Finders, Keepers: Working with Fragments

Autumn Stephens

Overview and Rationale

Our writing, like our lives, often leaves us with only pieces of what we long for: a poetic line instead of pages of elegant stanzas, a trenchant phrase instead of a persuasive manifesto, sometimes just a buzzing in the brain, potential energy with seemingly no place to go, like unrequited love.

But what happens when we view fragmentation not as a terrible terminal state but as a pivotal waystation? Not as a stand-alone, but as a gather-up? What happens—in life as in writing—when we work with fragments rather than mourn them?

This sequenced, seven-step prompt asks students to create, combine, and expand on small units—fragments—of text to create new material. At the same time, it subtly guides them to explore the universal yet also deeply personal theme of fragmentation and its corollaries, loss and reconstruction. Students (1) brainstorm about “broken things,” (2) react to an on-the-spot tactile encounter with a physical fragment, (3) read one or more erasure poems, (4) create an erasure poem, (5) read sample Sapphic fragments, (6) select engaging fragments from their own just-produced writing, and finally (7) use these fragments to create a new poem or text.

I have had success using Finders, Keepers with students in generative writing classes, participants in a workshop for cancer survivors, and writers at a poetry conference. Working through a series of varied subprompts, rather than one single prompt, increases students’ odds of finding a “way in.” And by approaching the theme from several different angles, writers are often able to access a deeper level of response than with a one-off prompt.

I don’t necessarily announce to students the theme of the exercise as I’ve conceived it. In fact, writers do usually end up focusing on fragmentation—not only thematically, but often also structurally. But it’s always possible that this relatively open-ended prompt series will lead a writer in an idiosyncratic direction. To me, that’s an interesting development, not a crisis. Both individually and collectively, human beings “contain multitudes,” and there are infinite ways to assemble the pieces of our worlds.

 

Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Gather your materials. This is a prep-intensive exercise for the instructor, so you’ll want to allow yourself more time than usual to gather objects and create handouts. You’ll need:
    1. A tray of “broken things”—whatever strikes your fancy. I’ve (carefully) shattered flowerpots, dime-store plates, and bottles; snapped twigs and stripped petals from flowers; and collected pebbles and bits of shell. A good rule of thumb is to assemble three times as many objects as students, to allow for some degree of choice.
    2. Copies of two or three erasure poems, such as Charles Jensen’s “Poem in Which Words Have Been Left Out  ”  or Ravi Shankar’s “Lines on a Skull.”
    3. Copies of a poem or text for students to use as the basis of their own erasure poems. I often use A Story of the Body by Robert Hass.
    4. Copies of a handout containing fragments of Sappho’s poetry (e.g., “Neither for me the honey / Nor the honeybee”; “Like the mountain hyacinth, the purple flower / That shepherds trample to the ground …”; “I would not think to touch the sky with two arms”). Alternatively, if your class or workshop will be seated around a table, you can prepare single fragments in the style of fortune-cookie predictions and strew them across the tabletop. (You’ll find many translations of Sappho both online and in libraries.)
  2. Ask students to create a list titled “Broken Things.” Do not define “broken things”; students should determine for themselves both how literally and how personally to interpret the phrase. (5 minutes)
  3. Have students select a pottery shard or broken item from the tray you have prepared. Ask them to mentally note tactile details—the weight, shape, texture, etc.—of their objects and then freewrite in any genre. (10 minutes)
  4. Introduce the genre of the erasure poem. Ask students to read aloud two or three examples. (15 minutes)
  5. Pass around a poem or text and ask students to create a short erasure poem from it. (15 minutes)
  6. Have students read aloud several fragments of poetry attributed to Sappho. (10 minutes)
  7. Have students look through what they have written so far in this prompt series and underline five to ten short phrases from their work—“fragments” —that interest them. (10–15 minutes)
  8. Ask students to select any Sapphic fragment as a jumping-off place and, incorporating and expanding or modifying the fragments they identified in step 6, draft a new poem. (20–30 minutes)

Example of the Exercise

This lyric poem by California writer Judy Bebelaar originated in a Finders, Keepers workshop.

Sappho’s Fragments

by Judy Bebelaar

for all the violet tiaras

for all the woodlots blooming in spring

for all the finches singing their hearts out

for all the cats yowling in heat

and the swans who have lost their mates

for all the hawks spiraling down

in the clutches of love and destiny

for all the threads undone

the latches unfastened

the hinges rusted and broken

the rings cast into the sea

for all the letters gone unanswered

by lovers who have left

for all those shackled by love

and those lonely in their beds

the only balm:

the sadness

in song

Biography

Autumn Stephens is the author of the Wild Women book series and editor of two anthologies of women’s essays. She is pursuing an MFA in creative nonfiction at the Solstice MFA in Creative Writing Program in Massachusetts, and working on a guide to creative writing prompts.

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