Friday, January 21, 2011

Poetry Friday - A VCFA Poetry Challenge!

Summaries of the rest of the Vermont College of Fine Arts' Winter Residency will have to wait until I've recovered fully from the relentless pace on campus for ten days - "Ouch" and "Yikes" and "OMG" come to mind. Brilliant but tyrannical schedule we follow in the Writing for Children program. 

For now, since it's Poetry Friday, I'll post the results of a quick "poetry challenge" I issued - the results are from some brave students who took on the restrictions & rules & simply engaged in the fun of it. Here is the challenge I issued:

Choose a vowel and write a poem using only that vowel throughout, along with any consonants you like. If you choose "a," for example, no other vowel but "a" may appear in the poem. Since I read several of my own "counting songs" during the Faculty Reading, I told students there would be extra points for doing the same (numerals were acceptable as 1,2,3, etc. but not as one, two, three....unless the written number had only the chosen vowel.)

I got samples of every vowel other than "a." Interesting. 

Some of the poems were turned in to me a little sheepishly, with no names on them. People do get shy! Some are serious, some are playful. Some manage to follow the rules, but...let's to say this? The sense suffers? Some take the idea of "counting" a bit loosely. But that's okay - quality varies, but good-sportsmanship was in plentiful supply. In that spirit I am posting everything submitted to me, and if I've forgotten who put the poem into my hands (as I said, the pace was "Yikes") please forgive me. I've put "by Anonymous" on all unsigned poems. And please forgive also if some of the very creative formatting doesn't hold. I'll try to put Editorial Notes in when that happens.

I want to give a tip of the hat to student Sandra Nickel, who not only turned the poem into a counting song but made sense of it all. She conjured up some excellent images and controlled the sound qualities in a masterful way - it's a terrific poem, one where the rules of the challenge don't narrow it down but open it up. You know, looking back over them, there are quite a few here that work within the restrictions well....

At the end, I'll add one that I wrote, if I can find it in the mess of papers I call my "study" - I should call it my "study-not"! 

Sun's dun 
by Sandra Nickel

Sun up
10 bugs thrum
 9 ducks pluck
 8 gulls hubbub
scud punch-drunk

Sun lulls
 7 bucks run
 6 bulls rut
 5 cubs dust fuzz
run 'muck

Sun rusts, turns up trumps
 4 pups rush, suck
 3 skunks gust musk
 2 urubus turn, tuck, hurl
 1 runt succumbs
nub's hum
dusk's dun

First Kiss
by Sarah Cramer

This is it I think.
First kiss. 

In this ink-spill night,
In this blinking light,

His wrist tickling

This is it. 

Lips slick with lipstick
Pinch tight.

Is this right? 

Lids wrinkling,
Skin pricking,
Lips link.

I'm sinking in this
Thinking, This is it. 

Rez Fest  
by  Maggie Lehrman

Here, we set elements
(we clever keepers)
squeeze letters
eke essences
edge free newness
deemed mess --

We exert tenses
speed pens
respect elders
(neglect self)
peddle jests, yes!

Then: Rest.
Flee, lest we

[Ed. Note: Oh-oh, I see a "u" in there along with the e's. But since it's connected to a "q," maybe it's more like a "q-u" unit, and not a separate vowel!][Further notes: In the comments, Maggie suggests replacing "squeeze" with "wedge" - great choice. Extra points, too, for making it be about the residency!]

by Jessica Leader

locks of womb shorn?
don't hold to cold comfort.
no honor to scold trollops
for solo loons won't coo --
nor scorn poor grooms or sons who woo
for sons grow old too soon.
throw off gloom.
drop tons of roots.
Five Poems   [Ed. Note - I'm pretty sure these are discrete (i.e. independent) poems.]
by Lori Steel

Crowns of thorn do mock,
God's son, forlorn not forgot,
Cost of blood born.

Owl hoots, flocks blown down,
From cool to cold, drops form snow,
Town plows work, school stops.

Fool plots,
Clock tocs,
Shop loots,
Words drown,
Glock cocks,
Crook robs,
Cop stops,
Mob knows,
Town's loss.

Mood                               World's top
      drops                                         slows
      flows                                                  form                                       
          down                                                  cold
                from                                                   rocks.


[Ed. Note - that last one is a concrete poem in the form of a teardrop - couldn't figure out how to shape it!]
by Alyson Whatcott

Twins: Ling, Ting,
In swings,
Slip, tip,
Skip, dip,
Zing, wing.
"In! In!"
Ting spins,
Ling wins.
In swings,
Ling, Ting--twins.

