Posted by: jeannineatkins | November 18, 2011

Shuffling, Spinning, Cutting, Pasting Poems and Prose

Last weekend two friends and I went to a poetry workshop sponsored by Straw Dog Writers Guild. Diana Gordon author most recently of Nightly, at the Institute of the Possible, and Patricia Lee Lewis have led many workshops, and both their friendship and long practice writing and teaching poetry gave us an afternoon that was organized while still casual and comfortable. We were prodded into new directions, and we had fun. Everything felt in balance as Patricia mentioned her belief that we don’t begin with inspiration, but write toward it. Each suggested ways to get past fear, which Diana said is the most common word they hear in some writing retreats, and ways to get more directly to our unconscious.

Perhaps my favorite exercise was one inspired by on in The Practice of Poetry, edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell, a book they recommended. Jack Myers explains how to compose a “cut-and-shuffle poem” by writing one quiet scene, then one active. Then he alternates lines from one scene to the next into a stanza. He continues with variations, but the one Patricia adapted was writing for ten minutes on something that brought her great happiness, then spent equal time, another ten minutes, writing while tapping into anger and fear. She cut phrases from each, then interspersed them. Of course there was editing, but it led to this poem she read to us from her prize-winning book, A KIND OF YELLOW.

Two Hundred Wings

You are pregnant, the doctor says, I am sorry, leaves

float golden orange, he turns away, his white coat, his big

shoulders, between twig and ground, are you sure, the girl says,

a hundred starlings, it’s all she can think to say, light

among red oak branches, except then she cries, their voices

like the voices of the thousand leaves, what else to do

You can read the rest of this stunning poem, composed in tercets, here.

Patricia noted that sometimes we write so intent that somebody be the villain or heroine, life be just good or bad, that we don’t mix things up enough, and this exercise of bringing together two different moments and feelings can show life’s complications. I sometimes keep things too muddy or middle ground, and working from different spectrums might correct that. Contrast is always powerful. Besides elegant plotting, part of the power of Suzanne Collins’s THE HUNGER GAMES comes from the tenderness of the baker’s boy – I can’t ever forget how he tossed Katniss the bread – and how she cherishes her little sister, which contrasts with the book’s survival-at-all-costs themes in the book.

This exercise can work just as well writing ten minute bursts of prose. A friend recently wrote of her tendency to protect characters, a trait I share. Maybe we can write for ten minutes about our characters safe, then ten more minutes of them in trouble. Ten minutes of them inside their house, and another ten crossing No Trespassing lines. Ten minutes of the happiest time of a character’s life, ten minutes of the worst. Can we take it another step and look for an image in those ten minutes of free-writing. Can that image be used through the piece, maybe on the first page?

I left that workshop eager to write and reminded of why teachers should keep taking our turns as students, too. I love this field of writing, where there’s always more to learn. For more Poetry Friday inspiration, please visit Tabatha Yeatts: The Opposite of Indifference. 



  1. Thank you for this food for thought, Jeannine. I am supposed to come up with the challenge for my poetry group’s next meeting — maybe I can incorporate something from here.

    • Thanks, Tabatha. I have you have great luck with this if you try it out.

  2. Wow…what a powerful writing exercise! And the resulting poem was, truly, stunning. The weaving together of the positive with the painful (in terms of imagery and emotion) lent this poem a certain “extra power.” I am going to have to try this myself…. Thank you for sharing this, Jeannine.
    PS: I love the new blog look, and covet a reading/thinking/writing spot just like the one you’ve pictured!

    • Yes, hearing that poem convinced me this was a good exercise before I tried it. The relief from the central experience gave it a powerful sort of halo. (and you have that Smith College connection!) And I’m happy you like the new blog look. Have a great weekend!

  3. Jeanne, thank you for this method of writing to experiment with. I’m going to try it with my poetry colleague at our next meeting. Two Hundred wings is a powerful poem, indeed.

    • I’ve read that poem several times, and it only grows more powerful. I’m glad you’re inspired to try that method: tried a variation with my students, and good results!

  4. I’m late finding this, but wow. I suffer from “muddiness” too. I’m going to mine my novel draft for contrasts today. Thank you!

  5. Good luck with the mining, Sara! And Jo Knowles recently told me of this good exercise: listing things your character hates and things your characters loves, and seeing if the work leans too much to one or the other — or needs to lean more.

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