In medias res

Not every story needs to start at the beginning, and sometimes it's useful for a storyteller to begin their tale in the middle of things. By starting a story with action or complication the audience is (hopefully) hooked from the outset and interested to discover how this initial action or complication came about, something a storyteller can fill in with back-story. This narrative technique is often called in medias res, a term coined by the Roman poet Horace, and can be found in many novels, poems, short-stories, and films.

Perhaps the most famous example is The Iliad by Homer. The narrative begins in the middle of the Trojan War and complicates matters from the outset by telling of a division in the Greek camp -- a quarrel between King Agamemnon and Achilles. It is then through back-story the reader learns the history of the principal characters and how they came to be at war with Troy. You will probably recognize this same narrative technique in the Star Wars saga, which begins with episode IV as Darth Vader nears completion of the Death Star. The television program Lost can also be thought of as in medias res, with the plane crash in the first episode opening the action, and the story of the characters being explored as the series progresses. Each Lost episode also employs a kind of "in the middle of things" technique called a cold open.

If you are interested in trying out a narrative that opens in medias res, don't worry about having to write an epic like The Iliad or a whole TV series like Lost. This literary technique also works well in shorter works like poems, drama, and short stories.

The Limerick

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There once was a fly on the wall.
I wonder why didn't it fall?
Because its feet stuck
Or was it just luck
Or does gravity miss things so small?

(Author Unknown)
=================================

In The Book of Forms, Lewis Turco tells us that the limerick is "a quantitative accentual-syllabic quintet turning on two rhymes: aabba." This playful little form is probably easier to write than it is to decipher Turco's rules. Here's another example:

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There was a young lady named Kite
Whose speed was much faster than light.
She left home one day
In a relative way
And returned on the previous night.

(Author Unknown)

==================================

If you read enough limericks you can intuit the rules of the form that Turco has dissected. The next one, borrowed from volweb, has a few of the words left out, but you'll probably be able to fill in the blanks.

==================================

There once was a pauper named Meg
Who accidentally broke her _______.
She slipped on the ______.
Not once, but thrice
Take no pity on her, I __________.

(Author Unknown)

=================================

You may also be interested to check out the online dictionary of limericks, OEDILF. But be careful -- it's a vortex that you may never find your way out of! If you want to give a limerick a try, leave me a note so I can check out your blog. It's amazing where the mind will go with this often salacious poetic form!

In the News

Do you ever notice when you look in the paper or turn on the five o'clock news it's always stories of things going badly? It's always violence and crime, scandals and corruption, wars and fear. And while I think it's a good idea to be informed about world events and to know what's going on in your own town, I always wish there was some humor in reporting, something to lighten the otherwise gloomy and dismal mood. This writing prompt asks you to help address this shortcoming.

For the last few years I've been reading the satirical news site The Onion (I'm sure some of you will be familliar with their high-quality, hard hitting investigative reporting). The writers on this website often take a story from the mainstream media and twist it into a joke, and sometimes they just flat out make up ridiculous stories and pass them off as news. So following this lead, I've come up with a few headlines for news stories that never made the front page.

If you're interested in taking up this prompt, try to write a story to go along with a headline. Alternatively, you may want to write up a spoof version of a real news story you find, or come up with your own make-believe headline.

======================================

ALIEN SPACECRAFT GIVEN $250 PARKING TICKET
BALMATRON SAYS "I'M NOT PAYING"

======================================

GLOBAL WARMING LINKED TO BURPING
BEER DRINKERS OF THE WORLD REACT WITH SHOCK

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PRIME MINISTER SAYS CIGARETTES "ARE JUST FINE"

======================================

NEOLITHIC MAN FOUND FROZEN IN GLACIER
REVIVED AFTER DEFROSTING
CAN'T GET ENOUGH HOT CHOCOLATE


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SCIENTIST DISCOVERS ULTIMATE SECRET IN FORTUNE COOKIE

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GERBIL SAVES MAN FROM SHARK ATTACK

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ROSIE O'DONNELL ADMITS SHE'S ANNOYING

====================================

POLICE LOOK FOR ENGLISH PROFESSOR SERIAL KILLER
CALLS HIMSELF THE "DECONSTRUCTIONIST"

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ZOMBIE OUTBREAK REPORTED IN TORONTO

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MCDONALD'S GOES VEGAN
COWS BREATHE SIGH OF RELIEF

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ATLANTIS FOUND NEAR GREENLAND
PRESIDENT: "WE WERE HERE ALL ALONG"

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GOVERNMENT TO INCREASE ARTS FUNDING

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ANIMALS ESCAPE FROM ZOO
LAST SEEN IN LAS VEGAS

Poetic Inquiry

In this post I briefly discuss some elements of poetic inquiry that may be useful if you want to try for yourself, and then show an example. To do poetic inquiry is to notice, to listen, and to be present with the subject, but it is not only writing poetry. It can involve photography, drawing, music, dance, writing, etc., or a combination of different artistic mediums.

Poetic inquiry is about unsettling what is often taken as commonplace, allowing an artist to re-imagine a particular situation or subject and look at it in a different light. The particular situation or subject does not have to be profound, and often insights can be gained from unsettling and re-imagining mundane, everyday things. The example I offer below -- going to the laundromat -- would probably be considered quite mundane to most, but it is a perfectly good subject for poetic inquiry and made me reconsider this apparently ordinary event.

If you've interested in giving this a try, I would encourage you to work with your own experience, with the simple things you do and take for granted. It could be taking a bus ride or going to the grocery store; it could be going for a walk in the forest or making dinner, any subject or situation you want. Ask yourself, what about the subject calls out for notice, and how can you represent it artistically? What other ideas are brought up by being present with your subject? There doesn't have to be any conclusion or solution and you may be left with many more questions than answers.

====================================================

A Trip to the Laundromat

empty

they look to be waiting for someone (anyone) to put in a coin and turn them on

I don't mind being here but there's usually company

so it's strange to be alone with these machines

I wonder if they are watching me

I thought change comes only from within (who knew there was a machine for that too?). I put in a ten dollar bill and the coins clatter down, some spilling out and
f
a
l
l
i
n
g
to the floor... rolling around my feet.

