No Ideas, But In Things

This exercise comes from 3 AM Epiphany by Brian Kiteley. 3 AM Epiphany is one of many writing books I’ve browsed in bookstores or spotted on colleagues’ shelves but never bothered reading past a few flipped pages. But a few weeks ago a colleague and I were talking about teaching creative writing and he mentioned how much he loves this book, how great the exercises are for writers. He sounded like me talking about Writing Down The Bones or What If? Later that day I bought the book and found the first exercise I wanted to try.

No Ideas, But In Things

Write a very brief story told only in images – concrete, simple, visually efficient movements and details. This exercise does not ask you to eliminate people from your prose, just too watch what they do and what objects they crave and caress rather than what they say or think about these objects and actions. 300 words.

The book says more about the exercise itself but this was the direction I reread when beginning again. Two comments more, from the book: The phrase no ideas, but in things comes from William Carlos Williams, who firmly believed in presenting the world the way it looked… And: If you need an operating metaphor for this exercise , think in terms of a silent movie or the moments when a contemporary film truly uses visual storytelling.

This is a challenging exercise. I started with two separate images in my mind: a walk up a hill for coffee and a woman digging in dirt. But then I included the narrator’s thoughts. (Which fails the exercise). And then I blew the 300 word limit by a thousand. But go ahead and do the same, for the practice. Or try writing a few short-short, connected pieces.

Here is the yield.


Isaac walked up the hill for coffee. The walk up the hill was shadowed. On one side of the quiet street was a cement wall painted white and from the other side of the wall trees grew tall enough to shadow the street. On the wide sidewalk where he walked, smaller trees with smooth bark were planted in dirt squares bordered by red brick. The roots of these smooth bark trees were just beginning to lift slabs of sidewalk at a corner to catch the toe of a shoe, make a stutter step. Isaac walked up the hill for coffee and to think a little before returning to campus to pick up his grade twos from P.E. or art or music, one of the specials that gave him this moment to walk up the hill.

He went to a place called Zoo Coffee which served coffees and juices and sandwiches without meat. The barista knew enough English to spare him gestures. She would duck her head a little and turn to tamp espresso grounds, press buttons, add a pump of syrup. He would take his drink, sit at the long table near the front of the cafe. He would take out his phone and scroll through the news, reread an email he should reply to, like photos his sister posts. At two or three other tables, housewives or women his mother’s age sat with their cups and small plates of cake or rolls but he didn’t look at them, only knew  they were there. After ten or so minutes he would push back his chair, bow slightly at the barista who echoed his kamsahamnida. Then he walked back down the hill to campus to prepare his room for the next morning or do paperwork or discover where one of the students hid morning snack. At 2:13 he would pick up his grade twos for the very last part of the school day.

When he walked up the hill he might see an older man with a dog on a leash or a woman pushing a stroller or a man or woman walking with hands clasped at the back. He might not walk up the hill for coffee if the street was loud, if he had to cross a busy intersection, if he bumped into others.

One afternoon he saw an old Korean woman squatting  by a smooth bark tree, trailing a finger over the hardened dirt, around a root. The tree was the first on its block, at the bottom of the hill. Isaac neared the old woman, ready to bow a greeting, but the woman was intent at the pattern she made with the pads of her fingers, quiet waves radiating from the base of the tree. He continued up the hill. She was there when he walked down the hill, coffee in hand. She did not show she heard him walk by.

On Monday morning, after walking his class to art (walking feet, walking feet! Thank you), Isaac checked his phone for messages and emails, saw he had no meetings, nothing he couldn’t do in twenty minutes when he was back, and walked out the back gate, turned right to go up the hill. The old woman was at the fourth tree now, squatting nearest the curb. She must start the day at one side, he thought, and circle her way around the tree as the day goes. Again, the old woman did not look up as Isaac passed her on the way to Zoo Coffee or when he returned, caramel macchiato in hand. He stopped at the bottom of the hill before crossing and turned to watch her. He took a drink of coffee. It was  a little too sweet but he didn’t buy a caramel macchiato every day. Most days he filled his mug at a colleague’s ever brewing pot. He took another drink. The old woman reminded him of his mother or grandmother, both of them gardeners who didn’t squat but knelt at the soil, who spoke to the soil as this old woman was now doing. Isaac couldn’t hear any language sounds but the woman’s lips moved. She nodded agreement or affirmation.

