Category: Writing Techniques
66 Experiments by Charles Bernstein
1. Homolinguistic translation: Take a poem (someone else's, then your own) and translate it "English to English" by substituting word for word, phrase for phrase, line for line, or "free" translation as response to each phrase or sentence. Or translate the poem into another literary style or a different diction, for example into a slang or vernacular. Do several different types of homolinguistic translation of a single source poem. (Cf.Six Fillious by bp nichol, Steve McCaffery, Robert Fillious, George Brecht, Dick Higgins, Dieter Roth, which also included translation of the poem to French and German.) Chaining: try this with a group, sending the poem on for "translation" from person to another until you get back to the first author.
2. Homophonic translation: Take a poem in a foreign language that you can pronounce but not necessarily understand and translate the sound of the poem into English (i.e., French "blanc" to blank or "toute" to toot). (Cf.: Louis and Celia Zukofsky's Catullus.) (Rewrite to suit?)
3. Lexical translation: Take a poem in a foreign language that you can pronounce but not necessarily understand and translate it word for word with the help of a bilingual dictionary. (Rewrite to suit?) 1-3a. Try a variant of these three translation exercises using the "Lost in Translation" "Babel" engine, or other web-based translations engines, such as Babelfish and Free Translation.com.
4. Acrostic chance: Pick a book at random and use title as acrostic key phrase. For each letter of key phrase go to page number in book that corresponds (a=1, z=26) and copy as first line of poem from the first word that begins with that letter to end of line or sentence. Continue through all key letters, leaving stanza breaks to mark each new key word. (Cf.: Jackson Mac Low's Stanzas for Iris Lezak.) Variations include using author's name as code for reading through her or his work, using your own or friend's name, picking different kinds of books for this process, devising alternative acrostic procedures.
5. Tzara's hat: Everyone in a group writes down a word (alternative: phrase, line) and puts it in a hat. Poem is made according to the order in which it is randomly pulled from hat. (Solo: pick a series of words or lines from books, newspapers, magazines to put in the hat.)
6. Burroughs's fold-in: Take two different pages from a newspaper or magazine article, or a book, and cut the pages in half vertically. Paste the mismatched pages together. (Cf.: William Burroughs's The Third Mind.) Use the computer cut-up engine to perform a similar task automatically.
7. Write a poem and cut it somewhere in the middle, then recombine with the beginning part following the ending part.
8. General cut-ups: Write a poem composed entirely of phrases lifted from other sources. Use one source for a poem and then many; try different types of sources: literary, historical, magazines, advertisements, manuals, dictionaries, instructions, travelogues, etc.
9. Cento: Write a collage made up of full-lines of selected source poems.
10. Substitution (1): "Mad libs." Take a poem (or other source text) and put blanks in place of three or four words in each line, noting the part of speech under each blank. Fill in the blanks being sure not to recall the original context.
11. Substitution (2): "7 up or down." Take a poem or other, possibly well-known, text and substitute another word for every noun, adjective, adverb, and verb; determine the substitute word by looking up the index word in the dictionary and going 7 up or down, or one more, until you get a syntactically suitable replacement. (Cf.: Lee Ann Brown's "Pledge" or Clark Coolidge and Larry Fagin, On the Pumice of Morons.)
12. Substitution (3): Find and replace. Systematically replace one word in a source text with another word or string of words. Perform this operation serially with the same source text, increasing the number of words in the replace string.
13. Serial sentences: Select one sentence each from a variety of different books or other sources. Add sentences of your own composition. Combine into one paragraph, reordering to produce the most interesting results.
14. Alphabet poems: make up a poem of 26 words so that each word begins with the next letter of the alphabet. Write another alphabet poem but scramble the letter order.
