Posted in Teaching, Writing

ENG 126: Poetry Workshop, Session 1

The presence of double slash marks in one of our workshop poems led me to reflect on the ways we use slashes in writing and how they both connect and separate (and/or). In a passage of prose that quotes lines of poetry, we use slashes, or virgules, to indicate a line break. Some playwrights use a slash mark to indicate the start of the next spoken line when one character talks over another. Since that stylistic convention doesn’t figure in the plays that we read in Imaginative Writing, I’m including an example here. David Lindsay-Abaire uses slash marks repeatedly in Good People to denote Margaret’s, “Margie”‘s habit of talking over Stevie:

STEVIE: Margaret, listen for a / second—

MARGARET: (But she keeps going) I don’t think they did Christmas dinners though. And your grandmother had passed by then, so there was no dinner to go to. So your mother comes into Flanagan’s, and she’s out to here. (Indicates belly) When’s Jimmy’s birthday? (6)

As you read the poems for this week’s workshop, consider where the writers indicate pauses with punctuation and line breaks. In Imaginative Writing, Janet Burroway notes that “[t]he line directs the breath; the rhythm of the line is played against the rhythm of the sense, and this is one of the ways that poets alter, stress, and redirect their meaning” (305-06). As an example, she offers the opening lines of John Milton’s Paradise Lost:

Of Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast*
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe. (qtd. in Burroway 305-06)

Milton gives prominence to the apple, the forbidden fruit, by placing it at the end of the line. As Burroway observes, “the end of just about anything—line, paragraph, stanza, story—is the strongest position, and the beginning is the second strongest” (306). With that in mind, pay close attention to the first and last words of each line. Also look carefully at any caesuras, or pauses within the line (such as after “Disobedience” above). Do the poems include any enjambment, the running of a thought from one line to the next (“and the Fruit / Of that Forbidden Tree . . .”)? Are the lines of the poems end-stopped? In other words, does the end of each line coincide with the end of each thought?

To supplement our study of the poetic line, I have developed a short exercise to accompany your workshop comments this week.

Directions:

  1. Read aloud the poem or stanza beside your name in the list below.
  2. Read the poem again, and consider how caesuras or enjambments would alter its effect.
  3. Revise two or more lines of the poem or stanza without changing any of the words. Change only line breaks and/or punctuation.
  4. At the end of your comment for the poet, include the revised lines and a brief explanation of the changes you made.

This exercise isn’t meant to be prescriptive. It’s not a way of saying, these are changes that the poet should make. Instead, it’s a way of showing how someone else might see and hear the words.

  • Brennan: “He is the Man”
  • Zane: “Change”
  • Mia: “Dependent”
  • Brandy: “Self-Preservation,” stanza 1 or 3
  • Trevor: “Self-Preservation,” stanza 2

As always, the points I have included below are not ones that you’re required to address in your comments. I offer them as suggestions only. I will address some of them in the follow-up remarks that I’ll post at the beginning of our next session.

He is the Man” and “Change

  • Where in the poems does the writer use assonance, internal rhyme, and slant rhyme?
  • How might the writer develop the exploration of one or both notions of change in the second poem?
  • Might these two thematically similar poems evolve into two stanzas of one poem, or alternately evolve into two poems in a longer sequence of poems on the same theme?

Dependent

  • Where in the poem does the writer depict the abstract idea of dependence with concrete images?
  • Where do metaphors or similes appear in the poem?
  • Where might the poet add figurative language?

Self-Preservation

  • What discrepancy does the poet create with “slivers” in line one and “chunks” in line three? How and where might the writer develop that apparent contradiction?
  • Consider the sequence of pronoun shifts (I > we > I > they > I). What does the distancing effect of third person indicate about the poem’s speaker or persona? What change, if any, does the return to first person signify?
  • Why might the writer have chosen to use double slash marks?

Remember to check your CVCC email and Blackboard regularly for updates and assignments.

Works Cited

Burroway, Janet. Imaginative Writing. 4th ed. Pearson, 2014.

