Unconventional Forms

From the ‘Pop-up Poetry’ series of workshops sponsored by StoryStudio Chicago

Sunday, April 30, 2017
taught by C. Russell Price 

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Each of Russell’s poetic exercises from the Pop-up Poetry series (and I really wish I hadn’t missed the first workshop) stands alone as a path to deeper creative fluency,  but taken together they share a common intention: to startle the writer into thinking differently, to jump-start creative association and engagement with words and the world outside of us, to connect and communicate with the work and words of others.  It’s a curriculum both of surprise-folding old and new together, forcing a new perspective that takes us out of ourselves-and recognition: there’s material everywhere. Sometimes we need to be reminded of that as we sit there with blank minds and pages.

This final class in the series examined several lesser-known poetic forms, daunting in their rigid structure and requirements. We were instructed to dive right in and make them our own.

1. The Abecedarian


…an ancient poetic form guided by alphabetical order. Generally each line or stanza begins with the first letter of the alphabet and is followed by the successive letter, until the final letter is reached. The earliest examples are Semitic and often found in religious Hebrew poetry.
 -The American Academy of Poets

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Amy Ludwig VanDerwater

So we wrote our ABC’s down the left margin of a piece of paper, and had ten minutes to generate a poem: a love letter to a person, place or thing.  Three imposed limits: the form itself, the time constraint, the theme.

I didn’t get real far. It was incredibly difficult.

After the divorce
Before the reunion
Coincidence? Or Fate?
Edged over
Found me at the table
How weird!
I loved him when I was 20.

Yeeesh. And that was only the beginning of the alphabet. Imagine if I’d made it to K and Q and X.  And Z. The idea that the structural requirements might actually enable rather than inhibit expression made sense to me in theory; in practice….well, yeah. Maybe I could look at it as an exercise, like a musician running scales.

Yeah. That’s it. I was just warming up. There was a big crowd on Sunday, 10 people all told, with only a short time to go over what we’d done, so it was hard for me to tell how many others had as tough a time as I did (and doesn’t it always seem like other people are ‘getting it’ more quickly than you are?).


2. Cento


From the Latin word for “patchwork,” the cento (or collage poem) is a poetic form made up of lines from poems by other poets. Though poets often borrow lines from other writers and mix them in with their own, a true cento is composed entirely of lines from other sources.
-The American Academy of Poets

 Or, as Russell described it, it’s a sort of ‘chainmail’ made out of the pieces of other poems, ‘pulling a poem of your own out of the lines.’

We were instructed to go to the poetry section of the store and choose a book, either by a favorite poet or one entirely unfamiliar to us. We were then directed to page through the poems, cherrypicking a striking line here, another striking line there, then assemble them into something resembling meaning.

Because my confidence was a little shaky I went straight for this, as he has never let me down: Screen Shot 2017-05-03 at 10.59.42 AM

We had ten minutes.

after Billy Collins

The tip of the nose seemed the first to be lost
If you tripped on a shoelace in the hall,
The air ionized as before a thunderstorm.

I heard the ghost-clink of the milk bottle
I fell in love with a wren
It played while I watered the plants
It repeated itself when I took a walk

There was a lot to notice that morning
My new copper-colored bicycle
The music of the spheres
I peered in at the lobsters.
How many things have I looked up
In a lifetime of looking things up?

It’s really sort of amazing what happens; it feels like the sense makes itself.

Again, there sadly wasn’t time to read them all aloud; we chose favorite passages and passed them around (this easily could’ve been a three hour workshop!).

3. Collaborative Poem
(*this is what I’m calling it; it may have a formal name that I don’t remember or know*)

It’s what it sounds like (remember the dread you felt in school when you were told to ‘pair off’ for some class exercise or other?): work with a partner, trading couplets back and forth: you write one, they write one, then you write one, etc.  We were instructed to arrive at a theme by brainstorming with one another, then get down to writing. I don’t know if everyone was as squirmy about this as I was, but it seemed like it.

Why? Why did we feel that dread in school; why did we (or I, at any rate) feel this way?

I think one of the reasons I am a writer is that I am shy, am too easily distracted from my own thoughts by those of others, need to mull my words over and play with my ideas before I share them. It’s a comfortable if not always optimal place, and when you are asked to work with someone else (for some reason, it’s not as difficult for me with a group as with a single partner), you don’t have the safety of privacy anymore.