15. Alliteration (assonance): Write a poem in which all the words in each line begin with the same letter.
16. Doubling: Starting with one sentence, write a series of paragraphs each doubling the number of sentences in the previous paragraph and including all the words used previously. (Cf. Ron Silliman's Ketjak)
17. Collaboration: Write poems with one or more other people, alternating words, lines, or stanzas (chaining or renga), writing simultaneously and collaging, rewriting, editing, supplementing the previous version. This can be done in person, via e-mail, or via regular mail.
18. Group sonnet: 14 people each write one ten-word line (or alternate measure) on an index card. Order to suit.
19. Write a poem in which you try to transcribe as accurately as you can your thoughts while you are writing. Don't edit anything out. Write as fast as you can without planning what you are going to say.
20. Autopilot: Trying as hard as you can not to think or consider what you are writing, write as much as you can as fast you can without any editing or concern for syntax, grammar, narrative, or logic. Try to keep this going for as long as possible: one hour, two hours, three hours: don't look back don't look up.
21. Dream work: Write down your dreams as the first thing you do every morning for 30 days. Apply translation and aleatoric processes to this material. Double the length of each dream. Weave them together into one poem, adding or changing or reordering material. Negate or reverse all statements ("I went down the hill to "I went up the hill," "I didn't" to "I did"). Borrow a friend's dreams and apply these techniques to them.
22. Write a poem made up entirely of neologisms or nonsense words or fragments of words. (Cf.: Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky", Khlebnikov's zaum, Schwitters "Ur Sonata" (at UBU "historical"). P. Inman's Platin, David Melnick's Pcoet.) Use Neil Hennessy's JABBER: The Jabberwocky Engine to generate lexicon. Also see The International Dictionary of Neologisms.
23. Write a poem with each line filling in the blanks of "I used to be _____ but now I am ______." ("I used to write poems, but now I just do experiments"; "I used to make sense, but now I just make poems.")
24. Write a poem consisting entirely of things you'd like to say, but never would, to a parent, lover, sibling, child, teacher, roommate, best friend, mayor, president, corporate CEO, etc.
25. Take same sentence or stanza and cast it as if said to oneself silently, half-whispered, said to an intimate, said to a small group, said to a large group.
26. Write a poem consisting entirely of overheard conversation.
27. Nonliterary forms: Write a poem in the form of an index, a table of contents, a resume, an advertisement for an imaginary or real product, an instruction manual, a travel guide, a quiz or examination, etc.
28. Imitation: Write a poem in the style of each of a dozen poets who you like and dislike. Try to make it as close to a forgery of an "unknown" poem of the author as possible.
29. Write a poem without mentioning any objects.
30. Backwards: Reverse or alter the line sequence of a poem of your own or someone else's. Reverse the word order. Rather than reverse, scramble.
31. Write an autobiographical poem without using any pronouns.
32. Attention: Write down everything you hear for one hour.
33. Brainard's Memory: Write a poem all of whose lines start "I remember ..." (Cf.: Joe Brainard's I Remember.)
34. "Pits": Write the worst possible poem you can imagine.
35. Counting: Write poems that conform to various numeric patterns for number of words in a line or sentence, number of lines in a stanza or paragraph, number of stanzas or paragraphs in a work. Alternately, count letters or syllables. Use complex numeric series or simpler fixed-number patterns.
36. Write a poem just when you are on the verge of falling asleep. Write a line a day as you are falling asleep or waking up.
37. [Removed for further study]
38. List poem 1: Write a poem consisting of favorite words or phrases collected over a period of time; pick your favorite words from a particular book.
39. List poem 2: write a poem consisting entirely of a list of "things", either homogenous or heterogeneous (common lists include shopping lists, things to do, lists of flowers or rocks, lists of colors, inventory lists, lists of events, lists of names, ...).
40. Chronology: Make up a list of dates with associated events, real or imagined.
41. Transcription: Tape a phone or live conversation between yourself and a friend. Make a poem composed entirely of transcribed parts.
42. Canceling: Write a series of lines or rhymes such that every other one cancels the one before ("I come before you / to stand behind you").
