I’m eager to liberate poetry from that stuffy good-for-you closet where it’s so often kept. That is, as long as I can do so playfully.
Each time I lead poetry-writing workshops I learn from students as young as eight years old. I see them write in a direct line from experience to meaning, use metaphor intuitively, and fiercely adore their own work. Our time together often looks like crafts or games, but it’s much more. We draw faces on peanut shells, glue them to cardboard, and write poems around them. We use bright permanent markers to adorn an old footstool or rocking chair with poems to make a classroom Inspiration Seat. We ask stones to tell us what they’ve seen over their long geologic history, then write down our impressions. We compose from the perspective of carrots as we bite, chew, and swallow them. We write on prayer flags to let poetry fly with the wind. We write and release poems in public places for others to find. It’s never, ever boring.
The following poetry writing hacks are fun to do with kids. But don’t forgot they’re great to do with anyone—your book group, at a family reunion, as a party game, even to liven up a meeting.
Stack up spine poetry
Ever noticed a stack of books with titles that, together, form unintentional wordplay? That’s spine poetry. Over 20 years ago, artist Nina Katchadourian started the Sorted Books Project, creating clusters of books that display clever idiosyncrasies and themes. (Some images were published under the title Sorted Books.)
To create your own spine poetry start by looking through books you have on hand and pull out titles that appeal to you. Then arrange them spine out to form poems. Take a photo to preserve your literary remix. If you’d like, share your images on Twitter as #spinepoem or #spinepoetry.
Play Exquisite Corpse
This absurdly pleasing game was dreamed up during the Parisian Surrealist Movement. There are a variety of approaches. Basically you start with a good-sized piece of paper. Each person writes a phrase or sentence, folds the paper to conceal lines from previous contributors, and passes it on to the next player with only the newest passage revealed. Keep going around until the paper is used up, then read the whole construction aloud.
Encounter unexpected poetry
Collect a variety of everyday objects. You might come up with an apple, peanut butter jar, mitten, shoe, flashlight, toy dinosaur, and nightlight. Then label each object by taping a word where it can’t be readily seen, perhaps folding the word to the inside or hiding it underneath. You don’t want the labels to read “apple” or “peanut butter jar.” Instead use unrelated yet evocative words like “beast,” “messenger,” “neck,” “song,” “intention,” and so on.
Each person picks one of the objects and writes a poem fragment leaving a blank for the object. If someone gets stuck, encourage them to simply write two or three adjectives and a verb. You might study the apple, then write, “Red, round _____ crisp on my tongue.” When the apple is turned over, a label reading “silence” transforms the poem fragment into: “Red round silence, crisp on my tongue.” Or you might pick up the flashlight, write, “High intensity _______ let’s me see where I’m going” only to find that it’s labeled “wrath.” Change word tense to fit the poem fragment as necessary. If inspired, turn the fragment into a longer poem.
Keep a perpetual poem going
There’s something freeing about adding to an evolving verse. There are no rules, only possibilities. Start it with a line stuck with magnets on a file cabinet or fridge door. Or paint a cupboard, wall, even your car with chalkboard paint — keeping chalk handy for anyone to use. Or cut strips of paper to leave out in a container next to a jar of markers and a box of poster tack, letting contributors stick the next line right on the wall. In my house we use dry erase markers on a laminated world map mounted in the kitchen.
Make collage poems
Collect words and phrases from all sorts of sources such as food containers, magazines, and junk mail. Provide heavy paper or mat board so each person can glue their word choices into a collage poem.
Write an erasure poem
Choose a page from a magazine, newspaper, or unwanted book, then blot out some of the words to reveal a new meaning. You can also make erasure poems digitally using the Erasures site via Wave Books. They provide classic texts and the e-tool for erasures. Check out Austin Kleon’s erasure poems in his book Newspaper Blackout.
Pull a poem from a bag
Romanian poet Tristan Tzara was denounced by his fellow Surrealists when he proposed making a poem by pulling words from a hat. In 1920 he wrote “Dada Manifesto on Feeble & Bitter Love” which contains these instructions:
To Make a Dadaist Poem
Take a newspaper (or magazine or other printed resource)
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article of the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that makes up this article and put them all in a bag.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are – an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.
This article was originally published in Poet’s Quarterly.