On Tuesday Isaac was right. The old woman was at the fifth tree and on Wednesday, at the sixth tree. Her posture and attentiveness remained the same. Her clothes changed but Isaac wouldn’t have noticed if he were not now watching for this old woman. She wore patterned blouses and pants and this too reminded him of his mother and grandmother – as they wore endless combinations of black and gray, this woman seemed to have a closet composed of wildflower and rose prints. On Thursday the old woman was halfway up the hill at the seventh tree. On Friday she looked up as Isaac passed and said in English, Is here. She patted the dirt with her small palm, erased the waves she’d made. Isaac squatted next to her. What’s here, he asked. What is here? He pointed to the dirt. The old woman began to make waves again. Isaac felt a twinge in his knee. His thighs burned. He wondered how she squatted like that, hours a day he guessed, without her limbs going to needles. He asked again, What is here? but the old woman didn’t seem to hear and when she shifted her weight to move she didn’t look at Isaac to ask with her eyes that he move over too. He stood then, stepped back so the old woman could have her next place. He wiggled his toes to wake his calves, bowed his head in a farewell the old woman didn’t see and walked up the hill to order a caramel macchiato even though he was tired of caramel macchiatos.

He was surprised by the old woman’s English. He wondered if he imagined the English. If his brain reconstructed the old woman’s sounds into a word he could hear. He wanted to know her name. He opened a translation app on his phone, typed

my name is
what is your name

and practiced making his mouth and tongue fit the pronunciations. He looked up

what are you doing

and went to bed thinking of this old woman tending dirt, just drifting when he remembered to email his father in the morning to wish him a happy birthday.

The next day, Friday, Isaac wasn’t certain he would see the old woman. He had a team meeting in the morning and report card comments were due at the end of the day. He typed through lunch and his second prep, pausing only for refills from his colleague’s ever brewing pot. All day Isaac thought of the old woman, of the designs she drew in the dirt. He practiced his phrases in whispers. At the end of the day, a little jittery from a skipped lunch and the ever brewing coffee, he cut through the back gate to see if the old woman was still at the tree she would have been at all day. She was there. Isaac practiced his phrases. They jumbled on his lips. He slowed his steps, took out his phone, opened the app and typed

my name is Isaac

watched the Hangul characters appear. He looked up.

Her head was low on her breast, like her neck was the neck of a duck, able to bend, turn, tuck. She was still. For a moment Isaac thought she was sleeping. Her hands were at the dirt, fingers spread but curled at the knuckles like claws on a perch. The dirt was brushed, fanned, swiped away from the tree roots. There were divots in the packed earth. Pocks. It was then the old woman uncurled her fingers so her hands rested flat. Her nails were broken, peeled back, packed with dirt. She was bleeding. Isaac held his breath without knowing. His thumb moved and a woman’s voice intoned a string of syllables and his name. The old woman’s head swiveled. Isaac felt his empty lungs. She looked at him – she might have glared – and then looked away, but Isaac didn’t understand if she said anything to him in that moment she held his gaze, before her head was back at her breast.

Her shoulders lifted, ribs expanded with a full inhalation which she let go in a shudder. Isaac realized the old woman was crying. He took a breath as full as hers, slid his phone in his back pocket. He stood above this sad woman, wanting to say something but all he knew was hello, thank you and how to say shrimp when ordering kimbap.

Isaac bent a little at the waist, reached a hand to touch the old woman’s shoulder. He hesitated, fingertips hovering where his own shoulders tightened, and then she drew another giant breath so her shoulders rose to his fingertips and he kept his hand steady through her shuddering exhale. She didn’t flinch or turn stone or scoot away. He kept his hand steady on her warm shoulder where a tight cord tied to a delicate knob of bone and they stayed like that for a while until Isaac’s back pinched near the waist from leaning over this old woman, sorry for something he didn’t know.

One Situation, Three Flash Fiction Pieces

I’ve been working on one school’s application for two weeks and I wish that was an exaggeration. The application is made up of tough questions I can’t answer in the space provided, questions that would meet a pause before answering in an interview. I understand the thoroughness of the process – the school is Christian in deed, not just name, and administrators want to know not only what kind of teacher I am but also how my faith works. And in between drafting and revising the application for this school, I’m writing cover letters to other places too.

This is not a post about job search stuff though. This is a post about how I missed writing fiction and joined a class for one of my favorite exercises from What If? which is to write five mini-stories of a single situation. 

Situation examples:
Mom walks into her daughter’s room
Two strangers next to each other on a plane
Someone takes something from someone else

I stole the last idea from a student (apropos) but only managed three mini-stories. Even so, what fun and challenge to step away from cover letter land.


Some Of Us Know
The sophomores were stealing again. Mr. Shannon already talked about it at the grade level assembly in October, then again in December. Don’t leave your bags around, he said, but the kids all left their bags in heaps outside the canteen or strewn like dots on the outside of the track. Security and maintenance staff had to show their backpacks, turn out their pockets at the end of a shift. Then the scholarship kids got called in one by one. A girl named Valentina laughed when Mr. Shannon asked if she knew who was stealing. You think it’s me, she said, Because I wear sandals from Bata?

