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Cento and Self-Expression

A cento is a poem form where you also don’t use any of your own words. You have stacks of books that get passed around and perhaps on a 5 minute or 15 minute timer you grab and transcribe on your page.

The object is to pull what stands out verbatim and move to the next text, one line at a time from each book, and keep moving. Don’t overthink. Don’t think at all. See something, grab.

You appropriate the whole text to make a collage. No changing other people’s words or springboard or infill. That’s not the starting point but the ending point. As with any poem form it has a sense of coming to completion at some point.

I’ve done the exercise in workshop groups 3 times. In the first 2 groups I wasn’t familiar with what the usual poem for each person was. 3rd time the charm.

In the third group it was startling. Each person made a poem that could have come from their pen and mind directly.

Mary Lee’s bouncy comic social commentary, Frances’ quiet poem of nature longing, Robin’s graceful poem of profound introspection, mine an oddity of all elbows and disjunctures.

Each person sees how they see. We knew that. We know we bring to what we read all that we’ve perceived before but it showed it sharply. We project into what text is in front of us, like blindmen and the elephant.

We all started from the same base material. What pops out is characteristic of us and our bias is really specific. In one case two of us used the same line but how it comes together was completely unrecognizable in effect because of how it came together.

You may record page numbers, poem title and author to cite where it came from but the funny thing is it shows how poems work. A line from McGimsey doesn’t look like his line necessarily. It is how it all moves and comes together.

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Some months ago in a workshop, we did an exercise that showed how individual each vision is. We were to cannibalize a draft, pick random words, of all parts of speech, and write them down in the order spotted, or counting off if we prefer to impose randomness.

It was not to make sentences or phrases, only a shuffled list in a prose form. Reading this random sampling of words, in nonsensical order, it still conveyed a characteristic sense of the person’s perception — the choice of subjects, register of language, probability of pronouns or articles, the density of sibilants, even deconstructed into parts, showed we each gravitate towards a characteristic set of tools. Our voice can’t be disassembled so easily as a poem or a sentence can be. The watermark is there in the components.

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A few years ago in Pooka Press Pub Crawl, we had a stop in the Irish Village in the Market and Warren Dean Fulton pulled out newspapers and magic markers. It was blackout poem time. Some people had done it before, some hadn’t. It’s a variant of erasure poetry. You black out the text leaving only the words you want.

I didn’t know most of the people but knew some. One person there made an utterly characteristic poem of herself from the news pages. Goes to show, wherever you go, even in exercises, there you are.

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Similar is the exercise where you are given a set vocabulary to use and you use all of it, like the CV2 2-day poem writing contest opening in April. Given the same sample, the outcomes are wildly different. We think that’s because of what is added by the person but it’s more the person that is added.

That contest was pointed out by Frances Boyle last night who led the Tree Seed Workshop.

during writing exercise
Here are people around the table thinking. We got 16 or 17 people for that excellent poetry workshop in Ottawa. Lots of ideas and resources, exercises and quotes as thinking points. A few people came up to afterwards adding how great and useful it was.

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What is owned? Not a word.

In no case do we claim ownership of the alphabet. Other languages use it too with variations. We claim etymologies on certain words but languages borrow from each other. We can say a phrase is too generic to be owned by anyone. Despite Nike saying “Just Do It” is theirs. It was before them and will be after them. Some words are powerfully associated.

In “Notes from Gethsemani” (Nomados, 2014), Phil Hall says “Liquefaction” is so loaded with George Herbert in 1600 that it colours any use after it with “as my Julia goes—the liquefaction of her clothes”. Likewise because “Strange Fruit” by Abel Meeropol and Billie Holiday that phrase has a certain value as currency that informs any use of the phrase to association with lynching. You can’t use it “neutrally” because it is powerful enough it pulls a context larger than itself to words around it.

Every word has connotations. If you are well-read, you will pick up allusions at phrase or line or poem level to parallel classic or contemporary texts.

What can you assume the reader will know or recognize? What is not in the air enough that you have to give a nod to source? After such-and-such by so-and-so. Epigraph would say whose glosa. Where’s the boundary? DO we need to have a boundary? If I hear a joke do I have to cite it? “Schrödinger’s cat walks into a bar. And doesn’t.”

Do I know Greg Betts made it up? Does it matter? What is authorship? Is it putting it together at book level, word level?

If you use a line from someone else, it likely won’t go how the previous author would have taken it. There’s a danger in using other people’s lins for epigraphs. I’ve seen collections where the strongest part are all the epigraphs which makes the poems pale in comparison like two salesman where the senior sales epigraph collects all the sales and the main salesman who is junior is just getting tired feet.

The spin-off poem wouldn’t be mistaken for the original. There’s no confusion of “the market” as when a brand tries to make a logo to siphon off customers of the competitor. In each case a person is making not a product per se, but themselves from others. The copyright and intellectual property gets fuzzy.

Writing is a dialogue. Or can be when it is not proprietary product.

Each thing that’s already made is made from the maker synthesizing what they heard in a new construction as well. To make a new thing doesn’t harm the original. Does that licence theft or trying to deceive people? No, but it makes the question of dibs and mine look a little silly.

These 4 guys talk about their guitar skill development, learning what is self and what is other, what they owe to who resonated. How they innovated to learn that oh, that was already done by someone else 40 years ago, or 300. DADGAD or the story of Joni Mitchell composing in a tuning she didn’t recognize and it turns out that’s called “standard”.

We may create new works but we aren’t creating from nothing.

If I make a crazy poem that doesn’t reflect the intent or the original context of the person, it might be more dismaying to the source writer to give credit. Is it really their help/fault? Once words or ideas are out there, they’re their own little beings. Thanking those you owe for saying something that encodes your world in a way that makes sense.

Related posts:

  1. Cento in Old Rome Christine de Pizan in The Book of the City of Ladies mentions the story of how Plato died with a book by Sappho under his pillow. Funny to think of...
  2. Cento: Machine Remix Jane Holland’s has a workshop on editing, posted in relation to the Mxlexia Women’s Poetry competition which closes July 26. Her 2nd workshop suggests messing with text mechanically to see...
  3. Form: Cento Cento is a form where you cut lines and reassemble to a new whole. Scribal Terror explains more. Here I’ve taken nursery rhymes and cobbled them to a different plot....

Categories: Poetics, Workshops.

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