The coins go into the slot and I hear them say clink-clink in a metallic accent.

(If at first your coin doesn't go down and you need to press the "return coin" button, scratch it on the metal panel beside the slot and give it another try. It may be a superstition, but I think it allows the machine to know the coin a little better... something like a first date.)

Set the dial to "bright colors" OR ELSE! (Made that mistake before). The water floods in and the machine comes to life, seeming somehow satisfied. Through the window I see the clothes go

oooioooooooooon
oooooooooooootoooooooooo
ooooooooooooooooooooooooo
kooooooooooooon
oooooooooooooooooo
ooooooooot
soooooo

Now wait. Wait more.
If you are thirsty, you can put some coins in the Coke machine.


While I wait, a man shows up. He has clothes in one of the washing machines and is going to put them in a dryer. He opens the door of the washer and notices that his clothes are soaking wet. The water and soap did not drain. Perhaps he overloaded the machine. The machines don't like when you do that. He swears under his breath as he puts them into another washing machine. He has to pay for a whole load, even though he only needs a rinse and a spin cycle. He also has to wait for another half hour.

Does this man run the machine
or
does this machine run the man?


"Buzzzzzzzzz!" says the washer
put clothes in dryer
more coins

press button

smell of fabric softener
perforated metal cylinder
more coins

press button
wait
wait
wait
encased in steel(cosmos swirling)glass is a world

waiting to be discovered

What's in front of me

The idea for this writing prompt is fairly straightforward: write what's happening where you are now. It might be a description of your living room or your den, it might be a conversation you hear at the table next to you in a cafe.Wherever you are sitting, whatever is going on around you, whatever is close at hand or on the bookshelf, try to put it into words. You might write about the shoes you're wearing, or you might write about the color of the paint on your walls, but whatever you decide to write, try to let the activity of thinking and writing be unconstrained and you may be surprised where you're taken by the simplicity of seemingly mundane, everyday surroundings. I suggest taking no more than five minutes for this prompt... here's my go at it:


I'm sitting at a desk in my study. In front of me is a screen and a keyboard, a cold cup of coffee and a lamp. For some reason there's feathers, stones, and a pine cone on the desk (why do I pick up things like this when I'm out for walks?). There's papers and books strewn on the floor. There's a compass sitting next to the window and a flannel shirt thrown over a chair in the corner. On the wall is a picture of Newfoundland, a small corner of St. John's called the Battery. In the picture the houses cling to the cliff-face, boats are tied to wharves, an iceberg is in the background, and the sky looks like a fog is about to roll in. I remember the way the sea smells there, the way that salt water infuses the air. I remember the cry of the gulls and the way that in summer huge, lumbering cruise ships sail through the narrows to bring the tourists to the shore. And this space opens up to that... I am in both places at once, bringing me home, both here and there.

Drama -- Short Play

There was never yet an uninteresting life. Such a thing is an impossibility. Inside of the dullest exterior there is a drama, a comedy, and a tragedy.
--Mark Twain

The conventions of drama will be familiar to most readers. If you've ever been to a school play, seen Cats, or read Shakespeare, you probably know what to expect, at least as far as the technical elements go. There's usually a setting, characters, costume, dialogue, lighting, and sound. There's usually an audience, and there's usually a stage.

However, it's been my experience that this is deceptively simple, and in trying to write plays I discovered that without the right combination of these elements there was no drama. The mark of a good play is when all the parts come together to create something spectacular, like a symphony made of many different instruments. But if even one of those instruments is out of harmony, the whole things sounds like rubbish!

And so for this blog post I've decided to show rather than tell. Below you'll find a short play I'm working on. It is, admittedly, quite rough, and I'm hoping that you'll let me know what instruments need tuning. If you decide to write a short play of your own, leave me a comment so I can check it out. Good luck, and remember, all the world is a stage.

====================================

Inside Job

A bank in the middle of the night.

Two desks and chairs are set up, one stage left, another stage right. On each desk is a lamp, computer screen, papers, pens. Waste bin on floor beside each desk.

A long counter along back of stage. Counter is positioned such that the side on which the teller would stand is facing audience -- ie. the audience views the scene as though looking through the back wall of the bank.

Soft yellow lighting.

Curtain rises.

Very long pause -- at least 30 seconds -- all quiet.

Two robbers, BIZZ and BUZZ, enter stage left. Both dressed in all black clothes -- both have black gloves, large black backpacks, black ski-masks. They creep on tips of toes across stage, but BUZZ accidentally knocks over a waste bin, which makes loud metallic clang.

BIZZ: Shhhhhhh! You nincompoop! Do you want us to end up in jail?

BUZZ: Sorry. My bad. The place seems so different in the night time, and I can hardly see a thing through this mask.

BIZZ: (pointing to ceiling) You see those cameras up there? If it wasn't for the mask they'd know it was you who let me in. Just try and be quiet, will ya?

A spotlight illuminates the backdrop and moves from left to right. BIZZ quickly lays down flat on the floor, while BUZZ turns and looks at the passing light. The sound of a car passing from speakers. BIZZ stands up and looks at BUZZ. Pause.

BUZZ: Only a car going by. Thought the worst for a minute there.

BIZZ: Let's just get this done and get out of here. Are you sure the alarm isn't going to go off?

BUZZ: Of course I'm sure. I set up the access code, and it said it was disarmed.

BIZZ: Fine so. Fine.

They walk slowly on tips of toes to center front. They stand side-by-side, facing the audience. BIZZ holds out his hands and mimes touching an imaginary wall. He puts his ear to the imaginary wall then steps back and looks at BUZZ.

BIZZ: How is it that you're the president of this place and you don't know the combination to the vault?

BUZZ: Well, I never needed to know. It's the managers who open and close this thing. And maybe it's because the share-holders don't exactly trust me. Who could blame them in light of recent events?

