About Invention in Poetry (and a few prompts)

Sometimes the muse takes a vacation. Sometimes the poet doesn’t really have a muse, which is a fairly strange, gendered concept that is especially problematic for female poets. For most poets, using and sharing invention exercises with others is a part of po-biz. Here are some of my favorites. Versions of some of these prompts have been circulating for years, and some have been adapted to use for fiction writing as well.

The invention deck. Versions of this have been around for a long time.I first encountered it in a fiction workshop as an MFA student, but this is my poetry adaptation of that concept. Start with a stack of 3×5 index cards and a bunch of writer friends (fiction or poet, doesn’t matter). Have everyone do a cards for each of these categories: First line, last line, title, metaphor, image, phrase, and repeton. I haven’t done this yet, but I think it would be good to add in some cards, maybe five or six, with common poetic forms on them.

Starting with a group of three friends, you get  a starter deck of 21 cards. After that, always keep some 3×5 cards with you. That way, when you meet another writer, you can get them to fill out a card for each category. Don’t be afraid to ask–most writers love this idea and have fun contributing.

What is this deck for? That’s the good part. Shuffle the deck and draw two cards. If you get two of the same category, put them back and try again. You now have two elements to build a poem around. Say you get a title card that reads “The Jabberwocky Walks It Off” and a phrase card that reads “no one pays it any mind” (that may sound a bit regional to some of you, but let’s go with it). You now begin drafting a poem that has that title and somewhere in it, uses that phrase. I’ve seen some brilliant work come from this exercise in class and not surprisingly,  it works best if you don’t spend time agonizing about how you’re going to fit those things in and instead, just do it.

Pick a form you haven’t done before. Form can spark invention. The constraints of a form, especially one that is new to you, can spark growth in a poet. A recent example I love is from Night of the Grizzly (Moon CIty Press 2012) by Michael Burns. The title poem is one of the most moving and complex poems in the book, a book which is possibly Burns’ best in a career filled with masterful work. What most readers won’t see is that “Night of the Grizzly” is a crown of sonnets. Burns knew how to write sonnets of course, but a crown of sonnets is quite an achievement, one that few poets attempt. A crown of sonnets is a sequence of several sonnets, in this case, seven Shakespearean sonnets, which are fourteen lines each with the rhyme scheme ababcdcdefefgg. Just to make it even harder, the last line of the preceding sonnet is the first line of the next. Here is the first in the crown:

A man-killing grizzly is on the loose.
It’s 1966, and we don’t know
much yet about the war. We’ve called a truce
here in the living room so Don can go
to the bathroom and we meanwhile can move
the furniture back. Someone gets Harrison
another beer. This is the part we love:
Clint Walker growls; the bear is Gentle Ben,
but not today, and so he rears and snarls,
and soon they’re locked in a dangerous embrace.
Here at home, hands on the other’s shoulders,
the brothers circle. One’s scratched the other’s face
and now they’re really fighting. Years ahead,
they’ll drug and drink themselves till both are dead.

The flawless blending of the Vietnam War, the “Gentle Ben” television show reference, the tension between two brothers, and the drinking and drugs that hunt these men down just as surely as the Viet Cong in the 1966 Vietnam jungle, this would be achievement enough, but to continue on through a crown of sonnets webs-in a complex narrative and attention to detail that would not have happened otherwise, that is extraordinary.

Enquiring Minds Want to Know. Take a look at a recent or past National Enquirer or other gossip tabloid. Select a story and use it to build a narrative poem. In it, also take flight– don’t be afraid to speculate on the cute or construct an alternate reality within the narrative. I’ll give an example that is fairly spontaneous. I just visited the Enquirer site and found a story on How Grandpa Walton Saved Grandma’s Life. I didn’t think too deeply about this. I just picked it and didn’t wonder about why. If I were to draft, I would try out layers between the reality of the Walton’s show, the artificiality and fake folksiness involved, and the relentless characterizations– how hard it must be to be that homespun all the time. I almost hate to plan any more. The draft needs to start at that point, but I hope you can see how this prompt could lead to some really good narrative poems about U.S. culture or personal relationships.

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Author of the poetry collection The Tethered Ground and Professor of English at Missouri State University. Contact me for readings or for workshops on writing/publishing and on teaching writing online.

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