Personal Universe Deck: An Oldie, but a Goodie

Personal Universe Deck is a great way to tap into kids’ linguistic whimsy and their sense of playfulness with words. Plus kids get a personal deck of 100 word cards they can keep all year long or for the rest of their lives. The Personal Universe Deck as a writing exercise has been attributed to American poet and playwright Michael McClure .  This archived one-hour 1976 lecture where McClure takes poetry students through the process is a must-listen before you lead your students through the process.

This activity has been tweaked and adapted many times to teach a host of writing and language skills.    Sometimes when we have an afternoon where a fire drill, a pep rally, or some school wide test has jangled our nerves and squandered our sacred time, I ask kids to pull out their universe decks and write a poem using four of their cards. Sometimes I ask each student to throw three cards into a basket, then I pull out ten cards, write the words on the board, and we each write a short story or scene based on the words.  The key to doing this well is allowing each student to build her own universe in words. Their universe; their words. I usually take about five days to allow kids to develop their deck.  Each day, as a bell ringer, I take kids through one stage of creation.

 Day One: I ask kids to write 100 concrete, specific words in ten minutes (or longer, depending on the class) that represent their individual, personal, beautiful universe.  All words need to be words each kid loves, words she thinks are beautiful, words she thinks exemplifies who she is, and words that are in some way associated with the five senses.  The words should also represent their good side and their bad side, as well as their past, present, and future.

I model this on the board:  “Okay, start with free association on clean sheet of paper.  Start with the first word that occurs to you.  Lilac. I don’t know why I just thought of that, but my grandmother had lilac bushes in her yard, and I’m trying to keep in mind my past, present, future. Each word needs to have some significance to you, so lilac. That’s a smell word, right?  And now I’m standing in my grandmother’s yard by the lilac bush, and what do I hear? How about thunder? Yep, I visited her in the summers, and storms popped up a lot.  That would be a sound for me. Now, just start writing concrete words and follow the associations.  I remember touching the cool, rough concrete of my grandfather’s dairy barn.  Barn is one of my words.  That might be a touch word for me.  Don’t just write down anything to finish the assignment – find words that are beautiful to you, that represent your universe, that are concrete.”

Day Two: Same thing on Day Two as Day One:  we create another 100 words.  This second day of free assocation will be important when we start the selection process on Day Three.  My philosophy is that each kid needs 200 words to find the best 100 words that represent his life.

Day Three:  I ask students to start weeding and whittling down their words to the essential 100 beautiful, signficant, personal words.  I remind them  the words should not be descriptive of senses, like “salty” or “sweet,” but concrete words like “hot dog” or “custard.” Cut out the vague words and replace them with specific. Avoid “bird;” intead say “wren” or “raven” or “blue jay.” Also, cut out words with suffixes, like – ing, -ly, -ed, -s.

Day Four: Students begin selecting words for categories. Eighty of the words need to be related to the five senses:  16 words for sight, 16 words for sound, 16 words for smell, 16 words for touch, 16 words for taste.   Add ten words for movement. Add three words for abstraction.  Then the last seven words are anything else they want.  Kids can make the below chart in their writing notebook for classification or just number their words.

Sight  (16) Smell (16) Sound (16) Taste (16) Touch (16) Movement (10) Abstraction (3) Anything (7)
             

Day Five: I give each kid 50 index cards, and they fold them in half and divide them into 100 small cards that create their “deck.”  On the back of the card, write your initials or some tag that indicates the card is yours.  On the front of the card, write one glorious word.  Repeat 99 times.  Presto, your Personal Universe Deck! (You can even get fancy and laminate these if you bring your media technician a nice pie and promise to clean her house.)

Teachers, how would you use this in your classroom?! Please share and add your ideas in the comments.

 

 

Sweet Retreat: Writing Down a Saturday

In 1986, I took my first creative writing class with Gurney Norman at the University of Kentucky. At the end of a semester, Gurney wrote us a letter. “Writers work mostly alone, but sometimes they get together for a little while.  It means whatever it means.”   I still have that letter, and I think about his words often. Teachers are equally singular.  We go into our rooms and shut our doors, but sometimes it’s good to get together to connect with one another.

I’m grateful to the Morehead Writing Project for hosting two writing retreats each year that brings teachers and writers together for a day of community.  These single days, carved out in October and April, are grounding points in my year.

On Saturday, April 23,, twenty-five writers and teachers of writing met at the Gateway Arts Center, a converted Methodist church that has been painted lemon yellow on the corner of Wilson Alley and Main Street in Mt. Sterling, Kentucky.    We gathered around a long table in a narrow, upper room with hard wood floors and lots of natural light.  Fueled by coffee and donuts, we began.

Abby Thomas, the creative writing teacher at the local high school, started us off with Howard Nemerov’s poem, “Because You Asked about the Line Between Poetry and Prose,” and asked us to respond to the poem by describing the line between prose and poetry or to articulate the line between two other elements/concepts. We wrote for fifteen minutes and shared.

