Poetry and writing activities

I recently took part in a multi-disciplinary discussion with the Indisciplinary Poetics group at Bristol Uni that was inspired by Fred Moten’s book, ‘all that beauty’. A message that stuck with me from that discussion was that [in our writing] it is not only about what is included, but also what is absent.

Below, I share writing exercises that I have either contributed to in some way or that I have learned from others (modified as needed) and implemented with different groups.

*I have published my own poems on social media, the Conservation Haiku website, and in the British Ecological Society publication, ‘The Niche’, but not in a poetry magazine, contest or book. 

This activity was adapted from Maxine Hong Kingston’s To Be the Poet (2002), and included in our 2018 publication in BioScience, Poetry as a Creative Practice to Enhance Engagement and Learning in Conservation Science. The original exercise was adapted and expanded by Christina Lux (article coauthor) and is well suited for scientists with little to no background in creative writing.

Step 1. Close your eyes and become aware of your emotions or bodily sensations. Now, open your eyes and begin jotting down notes about what you observe in your immediate environment. Close your eyes again, sit with the emotion or feeling that emerges in your body; write it down and again observe your environment, jotting down your immediate impressions. Repeat this step until you believe you are done.

Step 2. Look back at your notes. What images or descriptions are most striking to you, which ones do you feel you might want to keep? Circle them. Begin a new draft, pulling from those circled ideas. Is a concept emerging? Consider this draft your seed. You can leave the seed and come back to it, or you can continue to develop it.

Step 3. Your seed contains patterns that you can now sharpen, uncover, and highlight, depending on the message you want to convey in the poem or the concept that you want to explore. Is there a pattern emerging from the words you’ve laid out on the page? Do you notice a cadence or rhythm in your draft? If you see a pattern emerging, think about the form that will best reflect or deepen the sense of the images in your poem, and further develop the writing.

Step 4. Choose what to do with the poem: share it on social media, publish it in a journal or magazine, read it at a poetry reading, pair it with the work of an artist, or keep it for yourself.

This exercise is one modified from an activity shared by Jo Bell and Jane Commane in their book ‘How To Be A Poet. I found this exercise interesting when I first read it, because it reminded me of an activity I had done in terrestrial ecology classes to observe and quantify different flora and fauna within a defined area. I modified the original activity by Bell and Commane to suite my audience, and presented in an outdoor workshop attended by postgraduate students enrolled in the Department of Biosciences at Swansea University. I wrote more about the workshop on FIRE Lab blog. 

Here’s my take on the activity: a. Set down a sheet of paper or other objective; b. Slowly lift up the object and observe everything under that object area, even observe the surrounding sounds or smells; c. write down words and thoughts that come to mind based on your observations (what can you hear, smell, see?); d. share about the words or phrases that you wrote down; e. if you started to write a poem, perhaps share that with others as well; and f. further develop the words and phrases you drafted through the observation exercise, working to draft a poem.

In this exercise we explore the concept of ‘found’ poetry. The idea with this exercise is to explore how poems use language in different ways to prose. You can start by discussing why it can be useful to write about your own or someone else’s research in poetic form or free verse. You can ask people to bring an existing article or abstract to find words and phrases that stand out to them or that seem poetic. Spend 5-10 minutes finding words and phrases, and then use those to craft a haiku, or other form of poetry, and share with others if you like.