Monday, March 19, 2007

Shake the Box

Over the years, I’ve developed some odd and even innovative means for salvaging a terrible poem. Maybe it’s a poem that, no matter how you revise it, nothing seems to happen, yet you’re not the sort of author to destroy it. You end up stuck with it rotting somewhere in a folder or electronic wasteland in the back of your hard drive. I am this way. It’s the pack-rat mentality in art, and like many, I’ve got it bad. I can’t get rid of anything, even if I’d be embarrassed to ever put my own name on it. What can be done with these lingual chunks of concrete stuck on your hard drive, besides ignore them with the hopes that one day you’ll be ingenius enough to figure out what they need? I have a few tricks that, to date, I’ve horded to myself. These tricks, in all of their forms, represent a sort of revision / rewrite ignition-device that I call ‘Shaking the Box’. It’s similar to jumbling the letters in a Scrabble game before you try to make words with them. I’ll list some of these tricks and, when I’m willing to part with some of the others, I’ll post them here as well.

All of these tactics involve rewriting. These are only diving boards into the mental space you need to be in to rework your poem into something you prefer. They’re idea-sparkers, or at the very least, stave off the boredom that may have infiltrated your routine. Some of these I’ve used to a small degree, and some of them I’ve used heavily. They also work to re-innovate your old, old work that simply isn’t up to par with where you are now.

1. Machine Translation

Machine translation is generally conducted by a program that translates text into another language. You'll find thousands of these online, some free, some online only, etc... It's just a translation program.

I go into phases where I’ll use this often, and then I’ll pass out of it and forget about the process for a few months, maybe a year, but I always come back to this one as a unique and striking means of wiring my head back into poem I’ve previously ditched. Machine Translation works like this: You take a line and use a translation program to translate the line into another language like French, Greek, Jive, whatnot. Since machines aren’t very bright about this yet, you’ll get a very literal translation. Now, take that line of translated material, and have the program translate it BACK into English. What you’ll get is a very literal translation, word for word, not by meaning, of the line. This tends to break up your more anglicized notions into a more communicative, simple, cross-border terminology. This is essentially using a machine as a kind of automated thesaurus, except it's not finding the best word for you, it's finding the closest match in another language, and it's finding that match in a very rigid way.

Let’s use a translating program (we’ll use Systran Personal) to translate this awful line:

“You’re eyes are dumbass satellites, and your breath smells of puberty”

Now, if we go from English to Portuguese, then Portuguese back into English, we get something like this:

“You dumb is eyes is as satellites, and its cheiros of the breath of puberty.”

Okay, sure. What the hell does that mean? Nothing. It’s literal machine-translation. What you would do now is start trying to make a sensical line out of this result. Do whatever you want with it. Destroy it, rewrite it, associate in it a while... ‘Cheiros’ might remind me, just briefly, of the word 'churro', or 'Charon', or ‘charity’, and so forth... You might come up with something for this line like:

“Dim and circling, those eyes come around like Saturday, while the breath of that pubescence is but wild charity.”

Well, it’s just a start. Eventually you'll have something much better. Whatever you get, it’s yours, just a little unlike you. So, not great, but the idea is that it sparked something, and you did something with it, and now, different line, poem, etc... The point is to have something better to work with than what you previously had. To stir up the pool. After using machine translation, rewrite normally until you’re content, or go mad. I’ve found that either tend to satisfy my page. Of course, for machine translation to work, you should try to find the worst possible, and most literal and simple translator you can find. One that really spits out the oddity. I use Systran Personal (Portuguese works well, though French can get you some interesting results. I’d love to mess around with Russian sometime...).

I’ll post links to various translators and things at the end of the article.

2. Poetry Generators

These are usually awful and obviously, don’t work well. They create, for the most part, random streams of gibberish that ‘sort of’ keep within the rules of English, but in a strange and coded kind of way. Occasionally, you can find one that will ‘read’ a text file, and then create it’s haphazard streams of gibberish based on what it has read. In this case, you make it analyze a handful of your bad poems. What it spits out is crap, but it’s your crap jumbled up into bizarre machine-like lines that mean nothing. What this can do for you, however, is stimulate a sound or unexpected phrase, similar to what you’d get from the above-mentioned machine translation. It gives you an entirely new take on your poem that you might never have found on your own. It’s not cheating because every word it spit out was yours, and you’re doing the rewrite, and you’re not using the generated material anyway, just bits here and there. These will become new lines you’ll go over and add to and alter to your liking.

You might think while seeing the results of this: “Huh, I would have never thought to put ‘shack’, ‘biped’ and ‘face broom’ together in a sentence... Weird, I think I can make something neat out of that...” Eventually, the poem you end up with is nothing like what the generator puked out, but you wouldn’t have it if the generator hadn’t spun your mind a bit with some odd word placements.

Want to have some fun? Have the generator read a text file that contains many of your terrible poems, as well as copied versions of the numerous rejections editors have given you for those poems. You end up with both in the same poem. Or, have it analyze a file of your poems, as well as several XXX stories from an adult site, and then spit out the mixed result. Interesting stuff you’ll get.