Or something.

Anyway. My partner Calvin (I never learned his last name…sorry, Calvin!)  and I put our heads together. We were each skittish, I think (I know I was!), tossing the task back and forth like a hot potato. He said ‘you lead,’ and I balked, said something about being that dancer who prefers to follow (or not dance at all, unless I’ve had a couple of drinks), and we finally stumbled on Dancing as a theme.

Dancing Tango [a is one voice; b the other]

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Let’s dance
Tango is cool with me

I’m not much of a dancer
More a stand-against-the-wall type

Come off that wall
Stand tall
You win
If you don’t fall

Well I guess I’ll win then
Which foot goes where?

Look what they
Doing, shakin
Soft shoeing
Let’s steal a dance
Do that prance

They move so fast
Like they know what they’re doing
Maybe if I move fast
I’ll look like that too

A one and a two
A stolen soft shoe

Who’s leading? The follower?
Or do I follow you?

While putting this post together, I came across this, a collection of poems for two voices:

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4. Ghazal

Its restrictions belie an exhilarating freedom not found in other kinds of poetry. It becomes a liberating sort of puzzle.

Pronounced ‘guzzle,’ this is a form I’d never heard of. Originating in Persia, its name originates in an Arabic root that means talking to women.  At its best, flirtation is a subtle art, with a particular and often daunting set of rules. The ghazal is no different.

With gratitude to Holly Jensen at ghazalpage.com, here are the rules:

  1. A traditional or free ghazal has at least 5 end-stopped couplets. Repeat: no enjambment  between couplets. A caesura or end-stop between the lines of couplets is common.
  2. Couplets are autonomous. They need not tell a single narrative, share a single voice, or use common imagery. You can even think of each couplet as its own small poem. They’ve been described as beads on a necklace: separate elements that combine to create a beautiful whole.
  3. The poet often refers to or addresses herself (or an alter ego/pen name) in the last couplet, directly or through word play.
    [in addition to meeting the above guidelines, a ghazal in English has three additional rules]
  4. The defining characteristics of a traditional ghazal are its rhyme and refrain. The refrain can be a word or phrase. The rhyme appears directly before the refrain. Every couplet ends with the rhyme and refrain. In the first couplet only, both lines end in the rhyme and refrain.
  5. Every line of the poem shares the same meter or syllable count.
  6. A ghazal doesn’t always follow every rule!


I found this ‘ghazal defining a ghazal’ to be (a little) more enlightening:

Ghazals on Ghazals
John Hollander

For couplets the ghazal is prime; at the end
Of each one’s a refrain like a chime: “at the end.”

But in subsequent couplets throughout the whole poem,
It’s this second line only will rhyme at the end

One such a string of strange, unpronounceable fruits,
How fine the familiar old lime at the end!

All our writing is silent, the dance of the hand,
So that what it comes down to’s all mime, at the end.

Dust and ashes? How dainty and dry! We decay
To our messy primordial slime at the end.

Two frail arms of your delicate form I pursue,
Inaccessible, vibrant, sublime at the end.

You gathered all manner of flowers all day,
But your hands were most fragrant of thyme, at the end.

There are so many sounds! A poem having one rhyme?
—A good life with sad, minor crime at the end.

Each new couplet’s a different ascent: no great peak,
But a low hill quite easy to climb at the end.

Two armed bandits: start out with a great wad of green
Thoughts, but you’re left with a dime at the end.

Each assertion’s a knot which must shorten, alas.
This long-worded rope of which I’m at end.

Now Qafia Radif has grown weary, like life,
At the same he’s been wasting his time at. THE END.

A string of beads: the ‘string’ is its series of repeated Screen Shot 2017-05-03 at 6.32.32 PMrhymed refrains, its ‘beads’ the images: ‘wine, roses, candles, birds, war, prayer, politics, jokes, deathbeds, and kisses…’ [Holly Jensen, ghazal.com]
I never quite found my footing with this one: *so many rules* with only a short amount of time left.

Clouds out the window, wool in a box
Ice in a plastic cup, handful of rocks

Seat back and tray table, cart in the aisle
Upright and locked, she says with a smile

You’re now free to move in the cabin…..

