Backwards Prompt

April 17, 2017

Contributor’s Marginalia: Chelsea Wagenaar on “Qualifications for One to Be Climbed by a Vine” by Anna Lena Phillips Bell

Sometimes I get stuck. I run out of momentum and ideas, and when I come to the page to write, I sputter. People sometimes ask me what my writing process is, imagining, no doubt, that a poet’s process must be something mystical, and if not mystical, then at least something that looks more like a religious ritual than holing up in the back corner of the library to write the paper you’ve procrastinated. Well, here it is: I get up for some water, clear my throat, stare out the window, describe the view of the highway out my office window, draw stars in the margins of the page, then flowers, then get some more water, then check my email and my phone and my mailbox and call that day a loss for writing.

I think I am not alone in this. (I have to tell myself that.) Often, instead of an outpouring of ideas, I simply have the books I love, the poems that carry me from one day and year to the next, the ones that nurture and perplex and inspire me. One of my strategies for moving from reading to writing—because let’s be honest, sometimes when I say I’m writing, I’m really just reading—is what I call the “backwards prompt.” It’s simple. I ask myself, “what prompt could have led to this poem?” And then I give myself that prompt. It usually produces a wildly different poem than the one it began with, so I don’t feel like I’m only aping the poets I adore, and it also conveniently helps me engage the poem in a more active way.

When I read Anna Lena Phillips Bell’s poem, “Qualifications for One to Be Climbed by a Vine,” I loved it. I loved the rich musicality of the language, its imaginative engagement with the world, its quiet concentration that eschews interruption and distraction. When I find a poem like this, which absorbs and moves me, I feel myself loosening, becoming unstuck.

Here are 8 backwards prompts for “Qualifications to Be Climbed by a Vine.”

1. Write a sonnet that spills over—it has more to say than its container will hold.

2. Write a poem that begins in fragments, in which the speaker doesn’t appear until line 8.

3. Write a poem in which the fullness of each line is in part based on closely grouped sounds: internal rhyme, assonance, alliteration. “I wonder if I should stand straighter, stiller, / or stretch out a finger to capture the waggle…”

4. Write a poem in which the verb “describe” is used to mean something other than speech. (For instance, how does a window describe rain?)

5. Write a poem in which the speaker is witness and agent to another’s transformation.

6. Write a poem that stretches our notion of what it means to be embraced.

7. Write a poem of anti-qualifications—meaning, not the qualifications that exalt the self or bolster the resume or imagine our every interaction as a kind of competition, but rather the qualifications that surrender instead of assert, that invite forgetting instead of remembering.

8. Write a poem of ascent—a poem in which ascent happens literally and sonically, so that as something or someone moves upward, so does the sound of the language, bringing us finally to the altitude of a question rather than the downward slope of an answer.

Chelsea Wagenaar is the author of Mercy Spurs the Bone, selected by Philip Levine as the winner of the 2013 Philip Levine Prize. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Texas and currently teaches as a postdoctoral Lilly Fellow at Valparaiso University. Her poems appear recently or are forthcoming in The Southern Review and Image, and she is at work on a second book of poems.

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