Lindsay-Abaire, David. Good People. TCG, 2011.

*Seventeenth-century spelling of taste.

Posted in Reading, Teaching, Theatre, Writing

ENG 126: Drama Follow-Up, Introduction to Poetry

Drama Follow-Up

Thank you for all of your thoughtful and detailed feedback on the untitled monologue and The Story of Shabath. Before we turn from drama to poetry, I offer these follow-up notes:

Untitled Monologue

  • Mia noted the problematic detail of Deen’s parole. I didn’t mention that issue in my introductory remarks because it’s one with an easy fix. The officer needs a motive for his encounter with Deen, but that motive needn’t be a parole violation. A confrontation prompted by an unrelated minor offense—such as a speeding ticket or a shoplifting arrest—would add to the monologue’s irony. That said, who other than an officer might prompt Deen’s rant?
  • Brendan, Zane, and Brandy recommended delaying Deen’s revelations about her role in her family’s tragedies. I addressed the subject of sequence in my previous post for the same reasons that Brendan, Zane, and Brandy mentioned. If the audience is introduced to Deen as an unlikable young woman but one who is nevertheless a devoted friend to Carol, the revelation that Deen is responsible for her parents’ death and her brother’s paralysis will transform her from mildly annoying to morally reprehensible. The structure of that transformation might be similar to that of Donald Barthelme’s “The School,” as Brendan suggested.
  • Trevor recommended “Six Feet Under” and “An Inconvenient Inheritance” as possible titles. Is there a line of Deen’s—such as “So here’s the thing”—that might serve as the title?

The Story of Shabath

  • Trevor suggested that the monorail could appear as a projected image in the background, and that sound effects and props could differentiate Shabath Aizwald’s memories. Those recommendations remind us that playwrights’ scripts—unlike creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry—are starting points for collaboration (among the director, the actor/s, and the technical crew); it’s important to imagine how the story might move from page to stage. Trevor’s mention of props and sound effects leads me to Mia‘s observation about the number of acts and scenes
  • If stage hands costumed as citizens of Laghaz entered and exited with the props that signal shifts from one memory to the next, those visual cues could enable the monologue to unfold as one seamless scene.
  • Brennan, Zane, Mia, and Brandy observed that the audience learns more about the kingdom of Laghaz than they do about Shabath himself. What motivated him to found Faya? What in particular was painful about his regenerative process? What were the physical and emotional costs, and how might Shabath convey those through his words and actions?
  • Mia noted Shabath’s potential drug problem. Whether the elixir he injects is medicinal or detrimental to his health, its effects could develop his character and serve as a source of tension.
  • Brennan‘s words “the rain . . . mixed with a man pondering his life on a high-speed monorail” brings to mind  Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, a novel that the writer might find instructive to read, or reread, with an eye toward the rendering of the speech of the bounty hunter Rick Deckard.

To the writers of both scripts, I recommend Jane Wagner‘s play The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. It’s a one-woman show featuring a series of monologues linked by the narrator, Trudy, a deranged bag lady who befriends alien visitors who are studying Earth as “a planet still in its puberty” (136). I recommend it to the writer of the untitled monologue for the characters’ diction and speech patterns. To the writer of The Story of Shabbath, I recommend examining how Wagner’s monologues develop the individual characters while also addressing social problems.

Work Cited

Wagner, Jane. The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. 1985. Harper & Row, 1986.


