Making the Surreal Poem, On Purpose! (A Prompt)


Over the last month I’ve been intensively preparing for my Found Poetry Workshop at the Squam Arts Retreat in early June. I’ve compiled binders, ripped up books for repurposing into poems, separated the pronouns and articles from the ‘big’ words in my magnetic poetry horde, done a lot of hole punching (discovered I’m not good at hole punching), but I primarily collected and devised prompts and example poems derived from the prompts.  I now have a full-fledged six hour workshop which had previously been a few ideas kicking around in the ether. I also have a boatload of prompts. I’ve posted a lot here about prompts, but I really only use them sometimes. My use of a prompt looks something like this: read the prompt, sit down with the intention of following the prompt, begin writing to the prompt, take a left and never return. Prompts work for me the way they’re supposed to I guess, they work too good, but never the way the prompt-writer would have intended. Except….. The following prompt is unique, can be applied to almost any piece of writing, is kind of like a party game and will result in a poem I’m categorizing ahead of time as surreal. Have you read those poetry collections where you have no clue what any of the poems are about but you understand the language and are happy to go along for the ride? Surreal poem alert! Now, there are plenty of bad surreal poems which juxtapose disparate things left and right and never surprise, dazzle or deliver substance, or do surprise, dazzle and still not deliver any substance. But, I don’t want to get all William Logan on you. Logan once wrote of Louise Gluck’s poetry: ” The lines are long, the poems sputtering on, sometimes for pages, until they finally run out of gas, as if they were the first drafts of a torpid afternoon.” Ouch! Let’s not think a bit about what William Logan would make of our little exercise. Here it is:

Write about a memory of an intense experience with another person (or just an intense experience) about 3 sentences. Interrupt this with 3 sentences about a dramatic weather event, memory or otherwise, followed by 2 to 4 more sentences about the intense personal experience (about a para. in all) Cut the writing in half vertically with a piece of paper and transcribe.


Write anything you want and cut it in half vertically. Take an existing poem and cut it in half. Or, how about this, cut it in half HORIZONTALLY! The point of the exercise is to fragment your piece of writing, creating accidental meaning and connections that could lead to something wholly new. Try as I might, my brain appreciates story, sense, logic. Sometimes I have to trick it into lightening up a little. When I do this exercise, I usually end up with a passable surreal poem containing a few lines or images I’m happy to have discovered. Here’s my version, which does not include any weather, because I liked this one better than the one with weather in it. I like some of the juxtaposition in this, but think I’ll be keeping the original. And don’t forget, if you cut a word in half, use it. Try to ‘transcribe’ faithfully.


on every side

that led into one

large enough for us to hide

beveled and caught.

dipped donuts

us to eat

that octagonal

part of our visits

orange carpet I don’t want to

mean to imply

was the color of dried blood

little house so clean

learned it

muffled every noise, all

nets were oversized

Hansel and Gretel

white little red riding hood

enormous. I think it was a trend.

blown and distorted

leered out from the pages

the collective beauties

candlesticks and cushions

wolf even.

A Review of Split the Crow on Poet Hound


Paula Cary of the blog Poet Hound has kindly written and posted a review of Split the Crow. For all of you who don’t eat, sleep and breathe poetry or agonize over such things as reviews, selling a few books, and giving a reading once in a while, let me tell you, getting a review for a book of poetry seems as challenging as convincing a six-year-old to visit the dentist. No, I’m not comparing reviewers to six-year-olds, but it is tough out here in the trenches.

20 Questions: A Poetry Prompt

Call and Response

I got the original for this prompt in Wingbeats: Exercises & Practice in Poetry a collection of in-depth, creative, sometimes simple, sometimes complicated poetry prompts by different poets. The prompts could also be adapted for other genres. The original prompt, titled: Teaching Imagination, was created by Blas Falconer. I plan to use it in my found poetry workshop in June, so I’ve altered it and added some additional components to suit my goals. I used a few of the prompt’s original questions and made up the others. It would also be fun to collect oddball questions from different sources. This prompt would lend itself to all kinds of variations and extensions.

The Basics: Answer the following 20 questions on index cards, one card for each answer. The original prompt says to form your answers as complete sentences, but I found that can result in homogenous sentences that begin ‘I was’, ‘I did’, ‘I went’. So I’ve altered the prompt and am encouraging you to mix things up. Write some very short sentences, some longer, and some incomplete sentences, two-word phrases, basic images. Once you’ve answered the questions and have 20 index card answers, choose 10 and play around with their order for your poem. You can write the ‘poem’ down as is, or add connective tissue.

