Dave's Poetry Workshop: Exercise #2—The Reverse Engineer
Updated: Nov 9, 2019
By David Van Etten:
This month, we each choose an exemplar poem to fully inhabit. I suggest “We Through Mists Descry” by Dean Young; however, you are welcome to apply the exercise steps to another poem if you prefer, up to you. The end product will be a draft of your first Workshop poem. The three steps of the exercise are as follows:
I. Memorize Poem
II. Reverse Engineer Unwritten Prompts
III. Apply Prompts and Draft New Poem
I. Memorize Poem:
We don’t memorize the poem to later recite it; instead, we memorize to gain granular intimacy with the poem and its working parts. When I was studying to take the bar exam to become a licensed attorney, I learned the law by memorizing it. For each subject-matter area, I wrote out the law, and then highlighted it, and then outlined it, and continued winnowing the law down until a series of coded symbols remained. The end product was a single legal-sized and double-sided sheet of paper filled with code legible only to me—the law. It was useless on its own, but invaluable as a map of iterations, cultivations of content, concentrations of substance. Comparably, I suggest you memorize the twenty-one sentences of “We Through Mists Descry” in iterations:
A. Transcribe the poem
B. Reduce transcription to shorthand
C. Reduce shorthand to 1-2 word(s) and/or accompanying symbol(s) for each sentence
D. Reduce words/symbols to a single symbol for each sentence
We Through Mists Descry
So much energy. People buying watermelons,
boarding airplanes, watching their parents die
and writing poems about it while above throbs
the celestial. I love how sadness turns
celebratory, the childlike apocalyptic.
Bees return to their hives, freighted
with nectars. Shadows rise from the mud,
flinging back their wet hair and even though
this seashell is very small, it’s still singing
about the void. Often great tension arises
between sincerity and rhetoricity imposing
vague profundities. Outside a man is failing
to push-start his car, albeit a very polished car.
Remember how rash Apollo was even while inventing
trigonometry? He did it to impress some skinny kid
milking a goat, after all. Let’s not forget
the head in the furnace, how burning is
laughing and laughing is also crying out.
When my father died, I saw his spirit snagged
in a tree, a woman running across the parking lot,
windows full of smoke. When my father died,
his spirit snagged in a tree then left behind
its last body of plastic bags. I saw the sky
wring its blue until it cracked and oils
leaked out. I thought I was seeing everything
and could turn off the white light with a switch.
Satellite dishes in every yard, shiny, shiny stars.
I’d like to be completely free but I want everything
to belong to me. You fall upon the thorns of life
and bleed and people think you’re a fool. But later,
at the bash bar, the disputants are transformed
by the lips of their eyes, the sex organs
of exhaled cigarette smoke. Even if it’s only
skin-deep, once you derive the area, consider
how the skin goes into the ears, behind the eyes,
down the throat, that’s an awful lot of beauty.
Once someone told me I should live by water.
Once someone sold me a surge protector for every room.
The twenty-one sentences of “We Through Mists Descry” will ultimately be reduced to a couple lines of coded symbols serving as a mnemonic map of the poem. You may not have the poem memorized verbatim by then, but you’ll be pretty familiar with it. Stenography has two types of “narrowing” end goals: brachygraphy or “short” hand, compressing content; and tachygraphy or “speedy” hand, saving time. We have no concern about time—in fact, the longer I spend cultivating the process, the deeper ingrained the content becomes to me. We are looking to concentrate, to work the soil of language.
I am reminded of the cocktail-party game “Celebrity,” where you fill a bowl with scraps of paper, each holding a celebrity name. In the first round, you draw a scrap and use as many words as needed to describe the celebrity, excluding her name; in the second round, you use a single word; in the third round, you use a single gesture. Our memory iterations function comparably.
By repeatedly reducing and concentrating, we move through the Symbolic toward the underlying Imaginary—we enter the poem’s soul.
II. Reverse Engineer Unwritten Prompts:
The second step of this exercise requires us to make a small fictional leap. We will pretend that “We Through Mists Descry” (or whatever poem you choose) was generated by a set of writing prompts. Our task is to discern—or reverse engineer—the prompts based on the finished product of the poem. You will craft the fictional “script” or “instructions” that led to the poem. Importantly, you don’t want your reverse-engineered prompts to be too specific, overly restricting their application; nor do you want the prompts to be too extensive, creating clunkyness in application.