43. Erasure: Take a poem of your own or someone else's and cross out most of the words on each poem, retype what remains as your poem. (Cf.: Ronald Johnson's RADI OS from Milton.)
44. Write a series of ten poems going from one to ten words in each poem. Reorder.
45. Write a poem composed entirely of questions.
46. Write a poem made up entirely of directions.
47. Write a poem consisting only of opening lines (improvise your own lines, then use source texts).
48. Write a poem consisting only of prepositions, then of prepositions and one other part of speech.
49. Write a series of eight-word lines consisting of one each of each part of speech.
50. Write a poem consisting of one-word lines; write a poem consisting of two-word lines; write a poem consisting of three-word lines.
51. Pick 20 words, either a word list you generate yourself or from source texts. Write three different poems using only these words.
52. Synchronicity: Write a poem in which all the events occur simultaneously.
53. Diachronicity: Write a poem in which all the events occur in different places and at different times.
54. Visual poetry: write poems with strong visual or "concrete" elements — including a combination of lexical and non-lexical (pictorial) elements. Play with alphabets and typography, placement of words on the page, etc. (See UBUWEB for many examples,)
55. Write a series of stanzas or poems while listening to music; change type of music for each stanza or poem.
56. Elimination: Cut out the second half of sentences.
57. Excuses list: Write a poem made up entirely of excuses.
58. Sprung Diary: Write a diary tracking and intercutting multiple levels of thoughts, experiences, anticipations, expectations, from minute to major. (Cf.. Hannah Weiner's Clairvoyant Journal.)
59. "Walking on Colors": Walk a city block or a country mile paying attention as much as possible to one color; list all the things found in this one color; write about it.
60. Negation/Opposites: Negate every phrase or sentence in the poem or in some way substitute opposite words for selected words in the source text: "I went to the beach" becomes "I went to the office"; "I got up" becomes "She sat down"; "I will" become "I will not", etc. As an alternative, take a poem and change what it says line for line or phrase for phrase; not opposite, just different.
61. Google Poem: construct a poem using Leevi Lehto's engine (use the patterns feature). See also Bill Luomo's Lizardo engine. Alternate Google poem, based on M. Silem Mohammad's Deer Head Nation : use Google search results as the source material for a poem: erase as much as you like, but don't add anything. Many variations possible.
62. Use the Googlism engine to create a poem based on a name or word.
63. Dialectize: use the dialect engine to translate a text into one of several "dialects," then use the results to make a poem.
64. Multilingual poem: write a poem using several languages that are integrated into the single poem. (Cf: Anne Tardos).
65. Pick several images from the internet or a magazine and write an accompanying poem .
66. Use any of these experiments that involve as source text as a way of reading through already existing poems; that is, as interactive tools for "creative reading." As an extension, study poems via the modes of "Deformative Criticism" (the term is from Jerome McGann and Lisa Samuel). For example, take a poem and erase all but one part of speech, leaving the visual layout intact, or read it backward or otherwise re-order it, or translate it (using any of the translation exercises listed here), Alternately, use these experiments as a way to rewrite or transform your own poems.
66. Make up more experiments.
Remember: Poems can be in prose format!
Rewrite and recombine, collage, splice together the material generated from these experiments into one long ongoing poem!
Compiled by Charles Bernstein from Bernadette Mayer & workshop's Experiments list, and various other sources. © 1996 & 2001, 2002, 2003 by Poets' Ludicrously Aimless Yearning (PLAY). Dispense only as appropriate and under the supervision of an attending reader. Individual experiments are not liable for injury or failure resulting from improper use of appliance. Any profits accrued as a direct or indirect result of the use of these formulas shall be redistributed to the language at large. Management assumes no responsibility for damages that may result consequent to the use of this material in educational institutions or individual writing project.
This list was inspired by Bernadette Mayer's compilation from the 1970s.
Category: Creative Writing Techniques