There is a great injustice to being sick on a weekend. I feel that it just shouldn’t be allowed; but on the other hand, I suppose I feel there’s a great injustice to having to come to work when I’m sick. I demand some kind of arrangement to remedy both kinds of injustice… in the meantime, at least I don’t have any crazy plan today aside from sitting here at the cafe writing away for hours on end. Still working at the old NaNoWriMo (almost caught up from my delayed start!), and still so much other stuff to do; thus does sickness make lazybones of us all, I guess.
This week: “finder, keeper”
This isn’t a particularly unique prompt, and I’m sure that every prompt site has covered it at one time or another, but I don’t think I’ve ever focused on it as the entire scope of a Reverie. Let’s talk about found poetry. There are some truly clever found poems out there, that manage to turn the most inane segments of text into something beautiful: my favorite (when they actually work) might be the ones made out of spam emails. On the other end of the spectrum are centos (or more properly, centi, I suppose), where whole lines of other beautiful poems are specifically stitched together. We’re going to appropriate a few different ideas for the construction of our found poem, which will only be kind of a found poem: a Frankenpoem, if you’ll pardon the belated Halloween reference.
You must begin with observation. Many writers already carry around a Moleskine, scraps of paper, iPhone or whatever, to record the snippets of dialogue they overhear, the inspired slips of text around a city, or random thoughts that occur while waiting for the bus. Play that up! But try to focus on being extra-receptive to language, images, and happenings around you for a couple of days. There is a semi-Taoist principle that I always keep coming back to when I’m having a shitty day: to live in the world fully, one must love the world, and to love the world fully, one must love all the pieces of it. And to do that, try and spend some time being mutable, allowing the world to speak through you rather than trying to define it in your own poetic terms.
Try to gather words from the most unlikely places: fast food menus, advertisements for sales, crazy old men ranting on the street corner, greeting cards, the publishing information in the frontispiece of a book, photo captions in a magazine, news website headlines, blog comments, etc. (Barbara had a blog comment recently which I insisted was a poem in turn.) Glancing around the cafe, I can see start with a banana and scoop of tuna on the menu (not in the same dish; ew), Col de Vence as the name of a photo on the wall, documentary moviemaking on someone’s textbook, and first aid for at the top of a Heimlich maneuver poster. None of these are particularly elegant, and they aren’t that interesting in context, but the trick with good found poetry is to transform the meaning and use of the phrases, rather than try to find a prettier way to say them. So what if I used scoop of tuna as the taking of a killer whale’s mouth, rather than an ingredient in a salad? What if first aid for was followed by a breaking heart? And can Col de Vence be interpreted as the proper name of a wine, a house, a memory, rather than just a (photograph of a) hill? Using scraps of found text doesn’t mean you can’t let your imagination play with them a bit.
When you have a nice little heap of interesting pieces (maybe thirty bits of language?), expand the field a bit. You may wish to use the cento trick to actively go hunting for a line or phrase or two from a poem. As the classic proverb goes, good writers borrow, great writers steal outright; my process for a cento is usually to go to poets.org and click through randomly until I find something. Another option is, if you have lines lying around from drafts that haven’t become full poems yet, you can try clipping them and splicing them into this piece. Again, believe in the transformative power of a desperate poem: you might have a draft that uses the phrase smiling coffee flower in its botanical sense, but use it now as a metaphor for a person, or the scent of a cafe. At this point, we are moving the pendulum back from allowing the world to speak through us wholesale to actively choosing which parts we want to come through.
And finally, fill in the gaps. Arrange all those lines and words however you want, and use (as little as possible) of your own individual voice to give the bones some flesh. If I took Col de Vence and smiling coffee flower and first aid for and — to grab one more as I’m looking out the window — “this is the best place to start” and — to grab two more unused, unusual lines from poems I have lying around — kiln-fired body and white wine evening, I might end up with:
This is the best place to start
first aid for a kiln-fired body
in pieces: a white wine evening on
Col de Vence, a smiling coffee flower
evening, breathing in relief.
The blue text is really the only part that was created for this poem, though “evening” was borrowed and re-applied twice. Your poem doesn’t have to be very long, and indeed found poetry can be difficult to keep up, which is why I recommend getting such a hefty list of phrases first. Beauty and interest comes from how the words are used unexpectedly, rather than the amount of them.
To go in further directions: in a sense, all poetry is found poetry when it’s observational. People that you pass in the street become found characters, and images that you see in the world around you become found images. The difference is that you have freedom to put these abstract things into your own words, while being forced to use the words of others works a different muscle of adaptation and re-appropriatation. Try to work in reverse; instead of coming up with ways to describe the things you come across, come up with images and people to fit the words you’ve gathered. And the last step I want to suggest is an inversion to the prompt: leave your poem somewhere for another person to find. (There were some really cool ideas when we tried this before, and I suggest presenting the poem in a distinctive way. Maybe you want to sew it onto fabric, or tramp it out on a beach, or typeset each borrowed line differently before printing it out and stapling it to a telephone pole.)
Keep your eyes and ears open, and your recording device of choice handy! Then put the pieces together and show us the mosaic you’ve made.