5 Nerdy Revision Exercises

Unusual ways to rethink your poem-in-progress

5 Nerdy Revision Exercises

At the University of Baltimore, where I am a professor in the Creative Writing & Publishing Arts MFA program, my colleagues and I are always encouraging students to combine their sense of work and their sense of play.

My own experience as a poet and a teacher has continually affirmed the value of that synthesis. Combining work and play forms a kind of creative homeland we can return to again and again, allowing us to arrive at different apertures of understanding and to realize, as Cavafy wrote, that “Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.”

Recently, in a discussion via Twitter, the poet Natasha Oladokun wrote that she imagines a poem as a series of decisions or actions. I love the possibilities for revision in this imaginative framework: poems as verbs rather than as nouns. To approach poems that way asks the writer and the reader to consider them as living artifacts. Maybe poems are a kind of AI — one that is on its own “marvelous journey.”

But no matter how each of us imagines poems, all of us, from time to time, can feel stymied in our attempts to write them, and one of the goals of Nerd Volta has always been to use work and play to energize the imagination; get the winds moving again when the sea becomes banal.

To that end, here are five revision exercises inspired by various nerdy media. Each is meant to work with a pre-existing draft of a poem:

1. Move the Robber (Settlers of Catan). Count the number of lines in your draft. Roll a pair of dice once for each line. Whatever number comes up, add that number of syllables to that line. If you roll a seven, reduce the number of syllables by half, or move the line to the beginning of the poem. Think of your syllable count as a kind of resource management.

2. Three Entrances (Uta Hagen, Respect for Acting). Ask of your poem or your poem’s persona the same three questions Hagen encourages actors to ask themselves (in character) when entering the stage:

i. What did I (the poem) just do?
ii. What am I (the poem) doing right now?
iii. What’s the first thing I (the poem) want?

Use this as a way to reimagine three different ways a poem’s first line and first stanza can function. (Click here for an expanded example of this exercise.)

3. Royal Rumble & the Heel Turn (WWE). Take a draft of a poem and set a timer for 10 seconds. Every 10 seconds when the timer goes off, throw a line out of the ring (poem) until there is only one line remaining. This line is the Royal Rumble Champion. Rewrite the poem from memory with that champion line as the first line, or write a new draft with that line as the first line.

4. Pawn Promotion (chess). Select the line you feel is the best. Next, select the line you think is the weakest. Switch their positions in the poem and see what surprises occur.

5. Anime Theme Songs. In a draft where you feel stuck, write a “theme song” for the poem. The song should be imagistic, euphonic, rhythmic, and direct, stating the conceit/premise of the poem it’s referencing. Use rhyme liberally if you want. Keep the song between five and 10 lines as an exercise. (Check out this link for some examples from anime.)

Review your “theme song” to see if there are any interesting lines that can be used in the draft, and for any metrical or alliterative patterns that can be used. Return to the original poem and see if you are able to imagine it in a new way.

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