“Everything is a boss… You must always have a secret plan!”
– from “Bad Deal/Secret Plan” by theillalogicalspoon (https://theillalogicalspoon.bandcamp.com/track/bad-deal-secret-plan)
In many ways, poetry workshops during the pandemic have been like physical workouts with a group of friends. We all agree to meet in the Zoom “Fitness Center,” the one on the corner of Comfy Chair and Computer, around 7 pm. Over the course of two hours, we try out three different “machines” (writing prompts) that, if all goes well, get our hearts going and stretch us in new ways so our poetry muscles grow. After each exercise, we take turns flexing in our rectangles. We make each other laugh, and sometimes laugh at ourselves. We take risks. We virtual-hug. Most importantly—we feast, passing around encouragement like delicious sides to the main course, which is always We Hear You. Workshops can be a worthwhile discipline for poets, and often lead to joy and revelation.
But sometimes things don’t go as planned. We stare at the blank page and, even with a carefully crafted prompt, nothing comes. The ten-minute time limit ticks away. Maybe we pray. Maybe we panic. If we’re lucky, inspiration makes an appearance before the end, and we scribble until the last second (or after). No time for options. No time for second-guessing. Barely legible. Is it intelligible? Who knows? But at least we have something to share. This is a great strength of the timed prompt—it forces us to write something, anything.
Adding a wrinkle to the format can make the experience even better.
For many poets, getting started is half the battle. For some, it is the battle. It’s not uncommon for poets to collect kernels of inspiration throughout their life. These might be lines of poetry without a home, images, stories, snippets of dreams, random articles, overheard conversations, and more. Lists can get long; inspiration folders can get thick; and there’s always the danger of our kernels remaining, simply, “great ideas I once had but never used.” That is, unless these kernels find a home.
For this reason, in the poetry workshops I’ve been leading, I give participants a three-minute brainstorming prompt—a way of collecting kernels in real time—before they’re challenged with a poetry prompt. When I attend workshops led by other poets, I often bring a single page filled with unused kernels of inspiration. Sometimes the prompts are enough, but when nothing comes, sometimes my unused kernels pair with the prompt in surprising ways and get me started. This is a secret plan for poets: Come prepared to poetry workshops with your own ideas so that, whether or not a prompt inspires you, you’re never forced to stare at a blank page. Allowing yourself this flexibility, this pairing of creativity with creativity, can help you be a better steward of the potential-packed kernels you’ve collected throughout your life.
“An inspiration passes, having been inspired never passes.”
-Abraham Joshua Heschel
Three-Part Poetry Exercise – The People We Pass:
- Gather some of your kernels of inspiration and jot them on a single page.
- Set a timer for three minutes and, on the same page, brainstorm as many people who you see regularly, near or afar, but never speak with. In most cases you will not know their name, so find some way to identify them, such as “Guy Who Mows My Neighbor’s Lawn” or “Woman I Always See at the Laundromat.” Before moving on, note any interesting connections between your kernels and the people you’ve listed in your brainstorm.
- Set a timer for ten minutes and, on a different page, write a poem that considers or imagines the experience of one of the people. You may choose to observe and reflect from afar, allow the poem’s speaker to interact with the person, or allow your poem to take on the voice of the person. Here’s a poem I wrote using this same exercise:
Joy to the World
six mornings a week for minimum wage
the woman with three fingers
serves the greasy eggs and bacon
coffee and cream
to all the tough faces
the old hairy moles
the saggy scalps
the hard of hearing
and harder to please
with this hive of damn-near-dead complainers
it’s a mystery she’s usually smiling
but if i had to guess
God has blessed her
cuz she still paints her nails pink
*If you write a poem, please send it to me at email@example.com. I’d love to connect and read your work and tell you about upcoming poetry workshops. I hope to write and share with you soon!
Link to “Bad Deal/Secret Plan” by theillalogicalspoon:
Ronnie Ferguson is an MFA candidate and an instructor in the English department at Northern Michigan University. A King Chavez Parks Fellow and President of the Graduate Writing Association, his creative work (often hybrid) spans the genres of poetry, music, film, theatre, fiction, and the visual arts.
Excerpted from the Fall 2021 issue of Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine. Copyright 2021, Empowering Lightworks, LLC. All rights reserved.