Instead, think of established poetic forms and the invisible rules that govern them—for example, a Shakespearean sonnet. Such a sonnet is comprised of three quatrains followed by a heroic couplet, is cadenced according to iambic pentameter, adheres to rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG, and characteristically includes a substantive pivot in line nine. “We Through Mists Descry” does not follow such strict structural rules; however, if the poem were an example of a timeless genre, what would the rules of that genre be? I can illustrate the “reverse engineering” process with some early lines from a different Dean Young poem called “Bender,” which begins with the following two sentences:
Ever since I lost consciousness,
I keep finding it in the oddest places:
in the barn after the dancers turned to chaff,
in bits of chintz, corn husk, phosphenes of dream
that bob up like newts taking drinks of air.
It’s okay, there’s nothing so adored
as what’s lost, more interrogated
than what’s found, the silver sliver
plucked out, melted down for the ongoing ingot
of life’s bulk as counterweight
to days just whirs and spinouts,
hiccups and coughs into bleached handkerchiefs.
An example of reverse-engineered prompts that might have created these two sentences of twelve lines is as follows:
(1) Describe immaterial thing as if it were physically material, and illustrate with a concrete sensory example, as well as an ephemeral example made more concrete by use of surreal metaphor.
(2) Outline balanced set of inverse idioms in unfamiliar terms, and illustrate with sensory examples that exploit excessive word play as well as onomatopoeia.
PLEASE NOTE: I am totally bullsh*tting here, and that’s the point. Both the reverse-engineered prompts and our next step’s application of such prompts are derived from a playful dissection of the poem. This is not an exact science; the perfect should not murder the good; please color outside the lines. Our goal is to identify something in each sentence of the exemplar poem that we admire and would like to emulate. Is the sentence long or short? Does it include a prophetic statement, or a direct address to the reader, or a confusing narrative leap? If not (which is likely), what is it doing? We always want to stock a poem with sensory things that bleed and smell (universal rule: show, don’t tell), but how does our exemplary poet manipulate our senses by intermixing general/specific things, or micro/cosmic things, or humdrum/surreal things? “Reverse engineering” is simply a fancy phrase for noticing things we like.
III. Apply Prompts and Draft New Poem:
Now, for step three, apply the fictional prompts you just “reverse engineered” from “We Through Mists Descry” (or whatever poem you chose), and draft a new poem. If your newly drafted images and lines aren’t freely spilling in the first ninety seconds, wait and return to this step later. The purpose of the process is to dip one’s ladle directly into the Imaginary—too much thinking likely suggests, come back and try again. My three-minute application of the prompts reverse-engineered from “Bender” in sentence (1) and (2) above is as follows:
Dog-eared in my user’s manual was
a pristine copy of the long-overdue gravity
of the situation, with pistol-shaped eyes that
followed me yonder dawn’s boudoir, and a crop
failure that haunted these uneven cobblestones
like the pink and blue roses of an unsuccessful
turkey ambush. You don’t always need what
you want, but we often want what we get,
the lost bruises that unlock the next dimension
like some jug band losing a rubber match, kerplop.
This is the beginning of a poem. Yes, it’s a bit mad-libby and weightless; however, it is also strangely peopled and pulsing. I want this poem to square its shoulders and sock me—I know it’ll land a solid punch. Nonetheless, there’s no overly conscious intent, and no premeditated narrative framework, and no purposeful feelings targeted. Instead, we have a series of vivid things, guided by arbitrary rules, modeled loosely on a poem that does some other things that we notice and like. This is the hunt we want to be scavenging—always.
Accordingly, your task is to apply all (or most; or some) of the twenty-one fictional prompts that you reverse engineered from “We Through Mists Descry,” drafting a new poem.
Feel free to send your new poem to email@example.com, along with related reverse-engineered prompts. Reach out with any questions.
David Van Etten is a lawyer, teacher, uncle, theologian and poet. Van Etten's poetry is regular feature on Flapper Press, and his newest collection of poetry. Twist the Blue Burlap Inside You, will soon be available for purchase. His regular poetry educational series—Dave's Poetry Workshop can be seen monthly, along with his ongoing series of posts about his journey through recovery from colorectal cancer.