I believe that language is a physical, material thing. It’s not sound waves. It’s not ink or pencil on paper. It’s not pixels. It’s not shadows traced on a cave wall or transmissions from some semi-divine muse. Or it’s all of those things and more. It’s a tangible substance in a constant state of flux. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s the nature of this substance to demand its own continuous reinvention. It depends on it. On us. For its very survival.
That’s what’s at stake here. Survival. We have to keep it moving. I think of Ezra Pound and his economic theories. How they relate to the mistranslated Chinese characters he painted on his bathtub: Make it new. Every day, make it new. Or something to that effect. That’s what I want to do. I want to take all the old discarded letters and texts we have neglected and forgotten, to save some of the massive avalanche of information we are producing at an exponential rate from the slag heap of our collective attention spans. To hold it up and say: look at this! Not at what “I” have found but what’s always been here. Waiting for us. But just missed. Barely. I want to reveal it and revise it. To revel in its broken, borrowed light. Don’t you? Let’s…
THE PROMPT: “The Decimator”
Go to your bookshelf. Starting at the very top, take down the 10th book from the left and turn to page 10. Read it, and it alone. Out loud. Don’t turn back to 9 and don’t read on to 11. Imagine the page as its own self-contained entity. Now copy all the words down. You can do it by hand in a notebook but, given what’s to come, you might want to use a computer. The search function found in most word processing programs will be your friend for this one. Trust me.
You’ve typed out the page? Word for word?
Great. Now go back to your bookshelf and find the empty slot where the book you just had used to be. Count 10 more spines to the right and pull that book down. Resist the temptation to cheat. To avoid heavy books or reach for favorites that don’t fall into the count. This isn’t about your darlings. If they’re not dead yet, they will be soon.
Again, turn to page 10. Read it aloud. And then write it all down. In order. Every word. One by one.
Repeat this process 8 more times. Until you have 10 pages of transcribed text.
Now take the first word on the first page and perform a search for that word each of your 10 pages. Wherever you find it, delete it. Erase it. Scratch it out. Whatever works for you. But whatever you do, say it out loud as you do it.
When you’re done, there should be only one instance of that word in all 10 pages. Now, move on to the second word. Repeat the process of elimination throughout all 10 documents. Then do the same for the third word. When you’re done with the first page, repeat this process using the words on the second page.
It gets easier from here on out. Every word left on the second page should have already been eliminated from the first, so you only need to search from the second forward. By the time you get around to page 9, for instance, you will only have to scour pages 9 and 10 for each word.
When this process is complete, you should be left with a series of unique, isolated words. Once again, read them out loud. All together.
This is your word bank. Build something with it.
It could be a story. Could be a poem. Whatever it is, don’t use a single word that’s not in your bank. You could give yourself permissions. Maybe you allow the repetition of prepositions for example. But not right away. Start by seeing how the words left at your disposal fit and flirt together. What kind of conversations do they have when left to their own devices? What do they hide between them? What new meanings do they reveal when pressed against one another? What do they say that you yourself alone couldn’t have?
Travis Macdonald is the author of two full-length books of procedural poetry – The O Mission Repo [vol.1], an erasure of The 9/11 Commission Report and Nostradamus, an N+7 treatment of Nostradamus’ quatrains – and a dozen or so chapbooks. He is also a creative director at an ad agency where finds all kinds of poems hiding in plain sight. In his spare time, he co-edits Fact-Simile Editions with his wife JenMarie. In 2014, Travis was the recipient of a Pew Fellowship in the Arts for Literature. He is happy to be here with you.