(Part 1 of 3)
“A poem isn’t made out of ideas; a poem is made out of lines” —Karen Brennan
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On a recent Saturday, hanging out for the rainy weekend with my almost-13-year-old niece, Laney, I was feeling uneasy about letting her continue to binge-watch episodes of The Closer all day (okay, I’d started it). So I proposed we take a break and do something creative together, like write poems.
Laney wasn’t super-enthusiastic at first. But after I explained that what I had in mind was that we write centos (“which are poems made like a collage is made, out of lines from other poets’ poems—you don’t have to come up with a single line of your own!”), she got interested enough to at least humor me, and clicked off Kyra Sedgewick.
I pulled together a stack of poetry anthologies, single-poet collections and back issues of poetry journals, and we set to work at the kitchen table, with the aim of quickly scanning poems from a variety of sources and poets, picking out lines from poems that caught our attention, and copying the lines separately until we had a total of 15 lines. An important part of the process is to not begin with a theme, and to resist the temptation to actively develop one along the way (by scanning for a line that seem to go with the one just chosen, for instance). This can be the most challenging part: to keep subverting the impulse to consciously control meaning-making in choosing material, so as to let the unconscious keep doing the choosing.
As it turned out, Laney was better at this than I was, reading and jotting so quickly that I wondered if she was just writing down random lines without any particular attention to them (she wasn’t), while I kept having to discard lines that I knew I’d chosen thematically.
Once we each had our 15 lines (a somewhat arbitrary number which mostly represents a generally-agreed-on minimum of lines needed to make a successful cento), we cut our pages into strips, one for each line, and started playing with the order of the lines, reassembling them with the aim, now, of creating a satisfying sequence. The challenge was to use all the lines, without making any changes to any of them.
“But there’s a line that doesn’t go at all!” Laney said when she had completed her cento, “Can I leave it out?”
“Use it as your title!” I suggested, and she did.
Here’s Laney’s poem:
Or Things I Did Not Do or Say (a cento)
One dark night
at the golden shore of hope
My temptation is quiet.
Glorious the thunders roar
Although I do not hope.
What a treat to hear thy word.
Faith is a fine invention.
Faith in the religion of love is different.
A quality of loss.
These leaves that redden in the fall.
My whole life has led me here.
Redeem the time, redeem the dream.
So runs my dream; but what am I?
—Laney U. (age 12 and 10 months), 9/15/19
I find Laney’s poem to be a stunning example of the way the cento-writing process can invite a deep dive into the unconscious, accessing dimensions of our psyches that may even transcend our current stage of development, and maybe even our current lifetime.
When we had each read our centos aloud to each other, I asked Laney, “So does your poem express something that feels true for you, inside?”
“Yes,” she said without hesitation. “Now can we pick up Veronica and you can take us to the mall?”
Coming up next: more on the subject of the cento, with instructions and examples from other poets. Meanwhile, mine:
Cento for September
Moonlit winter clouds the color of the desperation of wolves.
Dawn came with an element of Xanax
and I can still see you
where I have lost you here.
The way gouged trees grow around wires
The self is a suffering form. It is.
and prolonging everything my lungs, this persistent heart.
One way to live a life is to spend each moment asking
the purpose of having a body at all ,
How your soul loves.
I am done trying to make sense.
Let’s be giddy, maybe. Time lights a little fire.
Orchids are gushing out from the faucets
of my favorite chapel in the church of language
I am a faint light doused in the clamor
What eludes me has dearly become myself.