WRITING THROUGH: A WRITING EXERCISE FOR POETS
Joshua Michael Stewart is a poet and musician who has had poems published in the Massachusetts Review, Salamander, Plainsongs, Brilliant Corners, and many others.
His books are, Break Every String, (Hedgerow Books, 2016) and, The Bastard Children of Dharma Bums, (Human Error Publishing, 2020).
His albums, Three Meditations, and Ghost in the Room, can be found on Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon, and many other platforms. Visit his web site at www.joshuamichaelstewart.com, or better yet, interact with him at www.facebook.com/joshua.m.stewart.526/.
For this column Joshua will explore poetry, music, and Buddhism, and how they all intersect with each other. He will delve into assorted poetic forms and he will specifically highlight contemporary poets from the New England area, and the poets associated with classical Japanese and Chinese poetry.
WRITING THROUGH: A WRITING EXERCISE FOR POETS
After my first book, Break Every String, was published, the last thing I wanted to do was to go back to staring at blank pages and try to come up with a new poem out of thin air. It took me 17 years to write my first book, and by the end all that was me, history, memory, and feelings were wrung out of me dry. Quite honestly, I had no desire to write about “me.”
I envied visual artists and musicians and how it’s easier for them to get started creating something new. A painter can find a beautiful landscape, set down an easel, and start painting; a musician can make up a few chord changes, or hell, take the chord changes from an existing song and write a new melody—the harmonic structure giving the musician a roadmap to determine what notes and scales to choose from.
Yes, a poet too can find a mountain range and “paint it.” A poet can select a poetic form that will give music and shape to the poem they write, but it’s just not the same. In a poem, you have to do more than just paint a pretty picture. A poetic form may tell you how many stanzas your poem will have, but does you no good if you have no idea what to put in them stanzas.
I was hungry for a new way to write, a new way to approach the process of creating. Somewhere along the way, I stumbled across an idea by John Cage. His idea was that the best way to pay tribute to another writer was to create new work using said writer’s own work. John Cage produced the poem “Writing Through Howl” by taking Allen Ginsburg’s poem, “Howl” and feeding it through a computer algorithm which then spat out a new poem rearranging the words used in the poem. Cage’s poem is far too abstract and conceptual for my taste, but I was inspired by his attempt to come up with a new way of writing.
Based on Cage’s idea, I came up with my own “Writing Through” method which is as follows:
1. Pick a writer you admire that has at least three or more books.
2. Read through the books and jot down words, phrases, entire lines—whatever catches your eye & heart. Be sure to keep different columns for the material you collect from each book.
3. Once you have your raw material your job is to create sentences (not lines) and as you create each sentence your focus should be on that sentence alone. At this point do not concern yourself with how the sentences may or may not connect with each other. You create these sentences by taking let’s say, half a line from book one and mashing it with half a line from book three, and then switch out a verb and/or a noun with verbs and nouns from book two. This is just one example of how to create a sentence, the combinations are endless.
4. Now that you have your sentences this is where you try to connect them to create your poem. More than likely you will have to do more cutting, adding, and twisting of sentences to make them fit into a poem. You may also have to create your own lines to link sentences together. Do whatever you need to do to make the poem work. Be prepared to completely disregard some of the sentences you created. Lastly, of course, you can figure out the rhythm of your poem and break it into lines.
Using this method gave me something tangible to work with. I hope you try it and have fun with it, maybe creating your own variation of the method. My forthcoming collection, Love Something, has a handful of these “Writing Through” poems sprinkled throughout the collection. Below are two examples.
HOMAGE BY WAY OF WRITING THROUGH THE WORKS OF A MENTOR
For Ellen Doré Watson
My mother never wished for her sons
to stop painting the world’s moans
You were a blooming brush stroke
to the canvas. Like my brother
I could see the Taj Mahal
in the grain of an oak pew.
Unlike my brother I’m no splinter
inside the smooth wood.
I know my trees.
I know your barn boards and the shed
moving towards ruin.
I know your poems
living in my lungs.
