I attended Art Center College of Design for my MFA in visual art, but dropped out after two semesters as I found that sculpture was becoming only a substrate to the strange language I had been collecting and utilizing in my work: awkward fragments of misused language in small-town newspapers, text on crumbling billboards, and trash left out in the Mojave Desert—handwritten poems, diary pages, love letters, heartbreaking notes and photographs, often times with information missing due to lost pages, environmental attrition, or bullet holes. Years later, much of this found work would be formed into my book Lost and.
Since its publishing, I have been working on original poems that inhabit the same mental, emotional, and physical landscape of the found pieces from Lost and. It has been helpful to turn to this prompt, utilizing language from other poetry that I love, but altering it in a way to come up with alternative words and syntactical arrangements that I could never dream up on my own.
- Get a book of poetry, preferably a shorter title, one that can be read in about an hour, and one you won’t mind highlighting.
- Read through it all in one sitting, highlighting all the words, phrases and lines that you find remarkable.
- When finished, go back to the beginning and transcribe chronologically all the highlighted text into a word processor, but do not include any of the punctuation. Just type up one big run-on sentence text block.
- Copy and paste your text block into Google Translate. Translate it back and forth between multiple languages at least five times. Then translate back to English. The newly translated/mangled text block will have some semblance to the original language you found remarkable—it’ll be in the same ballpark—but due to what gets lost (or added) in translation, as well as the fact that there is no punctuation for the translator to gauge, it will likely be completely strange, providing unexpected/new/altered/mistranslated words and attempts at sentences.
- Take this raw material and edit as you see fit until you have formed your poem.
Jeff Griffin is the author of Lost and (University of Iowa Press, 2013). He holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is an associate at Griffin Moss Industries, Inc. and operates the publishing house Slim Princess Holdings. He teaches in, and lives around, Nevada.