It was too easy, Eduardo found. And fun, to slow his breathing and steady his pulse. The first time he stole on a dare. He took the slim phone to a booth in Unicentro, swapped the sim card and sold it for the cost of a good sushi dinner to a taxi driver. Now, in history class, Eduardo saw a rose gold line under a paperback on Catalina’s desk. He hadn’t stolen from a girl before. He had a small collection of black and silver devices at the back of his wardrobe that he almost wanted his maid to find, for the relief of contrition and repentance. Daniel and Santiago hadn’t stolen since right before winter break. Eduardo wasn’t sure anyone else was still in the game.

Catalina looked up then. Eduardo didn’t look away. She bent over her notebook, one hand cupped around what she wrote. Then she tore the page from its spiral and folded it over twice. Catalina held the note in her hand. Eduardo got up and walked over to her, took the note. His heart was wild. He sat at his desk again and unfolded the paper. Some of us know. Eduardo swallowed. He could feel Catalina waiting. He looked up but she was only bent over a book, her finger following the lines.

I Give You
For a week I do not put you in a bassinet or crib. I hold you against my breast, let you suck. I have no milk yet. I have only white pain at your strong suck. For a week I wait for my milk to come and you pull at the nipple, turn away, sleep, wake to pull again while I believe all the literature I read about colostrum nourishing you until my body decides the milk comes. I drink a beer. There is something about the malt. I remember a woman saying a beer relaxes the mother, reminds her body to let go. I hold you and wonder what I need to let go. Women carry emotion in their hips, I read.

My hips sink into the sofa. Paper dolls come with little skirts or shorts that fold over the abdomen, the upper thigh. That’s what hurts, the middle band of my body, like my hips opened all their doors and everything fell out. Your suck tightens my uterus. I know this is good. I read it was good.

I haven’t held a baby in years but now, you fit my arms. You snug against my belly. You flop over my shoulder. When you are nursing, I watch your jaw work. I touch the nape of your neck. This is the most delicate we are, together, and I have this surge that goes up my body that makes me say out loud, Be careful. I am so tired. For a week I have dozed and started, afraid to let go of you. But now I am tired and make a little nest for you on the floor next to the sofa and I stretch my legs out and close my eyes. We sleep for a long time.

When I wake, my breasts are engorged. I read this might happen. How the milk comes fast and fills the soft tissue to bursting. I sit up. I need you more now. I pick you up and hold you to my breast, help you latch because the nipple isn’t slipping easily into your mouth. I watch your jaw work. My breast is like a firework, warm sparks of milk letting down and you choke, pull away. My breasts are leaking and I help you again. You find a steady suck and I think of the empty cradle of my hips, the better weight of you in my arms, and I wonder what we will hold together as we make our way.

What I Can Do
Tasha’s daughter came down the stairs one morning with her hair combed in a slant across her face. Tasha said, “Lizzi, I can’t see your eyes,” and reached a hand to brush aside the curtain but Lizzi ducked away, went to the cupboard for a bowl. “You look mysterious,” Tasha said but Lizzi only hunched over her cereal. When the style lasted a few days, Tasha suggested they go to the Cut ‘n Curl next weekend, have the fringe done like that actress that’s everywhere, what’s her name. Lizzi didn’t answer. “Would you like that?” Tasha asked. Lizzi said she guessed so. A year ago, Lizzi dyed a pink streak in her hair. She’d worn a red cape to school most of spring semester. Now in seventh grade, Lizzi didn’t know if she wanted her hair cut.

That Saturday, Lizzi sat in a salon chair while Tasha watched her daughter from a fake leather couch, flipping through a magazine. The stylist was a woman in her early twenties who asked questions about school and favorite bands. Lizzi was quiet. The stylist got quiet too. She took her time, pulling lengths of hair to check evenness and snip strays before blow drying the cut, showing Lizzi how to work a bit of gel through her hair for texture. “There,” the stylist said, “You look great. This cut suits you.” Lizzi looked at her reflection and smiled. Tasha wanted to hold her daughter, kiss her forehead. They bought a bottle of gel and a round brush. Tasha hugged the stylist.

On the sidewalk, Tasha reached for Lizzi’s hand and for a couple of blocks, it felt like nothing invisible had shifted, like Tasha had only imagined the tremor. Tasha suggested a pastry or hot chocolate. A trio of girls was walking toward them. Lizzi’s grip tightened. All three girls smiled. “Hi Lizzi.” “Hi Lizzi.” “Hi Lizzi.” Lizzi ducked her head. “You must be Lizzi’s mom,” said one of the girls.

