Friday, April 15, 2016

The Elevator Exercise: A Poetry Prompt from Instructor Grace Cavalieri

In celebration of National Poetry Month, The Writer's Center is sharing prompts from current and past instructors. This installment includes a poetry prompt from Grace Cavalieri.

Photo Credit: Dan Murano.
The great spiritual leader Bryan Christopher once told me that we might consider life a building, with each floor representing a different year of our lives. When life is over, it’s as if we’re standing on a rooftop and a helicopter sweeps us away, and our building crumbles. But until that time, we have all these floors of memories: one for each year since birth.

Everything I hear, read, or study goes into my practice of teaching poetry and this was an ideal plan for an exercise. Even a 5-year-old has 5 floors jammed with presents, scoldings, happiness, tears. And those of us who are skyscrapers have material for poetry without end. All we have to do is push that elevator button and see where it stops. Surprisingly, I’ve found it’ll always stop on a significant floor. Then we get out and have a look around. On the tenth floor (age 10), did you see a bully in the school yard you couldn’t help? On the 16th floor, do you remember waiting for the date who never arrived? On the 20th, saying goodbye to someone you loved?

Every floor has a story and if we don’t find what we see on one floor, we can get back on the elevator and get off in another place. Run the scene like a film you’re watching and then write what you see, on the page, margin to margin. Don’t try to write a “Poem,” but an artifact, a relic. Write the story that you see and when you do, try to capture the smell of the lilacs, or the taste of the apple pie, or the cinders on your knees when you fell down. Relive, experience the sensual in the scene before you. What were you wearing? Who was there? What sounds did you hear?

My friend Robert Sargent, when he was 94, told me of a new poem he was writing, about when he was age 5—He lied to his mother about visiting the old lady across his street whom he’d been sent to cheer up. I said “Robert! You’re in the elevator of your life on the 5th floor. Look how many floors you have to keep writing!”

How do we make “story” into a poem? We start by having the writers read their prose narratives aloud. As the reader speaks, I slash a line on the board each time I hear a phrase in the reading. We go back and find those line lengths and then stack them vertically. Yes, there’s more to be done, absolutely, but the ground is broken and the poem is on its way.

Adult writers can go very deep with life experiences and that’s where the gold is. I always start writing sessions with meditations, because then when we go into our “buildings,” we’re all in the same psychic space, calmer, where it’s easier to access the truth. I also share some experiences of my own elevator rides, which were deeply moving and even wounding. Vulnerability is nothing to be ashamed of in our art.

In long-term teaching situations, the group can become very open over time and feel safe enough to share extremely personal experiences. Many writers stumble upon memories that were hurtful, but we’re not therapists and so we keep our comments to the writing: the tone, the diction, the intuition. That’s where the control is, on the page.

This exercise can be used with children to have them express the best presents ever received; best times remembered; when a puppy came or maybe sadly left. The major thing is not to be afraid of what a child may find on his/her floors. It may be emotional but keep it to the page. And validate the words.

I’ll share a few of my own elevator rides: some that felt good—and some otherwise.

Floor 3

Language Lesson

It was a day much like this,
grey with drizzle,
my mother took me visiting,
which was a big event—
She didn’t drive a car,
seldom went out.
How did we get there?
My father, perhaps, who
worked in a bank nearby.
He must have dropped us
by this large white house
with grand pillars.

I can’t imagine why
we were wanted there
but I met a boy my age.
I suppose that was it.
get the toddlers together,
ready to learn to play.

I assessed the toys,
and took my pick,
a brand new trike, and
oh how it went,
as shiny as it looked.
My new playmate ran crying
Filled with envy and
Me wants the bike.
Me wants it now.

I stopped. The wheels froze
on the rug as I looked
at my foe
            “ME wants the bike?”
I felt the sweet pleasure of
superiority, the first ache
of it, age three.
There would be no contest. I
could play as long as I liked.
I had him by the pronoun,
It was the happiest day of my life.
(Credit: Water on the Sun. Bordighera Press.)


Floor 4

To The Old Wine Of Memory

“You have no place here
for your intoxication is
different from Mine…Amir”

What is your place here
the more I give of you
the more I keep

The tress were closer then
next to the steps
close as the moment
I will walk through

It is Christmas
at my Grandmother’s house

when the family says
Let’s Pretend
She’s Not Getting A Doll
And See What She Does

Four years old,
but wise, I stood near
my sister’s doll,
blue velvet
with yellow curls,
the most beautiful
I’d ever seen
as if I were happy for her
so happy
I didn’t need one of my own

The joke didn’t work
my father said
So Here’s Yours
That was the box
I never opened
and never will

The house is imagining me again
It whispers Come Close
Forgive The Past
It warns
If You Lose Love
Where Will It Go

Winding up the clock with
Its language of meaning,
I sit in the sun
steam rising to my face,
If its heat suffocates
I’ll leave
taking my memory with me

I say to the past
“You were never a well-made thing.

Now what will your world be without me.”

(Credit: Trenton, Belle Mead Press.)


Floor 8 

Dates (excerpted)

In the third grade the pyramids were presented to us
by Miss O’Malley,
so kind she would—
in honor of learning—
give us the key to Egypt
if she could.
Who would like to bring in dates for all to taste?
Who can do this on the lunch hour? She asked.
Naturally I
 —who could not imagine how—
said I would—
and, like a child with enough money to spend, ran
with only an hour, one hour to ease
my dear mother who probably had
little money in the house, yet who bravely asked
“Shouldn’t you buy two packages for the class?”
I said No.
Love and fear divided my mind between
an ocean of children
and my mother’s troubled face,

“One package is all I need” I lied.
“Someone else will bring the rest.”
Eight dates for twenty children
which would taste so sweet—
Miss O’Malley, always kind, cut the tiny squares
and I kept interrupting, hoping they
wouldn’t notice. After all
there wasn’t water in the land of pyramids—was
not too many trees
Probably hungry people and small rations there as

That day every one of us was a reflection of the other—
the children who ate their portions,
the mother at home worrying about her daughter’s gift,
the child thinking about her mother’s face
and Miss O’Malley who, kind and earnest,
taught us all about a hardy people in an arid land
who gave what they could and could give nothing more.

(credit: Trenton. Belle Mead Press.)


There are many kinds of poems to try; and the personal narrative is just one form to explore. I’ve always had good luck with this exercise because the past goes nowhere at all. It’s waiting in the building of our lives, to make into poetry. And the older we are, the more there is to harvest.

Grace Cavalieri is a poet/playwright. She’s written several books and produced plays. Her latest is a memoir, Life Upon the Wicked Stage. She founded “The Poet and the Poem” on public radio, and celebrates 39 years on-air, now from the Library of Congress. She’s poetry reviewer and columnist for The Washington Independent Review of Books.

1 comment:

pat said...

You have read my writing mind as well as if you tipped my skull cap back and looked in. I love the imagery of the elevator. And running through the rooms. Amazing poetry. I will follow you now