“Safe to say none of the other Muslim kids on the eastside of Columbus got MTV or BET in their cribs & we do at my crib sometimes like after Pops got a promotion or after Grandma moved in,” writes Hanif Abdurraqib in the long, energetic first sentence of his new book, A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance (Random House, 2021), which is featured in Page One in the March/April 2021 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. The book weaves together pieces that praise Black performance in America from Josephine Baker in mid-century Paris to the more intimate space of a living room in Columbus, Ohio. This week, inspired by Abdurraqib’s sharp reflections on culture, choose a moment in entertainment that has stuck in your mind and write an essay that praises and traces your connection to its legacy.
The Time Is Now
“Short short stories hold the obvious charge of compressing narrative in a rather extreme way, but what I initially loved about writing the form was the possibility to attend to reverberation,” writes Peter Kispert in a recent installment of Craft Capsules. “I noticed how a detail could echo out more apparent, and controlled, than in the longer works of fiction I had been drafting.” Kispert dives into his experience reading Amy Hempel’s “Going,” a three-page story from her collection Reasons to Live (Knopf, 1985), and how the unconventional narrative blew “the world wide open in the best way.” Write a short short story of up to three pages that compresses a narrative through controlled, powerful details.
In the introduction to The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem: From Baudelaire to Anne Carson (Penguin Classics, 2018), editor Jeremy Noel-Tod asks, “How do you define a prose poem?” Literary critic Michael Rifaterre once characterized the prose poem as a “genre with an oxymoron for a name,” while Noel-Tod simply defines it as “a poem without line breaks.” This week, try writing a prose poem. As Noel-Tod says in the book, “Our habitual expectation when we see a passage of prose is that it will explain, not sing.” How can you make your prose poem sing more than traditional verse might? For inspiration, read exemplary poems from this anthology, such as “Borges and I” by Jorge Luis Borges, “The Colonel” by Carolyn Forché, and “Deer Dancer” by Joy Harjo.
“First, the knees. They meet the gravel, the street, the blunt hips of curbs,” writes Melissa Febos in the prologue of her third book, Girlhood, published by Bloomsbury in March. The numbered essay titled “Scarification” includes detailed anecdotes ranging from childhood injuries with erasers to experiences with addiction. Febos captures “how these memories draw the constellation of your history” and turns the sentiment that “it is better to choose your pain than to let it choose you” into the final words of the essay: “You choose it, and it chooses you.” Write an essay that catalogues a history of your physical injuries and how you have confronted adversity. What similarities connect the various accounts, and what arc is there, if any, to this register?
Edward Carey’s illustrated novel The Swallowed Man, published in January by Riverhead Books, takes on the celebrated fable of Pinocchio, retelling it from the perspective of the living puppet’s father Giuseppe—better known as Geppetto—beginning inside the belly of a whale. “I am writing this account, in another man’s book, by candlelight, inside the belly of a fish. I have been eaten,” he writes. Though the novel does not occur entirely within this unconventional setting, it both foreshadows and establishes the stakes for the story that is about to unfold, gripping the reader from the very first sentence. Write a story that begins in an unusual setting but slowly unfurls and tells the reader how and why the protagonist is found there. Try using a first-person perspective so the narrative impulse is filled with determination and urgency, as in Carey’s novel: “Before the last candle dies, I’ll tell my tale.”
“You must accept the door is never shut. / You’re always free to leave at any time, / though the hostage will remain, no matter what,” writes Erin Belieu in “Instructions for the Hostage,” from her fifth poetry collection, Come-Hither Honeycomb, published in February by Copper Canyon Press. In this villanelle—a strict poetic form wherein the first and third lines of the poem are repeated throughout—the terms of the metaphorical hostage scenario underpinning the poem are recontextualized, their meaning deepened as the reader learns that the speaker is both captor and hostage. In this way, the hostage scenario could be applied to any number of situations in which one is complicit in a kind of self-entrapment. Think of a time when you stood in your own way of progress, then write a poem in which you offer instructions to show that the door was never shut.
“What I have been thinking about, lately, is bewilderment as a way of entering the day as much as the work. Bewilderment as a poetics and an ethics,” writes Fanny Howe in “Bewilderment,” excerpted from a talk and published in the online journal How2 in 1999. Howe uses bewilderment as a way of understanding how the poem expresses the ineffable, claiming that it is “more than an attitude—but an actual approach, a way—to resolve the unresolvable.” Write a series of scenes in a personal essay that illustrate a time in your life when you were bewildered. How can one learn from the feeling of being perplexed or confused?
“Is this a voice that I can sustain throughout this novel? Will it continue to be, and also most importantly, can it sustain my curiosity?” asks Chang-rae Lee when discussing how he developed the characters of his latest novel, My Year Abroad (Riverhead Books, 2021), in a virtual event for the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. “You don’t want a voice that’s absolutely the same throughout.” Write a story from the perspective of one speaker that shows the character changing through their voice. Focus on how your character sees the world in order to show their evolution.
In an essay published on Literary Hub, Urvi Kumbhat writes about the use of the mango in diasporic literature, asserting that it “rests uneasily between symbol and sumptuous fruit.” Kumbhat begins by exploring her memories of eating mango in Calcutta, and how “in the global South Asian cultural and literary lexicon, the fruit is a metonym for the home country,” but also discusses why she has avoided using the fruit in her writing for fear of “self-exoticization and unoriginality.” What serves as a metonym for the place you call home? Write a poem about your chosen symbol that embraces, as well as complicates, what it represents.
“The process of writing prose can intimidate even the most seasoned poets,” writes Khadijah Queen in the latest installment of Craft Capsules. “Using the zuihitsu form provided just the open space I needed.” In the essay, Queen argues that having a form as flexible as the zuihitsu, a Japanese form of hybrid poem-essay invented by Sei Shōnagon in the eleventh century, allows for lyricism to be maintained across a longer prose piece, in which patterns of image and sound can keep a narrative going. Write an essay inspired by the zuihitsu form, beginning with a simple observation and building that image with textures of rich poetic fragments.