“I am,” Tasha said.

“Lizzi is in my social studies class with Ms. Bryant,” said the girl.

“Lizzi, your hair looks gorgeous,” said the second girl.

“Did you go to Candace?” asked the third girl.

Lizzi didn’t say anything. The girls blocked the sidewalk. They looked from Lizzi to Tasha with wide eyes and lip gloss smiles. Tasha understood then. There had been a tremor in her daughter. Tiny fractures in rock that could shift and open a wound at the surface.

“Excuse us, girls,” Tasha said and the three made way for her and Lizzi to walk on. Tasha could hear the trio behind them now. “Excuse us, girls.” “Excuse us, girls.” “Excuse us, girls.” Tasha held Lizzi’s hand all the way to the bakery, ordered two mugs of hot chocolate and two almond croissants and found the table near the bookshelf where they always sat. “Lizzi,” Tasha said.

“Don’t, Mom.”

“Lizzi, those girls might never be nice to you.”

“I know, Mom. I don’t care.”

Tasha didn’t say anything for a moment. She cared. Those tiny fractures in rock might not open a gaping ravine at the surface. Those tiny fractures might instead compound where no one sees, turn rock to gravel, cause a landslide. Tasha took a sip of hot chocolate. She watched Lizzi bite into the croissant. “Tell me what I can do, love,” Tasha said. Lizzi looked up, powdered sugar on her lip. “This is nice, Mom.” Tasha had another sip of hot chocolate. “This is nice,” she said.

A Poem That Waited For Me

Four years ago, I found a blog out of Syria. Citizen journalism, mostly cell phone video and unedited, graphic descriptions of the daily violence parts of the country suffered. For a short while, I checked the blog often. One night I saw a video of a man carrying a girl, looking for help that was clearly beyond reach. I watched the video twice. I felt sick. I cried. Someone knocked on our apartment door and I answered. Our friend Harvey asked what was wrong and I said, Syria. I asked if he ever got caught up with a story like that, sad for a country you’ve never been to, hurt for people you won’t meet. Of course. I can’t remember how he explained the line he draws to keep from feeling consumed by tragedy but it was something like: know what is happening but look away when you need to, live.

Watching clip after clip of rubble streets, dust-covered bodies and women shouting to the sky breaks the heart. I think we need to feel broken for others. Empathy, deep sorrow, births prayer and action, even as we live in safe places. I still follow what is happening in Syria, and once checked to see if that blog was still up. It isn’t. But what I saw then, at the opening of Syria’s war, stays with me as horror that continues.

That clip of the man and girl is a scene I’ve written around before but last week I found a new way into the idea of what that girl’s life might look like now, if. I asked students to write a poem using a pre-Socratic epigraph to open. This is an exercise from The Practice Of Poetry that moves your poem in unexpected directions. A philosophical quote prompts wandering thought. The challenge is to tether your thoughts to images. Some epigraph options include

Actions always planned are never completed.
Democritus

The path up and down is one and the same.
Heraclitus

All things were together. Then mind came and arranged them.
Anaxagoras

I chose

Worlds are altered rather than destroyed.
Democritus

and because my seniors are finishing a unit on satire, I thought about the crass irony of calling a destroyed world altered. Yes, altered. Terribly altered. I thought of Syria, those before and after photos we’ve seen of market halls and streets, showing a world altered. I wrote and revised the following over a few days. I can’t include the epigraph in the final poem. Syria breaks my heart. This girl breaks my heart.


She Might Now

The video is jumpy, drops and whirls like
the men it follows, the men circling
a father carrying his dark-haired daughter
He carries her last minutes in his arms
Her lips move like a fish breathing
Her eyes are open, looking it seems, looking
Her voice does not speak or cry. The only
sounds come from the mouths of men,
noise that needs no translation because
I understand when the father turns
so the camera shows this girl’s dark hair
cut away at the back, a hole the size
of a fist in her skull, pink brain slipping out

When the camera returns to the girl’s face
I wonder does she see anything at all or
is her being now made from the fabric of her
father’s shirt, the smell of midday sun, the
muted waves of men’s voices in an alley,
the whisper of air on her lips as her father
turns and turns looking for someone to
come, take his daughter, make her whole

She would now be twelve or thirteen
She might now tuck her dark hair under
hijab and help her mother in the kitchen,
walk with her brother to a reopened school,
kiss her father’s cheek at his return late
afternoon, before they sit in slanting light
to eat food from chipped plates. She
might write songs with her shiny pink
brain, its delicate stem running nerves the
length of her limbs so she spins, arms
open, turning and turning in the last slip
of light day gives

Drive Words Poetry Exercise

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
Metals
Animals
Types of landscape or weather
Parts of the body
Words you simply like the sound of
Colors
Scents

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

The Poetry Obstacle Course

This week I asked my students to try an exercise by Marcia Southwick, from The Practice Of Poetry.

