In celebration of National Poetry Month, The Writer’s Center is sharing prompts from current and former instructors. This installment includes a prompt from Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers.
This group poetry prompt is inspired by one of the assignments given at The Kenyon Review Young Writers’ Workshop. Though the prompt was originally intended for a group of teenagers, it works well for a group of poets at any age or level. It is great as an in-class exercise and for building a sense of trust within the group.
The group of poets chooses an existing poem to serve as the foundation of their creation. Any poem will do, but it should be one that has striking individual lines. In my classes, for example, we’ve often used “A Little Traveling Music” by Colleen McElroy:
This is not a planet I would want to inherit—
With its inventory of mountainous sorrows
There is hardly a place to lay a good night’s
Sleep before tomorrow’s bad news arrives,
And hardly a road I want to travel.
I know these woods are no longer gentle
And love no longer runs through dry grass
Clean as the country we once dreamed of—
Out here hard times grind into thin skin
With needle tracks and pock marks
That make the going rough even for those
Of us who have gone straight.
Listen to the reports: arteries and alternates
Twist and back up all the way out, cyclists
Spin out in heavy water and trashy sunlight.
Long distance hauls jackknife in lanes too narrow
To carry weight limits for any major move, and Western
High rises are clogged to the exits—I can’t get home,
Can’t get back to ghettos where uncles drove jitneys
Because white cabbies couldn’t read the English
Of broken street signs, even in broad daylight.
I want something more than a two-lane either-or
World mapped by tribal law, or reflections
Of my grandmother stuck black in a window, watching
The traffic of each year move faster, sighing,
“We all got to go when the wagon comes.”
And when it comes—its doors open—I want more
Than the temptation to go in and see if I have arrived
At century’s end without stalling out on bad memory.
Each member of the group will choose a complete line that appeals to them (such as “High rises are clogged to the exits—I can’t get home,” or “Sleep before tomorrow’s bad news arrives”). They should then each write short poem of their own, using McElroy’s line as the first line of their new poem. When each person has finished writing an individual poem, the group comes together again.
One person agrees to read the original McElroy poem out loud. When each poet hears his or her chosen line read, they should interrupt by reading their own poem aloud. (If two poets have chosen the same line, they can go one after the other.) The reader will continue with the McElroy poem until it is finished, pausing periodically while poets insert their spin-off contributions. The result of the exercise will be that the original poem will have a series of new poems “embedded” within. This aural experience of this amazing, creating a kind of poetic symphony, with different voices entering and exiting throughout.
Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers’s debut poetry collection is Chord Box (University of Arkansas Press, 2013), finalist for the 2014 Lambda Literary Award and the Miller Williams Prize. She has taught at Tulane University, Cornell University, and Kenyon College, where she was also the 2012-2014 Kenyon Review fellow in poetry. She remains a contributing editor at The Kenyon Review, and has published her poems and nonfiction widely.