This week, I’m delighted to present a writing exercise by poet Kelli Russell Agodon, whose amazing collection of work finds beauty in all sorts of unimaginable places — and I find her writing prompts so wonderful because she inspires us to do exactly the same. And you’ll also be able to enjoy Kelli’s lovely poem “Self Portrait With Optic Neuritis,” below, which was inspired by this exercise.
Kelli is the acclaimed author of the recently published Letters From the Emily Dickinson Room, winner of the White Pine Press Poetry Prize judged by Pulitzer Prize winner Carl Dennis. She is also the author of Small Knots and the chapbook Geography. Kelli lives in Washington state, where she is an avid mountain biker and a lover of chocolate, handwritten letters, and art. Kelli co-edits Seattle’s wonderful 28-year-old print literary journal Crab Creek Review, and she blogs about living and writing creatively at her inspiring blog, Book of Kells. Visit her online at www.agodon.com.
This prompt is for poets as well as writers of all genres — enjoy!
We have all seen self-portraits by visual artists—Frida Kahlo’s “Self Portrait with Cropped Hair,” “Self Portrait with Necklace,” or “Self Portrait with Monkey”—and what interests me in these works is what the artist chooses to highlight in these paintings.
For this writing exercise, you’ll begin with a title:
Self Portrait With ______________ (fill in the blank)
You are welcome to fill in the blank with any current obsession or interesting word/words you like. Try to choose a word that excites you as in this exercise, as you will return to that word many times. Your title can be anything from Self Portrait with Machete to Self Portrait with Mother Teresa. You can use a few words to stretch your subject into something more such as Self Portrait with Broken Coffee Mug or Self Portrait with Winning Lottery Ticket. It is completely up to you.
You are welcome to write a short story, creative non-fiction piece or in the form of a poem. Or for an extra challenge, use the same title for two different genres and see what happens.
Self Portrait With Optic Neuritis
by Kelli Russell Agodon
The ophthalmologist is looking through me.
On the other side of my eye
is God or a peach and I can’t imagine
laughing again or seeing the purple
birthmark on my daughter’s arm.
When he speaks, I hear shadows.
I hear the empty mouths
of bells. I begin to make promises
to remember long words,
to visit Taos before it is a cloudy city.
On the other side of vision, I can’t imagine
the braiding of nerves inside me,
the light reflecting off an unpainted wall
or the red matter, the rug from India
hanging across the window.
The eye chart hides beneath a haze.
They flip through a book and I am to see
numbers, what I say is: I don’t know,
I don’t know. His assistant leads me
into the waiting room. I hear a man talking
to his child—she must be only two,
her footsteps sound like dancing.
I hear him tell her to follow him,
then say, I think you’ll need to hold my hand.
previously published in In Posse