Sunday, January 31, 2010


31ยบ and ice-melting sun, dripping water music

On Tuesday, I'm traveling down I-40 to visit Hendrix College and lead a Murphy Foundation ShopTalk poetry workshop for eight students. I'm honored to have been asked and delighted to attend. Interacting with beginning writers is one of my favorite things to do. In preparation, I typed up a list of some of my favorite writing exercises. Here's what I came up with.

**Many of these ideas were stolen from other poets or created in collaboration with Angie Macri and Tara Bray.

1. Random generator: Take a text you love and start listing all the "good" words you can find, strong nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Jump around the pages. This is called a Word Bank. Try to get at least 50 words, but not more than 70. Number the list (I just mark every 5th word with its number). Go to and use the random number generator. Generate two numbers in a row and write out the corresponding words from your list. Do this until you get a dozen or so pairs (it's okay if some of the words get used more than once). Once you have a good selection of pairings, lines should begin to suggest themselves based on the random words. Draft away.

2.Take any line of a poem or story that you love, change two – four words in the line (depending on length) and make it the first line of a new draft.

3. Browse a good dictionary (preferably the OED) and find 5 words you hadn't known before. Copy out the words and their definitions in your journal. Draft a poem that includes two of the new words.

4. Pick a shape and let that shape influence the form of the poem. For instance, if you pick a pentagon, then draft a poem of 5 stanzas of 5 lines each. The first line of the first stanza could be repeated (with slight variation) as the second line of the second stanza, the third of the third, and so on, allowing for slight variations in the repetition.

5. The fun-house mirror exercise. Draft a poem (no requirements) or choose a poem you’ve already drafted. Now, draft a reflection of that poem as seen in a fun-house mirror; in other words, distort the form and the content of the first draft. The second poem should be, loosely, related to the first in theme. You may repeat a few phrases but the second poem should stand on its own. For example, if the original is made of tercets with long lines, try writing a reflection that has stanzas of six lines alternated with tercets. Try for short lines.

6. Pick a body part. Write a poem not only inspired by or about that body part, but in a form suggested by it.

7. Great writer’s block breaker. Read one poem each from three of your favorite writers and generate a word bank of 50 - 70 words (see #1). Then, using the words from your Word Bank, complete this Mad Lib style poem. The goal is to make it as wildly imaginative as possible. Do not insert a word that would be expected.
[Name of a city] [adjective], [adjective]
Your streets are made of [noun] and [noun]
Your language sounds like [verb-ing] [noun]
At night you dream of [adjective] [noun] and [noun]
[Repeat city name], your people [verb] at [time of day]
You are jealous of [name another city, country, ocean, or geographic landmark]
for its willingness to [verb]
[Repeat city name] [adjective], [adjective]
Now take off from there. Do you see a line or two that could become the beginning of a poem? You can change the [Name of a city] to anything really: [Inanimate object], [Animal], [Object in the sky], etc. and adapt the lines from there. The point is to get your brain playing with language.

8. Mad Lib from another text. Pick a text that is not poetry. This could be a textbook, a newspaper article, a piece of junk mail. Copy out three to five sentences from the text. Now cut out all the nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs. You should be left with a scaffold of articles, prepositions, conjunctions, and etc. Fill in the blanks from one of your Word Banks or with words of your own. Then REVISE your new lines into a poem, adding on to whatever the original text generated. (This exercise should get you focused on syntax.)

Enjoy if you will; ignore if you won't.


drew said...

Sandy - So good to revisit these ideas (thanks to a link of Molly Spencer's blog). That MadLibs prompt is great -- just tried it. Good to get rattled with unexpected words.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Thanks, Drew!
Glad it shook something up.