BIZZ: And you're sure about the money being in there?

BUZZ: At least eight million dollars. Cold hard cash.

BIZZ removes his backpack and takes out a stethescope. He puts the buds in his ears and extends the other end to the imaginary wall with his left hand. He reaches his right hand out and turns it, as though spinning a combination lock. Sound of clicks from speakers. BIZZ spins his hand the other direction. More clicks. Spins other direction. More clicks. Still listening through stethescope.

BIZZ: I think I've almost got it. That sounds right. Almost there. Got it!

Sound of latch releasing and hinge creaking over speakers. BIZZ and BUZZ shake hands earnestly. They step through the imaginary vault door to the very edge of stage, facing audience.

BIZZ: A room full of money. I've never seen such a beautiful thing in my entire life. Christmas has come early this year! Let's get the cash in the bags and get out of here.

They mime taking piles of money and putting it in their backpacks.

BUZZ: What are you going to do with your share?

BIZZ: I was thinking of getting a house in the Hamptons, and maybe a little sports car. That and pay back my debts to the loan sharks. There's going to be nothing but possibilities for me from now on. What about you?

BUZZ: I was thinking on retiring early. Maybe move to somewhere with a nice warm climate...

Sound of a hinge creeking. BIZZ and BUZZ turn back. Curtain falls and there is the sound of vault door slamming shut. BIZZ and BUZZ are on edge of stage, still visible to audience, facing curtain.

Pause -- 5 seconds. BIZZ and BUZZ turn and face one another.

BUZZ: Oh yeah. The door has an auto close mechanism.

BIZZ: And let me guess. It can only be opened from the other side.

BUZZ nods his head.

BIZZ: We're screwed.

Light fades out leaving BIZZ and BUZZ in darkness.

END

Greeting Cards

There are greeting cards for virtually every occasion, and also for occasions you wouldn't normally think of as card-worthy. I've seen "Congratulations On Your Vasectomy", and "Sorry You Got Gout", and even "I Never Liked You Anyways". At the site greetingcards.com you can get cards for such important events as Umbrella Day, Tax Day, and Kiss and Make-Up Day. Not wishing to offend anyone who celebrates Umbrella Day, but I wonder if companies like Hallmark have created "special" days just to sell cards!

This suggestion for writing is fairly straight forward. Create a greeting card of your own for any occasion. It could be funny, silly, absurd, sad, serious or dark -- anything you think deserves a card. You may like to find an image for the front or the inside, and even a watermark for the back if you're keen. Below you'll see one that I've come up with to celebrate (?) an absurd event (and I don't think I'd ever send this card to anyone).


(front)
HEARD YOU GOT FOOD POISONING



(inside)

HOPE YOUR RECOVERY RUNS SMOOTHLY


(back)

This greeting card was
designed just for you by
Unexpected Occasions
.

Images courtesy of
Sclera picto's


Stream of Consciousness

Stream of consciousness is a representation of the internal monologue of a fictional character or other kinds of writing which attempt to reproduce the thought process of the mind. Often in this form, syntax, punctuation, and other conventions are not strictly observed, and stream of consciousness writing can seem disconnected or fragmented, leaving the reader to make imaginative leaps of interpretation to make sense of the work. Some writers I like who have employed this technique especially well are James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Samuel Beckett.

For an example of this, hit this link to check out a post by a blogger friend of mine, human being, who uses a punctuation device (the ellipse ... ) to give the effect of one thought streaming into the next. And if you'd like to see another example, have a look at a post I did a while back, Toy Trains. Finally, you'll see below a short example of stream of consciousness poetry I've attempted. If you would like to give this kind of writing a try, leave me a comment so I can see what you come up with. I bet that you'll even surprise yourself with what creeps from the depths of the mind.


Fish have five second memories

I'm a fish
that's a castle
eat the algae
eat the floating crud
yummy
parade of faces
magnified eyes
it's a castle
creepy skull
plastic plants
what's that net
where am I going
out of the water
into a tea cup
nothing but circles
hint of coffee
wanna go home
where is home
is that a bubble
feels like flying
where am I now
are those fish flakes
eat them anyways
they taste like sawdust
it's still some good
what's that castle
I'm a fish
I'm a fish

Short Prose

"Not that the story needs to be long,
but it will take a long while to make it short."

-- Henry David Thoreau

Ranging anywhere from a single paragraph to a few thousand words, short prose is primarily distinguished by its brevity. Sometimes called the short-short story, the prose poem, the vignette, or the sketch, short prose has become increasingly popular in recent years. A brief prose work can create certain effects and concentrations of suggestiveness that a longer piece of writing cannot, and often in short prose the impact on the reader is more immediate and more intense than in a longer work. However, with this comes the challenge of being spare with words and details. As Thoreau tells us in the quote above, by making the story shorter it may become more difficult to write. Some examples of famous short prose in English are Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour", Jamaica Kincaid's "Girl", and Samuel Beckett's "Lessness".

Because of the brevity of blog posts (or the brevity of attention span of blog readers) many bloggers have taken up short prose as a way to work expressively and connect with their audience. Two bloggers I especially recommend checking out are Jimmy (a Scottish blogger whose wit and humor springs from the bottomless well of everyday life) and Pisces Iscariot (who is sometimes surreal, sometimes morbid, but always entertaining).

All of the links above will lead you to writings of between 300 and 3000 words, however short prose certainly does not need to be this length. I would contend that even a few sentences are a work of short prose, and in closing this post I offer, humbly, a very short prose piece. If you decide to try one for yourself, leave me a comment so I can have a look... I'd love to see what you come up with.


Lake Portage

Jed and I had carried the canoe for a couple miles when we finally came to Lake Portage. It was disappointing to see it was all dried up -- only beach rocks left over like once was an ocean rolling where we stood. The gulls flew overhead and there were crushed shells beneath our feet.

"I know," said Jed. "I never really figured we'd catch any fish either. But the hike was worth it all the same."

I thought it was a fairly fine line that Jed had cast, as I didn't think he had a click to begin with, and there's ten thousand clicks in a clue.

