If you’re like me, when it’s time to pen a poem, your brain tends to wander in the same directions over and over—regular routines, similar themes, well-mined locations. There’s nothing wrong with revisiting the same concepts, especially when you find ways to see them through new eyes, but sometimes it’s exciting to step outside your comfort zone completely and make room for fresh ideas. I recommend allowing a little randomness into your brainstorming sessions. Some of the best poems come from unexpected places.
In honor of National Poetry Month, I thought I’d share three poetry exercises that are fun, easy, and great for generating unique ideas.
#1. Audio Found Poems (a.k.a Effective Eavesdropping)
As you know, I love found poetry. I’ve always loved creating poems from cut-out words in magazines, and one of my new favorite pastimes is making book title found poems. But both of those activities are messy and can easily eat up your entire day if you let them. So if you want a relatively fast, mess-free found poem, I recommend the audio variety.
It’s easy. Just grab a notebook and a pen, sit yourself down in a busy area, and listen. As people come and go, make a list of the words and phrases you hear. Don’t judge, don’t edit, just jot down any snippets of conversation. If possible, stay for about an hour. Then go somewhere quiet and see what you have to work with.
At this point, there are several different options. You can try to make a poem using only the words and phrases you wrote down, or you can use those snippets but add your own lines as well, or you can use one tantalizing tidbit as a starting point and launch your own poem from there.
The best place to station yourself is somewhere people come and go but don’t linger for long. If you sit down at a coffee shop, you’ll be limited to the people sitting closest to you, and they may not change much in an hour. Instead park yourself at the entrance to a mall or stand on a busy street corner or sit on a bench on a walking path. The smaller the snippets, the better. If you only have a few words, your mind will create meaning around them. But if you write down one couple’s entire conversation (which is creepy—don’t do that) the mystery will be gone and it will be more difficult to be creative.
Fortunately for me, I live next to a popular bike path. When people ride bikes together, they tend to talk LOUD, so I can hear them from my back porch. However, they’re also going by fast, so I rarely get more than a sentence, if that. I haven’t written my audio found poem yet, but I’ve been collecting material for over a year now. Here are some of my favorite snippets so far. (Hint: Some of the best ones come from kids.)
– “I wanted to go faster, but I was like, AAAAAA!”
– “Are you sure it’s the sunshine?” “Yes.”
– “How do my wheels turn? Why do bikes not have to have gas?”
– “If you see me fall, just stop me. Don’t let go of me.”
– “Dad, let’s slow down for Mom so she can catch up.”
If you don’t have time for your own eavesdropping session today, feel free to borrow one of my finds for inspiration.
Most teachers and students are probably familiar with the copy/change format. In a copy/change poem, you take a poem by a famous poet and you copy the format and idea but change the details to make it your own. William Carlos Williams’s “This is Just to Say” is a popular choice for this assignment, as is George Ella Lyon’s “Where I’m From.” There’s nothing wrong with this activity. I’ve participated in it on both sides of the classroom and enjoyed it. However, it’s true that the products, though individualized, do tend to have the same feel as the original.
With re-creations, you still get to borrow from favorite poets, but there is a lot more freedom to the format, so the resulting poems end up being quite unique.
All you do is choose a poem you like and borrow words and phrases from it to make your own. This is pretty much the same as the eavesdropping exercise except all of your material is coming from one voice, one idea. Even so, what you do with it is completely up to you.
I suggest choosing a poem you like but not one that is so well-known that it’s ingrained in you. Better yet, have someone else choose the poem and experience it the first time hearing it only before you look at the text. Then, spend about a minute jotting down words and phrases from the poem that strike a chord with you. Not whole stanzas, just snippets. When the minute is up, turn the poem upside down. Don’t look at it anymore. You have all the material you need.
Let the words and phrases you collected inspire your own poem. There are no rules. You can use all of them or not. You can stick to a similar theme to the original or not. It’s up to you. It’s YOUR poem.
When I taught seventh grade, I often used two little-known pieces in my re-creation lessons: “Winter in the Panhandle” by Elizabeth Bratten (from the 2008 Texas Poetry Calendar) and “Day-Dream” by Samarendra Sengupta, translated by Lila Ray (from This Same Sky, edited by Naomi Shihab Nye). Neither poem is very long, but it always surprised me when students chose completely different snippets than their neighbors. And even when they locked in on the same words and phrases, they often took them in very different directions.
One year, during my class’s re-creation of “DAY-DREAM,” I wrote with them. By the time the exercise was over, this poem about a boy and a kite had morphed into one about my anxiety over upcoming standardized testing. It’s amazing what your mind will do when given a little inspiration and a lot of freedom.
#3. Let Autocorrect Be Your Muse
We’ve all been there. We send a simple text to a loved one—“Running late. See you around seven. There are leftovers in the fridge. Love ya.” And autocorrect changes it to—“Geese cannot be trusted. Get out while you can. Mumps!”
Ok, fine, maybe it’s not usually that bad, but you have to admit some of the messages come out sounding pretty strange. Due to autocorrect, I have accidentally told my husband that our dog is gay (*gassy) and told my parents that I was running late for a purity meeting (*poetry meeting) and those are just the mistakes that got through. My phone attempts to cause chaos on a regular basis and it’s only through strict diligence that I keep it from embarrassing me. But once in a while, it’s on to something.
For instance, a few days ago I was sharing a photo to Facebook, and my phone changed “wildflowers” to “soldiers.” I corrected the error, but then took a moment to contemplate the comparison. When I got home, I jotted down these lines:
spread out before me—
not one platoon or two
but an entire battalion
standing their ground
against the wind’s assault
It may not be anything… yet, but it has potential. And I never would have seen wildflowers as soldiers if my phone hadn’t made the suggestion.
So next time autocorrect changes “The cat has hacked up three hairballs today” to “The vast has haunted up the haha today,” (yep, that happened) take a moment to consider the message before revising it. Maybe there is poetry in the haunted haha.
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