Twenty Consonant Poetry and the Portmanteau Lecture Series:
Constraint, Collaboration, and Performance in the Creative Writing Classroom

William Gillespie

Imagine a poetry student who has been given the assignment to write a poem. Imagine that she does not know how to begin. Imagine that she is sitting at home staring at a blank page wondering what muses are and if anybody has ever seen one. You understand that this assignment is not a difficult one—a poem does not even require complete sentences and these days anything counts as one, even prose. Nevertheless every word she writes down reminds her of a poem she has already read somewhere. Writing a new poem is a difficult problem for the intelligent poet. She begins a poem “Not so much depends upon a red wheel barrow” but can't continue—there is something wrong with it. She tries again—"Do not go gently into that good night” but no, it is not quite right. Another: “There is something that doesn't love a wall” (sigh). How can she, having only been shown what is old, write something new? Unless she actually sees a vision or a flash of insight, she can't. If, however, she is asked to write a poem which uses every consonant once while using vowels freely (considering Y to be a vowel), and it is further suggested to her that it is acceptable to repeat a consonant indefinitely so long as no other consonant intervenes (and is warned of the perils of J, X, Q, and Y), then she is finally given criteria with which she can begin making decisions about what she wants to write. She writes: “Few writing classes box a haze via a kooky opaque jammed idea.” She is writing twenty consonant poetry.

When Dorothy Fuller first offered us a chance to lead a experimental poetry workshop at University High School, we devised a collection of poetry assignments that could be completed without muses. Thus the Travelling Portmanteau Lecture series hit the road. A lecture will begin with a theatrical demonstration of the assignment: perhaps a twenty consonant song or a rehearsed improvisation involving a jammed overhead projector screen: “Everybody gaze up in awe as I quickly fix the jam.” The text of these songs, scenes, and poems is always displayed during the performances so that later it can be used to show how the assignment works. The poets then write a poem as a class with the twenty consonants displayed on a transparency crossed off as they are used. They then work together in groups to create a poem. Finally they are asked to perform their poem standing on their desk. Then they are wildly applauded, hailed as geniuses, and let into the canon. The three essential elements are constraint, collaboration, and performance.

Twenty consonant poetry, subtraction poetry, subliminal sentences, the palindrome, and the sonnet, are all examples of poetic forms which limit what the poet can write. In the case of the sonnet, for example, there is a system of meter and rhyme that rules out certain phrases. The poetry must fit the rules—or constraints—of the form. In trying to translate an idea, image, or trite overused expression, into such a poetic form, the poet must find unintuitive vocabularies and syntaxes. At the same time, constraints provide clear criteria for deciding how to articulate new ideas. The poet is given new ways to analyze language. Rather than thinking of words in terms of what they mean when they are put together how they are normally put together, the poet can now classify them by what they rhyme with, what they spell backwards, what letter they begin with, whether they can be made into other words by removing letters, or whether they have a Q, X, J or Z. Instead of writing a poem around a single image, in our class, the images are grotesque accidents spawned from the linguistic and typographical contortions the poet writhed through.

Our poetry assignments have a range of difficulties and some have special features. Two assignments, the subtraction poem and subliminal sentences, derive poems by permuting preexisting texts. Subtraction poetry is an assignment where the poet takes a found or invented sentence or paragraph and makes successive revisions, removing phrases, words, and letters, to whittle the text down to and past its intended or unintended messages. Subtraction poetry has proven useful in providing poets an opportunity to meticulously mangle any text they happen to be sick of that week, and in so doing study it more closely than they might have otherwise intended to. In a postmodern world, plagiarism has sophisticated theoretical underpinnings. Using the assignment called subliminal sentences, the poet writes a larger text to conceal a smaller text. This is done by making each letter of the smaller, hidden text into a word beginning with that letter. Those words, in order (with every sentence of the larger text representing a word of the hidden text), are the poem. The trick is to make the poem convincing so that it is impossible to tell it is hiding something. Thus, is an extremely roundabout way, poets eagerly write convincing poems, struggling towards innocent cliches and perfect grammar that can only be achieved through supreme linguistic dexterity. These secret messages, needless to say, are not always overwhelmingly complementary, but we consider that part of the fun. The important fact is that the poet has written a poem around a message that is important to them. If that message happens to be insulting, we each have the last laugh: we have successfully taught them how to undermine us.