Write a poem in which you include approximately on object and one action per line. Each individual line should make sense in and of itself, but don’t worry about connecting one line logically to the next.

I attempted this exercise a couple of times – every line self-contained but a whole, random mess – before deciding to anchor my lines to a place. A month ago I wrote about one of my favorite walks here, a short path in Fahaheel. For this piece I made the lines center on our walk along the corniche in Salmiya. We take this walk nearly every Friday or Saturday during winter. I started with images or scenes I could contain in single lines. I wasn’t sure how I’d break or order the lines later.

Here are some lines from my notebook, cross-outs included:

My daughter finds a starfish washed in

My daughter finds a starfish she must keep
She makes a home from a styrofoam cup

I try to  explain no: the starfish needs his sea

The rocks meet the sea
We lost our secret beach last year
The path crowds and thins

It goes on like that for three pages. One object, one action per line seems like an easy exercise which is why I’ve skipped over it when looking for a writing prompt. But this time I read the prompt and thought it might be a way to think about the lyric essay form. I wrote each line not thinking where it might fit in the revised piece, though I chose a coherent whole by picking the corniche. When I reshaped the piece, I structured the poem to follow our walk. I also cut words so lines connected. I broke up long lines. Here’s the piece I shaped from today’s practice:

On A Nice Day

Rocks meet the sea
The path crowds and thins
My daughter parts the crowd,
climbs down the rocks to the sea
and finds a starfish she must keep,
makes him a home from a Styrofoam cup

Fishermen send loops of line out and wait,
reel in, snag rock, send out again

We all walk or ride bikes or pause to watch

My daughter carries the starfish in his cup
He is small and needs the sea

Dozens of pairs of shoes line the mosque steps
Prayer mats on grass angle toward Mecca
Men raise flat hands to their ears,
move their lips, bow

Old women claim the shade of low trees,
watch the path move without moving

The starfish needs his sea

My daughter climbs a playground
sitting on sand like a shipwreck
while I go to the fountain fed by sea
and listen to water sound

A couple sits on a bench, whispering
Their knees touch,
their hands move like small birds

Boys box on trampled grass

Grass makes a floor where
families unroll carpets and eat lunch
I see the chin of a woman
who lifts her niqab to drink tea

My daughter takes her starfish back to his sea,
holds her arm straight like a stick over the water,
turns her hand so he drops
She climbs the rocks, doesn’t look back

We eat fatayer, cucumbers, ice cream
Lunch and sun make me heavy
The languages around me make me quiet
I sit cross-legged and read my book

My daughter runs barefoot from one tree
to the next, testing the low branches,
swinging a leg up, yelling for me to look at her
hanging upside down from a tree

I wave her over, kiss her hair
She smells like being here, like sun and dirt
When the breeze lifts our hair, I think
we, right here, we need our sea

Cut & Shuffle Poem

This exercise by Jack Myers is from The Practice of Poetry edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell.

  1. Write out two completely unrelated and emotionally opposite six- to ten-line situations depicting: a physically inactive or quiet scene; a physically active or emotionally charged scene.
  2. Then alternate the first line or two from scene 1 with the first line or two from scene 2, and then the second line or so from scene 1 with the second line or so from scene 2, and so forth, until all the lines from the two scenes are roughly dovetailed into a single stanza.

By alternating the actions and characters from the two separate scenes, a third, implied quality arises. This will be true of any two things placed side by side: the creation of a third entity.


I completed the initial exercise in fifteen minutes, same as I gave my students. Later I spent another ten or fifteen minutes playing through versions of the final poem.

My Quiet Scene

I read a book I’ve read before
Sitting in a block of sun
turning one page
closing the book
because it isn’t doing anything
and I want to think instead

My Loud Scene

In the backseat the kids fight
She pinches his arm
he yells, Give her a consequence
She says sorry like she’s not
I shout, Be quiet
I shout, I want peace

Dovetail

I read a book I’ve read before
in the backseat the kids fight
Sitting in a block of sun
She pinches his arm
turning one page
he yells, Give her a consequence
Closing the book
She says sorry like she’s not
Because it isn’t doing anything
I shout, Be quiet
and I want to think instead
I shout, I want peace

Revised for stanza, tense, diction, cuts, capitalization, punctuation – and still untitled after all that!?