Because of you, I’ll notice
every exploded headlight in the endless parking lot.
The trouble with the space between us
is it’s a sadness made beautiful over time.
The man who loves
my mother’s wonderful dark hair
is all shallow breath and false teeth.
My stepfather says she’s a woman
with an iron mind standing in an ornery river.
Her outbursts are haphazard scattershot
appropriate in a chaotic universe.
She says with each passing day
he looks more and more like a rusty earthmover.
Bless the brain
that never wanted a glamorous job.
He eats her leftover donuts and heartache.
If she were milk, she’d be sour on his breath.
Their ugly intentions grew too big
for the skin of their house.
They’re not allowed to live in the same nursing home.
She wants to know if they broke the things
they thought they could save.
Forgive me if I miss her wild blueberries.
I’ve removed pain by hacking at daylilies unworthy
of a place in the body’s garden.
What are poems
if they don’t flip the switch
from trying to forget to wish to remember?
I’m forgetting how to stutter guiltily
through life. I’m learning how to belong
with clumsy and disobedient crows.
I refuse to think about the hundred and thirty-eight ladybugs I’ve killed.
My arms are always full of eggshells.
You’ve given me so many dumb
I’ll remember gentle.
You found me a white heap
of dough, and tonight I’m cooking to West-coast jazz
with no thought of waiting out the big storm alone.
the catbird’s nonsense and forbidden love’s sweet birdcage.
It doesn’t matter
who’s upstairs holding Polaroids of my nakedness.
What I bring to bed is a ticker-tape parade.
What I bring to bed is the howling in the chimney.
I’m just another band geek
blaring Ode to Joy, through the car stereo.
I must shape a planet in my hands
and I come to this with only nine good fingers.
Ellen, you said, try to push back
the tangible. Be properly scared.
Be here first.
WRITING THROUGH THE WORK OF ANOTHER POET NAMED STEWART
For Pamela Stewart
In our house everyone slept on hard floors
in rooms full of chilly faces. No one was taught
how to howl or to speak our whirling light
in a raucous world always brightened by fire.
I begged for the family Bible’s burning,
unraveling hurt page by page. Hell flickers
in the throats of fallen birds. Dust on tongues,
how long must we wait for ashes?
I was seven when the man who was the father
delved into an icy hole in the lake
and faded from our lives like a sliver of light
adrift in the russet shade of an autumn afternoon.
The mouse behind the stove slowly stirs
in her nest of scrap paper, pine needles,
and dryer sheets. In the corner of the room,
my young bride begins to hum old songs
full of sorrow and desperate hunger.
As she slips off her skirt of winter moonlight,
her mouth opens, darkness breathes,
and blesses everything. I keep losing
her hand beneath the table. I press a hand
against a cold window. How attentive
are the spiders who live in the corners
of the sills. When human touch fails,
buttercups extend their hard luster—
this is what marriage means to me today.
Mama hums Easter hymns in the chicken yard
as she plucks breastbone away from feathers.
She pours bowls of soup at the church supper.
Washes vegetables, peels apples, fills
the ghost’s mouth with bread. At home, she hides
her first love’s kisses under the doormat,
flings sheets over prayers she keeps in a room
no one enters. Up in the attic, she stows away
a handful of men in cardboard boxes, drapes
a blanket over a rocking-chair shaped like Father.
Birds sing wet songs smudged by midsummer heat.
Black cows enter the barn, chewing their cuds.
In Hawley, Massachusetts, a Tibetan man told me
Death’s long fingers root through his hair.
Sometimes summer smells like warm, soapy water.
Mama’s thin scent of August dusk drifts downwind
toward the churchyard cemetery. Returning home,
my mind strays toward the lullabies we never sang.
A scrabble of tulips bloom on the edge of a plowed field.
A dog runs silently behind Mama’s strained voice.
Main Street Rag Publishing Company has decided to publish my book Love Something. It’s due to be released later this year and will sell for $15 + shipping, but you can get it for $9+ by placing an advance discount order at the MSR Online Bookstore before it goes to press.
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