I love the MFA program at Goddard College. I just returned from my third residency there (it’s the start of my third and next-to-last semester). This time I am working with Rachel Pollack, a brilliant cross between rabbi, shaman, and favorite English teacher.
We were blessed by a visit from octogenarian poet Marie Ponsot. I was not familiar with her work, and while I enjoyed her reading, it was in her workshop that I really learned. Marie stated that she believes the sentence is the “keystone in the arch of literature,” and that all forms of writing have the sentence as their origin. The exercise she had us do was to take a sentence (we used William Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell”) and rewrite it five times. There are no rules- you can be literal and grammatical, or you can immediately spin out into figurative language. Then, once you have five new sentences, pick one of them and rewrite it five times. She didn’t put a limit on the process, but I did a series of three rewrites.
Marie said, “Students always ask me, where can I get an idea? Well- you can’t send someone to the idea store. But- you can have them do this exercise.” By the third rewrite (we went around the room and each read ours), most people’s sentences were miles away from the original. The process was fascinating and rich. I started out with, “The cistern contains, the fountain overflows.” I ended up with things like, “Rain changes everything,” and “Water will flow uphill.”
One of the assignments I had from Rachel was to tell a story (beginning, middle, and end) in five sentences. After I wrote my first draft, I used Marie’s approach of rewriting one sentence at a time. I actually hand wrote each sentence by itself on a piece of paper and rewrote it five times, dealing with it individually before trying to rework it in the context of all five sentences. When I slowed down and took my prose poem apart so meticulously, each sentence became a doorway to a more complex meaning. Pushing myself to do five rewrites for each component also helped me see multiple possibilities for the piece. Now I have one more trick in my writer’s toolbox!