For my students’ first poetry assignment this year, I distributed a dozen past issues of BEST AMERICAN POETRY along with other anthologies snatched from my shelf and asked them to browse through and settle on a poem that caught their eye, one whose style or cadence made them envious, a poem they wish they had written. Next, I gave them several prompts to consider and we did a bit of memory brainstorming around those ideas. In particular, we conjured up the memory’s smells, tastes, sounds, textures and visual details. Finally, I asked them to use their brainstorm to construct a poem in the style of the one they admired.
Initially, some students were not enthralled. Hadn’t they signed up for this course in order to unearth their own personal voice? Why imitate someone else?
I described the copying exercises that are part of traditional visual arts training, in which the student tries to create a replica of a masterpiece by analyzing the brushstrokes, composition and color. In the painting classes I took with artist Roy Kinzer, (seen in photo) we sometimes started with monochromatic under paintings, as the masters did, and built the painting up from the inside out, endeavoring to mix colors and apply brushstrokes to resemble the original. The learning curve was steep. The point was not to do one such copy and subsequently forever paint like that artist, but rather to do dozens of them from a wide range of styles, each time depositing another tool in the toolbox, building up our own style. Art forms, whether painting, poetry, dance or music, move forward collectively, an unfolding conversation. Picasso borrowed from Braque, Braque from Cézanne and so on. Last year, a student of mine named Michael wrote an emulation of Major Jackson’s “Why I Write Poetry” called “Why I Do My Homework.” Another student named Dani wrote an emulation of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Map” entitled, “The City,” which Poetry.org selected for publication on their website. These poems were not appropriations of Jackson or Bishop, but a salute to them. This year, a student wrote an emulation of Robert Haas’s “After the Gentle Poet Kobayashi Issa,” an emulation of an emulation!
I sometimes do a similar exercise with fiction. I give students signature lines from established authors with a wide range of styles—Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, Borges, for example. (Having asked my English Department colleagues for their favorite lines of literature, I have an ample supply). I then ask the students to pluck out the nouns and verbs and replace them with their own words while retaining the scaffolding of the sentence. What’s left is a syntax the student may never have considered using before. While there’s no immediate end product to this exercise, it attunes their ear and broadens their idea of what’s possible.
Strictly speaking, these are not true copying exercises in the style of the visual arts, but many writers do find it useful to handwrite passages they love word for word as a way of absorbing their rhythm and structure.
Perhaps the best part of an emulation exercises is that it offers students the luxury of wading through stacks of poetry anthologies to find a poem that speaks them. It all begins there.
Tune in to tomorrow’s post to see how time constraints can be your new BFF.