3. The Reversal

This is when you start taking the lines (or stanzas, or even the words, one by one) of your poems and reversing the order they appear in. The level and exactitude with which you do this is up to you. You don’t have to do it exactly, but just seeing what happens when you start with your ending, and onward, backward. Usually, you’ll nitpick a little, reverse a few things, then realize you like what’s going on, and stop there. You’ll get a line or two, in a certain order that you end up being fond of, and then, with rewrites, you can find yourself with an entirely different poem, or several of them. The idea here, and with most of these tricks is that you can get dirty in you poem. Make a mess. Some painters come out of their art rooms, after hours of working, messy and covered in paint... just because you use words doesn’t mean that you can’t make a pig sty out of your page. If you’ve got a terrible poem you want to work on, you should know you can kick it in the head, smash it, twist it up, spatter it back on a page... It’s open game.

For a quick example, let’s reverse the following end of an awful poem:

the tongue shot out, dripping

in toll of the hour,




in toll of the hour,

the tongue shot out, dripping.


There you have it, a start into something else. Not very interesting or good, but a start. Now you can figure out what happens after ‘Then’, and move forward. Your brain is on. That was the point. Mission accomplished. You can also reverse something you like, write a poem around it, and then switch it back into it’s original order. This can get you yet another unique spin in the poem.

4. Dissection

Have you said too much, or gone off on a great tangent that was just too odd or unnecessary for the poem at hand? Pare your poem into more stanzas, and then try to make several poems out of them. Add where you need to, see what happens. Taking several lines out of a poem and using them as the base of a new poem can completely re-tune your ear and get you writing something you weren’t expecting at all. Also, at the end of this process, there’s a good chance you can end up with two good poems out of one bad.

5. The Every-Other

This is a tricky one, and I only use it when I’ve been working a lot and have begun playing myself out. It’s a last-ditch effort for me. The results of the Every-Other vary depending on the fodder you use.

It works like this: You rewrite the poem (or retype, if you compose on screen) double spaced, line by line, so you’ve got room for a line between each. Now for the fun part. You need to find a source of strange lines (strange for poetry, at least). An example: Start by typing in some random thing in Google and searching. Go through the results you get and try and find a line in those initial blurbs that will fit grammatically between two of your poem’s lines.

For instance:

Your line 1: This is the moment when I

Google: purchase the ab-flex and

Your line 2: get rid of him, though still

Google: having sex with no longevity,

Your line 3: mention my urge to

Google: replicate the real thing and

Your line 4: sock his face back, then look

Google: in the busy, clean zoo

Your line 5: for the candy.

It doesn’t need to make sense at all (and it probably won’t). Complete the poem in this manner. Now, you’ve got something very odd and unpublishable. Also, it’s not entirely yours because you’ve only written half of it. Take this ‘poem’ and begin rewriting it, trying to make sense of the new lines you’ve added, reworking the poem as if you wrote the entire thing like that on purpose. Try to bridge the difference in lines by adding a few more (no tricks, just write), taking control and rewriting all the while. You can get something out of this that is unique, yet also very you. It’s just a way to quickly turn on your engine and start down the road to a poem. In the end, it’s all you. What’s really happened is that you’ve managed to force yourself into your work-mode, by confusing and startling yourself with general nonsense and the occasional nifty find (in this example, I rather like ‘replicate the real thing and / sock his face back’). This is a good way of salvaging your poem by infusing it with strands of garbage or miscellaneous debris.

I only mention Google because it’s always around. I tend to get better results when I take random, odd lines from newspapers, magazines, appendices of first lines from author’s books, children’s books, film dialogue... on and on. Hey, somebody left it lying around. Use it.

6. The List

This is probably the most common trick that I know of, and it’s not mine at all. I’ve seen it in use in various places in the poetry world, so I try to avoid it, but have gotten good results with it in the past. It’s also very simple (read: gimmicky). Basically, you turn on your eyes and ears and crank up the dials, making a list of things around you that you find interesting, especially things you think not many others may have noticed. You write them down as a list. Then, when you’ve got enough items, you start adding verbs, adjectives, a metaphor or two... until you’ve got the skeleton of a poem. Worry about the subject last. Once you have a barebones version of what will be a poem, you start trying to connect the dots of these details into a cohesive purpose. What do they have in common? What don’t they have in common? Does number 3 on the list (Horrid, Pulsating Smell) relate very easily to any other item on the list, for example, number 7 (Mentally Challenged, Half-Dead Cat)? Write a line or two bridging these. Or a stanza, or an entire poem. Once your brain is stimulated on something, it’s yours.


That’s about it for now. I have others I’ll mention at some point, but these should keep you busy. I use most of these during revision of my older, more naive work, and can attest that all of them work well in certain circumstances. These are also quite good at knocking you out of writer’s block enough to get some work done. It’s forceful, but effective. The basic idea, with all mental trickery like this, is that you get moving and into your zone. You’ll know how to do this better than I could advise, so these are more for when else fails. But give them a try (I recommend machine translation over the others).

Lastly, I get it. You wrote something not so good and you’re still proud of it, or you just don’t want to meddle with it. This makes perfect sense, but just because you cherish something you wrote, doesn’t mean you can’t fuck it up and shake the box a little from time to time, especially if you’ve got some things sitting around you don’t think you’ll ever do anything with. There are no abuse laws for poems, so if one starts aggravating you, punch it in the face, rearrange it’s organs. See what happens. The important thing is that you’re getting work done.

Some Machine Translators (I recommend Systran and most online translators)

Some Text Generators: (I'd recommend Ray Kurzweil's Cybernetic Poet (costs, though), and especially Babble)

1 comment:

Alissa Nielsen said...

I found these suggestions really helpful. There are so many writing exercises out there to help with first drafts, but not very many creative exercises on revision or rewriting old poems. These were great! I especially liked the every-other, the machine translation and the list.

Thank you!!