Experiments in Word Alchemy
Words, words, words. I love playing with words, mixing up words, mashing up words, making up words. Despite some persistent, pounding insecurities, I love sharing what I do with words. (Or maybe it’s that I don’t know how to not share what I do. I dream out loud.) For a change of pace, I’m going to share how I play with words when it comes to poetry. It seems like a good time for it, since I’ve been doing some different things behind the curtains lately.
For most of my life I’ve written poems the same way: I have some words and images and emotions bouncing around in my head, I grab some paper and a pen, I start writing, making it up as I go, until I feel like the poem is done. Then I make changes (some small, some big) before I write out the final version of the poem. Most of the changes come from reading it out loud and tweaking it so that it sounds better aloud. But the process has always started with writing by hand (as opposed to prose, which is almost always composed entirely through typing.)
After all these years, I’ve started feeling stuck in a rut and fearful of getting locked into repeating the same kind of poem over and over again. I’ve tried some different techniques in the past, but never came up with anything I felt comfortable sharing. For the past few weeks, though, I’ve been shaking my own things up and I’ve been happy with the results. Happy enough to post online and share with the world. It’s not just a fear of rut-trapped-ness that’s led me to do this. I’ve also had some particular social/political topics I’ve wanted to speak up on, but I didn’t want to write poems that were just me directly ranting about things that are upsetting me. That’s the kind of thing I leave for Twitter and Facebook.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m very influenced by the Dada and Surrealist movements. Thinking about how the Dadas used their techniques as well as the words in their works to criticize modern warfare and other social/political problems, I’ve been using the Cut-Up Machine app on the website Language Is a Virus, plugging in my own writing and other sources, taking the random cut-up results (which come out as one long, unbroken stream of words), breaking the results up into lines and stanzas, and finally applying some non-Dada tweaking until it became a poem that I felt sounded good aloud and satisfied me overall.
Por exemplo, “America, You Know Such Glory” was written my usual way, then plugged into the Cut-Up Machine, then tweaked a lot, adding the phrase “america, you know” to the beginning of every stanza. “Crow Masque Barbeque” was a bunch of clichés about the American Dream and various words I just like the sound of, plugged into the Cut-Up Machine, then tweaked (less than “America, You Know Such Glory”). “I Call Shotgun, Bernadette!” came from an anti-gun control article posted on the NRA website, copied and pasted into the Cut-Up Machine, pretty much taken as is (with only some repeated words dropped), broken into lines and stanzas, and then a few words changed on a whim. None of these poems were written by hand first, which was pushing myself out of my comfort zone and has taken some getting used to. On the other hand, “Hymn Autumnal” was written by hand first, tweaked a lot, then run through the Cut-Up Machine, then tweaked a lot more. It began as the lyrics from the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” but with the words altered for summer turning into autumn instead of winter turning into spring. I messed with it a lot to make it less of a straight rewrite of the song. But after typing it out, I found I was still not happy with it, so into the Cut-Up Machine it went. I took what came out and reworked it back into a song lyric-ish structure, but altered enough that it didn’t seem so blatant to me as to what it had started out as. (I do wonder if anyone who’s read it picked up on its original source. Is it still obvious? Or not so much?)
Despite feeling nervous about doing things differently, I’m very happy with how these poems turned out and I want to keep experimenting with techniques. Because ruts are no fun to be stuck in and always doing things the same way is boooooooring…and pretty much the opposite of creativity.
And there you go!