Reviews

I decided for this post to bundle together a number of different kinds of reviews, though admittedly there is much more to say on these than could be encapsulated in a short post. There are entire degree programs teaching these deceptively simple skills, and writing a good review is certainly an art all its own. There is no single, steadfast formula to follow when reviewing, and it's always a good idea to be responsive to the particular subject, be it a book, movie, restaurant, art work, band, etc..

There are, however, some fairly obvious conventions of any kind of review. It makes sense to tell the name, title, or designation of whatever you are reviewing. Also it's a good idea to name the writer, chef, artist, director, or otherwise important people involved. Most reviews will offer an evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of the particular subject, and compare it to similar things in its particular field. But in my opinion, the most important element of a good review is to say what you think, what you like or dislike, and if you would recommend this to others. After all, it's your opinion that the reader is interested in here. What follows are some links to sites that may be of interest as examples of reviews. I have linked some commercial sites and some independent reviewers for each category.


Restaurant Review Links


Restaurant Thing -- Offers thousands of reviews, but only in English speaking countries. Unfortunately this means that restaurants in France (and everywhere else in the world) are off the list!

Andy Hayler's Michelin Restaurants Guide -- It may seem odd, but Michelin (yes the tire company) sponsors a rating of the "finest" restaurants in the world. On Andy's site you can read reviews of some of these restaurants, but if you're interested in going to one yourself, make sure you have lots of $$$. Some of these reviews are, frankly, rife with snobbery, but fun to read all the same.

Burrito Blog -- Yeah, you guessed it... this blog reviews only burritos and places that sell burritos. It is not a coincidence that I put this next to the reviews of the Michelin restaurants.

7-West Cafe -- This is an unconventional review of a restaurant I worked at in Toronto.


Book Review Links


allreaders.com -- allreaders.com has a searchable index of thousands of book reviews.

GoodReads -- GoodReads is a site where individuals offer their thoughts on most any book you can name.

Kristin's Book Blog -- Kristin has been reviewing books on her blog since 2005. She has a fascinating project underway to review the Modern Library top 100 books of the 20th century. She is over half way there. New reviews appear on her site weekly.

Novel Readings -- Rohan is an English professor and literary critic. Her reviews are extremely nuanced, and she balances dense detail with a lively wit and quick sense of humor.


Movie and TV Review Links


Internet Movie Database -- No explanation needed. This is likely the biggest movie review and information site on the internet.

Rotten Tomatoes -- Offers new movie reviews and previews

Tassoula's Movie Review Blog -- A blog maintained by an independent film critic from Seattle.

Tv-series and videos -- A site kept up by Julius from Sweden. He has been blogging for only a month now, but has reviewed many of his favorite shows.


Music Review Links


Metacritic -- Metacritic reviews new releases of music, as well as films, games, and television.

Rolling Stone -- Sometimes there seems to be more advertisements than reviews, but Rolling Stone is one of the industry pillars for music reviews.

MW Music Review Blog -- And independent music reviewer from Ottawa, mostly interested in Indie.



Of course, there are many other kinds of reviews that you might want to do. The links above are only meant to provide some ideas of the diversity of reviews you might like to try. It's also interesting to see the similarities between all these different types of reviews, how they share many of the same general conventions. If you decide to try a review, leave me a comment so I can check it out, and if you find a great place for burritos, be sure and let the reviewers at Burrito Blog know... we wouldn't want them to miss it!

Letters

The idea for this writing prompt is very straightforward. Write a letter to someone or something. You don't necessarily have to send the letter, and it doesn't have to be written to anyone that you know. In fact, you might have some fun writing a letter to an inanimate object, or to your favorite artist, or your least favorite politician.

Here's a link to a blog site that is dedicated entirely to what are called 'Open Letters'. Some of the letters on this site are addressed to Martha Stewart, toilet paper, someone's dog, the 'home' key on the keyboard, youtube, and many others. Of course, these kinds of letters don't have to be funny, and sometimes a letter is the best way to express the thoughts and feelings you may have about something sad or personal. Below you'll find a letter that I wrote when I was thinking about this post that may come under the more sad version:

==========================================

Dear Dorothy,

I don't actually believe in an afterlife, or that you can read the words that I'm writing, but I still wanted to say that you didn't deserve to be treated this way. I would condemn your family or the barbarous times you must have lived through, except people today are much the same. Sometimes I don't know what else to do than write down a few words, and put them in the mail. I guess I'm trying to say, I'm sorry. I'm sorry that you had to be treated this way, and I hope that during your life you were able to enjoy something of the beauty of the world, and that it was not all as it would seem. I try to imagine what you looked like, and I try to imagine your hair in sunlight. I try to think of the ways that you made others laugh, how you laughed, and I try not to think of what inspired the hatred inscribed on your gravestone. If nothing else, let these words be a pledge on my behalf to never treat anyone this way, to always seek out the best in my fellows, and to live as fully as I can each and every day. I don't believe in an afterlife, but I will say all the same, rest in peace.

Jon

p.s.
All that is known about Dorothy Ann Whitaker

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Journal Entries

One of the most common kinds of blog posts are journal entries. Many people keep journals of their thoughts, their daily life, their travels, restaurants they've visited, music they like, book read, etc.. The only real difference with blogging is that other people can read what you've written, if you choose to share your blog with the public. Journaling is said to be therapeutic, and is reported to be a good way to reduce stress -- something about getting things out and on paper (or on the web as the case may be). Some people keep journals all their lives, and have a wealth of memories they can reflect on, or a place to start when they want to write their memoirs.

I am not going to belabor this post, or try to tell anyone how to write a journal entry... I'm sure you already know your experience. However, sometimes by writing things down and then looking at what you wrote later on, you may discover things about yourself that you didn't know. If you're stuck for ideas about what to write for a journal entry, try to draw on the simple things in life. Maybe conversations you had at school, or waiting in the line at the grocery store, or even what you had for lunch. I am always amazed by how much there is in the ordinary and seemingly insignificant things in life -- the mundane world is brimming with possibility.