I read a book I’ve read before
In the backseat, the kids fight,
sitting in a block of sun

She pinches his arm –
turn one page –
he yells, Give a consequence

Close the book.
She says sorry like she’s not
because the book isn’t doing anything

I shout, Be nice
I want to think
I shout, I want peace

Single Syllable Writing

I’ve been thinking about how constraints allow a different kind of creativity. Last month students tried two poetry exercises I promised would yield poems they wouldn’t have otherwise written. Safe bet I was right. And you’ve experienced the same in your writing when you follow a prompt or form.

This week I gave another challenge: single syllable writing. This is an old favorite that slows me down. I start with an idea and then spend a lot of time staring at the ceiling. Try it for ten minutes. Write a poem, journal, draft a story.

I decided to write about going to the desert last winter to see the kites. I went with that idea because kite is a single syllable word. After finishing the piece I thought about what else I could tell using one syllable words. I’d like to draft another two or three vignettes of our life in Kuwait and see how they read as a whole.

See The Kites

One day we go see the kites. We drive to a stretch of sand and wind and walk to where men send kites in the air, the strings staked in place. The kites are big. On the ground, a kite looks like a tent laid out. In the air it takes shape, sharp and bright on the sky. We squint, point. There is fish. There is a bird.

The wind plays with my girl’s hair. The wind takes my boy’s shout.

More come by noon. The kids run, yell, laugh. I stand back. I like to see how the day looks. There is a tent where tea and snacks are served. Out front of that, rugs are laid on the sand and chairs set so we can sit and look up. The kites whip and flap, dive and rise. Kites crowd the sky, some so close I think their strings weave knots. They snap and shake, dance and fall but don’t come loose. My mind goes still. Wind goes through me. The sun keeps me in one place.

There is still day left when we go. Out of the wind there is no sound. The kites get small. Blue dots, orange squares, green tails on a white sky.

& Other Places

A year or two ago I saw a picture of dead Syrian children in a street, their bodies piled against a cinder block wall. The photo was published in the paper and nothing was blurred to make the image easier to look at. What I remember most are the shoes because some of the children were too young to tie or buckle their own shoes. I looked at their shoes. When I help my son with his shoes, I’m bending or kneeling in front of him. He plays with my hair or gives me a hug. I kiss his forehead and say, Let’s go.

Shortly after Friday’s attack in Paris I saw a picture that reminded me of the Syrian children. This of a man on the streets of Paris, covered by a sheet. I thought of the Syrian children because at the time I’d wondered what we’d talk about if this pile of children were British or French or American. And now, instead of a Syrian or Iraqi man covered by a sheet, here was a French man and what will we talk about now? I was sad. And I was sad later because I read about Beirut and thought couldn’t that French man on the sidewalk just as easily be Lebanese?

There is a writing exercise I like because the process distills an idea or narrative. I was writing about the attacks and bombings already and this confined my expression.

The exercise is called Ten To One, taken from What If? and it works like this: ten sentences, the first with ten words, the second with nine and so on until the last sentence is a single word.

I Read About Paris

He is on his back on cement, under a sheet.
Only one hand, the white cuff, dark blazer shows.
And the soles of his shoes splayed, relaxed.
He might lay like this while sunning.
Someone knows him but hasn’t heard.
I have seen him before.
He is from Paris.
And other places.
From Lebanon.
Syria.

 

For an interesting perspective on media coverage of Paris and Beirut, read David A. Graham’s essay “The Empathy Gap Between Paris And Beirut” in The Atlantic.

Twenty Little Poetry Projects

This exercise is by Jon Simmerman, included in The Practice of Poetry by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell:

  1. Begin the poem with a metaphor.
  2. Say something specific but utterly preposterous.
  3. Use at least one image for each of the five senses, either in succession or scattered randomly throughout the poem.
  4. Use one example of synesthesia (mixing the senses).
  5. Use the proper name of a person and the proper name of a place.
  6. Contradict something you said earlier in the poem.
  7. Change direction or digress from the last thing you said.
  8. Use a word (slang?) you’ve never seen in a poem.
  9. Use an example of false cause-effect logic.
  10. Use a piece of “talk” you’ve actually heard (preferably in dialect and/or which you don’t understand).
  11. Create a metaphor using the following construction: “The (adjective) (concrete noun) of (abstract noun)…”
  12. Use an image in such a way as to reverse its usual associative qualities.
  13. Make the persona or character in the poem do something he/she could not do in “real life.”
  14. Refer to yourself by nickname and in the third person.
  15. Write in the future tense, such that part of the poem seems to be a prediction.
  16. Modify a noun with an unlikely adjective.
  17. Make a declarative assertion that sounds convincing but that makes no sense.
  18. Use a phrase from a language other than English.
  19. Make a nonhuman object say or do something human (personification).
  20. Close the poem with a vivid image that makes no statement, but that “echoes” an image from earlier in the poem.

