Spirit & Animals



Above is my desk, as I came back to it after a few days out of the office sometime last year.  I can’t blame my wonderful colleagues and participants for the mess, but for grumpy cat and the mean portrait, and the mouse giving me a middle finger? I absolutely can.  Have I mentioned that I love my job?

I’m about to be out for a little bit again–starting Monday we’ll be doing a special weeklong workshop that will take me away from my regular sessions.  So this prompt is for anyone who’s going to miss writing as much as I’ll miss running the group.  It’s one that we’ve done before, but you’re not the same person you were last time you did it, so get writing even if you have done this one.  Metaphors and images make poems crackle, and if you’re writing a poem, you want to write one that makes people want to open their eyes and shield their hearts.  You want to surprise people so they pay attention in a way that’s unlike the way they pay attention to the ordinary world.  There are some words and images that we are sometimes drawn to but they are used so often nobody even hears them anymore.  The work is to wake your reader or listener with your words.

This is a prompt from Mindy Nettifee’s Glitter in the Blood, a really excellent book on poetry that will make your thoughts run in a million directions (in a good way).  The exercise is great for generating metaphors and impactful images, and so we use it in conjunction with “Elephants” from “When My Brother Was an Aztec” by the brilliant Natalie Diaz, who punches you hard with images in her work.  You can read the poem here.

So now that you’ve read the poem, I want you to make a list of things you’re struggling with. Next to that I want you to list an animal that each of those things reminds you of.  Next to that, jot down some characteristics of each animal–here in this process, you’ll discover that one metaphor comes the easiest, and that’s where you decide which one you’re going to write about.  Now cross out the middle column.  Write about the emotion as though it has the characteristics of the animal, but DO NOT NAME THE ANIMAL.

Here’s a quick, fairly obvious example:

My fear slithers through the grass, nearly soundless.

I know it is there, the grass moves slightly, I turn my head uncertain

lays slimy eggs in shallow holes it burrows in the landscape of my life

Time may wear its layers away, but a new skin emerges,

even without legs it keeps up with me.

Now guess what the animal is.  If you’re in a group, go ahead and read what you’ve written aloud, and take turns guessing.  You’ve got an image bank now, to work into a fuller poem, where you can use the name of the animal if that feels right.  Send me poems!

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