IMPROMPTU #25: Nancy Chen Long

25 - napomo - 16 - nancy - site

ncl_awp16-webI have a chapbook of found poems, Clouds as Inkblots for the War Prone, which is the result of my participation in FPR’s 2013 Pulitzer Remix Project. The focus of that effort was to write poems based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning work of fiction. Each poet had a different source text and I was assigned the 1949 Pulitzer winner Guard of Honor by James Gould Cozzens. I’ve also participated in FPR’s Oulipo and PoMoSco projects, all of which were grand fun!

I primarily used remix for the chapbook that came out of the Pulitzer Remix project. My method for remix is to take an arbitrary selection of a source text, for example the first paragraph of every page of a text or a specific chapter from a book, and then scramble it. The technique I use for scrambling involves computer programs like Adobe Acrobat Pro (which I use to convert a scanned image into text), Microsoft Word, and Microsoft Excel.

First I separate all of the words out of the text so that they are not in context. Then I create two lists—one in which the words are alphabetized in a single column and another that is randomized with the words in rows scattered across the page. Those two lists form the vocabulary for the first draft of the poem. The randomized list helps trigger my imagination as my eye scans unrelated words. The alphabetized list helps me locate a word if I’ve latched onto an idea and want to move quickly to keep the momentum going. As I write a first draft from those lists, I allow myself to use concatenation. For example, if the words night and shade are in the list, I might use the word nightshade in the poem. As for subsequent revisions, I’ll allow myself to go back to the original text and find a phrase and/or new words that are not in the selection, but that are discovered by applying erasure to a word or phrase.

My recent work includes erasing portions of My Daily Meditation for the Circling Year by John Henry Jowett (1914). But I might put that project on hold in favor of one of two other project I’m considering: The first is a series of homophonic interpretations of a particular poet. The second is series of ekphrastic poems that are based on a particular artist’s work—and those poems would also include a found component to them, one that is also ekphrastic.


This prompt is the homophonic-interpretation one that I mentioned in my introduction. It involves reading a poem in another language that you do not speak. The language of the poem you select must be one in which you don’t know what’s being said, so that your imagination has greater room to play. If you know what is being said, then that knowledge might constrict your imagination too much.

  • Find a poem in its original language. You can use Google for this. For example, entering the phrase “poems in french” into Google brings up the two links below, each of which show poems in their original French. (One of them also shows poems in Vietnamese as well). However, both links also show a translation into English—don’t read the translations!
  • If this is your first homophonic interpretation, then a selecting a shorter poem is probably better.
  • Sound out the poem and “translate” it based on what you hear. A couple of methods you can use to sound out the poem are:
    • To sound out the poem aloud by yourself. This might be doable if the alphabet being used is something you can sort-of recognize.
    • And/or use Google Translate ( ): Paste in a line or phrase or word of the poem in its original language. Select the language to be translated if Google doesn’t recognize it. Once the language has been detected, a little speaker icon should appear below the text you pasted in. Click the speaker icon and Google voice will read what you entered back to you.

Of course, your translation won’t be exact—getting words anywhere near the ballpark of what you think you hear is good.

Nancy Chen Long is the author of Clouds as Inkblots for the War Prone, a chapbook of found poems. You’ll find her recent erasures and other experimental work in Bat City Review, DIAGRAM, Superstition Review, and elsewhere. She writes poetry-book reviews and interviews poets both on her blog ( ) and on Poetry Matters (, a blog she started with some friends. As a volunteer with the local Writers Guild, Nancy offers poetry workshops and coordinates a reading series. She lives in Indiana and works at Indiana University. twitter: @nancychenlong