If you are interested in what other people write for journal entries, I'd recommend checking out a blog called Razor blade of life. The author, who calls herself "Z" (though somehow I'm sure that's not her real name ;) has been keeping her blog since 2006 and has roughly 1600 posts.

Happy journaling!

Free Verse Poetry

To open this post, I quote the definition of free verse given by Lewis Turco in the Book of Forms:

"If 'verse' is defined as 'metered language' and 'prose' as 'unmetered language,' then the term 'free verse' is a contradiction in terms because 'verse' cannot be 'free,' for it is 'metered.' The only other possibility, then, is that 'free verse' is 'prose' broken into lines by some means or other" (189).

Now just what is Turco talking about here? Well, let me try to rephrase this another way. One common idea about free verse is that there is no system, no form or guidelines or rules on which the particular poem is based. But what Turco is saying is that all poetry has some kind of system, some way that it works (or should work), otherwise it is simply breaking up prose. When a poet breaks a line there is (usually) some reason why they chose to break the line. Whatever that reason is, the poet has imposed a system of some sort, some conventions that are intended to convey meaning to a reader. For example, a poet may break a line when something in the poem changes, say a door shuts, or a leaf drops from a tree.

This relates to a debate about whether there is or is not form in poetics. Turco is a formalist (one who sees a form in every kind of poem). Even in a radically new poetic system, Turco would turn around and say that there is always a form which carries the content. Another point on the formalist side that is often mentioned is that the albhabet, or any system of language, is based on a form. Otherwise, how would the letter "A" be recognized as the letter "A"?

As for me, I am not convinced that there is a definite form for all poetry, and I am not so keen to divide poetry from prose, or writing from other arts, or arts from any other field of knowledge. I have a difficult time fitting everything in a nice little box -- especially in light of some radical poetics (visual poetry, code poetry) and revolutionary prose (Finnegans Wake, The Double Hook and many others). Postmodern writers and artists are especially interested in the blending and overlapping of forms, and on the non-formalist side of the debate, many would say that there is only one form, and that this form is always changing and re-shaping with new artistic creation.

However, having said this, I am still wary of the term "free verse." Even though a poem I write doesn't have a rhyme scheme, and even though I don't have a set number of syllables in each line, I still have some reason or other that I break the lines where I do or shape the poem as I see fit. So while this is "free" in the sense that it is up to me, there is still a system, some reason that underlies the poem. I choose certain words as opposed to any other words... I do not just write down random letters. And even though sometimes, I must admit, I do write random letters and words, that is then the system, and this system is still intended to convey some meaning.

I don't pretend to have a clear answer for all this, but what I do have is an idea for an example. Below you will find a block or writing:

in the land of inside out I felt awash in gentle rhythms like a rinse cycle danced a thousand tangos with toucans I so wanted to understand their laws of gravity and traffic I kidnapped a cop made him drive in circles while I tossed apples at taxi cabs the drivers cursed me in English and gave me money I was rich as a cat ate spider plants for water I'll never own a fur coat so fine as my cat coat in the land of inside out

If you read this and wanted to divide it into poetic lines, where would you break the lines? What things would you think about in deciding where to make breaks? How about any time you saw the word "I", or any time there was a word that indicated movement. There are innumerable ways that this text could be reworked into poetic lines, and perhaps it's poetic just as it is. I'm not trying to convince you that there is a right way to go about it, but ask yourself, when you write free verse poetry, is there not some reason to create the poem as you do? I do apologize for overcomplicating and taking the fun out of what is supposed to be intuitive and free. Below find my re-working of the text above:

in the land of inside out
I felt awash in gentle rhythms like a rinse cycle
danced a thousand tangos with toucans
I so wanted to understand
their laws of gravity and traffic
I kidnapped a cop
made him drive in circles
while I tossed apples at taxi cabs
the drivers cursed me in English and gave me money
I was rich as a cat
ate spider plants for water
I'll never own a fur coat
so fine as my cat coat
in the land of inside out

Plunderverse

Some say that all poets are thieves. Plunderverse is a form of poetry that encourages the poet to unleash all that pent up kleptomaniac energy in the service of creativity.

Here's the gist of it:

-Find a poem that you like (or even a poem that you loath).

-Take out bits and pieces to make the poem into something different. Work the letters of different words together. Use your lock pick to open up the poem and take the treasure you find inside. What you'll be doing is making a variation on the original, and in the process come up with a distinct poem.

That's it! You're a certified word thug, a poetics pirate, the Jessie James of language, the scourge of the sestina, the brigand of the bards, the... well, you get the point.

If you hit the link above you can read in more detail about the theory behind this form as explained by Gregory Betts, and there's an example he's done on this linked page as well. I've decided to give one a shot based on William Blake's "A Poison Tree". The original first, and then beneath it my plunder:


A Poison Tree


I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I waterd it in fears,
Night & morning with my tears:
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine.

And into my garden stole.
When the night had veiled the pole;
In the morning glad I see,
My foe outstretchd beneath the tree.

==============================

I was ooooooooo my friend
ooooomy wrath
oooooooooooooooomy foe
ooooooooooomy wrath did grow

ood I oooeod oo in fear
Night & morning with my tears
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles

And it grew both day and night
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine.

And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretchd beneath the tree.

=============================

If you decide to give one of these a try, leave me a comment so I can check it out. Shiver me timbers, and remember, real pirates walk the plank in style.

Concrete/Spatial Poetry

I decided on the title of this post hesitantly. Concrete and spatial poetry might be likened to poems that rely on shape and typographical space to add a new dimension to the words on the page. Perhaps the best way to describe is to show...

Click this link to view some of my poems that rely on space and shape for poetic structure. All except the last of these might be considered kinds of spatial poetry. "I Sail" and "Words" would be considered concrete poetry, while "Metaphysics" and "I hear you say, I hear" would be spatial poetry. Another example of concrete poetry would be "Gum Tree" by Jennifer Phillips. Some spatial poetry you may like is Richard Smith's "not so concrete" or the work of the Finnish visual poet Jukka-Pekka Kervinen.

