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[In case it hasn't been made clear, does NOT accept adult, pornographic or erotic submissions. Every time I see that big, bold, red warning at the top of the submissions page I'm tempted to sneak a little hanky-panky into a verse and see if it makes it past the censors.]

How do we improve our poetry? My last post about providing more critical criticism seems to have been well received. Asking for and being open to criticism is a great way to improve your poetry.

But there are other ways, and some of them are even fun, and so I'd like to share 5 of the activities we did (and sometimes still do) to help crank up the old muse. I'll save my favorite for last. These are best played with a few like-minded, poetic friends. Have them bring food, too.

1. Insane metaphor. Not just a game, but a fruity dessert topping. This exercise, along with #2, "Lyrics, ahoy!" requires little pieces of paper, of two different colors if possible. Let's say pink and blue. Write a bunch of very solid, meaty "things" or definite activities on the blue pieces. Examples: water, mustard, skiing, traffic circle, snoring, airplane, hockey-stick, gargling, etc. Then, on the pink slips of paper, write a bunch of more conceptual issues; love, betrayal, honor, patriotism, shame, perseverance, trust, brotherhood, evil, etc. Mix 'em together, upside down, in the middle of the table. Now everybody gets one blue and one pink slip. You now have 2 minutes (or 5... if you're a bunch of wussies...) to write a poem in which your blue "thing" is clearly brought into metaphoric play relative to your pink "concept."

So. Using the above list and my inherent talent for randomness, I picked: "traffic circle" and "brotherhood." I have two minutes to write a poem linking those two things metaphorically. After everyone's done, read them. As this is a "stretching" game, we would often not critique the poems with the same fervor as our "real" work. This game is meant to help you create links where none were pre-existing in your brain. The easier that becomes for you, the better you'll be able to create rich symbolism when you want to.

2. Lyrics, ahoy! Similar start to above. Write the names of popular song on the blue sheets; it should be something almost everyone would know. Write concepts on the pink sheets (or use the same ones from earlier; that often gets some good laughs). Mix 'em upside down again and pick one of each. You now have 2 minutes (or 5... if you're a bunch of wussies...) to rewrite the lyrics of the blue song about the pink concept. So you may have to rewrite the words to "Piano Man" about primitive communism. One verse is fine, more if you are moved. Something like:

It's 9 o'clock on a Saturday.
The party officials shuffle in.
There's an old comrade sitting next to me
Looking 'round for political sin.

He said, "Son, you don't look proletariat.
Frankly you seem bourgeoisie.
You've got a slight air of aristrocrats,
Not that of a revolutionary."

Or something like that, but much better.

3. Memesis. Yes, I said "memesis." Maybe I'll do a post on memetics sometime later, but suffice it to say that a "meme" is an idea. So "memesis" is a clever (har-de-har-har) pun that combines "meme" and "nemesis."


Take a poem you've written and re-write it as if you were your exact-opposite. Imagine that you're in that Star Trek episode where Spock has a nasty little goatee (note: facial hair signals evil). How would your mirror-image-poet handle this poem? You can play this two ways; have your doppleganger write about the same subject, but in an opposite way... or have him/her tackle the opposite subject as well as writing it differently. What do I mean by "opposite subject" or "handled oppositely?" That's for you to figure out. For example, say you've written a love poem about someone who left you. You could either write a hate poem about that person who left, or a love poem about a person you wish would leave, or a hate poem about a person you wish would leave. If the original is very straightforward, make the memesis poem very mysterious. If the original rhymes, make the memesis free verse. If the original is very short, go on for awhile. You get it. We write about what moves us. The antithesis of what moves us should also be good soil for poems.

4. Snapshot. I write a lot of "moment" poetry where the whole poem describes a single "something" or happening. It's almost a still-life in words. Taking it even further, it's a good writing exercise. Imagine a scene with no movement; a snapshot. Something that would make a nice, framed photo in a gallery. Describe it in poetry. You can imbue it with terrific meaning, or just describe it in an evocotive way. This drill helps you focus your poetic attention. Don't worry about themes or action or heart-wrenching meaning; just do a good job describing something. It's harder than it sounds, and practicing this will help you do it better when you're in the midst of your own verse.

5. Meta poem. This is the hardest, but one of my favorites. Start with a poem you've written already. Now write a poem about the poem. Write about what you see in it, what you imagine a reader might see, how the characters feel within the bounds you've created, what has happened just before or after the narrative, why you chose one word instead of another, why you wrote the poem at all, etc. But remember -- you're not writing an essay about your poem or a critical review: you're writing a poem about it. So be poetic. Use different metaphors to talk about your original metaphor. Explore the space where you explored another space.

This is a very weird exercise and one that can be very frustrating... but which will almost guarantee you a better version of the original poem. Usually when I introduce this drill, I'm greeted with looks of utter blankitude. "What you talkin' about, Andy?" seems to be the general concensus.

But think... if you are a poet, then poetry is important to you. We write poems about things that are important to us. So why is it absurd to write a poem about a poem? Many of Edgar Allen Poe's stories are about stories. The "mirror in the mirror" is a potent tool.

* * * * *

I've had fun with these games/drills/exercises in the past. I hope they prove useful or fun to you.


I blog irregularly at TinkerX. I'm also on Twitter. @andyhavens, go figure.

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The following comments are for "Drop and give me 20 haiku about road trips, dirt bag!"
by andyhavens

Thanks for this, man; it sounds pretty interesting and - gasp - potentially fun. It's also nice to read something about poetry that isn't a whack-fest (see comments, front page). I may try some of these exercises out. Thanks, and uhm, nice BLOG. Haha.