Introduction to Poetry

As we turn from drama to poetry, consider again Janet Burroway’s, Carolyn Kizer’s, and Theodore Roethke’s observations about the similarities between the two genres:

Her [Carolyn Kizer’s] mentor Theodore Roethke . . . advised thinking of a poem ‘as a three-act play, where you move from one impulse to the next, and then there is the final breath, which is the summation of the whole.’ Kizer points out that Roethke’s poem ‘I knew a Woman’ (p. 127) contains the line ‘She taught me turn, and Counter-turn, and Stand,’ which is ‘the essence of the dramatic structure. It’s what a long poem has to do. It doesn’t require physical action, but there has to be some mental or emotional movement that carries through the poem.’ (313-14)

If a poem mimics dramatic structure and involves movement, it will need, like a story or drama, to achieve conclusion. In Roethke’s description, this achievement is the ‘final breath,’ or, in his line above the ‘and Stand’ of the poem. (314)

In Chapter 10 of Imaginative Writing, Janet Burroway includes three self-reflexive poems about language and writing (319-21). If you haven’t chosen a subject for your workshop poem/s, consider writing a poem that focuses on language or one of your own pieces of writing, another poem or a work of prose.

You might also try writing an ekphrastic poem: one about or inspired by another work of art. “Overblown,” the sample poem that I posted for you on Blackboard, is an ekphrastic poem that I wrote based on Momoyo Torimitsu’s Somehow I Don’t Feel Comfortable (the giant inflated pink rabbit in the photo) for an Art of Poetry Catawba Valley event at the Hickory Museum of Art.

For additional models and sources of inspiration, I encourage you to reread these poems in Imaginative Writing:

  • “I Knew a Woman” by Theodore Roethke (127)
  • “Nude Interrogation” by Yusef Komunyakaa (156)
  • “A Story about the Body” by Robert Hass (187)
  • “Columbine High School/Littleton, CO” by Albert Goldbarth (188)
  • “Woodchucks” by Maxine Kumin (188-89)
  • “The Hammock” by Li-Young Lee (189-90)
  • “The One Girl at the Boys Party” by Sharon Olds (312-13)

Also consider reading Louise Glück‘s “Gretel in the Darkness” as well as her poems posted on the Poetry Foundation website.

Since you are working on your poetry workshop assignment this week, you are not required to post a comment in response to this post, but I strongly encourage you to post one of the following as a brief response:

  • Any other poems in Imaginative Writing that you recommend to your classmates as models or sources of inspiration
  • A link to a poem that you admire and would encourage your classmates to read
  • Any of Janet Burroway‘s “Try This” exercise that have been helpful to you as you’ve drafted your poem/s

Remember to check your CVCC email and Blackboard regularly for updates and assignments.

Work Cited

Burroway, Janet. Imaginative Writing. 4th ed. Pearson, 2014.

Posted in Teaching, Theatre, Writing

ENG 126: Drama Workshop, Session 3

Welcome to our third drama workshop session, and thank you for your thoughtful feedback on The Slow Decline and the monologue from Bound. Before we turn to the untitled monologue and The Story of Shabath, I offer these follow-up notes:

The Slow Decline 

  • Trevor mentioned the jail break in the sixth paragraph as a possible alternate starting point. How might Mr. Castillo’s story unfold between the narration of the jail break, which was “a rather profitable venture” and the change in gun restrictions when the Castillo organization’s “profits plummeted”? In other words, how might a riches-to-rags sequence framed by those events affect the play’s momentum?
  • Brendan, Zane, Brandy, and Mia all noted the lack of development of Mr. Castillo’s relationship with his father. The detail that he is “quiet” and the writer’s choice of having Mr. Castillo address his grandfather, but not his father, in the conclusion may serve to indicate a gulf between father and son. Was it a relationship that was too difficult for the son to put into words? If so, what in his speech or actions might convey that difficulty?
  • The question of details–what to leave in and what to leave out–leads me to a question that Mia raised: “What made the main character unsuitable for the job while his father and grandfather ran things so seamlessly?” The answer may lie in something else that Mia mentioned, the moment when Mr. Castillo reveals that as a young man he contemplated running away from the family business. That’s the moment I had in mind when I posed this question: What other obstacles, internal or external, might complicate the delivery of his story?

