The English poet Hugo Williams tells his students that ‘the object is to find out something you didn’t know by collaborating with the language, that poetry is research, not self-expression’. Make the alphabet your research tool and see what it might turn up for you.
The alphabet is both fixed and open. Everybody knows its order, which is why we use it when we want to find things (in indexes, dictionaries, directories and so on). It can give you a tight structure – a poem in the form of multi-choice answers to a set of questions, perhaps – or it can give you a wildly suggestive alphabet soup, a sequence of triggers towards things you didn’t know you had it in you to say.
Get reckless and playful with the ideas you bring to it, and the shapes you make with it. What if the next sentence of your poem has to begin with the next letter of the alphabet from the one that began the previous sentence? David Eggleton’s ‘New Chants of Ngati Katoa (Time of the Icebergs) has each of its 26 stanzas begin with the sequential letters of the alphabet. The titles of the poems in Mary Jo Bang’s book The Bride of E make the same sequential progress. What if you wrote a poem – or a sequence of poems – in the form of an ABC, each poem providing a definition (realistic, fantastical, suprising) of the word in its title? What if you used an alphabetical form such as the index of an existing book and made a found poem out of the entries, as Jenny Bornholdt does in her poem ‘Joseph Cornell – an index’ (These Days)? What if, like novelist Georges Perec, you decide to write a story in which you forbid yourself the use of one of the vowels (in his novel La Disparition, translated as A Void, Perec never uses the letter ‘e’)? Or, like Christian Bök, you decide to write a poem in which the only vowel allowed is the letter ‘a’? (Actually he wrote a whole book like this, in five sections, one for each of the vowels – it’s called Eunoia, and has sold tens of thousands of copies).
The alphabet doesn’t have to take over the entire structure of a piece of writing: you might just use it to generate a title that’s both surprising and apt (like Richard von Sturmer’s We Xerox Your Zebras) – and then write the poem your title suggests. You could pick up seven Scrabble tiles to give you a random set of letters with which to start the first seven lines of a poem, a bit like throwing dice.
Or try using the n+7 constraint devised by the OuLiPo school of writers: take someone else’s poem and replace every noun in it with the seventh noun that comes after it in the dictionary (James Brown did this with a poem by Jenny Bornholdt, although he confesses to a bit of manipulation of the odds by using multiple dictionaries and choosing the noun that best suited his purpose – a little bit of cheating is OK once the poem’s underway and telling you what it needs.)
The alphabet’s been good to me. Crossed with a version of the sestina form that rotates the words at the beginnings, rather than the ends of lines, its first six letters allowed me to generate six names and therefore six characters who then became part of a narrative poem (‘Six Thinkers’) – in other words, I had tricked myself into writing a story. Using the form of a biographical dictionary for inspiration, it gave me concept and structure for a whole book (Brief Lives).
So it’s ‘the alphabet + your idea’ that gets the poem or story going. The phone directory may be alphabetical, but it’s just the phone directory – nobody reads that for pleasure or entertainment, right? Nonetheless, it contains multitudes. For instance: if you plucked 26 names (one for each letter of the alphabet) and street addresses out of the phone book, and wrote a short piece of prose imagining who that person was and what they might be doing and thinking of, who they might be worrying about or ignoring today – well then, you might just have an imaginary day in the life of a suburb or town – maybe yours – in 26 short paragraphs. The double helix of the human DNA code creates complex creatures from just four ‘letters’: what’s possible with the full 26?
Extract from The Exercise Book forthcoming from VUP, due in all good book stores from December 9th.