Monday, March 21, 2005


"Live a good, clean life and, every day, eat two vegetables that grow above the ground and one that grows underground." --Mina Faye Hiday, 107, on how to live a long life. (From today's Bloomington Herald-Times.)

One thing I've discovered about myself is that often I like to write towards something. Either I'll have a last line or an image that I want to work towards, or I'll know about how long I think the poem wants to be, or (occasionally) I'll work in a traditional form, like a sonnet or a sestina. Okay, I only committed a sestina once. As well, sometimes I'll set intermediate goals -- knowing I want five-line stanzas gives me a set of turning points to work towards, or even just having a phrase or image in mind that I want to use somewhere in the poem.

So when I get stuck while first-drafting, sometimes it helps to just give myself a word -- any word, as long as it's reasonably specific and reasonably evocative -- and write towards that word. I keep a text file on my laptop called "Words to Use in Poems," and when I'm feeling stalled but don't want to put the poem away just yet, I'll open up that file and pick a word, any word, and start writing towards it. It sounds weird, but something about the combination of looking at a list of words chosen for their specificity and resonance & having that small goal to work towards very often "un-sticks" me. Maybe once you push yourself to see past the stuck place, you can work through it.

This is similar to an exercise I did in Maura Stanton's class as an undergrad (one that I know a lot of teachers use), in which she handed out a list of a couple dozen or so words and told us to write a poem incorporating at least x number of them (maybe it was ten?). The poem I wrote from that exercise is one I still kind of like, even though it's -- oh help -- twenty-three years old now. (Note to self: Never do the math. It's too depressing.)

Here's my current "Words to Use in Poems" list. Feel free to swipe some of them. I've already used a few.
And oh, what the hell, here's the poem I wrote in Maura's class. Please bear in mind that I was what, twenty-one years old at the time. (The poem is older now than I was when I wrote it! Wow.) So be nice. :)


The past has a smell
of musty gray basements,
stained linoleum
in windowless kitchens.
I told you once
memory meant nothing to me.
Now I'm not so sure.

I walked with you once in fog,
the air between us visible,
the distant coastline of your face
made faint by moving mist.
With each breath I faded
wanting to cloak myself in night,
invisible, three feet from you.

There was a time alone in snow,
the trees barbed-wire on linen,
I stood beneath your window
looking for dim light
listening for music.
Anything I might have heard
was obscured by falling whiteness,
white, and the damp smell of fog moving in.

I want to hold you like a photograph,
but you are speeding down a narrow tunnel
away from me, receding
faster than light, till only your outline
is visible, a silhouette on paper.
Memory curls in my mind
like black-and-white scraps,
their edges blurred, the smell of basements
and old kitchens, fog coming in,
seeping through barbed-wire,
too quick to be frozen
by shutter or light.

-A.H. 1982
published in Calapooya Collage, 1988


jenni said...

Hey, I like that poem too. (:

I don't keep a 'word list' but if I get 'stuck' in a poem or narrative, often times I'll read the dictionary. Words inspire me. I may not even use the word that inspired me, I may just use associations it conjured.

Radish King said...

Longevity: Live a good, clean life and, every day, eat two vegetables that grow above the ground and one that grows underground, take a lover half your age, drink wine every single afternoon, never sleep more than 4 hours at a time, go bowling when you can, drive a classic car too fast and eat your weight in cheese.

R.Loudon, Old Poet

Emily Lloyd said...

Wow, Anne--this totally doesn't seem like a poem written from a prof's word list; nothing at all feels forced, and I couldn't guess which words you were given. My prof, Peter Klappert, gave us all the same words from one of the more obscure Frank O'Hara poems: it was a doozy, containing such gems as steps, cows, river, dirty letters, nieces--and I think cabbage. None of us recognized the poem from the list. It was so cool to see what everyone came up with, then have him haul out O'Hara's poem and learn what he'd done.

I also cruise the dictionary from time to time. A couple years back, I found the listing for "miracle fruit"--a fruit which, once consumed, makes everything you eat afterwards taste sweeter. Was dying to use that in a poem some day...Aimee Nezhukumatathil beat me to it, of course. [grin]


Anne said...

Jenni: Yes, I've spent time aimmlessly dictionary-browsing too! I think that's how I ended up in library school anyhow -- fascination with reference books. Sometimes I'll go to a bookstore or a library and just read titles for an hour and that usually gets me writing too. Words, words, words.

Rebecca: LOL! I like yours better. Except for the bowling part. Will failure to bowl condemn me to an early death?

Em: Cabbage! Hah! My old writers' group did an exercise around the word "broccoli" once -- we had to start with the phrase "the broccoli in her garden" and somewhere in the piece we had to use the phrase "the weather was no surprise." One of our members turned out this incredibly erotic piece. Her broccoli was, well, dripping with butter. Hee. I don't remember all the list-words in "Monochrome" but I know linoleum and coastline were from the list, and barbed-wire.

And yep, I think Aimee N. pretty much has the patent on miracle fruit now! *grin* (and what I would give to have written that poem myself!)

the machinist said...

I did a simliar exercise when I first really started writing poetry (all of two years ago, I think). Some of the words were copper, broom, ok those are the only two I can remember.

Your twenty-one year-old self could write a fine poem, so says this twenty-two year-old!

Erin B. said...

I'm forever making word lists, myself. Some of my favorites are subterfuge, timbre, glass, and ruin, among others, of course. Cheers to a fine poem of seventeen years. Keep them coming.

Radish King said...

Will failure to bowl condemn me to an early death?


Brad Chism said...

Rather disputable.