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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Ditching the Prompt

Although I used to generate all the ideas for my poems by myself, the time finally came when I began to use prompts to stimulate my creativity. In the past year or so, I have enjoyed using prompts supplied by Robert Lee Brewer for his April PAD Challenge (Poem-A-Day Challenge) and have also have tried some offered by Molly Fisk on Facebook (search for "Molly Fisk - Writer, Teacher, Speaker" and "friend" her to get more information).

Earlier this month I received a thoughtful rejection from an editor who found a poem I had submitted "began on the 5th line," rather than where I had started it. When I had a look, I saw that the first four lines were a direct response to a writing prompt, but on line five, the poem took off in its own direction. I needed to jettison the writing prompt, which had given me a good start but had finally been outgrown; however it took the keen eye of an editor to point this out to me. (Eventually I rewrote the first four lines, and am happy to report the revised poem was accepted for publication by the very same insightful editor.)

Sometimes writing prompts become part of the medium, the very essence of a poem, and sometimes they remain merely a tool, a launching site. Sometimes writing prompts make up the integrity of a piece, like the paint in a painting, and sometimes they are the paintbrush, a tool to get the painting made. In the latter case, when it's time to display the final piece, the writing prompt, like a paintbrush, needs to be put back in the drawer. But the brushstrokes, the ghostly outlines of the prompt, remain.

Which reminds me of this classic poem by Frank O'Hara (1926-1966):

Why I Am Not a Painter

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
"Sit down and have a drink" he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. "You have SARDINES in it."
"Yes, it needed something there."
"Oh." I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. "Where's SARDINES?"
All that's left is just
letters, "It was too much," Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven't mentioned
orange yet. It's twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike's painting, called SARDINES.

So how do you know when to keep the lines generated by the writing prompt, and when to jettison them? I don't know yet. I just know that in the future I'll be careful when considering my "final" version of a piece generated by a prompt. I'll look to see whether the lines responding directly to the prompt have become an integral part of the medium or have remained a tool, and decide what to do then.

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