Thomas Sayers Ellis (photo by Lynda Koolish)
June 6, 2014. Prompt #38
On Thursday night, I attended an outstanding reading at Naropa’s Summer Writing Program. It featured Lee Ann Brown, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Rebecca Brown, Norma Cole, and Eleni Sikelianos. Over the next month, I’ll talk more about all these writers and how their work might inspire you.
If you’ve never been to a reading, check with local book stores, libraries, coffeehouses, or colleges to see if they sponsor or know about readings in your area. If there aren’t any near by, start your own.
For today’s prompt, we’ll look at Thomas Sayers Ellis‘ poem “Or”
Or Oreo, or
worse. Or ordinary.
Or your choice
or any color
other than Colored
or Colored Only.
Or “Of Color”
or theory or discourse
or oral territory.
Oregon or Georgia
or Florida Zora
or born poor
or Corporate. Or Moor.
Or a Noir Orpheus
or a horrendous
and tore-up journey.
Or performance. Or allegory’s armor
of ignorant comfort.
or reform or a sore chorus.
Or Electoral Corruption
or important ports
of Yoruba or worry
or fear of…
of terror or border.
Or all organized
From Skin, Inc. Identity Repair Poems Grey Wolf Press
This poem astonished me because, like the conjunction “or” from which it takes its title, it knits together sound, language, history, academia, and all kinds of assumptions. Yet even as the role of conjunctions is to join words, the conjunction “or” also separates. It requires you to choose one over another. Ellis uses the word or as the core of the poem, then builds on it by incorporating dozens of words containing the letters or and other words with the or sound. The words, sounds, their meanings, and their associations all build upon and play off of one another. “Or” is filled with strong and specific nouns and proper noun yet still open to the reader’s own experiences.
- Choose a short word, perhaps a conjunction or preposition since they, by their nature, suggest connection and relationship. Some options (or choose your own): and, as, at, but, by, down, for, in, nor, of, off, on, or, out, so, to, up, with.
- Write down your word followed by words or phrases containing the letters of your word. Also write down words that share the sound of your word. Try using rhymes and near-rhymes too. For instance, if you chose “so,” you might write sew, sow (as in the female pig or planting seeds) soap, south, social, sole, soul, son, some, sort, song, soft, stow, insulate, insolate, insolent, desolate, insomnia, resolute, also, miso, torso, verso, gesso, espresso, snow, manifesto, Winslow.
- Once you’ve produced a list of 30 or more words, read through them and circle one or two words or phrases that resonate for you. Then choose twelve more words that have a connection, either in meaning, sound or “energy” to your core word.
- Next, pull it all together and write a poem, a story, a soliloquy, a declaration, or an intricate question. Include your initial set of words, add more, toss some, and keep coming back to your core word. Don’t worry about making sense or being logical. Your work may be serious, playful, dreamy, angry or a mix of these. Its larger meaning or story may emerge quickly or it make take a few drafts bring out connections.
- For this prompt, think about sound and meaning. For instance, if you choose “so,” you might feel connected to the word South because it contains so and because an abbreviation of south is So. On the other hand, because so and south don’t sound alike, if you intend to read your work out loud (and you should), the pairing of so and south may not strengthen your piece.
- Sometimes prompts such as this develop into a solid poem or story. In other cases, you may generate a single phrase or sentence that stands on its own and is the springboard for a new piece. Whatever you create, this prompt will help you think about sound, connections, and the nature of language.