Thursday, November 5, 2015

Prose into Poetry

This week's post if from Hamline alum *Bill Kennedy, who is ready to teach us about turning prose into poetry.  Straight from his own classroom, get ready for some great insights on how to boil 60,000 words down to a few essential, emotional points of connection.

It has been almost fifteen years ago to the day that I took my first writing class. The teacher was Natalie Goldberg, the author of "Writing Down the Bones,' arguably, one of the best books on the craft of writing ever. I learned very quickly that writing and teaching depends on connection. She connected to the twelve or so students in the class by having us walk slowly around a spacious room overlooking a park in downtown St. Paul, MN. "Feel your heels, then your toes. Listen to the sound of your shoes. See the cracks on the walls, the corners of the room, the window sash, don't look outside, stay inside." After we sat down, sensitive to every little tingle or brush of air, she told us to "Knock that monkey off your shoulder that tells you everything you write sucks. Pick up your fast pen or pencil and write what you are feeling. Don't think, don't worry about spelling or syntax, just write, don't go back, don't cross out, just write." She called it "fast writing." I felt free and started to pull scenes out of my heart that had been there for a very long time.

This lesson and others, including an MFA at Hamline, led me to teaching a class called Prose into Poetry in 2009 that I have repeated whenever I have had the opportunity, in between day jobs.
I   5 minutes on prose:
My opening prose line went something like, “Prose is describing the interior of a birthing room, repeating the spoken words of the doctor.”

I read the line “Lucidity is the wound closest to the sun,” from poet Rene Char, then   asked the students, 8 year olds to 98 year olds, to “Replace the word ‘Lucidity’ with their own word and write from their heart about that incident” following the Goldberg rules.

II 10-15 minutes on poetry:
My opening poetic line went something like, “Poetry is standing at my wife’s shoulder, watching my son born.”

Now, “Circle the words that rise from your paper, the words that hit you in the chest. Create a poem out of those words.”

III 30-35 minutes of sharing:
“Read your prose. Then read your poem.” Nobody is forced to share.

Invariably, whether from eight year olds, eighteen year olds or eighty-eight year olds, responses were almost immediate from both the reader and the listeners.  If in a classroom, the first reaction sometimes came from the teacher sitting in the back of the room. More often, the first emotion came from the reader describing a pet, a family member, themselves. Shaking, tears, “Oh my God, what did you do then? Are you ok? Hurrah, way to go,” came from the audience  followed by applause.


My prose example is my MFA Creative thesis, a 39,000 word intermediate novel with a lot of death and magical realism. I did not include the whole novel in this Inkpot offering, just a brief recap of character and plot.

The Boy, The Giant and the Crow 

Nine year-old Lucas Logan can control the movement of inanimate objects.  His new found sense of confidence leads him to his next challenge, flying.  His test run leads to his mother’s death.

Twelve year-old Ivan Still is eight feet tall and the strongest person in the county. His father blames Ivan for the loss of his wife and Ivan’s twin brother who died at birth while Ivan survived.

The leader of the local murder, Corvus Denouement, speaks four human languages that he learned by listening to people talk to the dead in the cemetery.   He spends his quiet hours there to escape the gnawing suspicion that he could have saved his parents from a farmer’s shotgun.


The Boy, The Giant and The Crow

Lucas Logan

The porch has wings
In my dream
Lean left
Circle the trees
Lean right
Rise over sunflowers

“Lean right”

You were gone as I flew
You said I could
The earth opened
You were gone
Into the vacant hole

“Where are you?”

Grave marker shifts at my feet
Smoke climbs,
Circles the stone
Your hand rises
Touches mine

“Come back”

The magic is mine
My eyes move
The hole to the side
As I fall, you catch me
And hold on

“Don’t go”

Ivan Still

Shards of glass lie
In the sink
Fallen from the kitchen window
I watch my brother’s
Hand pull back, uncut

He says nothing
Retreats into the trees
Pulled by a cord
I want him to say
“It’s not your fault”

I reach for him
Glass in my fingers
Red drops in the sink
Glass falls away, rub my eyes
Afraid to look again

I grew faster than he
Took food meant for two
Left him none
She couldn’t know I was
The only survivor

He is gone, twelve years gone
Alive in my dreams that he
Invades, enticing me to ask him
Again and again
“Was it my fault? My fault?”

Corvus Denouement

I know the story
Unable to stop a cold gun’s fire
Falling feathers
Cover sunflower’s aisle

No words
Of theirs
Reach my ears
Just human’s talking to the dead

Who am I
To hear their souls
Reach out and touch
What is gone?

A change in the dream
Is all I have
To take us where
We’ve never been

* Bill Kennedy started writing stories as a child. He graduated from Spalding Institute in Peoria, Illinois, received his BA in Political Theory from the College of St. Thomas and his MFA in Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University in St. Paul, MN. He spent many years researching fashion trends around the world for department stores and apparel manufacturers. He and his wife have taught creative writing to students ranging from 3rd grade to 93 years old. The lesson plan doesn't change much. He now focuses his writing on intermediate grade novels that feature Tramp, the world's best dog detective. He lives in Jamestown, North Dakota and raises funds for the James River Valley Library System, the best small rural library since Ptolemy founded the Alexandria Library in the 3rd century BC. 

No comments:

Post a Comment