in the poem toward the alternate life, and what is the attitude of the seemingly omniscient narrator? How might you imagine an alternate future of your own, either for yourself or another persona? How might knowing about the alternative change the way your life is today?
How do you infuse a realistic tale with strands of fantasy? You may be familiar with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. This week, I want you to explore writing a magical realist poem, where you offer some elements of fantasy without explanation, that only hint at meanings which your readers will discover. Maybe you’re writing about an office worker who ends up transforming into a philodendron that curls along the walls. Maybe a giraffe lowers its head to you at a zoo and tells you that it’s going to rain on your wedding day. For an example of this technique in a poem, read Alberto Rios’ A Man Then Suddenly Stops Moving.