Variations: Call and Response: On 20 additional cards, write the questions. Now mismatch questions and answers to create a call and response poem. These questions answered straightforwardly would not be good fodder for the call and response poem, but could be strange and off-kilter enough when mismatched. The beauty of the call and response is its strangeness, the way the questions and answers exist on different plains and the freedom the poet has to consider the questions metaphorically, to write from an illogical place. This prompt could also be done with ‘questions’ from odd sources or questions taken out of context, like this one from an 1877 Catholic Catechism: “Must we then not make any image at all?”. This question is in relation to the making of graven images, but taken out of context could be answered in all sorts of creative ways. Form: Use 14 answer cards to make a sonnet, try to adhere to the form’s tenets. Make a Pantoum (4 line stanzas, the 2nd and 4th lines of each stanza are the 1st and 3rd lines of the next). Use as many cards as you’d like to make the pantoum long or short. Haiku and Tanka are other possible forms. Or, create a poem from your answers and then actually write the Haiku or Tanka in the spirit of your poem.

I love this and the other prompts in ‘Wingbeats’ because they simultaneously encourage writing with some kind of imposed rules or form and free-play with words, images, ideas;  breaking and remaking what you’ve already written.

As I said, I think this prompt could be endlessly altered and branched. You could add questions and thus have more answers to choose from. Play around and let me know what you come up with.

The Questions:

  1. Who named you? Why did they choose your name? What does your name mean?
  2. How near do you live to the place where you were born?
  3. How are the landscape of your birthplace and your current residence different?
  4. What is one scene or image from a movie that has stayed with you?
  5. Describe the last dream you can vividly recall?
  6. Describe a scar you have and how you got it. (skip if you have no scars)
  7. Write something in another language (do your best)
  8. What is your favorite bird? for plumage? for song? other? Describe its plumage and song.
  9. When was the last time you had a laughing fit. Who were you with? What were the circumstances?
  10. If you have a tattoo, describe it, why did you choose it? If you don’t have a tattoo why have you made that choice?
  11. Describe your first job.
  12. What’s your earliest memory?
  13. What natural landscape suits you best? What landscape do you have an aversion to?
  14. Do you sleep on your back, stomach or side?
  15. Describe the kind of child you were.
  16. Write a sentence that begins: “I’d be lying if I said…”
  17. If you could change one thing in your life what would it be?
  18. How do you visualize the days of the week (grid, line, calendar, other?)
  19. Describe a disaster without naming it.
  20. Write a sentence that includes the words: sinter, thin, blades.

Massachusetts Poetry Festival and Salem (A Photo Diary with More Landscape than People)

IMG_0105 I made my way out to the eastern part of the state on Friday for the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, held in Salem every year in early May. I was born and raised in the eastern part of the state and brave Route 495 every few months to see family or get further north, but it’s truly a different world. Drivers on Route 128 on a late Friday afternoon don’t want to pass you so much as drive through your car. And that’s in the “slow” lane! My life is about as predictable and staid as an anchorite’s, so the Mass Poetry Fest (tiny in comparison to AWP) felt like a boatload of socializing to me. And I wasn’t the only one: poets were dropping like flies from overstimulation. The Panel Zero to One: First Books and What We Wish We’d Known, which I’m a proud member of and have taken part in twice, went off without a hitch on Saturday afternoon. We had a full house and some great questions. I saw the poet Gregory Pardlo give his first reading as a Pulitzer prize winning poet. Saw Cynthia Cruz, who I imagined would be kind of tough (poetry subject matter) but who was slight in stature and sweet-voiced.  I met up with my first poetry professor and a former classmate (it’s been 20 years!), had lunch with poets, spotted Rita Dove and Richard Blanco, met new poets and had dinner with poets, talked about poetry, spent too much at the book fair, felt a bit horrified at the way Salem’s tragic witch trial history has been trivialized and commercialized. It would be like Americans in 400 years creating the equivalent of a 911 amusement park. Sadly, it adds up to historical ignorance and amnesia. The Salem witch trial story is fascinating on both a historic and social level, and there are some interesting theories as to what caused a group of girls to accuse half the town of witchcraft, sending pious citizens to the gallows. But I’ll save that for another post. Finally, on my last day, I found the ocean, where it seems only people with dogs and children converge. The smell of sea air and the peace of the vast Atlantic could only have been improved upon if the temps were above 50. I had to come home to the western hills for that!

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