I’m thrilled this week to present a guest prompt by the amazing Elizabeth Austen. Elizabeth’s poetry is always a joy to read — and even better is to hear her perform her work live (if you’re in the Pacific Northwest, scroll down for Elizabeth’s upcoming events). I love the way she inspires us to pay attention to language, whether we’re reading or listening, and I always find myself reading each of Elizabeth’s poems many times over to capture the depth of the worlds that each of them contains.
A poet, performer, and teacher, Elizabeth is the author of the poetry collection Every Dress a Decision, forthcoming from Blue Begonia Press next month, and the chapbooks The Girl Who Goes Alone (Floating Bridge Press, 2010) and Where Currents Meet (part of the 2010 Toadlily Press quartet Sightline). She is a dynamic performer of her own and others’ poems and frequently teaches the art of poetry aloud. For more than 10 years, she has produced literary programming for KUOW, 94.9, one of Seattle’s NPR affiliates, introducing recordings of Pacific Northwest literary events and interviewing local and national poets, and she has received grants from Artist Trust, 4Culture, and the City of Seattle.
This prompt is perfect for all writers — enjoy!
One of my favorite starting places for poems involves working with opposites – or, as the poet Marie Howe put it in a recent workshop, “contraries.” Whatever our background, we all have stories that we’ve carried around so long we can’t even remember a time before we knew them. These may be stories about our own family or romantic history, stories handed down by our church or religion, etc. Telling these stories in the usual way can lead us into predictable territory — “I have my point of view, and I’m sticking to it” – and into clichés of thought or feeling. But what about entertaining the opposite point of view, or taking a contrary position to the one we’ve always held (or always been told)?
So, here’s your starting point: pick a familiar story. Now, pivot your frame of reference 180 degrees, and re-tell that story from another – an opposite, a contrary – point of view. This works equally well for any genre. (And on a side note, this can be a very potent tool for revision. Take a poem or story that just isn’t working, and either write the whole thing from a completely opposing point of view – reversing all the details – or inject a contrary voice. See where that takes you – at the very least, it’s sure to give your draft new energy.)
Here’s a poem from my collection Every Dress a Decision that takes a contrarian view of story from Genesis:
It Didn’t Happen That Way
Unless the apple itself, longing
to be known, can be blamed
for the light bent
across its skin
for the mid-day heat
transforming sugar to scent.
And him? She didn’t say
a word to him. He found
skin flushed and damp
as if he had lain on her
pressed into her—
he found her, swallow by swallow
savoring the taste of knowledge
her eyes fixed, focused
somewhere beyond him
as if he no longer existed.
And one more thing—
she didn’t tempt him. In fact
she never offered it.
He pried the fruit
from her hand, desperate
to follow, and bit.
If you’re in the Pacific Northwest, be sure to mark your calendar to attend at least one of Elizabeth’s readings:
– Saturday, April 2, at the Silverton Poetry Festival
– Sunday, April 10, at 7 p..m at the Doe Bay Cafe on Orcas Island (part of the SPLAB series)
– Friday, April 29, 7 p.m. at Bellingham’s Village Books