I admit, I’m a writing prompt snob. I don’t know how many ‘prompt a day’ type books I have bought (no names mentioned) that sit on the shelf after I flip through and discard such suggestions as ‘write a poem about your first day of kindergarten’ or begin a poem with ‘haste makes waste’. Really? With a cliche? Poetry prompts consisting of a phrase: ‘bucket list’, ‘fall leaves’, ‘all I ever wanted’ (go!) leave me cold. I’d rather begin with the Egyptian hieroglyphs above; actually I have done that. Or this:
The caption described this photo as the aftermath of a wax museum fire (go!); now that’s more like it. Or this:
A class of blind children at New York’s American Museum of Natural History in 1926. I love how the children are exploring and caressing the animals, maybe unaware of the ferocious poses of their taxidermy.
Besides odd photos and hieroglyphs, I love to use technical manuals: a clockmaker’s guide, pipe fitter’s manual; and terms like civil twilight and nature permanence; I found the latter, with definition, in one of my files, but was not able to find a reference for it again. I used it anyway. Maybe I made it up, all the better. I intended to give this prompt, which can also be found on the Found Poetry Review site, I’m really loving their prompts page. I took that particular prompt, a six page list of phrases most often encountered by beginning readers, and pasted it into a word document. Because it was originally in PDF, many of the phrases got mashed together, creating some pretty cool juxtapositions. My strategy was a combination of erasure and free association. I jumped around between the six pages and came up with a sparse two-page poem that may contain a few of the original phrases. The prompt lured a poem from my subconscious, a poem which may not have been written otherwise, certainly not in that format. It was the generative process at its best; and that’s what a great prompt can do. Amen.
I recently stumbled upon a list of phobias. The list seems pretty comprehensive to me. Who knew there were people afraid of plants: botanophobia or gaiety: cherophobia. I took a few, somewhat related phobias, then branched out into compulsions, which resulted in the following poem. Check out the phobia list and pick a few for your own poem.
I’ll be leading some unsuspecting workshop participants through writing exercises like these at my Found Poetry Project workshop in early June. There are still spaces available; the workshop won’t be just a sit-in-your-chair-and-write affair, we’ll be wandering, eavesdropping, free associating all over the place and, finally, using a little Mod Podge because it’s Squam after all. Here’s my phobia poem:
You Are Not Grass
The last wild passenger pigeon was called
‘Buttons’ because the mother of the boy who shot it,
stuffed the bird and sewed black buttons for eyes.
People with Ekbom Syndrome imagine
they’re infested with mites.
It’s possible the entire Buttons family
an aspect of which is Folie à Deux
(madness between two) where another person
living with the sufferer develops symptoms—
as in an actual infestation.
All wild things have kleptophobia:
the fear of being stolen, as well
as cleithrophobia: the fear of being trapped.
I did, after the divorce and my mother began dating—
fear of being adopted by a man
wearing slacks and brown saddle shoes, (automaton
ophobia?) who winked at me and promised to return
my mother at a decent hour. Whose accent
was Midwestern, who pronounced his R’s
so long they became words in their own right,
words at the ends of words; his R’s
like grappling hooks, like a crocodile-
purse with yellow eyes.
Why is the fear of being trapped a clinical phobia,
while the compulsion to slit and stuff a thing
not listed in the DSM?
Nature permanence is the healthy acceptance
that you are not grass but human, beneficial
if you suffer from hylophobia, fear of trees,
not so helpful if you have Cotard delusion
and know you’re not only human, but a corpse.
Related to Cotard is xenomelia: the feeling
that one’s limbs don’t belong to the body,
chirophobia: fear of hands, and worse apotemnophilia,
where a person disowns the limbs,
yearns to live life as an amputee: la liberte de l’auto
(freedom from self).
Why the insistence that an animal
have black buttons, yellow marbles, key holes
for eyes? that its entrails be replaced
with horsehair and rags? that the peppery dots
swarming the blanket aren’t mites? What are the chances
that a man who flashes his teeth when he talks
doesn’t bite? To fear is animal.
To create out of fear must be human—
slits to let the mites out, stuffing
the last wild passenger pigeon
because it’s the last, tweezing steel shot
like beautiful beadwork out of its breast. Phantom limbs
when real hands become too dangerous.