I was hesitant in the title of this post because of how difficult it is to nail down these forms considering the amazing possibilities offered to poets by digital media. Take for example the code poetry of Ted Warnell. I asked him about his work and the relationship of the form and the content one time and he gave me a great answer: "The form is the content and the content is the form. The poetry is non-representational." And just as the form and the content are braided, the spatial and concrete elements are, in some ways, intertwined.

It's also interesting to think about how hypertext can work in poetry to create new possibility for a single poem. Have a look at a hypertext poem by Mary Hedger if you're interested. Hypertext adds a dimension of depth to the poem, a new space and a new poem for each reading depending on how you choose to click through it.

If you'd like to experiment with concrete, spatial, or other kinds of visual poetry, leave me a comment so I can check it out. I'd love to see what you come up with.

Palindromes

"Madam, I'm Adam...
Able was I ere I saw Elba."
(James Joyce, "Wandering Rocks", Ulysses)

A palindrome is a word or sentence that reads the same way forward as it does backwards. Aside from the one by Joyce above, other examples of palindromic sentences are, Dennis and Edna sinned, and Was it a rat I saw? Some examples of palindromic words are radar, stats, repaper, Hannah, and Navan (a town in Ireland to go with the James Joyce theme).

Along with single word and sentence palindromes, there is also a variety known as "word unit palindromes". For these, the words in the line form the same sentence when read forward or backwards, as in the two below:

"Escher, drawing hands, drew hands drawing Escher."
(John Meade)

"You know, I did little for you, for little did I know you."
(Patrick Robbins)

One other interesting type is the "line unit palindrome poem", a form in which lines of a poem can be read the same first to last or last to first. One of the most famous examples of this form is a poem called "Doppelganger", by James A. Lindon. Here's a short one that I've been working on:

In the land of Inside Out
I felt awash
in gentle rhythms
like a rinse cycle.
In gentle rhythms
I felt awash
in the land of Inside Out.

If you are interested in palindromes you might want to write some of your own. I find them to be a good writing exercise, and if you're able to write a poem that works together palindromic words, sentences, and line units I'll be thoroughly impressed! Leave me a comment so I can have a look if you give it a try.

Fan Fiction

Do you ever read a book and wish that it didn't have to end? Do you ever find yourself wondering what would have happened if some of the characters in a book had a conversation that the author never wrote? Well wonder and wish no more...

Fan fiction is a genre of writing in which fans of particular books, movies, TV shows, and games continue the story where the author left off in the original. I was introduced to fan fiction by a friend, Mist Shadow, who is an author on the site Harry Potter Fan Fiction. The amount of writing that has been done in response to J.K. Rowling's books and the Harry Potter movies is staggering, and I don't think it's a stretch to say that this is the most active kind of fan fiction around.

However if you take a look at the site FanFiction.net, you'll see that many books have a very active fan base continuing to build the story. I was interested to find a category on Homer's Odyssey, Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and even Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I thought that I'd try writing some fan fiction on this last book. I love this story and have always wondered what would have happened if Dr. Jekyll had embraced his inner Hyde, even cultivated the darker side of his alter-ego, and decided not to end his own life. Check back a little later and see the results of my experiment...

In the mean time, if you want to write some fan fiction of your own, leave me a note so I can check it out. The possibilities seem endless for having fun with this form of writing.

Triolet

The triolet is a French poetic form consisting of eight lines, turning on only two rhymes, and including two refrains. The scheme is A-B-a-A-a-b-A-B. Each line of the poem is the same metrical length. Here's an example I wrote earlier. Each line in this one is five syllables, and I've put in the rhyme and refrain scheme.

Words are fussy things (A)
Meaning on the move (B)
Bells, whistles and rings (a)
Words are fussy things (A)
When the poet sings (a)
And the flowers prove (b)
Words are fussy things (A)
Meaning on the move (B)

This form seems to be fairly simple at first sight, but you might find that when you sit down to write one that you get stuck. What I have the most trouble with is that there are only five distinct lines, and that the (A) refrain has to be used three times... makes me think closely about the line (A) & (B). Here's another example from today's writing:

Virgil led Dante down to hell
Dirty soap suds spiral the drain
Like Satan thrown from heaven fell
Virgil led Dante down to hell
A ghastly and sulfuric smell
Chased each breath with a shot of pain
Virgil led Dante down to hell
Dirty soap suds spiral the drain

And if you want to get really adventurous with this form, you might try to change the refrain lines with punctuation. Some writers will put a comma or a fullstop in a refrain and have it lead into the next line to enhance the effect or to change the meaning of the line. Once you've got the rules down, the thing to do next is to break them! If you decide to try a triolet, let me know so I can check it out. I'd love to see what you come up with.

Allegory

An allegory is a story told on two levels simultaneously, the narrative level and the symbolic level. At each point in the story on the narrative level, there is a corresponding point on the symbolic level. Fables and parables are two examples of allegories, and are often intended to teach a lesson by allowing the reader to extrapolate the figurative, as opposed to the literal, meaning of the story. One very well known allegory, Plato's "Allegory of the Cave", is just such an educational story.

Link to an animated interpretation of the Allegory of the Cave


Link to a text of the Allegory of the Cave

An allegory will often use many different figurative devices to convey meaning to an audience or reader. Some of these include metaphor, allusion, pun, hyperbole, oxymoron, and many others. An allegory need not be a long story, and sometimes poems or short prose can be written allegorically, as in this example below:

A sculptor begins
with a slab of granite
and hopes to find
the essence within
that means to be found.

A sculptor seeks perfection,
to make in stone
soul-transfigured
and soul-transfiguring
the human form divine.

But if a sculptor polishes
the same stone
for long enough
then it becomes
nothing.

What do you think the meaning of this allegory might be? If you're interested, another example in the form of a short story I wrote some time ago can be found at this link. If you decide to write an allegory of your own, leave me a comment so I can check it out. You'll probably find this mode of expression is quite natural to you... someone once told me that allegories and metaphor are at the root of our knowing and storying the world.

