From the ‘Pop-up Poetry’ series of workshops sponsored by StoryStudio Chicago
Sunday, April 23, 2017
taught by C. Russell Price
First, a word to the wise: unless you have a really good sense of humor, and/or a morbid fascination with your silly past self, you might want to throw away, unread, the journal you kept in the 8th grade (my mother kept everything, then sent all that everything to me). I was running late for this workshop, and it was the only notebook I could find.
I couldn’t even get the lyrics right.
And here’s my Christmas list:
The upside was that I felt confident that anything I put in it today could only be an improvement.
Similes and metaphors are phrases likening two things. A simile uses ‘like’ or ‘as’; a metaphor is a little bolder, stating that one thing actually is another. ‘Does it dry up/Like a raisin in the sun?’ Langston Hughes asks of the fate of a dream deferred. ‘My mother is a fish,’ Vardaman Bundren muses in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. It’s my conviction that our brains are wired to make these associations. We learn the world and life by comparing; it brings us a little closer to cracking the code of the essential mystery of things. We all do it; this is not merely the stomping ground of poets. Or, looked at another way: we are all poets. Spend some time noticing, over the course of the rest of today or even the next hour, how often and effortlessly you make an associative, symbolic link between one thing and another. Deployed deftly, honed and polished, metaphor is the resonant end result of an imaginative and intellectual process, the effort to engage with, understand, and express our experience of the world.
But it is also a fertile beginning, forging links between abstract and concrete, trivial and profound, self and other, life and story; cracking open locked boxes, setting all kinds of things in motion, pointing in all kinds of startling directions, setting writers and readers on a path both familiar and entirely strange. You feel for a moment as though the meaning in the words has visited from the outside: a whispered message, a bird on your shoulder. It has assembled you, rather than the other way around (and I think it’s a little of both).
‘What I want to do is ruin a word for everyone else,’ Russell said as the workshop began, explaining that they seek to link it so memorably to its association that readers can never hear that word again without the metaphor ringing in their ears.
And with that, we set out to ruin some words.
We warmed up with a kind of batting practice , taking some tentative swings, warming up.
After listening to some examples from other poems, we were instructed to think of a body part or human quality: heart, eyes, courage, anxiety, then to freewrite our associations to it-concrete objects, specific details-for ten minutes (which as a writer knows is at once a very long and a very short time). We then went back over what we’d written, bracketing the three metaphors we liked best and sharing them around the table: an aging head is a rotary phone, a 60’s-era television without a remote, a plant with a tangle of roots that, when you pull it free, takes the exact shape of the pot it was in (these are mine; I shy away from taking those of others as I feel they’re not really mine to take, although this one is so good I just can’t help myself: a brain is a ‘machine made of meat’).
Then it was time to step up to the plate (see how ingrained the habit is?). We were each given three small pieces of paper and instructed to label them: Noun, Verb, Adjective. Then, for fifteen minutes, we walked around the wonderful Volumes BookCafé in Wicker Park, searching for words. This was, as it was at the last workshop, an exercise in yearning and frustration: so many things to want, to sit down on the floor with and get lost in. But we had 15 minutes to find 15 words: 5 nouns, 5 verbs, 5 adjectives. The yearning was going to have to wait.
When we dragged ourselves away from the shelves and returned to the table we were instructed to sort our papers into three piles, which Russell then sorted, shuffled, and stacked. We each took one piece of paper from each of the piles, so that we had 15 words in front of us, 5 nouns, 5 verbs, and 5 adjectives, chosen by someone else.
We were again given 15 minutes. We were to sit with the words in front of us, let them percolate, then cobble together a poem, bringing them into a relationship and compelling them to make sense, to arrange themselves in an entirely new way.
*Frantic scribbling ensues*
But then, oh God, about 7 minutes in, Russell says ‘…and now for the curve ball,’ and proceeds to have us pass our nouns to the person to our right, our verbs to the left, and our adjectives across the table, so that we each now have three entirely new lists of words to draw from…for a total of 30 words. Then the frantic scribbling recommences, new words folded in, old ones discarded, a rearrangement of meaning and image and…metaphor.
And voilà: a poem.
Here is mine. At the next workshop I’m going to solicit contributions from other participants; anything they’re willing to share I’ll post in my Anthology section, so stay tuned.
Grandfather in the barber’s chair
Furred clippers revise him
That grumpy, glowing face
That wild hair
An unfettered armadillo once
A crafty crocodile
Furred clippers revised him:
Eyes iced-over jellybeans
His fingers carrots in the dirt
An empty house
An android, vanishing
…a work in progress, but hey, it beats this:
And I feel compelled to add that I think that the goofy scribbles in this old notebook from (okay, fine! I’ll just say it!) 40 years ago propelled me into what I wrote in it on Sunday evening: a series of meditations on growing old. A 54-year-old sidled up to her 14-year-old self and maybe told her a couple of things she’d never have known otherwise, and maybe I learned something from her, too. And now we’re sitting there together, tucked between the worn-out covers of a (79 cent!) composition book.
Inspiration is everywhere.
Thanks, Russell, for another wonderful workshop.
Oh, and Go Cubs!
©Melinda Rooney, 2017