When I was about twenty, I remember sitting in my room one night, annoyed with something my housemates were up to, and a bit bored with whatever my other friends were doing. It was one of those evening where you just feel aimless, off-balance, agitated. There was something gnawing at me, but I didn’t know what. Then, out of nowhere, a procession of sirens passed by my house. I mean there were fire trucks, police cars, a few ambulances, lots and lots of noise—sudden, alarming noise; then, nothing. It was dead silent for maybe a second or two before the sirens picked up again. This time they seemed to come from every direction, as though they were surrounding the house. But the pitch was off, all wobbly, a weird vibrato, like electronics trying to run on nearly-dead batteries. The sound wasn’t coming from the sirens at all. It was an animal sound. It was every dog in the neighborhood at once attempting to imitate the noise. None of them could do it quite right, but damn were they going for it. It felt simultaneously sad and triumphant. It was the exact moment I decided to be a writer.
Whether written two thousand years ago or just last Wednesday, I think all poetry speaks to us from the present, from a multiplicity of presences, from a place that tells us not necessarily what life was like at any historical moment but rather, and more poignantly, what it was—and is—like to be alive.
For several years now, I’ve been writing a book comprised of prompts, constraints, and guidelines for various art projects. Here, then, are a handful of those:
Invite seven friends to dinner. It’s best if they’re not close friends. Once everyone’s arrived, explain the recording device you’ve placed in the center of the table. Tell them it’s for a book. Make sure there’s plenty of wine. Spend a week transcribing the conversation. Call the book Dinner.
Ask one hundred people with whom you’re acquainted to share their favorite anecdote about you. Ask them to send this to you as a brief paragraph written in the second person. Arrange these paragraphs into a book; number them. Call the book You.
Write short summations of each of the pieces in Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems. Call the work Snack Poems.
See what happens if you take the body-text of every email addressed specifically to you (nothing forwarded or from any listserv) currently in you inbox and allow by removing everyone’s name all of the voices to collide into one continuous text. There, now you have what I’ll call a reverse memoir.
Write a sonnet in the modern key:
Line 1: narrate action, include at least two nouns
Line 2: ask a question without using “I”
Line 3: make a statement without saying “I”
Line 4: now say “I” in another statement
Line 5: use a fragment
Line 6: narrate another action, include one of the nouns from line 1
Line 7: ask a question using “I”
Line 8: use a fragment that
Line 9: spills into the next line
Line 10: now say “I” and include the other noun from line 1
Line 11: answer your first question
Line 12: make a statement that is in total opposition to line 3
Line 13: combine phrases from lines 5 and 8 here
Line 14: answer your second question
Begin my making a list of specific instances when you were first made aware of the concept of race. Compile as many of these as you can. Once you’ve exhausted your memory here, continue to list moments in your life in which race played a role, no matter how minor or seemingly unimportant. Think of as many as you can. For now, though, this should simply be a list, shorthand for a specific moment, an anecdote. This list should be long. In fact, it could be endless. You’re probably still writing it.
Write a poem comprised of a single sentence, spread across at least seven lines of no fewer than five words each. Repeat one of your lines three times, but not in succession. Include the following:
the phrase “as when the”
a scientific term
a flower’s proper name
the name of a country in South America
a person’s proper name
the phrase “which is to say”
With as much conviction as you can muster, write a sentence that might act as a solid foundation upon which one might build the perfect house.
Write a prose poem of five sentences. The first sentence should include a pronoun ( not “I”) doing something that itself includes an image/object. The 2nd sentence should have a different pronoun doing something else with the same image/object. The 3rd sentence should be a statement about this image/object. For the 4th sentence, write a simile that is unrelated. In the 5th, use “I” and relate part of the simile to the original statement. I know this all sounds rather clinical, but here by way of example is one I wrote:
A woman accidentally walks into the men’s room. A man deliberately walks into the women’s room. I don’t believe in dialectics but abide by them nonetheless. It is like a painting of someone sheathing a sword. The problem is it is also like a painting of someone unsheathing a sword.
Locate someone named Harvey Keitel. This Harvey shouldn’t be the actor. If you’re only able to locate the actor, that’s fine, but you’ll have to switch to Harrison Ford (I just found 37 Harrison Fords in ten seconds on Whitepages.com). Continually ask Harvey about his films—be aggressive, yet compassionate. What was it like to do that emotionally pummeling scene in The Bad Lieutenant—the one where you’re masturbating in front of those women? Did it bring up any weird issues for you? Here, you want to put Harvey a little on edge. Disregard completely Harvey’s denial about not being that Harvey Keitel. Transcribe the interview. Pitch it to as many mainstream media sources as possible. Collect the responses to your pitch, as well as any response to the actual submission of the interview. Arrange these into a work called That Harvey Keitel.
Noah Eli Gordon is the author of nine books of poetry. He lives in Denver’s Congress Park neighborhood and is an Assistant Professor in the MFA program in Creative Writing at The University of Colorado–Boulder, where he currently directs Subito Press. For over fifteen years now, Noah Eli Gordon’s work has proliferated with lightning speed, garnering attention and awards from a cavalcade of prominent poets, ranging from Robert Creeley and Carolyn Forché to John Ashbery and Claudia Rankine, who calls Gordon “a master of the shift between an epigrammatic and an aphoristic line.” Critic Stephen Burt, writing for The Nation, notes how Gordon’s poetry, which he called “delightful,” is “reacting to big modern systems, above all to the system called capitalism, whose results and failures seem inescapable,” while Sesshu Foster, in selecting his book Novel Pictorial Noise for the San Francisco State Poetry Center Book Award, noted Gordon’s “play of improvisation, impelled by tensions between sequence and syntax, making music out of chromatic order and non-sequitur logic.”