This exercise taps into the ever-proliferating presence of social media’s purchase on our lives by asking students to write a poem modeled on, in imitation of, or departing from C.D. Wright’s poem “Personals.” The borders between truths and lies are precisely where so many poems live, and this poem speaks to that as directly as any. The stakes of this betweenness often become clear quickly when students discuss the risks of participating in social media platforms like those in the exercise’s title. When we wink at someone, write a message after viewing their profile, swipe right instead of left, or create profiles of our own on sites like Tinder, we stand somewhere between fact and fiction. Even if no one in the class has ever been “catfished” (when someone misleads another about their appearance online), for example, usually someone knows another who has been. Students never fail to have opinions about how platforms like Instagram have altered how people present themselves to the wider world.
This assignment asks students to take risks at the level of the poem’s shape and content. This could entail a truthfulness radical in the vulnerability it lays bare or, of course, an equally radical act of fabrication. Or a combination of these two. More than once students have commented that the act of replacing Wright’s language with their own inspired poems that eventually departed from Wright’s and became, line by line, their own. The goals of this assignment are to create a draft of what could, with revision, be called a poem; to play with language without fear of seeming silly or foolish; to be silly and/or foolish, which is to say, to be willing to write badly in the hope of writing well; to let language lead; and to have fun.
- Give students Wright’s “Personals,” and give them time to read it.
- Ask students to write their own versions of Wright’s poem.
- Ask them to consider how this process is an exercise at the intersection of self-portraiture and persona.
- Encourage students to keep this in mind while they compose their own poems and, just as importantly, to take risks at the levels of the poem’s shape and content.
- Tell students that the goals of this assignment are to
- Draft what could, with revision, be called a poem
- Play with language without fear of seeming silly or foolish
- Be silly and/or foolish
- Let language lead
- Have fun!
- Provide a skeleton version of Wright’s poem with blank spaces in the place of crucial nouns and verbs (a Mad Libs version) for students to fill in if they choose. This will lessen the pressure of beginning the writing process for students who feel intimidated by writing a poem in response to another’s or writing a poem at all.
- Stress that they are free to fill in the blanks with their own words while maintaining Wright’s syntactical structures or, alternatively, to depart from Wright’s language entirely with their own. Students often choose a combination of both approaches.
Mad Libs Version of C.D. Wright’s Poem “Personals”
Some nights I __________. My __________
are __________. I don’t get __________.
Since __________ or before, I have __________
where I could __________.
If this were __________ and across that __________, __________,
I’d meet you in __________ tonight. We could
have a __________. Danger, shoulder soft.
Do not __________ or __________ on __________. I’m still trying to __________
I’ve seen people __________ of __________. Look at __________. I wish
like __________, we came __________ with __________.
Which reminds me of a little known fact:
if we were __________, this __________
__________ while we were __________.
Isn’t the __________ and __________.
In this __________, I make __________. I’m not __________
among __________ who __________
in __________. I go __________.
If I could __________ I’d __________. I won __________
in __________ and __________. Long long ago.
__________ married __________. The __________ called __________
__________. Stranger, to tell __________, in __________ I am __________.
Example of the Exercise
The first time I passed out this assignment to students in an introduction to literary studies course focusing on contemporary poetry, I worked alongside them and wrote the following.
what my Grindr profile should’ve said
—after C.D. Wright
some nights I lie next to none. and/or my brain forgets its off
switch, prefers worry over sleep. each & every ache given a name.
since the early 1980s or so, I’ve sometimes wished I could
wash away the handprint of the preacher who blessed my fontanel.
were this not a state ever-haunted by the ghost most I know call holy,
I’d meet you without even a scapular for a laying on
of hands. be bearded or, better, furred. to be touched
someone must make a move. watermarks adhere to
more than paper. is, believe me, a kind of skin.
have you ever tried being baptized? immersion wets
every head. behind the ears—my well-worn clavicle
—wherever the tongue might linger for a spell. just so we’re clear
being from Texas doesn’t mean what you think
it means: bigger. wilder. rodeo rider & ridden
sans bridle, boots, cowboy hat. but amenable to jockstraps
should you—or should I—get behind. in every way,
I lean left. go at it hard or don’t bother to come at all.
was a two-year all-state clarinetist for a reason.
able to hear the whistle in any piece of wood
held between my lips. tell me, stranger, would you sound
if I played whole the cut or uncut reed of you to staccato
drone? as honey from comb, I your worker be.
but before anything else, I’m nothing if not a pilgrim.
I submit: the body is a temple & I, an acolyte
who knows a shrine when he enters one.
Olena Kalytiak Davis, shattered sonnets, love cards, and other off and back handed
importunities (Copper Canyon , 2014).
Olena Kalytiak Davis, The Poem She Didn’t Write (Copper Canyon, 2014).
Ai, Vice: New and Selected Poems (Norton, 2000).
Frank Bidart, In the Western Night: Collected Poems, 1965–1990 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991).
Tommy Pico, IRL (Birds, 2016).
Tommy Pico, Junk (Tin House, 2018).
Tommy Pico, Nature Poem (Tin House, 2017).
Lucie Brock-Broido, The Master Letters (Knopf, 1997).
Andres Montoya, The Iceworker Sings and Other Poems (Bilingual Press, 1999).
Emily Kendal Frey, Sorrow Arrow (Octopus Books, 2014).
Tyehimba Jess, leadbelly (Wave Books, 2005).
Tyehimba Jess, Olio (Wave Books, 2016).
Originally from South Texas, John Fry is the author of with the dogstar as my witness (Orison Books, 2018), which was a finalist for the Orison Poetry Prize, the Dorset Prize, and the Nightboat Poetry Prize. His poems and lyric essays have appeared or are forthcoming in West Branch, Colorado Review, Blackbird, Waxwing, and Denver Quarterly, among others, and the anthologies Imaniman: Poets Writing in the Anzaldúan Borderlands (Aunt Lute, 2016) and New Border Voices: An Anthology (Texas A&M University Press, 2014). A graduate of Texas State University’s MFA program in creative writing, he’s currently a poetry editor for Newfound Journal and a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Texas at Austin, where he’s writing a dissertation on medieval English poetry and working as an assistant program coordinator in the university writing center. He lives in the Texas Hill Country.