This is perhaps the most beautiful Saturday of the year. The temperature is perfect, last night’s rain has been banished, there is a cool breeze and the low hum of life. Trying to knock this prompt out before traveling home for the weekend and my aunt’s birthday, so we’ll see how it goes. I made a point of bringing books to occupy myself on a recent long train ride, and I need to do that more often… I realized how much poetic work I could get done when I have nowhere to go for two hours.
This week: “d.i.y.“
For those who are not up-to-date with punk/hipster aesthetics or the latest crazes in home decoration, “d.i.y.” stands for do-it-yourself. (I think it’s a Briticism originally? And of course the French have had the term le bricolage forever.) But it’s more than just the sum of its words, as all good catchphrases and acronyms are: there’s a sense of frugality, repurposing the old to service the new, using some elbow grease to transmute those found bits into something just a little bit closer to the ideal you were envisioning for this or that task. It applies to clothing, furniture, home improvement, arts and crafts — so why not poetry? Although trying to figure out how exactly to apply the same principles to poetry might be a bit difficult.
First and foremost, similar to the foundry prompt two weeks ago, you’re going to need some raw materials. I’m going to talk about two versions of this prompt, so be attentive: you’re going to either need a pile of words or some other poem. Taking craft into your own hands is an admirable business, but you always need some element from elsewhere to work with. This prompt was forming in my head as I stumbled across today’s poem at poets.org, by Gerard Manley Hopkins. It’s sing-songy and veers into a Christianity cul-de-sac, as most of his poems do, but the first line is quite nice:
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame.
This, in my opinion, demonstrates a d.i.y. principle that might be the most basic and my favorite: make things (including words!) do what you want them to do. (I also call this the Humpty-Dumpty principle, after Lewis Carroll’s version.) While the line could be highly visual and metaphorical (the small fish snatched up by the kingfisher become scraps of fire; the dragonfly, with its wings, reflects light in fiery patterns), take it in a more literal, almost mythic sense. The natural purpose of the animals here is to interact in particular ways with fire. Metaphor is a way of shifting readers’ brains towards an interpretation that we’re looking to express. For this prompt, I want you to approach words not by what they mean, but how you want them to function, and the two can be rather different.
No d.i.y. excursion would be complete without a shopping trip. If we’re talking about individual words as resources, allow me to drop seven semantic fields here, from each of which you might draw one word: flying animals, celestial bodies, rooms, sports equipment, vehicles, utensils, and art objects. Try to come up with a list (scarab beetle, the constellation Lyra, boudoir, ski poles…). Then, try to get away from what the object is/does, and give it a more metaphorical purpose: the scarab beetle doesn’t buzz loudly across the room, it plays a deep blue violin through the air. The boudoir is not for dressing and putting on makeup, it is a gatehouse of truth and secrets.
This isn’t quite found poetry, and you are welcome to use words you stumble across from anywhere, but the idea is to re-invent them. And once you feel a bit more practiced with that, using metaphor and personification and ambiguous shades of meaning to your heart’s content, try re-appropriating whole lines from elsewhere. That line by Hopkins already has a lot of music in it, so let’s say I want to take that and push one interpretation of it into a new poem thing:
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flames
with long brushes on the sky. And the birds all pose like
town square fountains, spit burning flowers,
magnesium flares almost too bright to behold.
Where can a stolen, re-woven line carry you? If you want to go a little bit further, you might try a mini cento by plucking a line from each of several poems, and then making each line into a couplet or tercet, re-creating it to summon a particular mood or narrative. You don’t have to plan out the poem beforehand (although you’re welcome to: most d.i.y. projects have at least an idea of a final shape, even if they don’t get there the way that’s expected), but rather allow the words or lines themselves to build the poem up for you. Roll with whatever springs to mind.
Two final important points. First, if you do steal lines, be sure to cite your source to be polite; the advantage of spinning individual words into their unexpected uses is that you have more freedom to do what you want. And second, you can take the aesthetic even further by getting off the computer and coming up with an actual crafty project to build your poem. Maybe you can cut up an existing text and choose a few random words, then glue them to another page and write the lines of your poem around them. (Include a few images too: do it in a truly indie zine-style.) I know that it’s not the most intuitive process, but that’s kind of the point: d.i.y. is supposed to be a break-away from the easy trade of having other people do the work for you. Get away from pre-determined forms and styles of poetry, and single meanings for language; create your own and take on new perspectives. And by all means, if you have additional suggestions to jazz things up (I am not a zine-maker, myself), feel free to share.
As always, we look forward to see what you come up with…!