Thursday, June 2, 2016

Faculty Voices with Ron Koertge: Poetry as Prompt

There are times when I can’t/won’t write what I’m supposed to/what I’ve planned, but I want to put a few hundred words on paper. My promise to myself is this: write every day. And though I’ve broken promises to everyone (my first wife puts up her hand), I rarely break ones I’ve made to myself. 

“Oh, Ron, what do you do when you can’t write what you’d prefer to write?”

Funny you should ask. Can’t you guess? I turn to poetry.

But not as poetry. I don’t want to write poetry. I want to use (put your other hand up now, my bitter darling) poetry to get something off the ground, to energize me.

Here’s what I do: I Google Poetry Foundation and on the right side of the page troll through Browse Poems. Like window shopping. (Any anthology or book of poems would do. I just like the Poetry Foundation.) 

When I find a first line I like, I jot it down and make a short list. Here’s what I just came up with in five minutes –

                  1. A striped blouse in a clearing by Bazille.

                  2.  Watch the fire undress him.

                  3.  When love was a question mark, a message arrived.

                  4.  I’m still thinking about your porch light.

                  5.  The bear stopped dancing and unscrewed his head.

#4 is a likely keeper, and #2 interests me a lot. And I want to put blouse/striped blouse somewhere.

That’s plenty to get me started. Will this turn out well? Who knows. Will it be fun? Probably. I don’t need to think for myself when I have poets thinking for me, using language in a nostalgic and pedestrian way (#4) and/or making it punch me in the gut (#2).

Let’s say I’m drawn to #2. I know I’ll stick to short, staccato sentences probably in the form of commands. If I want to get anywhere with #1 I’ll look up Bazille and discover that he’s a painter (not so interesting) but is also a restaurant! So is the blouse on a waitress in a restaurant named Bazille? And is she serving something hot to the guest who complained about his dinner being cold, something so hot he’s on fire from head-to-toe?

What’s interesting is this - I rarely finish these exercises. Wound up by them, I’ll go right to the thing I’m working on. But lots of time the language in the poems’ first lines will either appear in the work-in-progress or at least, like iodine in water, color a whole page in a way I could never 
have predicted. 

*Ron Koertge is a faculty member at Hamline's MFAC program.  He writes poetry for everyone, fiction for young adults, and recently co-authored a young reader series. You can discover Ron's literary work by visiting his author's website or visit his faculty page to learn about him as a professor at Hamline University.

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