POEMS FOR THE WRITING
Prompts for Poets
by Valerie Fox and Lynn Levin
Texture Press, 154 pages
reviewed by Shinelle L. Espaillat
In the poetry workshop, we encourage writers to explore their individual potentials, to experiment, and to eschew valuations of “good” in exchange for measures of success as achieving authorial vision. The instructor must speak to a wide spectrum of skill. Valerie Fox’s and Lynn Levin’s new book, Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets, supplies a toolbox for doing just that. The range of prompts makes the creation of art a more accessible act to a wider audience. Ultimately, this works as a text for how to teach poetry.
The book intermixes the prompts with respect to levels of difficulty and formal elements of the resulting poems. The first prompt, the paraclausithyron, may appeal to an old world sense of “The Poet,” but introductory workshop students might find both the name and the task somewhat daunting, and are less likely to want to write like Horace, at first. Indeed, Fox and Levin actually suggest starting workshops with what they call the “get-to-know-you cinquain.” This serves the dual purpose of getting students writing, right away, and introducing formalism to a generation raised on free verse. As Fox and Levin indicate, the simpler structures for syllabic poetry make the cinquain more accessible to new poets, and are a good way to open a dialogue about the need for concise, precise language in poetry.
It might be helpful to then move to The Rules poem. This could work on Day One as a collaborative exercise, having each pair of students create a workshop rule, and then deciding as a class whether to impose meter or structure. Though some students may not believe in the artistic value of a list as a poem, the example Fox and Levin provide within the prompt, “1915 Rules for Female Teachers,” sheds light on truths about tone and timing in poetry, thus encouraging students to think beyond the basic “thou shalt hand in thy poems on time,” to reflect more on what they hope to receive from and how they want to shape the workshop experience.
Workshop leaders should find most of the other prompts accessible to the developing skill level in an introductory workshop. There is sufficient variety to avoid stagnancy, to nurture growth and to expand students’ understanding of how poetry is born. The Fibonacci prompt is a good example of such an exercise, as it works well on multiple levels; the rules of the prompt encourage veteran writers to experiment with form and the mathematical sequencing appeals to the left-brained among us. Fox and Levin provide a simple explanation (for those who never saw The DaVinci Code) of what the Fibonacci sequence is, and for how to use the rules of the sequence to craft a poem.
Some of the prompts lend themselves more to the advanced workshop than the introductory workshop, and might prove frustrating for beginning poets. For example, the Bibliomancy prompt, with its somewhat complex backstory and numbered directions, including the need to more or less go antiquing for a source book, speaks more to the dedicated poet and seeker of knowledge than to the student who just wants to play around with words. The Fake Translation exercise could also be problematic for an introductory workshop. Though Fox and Levin suggest that instructors “refrain from overly or overtly explaining” the exercise, fledgling poets could easily get lost in the task and not make it to the art.
Introductory poetry workshops are Hydras that instructors need to train rather than slay. These classes often contain poets who are thrilled to find academic space for exploring and honing their skill, students who like to write but don’t consider themselves poets, and students who have heard that these classes are easy ways to fulfill a writing requirement. Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets can help show new writers how to jumpstart the creation of art and can urge more experienced writers to delve deeper into their craft.
–May 16, 2013
Shinelle L. Espaillat writes, lives and teaches in Westchester County, NY. She earned her M.A. in Creative Writing at Temple University. Her work has appeared in Midway Journal.