Saying Something: Taking Risks with Poetry

Sarah KortemeierSarah Kortemeier holds an MFA in Poetry from the University of Arizona, and has taught creative writing at the elementary, high school, and university levels. She has published most recently with Folio: A Literary Journal at American University, where her poem "The Holdout" was selected as an Honorable Mention by guest judge Naomi Shihab Nye in Folio's 2011 Poetry Contest. Sarah serves as Library Assistant at the University of Arizona Poetry Center.

Sarah will be teaching an Introduction to Poetry at the Poetry Center on Saturdays at noon from October 29 through December 12.

Risk-taking, with its inherent exhilarations and discomforts, is an integral part of the human experience. And as in life, so in art: good art matters, and poetry that matters demands some vulnerability, some risk, on the part of the writer.  We all have something to say--but "saying something" often requires real bravery. In my introductory writing courses, I try to create an environment in which this kind of constructive risk-taking can happen in a secure, safe environment. Workshop is the poet's best friend: it's the place where writers can try out new ideas on a small, select audience whose main concern is to help the writer succeed. As writers, many of us need the encouragement of the workshop, the safe space and the sensitive readers we encounter there, in order to take the risks that make us better artists. In my upcoming Introduction to Poetry course, we'll encourage each other to make room for the wild associative leaps and flashes of insight that lead to inventive poem-making. We'll work together to move outside our normal patterns of speech and thought, and in the process we'll make some new music and find some exciting new poems. I hope you'll join us!

The following writing exercise [1] is designed to help you "find the surprises" in your poetic descriptions of the world around you. This writing exercise should be spread over a three-day period; the days do not necessarily need to be consecutive. This spacing between the components of the exercise helps to "randomize" the writing, allowing the writer to risk some imaginative leaps.

Day 1

On the first day, take a moment to think about a memory from your childhood that has strong emotional resonance of some kind. Close your eyes. Picture that memory fully. Who was there? What were they wearing? What do you remember about the setting? The objects around you? Can you get close enough to read the headline on the newspaper or see the fraying thread on the jeans? What about your other senses? What do you smell? Hear? Taste or touch?

Open your eyes and write down everything you just remembered. Write in list form, not in complete sentences. Don't worry about individual items' significance or poetic potential; don't worry about making sense or creating a logical order. Just write it all down as quickly as you can.

Day 2

On the second day, choose a place to sit, write, and observe. Look at the scene around you and repeat the exercise above using your actual environment, rather than your memory. How much detail can you capture? How many senses can you utilize? Again, write as quickly as possible. Don't pay attention to the sense of things--just record them.

Day 3

On the third day, examine both of the lists you created in the first two sessions. Begin looking for correspondences, connections, contrasts. What similarities do you see between the lists? What differences? What can these similarities and differences tell you about the person you were as a child? The person you are now? The nature of memory?

Write a poem containing elements from both lists. This poem can directly address the scenes you described in the first parts of the exercise--but it might not. Where do these lists lead you? The only rule is that the poem must utilize sensory detail from both lists; it can be "about" anything you choose. The goal here is to make connections you might not otherwise make and to turn those connections--no matter how strange they seem--into poetry. Hopefully, the poem you write will surprise you in some way.

[1] This exercise owes a great deal to the concept of "guided meditation," which informs a number of published creative writing exercises.

Created on: 
Friday, October 14, 2011
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