…aaaannnnd it peters out. Where’s that repeated phrase? Nowhere to be found. Why are those rhymes so lame? Best I could come up with. Not much came out on the page, but I was doing some real mental gymnastics; maybe that’ll help me the next time I take a stab at it.

What were the gymnastics, exactly? They were a struggle between the restrictions of form and the completely different restrictions of freedom. Russell mentioned hating the requirements of rhyme; it can shut down association and imagination…except when it doesn’t. They were a struggle between my own words and the words of others, an often noisy conversation, a jumble of sense and nonsense. It was a struggle between what hinders creative expression, and what enables it.  It was a struggle between private and public, individual and communal, original and borrowed; it was a struggle with the self-contradictory idea that rules allow freedom, and that freedom creates rules, almost requires them.

Poetry is, I guess, a humanity-wide effort, a democratic art: we borrow from others, generate from within ourselves, join the conversation. We build it in cooperation with one another: everyone who came before us, everyone who will follow. It’s an alphabet, a patchwork, a dialogue, a string of beads, a dance.  And when you’re jammed up, when you can’t quite complete that circuit between head and hand, mind and heart, ideas and images and words, ‘Steal everything!’ Russell said, then get out on the floor, write about dogs, and make something of your own.

Let’s dance
Tango is cool with me.

©Melinda Rooney, 2017
[Skeleton Tango by Laura-Anca Adascalitei]


Image, Metaphor, Simile

From the ‘Pop-up Poetry’ series of workshops sponsored by StoryStudio Chicago

Sunday, April 23, 2017
taught by C. Russell Price 

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First, a word to the wise: unless you have a really good sense of humor, and/or a morbid fascination with your silly past self, you might want to throw away, unread, the journal you kept in the 8th grade (my mother kept everything, then sent all that everything to me). I was running late for this workshop, and it was the only notebook I could find. 

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I couldn’t even get the lyrics right. 

And here’s my Christmas list: 

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The upside was that I felt confident that anything I put in it today could only be an improvement.

Similes and metaphors are phrases likening two things. A simile uses ‘like’ or ‘as’; a metaphor is a little bolder, stating that one thing actually is another. ‘Does it dry up/Like a raisin in the sun?’ Langston Hughes asks of the fate of a dream deferred. ‘My mother is a fish,’ Vardaman Bundren muses in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. It’s my conviction that our brains are wired to make these associations. We learn the world and life by comparing; it brings us a little closer to cracking the code of the essential mystery of things. We all do it; this is not merely the stomping ground of poets. Or, looked at another way: we are all poets. Spend some time noticing, over the course of the rest of today or even the next hour, how often and effortlessly you make an associative, symbolic link between one thing and another. Deployed deftly, honed and polished, metaphor is the resonant end result of an imaginative and intellectual process, the effort to engage with, understand, and express our experience of the world.

But it is also a fertile beginning, forging links between abstract and concrete, trivial and profound, self and other, life and story; cracking open locked boxes, setting all kinds of things in motion, pointing in all kinds of startling directions, setting writers and readers on a path both familiar and entirely strange. You feel for a moment as though the meaning in the words has visited from the outside: a whispered message, a bird on your shoulder. It has assembled you, rather than the other way around (and I think it’s a little of both).

‘What I want to do is ruin a word for everyone else,’ Russell said as the workshop began, explaining that they seek to link it so memorably to its association that readers can never hear that word again without the metaphor ringing in their ears.

And with that, we set out to ruin some words.  

We warmed up with a kind of batting practice fry, taking some tentative swings, warming up.

After listening to some examples from other poems, we were instructed to think of a body part or human quality: heart, eyes, courage, anxiety, then to freewrite our associations to it-concrete objects, specific details-for ten minutes (which as a writer knows is at once a very long and a very short time).  We then went back over what we’d written, bracketing the three IMG_3335.JPGmetaphors we liked best and sharing them around the table: an aging head is a rotary phone, a 60’s-era television without a remote, a plant with a tangle of roots that, when you pull it free, takes the exact shape of the pot it was in (these are mine; I shy away from taking those of others as I feel they’re not really mine to take, although this one is so good I just can’t help myself: a brain is a ‘machine made of meat’).  