Monologue from Bound 

  • Trevor remarked that it was admirable that the writer chose to begin at the end of the narrator’s story and focus on the mechanics of the journey.
  • Brennan, Mia, Zane, and Brandy noted the number of unanswered questions in the monologue. Zane also noted the apparent inconsistency in the narrator’s mental state. How might the writer convey through the narrator’s speech and actions that his consistent inconsistencies make him dangerous to the gods, or to himself, or to both?
  • Brandy and Brennan both noted that the monologue felt like part of a larger piece–such as a character’s speech “halfway through a fantasy novel,” as Brennan mentioned. With that in mind, reading and comparing H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and the radio play adapted from the novel might be a useful exercise for the writer.

Rather than making additional reading recommendations tailored for the writers of The Slow Decline and the monologue from Bound, I am offering one that’s relevant to all of us now: the recent New York Times article “Has Your Dystopian Play Come in Handy?,” which features snippets of conversations with playwrights who have authored plays about cataclysmic events and are now living through one themselves (as we all are).

Marisol, the first play addressed in the article, was written by José Rivera, author of Gas, the Persian Gulf War-era play that we read in Chapter 11 of Imaginative Writing. The eight other playwrights and plays featured in the article are these:

  • Anne Washburn, Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play (2013)
  • Jennifer Haley, Nether (2015)
  • Mac Rogers, The Honeycomb Trilogy (2015)
  • Penelope Skinner, The Ruins of Civilization (2016)
  • Zoe Kazan, After the Blast (2017)
  • Robert O’Hara, Mankind (2018)
  • Andrew R. Butler, Rags Parkland Sings the Songs of the Future (2018)
  • Duncan Macmillan, Lungs (2020)

The points I have included below are not ones that you’re required to address in your comments about the untitled monologue and The Story of Shabath. I offer them as suggestions only. I will address some of them in the follow-up remarks that I’ll post at the beginning of our next session.

Untitled Monologue

  • In the second paragraph of the monologue, Deen reveals the inciting incident, the event that creates the situation in which she finds herself: “and then they died.” In the fifth paragraph, she first mentions her current obstacle: the officer to whom she is pleading her case. Consider how altering the order of the details that Deen presents would affect the monologue’s tension and the audience’s perceptions of Deen.
  • In Imaginative Writing, Janet Burroway notes the importance of varying shorter lines with longer ones. In her words, “[a] change of pace, from a sharp series of shorter lines to a longer speech and back again, keeps the rhythm interesting” (338). The writer varies lines within paragraphs and also between paragraphs one and three, and again between paragraphs six and seven. What other paragraphs might be presented as shorter–perhaps even one-line–paragraphs?
  • What suggestions, if any, do you have for a title?
  • What plays, if any–ones in Imaginative Writing or others that you’ve read–would you recommend to the writer as models or possible sources of inspiration?

The Story of Shabath

  • Consider the sequence of Shabath Aizwald’s recollections. How would moving what he recounts in 1:2 or 2:1 to 1:1 affect the tension?
  • What stage directions would clarify how the monorail figures in 1:1? Is it an actual set piece, an image projected on a scrim (a gauze cloth used as a screen or backdrop on stage), or does it figure solely as a diagetic sound?
  • In Imaginative Writing, Janet Burroway observes that the inability and unwillingness at times to say what we mean “breaks the flow of the talk. This is especially true when emotions are heating up. People break off, interrupt themselves and each other. Use sentence fragments. Don’t always finish their . . . (338). Where might the writer break the flow of Shabath’s words to indicate an inner conflict? What memories might be difficult for him to recount?
  • What plays, if any–ones in Imaginative Writing or others that you’ve read–would you recommend to the writer as models or possible sources of inspiration?

Post your two responses, twenty-five words or more each, as replies. If you address a point that one of your classmates has written in a previous reply, mention that classmate by name in your own reply. Post by midnight on Friday, April 17.

Remember to check your CVCC email and Blackboard regularly for updates and assignments.