Holy Pop
by Anonymous

Oh, roll on.
On to tock
     of Holy God
     who took hold of sod.
On to tock
     of good hooks
     born oh so long,
     Holy Pop.
On to tock of
     Hop on Pop?
     Hold on to two
     So good
Oh, roll on.

by Anonymous

He tells me,
"We tell every Steven
they'll never be
even whenever
they're seven"

Me tells he,
"We seel every Ben
the secret seek-seeker
whenever they're ten."

Oh, Plot!
by Maggie Lehrman

Oh Plot!
Oh Plot Forgot! 
No jot to top
Oh Plot Forgot! 
Go on
To stop
on bottom
not cool. 

Big thanks to everyone who participated - I love the adventurous spirit that guided you all!  Here's my own single vowel poem, written awhile back - not a counting song, but fun to do:


knows how

to go
slow now,

to fool Doom,
to bow down -

to grow

knows not

how to grow
cool, nor cold,

knows not

to stop,
poor sot.
Today's Poetry Friday round-up is being hosted by Tara Smith over at A WRITING LIFE. Head over there to see what other people have posted.


  1. i'm going to guess there is a subconscious reason for not using the vowel 'a' in this exercise: there are no personal pronouns that use 'a,' no possessive or objective that use it, and perhaps only 'that' in the demonstrative. interrogative pronoun 'what' is all i can think of, but it's so hard to write about things and feelings if that's the only word you have in which to relate.

    a lot of fun poems here. thanks to you and the vcfa community for sharing. might have to see what i can dredge up for myself out of this limitation.

    verification word: ovened. i'd like to see oven used as a verb somewhere...

  2. David, I was just about to send you a personal email to tell you about the challenge - Come on, do it!!!

    As for "ovened" - yes, verbed, as in "I ovened the muffins." Or maybe "I felt as if I'd been ovened like a muffin."

    Will have to work on that....

    We missed you at the residency.

  3. I thought I was being so careful, but that "u" snuck in! Perhaps it might work with "wedge" instead?

    I started with "A man attacks at dawn" for "a" but didn't feel very inspired with it.

    Thanks, Julie! Very fun.

  4. Love it! That's a great experiment.

  5. What a great writing exercise and the results are terrific. Thanks for sharing.

  6. What a challenge! I enjoyed reading these aloud as the repeated vowels wrap around each other in such a pleasing way. I'm reminded of Miss Rumphius's challenge to write a poem excluding one letter! Thank you, brave students, for sharing! A.
    (Verification - rhypen. Rhyme with your pen?)

  7. So nice to see what everybody did with this. I tried it last year, and it was really tough--so I'm impressed!

  8. Wonderful poems.
    I read the challenge and thought about doing it several times, but exhaustion (and my lecture and reading) meant I didn't have time or energy to find any words.

  9. Cute idea, but maybe such exercises need a different name than poem--maybe verse, or game, or something. Your appreciation of their shyness is admirable!

  10. Shelley - I call them "experiments," with some of them more successful than others, but all comers were welcome. Time for "poetry" to be less intimidating and more inclusive, especially if it uses some of the tools in the poetry toolbox! And I'm pretty sure we all knew we were playing fast and loose with words - "playing" being the operative word. It's an approach that helps some people avert their eyes from the idea of "Poetry" with a capital "P" and allows them to have fun - a secret hallway past the Principle's Office (he's waiting in there, with a Big Poetry Switch) and out to the playground, where we can romp around with games that yes, have rules, even if we aren't winners of the game very often. I'm always interested in how people classify the artifacts we produce. Actually, I'd rather call these "poems" than some of the unfortunate free verse that's around which pays little attention to sound elements and has no restrictions other than strongly-felt emotion. At least these had some strict attention to word choice. Is it just a quality issue for you here? Does the classification "poem" require something less playful, less temporary, less experimental? I'm thinking of very successful light verse - Ogden Nash, for example - he's not a poet? Nursery rhymes and counting rhymes such as the one written here by Sandra Nickels - not "poems"? The counted syllables of much of Marianne Moore's work - just a game? Or an experiment in the generative force of restrictions?

  11. Julie:

    Many thanks for this page on the vowel poem.
    If I ever have the pleasure of meeting you, I will thank you again. I have saved much of it in a word doc to use later when I teach. I am a second year MFA Creative Writing student at CA State University Long Beach.

    Thank you again, Consuelo