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Rosalind Brenner, "The Value of Prompts--and the Bounty of a Great Poets' Group"

I’ve been Skyping with a small group of poet friends from Sarah Lawrence College since our graduation in 2009 with MFA’s in poetry. We are in fact trying to find the time to put a book together about how we have benefited from prompts and from each other’s frank and helpful input. Every good poet needs a reader. And we have four, sometimes five in our happy group.

We meet once a week in a conference call and read to each other newly minted poems gleaned from the prompts we concoct the week before. Sometimes the prompts are groups of words to include in the poem. Sometimes they are ideas that refer to the news that week or events in our own lives. We have even randomly opened pages in a Mortician’s book. Some very interesting poetry came from those pages, and they weren’t always about death.

One of us who might be working on writing formal poetry may suggest we write a Triolet or perhaps a Sestina or a Sonnet. This doesn’t sound as romantic or high-minded as an angelic arousal of the Muse or the inspiration that comes on a walk in the woods or a bike ride. How grateful we are when that miracle happens. To come whole and to have pen at the ready! And to not have to edit a word? Amazing magic (or was it opium?) indeed that gave us Kubla Khan! But I think that is not the norm.  There is the work that most of us have to do.

Often the poems that do come from our weekly prompts are not the most perfect we write, nor are they complete as a whole when they find their way through us. But the anticipation of our weekly meeting and the prompt combine to motivate each of us, and write we do.

I know at least one well-loved, famous poet who feels that prompts are a crutch. And I know other fine poets feel that way. I suppose that is true for them, but I find, and so do my poet friends and many teachers, that prompts activate a pearl in the brain that frees up the poetry stream. This is totally unscientific, but I can tell you, it works.

Because we are good friends as well as poetry lovers we talk a bit before we read and often the prompt comes out of that conversation. We have a week to write a poem from the prompt and then we get together.

Let’s look at the first draft and second draft of this week’s poem and the prompt and circumstances that birthed it.

The prompt is:  Write a poem involving a deformed or artificial body part that is able to do something impossible.  The prompt came from us watching the heroic Olympian runners with prosthetic limbs.

The poem I wrote comes from a theme that I’ve been writing about for the past few months. My ex-husband was very sick and ultimately died three weeks ago, and, still bitter toward me, he told my sons to keep me away from any services that they made for him.

So I was clearly triggered by the prompt to write a poem that I needed to write.

Here is a first draft:

Uninivited (or Left Out)

my right arm a transparent glint
stretches across the courtyard
I want to take his hand in mine
I fight the intimacy the need
but there it is
no way to straighten but this
the spiraling bones elastic
supple, slinky across
to my Bodhisattva Buddha

Garcia’s terrible crystal
in the center of my chest
tells arm reach across
transparent
skin no longer skin
bone not real
no part corporeal
life repeating and repeating

duende

And my sinuous arm finds his begging bowl

And his white marble form is the truth body.

Here is another hurt another
knife that cannot cut through nothing

and my empty reaching fingers place my offering
inside his begging bowl.

This is the one I shared with my poet friends:

Not Invited

My right arm, a transparent helpless glint,
stretches like a rubber snake,
rears backward across wide time.
I want to take his hand in mine—
I fight the intimacy, the need,
but there it is, trip hammer down
no way to lift it straight,
my spiraling flesh, elastic
supple, slinkies across
the courtyard to the white Buddha
we found in Singapore.

A round terrible crystal
in the center of my chest
instructs my arm to reach across

skin no longer skin
bone like orange peel
no part corporeal
life repeating and repeating.

My sinuous arm finds the Buddha,
his marble form is the truth body
and mine, disinterred from gravity
not fixed in time, a holographic bio joke
and my ex in death on to the next.

Here is another hurt another
knife that cannot cut through nothing
yet starts the bleeding

and my empty reaching fingers
place my offering
inside the begging bowl.

Now I’ll show you the poem after my group’s discussion:

Hologram

My right arm, a transparent glint,
stretches like a rubber snake,
spiraling flesh, elastic,
supple, slinkies across
the courtyard to the white Buddha
we found in Singapore.

Bone like orange peel
finds the Buddha’s marble form
and my empty fingers
place my offering
inside the begging bowl.

Note that sometime the poem’s travels take it to a whole different arena from the original thought. What serves the poem is the key!

When I begin to put together my next book I will certainly re-visit these and other poems and send the manuscripts off to my poetry group for their critiques. I never mind “slash and burn” and “kill your darlings” editing. The core of poetry is that terrible crystal, so rare to achieve, that comes, when it comes, with precision, imagery and compression.

 

Rosalind Brenner holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Her poems have been published in The Cortland Review; The Southampton Review; Long Island Sounds; Walt’s Corner in The Long Islander, Ontologica and The Arroyo Literary Review, among others. She received two Honorable Mentions in New Millennium’s national contest for essay and poetry. Rosalind’s two books are “Omega’s Garden,” from Finishing Line Press and “All That’s Left,” by Art House Press.

 

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