Over the past few years I’ve gotten quite a few folks asking me to look at their poems and give some advise. And while I have hidden behind the excuse of my dissertation, the truth is that I couldn’t see a way “in” to these requests—partly my proclivities are so different from the poetic mainstream that I just want to see most amateur poets throw everything away and start from scratch. But then I feel like I’m ruining their love for poetry writing.
So here’s an idea. Instead of mentoring tumblr poets individually, I’d like to take a crack at giving you the tools to do some self-directed training. These will mostly be in the form of poetry projects, which have worked well for the Tumblr environment.
So here’s your first challenge, in honor of Valentines Day: transform a cliched love poem into a surreal love poem.
Uut poetry is the antithesis of sentimental love poetry and individualistic angst. I still get a lot of these kinds of poems in my inbox, and my guess is that these submissions are coming from new poets who think they are really stretching themselves to be “wierd.” But it’s not weird enough—it’s not charged by contradictory images and startling incongruity. It’s still centered on a persona whose emotions are the point of the poem.
Let’s try an experimental project that arbitrarily and artificially wrenches you out of this dependence on expression.
- Find a poem you’ve written recently about love, sex, friendship, your anxiety about x, your pain. If you don’t write poems like that (go you!) find a love poem on the Tumblr hashtag.
Underline all of the nouns and verbs with the following exceptions:
Pronouns (I, you, my, your, me)
- Any to be verbs (are, is, were, was, to be, being)
- Any really unusual or interesting verbs
Underline any adjectives that sound especially cliche: “pathetic, whiny, sad, painful, etc”
Chuck sentences that have too few replaceable words, such as “I don’t want any of it, / and I sure as hell / don’t want to write about it.”
Use a seed text or one of these random word generators to replace to underlined words with words of the same part of speech.
For example, take the following heartfelt but boring poem by @vucked:
Now, here is my rewrite:
There’s an apartment in my giblet
that has been enlarged
and a splinter in my skull
that intertwines our gunk.
because you are my jumpiness
and I am exonerated.
Better. But it still needs something. So here are some additives to play with if desired:
- insert a simile (“like” and “as” phrases) at the end of a sentence
- insert a “jump cut” sentence that describes something that’s happening at the same time but in a different place, a totally disconnected event
- insert an extra adjective before one of the nouns you have replaced
For example, to add a little flavor to the poem above, I generated at random a simile, “like a defrauded flea / conversing with firebombs” and added it to the end of the poem.
Let’s take another example. Here’s a poem (actually just the first few stanzas) posted on @drunkology
“If I write about my heart one more time,
I swear I’m peeling off my skin, breaking open my rib cage
and using my bones as a baseball bat to hit
my rusted heart across the universe.
I don’t want it anymore
whatever it is.
This heart. These words. This world.
How pathetic and whiny my voice sounds
even to me. I don’t want it.
I don’t want any of it,
and I sure as hell
don’t want to write about it.”
My rewrite includes an extra adjective, excision of lines 5-6 and the final stanza entirely, and ends with a new jump cut sentence:
If I gather my pirouettes one more time,
I swear I’m peeling off my white zither, breaking open my datum
and using my thread as a narcosis to blast
my rusted email across the universe.
This dibble. These granddaughters. This lettuce.
How cuddly and hallucinatory my mouthpiece sounds
even to me.
In Parisian louvres, mice are listening to bugles approvingly.
This example doesn’t have any second person pronouns (you, your), but my theory is that poems rewritten along these lines that contain a higher degree of first and second person pronouns will sound just as erotic and romantic as the cliche expressive version.
Help me test this hypothesis out—and start your journey into non-expressive, chance-based writing, by trying this project and submitting the results
. When you submit, please include a link to the original poem or paste it below your new version.
a collaboration with Zjoot
Martian Poetry or Martianism is a minor British poetry movement from the 70s developed by Craig Raine, with ties to surrealism and experimental poetry. According to Dr. Wiki, “Through the heavy use of curious, exotic and humorous visual metaphors, Martian Poetry aimed to break the grip of ‘the familiar’, by describing ordinary things in unfamiliar ways, as though, for example, through the eyes of a Martian.” The most common example of Martian poetry is Raine’s "A Martian Sends a Postcard Home."
Here’s how to write your own Martian poem.
Start by picking an object. It will be the subject of your poem. Do not refer to the object by its actual name but by a figural abstraction, nickname, or the name of a specific subtype or species of the object. In Raine’s poem, he calls books “Caxtons.” Similarly, you could refer to hats as “Stetsons,” coffee as “Sumatra” and so on. Your description should deliberately avoid common identifying qualities of the object. Defamiliarized it. Vascilate between phemenological and figurative language. As in the opening lines from Raine’s poem:
mechanical birds with many wings
perch on the hand
cause the eyes to melt
or the body to shriek without pain
With all this in mind, draft a poem along the following lines.
Stanza 1. Description
- Define the object. The definition should be abstract, obscure, figural.
- Describe what happens to that object when it interacts with your hands.
- Describe its mechanical motion.
- Describe its purpose. “A [object] is something used to/for __________.”
Stanza 2. Now you are going to do things with this object.
I take the [object] and give it to [person/animal/etc…], [relative clause describing, in a surreal image, the person/animal etc.]. “I take the corkscrew and give it to the ape, whose arm becomes two-hundred emeralds.” “I take the nine-iron and give it to my elbow, where grows a garden of mistiest zen.”
The object is different in different places. Write something along the lines of the following: “Where I’m from, [the object] __________. Where you’re from, [the object] _________________.” The images are related topically. One is surreal and one is mundane/normal. “Where I’m from, only trees experience love and the rain ties them in knots. Where you’re from, trees do not even talk.”
Insert a transitional phrase followed by a description of a profound interaction between you (the speaker) and/or “you” (the reader) and the object. “After all this, I go cliff diving with the horseshoe into the bluest water I have ever seen and neither of us ever emerge.”
Describe your surroundings/a person/etc when you interacted with the object two steps earlier.
Stanza 3. Other/obsolete uses.
Begin “The [object’s] other purpose is….” and continue with a quote from a seed text of your choice. “The soup of the day is first paint a cage with an open door." Alternatives: "The [object’s] brother is…" "The [object’s] worse best/worst quality is…" "The [object] is…"
Punch the previous line into Google and find a line from the list of results.
"When [the object] encounters [or "is mixed with" or "is combined with"] a [randomly generated concrete noun or noun phrase], it [surreal image]."
Finish by describing the “secret life” or the “true nature” of the object. For example, Raine finishes his description of the book,
At night when all the colours die,
they hide in pairs
and read about themselves —
in colour, with their eyelids shut.
As always, post and/or submit your results here. Eat Mars bars.
Uut’s Martian poems
Zjoot’s Martian poems