Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Cut-up Poetry Scrabble


“What a great game for creative writing classes. It’s so postmodern, too.”

1. Preparation:
Each player cuts up words from newspaper or magazine articles.
Some players may try to control the process by only selecting words they have an affection for or otherwise hold in high esteem. This is to their peril, since it is a competition and one finds (dare I say without exception) that such planting of preconceived contexts into a would-be unconscious cache of words leads to prose of a single context rather than lyric poetry, which one would hope echoes and entertains multiple contexts.
For instance, if a player thinks, "ah-ha, I'm only going to choose exotic-sounding words from an article on Rio de Janeiro," without plain words to diversely tether them in their exotic orbit, they may seem a bit silly altogether. If the language is entirely from an article on a crime investigation or a court trial, even in fragments the story will quickly show through. In this way, the cache of words must be sufficiently large and diverse. I recommend at minimum 60 words from diverse articles or sources.

2. Each player places the words in a paper bag or other container and shakes it up good, shuffling all the words.

3. Each player blindly selects 7 words and begins working on a poem from them.
The facilitator can go around policing the process player by player for fun and to remind them that there are no bad words or good words, that the process is random with a purpose of learning to appreciate the sparks provides by words from diverse areas.

4. By the time you have gone around the room focusing on each student's random selection of 7 words, the first player should have a poem ready and read it to the group.
If the facilitator is a teacher, perhaps make suggestions such as: "as an experiment, what if you switched these two words?" (I was able to coax a student into moving a cockroach nearby a satellite, drawing out amusing possibilities with all the waving antennae and all.) Marvel at the variety of contexts. One poem in the very first round had the dullest array of words one could imagine, but was perhaps the best poem in combination! Why? It included a wife surveying a bank, thus creating in a short space very condensed metonymical evocation of a troubled marriage or other worries.

5. Each player should record their poem in each round.
Later one can examine the changes and learn about the impact of having more words in a poem, connotations, and contexts. Most importantly, recording the poem liberates one to experiment more and let go of prior achievements and associations and move on to new ones.

6. After reading it, the player blindly selects 3 more words from their cache and reworks their poem.

7. This process of going around goes on until players get bored. We went on for 4 rounds, limited by class time (nearly two hours).

8. Players can present their best versions and vote on the top one (or three, etc.) if you like.

Suggestions and Rules for Cutting and Drawing Words and Phrases
Choose texts from a variety of sources. For dabbling prose-writers and others who may be drawn to foreshadowing and trying to maintain control of the range of available words, my advice is to mix in diction from diverse contexts into your word heap. The sack of words should become the compost for your surrogate memory or unconsciousness-in-a-bag. Toss all sorts of words into this bucket you'll be drawing on.

When cutting, you can leave articles and prepositions and any funny phrasing that carries an idiomatic ring, but avoid phrases that contain two primary parts of speech, such as a noun and verb or a verb and an object, unless such a pairing is within an obviously attachable clause from which you have cut it off. Part of the fun is in recombining such phrases in new contexts.

When drawing and arranging words:
• You don't have to use all your words.
• You can fold back words, prepositions, articles you don't want to use. You can tear words from phrases.
• You can add preposition and articles as needed for flow or fluency.
• You can use words on the front or back of the piece you draw, folding away whatever words or letters you don't want to use.
• You can change the tense and agreement of verbs so as to form continuous phrases.

In a way, this process mimics how we read and digest phrases and words and redistribute them in lines of poetry. Such poets and Ron Silliman seem to do this habitually, transferring overheard speech and other observations to notebooks and eventually to lines of verse.

Teaching a creative writing course this semester, I wanted to try a new method for demonstrating to students—through active practice—lessons about combining words from different contexts as found in everyday language. In past Japanese literature courses I had spent a class indulging in linked poetry (renga), where students followed formal requirements for the placement of certain season words and such, drawing on a long bilingual Japanese-English lexicon arranged by season. Teaching in Taiwan and having no Japanese students in the class and no Chinese-English lexicon of this sort, I decided it might be too troublesome to introduce Japanese poetry as such. But, I still wanted to impart some similar lesson in combining fixed phrases and words somewhat randomly to create non-narrative, lyric poetry. Japanese linked poetry is structured to inhibit narrative continuity while indexing familiar categories. As such, it intimates jostling contexts and creates tensions that spark readers’ imaginations and often make for interesting lines of poetry. Moreover, by using contemporary newspapers as the primary source for the pools of words, one is virtually guaranteed to avoid the ahistorical tendencies prevalent in bourgeois poetry in this age of advanced consumerism (and militarism) in many English-speaking contexts.

Luckily, beside linked poetry there are other traditions of random word use that can provide points of reference:

• Surrealist poet-painter party activities such as drawing exquisite corpses: a body drawn on sections of a folded piece of paper so that each artist cannot see the other body part, and the resulting amusement comes from seeing the variety of possibilities for imagining a conventional thing, a body (for examples, please see the Surrealism exhibit in the permanent collection at the Chicago Art Institute Museum).

• Another example, much closer to our needs, is John Cage’s experimental poetry which employed I-ching fortunetelling methods or computers variously and systematically to randomize selected ranges of words from long prose works (such as a Joyce novel) and arrange the selections—the length of which would be randomly fixed by whichever instrument of selection he was using in the experimental writing process—on an anagrammatic axis. He called these "mesostics."

• The game of Scrabble, with its opening "seven tiles" is a good prime number to start with.

I wanted to combine the regulated randomness of Cage with an awareness of contextual (primarily seasonal and topical) connotations in linked poetry to liberate students from the narrow understanding of poetry as simple expressions of an "I" that we learn about in the course of studying literature. Maybe it is a way to wean us from the unconscious imitation of the posings of writers in the canon and sound fixated on our internal musings often presented in rather grandiose terms. In our world today, consciousness is particularly overrun with a broad range of items competing for our attention, and to write poetry fixed only on the snails crossing our paths as we ride our scooters through the graveyard at night may be too limited in focus. To write in a way engaged in contemporary life, anyways, I thought a good idea, and Cut-up Poetry Scrabble is the result that I wish to introduce.

Here is my first attempt at the game:

Already paid within the family,
social swans in the 1950s were trying to build
"a sense of soul" into second-term schools
in accordance with first-term nations of 2002.
Based on a fragrance empire of September
and commissioned by a heritage differing
from the unwillingness to hold a diploma, emotional
directors quoted schools within the legend.

P.S. Please let me know about your experiences with the game, how it goes. (interpoetics AT hotmail dot com)

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