Blackout/Whiteout

From the ‘Pop-up Poetry’ series of workshops sponsored by StoryStudio Chicago
(http://www.storystudiochicago.com)
Sunday, April 9, 2017
taught by C. Russell Price
(http://www.english.northwestern.edu/people/faculty/russell-price.html)

I promised the poet who taught the workshop that I would not steal any ideas. They laughed and said ‘Oh, steal them! Steal anything you want!’

All writers are thieves, after all, and the prizes we treasure most are words.

The workshop consisted of two parts.

Part One: Blackout

Step One
Two back issues of two different literary magazines were passed around the table, and we were instructed to open each at random and rip out a page. We each cringed a little, all avid writers and readers, loath to defile a book. All the same we closed our eyes, flinched, and tore. IMG_3307

Step Two
We were instructed to read quickly over them and cross out all of the words that didn’t ‘jump out’ at us.

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Step Three
Giving us 7-10 minutes, C. Russell instructed us to rapidly compose a piece consisting of the words we had not crossed out, going back and forth between the two pages from the two different magazines, dovetailing words together.

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Step Four
We went around the table, each reading our pieces aloud. I wish I’d thought to pull out my phone and film it (though that might have been met with protest, so maybe it’s just as well).  I wish I’d captured the amazement on both readers’ and listeners’ faces as we heard what we’d written spoken aloud, how each piece cohered, flowed, meant. Our instructor listened intently, scribbling madly as we read, noting one or another striking image, association, emotion, larger meaning. Then they read theirs to us, for as all good teachers do, they had done the same work right alongside the students.

Part Two: Whiteout

We repeated Steps One, Two, and Three, with three variations:

  • First, rather than using the pages we had torn out and marked up, we marked them up then passed them to the person sitting next to us, so each of us had an entirely unfamiliar set of words to work with.
  • Second, we got up and wandered around the bookstore where the workshop was being held, picking up one book and then another at random, choosing five words that jumped out at us and writing them down on another piece of paper. We then returned to the table and exchanged those.
  • Third, we were given 7 minutes to compose a poem out of the available material, but this time we had to ‘whiteout’: impose connecting words of our own to cobble together the un-crossed-out ones (and remember, they’d been chosen by someone else!) on the page. This was *really hard*.

Step Four
We went around the table, each reading our pieces aloud.  And while everyone agreed that this exercise was much more difficult than the previous one (we were using words we had not chosen, had been asked to impose words of our own onto them and cobble meaning together), on the whole, again, there it was: the same amazing experience, the same amazed reactions.

We had destroyed, then created; defaced and repaired; unwoven, then rewoven, obliterated meaning and brought it to life again in an entirely new form, with an entirely surprising shape.

How did that happen?

One of us spoke of how desperate we are for meaning, that we will seek it, and find it, or, failing that, insist on making it, in, or out of, the most random collections of things. We talked about how there are stories in everything, just waiting to be told.  We talked about how nice it was-as writers constantly worrying over our work, the possibility of eventual success, the inevitability of failure and rejection and the effortful determination to shake it off and stick with the work- to return to the thing that had made us want to be writers in the first place: the pure joy of literally playing with words. I thought about the freedom that rules and strictures make possible. I thought about how lonely writing feels, when the truth is it is about as communal as it gets: we are immersed in conversation with our characters, with one another, with (ideally!) our readers, with all of the writers and words we’ve ever read; the authors of the pages we’d marked up were, in a way, sitting there at the table with us. Would they be annoyed at our appropriation, our desecration of their carefully wrought pages? Possibly. I’ll admit I might’ve been. But I suspect not.  ‘Oh, steal them!’ they might have said. ‘Steal anything you want!’  After all, we weren’t stealing their voices. We weren’t appropriating their meaning. We weren’t telling their stories; only they can do that.  We were simply playing with the words they’d played with too, arranging them like Legos into something entirely new. We were recycling.

Think of the possibilities, C. Russell said: medical textbooks, cookbooks, travel magazines, each of them using words in very different ways: technical, descriptive, instructive, lyrical. Think of pulling words willy-nilly from each or all, mashing them together and seeing what surprising things simmer to the surface. I wish I had all of the pieces generated there to share here; I wish I had the pages so I could show you, up close, the scribbled ground from which the pieces grew.

Here’s what I do have.

Blackout
or
Motherhood: A Log of Regrets

Oh, litany and happy prospect,
You’re just like your father.
A peasant.

The press of many matters,
The South Seas,
The Sandwich Islands

Stop it, mother

Seizures
Amusement
Self-Pity
Invective
A volunteer fireman!

Stop it, mother

Your haircut of a father
A demigod, numinous, biblical, divine.
How could this have been my life?

Physical afflictions
A glass on the table
A pleasure and an honor
Grindingly dull, adrift on seas of island flowers
A hundred days

The press of many matters

A slow, meditative cloud
Wallows: malign, aggressive, fractured images
A shining past, exalted primogeniture
it might cost you a nickel-
Conjuring the myth.

You’re just like your father
A schooner, a captain, two crewmen, a second novelist

You must not call me, Mr. Stevenson. 

Whiteout
or
Passing the Bar

Perfect glasses, black and grey
The lawyer pursed her lips

Viewed the statue.
Remembering brick,
She said
 ‘There is one thought enough to kill me.’ 

She sets up her easel
Loud, marigold-colored paint
Pink and candy-blue,
Hydrangea bushes.
‘I don’t understand,’ she says,
‘all of the beauty and fashion of Rome.’

‘I can end this terror,
This posthumous existence, the sweat of 
Those boys.’
In the name of profit, she turns,
Questioning potted honey lilies and spiderplants:
‘Who is to say that I’m not a criminal myself?’

Indigestible words
Earliest days in Rome

Everything I have reminds me of her. 

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©Melinda Rooney, 2017

[For other workshops like these, and other writers’ resources in Chicago, please see http://www.storystudiochicago.com. Many thanks to Jill Pollack, founder and director, and all who work there, for what they make happen. Special thanks to C. Russell Price, *from whom I shamelessly stole*]

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