Posted in Reading, Teaching, Theatre, Writing

ENG 126: Drama Workshop, Session 2

Welcome to our second drama workshop session, and thank you for your thoughtful feedback on the first script, Twins of an Ill Fate. Before we turn to the next two scripts, The Slow Decline and the monologue from Bound, I offer these follow-up notes:

  • Brandy, Brennan, and Zane mentioned the difficulty of distinguishing Harry from Henry. That’s a point that I’ll return to later in my notes.
  • Mia and Brennan both envisioned the story as one better suited for another medium, and Brennan added that there were moments that would be difficult if not impossible to stage. Since the realm of Twins of an Ill Fate lies somewhere between fourth wall realism and extreme theatricality, it might be staged with scene changes–as Mia suggested–and the Angel-to-Grim Reaper transformation could take place in a black-out or otherwise out of view.
  • Trevor recommended condensing the stage directions, and Brennan noted that some of them could be omitted. Often the characters’ words alone suffice. As I mentioned in our first session, in Imaginative Writing, Janet Burroway notes that “good dialogue will convey most of its tone as an integral part of the lines, and when this is the case, there is no need to announce the tone of voice in a stage direction” (327).
  • Although Henry and Harry are easily confused on the page, seeing them on stage played by two actors, wearing clothes that aren’t identical, would enable the audience to distinguish Harry from Henry more easily. And in all likelihood they’d be played by actors who aren’t identical twins. That said, I’ll return to the what-if I asked in our first session and add another.
  • What if Henry and Harry were never on stage at the same time? What if everyone except the surviving twin–Sally, Margret, the Grim Reaper, and the audience–was left without an answer to the question, did one brother lie to save his own life?
  • Mia questioned the need for the twins to be identified as adopted, and Trevor mentioned Romulus and Remus, the adopted twins of Rome’s founding myth, and the opportunities that twin characters present, both as archetypes and subjects for exploration of nature and nurture. One reason for the revelation of the twins’ adoption–which Margret’s phone conversation provide–may be the existential crisis that crests with the realization that we are not who we thought we were, whether children of God or the children of the people we believed were our biological parents. I don’t know whether that’s what the writer intended, but the symbolic framework of the play leaves it open to that possibility.
  • One play I recommend to the writer is Deborah Zoe Laufer’s End Days, a dark comedy about a family preparing for Armageddon. The mother has visions of Jesus, and the daughter has visions of Stephen Hawking. One actor plays both Jesus and Hawking.

The points I have included below are not ones that you’re required to address in your comments about The Slow Decline and the monologue from Bound. I offer them as suggestions only. I will address some of them in the follow-up remarks that I’ll post at the beginning of our third session.


The Slow Decline

  • Mr. Castillo begins with his earliest memories and offers his story chronologically. Where else might he begin, and what might that alternate starting point contribute to his monologue?
  • What costume notes could place Mr. Castillo at odds with his words? Is there a stage lie? Is he wearing pajamas or or a pin-striped suit? How does that affect our reading of the line, “[t]he doctors say I don’t have much time left”?
  • The tape recorder’s breakdown thwarts Mr. Castillo’s plan. What other obstacles, internal or external, might complicate the delivery of his story?
  • What plays, if any–ones in Imaginative Writing or others that you’ve read–would you recommend to the writer as models or possible sources of inspiration?

Monologue from Bound

  • What is the risk of beginning, as this monologue does, with a solution rather than a problem?
  • Where might the writer use italics for emphasis? David Ives’ play The Philadelphia (see Imaginative Writing, 158-64) uses italics effectively in the conversation between the characters Al and Mark. Imagine the narrator emphasizing “finally” when he repeats it, then imagine him emphasizing “god.” How does the change in emphasis affect your perception of the narrator’s stance?
  • Consider the stage lie again. Is the narrator reliable? What actions or gestures might reveal his reliability or lack thereof?
  • What plays, if any–ones in Imaginative Writing or others that you’ve read–would you recommend to the writer as models or possible sources of inspiration?
  • Post your two responses, twenty-five words or more each, as replies. If you address a point that one of your classmates has written in a previous reply, mention that classmate by name in your own reply. Post by 5 p.m. on Thursday, April 9.

Remember to check your CVCC email and Blackboard regularly for updates and assignments.

