1. Using Documents as a Source
Take a document – perhaps a newspaper article, a photograph, a legal document, a map.
Look carefully at the document, not its content. As you examine the substance, note down colours, shapes, tactile properties and textures. Does the printing lift the fibres of the paper, or cut into the threads? Is the dried paint raised from the surface? Are there wax or embossed seals? What colour is the ink? Is it constant or are there inconsistencies? Is it cracked or crumpled, folded, ironed smooth, slightly damp?
Now look at the content of the document. Summarise it in perhaps five words, perhaps six. Is it legal, entertaining, graphic, dangerous, liberating? Add to the list what emotions you feel when you “view” it (that might be looking at a picture, reading words, interpreting symbols, feeling braille).
What is the content of the document? Precis the pamphlet, painting, diagram down to a few key words, again five or six.
You now have some understanding of the document summarised in a few phrases and perhaps a dozen words. You have the root of a poem.
You now need a subject for the poem. The subject might be immediately obvious to you – but avoid it if it is because this is a creative exercise which should stretch you. Instead, look for a subject that is linked to the document but is not immediately involved. If the document is a map, what creatures inhabit the landscape? If the document is a computer manual, who and what might be printing out right now? If the document is an auction catalogue, who owned item 329 and why are the bidders so interested in it?
Now you have a subject, some words and phrases and all you have to do is select from them and write the poem. Start off in free form, then try to put in some structure, stanzas or groupings of ideas, rhythm and rhyme. Play with punctuation, enjambment, caesure.
Polish, edit and embellish as required.
Some examples of the results in this blog are 1:25000, On seeing a newspaper picture of Sir Thomas Bouch.
2. Connecting through the Substratum
Look at something: scenery, an animal or construction.
Describe its surface appearance in a short list.
What holds the surface in shape? What makes the skeleton, the material that fills the gaps between the skeleton and the surface, the underlying material? Again, describe each of these in a short list.
Dig deeper. Is there anything that is similar to that skeleton? Is the filler material used to make other objects? What comes to mind when you look at your lists. Look for the underlying commonality.
Extend the exercise by searching for items with a varience, perhaps the same surface but produced by a different underlying structure, or the same shaped skeleton but a different filler which produces a different surface as a result. List these items.
Extend the exercise further by looking for very different objects that share just one of these things in common. List these together with how this commonality shows in the different objects.
You might want to look at mind maps to extend the exercise even further.
Or perhaps you might look for a more emotional response by asking yourself how understanding what lies beneath the skin helps you understand the object. Perhaps it explains how the object behaves or why it has a particular atttraction. Write these down in short bursts.
Perhaps it stirs up old memories. Meditate on these.
Now write about any one of these items with this understanding, or a cluster of items to reveal their commonality and differences.
This exercise is very simple in essence, but offers scope for considerable creative activity.
Some examples of the results in this blog are Shell, Cool (Sharks) and Sick Child (Flying).
This exercise can be conducted in different ways, but the essence is the same no matter how the exercise is conducted.
Choose a character. The character may be selected from a list, which may be general or constrained to a particular group. For example, if the poem is to be polemic, perhaps a list of politicians or philosophers. You could list chatacters over a period and use that selection for the exercise. Characters may be fictional or historic, found by observation in the street, maybe randomised by taking images from a newspaper. You may have a favourite, or a muse.
Describe the character. Concentrate first on what they are famous for, or why they have been included in the list. Then describe their demeanour. Move on to their social context. What are they wearing, and what does that tell you? Do you care about them, and why? Where might they live, or work? Spend a minute or two, no more, on each of these. Add other detail if you want to, but do not get too detailed. You now have a knowledge of your character. Put it aside for the moment.
At some other time, select a location possibly but not necessarily fixed in space and time. You could choose somewhere very specific, like the bottom of your garden (or mine, even) or the cupboard under the stairs. It could be very general, Australia perhaps, or somewhere in the city. You can select a landscape, forest or canyon, high veldt or deep ocean trench. Or you might randomly select from postcards you have collected, pictures in a book or google maps.
Describe the location rather like you described the character previously. What is the location famous for, what do they look like, what life exists there and how does it conduct itself? Would you like to live there, and why?
Collect a resevoir of characters and locations over a few days. I have found if I collect over too long a period I lose interest, but you may want to keep a logbook for a longer period. In a workshop, five minute jottings collected over a morning or shared between participants might be more practical.
To write the poem, take a character and put it into a location out of its normal context. The exercise is about dislocation. Now describe the interaction. Examine the behaviour, the emotions, the sensations of the character in this location. Examine the reactions of inhabitants of the location to the character. How did the character get there, what might the future hold?
Of course, the exercise can be simplified. It may not be practical for each participant to collect a resevoir of characters and locations so the facilitator might present lists from which one character and one location can be selected, either by participant preference or blind.
In my first experience of this exercise, I ended up with a trapeze artist and a high street. I still have the poem that resulted, and am quite pleased with it.
Some examples of the results in this blog are Marilyn does not Travel in the Back Seat of a Car and Pasifika Queen Mab
Choose a single, very definite object for your subject. The more well defined the object, the easier this exercise becomes. “Grandfather’s engraved pocket watch” is a better subject than “an old pocket watch”, which is better than “clocks” which is better than “time passing”.
The easy, and more conventional, part of this exercise is to list at least ten adjectives that may be associated with the subject. Now list the opposite of those adjectives.
Keep the original list of adjectives to use for a different poem but, in this exercise, use it only as a guide of words to avoid. You may prefer to throw it away if it proves to be a distraction. Instead, describe the subject of your poem using only the opposites.
Now create the poem. If you are short of time, a list poem may be satisfying, but the exercise is meant to be a creative process, so you might want to expand the scope a little, perhaps to events that did not happen, potential owners who never existed, potential for the subject that will never actually happen, use your imagination! Add a positive or two if you must, but try to tightly define the subject of your poem by what it is not, rather than what it is.
Cool (Sharks) is an example of a poem based on a list of ten positive adjectives. Sealed Tombs is an example of a poem based on opposites.
5. Foreground, Midground and Background
A technique in many artworks is to split the image into several planes, such as foreground, midground and background. Japanese prints work well – Hiroshige is a good example.
Select an image, possibly a photograph, painting, postcard.
Note only the background. Look carefully at the scenery for the overall location, for the light and weather, for hints of the past or future. These observations will guide the piece. You may want to use them for a final stanza.
Note the main foreground features, ask where they place the observer, how they frame the picture, how they affect the atmosphere. Write the first stanza of the poem using these notes to set the tone.
Now move to the midground, ignoring the fore- and background. Who is involved, what are they displaying, why are they there? Search out the story they are narrating. Write the main narrative of the poem.
If you are writing a sonnet, summarise with a overall impression of the image, perhaps reflecting further on your own impressions.
A variation on this theme can be found in St Francis and the Birds.
(If you feel particularly adventurous, try selecting two different images and use the foreground and background of one with the midground of the other. This adds the dimension of dislocation to the poem.)