( Posted by: die_daily [Member] On: July 4, 2004 )

Omg!!! The second one is one of my favorite things to do! It is so stress relieving to write a song about something frustrating, like Calculus. (I don't know if you know the song "Delovely" but it's now called "Derivfic" -- like derivative). I love when you can get the exact number of syllabols right it's the best! As for the others, I will definitely be trying them out!

( Posted by: polarqueen [Member] On: July 5, 2004 )

I know "Delovely" from "Anything Goes?"
I was in that show in 10th grade. I played the dual roles of "Cameraman" and "Sailor #3." I got to dance behind Paula DeMarris. If you'd danced behind her, you'd know why I still remember.

Is it that song, from "Anything Goes" that you mean? Lyrics of first verse below:

"The night is young, the skies are clear
So if you want to go walking, dear,
It's delightful, it's delicious, it's de-lovely.
I understand the reason why
You're sentimental, 'cause so am I,
It's delightful, it's delicious, it's de-lovely.
You can tell at a glance
What a swell night this is for romance,
You can hear dear Mother Nature
Murmuring low,
'Let yourself go!'
So please be sweet, my chickadee,
And when I kiss you, just say to me,
'It's delightful, it's delicious,
It's delectable, it's delirious,
It's dilemma, it's delimit, it's deluxe,
It's de-lovely'."

That would be a tough one to re-lyricize. All those "de-s." And I don't know enough calculus. I could possibly do phyics. Or psychology. Let's try that:

The night is young, my conscience clear
So if you'd like to shrink my head, dear,
It's depressed, it's demented, it's de-paranoid.
I understand the reason why
you're following me -- your a Soviet spy!
It's depressed, it's demented, it's de-paranoid.
You can tell at a glance
that my meds have me in a slight trance.
I can hear dear Mother Russia
Murmuring low,

So don't be mad, my provacateur,
It's just my condition is somewhat obscure.
I'm demented, I'm dipolar,
I'm an obsessed decontroller.
I'm depressing, I'm detoxic
I'm denuts I'm de-paranoid!

( Posted by: andyhavens [Member] On: July 5, 2004 )

Proof of the Pudding!

I am not a serious poet, but I have followed your blogs with great interest. I am always wary of people who have 'mastered an art' with certificates to prove it, because my own diplomas only prove I could except the education and present it back in a fashion that I would end up with the certificate.. not that I believed a damn thing I was being taught!

The help you have given in comments on this site ia amazing, you are not only a true master of your craft, but you understand people and this is much more important. All my work is of the singy songy, wishy washy work you often refer to, I love this style and unless natural progression takes me away from it, it will probably stay. You are one of the people who I listen to and will resist making me a better poet, though its going to be a bloody hard job as your real insight is amazing.

Finally as I started this piece 'The proof of the pudding is in the eating'....your basterdisation of of the song from 'anything goes' was fantastic. You have put the 'meat on the bones' for me and I would thank you for the time and effort you take. The comments you write for others are lessons for us all.

Oh I've put a two way arrow on my avatar to indicate two way feedback acceptable...maybe you could come up with a better idea?

Have Fun


( Posted by: ivordavies [Member] On: July 5, 2004 )

Yes, that's the one! I was in that show also in 11th grade. My one line was in the Public Enemy Number 1 song "Blessings on thee thou, noble chap!" Ah, good times. I really like your rendition!! You actually kept the de's! This was my fav:

You can tell at a glance
that my meds have me in a slight trance.

It made me laugh. I sort of cheated and got rid of the de's for mine but I think I did manage to keep the 'de' words syllabols:

My pencil's sharp,
the paper's clear.
I know! Let's do some homework dear!
It's mathematic, exponential! It's derivfic!
Some rate-of-change, ln's and e's! God, what more do you need to please?!
It's mathematic, exponential, it's derivfic!
Can you solve at a glance,
this derivative? Come take a chance!
Did you know that 4x squared it equals 8x.
You've passed the test!
Oh, I love calc,
it's so much fun
seems once you start you're already done.:(
It's mathematic, exponential, it's functional, theoretical, parabolic, trapezoidal, graphical, it's derivfic!


( Posted by: polarqueen [Member] On: July 5, 2004 )

99 Well Read Baboons
We obviously need a new section on for alternate lyrics. I'll make a suggestion to the editors. Writing alternate lyrics to songs is, in fact, one of only two true talents that I believe I have. Everything else has relied on (ugh) practice and study.

You (polarqueen) may not remember the song "99 Red Balloons," as it was big in, I think, 1985. But if you have Napster or some such, it's worth listening to (available in English and the original German). While working in McD's that summer with my friend, Guy (his real name), we'd make up altnerate lyrics while working the meat. My favorite was a version of the above song. Ahem:

99 well-read baboons
sitting in the Christian Science reading room.
They're reading Marx, performing Shakespeare in the park
And all the people come and go,
knowing less than 99 well-read baboons know.

[last verse, slow and sad]

Now I sit here in my room,
Thinking of the baboons' doom.
They built rockets, moved to Mars
And opened lots of seedy bars.
A hundred years have passed since then,
And all the baboons turned to men...

(At which point you do the heavy-funky synth background groove rag and caper like one of said baboons)

( Posted by: andyhavens [Member] On: July 6, 2004 )

well read baboons

I'm dating myself a bit, but your rendition of Nena's one hit wonder had me rolling. This is deft and witty stuff. A true joy to read. Thanks for the laugh, it brightened up an early morning at the grindstone.


( Posted by: Bartleby [Member] On: July 6, 2004 )

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