A couple of years ago, I found myself growing weary of my own poetic voice, of predictable themes and emotional stances to which I found myself returning. They seemed less like burning preoccupations and more like habits or mannerisms.
For a long time I’ve been a fan of working within structures and their “liberating constrictions,” but I began to grow tired of inspiration itself, or at least, tired of the things that were inspiring me to write poems.
So I began looking for more mechanical processes and stumbled into a technique that I call dis•articulations. It consists of these steps:
- Working from prompts.
Early on, I would draw prompts from phrases in random books I’d pick up. Now, with a desire to have greater engagement/collaboration with others, I ask people for prompts; sometimes I ask my writing students, other times I post requests on Facebook. A prompt might be a single word, a phrase or sentence, the more random the better.
- Fevered Writing.
I learned from author Deena Metzger the technique of “writing faster than you can think,” to let the words pour out without first thinking of what will be said. We try to bypass the rational mind and channel the intuitive mind, where unlikely associations and juxtapositions can occur. Natalie Goldberg talks about this process as “writing meditation”; the goal is to keep the pen moving without stopping to think or discern or edit. A former poetry student of mine, Yvette Beltran, gave it the name “Fevered Writing.”
Each round is timed—3-5 minutes—and begins with a prompt, not a topic, but a trampoline, something to bounce off.
For a dis•articulations poem, I do four rounds of fevered writing, each time using a different prompt.
This is the OCD part of the process: I take apart the four rounds of fevered writing, creating a list of all the nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, pronouns, articles and conjunctions. These lists become the lexicon for my dis•articulations poem.
- Writing the poem.
The lexicon suggests the topic and the form of the poem.
Here are my rules:
• I don’t have to use every word but I cannot add any words.
• I can change verb tenses.
• I can change usage (if in the fevered writing “skin” was a noun, I might allow myself to use it as a verb in the poem).
• I can repeat words even if they only appeared once in the fevered writing.
• The title has to come from the same lexicon.
Throughout 2013 I wrote a new dis•articulations poem each week and published them on a blog: http://disarticulations.wordpress.com. I also posted the prompts, fevered writing, and lists of words.I invited readers to post their own poems created using any of these instructions:
• Let one or more of the prompts inspire the poem.
• Do your own fevered writing to make a poem.
• Use the list of words to construct your poem.
• Write a poem in answer to or inspired by my poem.
My dis•articulations poems seem both me and not me. The random prompts and the stricture of using only the words on the lists alter my voice in a way I find satisfying. I’ve produced poems I would never have gotten to using only inspiration as a guide.
But it’s humbling to note the recurrence of certain words or tropes. It’s fascinating to observe themes that recur in this work and just as interesting to note ideas and images that never seem to enter the work. I have a secret wish that some scholar or graduate student would undertake a study of these poems and see what patterns would emerge when viewed from outside the experience of creating them.
Here’s a sample poem with its associated prompts and lists:
Every day she crawls through a crack
in the psychology of the world,
tends its sores. She knows the industry
of breath, small patience of bones. Hands
contain the blood, keep it from leaking
into the tremulous universe.
She hides her secrets, all she’s seen, but
I can feel trees aflame against her
wide back, stones guarding her jaws, void in
her belly. After, she cannot be
indoors, studies stars until the rain
comes. Swimming in its gold-green light, she
wonders at chance: a house in ruin,
spark and smoke, holes blown into routine,
yet here is her girlfriend, staring up
at leaves raining jewels onto grass,
hand covering hers, moist air pressing
earth spinning past the place of terror.
Stones in the wall – provided by Doug McBride
Alligator light – provided by Sage Bennet
Flat earth – self-generated for a workshop
Mouse psychology – self-generated for a workshop
The Fevered Writings
Stones in the wall are like bones in the hall not like cones at the mall when I’m feeling small. Years ago Colleen said if she were a terrorist she would go to the Mall of America and now terrorists blew up the Mall in Nairobi. Fashion doesn’t last and the sparks rain down among the gold jewelry, the haute couture covered in blood. My girlfriend is a first responder, not in Kenya, but here. She sees the blood of the world; she tends to its sores. The mall is smoking rain now and the cash register is void.
Alligator light like the light in the rain forest. I can feel the humidity pressing like a hand but the light is filtered through the thickness of the trees. It’s like being indoors, so contained am I by the moist air and the leaves and vines all around me, so green, so tremulous and I want to crawl on my belly and swing my tail, greet the world with wide smiling jaws, grow scales, and large pointed teeth and swim in the rivers not yet set aflame from the industry encroaching.
Mouse psychology is the study of being very small and stealthy. It’s like keeping a secret of one’s existence and hiding in places no one thinks to look. The mouse feels its belly against the grass, feels the sun on its back, feels the cat’s breath on it’s neck. The cat wants to play but doesn’t know her own strength. She would chase it all afternoon but the mouse will find a hiding place under the house. Through the crack in the foundation he stares out at the world. The cat guards the hole – she has patience until she hears the call for dinner.
Flat earth like a ball with the air leaking earth is leaking into the universe spinning off our course past stars and the space monkeys who ride their bicycles through outer space. I wonder if I’ll go when the aliens come to me. I’m usually up for an adventure, the change to see something new but I also love my routines. I’d miss yoga and gardening and my girlfriend and my cat, Annie. I’m neurotic even when I leave her for a week always asking the pet sitter to text me a photo every day, sometimes calling her on the phone.
NOUNS – mouse (3), psychology, study, secret, existence, places (2), belly (2), grass, sun, back, cat (4), breath, neck, strength, afternoon, house, crack, foundation, world (3), hole, patience, call, dinner, earth (2), ball, air (2), universe, course, stars, space (2), monkeys, bicycles, aliens, adventure, chance, something, routines, yoga, girlfriend (2), Annie, week, pet, sitter, photo, day, phone, alligator, light (3), rain, forest, humidity, hand, thickness, trees, leaves, vines, tail, jaws, scales, teeth, rivers, industry, stones, wall, bones, hall, cones, mall (4), years, Colleen, terrorist (2), America, Nairobi, fashion, sparks, jewelry, haute couture, blood (2), responder, Kenya, sores, ruin, cash, register
VERBS – is (8), being (2), keeping, hiding (2), thinks, look, feels (5), wants (2), play, does not (2), know, would (3), chase, will (2), find, stares, guards, has, hears, leaking (2), spinning, ride, wonder, go (2), come, am (4), see (2), love, miss, gardening, leave, asking, text, calling, can, pressing, filtered, contained, crawl, swing, greet, grow, swim, set, encroaching, are, said, were blew, last, rain, covered, tends, smoking
ADJECTIVES/ADVERBS – very, small (2), stealthy, no, own, all (2), out, flat, off, outer, up (2), new, neurotic, even, every, moist, green, tremulous, wide, smiling, large, pointed, not (3), yet, aflame, ago, down, gold, first void, always (2), past, who, when (3) usually, also, sometimes, now (2), here
PREPOSITIONS – of (5), like (7), in (8), to (8), against, on (4), under, through (3), at (2), until, for (3), with (2), into, if (2), by, indoors, around, from, among
PRONOUNS – if (3), one (2), its (4), her (2), she (7), he, our, their, I (11), me (3), my (6)
ARTICLES – the (44), a (9); CONJUNCTIONS – and (15), but (5), so (3)
Terry Wolverton is the author of ten books of poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction, most recently Wounded World: lyric essays about our spiritual disquiet. She’s the founder of Writers At Work, a creative writing studio in Los Angeles, and Affiliate Faculty in the MFA Writing Program at Antioch University Los Angeles. Tweets @TerryLWolverton.