Question and Answer

There is a dialog among writers. Often one poem is an answer to another poem, or a question to another writer. In some traditions, poets will collaboratively create chains of poems, a form where a poem is linked with another.

This question and answer chain poem works by one writer answering the question left to them and then leaving another question for the next writer. If you want to see another example of this kind of chain poetry, check out one from last year. If you want to participate, go to the comment window of this post and see what question awaits you. After a week or so I'll post what we've come up with at the bottom of this text. You can, of course, participate multiple times.

=======================================

A big thanks to everyone who participated in this chain poem. Please check in the comment window to see how this collaborative poem unfolded. The writers were:

Derliwall

Harlequin

The Walking Man

Anon Andon

Human Being

Jon

I think it turned out quite well. And of course, if you want to continue to add to this Q & A leave a comment that follows the last question. Here's what we've got so far:

=================================================

Where are you going?
I'm going to the playground to jump off the swing at its highest point.

Have you ever swung all the way around?
all the way around but not at a playground
or maybe it was...
there are days and times I feel like a pendulum

wondering whether up and down is over and under or day and night?
.
a pendulum
is
up
down
over
under
either
neither
night/day
day/night
neither
either
under
over
down
up
is
a pendulum
.

but from what point are we fixed?
We are simply fixed,
repaired
at the place of the birth
of our understanding.

Where are we born from?
born from stardust.

What carries you away?
Words cemented
flow and rhythm
making music
in the syllabification
of the drum beat
found in circles
of pattern and thought
carry me places
not found in lonely dreams.

What is the dream unremembered?
the dream unremembered is my body's wisdom asking me to trust

what does trust mean?
Trust leans
on the dream
machines
of memories
passed.

Why do you ask?
Trust
is a form of hope
and hope makes
the world spin
hopelessly forward
to a future
filled with hope
that we will learn
to trust one another.

Who is the other in another?
Every other is every single bit other and every other is a part of me.

But what connects me to every other living thing?
You can ask because
you are part
of the poem,
living the thing
connected
to every other
.

So connected, what makes the other "other"?
Within me
lies another life,
another heart
beating quietly
'neath my own
but beating
none the less and
in the spirits heartbeat
I find the spirit of the creator
of all that is.

I am not that being
but it is
the other within me.
The spirit within.


How many hearts are there within the human's being?
.
.
.

if "the sound of our hearts sings
like the song of two strings
drawn by one bow",
surely
there is no heart
within us

we are just some travelers
on a quest
to find
the only heart there is
.
.
.
"How can I move across this space?"
With hope and heart and a little help from fellow travelers, I can move across any space and time.

Then do you imagine the dusk will wait for the teller of stories to have something to say?
Always...

But how long is always?

Image Expressive


===========================
on the path
spread as the bones of a wing
steps bouncing off rocks
a hush, deep mist settling,
sun pushing all the way home
===========================

This is a photo from a walking trail in Niagara Falls. The path leads to (or comes from, depending on your point of view) the Whirlpool, a place that few travelers seem to go. It's a bit of a hike from the more touristy parts of the Falls, and even on the busiest days of the summer there's usually no more than a few other people. There's lots of different birds and interesting driftwood and stones along the beach.

The piece of brick you see in the photo above seemed to have been quite purposely planted in the trail by someone, and seemed to have been quite purposely engraved by someone too. I kept my eyes open for others like it, but found only this one. Go figure...

If you want to try an "image expressive" yourself the concept is quite simple. Just post a photo on your blog and try to come up with some words you want to twin with it. I did another one of these posts a couple weeks ago that you can check out by clicking this link. Let me know if you come up with something so I can take a look.

Starrify

I was given a link to the most starrific website by Mazikeen. It's called Save the Words. The idea of the site is to allow users to adopt words that have been put on the chopping block by whoever it is that decides what words get dropped from the English language. The site asks you to adopt such a word and try to use it in speech and writing in an effort to save it from annahilation. And even though there is no dictionary definition, I've tried to use my adopted word in the short poem below. Check out the Save the Words site. And if you write up a post with one of the doomed words, let me know. I'm interested to keep as many words alive as possible.

===========================================

How can I move across this space?
How can I starrify the night
and keep this memory
when the sound of our hearts sings
like the song of two strings
drawn by one bow?
How can I move across this space?

==========================================

Make me care about the lettuce

The genesis of this writing prompt comes from Guy Allen, a teacher of writing at the University of Toronto, Mississauga. This exercise asks you to write a narrative about something mundane. For example, let me share the one that I'm planning to write myself:

You know how at a restaurant when you order a hamburger (or a veggie burger as the case may be) and there is usually a single leaf of lettuce that comes on the plate? Ever notice how that piece of lettuce is often left uneaten and returns to the dish pit to be discarded in the food disposal, shunned and unwanted? Why is it that people usually eat the fries, the slice of tomato and the pickle, but leave the lettuce behind? Why doesn't anyone care about this misunderstood vegetable?

The point of this writing prompt is simple: write about something mundane and ordinary, anything you want really, but in a way that makes it interesting. I'm going to write one about lettuce (it's too good to pass up for me!) and post it in the next day or so. Leave me a comment if you come up with something ordinary and everyday to write about so I can check it out. I would love to see where this leads you.

Haiku

.
Haiku is a well known poetic form usually consisting of three lines. The syllabic count of the lines is 5, 7, 5. Here is a famous example of haiku, written by the poet Basho:

The floating flower (5)
I saw drift back to the branch (7)
Was a butterfly. (5)

Haiku often make mention of nature imagery and usually has some illusion to a season. The form can be thought of as three still frames, placed one on top of the other, to create the effect of capturing a moment. Here's one by me:

Dragonfly patters
Aurora borealis
Marble garden pond

If you want to make a haiku of your own, leave me a comment so I can visit your site and see what you've created, or even leave one instead of a comment. I'm always interested by what people come up with in this deceptively simple form.
.