Posted in Teaching, Theatre, Writing

ENG 126: Drama Workshop, Session 1

Welcome to our first drama workshop and our first WordPress gathering. Although I wouldn’t have chosen for us to work exclusively online as a community of writers, I value the opportunity that it will afford us, in May, to look back and weigh the merits of the two versions of our class: the before and the after–or, more accurately, the before and during (COVID-19 time).

The points I have included below are not ones that you’re required to address in your comments. I offer them as suggestions only. I will probably address some of them in the follow-up remarks that I’ll post at the beginning of our second session.

  • From the first line of the play, we know what one of the characters wants. What do other characters want? How do the conflicts among their desires advance the action?
  • In Imaginative Writing, Janet Burroway notes that “good dialogue will convey most of its tone as an integral part of the lines, and when this is the case, there is no need to announce the tone of voice in a stage direction” (327). Are all of the tonal directions necessary? If not, which ones could be omitted?
  • The particular day, year, and hour of the setting are essential to the play. Are any other time or setting cues essential as well?
  • What is the symbolic significance of the ’87 black Chevy Silverado? What other set pieces take on symbolic significance?
  • What plays, if any–ones in Imaginative Writing or others that you’ve read–would you recommend to the writer as models or possible sources of inspiration?
  • And lastly, some what ifs: What if Harry and Henry were never on stage at the same time? What if Sally was alone with Harry at the beginning of scene 1? She could still make the same mistake, and Harry could still correct her–but then what?

Post your response of twenty-five words or more as a reply. If you address a point that one of your classmates has written in a previous reply, mention that classmate by name in your own reply.

You are welcome to post more than once.

Remember to check your CVCC email and Blackboard regularly for updates and assignments.

 

Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

An Unfinished Portrait

What distinguishes historical fiction from creative nonfiction about historical events? I’ve been thinking about that question since Katherine Howe’s recent talk at Lenoir-Rhyne. In her February 12 presentation, Howe–L-R’s current writer-in-residence and one of the featured authors in the university’s Visiting Writers Series–spoke about her historical novels and the seemingly contrarian nature of the form:

Historical fiction seems to embody a contradiction. If we want to know what happened, we can consult an archive. If we want a transcendent experience, we read fiction.

As a writer of historical fiction, Howe does both, conducting research for accuracy and crafting fictional worlds that breathe life into the past. When Howe mentioned the question of whether the chandelier in her forthcoming novel burns gas or whale oil—a question her research hasn’t answered yet—I was reminded of Janet Burroway’s reflections on her novel Cutting Stone, set during the Mexican revolution:

In the only historical novel I have ever written, I decided that I could put an ice house in a rural Arizona town several years before there was actually such a thing, but that I could not blow off the arm of a famous Mexican general two years before, historically, it happened (240).

Such blending of fiction and fact differs from creative nonfiction about historical events, not because creative nonfiction doesn’t include a mix—it does, sometimes—but rather because creative nonfiction doesn’t place us in the past.

Holocaust Girls (2002) / indiebound.com
Holocaust Girls (2002) / indiebound.com

Take for example “Margot’s Diary,” (one of the essays in Burroway’s chapter on creative nonfiction in Imaginative Writing), in which writer S. L. Wisenberg speculates about the life of the Frank sister who is unknown to us because her diary didn’t survive, as Anne’s did. Wisenberg writes an un-diary of sorts, an essay in nine sections, the last titled “At Bergen-Belsen, Winter 1945.” But Wisenberg doesn’t place the readers at the concentration camp where Margot died, nor does she place us in the Frank houses in Frankfurt, Germany and Amsterdam in the earlier sections. Instead, Wisenberg imagines what Margot may have written before she “ran out of language” (255). Her aim is not is not to return us to the past, as Howe does, but to leave us with an unfinished portrait that conveys a profound sense of loss.


Wisenberg, S. L. “Margot’s Diary.” Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft by Janet Burroway. 3rd ed. Boston: Pearson/Longman, 2011. Print. 252-55.