Then it was time to step up to the plate (see how ingrained the habit is?). We were each given three small pieces of paper and instructed to label them: Noun, Verb, Adjective. Then, for fifteen minutes, we walked around the wonderful Volumes BookCafé in Wicker Park, searching for words. This was, as it was at the last workshop, an exercise in yearning and frustration: so many things to want, to sit down on the floor with and get lost in. But we had 15 minutes to find 15 words: 5 nouns, 5 verbs, 5 adjectives. The yearning was going to have to wait. 


When we dragged ourselves away from the shelves and returned to the table we were instructed to sort our papers into three piles, which Russell then sorted, shuffled, and stacked. We each took one piece of paper from each of the piles, so that we had 15 words in front of us, 5 nouns, 5 verbs, and 5 adjectives, chosen by someone else

We were again given 15 minutes. We were to sit with the words in front of us, let them percolate, then cobble together a poem, bringing them into a relationship and compelling them to make sense, to arrange themselves in an entirely new way. 

*Frantic scribbling ensues*


But then, oh God, about 7 minutes in, Russell says ‘…and now for the curve ball,’ and proceeds to have us pass our nouns to the person to our right, our verbs to the left, and our adjectives across the table, so that we each now have three entirely new lists of words to draw from…for a total of 30 words.  Then the frantic scribbling recommences, new words folded in, old ones discarded, a rearrangement of meaning and image and…metaphor.  

And voilà: a poem.IMG_3330.JPG

Here is mine. At the next workshop I’m going to solicit contributions from other participants; anything they’re willing to share I’ll post in my Anthology section, so stay tuned. 

A Viewing

Grandfather in the barber’s chair
Furred clippers revise him
That grumpy, glowing face
That wild hair
An unfettered armadillo once
A crafty crocodile
A roughneck

Furred clippers revised him:
Happy now,
Eyes iced-over jellybeans
His fingers carrots in the dirt
An empty house
An android, vanishing

…a work in progress, but hey, it beats this: 


And I feel compelled to add that I think that the goofy scribbles in this old notebook from (okay, fine! I’ll just say it!) 40 years ago propelled me into what I wrote in it on Sunday evening: a series of meditations on growing old. A 54-year-old sidled up to her 14-year-old self and maybe told her a couple of things she’d never have known otherwise, and maybe I learned something from her, too. And now we’re sitting there together, tucked between the worn-out covers of a (79 cent!) composition book.

Inspiration is everywhere.

Thanks, Russell, for another wonderful workshop.

Oh, and Go Cubs!

©Melinda Rooney, 2017


From the ‘Pop-up Poetry’ series of workshops sponsored by StoryStudio Chicago
Sunday, April 9, 2017
taught by C. Russell Price

I promised the poet who taught the workshop that I would not steal any ideas. They laughed and said ‘Oh, steal them! Steal anything you want!’

All writers are thieves, after all, and the prizes we treasure most are words.

The workshop consisted of two parts.

Part One: Blackout

Step One
Two back issues of two different literary magazines were passed around the table, and we were instructed to open each at random and rip out a page. We each cringed a little, all avid writers and readers, loath to defile a book. All the same we closed our eyes, flinched, and tore. IMG_3307

Step Two
We were instructed to read quickly over them and cross out all of the words that didn’t ‘jump out’ at us.


Step Three
Giving us 7-10 minutes, C. Russell instructed us to rapidly compose a piece consisting of the words we had not crossed out, going back and forth between the two pages from the two different magazines, dovetailing words together.


Step Four
We went around the table, each reading our pieces aloud. I wish I’d thought to pull out my phone and film it (though that might have been met with protest, so maybe it’s just as well).  I wish I’d captured the amazement on both readers’ and listeners’ faces as we heard what we’d written spoken aloud, how each piece cohered, flowed, meant. Our instructor listened intently, scribbling madly as we read, noting one or another striking image, association, emotion, larger meaning. Then they read theirs to us, for as all good teachers do, they had done the same work right alongside the students.