Writing experimental poems collaboratively promotes new interactions and conspiracies between poetry students. When a diverse group of poets is asked for the first time to compose a twenty consonant poem together, they find themselves all reduced to a state of temporary pseudoilliteracy. In assembling the vocabulary of their poem, each of the poets can contribute words from their background. Poets who are learning English as a second language have at least two vocabularies to draw from (Spanish has a proliferation of J's). Poets who have technical abilities may also have a technical language that is seldom useful in English class (computer programming offers countless possibilities (some poets would rather write a program that writes twenty consonant poetry than write twenty consonant poetry)).

Collaborative writing in the class room can itself be thought of as a constraint which can be structured in various ways by the instructor or by the poets. An assignment which seems to work surprisingly well is a game known as, among other things, pivot writing. This can be done simultaneously with other classroom activities, and is done by passing a story-in-progress around a classroom with every poet contributing a sentence at a time. When a poet is handed this story, the final sentence becomes the constraint that she immediately frees herself from. The process does not always seem collaborative: poets may pull a “meanwhile at the south pole” or a “and then she woke up” or a “and then they all died—the end” and basically sabotage the text in an astonishing variety of ways. Yet the story continues and afterwards it is clear that everyone has participated. The resulting texts are fascinating: they flow smoothly through innumerable discontinuities. Poets can hear how their voice contributes to the text, and how their contribution affected what the others wrote. As with subversive messages contained in subliminal sentences, we believe that when a poet is writing in a way that seems disrespectful, that poet is writing.

Ever watch a poetry reading? Well, sure you have, but have you ever listened? Many poets perform their own poems with less pizzazz than any other orator could get away with. For many reasons, we insist that poets read their work aloud more than once and we suggest a variety of performance instructions. These poems, given that they are seldom boring, are frequently ambiguous. How they are read aloud can make a big difference in how they mean, which is true of every text. Twenty consonant poems are often written in unrecognizable dialects. For example, contractions, abbreviations, and sentence fragments are frequently used to make the poem possible. A performance of these poems can give voice to vernaculars that don't exist.

Writing with constraints stimulates many of the skills the poet will need when writing essays or other forms the academy has not yet officially recognized as creative. An understanding of grammar is inadvertently reinforced. Although we never told any class that their twenty consonant poem had to be written in an existing language, poets still attempt to construct normal sentences under difficult conditions. These assignments—subtraction poetry in particular—provide an introduction to revision. With twenty consonant poetry, the poet experiments with putting the same words in different orders, and becomes aware of certain subtleties of sentence construction. These constraints can lead to an understanding of how all writing is governed by layers of rules: grammar, spelling, genre, etc.

Remember the poet we described earlier? The one whose teacher simply asked her to write a poem? The one who has just finished reading The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry twice and was still unable to come to a clear understanding of what an original poem is? The one who even now sits before some parchment chewing on a quill trying to see beauty, trying to feel feelings, trying to conjure memories of an idyllic time and place, and failing? She assumes all poetry is emotional, confessional, humorless, intuitive, wrought with fiery something or other, no fun, and that its meaning can only reside in its fathomless depths. She may also believe that only those who get good grades in English can or must write poetry. Our assignments address these unfortunate notions about poetry. Language must have constraints in order to mean. Our constraints are intended to free writers from the constraints they are not aware of. They can only create new meaning. The appeal of these assignments is not limited to those who consider themselves literary. They also engage poets who are playful, mathematical, and, most importantly, those who are loud and rebellious. Poetry does not recycle cliches, it creates new ones. Poetry is resistance to old words, structures, and ideas. Our poetry lectures teach poetry to resist itself and teach poets to write the ideas which would have been impossible without them. Lest a fundamental consideration remain overlooked, let us finally assert: we wreak exquisite fun & jog a poem a mile above each daze.

This article is an explanation and an offer. Try these ideas out or invite us to your English class to give a complete demonstration.

20 Consonant Poetry



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