Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Unintelligible Poems & Writer's Block

How many times have you read a poem where you have absolutely no idea what it's about? Interesting metaphors and playful wording aside, the poet has failed to communicate its meaning. "I don't get it," the reader says. "What exactly are you trying to SAY here?"

I was told by a poet once that poets shouldn't have to "explain" their poems. Either you get it or you don't. Sometimes, even when you don't understand the entire poem, it resonates enough that you go back to it again and again. Other times you simply shake your head in disbelief at how stupid and nonsensical it sounds (to you) and wonder what exactly qualified it to receive a prize when you could name at least a dozen infinitely better ones.

Today's blogpost is actually about creativity and writer's block, though. Sometimes it's hard to come up with subjects for a new poem or story. I've noticed that the process of critiquing and editing another person's writing is sometimes tackled with far more enthusiam and engagement than having to sit down and write one oneself. Why is that? How to take that burst of energy and turn it into creativity toward one's own writing--that is the challenge.

So I devised a little exercise for just that purpose.

The Rules:

From the following list of 40 towns, cities or states, construct three separate, unrelated poems. Start from the first item and go down the list, one by one, until you reach the last one, San Diego. You must proceed chronologically--Do Not Skip, Substitute or Scramble Names.

Each item in the list must be spelled phonetically, and can be used as another noun, a verb or an exclamation.

Oh, and one other thing: Each poem must contain a little "story".

The list:

Youngstown (OH)
Williamsport (PA)
Spokane (WA)
Saginaw (MI)
Wheeling (WV)
Cambridge (MA)
Springfield (IL)
Green Bay (WI)
Rhode Island
Long Beach (CA)
Carson City (NV)
Minneapolis (MN)
Erie (PA)
Rochester (NY)
Winchester (MA)
Roanoke (VA)
Salem (OR)
New Jersey
Newark (NJ)
Butte (MT)
Saratoga (NY)
Honolulu (HI)
Juneau (AK)
Phoenix (AZ)
Cincinnati (OH)
Richmond (VA)
San Diego (CA)

Here's what I came up with for the first one:

“Young’s town!,
William’s port!”
spoke Ann, sag in awe,
wheeling yellow stone.
Came bridge,
spring, field,
green bay.

Arken saw:
road, island,
long beach, cars in city,
mini-apple ... us.

(Using the first 15 items on the list: Youngstown; Williamsport; Spokane; Saginaw; Wheeling; Yellowstone; Cambridge; Springfield; Green Bay; Arkansas; Rhode Island; Long Beach; Carson City; Minneapolis; Erie)

Oh dear, the end product sounds like those little magnetized word thingies you stick on the refrigerator and rearrange to make a cute (usually nonsensical) poem or sentence.

Okay, what is this poem ABOUT? Here's where your creative exercise comes in. Write a short synopsis telling a reader what the poet probably had in mind when he/she wrote this abominable poem. Haven't a clue? Then improvise.

It's not about deciphering its actual meaning--it's about overcoming writer's block by seeing if you can create Something out of Nothing,
such that you come up with (1) a plot for a future short story, or (2) an idea for a publishable poem, or (3) a similar word-play exercise that gets your creative juices flowing again.

So here's my interpretation of
Poem No. 1 (repeated, for benefit of interpretation below):

“Young’s town!,
William’s port!”
spoke Ann, sag in awe,
wheeling yellow stone.
Came bridge,
spring, field,
green bay.

Arken saw, :
road, island,
long beach, cars in city,
mini-apple ... us.

Orphaned siblings named Ann and Arken arrive at a crossroads with their only possessions, a pile of yellow bricks left over from their recently burnt-down house. They are somewhat alarmed to note that it leads to the city of their cruel arch-enemy, Dr. Young and his evil brother, William. On the bridge into town they see a field, a spring, and a peaceful bay. The boy Arken notices a road leading to a far-off island with a beautiful beach but it’s too far away and they’re suddenly very tired. They’re actually heading towards the city at rush hour so the streets are full of traffic. Arken is hungry and finds some discarded fruit--not enough for the both of them, however. He dreams of going to the island and, overcome with emotion, reflects on their sad plight, which seems to him rather dream-like and a trifle bizarre.

Here's Poem No. 2:
Tennis! See?
Rah, Chester!
Win, Chester!

Row an oak, Virginia!

Sail em!

(Using the next 6 items on the list: Tennessee; Rochester; Winchester; Roanoke; Virginia; Salem).

An activities director at a recreation facility for sports-challenged individuals takes a guy named Chester on a tour of the tennis courts, pairs him up with a partner, and encourages him to set a new record. Then he saunters over to the lake and instructs a woman new to boating how to maneuver the oars, which are--because this is an exclusive resort--made of expensive, hand-carved wood. But the woman isn’t paying attention; she’s laid the oars aside and has made little paper boats out of her empty French fry containers and is watching them float in the waves.

And here's Poem No. 3:

New jersey, new work!
I owe a con etiquette…
I’d a hoe--Lou “Easy" Anna ("Beaut!")
Miss Sussipi,
Ms. Ouri,
Sarah (toga),
June--no! (ill, annoy; aura gone!)
Fee, nix!
Sin, sin, Natti!
George, ah! Rich man!
Sandy, eh? Go!!

(Using the last 19 items remaining on the list: New Jersey; Newark; Iowa; Connecticut; Idaho; Louisiana; Butte; Mississippi; Missouri; Saratoga; Honolulu; Juneau; Illinois; Oregon; Phoenix; Cincinnati; Georgia; Richmond; San Diego)

Caution: adult content. A pimp goes on a shopping spree, buys an expensive new sweater, and reminds himself that he owes a return favour to a fellow con, a casino operator named George. He informs George of his new enterprise and rattles off the names of his best "workers"--with the exception of June, whom he describes as sick, "annoying" and no longer attractive. He offers to book George and his girlfriend Natalie for a ménage à trois, exhorting Natalie to put aside her moral scruples, and waives his usual fee. Noting that George is really very, very wealthy, and likely, as an expression of friendship, to pay anyway, the pimp suggests his most expensive worker, a girl named Sandy, and tells George to “go for it”.

Well then, there you have it--the results of this highly difficult (and sometimes tedious) way to start the creative juices flowing again. Let's try it in French!

"C'est mort cherie, c'est mort"
(which translated, means: "It's dead, dear, it's dead).

Phonetically, it comes out: Say "more sherry!" Say "more!".

(By the way, sherry need not be a bottle of liquor; you could add a comma after "more" and capitalize "sherry" to make it refer to a female person. Or it could be a name listed in a telephone book, such as "Seymour, Shaire E.")

Disclaimer: I couldn't think of something to write about on my blog today, so I invented this fictitious little Exercise for People with Writer's Block. I hereby disavow ownership of the above three "poems" on account of supreme embarassment. Might do something with the resulting interpretations one day, though, though they are admittedly a bit far-fetched and I don't much care for the occupation of the protagonist in the last poem. Who knows. At any rate, it was fun. I love playing with words. Infinitely more engaging than putting together a thousand-piece puzzle, for example. (Apologies to H. vis-a-vis our conversation yesterday--I know you love them!)

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