|Khara House, poet, freelance writer, and educator|
When I walk into my poetry class, I hold a small pile of poems in foreign languages. As class begins, I pass out the poems, tell my students to pick one, and begin translating it. For a moment, I am met with disbelieving glances that tell me my students are officially convinced I'm insane. But then, as I lower my head and begin my own translation, I hear a few murmurs, a collection of giggles and groans, and finally the movement of pens over paper.
Word play is, for me, one of the essential tools in a writer's toolbox. When I talk about word play in a workshop, I usually also talk about poetic "serendipity"—that is, letting words guide you rather than you trying to guide the words. Too often we, as poets and writers, try to force words—or characters, or scenes—into line when all along the words are just waiting for us to let them do what they do.
There is a story about Michelangelo that I think speaks to this process of letting creative juices flow as they will, when they will. A man came into Michelangelo's studio and found him staring at a block of marble (that, the story says, would eventually become his statue of David). When the man asked Michelangelo what he was doing, Michelangelo simply replied, "I'm working."
When I asked my students to do the translation exercise, I was asking them to become Michelangelo and simply wait on the words within them to form themselves: to stop worrying about what the poem should mean, and instead allow themselves to express themselves freely. An exercise like this, and word play in general, allows us to step outside of the world of sense and engage in a world of play. It practically forces us to accept that sometimes the best poems are the ones that are completely out of our control; they will only settle into what they are supposed to be when we stop trying to force them into being.
|Sample translated poem (in Armenian)|
Same Poem Different
As the activity ended, my students and I took turns reading our poems. After discussing the prompt's purpose, I revealed my "big secret": despite the fact that they worked with ten different languages, they had all been translating the same poem … and it was one I had written! What made it such a fun surprise was that when I read them the original, one student pointed out that even my translation was different than the original! This only further emphasized the point of the exercise: stepping out of the familiar, and letting the mind run wild.
I encourage you, whether you are a writer of poetry, fiction, or nonfiction, to take some time and step out of your writing's way. Free write for an hour. Write a fake dialogue with a character; let yourself be surprised by what he or she has to say. Play with the words you are writing—you'll find they make excellent playmates!
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