Memorial Day weekend I attended the Raleigh Review‘s first workshop in its Writers’ House series. The Raleigh Review is new—volume 1 (2010-2011) just came out at the beginning of this year, and volume 2 is due out early in 2012—but the board and staff, which include poets Rob Greene, Dorianne Laux, Joseph Millar, come with street cred.
Laux and Millar, talented teachers and poets, led the workshop—and they donated their time so all the proceeds from the workshop fees could go to supporting the Raleigh Review. The workshop was generative, and we met for two-hour sessions over three days (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday). The format for each session was simple:
- Get a writing prompt. (And if you don’t know The Poet’s Companion, which Laux wrote with Kim Addonizio, check it out—they know how to give some good prompts.)
- Write for 30 minutes or so.
- Read what you’ve written, listen to others read their work, and hear feedback from Laux and Millar. I was impressed at what astute comments they were able to provide based on hearing people’s raw material aloud one time—I’m a hemmer and hawer and a visual learner to boot, so I was truly awed.
Beyond the prompts, Laux and Millar also gave us workshop participants a resource that we can keep going back to. The idea is to document your personal universe, using all five senses. (I appreciate the senses as key to poetry—and learning in general—as “A Sense-full Approach to Learning” demonstrates.)
The personal universe is discussed in a piece by Laux posted on Read Write Poem. But the Read Write Poem article uses the personal universe as a prompt for writing one poem—and it’s great as a prompt—but the way Laux and Millar characterized the personal universe during the workshop was as more as an ongoing tool or resource.
They invited us to make a chart with the five senses as columns and, for rows, the major periods in our life (e.g., childhood, adolescence, adulthood, or whatever makes sense to you). Then you complete the chart by filling in words (five or more) for each sense at each time period. So under smell for childhood, you might have something like “Pop’s clove cigarettes.” Under adulthood and taste (or smell, depending on how you remember it), you might write, “pear wine.” You’re also supposed to pick words to go with an array of topics: “seasons, times of day or night, astrological signs, totems, heroes and heroines, nicknames, places in the universe, invented words or sounds, snippets of dialog.” You’re also to pick an abstraction: “Then find an abstraction, a word you might use to define what most motivates or controls your life.”
Again, the Read Write Poem article focuses on the personal universe as a prompt for one poem. And you can certainly use it that way. But I really like the way Laux and Millar presented it at the workshop—as an ongoing resource. I like the idea that I now have something I can turn to to help me when I get stuck in poem. If I’m at a dead end, I can randomly pick a word from the chart to use and get me going again. If I’m looking for concrete details and descriptions in a poem, I can look at my chart to jog my memory and senses.
There are prompts a-plenty out there—and I’m not knocking them because, Lord knows, I use them—but I find the personal universe an appealing more-than-prompt. I hope you will too.