Two Facts and a Fib

This one kind of works without any explanation. Try to pick out which of the three statements is the fib:


-I have worked at more than 150 different jobs

-I have watched a friend swim in (and survive) a huge vat of raw sewage

-I have been married twice



If you want to follow my lead and tell your own truths and a fib, leave a comment so I can take a guess.

5 Blogs

.

This post is a review of sorts. I'll briefly talk about five blogs and bloggers that I have found to be interesting and expressive. If you wanted to do a similar post, leave me a comment. I'd love to be introduced to other expressive people!

=============

1. Timmy @ all humans are the same

I first met Timmy during a collaborative blog project where we were adapting writing by Samuel Beckett into online media (Interiority / Exteriority). One of the most interesting things about his writing and his blog is that he NEVER uses capital letters when he writes. But as you'll see if you check out his poetry, this is a strong point of his work. You might also like the graphics on his site, which are often in stark contrast to the content of the poems he's writing. Timmy is also the creator of one of the most difficult poetic forms I've ever seen, the slurkett. When I asked him, he told me that the rules are:

a slurkett is a poem of 15 lines of the following number of syllables:
12, 6, 18, 11
5, 14, 8, 19
13, 7, 16, 9
17, 10, 15

the following lines rhyme:
1, 9, 11 and 15
2, 6, 8 and 13
3 and 14
4, 7 and 10
5 and 12

the first letter of each line follows the first letter of the preceding line
by one in the alphabet ( "ex" may be used for the letter "x")

the following words or phrases must appear once:
"had a big"
"forever"
"in despair"
"of the moon"

a variation of 16 lines may be used. a line of 4 syllables is inserted as the next to last line.
it rhymes with the 5th and 12th lines and the last (now 16th) line rhymes with the 1st, 9th and 11th

This is not a form for the faint of heart! Give it a try if you're brave. I'm sure he'd love to see the results.

=================

2. Mark @ The Walking Man

Mark is from Detroit, and his writing is often based on the cityscape he knows and experiences everyday. In fact, he has recently published a book on the city, Stink. The title is some indication of the tone of the book. Sometimes political, sometimes irreverent, sometimes downright hilarious, his writing is always expressive and engaging. One of his most recent poems that I really like is called "Water Feature" and incorporates shape to give another dimension to the language. Shape poetry is one of my favorite forms. Check it out. He gets loads of comments on his site, but I'm sure that he'd be happy to hear from you if you haven't already met this prolific blogger.

======================

3. Mariana @ Sing Your Own Lullaby

What I like most about Mariana's blog is the way that she engages her readers. She always has a topic up for discussion that makes the hamsters in my brain run a little faster on the wheel. While often her posts are about topics that are scientific and about the physical world, there is always an element of the unknown in her writing and questioning. For example, one of her recent posts, "Meaning Theories" talks about the way that we know what we know (or what we think we know!). And even though the basic systems of meaning she outlined in the post cover a wide range of possibility, the responses in the comments on this post opened up many other avenues. Asking these kinds of questions is, in many ways, an impossible task for Mariana, but I have a feeling that her objective is not to offer answers (or even to find them) but more to foster discussion. That's what, in my opinion, makes her such an expressive person.

========================

4. Christopher @ View from the Northern Wall

Christopher describes himself as a "Mechanical designer for industry, once a Bay Area Hippie, went undercover in 1972, I've been writing poetry for years." What interests me most here is about his going undercover! Who would have thought the best way to not blow his cover would be to start up a blog!

Jokes aside though, what I like most about all of Christopher's posts is the way he combines narrative and poetry. Usually he introduces his poems with a short intro about the genesis of the piece, and about its significance for him as a writer or as an expressive person. For an example of this, you might want to see his post "A Typical Lesson" or "What an Order." Another thing about Christopher's blogging that I find so amazing is the frequency of his posts -- most every day. As someone who won't usually post more than a couple times a week (or even a couple times a month if there's lots on my plate) I respect this dedication to expressiveness. He sets the bar high for lots of us.

========================

5. Z @ Razor-Blade of Life

Z (and I'm almost sure that's not her real name ;) has been narrating her own and her families experience. On her blog you can find a pastiche of photos, description, and narratives of her life. What you may find interesting about her writing is the way that she's applied pseudonyms to her husband ("the Sage"), and her children and grandchildren. Lots of bloggers use nicknames for themselves and others they know in the "real" world outside of this virtual forum. You might want to do this too. Not only is it smart to help protect privacy, sometimes by giving a moniker to yourself, you can distance the real from the imaginary, or allow yourself to talk about ideas and things that you wouldn't necessarily want everyone you "know" to know about (not saying that this is what you're doing Z, just thought it might be a good example). If you want to see one of her posts that narrates the experience of the world in such a way, maybe check out "The Sage Surprises Z."

=========================

Hope that you've liked this installment of 5 Blogs. I will try to review other blogs and expressive people as this site progresses. If you want to do a similar write-up of some of your friend's sites, please let me know. I love to check out new sites!

.

Aubade

An aubade is a love song sung at dawn. As a poetic form, it usually has some element of rhyme and makes mention of images associated with daybreak or morning. One famous example you may like is by Phillip Larkin. The one below is by yours truly:


--------------------------------------------------

standing
shower
grounded
slippery

porcelain
curtain
laughter
trickery

taking
body
frigid
suckling

shower-head
bustling

flush

scalding
retreat

cool
coaxed
water
lily

warm, like your love

-------------------------------------------



If you would like to try one for yourself, please leave a comment so I can check out your post. Hope you like this poetic form.


Image Expressive

Here is a picture I took last summer. I wanted to try to find some words to go with this image that express that evening for me (or at least what I remember of it now!). The idea for image expressive came from a friends site, Deli, and a blogging project she likes to participate in, One Single Impression. If you have a picture that you'd like to match with some words, leave a comment so I can come and check it out.

------------------------------------------------------------------



The sun
(all yellow
all yolk)
before it hits the pan.

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