From the Open Page | Selection by Amelia Martens
As much as I resist form, I often work better inside a “box.” This is likely one of the reasons for my persistent attraction to the prose poem; sometimes even the box is not enough to make my brain drop into gear. Several years ago, I was struggling to write regularly and geographically surrounded by people wearing WWJD bracelets. I went down to the Ohio River and thought about what Jesus would do, if he were alive today. I put Jesus on a park bench, watching coal barge down the Ohio while a bird picked apart his fast fashion clothes; Jesus was contemplative and unemployed. And then I gave Jesus different jobs and tried hard to listen. This practice resulted in a series of Jesus poems, some accusations of blasphemy, and an exercise that I return to anytime I need to quiet the editor in my head and just get to the page. As a child in the last century, I watched Bill and Ted travel through time, gather historical figures into a telephone booth, and then carry them out of context. As writers, we have this freedom and our box can expand far beyond the telephone booth; we can work with anyone, in any time—the past and the future are open. This exercise also provides a chance to use some of what we might consider domestic, mundane, or even “common” knowledge that we have all collected as people moving through time. I use this exercise mainly to write prose poems, since the editor in my head can often hold me up if I get snagged on a line break. You may want to write your first draft as a prose block and then play with line breaks in revision.
Let's Get Started:
Time travel and character gathering can be approached in a variety of ways. Just shifting people, time, or the role they occupy in society can produce poem-worthy results. You may already have a historical figure you want to focus on—if so just skip ahead. Likewise, you may already have one of the other components established—maybe the time, or maybe the occupation. You can begin with any of these three elements or with nothing at all. Let us go from nothing.
1. Make a list of jobs.
Give yourself a few minutes to make a list of jobs, preferably jobs you have held in the past—that way you’ll be familiar with some of the details of the job that may not be common knowledge to the rest of us.
2. Make a list of historical figures.
Take a few minutes to make another list—this time of historical figures. Perhaps very famous people or the not-so-well-known people waiting in the wings of history. Is there someone we should know more about but don’t? Is there someone very famous you would like us to look at in a new light? Is there someone like Jesus—who is widely used to support different causes or actions?
3. Select one job from your list and one person from your list.
4. Decide what time you want to travel to. The present, the recent past, two centuries ago, the near or distant future? Alternatively, maybe an important moment, outside of that person’s lifetime? For example, placing Abraham Lincoln as a pilot in an airport bar at lunchtime on September 11, 2001 would probably turn out to be an interesting poem.
5. Put them all together.
Job + Historical Figure (famous or not) + a Change in Time = Poem
6. Include sensory details.
Use your knowledge of that job and/or time, and/or person. Enjoy the new juxtaposition of person, work, and time. See what happens.
You can find this writing exercise, along with many others, in Martha's Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing's anthology:
the Open Page now available for purchase!
About the book: This 300-page book collects creative writing exercises and award-winning stories, essays, and poetry from some of our most beloved instructors from the past 10 years, and captures the magic of our program in its pages. Both a craft-book as well as an anthology of award-winning fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction, this book is the perfect way to bring the magic of MVICW with you into the coming year!
About the writer: Amelia Martens is the author of The Spoons in the Grass are There To Dig a Moat (Sarabande Books, 2016), and four chapbooks. In 2019, she received an Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council. She co-curates the Rivertown Reading Series, Exit 7: A Journal of Literature & Art, and two awesome daughters.