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Dave's Poetry Workshop: Lesson #1 — The Rhizomatic Writing Exercises

Updated: Aug 13, 2019

By David Van Etten:

Welcome to my poetry workshop, the Rhizomatic Writing Exercises. Let me begin by unpacking the title before stowing it in the overhead bin for the flight.

A “rhizome” is literally—as in, literally “literally”—a creeping rootstalk. Common examples of the world’s things that are rhizomes include bamboo, hops, poison oak, and ginger. Can you smell it?

The philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari apprehended the term “rhizomatic” to describe how thoughts work. Fittingly, it’s easier to describe what is not a rhizome than what is—for example, a tree. A tree has a genesis in a seed; its story continues by establishing roots and sprouting as a plant; and the story moves toward fulfillment as a proper tree before decay and death beckon. In contrast, the rhizome’s history is a map rather than a narrative. There’s no beginning or end, only life in the middle-of-things.

Poetry is fairly suited for rhizomatic thinking, which is partially revealed fleetingly before changing directions abruptly. The only thing more pleasant than a better understanding of poetry is the loss of understanding that comes with writing better poems.

Our rhizomatic exercises are intended to remove our will from the wheel and allow our uncontrolled-yet-trained thoughts to lead us into the wilderness.

An “exercise” is both physical and spiritual.

  • Our physical exercises are simply our repeated bodily exertions that prepare us for performance. Preseason training focuses the will on physical conditioning and reps and muscle memory. Again!

  • Our spiritual exercises, as framed by the theologian Ignatius of Loyola, are prompts that lead to habits. Meditation scripts and yoga poses and formal prayer texts are means for establishing spiritual habits that lead toward broader souls.

  • Poetry will require us to physically condition our creativity, and it will ask more of us as we form habits that lead to more expansive personhood.

Welcome to the Workshop!

Our workshop will consist of weekly exercises planned as follows:

(i) close reading and interpretation exercise

(ii) rote learning and memorization exercise

(iii) free writing exercise

(iv) structured writing exercises each week thereafter, with further details to follow.

The Workshop welcomes new poets, novice poets, and expert poets alike. Like marathoners, we’re not racing against each other, but against our previous times—our old poems. Please tune in each week for more as we stretch our poetry muscles and form new spiritual habits together.

The goal of this Workshop is not solely to help you discover your inner self, although that inevitably may happen in a fit of absence of mind. The goal of this Workshop is for you to write poems and, once embarked, to write better poems. Reps and habits will lead us to strange creations. A consistent bit of your recklessness is my only requirement.

You see, the snake oil I’m selling is shaped like your soul spilled on the page.


For our first writing exercise, I have a fun contest for Flapper Press readers who are fans of close reading and literary interpretation. I will share a phrase from a U2 song lyric and ask for the most convincing interpretation of the phrase's meaning, supported by other language from the song.

For our first writing exercise, I will share two bits of "extra-textual" detail; otherwise, you can rely solely on the content within the "four corners" of the song for the phrase's meaning.

First, the song’s meaning moves fluidly between a literal “secular” meaning and an allegorical “religious” meaning. The fluidity back and forth are part of what makes the song so fun. I will refer to these two readings as the Lothario reading and the Judas reading.

Second, the song was released as Bono was exploring an over-the-top, somewhat-ironic, rock-star persona, which adds weight to the dueling Lothario/Judas readings. It remains one of U2's most commonly performed songs in live concerts.



What is the meaning of “down the hold” in the opening verse of Achtung Baby’s "Until the End of the World" according to a Lothario reading of the song's lyrics and according to a Judas reading of the song's lyrics? How do the two different readings harmonize and/or contradict each other’s meaning?

The song’s lyrics are pasted below, with the actual song linked below as well. You are free to search the Internet outside the song's "four corners," but any support you provide for your interpretation should come from the song's lyrics themselves.

The most convincing—i.e., the most interesting, the most credible, the best-supported—interpretation gets a free copy of my new book of poems, Twist the Blue Burlap Inside You—coming out this summer!

Feel free to send your interpretation to Reach out if you have any questions!


Until the End of the World

by U2

Haven't seen you in quite a while I was down the hold, just passing time Last time we met it was a low-lit room We were as close together as a bride and groom

We ate the food, we drank the wine Everybody having a good time except you You were talking about the end of the world

I took the money, I spiked your drink You miss too much these days if you stop to think You led me on with those innocent eyes And you know I love the element of surprise In the garden I was playing the tart I kissed your lips and broke your heart You, you were acting like it was the end of the world

In my dream, I was drowning my sorrows But my sorrows they'd learned to swim Surrounding me, going down on me Spilling over the brim Waves of regret and waves of joy I reached out for the one I tried to destroy You, you said you'd wait till the end of the world.

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