Carole Johnston, author of Manic Dawn and Journeys: Getting Lost, then led us in a 90-minute writing exercise on the tanka, a Japanese short form, traditionally written as thirty-one syllables in a single unbroken line. Similar to the haiku, there can be some syllable counting business, but Johnston discounted that as unnecessary.   Her advice was to pay attention to what is around you and put it down in mindful language.  Keeping the language concrete, writing tankas can be a daily spiritual practice which forces you to be present for the moment of observation.  She asked us to write about a moment from our childhood that was embedded in place.  We wrote for ten minutes or so. Then she asked us to circle the concrete nouns and verbs in the paragraph we had just written and arrange them in lines that followed a short/long/ short/long/long poetry arrangement.  We shared again and repeated the process two more times. Each time we converted experience into tanka, the writing became more concrete, visual, and compact.

Next up, Christopher McCurry, author of Nearly Perfect Photograph: Marriage Sonnets, editor of Accents Publishing, and co-founder of Workhorse, a literary collective in Lexington, also talked to us about forms, indicating that forms were merely starting placew for poetry.  Like taking a cat on a walk with a leash, poetry forms allow us to reign in our creativity, not for the purpose of squelching it but for clarifying the moment and the poet’s intent.

After reading several love poems in varying forms, McCurry invited us to create our own poetry form based on some organizing principle in our lives – draw a grid of your day, look at the pattern of your children, your pets, your collections,  the things you take care of, maybe how your cell phone apps are arranged, and create a poetry form based on this organizing principle in your life.  As the forms took shape, we made decisions about line length, rhythm, rhyme, and stanzas. Finally, we named our forms as well.  Here are a few of them:

Following lunch, we embarked on a writing walkabout, a Morehead Writing Project staple which basically looks like this: writers fall into groups of three or four and walk around a place until they happen upon a spot where they want to write –a park, a coffee shop, a creek bank, an abandoned store front, etc.  They settle into the spot and write for fifteen or twenty minutes. When time is called, they share what they’ve written.  No real criticism or feedback is given.  The space just absorbs the writing, and the group moves on to the next unplanned destination and repeats the process until the walkabout is finished.  In large cities, walkabouts can take an entire day. We had two solid afternoon hours to roam.

My group had three people in it, and we stopped at the old train depot,then we meandered up Bank Street to the unoccupied Traditional Bank drive thru alley, then ended up on the steps of the Montgomery County courthouse on Court Street.

At the end of the day, the large group reconvened on the front patio of the old Mt. Sterling High School which is now a senior residential apartment complex. We had a small reception and shared the fruit of their labors with an informal open mic.

The day was sweet with words and memories. It means whatever it means. Until next time.

The Body Project

In 1855, American poet Walt Whitman self-published his poetry collection, Leaves of Grass, celebrating the human spirit, the body, nature, the shape of democracy, friendship, and love.  Among the twelve poems in the first edition, Whitman included “I Sing the Body Electric,” a multi-part poem of lists that revels in the body as a sacred vessel of the soul.  The snippets of narratives and images in his poem exist almost as organs and systems within the human body.

For this activity, I asked students to brainstorm some language related to their bodies.  They came up with the typical list:  heart, liver, lungs, spleen, blood, bones, bowels, nodes, cells, matter, muscle, tendon, nails, hair, eyes, nose, skin.

Then we brainstormed about language related to their souls. They came up with:  morality, personality, imagination, maturity, emotions, divine/eternal, vision, curiosity, beliefs, values, ego/id/superego, intelligence, reason, memories, language.

My purpose for the brainstorm was to identify how the duality of our bodies mimics the duality of poetry.  A poem about mackerel is not about mackerel. We are not the total of our glands; we are divine.  A poem is not just a collection of artfully arranged words; it’s a prayer, a lesson, a song about being human.

Secondly, I asked students to pair up and help each other draw the frames of their bodies on a large piece of newsprint.

Once secured on the page, the frame served as a vessel within which students transcribed their own celebration of body and soul, the linkage of the flesh and the spirit, the earthly and the divine.

Written without any drafting or pre-writing, analysis or weighing of poetic or rhetorical postures, these poems emerged over the course of three days of spontaneous writing.  The pieces synthesize song lyrics, spiritual texts, political manifestos, bumper sticker slogans, lines of poetry, battle cries, and original poetic texts.

My goals were: 1) I wanted to introduce them to Walt Whitman’s poem; 2) I wanted them to write spontaneously without regard to analysis, prewriting, drafting, etc. and 3) I wanted them to celebrate their body/soul connection with writing. Here are a few of them:

 

The pieces were a success, so we stuck them on the wall in the center hallway at our school, and I used them for a gallery walk for other classes.

 

Twenty Little Poetry Projects

Wonder how many poems you can stuff in a mailbox?

