I remember doing this exercise when I was a little girl; back then I didn’t know it was a kind of 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.