Close the poem with a vivid image that makes no statement, but that “echoes” an image from earlier in the poem.

Open the poem with the first project and close it with the last. Otherwise use the projects in whatever order you like, giving each project at least one line. Try to use all twenty projects. Feel free to repeat those you like. Fool around. Enjoy.


And below is my latest try, but with explanation first. This week there was a rumor that a teacher at another school was deported for driving without a license. That is within the law and expats are deported for that offense, but this was the first time I’d heard of a Western expat deported for that reason. Turns out, this expat wasn’t deported, only held overnight. I started thinking what I would do if I were picked up and taken to the deportation center, made to board a plane without a phone call to Justin. I started thinking why this teacher was allowed to stay in-country. Because he was Western? (Was he Western? I don’t actually know. I assume.) Because his employer lobbied on his behalf? I don’t know.

Also, ethnicity and socioeconomic status put a tag on people. I think this happens everywhere. Sometimes seeing people as equal is conscious work. (Change my heart!) I am uncomfortable with how noticeably differently I am treated as a white Western woman. My skin and nationality play more in my favor here than not, but I don’t like that. Or more so, I don’t like that I sometimes like what leniency white Western gets me. (Forgive me.)

So with all of that rolling around my head, and the challenge of (mostly!) completing twenty little poetry projects, the following draft:

By Way Of Deportation

My legs are roots
this chair a cliff ledge

I sit so still my thighs hurt,
my bladder burns

Around me: gray hum, sparks of yellow orange
when an Indian woman shouts like a song

If I move I will wet my pants

If I am released
there is a God
or wasta, Inshallah

I am called across the room
to an office where I sit across
from a man smoking a bored cigarette

The full knowledge of power
is sitting still and not wetting my pants
Easy-peasy, as my son says
Easy-pee-sy Sarah can hold it
in this windowless holding room
under fluorescent day/night

You’re the one who got caught?
No license? He smokes,
considers my tight pressed knees

I haven’t got a lie

I have one lie

Deportation as escape:
no last anything:
no last drive down Gulf Road
no last shwarma
no last sign-in at work

I don’t lie
I sit. He shifts
He lectures, I hear

Every year hundreds of brown-skinned
workers are relieved to be deported so
quickly and efficiently that suitcases and
passports are unnecessary, and you –

Equality by way of deportation

I will make it all the way to Chicago,
all the way to Kathryn, without crying

And you –

I sit long enough, white enough, that
he stubs his cigarette, lights another,
sighs, waves his hand, dismisses me

My bladder screams when I stand
I get a cot
no phone
no toilet paper
I get a morning taxi to my husband,
who is angry and relieved,
my children who cry

I might be over the Atlantic now
if I’d shouted or wet my pants
I might be drinking wine,
my ears full of gray noise

5 Situations: A Student Is Late To Class

The prompt from What If? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter:

Write five mini-stories (limit: 200 words each) to account for a single event of circumstances, such as a man and woman standing on a city sidewalk, hailing a cab. Each story should be different – in characters, plot, and theme – from the others.

My modification: come in under 500 words each.

This is one of my favorite flash-fiction exercises. It scratches the itch. It allows for quick, messy experimentation. I like to revise and re-order the five parts to read as one work. That said, what follows are very light edits and no re-ordering. The situation I chose is: A student is late to class. In the order I wrote:

Sophomore Chem Lab Partner

Krissy is a senior. She is always late to first period. I think it is because she smokes. She looks like she might. I think that most of first quarter until she shows me a picture on her phone of baby with dark hair. I ask if that’s her niece. She laughs and says it’s her baby, Lake. That’s a nice name, I say. Maybe she’ll have a brother named Tree one day. Krissy looks at me like I’m crazy and I think she might never talk to me again but she does, the next day, when she shows me a picture from Lake’s first birthday party.

It was fun, Krissy said. Later she takes her phone up to Mrs. Schwartz and shows her Lake’s birthday party pictures too. Mrs. Schwartz gives Krissy a giant mom hug.

We usually finish our labs before the rest of the class and take out our phones. I have a driving game. Krissy scrolls through pictures of Lake. Sometimes she leans over and shows me: Lake tasting orange for the first time, Lake in a pile of leaves, Lake dressed like a pumpkin. I think Krissy must be a good mom and tell her that. She gets real quiet. Then she says, I used to be good at a lot of things. If I get this right.

She doesn’t say anything else.

The Color Of Hope

Do you know how many tardies you have? Ms. Jacobs answers her own question. Twenty-nine. You have twenty-nine tardies in this class, this quarter. Do you know how many days are in this quarter? She answers herself again. Forty-three.