Part Two: Whiteout

We repeated Steps One, Two, and Three, with three variations:

  • First, rather than using the pages we had torn out and marked up, we marked them up then passed them to the person sitting next to us, so each of us had an entirely unfamiliar set of words to work with.
  • Second, we got up and wandered around the bookstore where the workshop was being held, picking up one book and then another at random, choosing five words that jumped out at us and writing them down on another piece of paper. We then returned to the table and exchanged those.
  • Third, we were given 7 minutes to compose a poem out of the available material, but this time we had to ‘whiteout’: impose connecting words of our own to cobble together the un-crossed-out ones (and remember, they’d been chosen by someone else!) on the page. This was *really hard*.

Step Four
We went around the table, each reading our pieces aloud.  And while everyone agreed that this exercise was much more difficult than the previous one (we were using words we had not chosen, had been asked to impose words of our own onto them and cobble meaning together), on the whole, again, there it was: the same amazing experience, the same amazed reactions.

We had destroyed, then created; defaced and repaired; unwoven, then rewoven, obliterated meaning and brought it to life again in an entirely new form, with an entirely surprising shape.

How did that happen?

One of us spoke of how desperate we are for meaning, that we will seek it, and find it, or, failing that, insist on making it, in, or out of, the most random collections of things. We talked about how there are stories in everything, just waiting to be told.  We talked about how nice it was-as writers constantly worrying over our work, the possibility of eventual success, the inevitability of failure and rejection and the effortful determination to shake it off and stick with the work- to return to the thing that had made us want to be writers in the first place: the pure joy of literally playing with words. I thought about the freedom that rules and strictures make possible. I thought about how lonely writing feels, when the truth is it is about as communal as it gets: we are immersed in conversation with our characters, with one another, with (ideally!) our readers, with all of the writers and words we’ve ever read; the authors of the pages we’d marked up were, in a way, sitting there at the table with us. Would they be annoyed at our appropriation, our desecration of their carefully wrought pages? Possibly. I’ll admit I might’ve been. But I suspect not.  ‘Oh, steal them!’ they might have said. ‘Steal anything you want!’  After all, we weren’t stealing their voices. We weren’t appropriating their meaning. We weren’t telling their stories; only they can do that.  We were simply playing with the words they’d played with too, arranging them like Legos into something entirely new. We were recycling.

Think of the possibilities, C. Russell said: medical textbooks, cookbooks, travel magazines, each of them using words in very different ways: technical, descriptive, instructive, lyrical. Think of pulling words willy-nilly from each or all, mashing them together and seeing what surprising things simmer to the surface. I wish I had all of the pieces generated there to share here; I wish I had the pages so I could show you, up close, the scribbled ground from which the pieces grew.

Here’s what I do have.

Motherhood: A Log of Regrets

Oh, litany and happy prospect,
You’re just like your father.
A peasant.

The press of many matters,
The South Seas,
The Sandwich Islands

Stop it, mother

A volunteer fireman!

Stop it, mother

Your haircut of a father
A demigod, numinous, biblical, divine.
How could this have been my life?

Physical afflictions
A glass on the table
A pleasure and an honor
Grindingly dull, adrift on seas of island flowers
A hundred days

The press of many matters

A slow, meditative cloud
Wallows: malign, aggressive, fractured images
A shining past, exalted primogeniture
it might cost you a nickel-
Conjuring the myth.

You’re just like your father
A schooner, a captain, two crewmen, a second novelist

You must not call me, Mr. Stevenson. 

Passing the Bar

Perfect glasses, black and grey
The lawyer pursed her lips

Viewed the statue.
Remembering brick,
She said
 ‘There is one thought enough to kill me.’ 

She sets up her easel
Loud, marigold-colored paint
Pink and candy-blue,
Hydrangea bushes.
‘I don’t understand,’ she says,
‘all of the beauty and fashion of Rome.’

‘I can end this terror,
This posthumous existence, the sweat of 
Those boys.’
In the name of profit, she turns,
Questioning potted honey lilies and spiderplants:
‘Who is to say that I’m not a criminal myself?’

Indigestible words
Earliest days in Rome

Everything I have reminds me of her. 


©Melinda Rooney, 2017

[For other workshops like these, and other writers’ resources in Chicago, please see http://www.storystudiochicago.com. Many thanks to Jill Pollack, founder and director, and all who work there, for what they make happen. Special thanks to C. Russell Price, *from whom I shamelessly stole*]