Instructions, Windows, and Julia Copus

Having spent the last two weeks writing funding proposals (and with next week being number three), my own writing has taken a bit of a back seat. Times like this I find myself more and more relying on exercises to give my muse the jolt needed to get the lazy sod out of bed and back to work.

There’s one exercise in particular that I’ve been using a lot this year. My Reading for Writing students know it as the “Analyse” exercise, and it almost always elicits an enormous groan from the room. Partly my fault – I’m still stumbling around trying to work out the best way of explaining what to do. I try to have a short, pithy explanation of each procedure in the Writing from Reading handout that everyone gets in the first class, with a slightly more detailed explanation on the reverse. But even so, it’s one of those exercises that you almost have to take on faith, and obediently do, before it will start making sense and yielding results. So far my best results with teaching it have come when I’ve essentially done the whole thing at home beforehand, and can write the analysis up on the board for the class to see. (Hmm, a literal version of “show, don’t tell?)

The exercise is quite simple. Take a poem by someone else, analyse how it unfolds, and write a poem of your own that replicates that movement.

Confused? Yep, so are my students, usually. I then start babbling about stage directions, or thinking in terms of filming the poem’s action. But I think a better metaphor might be recipes, or science experiments, or assembling kitset furniture. Or reverse engineering. Think of it as writing out a set of instructions, for someone else to assemble a poem from. (Actually there’s a similar sort of exercise in The Practice of Poetry, come to think of it. Jim Simmerman’s “Twenty Little Poetry Projects”. It’s an exercise that intrigues me, but which I’ve never managed to get anything decent from.)

So today I’m playing around with a gorgeous poem by the British poet, Julia Copus. It won the 2010 Forward Prize for the Best Single Poem, is called “An Easy Passage”, and you can read it here. There is a really interesting little turn in the middle of the poem, where we suddenly shift from a bit of lyrical description into a philosophical consideration – which I think would qualify as a Mid-course Turn? (yep, still in love with Structure & Surprise). After you’ve read the poem a couple of times, go back and reread the title.

Good, isn’t it?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment with my workbook.

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