I nod.

She puts her hands on her hips. I don’t know what to do. You’re serving detentions?

I nod. She doesn’t know where. I serve with Mr. Thayer. I have his class before hers too. I’m working on this oil painting the size of a door and it takes a lot of time. Mr. Thayer tells us to clean brushes five minutes before class ends but I work up to the bell and a little into passing period. It’s on you, he said in September when he quit writing me passes to math.

This painting is supposed to be about hope. I keep getting the color wrong. Last year I had two watercolors in a student art display in Milwaukee. One was chosen for a show in Chicago.

Ms. Jacobs sighs. Her face gets quieter. She says she saw my painting in Mr. Thayer’s room. It’s amazing.

I look down at my hands. My cuticles are rimmed violet. Ms. Jacobs touches my shoulder and I look up. You have to pass this class, she says. You need a C for your GPA. Talk to Mr. Thayer. Talk to Mrs. Rutledge. You need to show up. I want to you get into art school.

I almost don’t believe her. But she looks tired.

Stone Cold

The halls smell like rock salt and wet down. Janitors wait for first bell so they can mop the melted snow brought in on boots, shaken from hats. Everyone complains it should have been a snow day, all the other districts have the day off. There’s five inches on the ground already. They’re gonna have to do an early release. Home by lunch.

During second passing period a freshman named Annabelle slips while crossing the foyer. Her books fly in the air like a cartoon. Her arms pinwheel and she lands on her back. A few upperclassmen nearby laugh. Annabelle isn’t moving. Travis is a trained lifeguard and kneels down, shouts. Can you hear me? Are you okay? She doesn’t flinch.

Oh shit, says one of the boys and runs to the gym to get Coach.

The principal comes. Travis is leaning close to feel for Annabelle’s breath. He knows her from his street. He’s never seen her this close though. Her lids are dusted with silver. She has tiny gold stars in her ears. The bell rings and the principal tells the kids get to class. An ambulance is on its way. Travis backs away and his place is taken by Coach who places two fingers at Annabelle’s neck.

Is she okay? Travis asks.

Go to class, the principal says. Now.

Coach leans over Annabelle, tilts her head back, places his mouth on hers. Travis can’t move. She can’t die like this, can she, from a slip?

Travis, the principal says, Go to class. You don’t need to see this.

But that was all he saw, sitting in the back row of biology. Annabelle’s silver eyeshadow and gold star earrings. The ambulance came and went. Everyone’s phones were vibrating and dinging with messages about Annabelle. By eleven, school was called for the day. Eight inches on the ground, another five to seven on the way.

Yousef Cuts

Yousef leaves through the side gate. He’s tall for his age, and graceful. Last summer he spent six weeks in Paris not speaking a word of French but sensing the assumption of those around him, that he belonged there anyway. Since that revelation, that people take his height and ease as age and purpose, Yousef quit worrying about getting in trouble. He smokes in front of the security guards at the Avenues, cuts the line at the bank, snaps his fingers at waiters, speaks without making eye contact. His grace is wearing into arrogance but he’s never behaved like this before and it’s too fun to quit.

He doesn’t talk to the gate guard when he leaves and doesn’t say a word to the man in the tiny bakala. Yousef buys chips and Red Bull. He’s ten minutes late for history but Mr. Gartner doesn’t pause the lecture. Instead, he looks past Yousef.

For the next week, Mr. Gartner looks at the air above Yousef’s head. He won’t say hi to Yousef in the hall. He doesn’t take any of Yousef’s questions. Yousef boils, cuts an entire class. Then one morning, Mr. Gartner dismisses class but asks Yousef to stay.

I liked you better last year, Mr. Gartner says. Yousef can’t think what to say. Mr. Gartner shrugs. That’s all. Go.

From One End To The Other

You can’t stop. Stay to the middle of the hall, keep your head down. They get you anyway. A kick to your shin, a thump on your arm, a yank of your backpack. Sing a song in your head. Chant a rap. Find a chorus to loop. Avoid the bathrooms in the senior wing. If you have to go, ask for a pass next period.

Sometimes they make a barricade in the hall. Twenty of them with classes two feet away stop up the hall. The bell rings and one of them says fuckers and laughs. They run into class and you’re left in the middle of the hall with five or six others just like you, scrawny or fat with bad hair. You all have to run down the hall. You’re all late.

You can’t say what happens. There’s cameras. The office could look if they want. Teachers see sometimes. But you can’t say. You close the door quietly and have your book out of your bag before you sit. You smell your fear. You feel your heart. It’s like a nature show, the gazelle that keeps up with the pack. But every year, one of you runs too wide. Every year one of you doesn’t make it from one end to the other.