Justin Luzader, currently the Assistant Managing Editor for The Pinch, is a dear friend of mine. He and I were both in the MFA program at Memphis, and unless you’ve been through an MFA program, you probably don’t quite understand the kind of relationships that can be created from sitting in a room and loving someone else’s work so much that you want everyone in the world to read it. Justin is my poetry buddy. We cheer for each other; we keep each other accountable by notifying the other when we’ve received rejections, when we’ve sent out work. If you don’t have a poetry buddy, get one.
The other day, Justin sent me a text with this writing exercise: “Take a poem you’ve written and go through it word by word, changing each word into its opposite (or something you consider to be an opposing force) while also continuing to make sentences that make sense.”
After getting up on another Friday not feeling well, I was more than willing to try this out on something I’d already written. What I didn’t realize is how hard it would be. I had to have my thesaurus out the whole time because opposites just weren’t coming to me all that easily.
I chose to re-write “The Tanner’s Wife” (which is up here).
Here’s an example:
Original: “Her husband suspends a fox skin over a fleshing beam.”
After exercise: “His wife buries a swallow body under a rotted joist.”
“Beam” was rather hard to change. A beam is a supporting structure or, as a verb, to show joy, so I thought about choosing something flimsy (like a spider web) or scowl or frown. Burying a body under a spider web seemed a little too cliche, and I didn’t know how I could make it make sense by burying a body under a scowl. I liked “rotted” as an opposite of “flesh”, so I picked “joist” for its sound.
It’s amazing how different the poem now is because of this simple exercise. It makes the poem about a wife instead of a husband, about the gaining of a mother, instead of the loss of a daughter. Since the original was a prose poem, I’m also thinking about spending some time after it’s done shaping it into couplets. This is such an easy way of generating new and potentially interesting material without a lot of pre-work. I totally dig it.