Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Sometimes an exercise is just an exercise

I was reading submissions for a publication recently, and I came across a poem with a distinctive and unusual title. Below it, in the epigraph position, was the attribution line—something along the lines of “After Pablo Neruda,” only a different poet was named.

On a hunch, I looked up the poet and the title together, and what I suspected proved to be true: One word of the title had been replaced with another, and the poem itself enacted this Mad Libs substitution strategy throughout.

Imagine, as an example of this, if we were to start with a widely anthologized contemporary poem, maybe Li-Young Lee’s “Persimmons,” and change each persimmon to a kumquat. That poem is based on confusion between the words “persimmon” and “precision,” so I suppose we’d need a comparable word to stumble upon, like, I dunno, “ketchup.” 

When the speaker is punished for confusing “kumquat” and “ketchup” by a teacher—not Mrs. Walker, of course, but Mrs. Stalker or Caulker or something—what we find is not a poem that grows more and more original with each substitution; instead, it’s a poem that is increasingly beholden to the original.

The important question is this: Whose poem is our new “Kumquat”? And the answer should be obvious: It is Lee’s.

Imitations provide important lessons for any artist, and not just literary ones. Whenever I visit a major art museum, I see students sketching important works into their notebooks with their pencils. There is much we can learn from our creative forebears.

In almost any creative writing classroom, the imitation poem or story is a standard exercise, and such a transformative one. I don’t recommend eliminating this exercise any time soon. 

But students do need to know the difference between an exercise and an original creative work. I wish more writers would embrace the notion that it’s OK to do exercises, and that not everything we commit to the page needs an expanded life in a literary magazine.

Musicians understand this idea. They might begin their practice session with scales and arpeggios, but these are intended as warm-ups. Mere finger exercises don’t merit a trip to the recording studio. They’re just a precursor for what comes next.

Likewise, visual artists and designers often start with sketches. These might go somewhere and they might not, but they serve as a way to keep the fingers limber and the ideas coming.

Playing around with scales might suggest a pleasing progression of notes, and sketches might suggest a viable work of art—that’s often the hope. The exercises are an important step in the process, but the actual artifacts—pages of initial sketches, perhaps—are not usually seen as work that requires saving.

We writers are a different story. When we put effort into a piece, we tend to want it to go somewhere. We’ve worked hard and made some discoveries—writing always seems to lead to insight; that’s just the nature of it. Sometimes there’s an idea, an image, a turn of phrase that isn’t easy to re-house in a new piece, so we’re left with scraps. Often, our scraps remain scraps; an occasion to use our discards may never arise, and we’re left holding the most brilliant unattached sentence or phrase the world has never seen.

That imitation poem I encountered in a submission file had some nice moves in it, and many of these were the poet’s own. While it had a copied structure—both formal and rhetorical—it had some original flourishes. I get why the writer wanted it to find an audience, and the attribution line shows an admirable desire to honor the original writer. (By the way, I do believe a poem can start as an imitation and rise to the level of original art, but it has to involve much more than substitution to do so.)

I just wish we writers were more willing to let exercises be exercises. It feels important to publish, but there have been many occasions when I’ve gone off half-cocked, publishing a poem before its time, or publishing a poem that, in a more sober mindset, would never have come into its time—a poem that was meant to start and end its life as an exercise.

In writing this, I may seem elitist or stodgy. What I’m really trying to do is to make a case for play. What would the state of poetry look like if we writers let ourselves goof off more? Taking off the pressure to publish—taking away those expectations and stakes—gives us freedom to have fun. 

There’s no reason an office can’t be a playroom from time to time.



  1. I once I had a professor tell me that 95% of what I would do would be practice. They key was figuring out which 5% was worth it all.

    1. Wise words. I don't know what the percentage is, but surely we should practice more than we produce.