Word Stabbing with Therese Lloyd

I remember doing this exercise when I was a little girl; back then I didn’t know it was a kind Therese Lloyd 2012of writing exercise of course, I was just having fun with words. But I figure a sense of play is still the essential component of any writing exercise even if I am a grownup now.

So before we begin, just to clarify, this exercise is completely lacking in sophistication; it’s the sort of thing that you can do prone and with one eye half open. But if you want to get something down on that glowering piece of paper (‘the piano crouched in the corner of the room with all its teeth bare’ as Nick Cave says), this’ll do it.


• Chose a collection of poems by a single poet (no anthologies)

• Open the book at any page

• Close your eyes

• With one hand, index finger pointed, make grand-ish gesticulations* in the air

• Then with your eyes still closed bring that finger down onto the open page

• Open your eyes … there is a word under that finger! Write down the word

• Repeat this twenty times, each time opening the book at any page

• Once you have your twenty words start writing a poem that uses all of those words as the structural foundation

Things to note:

If your finger hits a blank space on the page or an article, conjunction or preposition just chose the nearest interesting looking word (whatever you deem that to be) or flick open the book and repeat the process. Try to be as loose as possible though and don’t be put off by a word that you find ugly or out of your ken, and similarly don’t seek a word that you think might ‘fit’.

You can use the words in any order and as many times as you like and you can change the tense to fit.

The great thing about this exercise is once you start composing your poem you can shoot off in any direction you like, in fact, the more open you are to the possibilities the better; after-all, at this stage these are just twenty lone words with no meaning attached to them.

Although we’ve probably all done exercises like this at some point, what’s fun about this one is that you can still get the satisfaction of having written a poem but without dredging your soul for themes or images—the subject tends to emerge as you go along.

The other good thing about this exercise is the marvelous happy accidents that can occur. From Paterson by William Carlos Williams amongst the list of twenty words I picked was this little cluster; ‘old, unoccupied, clouds’, how lovely!

While it’s not essential that you use a single poet’s collection, I encourage it because it’s a novel way to get a sense of a specific poet’s lexicon. Doing this exercise with Wallace Stevens for example may yield a lot of shape, pink, voice, high, concentric etc, with Lyn Heijinian, burlap, bounded, realized, brick etc.

Have fun and remember, no one’s watching.

*not strictly necessary but lends a certain mysticism to the exercise; writers are part magician after-all.

Therese Lloyd’s poems have appeared in a number of print and online publications including Sport, Landfall, Hue & Cry, the AUP series New Zealand Poets in Performance, Jacket2 and Turbine. In 2007 she was awarded the Schaeffer Fellowship to spend a year attending the acclaimed Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Several cities later, she now lives in Paekakariki with her husband. Her debut collection Other Animals is published in March.


Twelve Poetry Prompts from the mistress of lists – Cath Vidler

1. Choose an interior-orientated object (e.g. a framed tapestry, a desk
lamp) and place it in an unfamiliar exterior context (e.g. zoo, a traffic
island). Make a poem that responds to the transplantation.

2. Imagine a vase filled with synthetic flowers. Write a poem whose
intention is to convince us that the flowers are real.

3. If you have any “scraps” or “fragments” of poetry lying around, gather them up and, without pondering the connections (or lack there-of) between them, bring them together using one of the following forms:

– list
– pantoum
– haiku

4. Write a “birthday cake” poem (three layers, 12 candles).

5. Write a “quartet” poem i.e. a poem with four stanzas, where each stanza
is written in a discrete, yet harmonising, voice.

6. Try and draft the most boring 10 line poem you can imagine. Choose
seven words from your poem and replace each of them with an ice-cream
flavour. Re-draft your poem (if necessary).

7. Make a poem that responds to one of the following musical terms:

– al niente (to nothing)
– dal niente (from nothing)
– ghost note (a musical note with a rhythmic value, but no discernible pitch when played)

8. Take a poem you have already written, or a poem by someone else. Write
that poem’s non-identical twin.

9. Write a count-down syllabic poem e.g. a 15 line poem where the first
line has 15 syllables and each subsequent line’s count decreases by one

10. Write two versions of the same poem: “plugged” and “un-plugged”.

11. Write a list of adjective-noun pairs where adjectives are chosen for
the sounds they make, not for their meanings.

12. Write a very short, yet potently flavoured, ode to your favourite

Cath Vidler edits trans-Tasman literary magazine Snorkel, and her first poetry collection “Furious Triangle” was published by Puncher and Wattmann in 2011. Cath has been a member of two fantastic IIML workshops: Creative Writing in the Marketplace (convened by Chris Price in 2001) and the Young Adult Fiction Masterclass (convened by Kate de Goldi in 2003) and her ongoing enthusiasm for lists was inspired by the introduction of “Great Lists Of Our Time” to the IIML newsletter in 2002.

Poetry Tips from Brian Turner

Here are some poetry writing tips. Brian Turner prepared them for students at the National Schools’ Writing Festival a few years back.

1.     A poem need not make plain sense, or be explicable, but it has to have an inner logic. It has to take the reader with it.

2.     Craft is paramount – and craft entertains craftiness. The importance of technique – working at shape/form – cannot be underestimated. Technique is freedom.

3.     Strive to strike the right note. Work on the tone. This often means discovering the

appropriate voice. Unless the reader believes a poem is important to the poet, it won’t affect the reader or linger in his or her mind.

4.     Follow your ear. Dredge your mind. Go where you are led until you can’t go any further, then stop and look around. Ask, what have we here?

5.     Revise, revise, revise. Shape, cut or add if necessary. If you are uneasy about some aspect of a poem – an image or a phrase – then usually you have cause to be. There is nearly always something that needs to be fixed.

6.     Sentiment’s okay, to a degree; sentimentality or sop are not.

7.     What you say is important; how you say it equally important.

8.     If you want to be taken seriously then you have to take your writing very seriously. Don’t be without a notebook.

9.     Read other poets; read widely, and think hard about what you read. Find ways of working that suit you. Learn to recognise what it is that starts a poem off in your head.

10.  Look and listen. Writing is a way of conversing with your sub-conscious and bringing it to life. Sound is often just as important as sense.

11.  Read and reread your work.

12.  Lineation/line breaks may be instinctive but not random.

13.  Don’t use figures of speech you are accustomed to seeing in print unless you know what you are doing and why – for ironic purposes, for example.

14.  Verbs and nouns make for good writing. Beware of adverbs and be suspicious if you find too many adjectives plonked in front of nouns.

Brian Turner is one of New Zealand’s leading poets. His most recent book is Inside Outside .  His first collection, Ladders of Rain (1978) won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, and his sixth, Beyond (1992), the New Zealand Book Award for Poetry. He was New Zealand Poet Laureate 2003-2005. His acclaimed work in other genres includes co-authorship of the autobiographies of All Black stars Josh Kronfeld and Anton Oliver, a biography of Colin Meads, significant contributions to Timeless Land and The Art of Grahame Sydney, and Into the Wider World: A Back Country Miscellany.