This writing exercise comes from Thirteen Ways Of Looking For A Poem by Wendy Bishop.
First, list four or five words for each of the following categories:
Flowers or plants
Types of landscape or weather
Parts of the body
Words you simply like the sound of
List quickly. Don’t overthink. Then circle five words. Those are your drive words. Now, go to a poem you like and circle five words that seem to resonate with the poet. When I choose drive words from a poem, I look for repetends, strong verbs and imagery.
Write five couplets. Each couplet must contain two drive words, one from your list and one from the other poet’s list. You are going to write a poem you wouldn’t otherwise write. Have fun. Putz around or rip through the couplets.
Like most poetry writing exercises, this doesn’t yield a finished poem. Instead, you’ll find an unexpected place to start with a new image or phrase or narrative.
I assigned this exercise to my creative writing classes last week. It’s an easy prompt to start but difficult to finish because we ask too much of our writing exercises. We don’t want any of the lines to land with a thunk. We want the right phrase on the first try. And exercises like this might take multiple attempts before we manage a so-so finish, which can feel like a waste of time but isn’t a waste at all if your writing expectation is to enjoy putting words on paper.
As an aside, I haven’t posted anything here for a month because we’ve been getting school off the ground, jumping into and out of our weekday routine (a week off for Eid, after two short weeks of school; a three day weekend for Islamic New Year), and I’ve been consumed with writing a bio for our job search (maybe more on the bio later as the process mirrored my seniors’ college application essay writing), and now I finally have a poem to post here and my kids are squabbling from top bunk to bottom bunk about feet and flashlights. So every bit that you just read was interrupted like ninety times. But I’m not quitting. Give me credit for not quitting yet.
Seven or eight notebook pages, mostly crossed-out lines and couplets. My drive words: weeds, silver, hip, field, please. From Wendy Bishop’s “Your Apple Tree”: link, crack, empty, fuel, unwilling.
From the first try, I wrote about my tight hip, an old injury that is healing, slowly. I wanted to write about the year I first noticed my muscles pulling my gait to one side, the sense something was wearing out but I didn’t want to stop long enough to heal because I had to keep running. I’d go out and run and run and run. I still do this, without good reason. Only that when I run, I calm.
But as I wrote through several drafts, I wasn’t sure I’d get to say everything I wanted to say while adhering to the rules. I left the exercise unfinished for a few days. Today I followed the rules.
Of This Hurt
When my hip cracks I see silver go white
I catch my breath, say what I say
when I pray Please […] Amen
This injury links hurt the length of
me: foot ankle shin knee hip neck/
pull strain swell pop break. I empty
my body. For years, unable (unwilling)
to see my heart, I ran a grid of fields –
corn, soybean, weeds – on a fuel of
restless anger. I think that is the cradle