I am not a poet, but I love the room of opportunites that poem doors open up for writing teachers.  Leave it to a fabulous poem to start many, many conversations about language, choice, authorial intention, image, or persona. Or a hundred billion other things.

The Practice of Poetry is one of those books I’ve used exhaustively over the last ten years to get those discussions started.   The exercises are unique and delivered in such a way that even the most reluctuant student poets can produce something artful.

Because the writing exercises in The Practice of Poetry are written by poets who are also teachers, each exercise comes with an explanation of how the poet developed the exercise and the purpose for which she created it.  In class  Friday, we embarked on Jim Simmerman’s great exercise “Twenty Little Poetry Projects.”  Simmerman states, “This exercise is great for producing free-for-all wackiness, inventive word play, and the sheer oddities of language itself.”   Because I have a mixed bag of writers in my classroom, I felt like this exercise would be great for those who felt stymied by the pressure to sound “poetic” (whatever that means) or any kid out there dealing with writer’s block, or as Simmerman states in the explanation, any one “stuck in a single style.”

The key to doing this exercise is to write all the “projects,” then revise for unity and coherence, looking for the  opportunities for repetition and parallelism, capitalizing on the experimental nature of the activity to have fun and take risks with language and image.  The twenty projects are:

  1. Begin the poem with a metaphor.
  2. Say something specific but utterly preposterous.
  3. Use at least one image for each of the five senses, either in succession or scattered randomly throughout the poem.
  4. Use of example of synesthesia (mixing the senses).
  5. Use the proper name of a person and the proper name of a place.
  6. Contradict something you said earlier in the poem.
  7. Change direction or digress from the last thing you said.
  8. Use a word (slang?) you’ve never seen in a poem.
  9. Use an example of false cause-effect logic.
  10. Use a piece of “talk” you’ve actually heard (preferably in dialect and/or which you don’t understand.)
  11. Create a metaphor using the following construction: “The (adjective) (concrete noun) of (abstract noun)…
  12. Use an image in such a way as to reverse its usual associative qualities.
  13. Make the persona or character in the poem do something he/she could not do in “real life.”
  14. Refer to yourself by nickname and in the third person.
  15. Write in the future tense, such that part of the poem seems to be a prediction.
  16. Modify a noun with an unlikely adjective.
  17. Make a declarative assertion that sounds convincing but that finally makes no sense.
  18. Use a phrase from a language other than English.
  19. Make a nonhuman object say or do something human (personification).
  20. Close the poem with a vivid image that makes no statement, but that “echoes” an image from earlier in the poem.

The students had a lot of fun doing this activity.  Even though the exercise is a formula of sorts, my students made the poems personal through the use of voice, style,  or mood.   Here are a few selections for your enjoyment.

#1 David, Grade 10 

#2 Marin, Grade 10

#3 John, Grade 10

#4 Katrin, Grade 10

#5 Taleah, Grade 10

 

Lesson Plan: Mirror, Mirror

In the essay “On Becoming a Poet,” Mark Strands says, “A poem may be the residue of an inner urgency, one through which the self wishes to register itself, write itself into being, and finally, to charm another self, the reader, into belief.”

Today in my Literary Arts 1.2 class, my learning target was to register ourselves, to write ourselves into being, and, of course, to use the kind of language and details that would charm a reader into belief.

First, I led the class in a poetry transcription of Charles Simic’s fabulous poem “Mirrors at 4 a.m.”  and afterward, we discussed images: “rooms webbed in shadows,” “the empty bed,” “the blank wall,” and of course, the surreptitious (authentic vocab moment) wiping of the “hanky” over the brow.   We talked about mortality, existence, time and eternity, but my objective was not analysis. The poem was just a spring board for self examination and self rendering.

I passed out small mirrors.  I’ve used these hand-held numbers before to assist students in writing about their hands, but this was the first time we have ventured to the face.  After everyone had a mirror, there was much giggling and groaning and bang fluffing and chin jutting. Then we got down to business.

Employing top to bottom description, we wrote for five minutes on each element of the face, starting with the 1) hair, 2) forehead, 3) eyes, 4) nose, 5) mouth, 6) chin and jaw, and finally, 7) the whole face.   The whole activity took about 40 minutes, and it produced about two pages of description of some element of the face. I urged them to reject the easy description, the cliched, the hackneyed, and take up residence in the unique pores, moles, freckles, and follicles of their face.

Using this fodder as a zero draft, students then created a poem (any length, any form) that addressed, defined, described, or gave voice to one of the abstract words on the board:  self, existence, mortality, personality, identity, purpose, destiny, character.   

Or they could write anything they want.  That’s always an option.   Here are a few of the results:

#1  Leila, Grade 10

#2 Ruby, Grade 10

#3 McKenna, Grade 9

#4 Autumn, Grade 9

#5 Sarah, Grade 9

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.9-10.3.D

Use precise words and phrases, telling details, and sensory language to convey a vivid picture of the experiences, events, setting, and/or characters.