I had my first encounter with Jim Simmerman’s "20 Little Poetry Projects" assignment when I was an undergraduate at the U of Michigan. Since then, it has been a staple when I’m teaching creative writing classes, and it just keeps getting better. You can find it in The Practice of Poetry (ed. Behn and Twitchell), or here’s a fella who has one online, with some of the instructions in italics. The assignment is basically a step-by-step poem that encourages the author to embrace a variety of poetic conventions while also taking risks with language and drift/counterdrift.
My first attempt at the assignment, "We Took That Train Farther Than it Wanted to Go," ended up appearing in the Metro Times summer fiction issue in 1996, probably my largest press run ever! I also know that many of my friends published their "20 Little Poetry Projects" in various venues. My students are always tickled to hear this, because often these poems seem, like, way strange to them. Of course, that's the whole point of these 20 separate poetic tasks, and even though the process is somewhat fragmentary, often the poems themselves develop some kind of coherent thematic backbone.
This semester is the first time I’ve really tried to write with my students while they’re doing in-class work. I tend to be such a control freak that I just can’t sit there and let them write, so this is my solution. Here’s what I came up with on Wednesday. Those who know my work will laugh at the blatant politics, the Starbucks references, and anti-gentrification themes that never show themselves in my creative work, but tend to emerge over beers in other conversations.
Totally rough draft, but just fun! I put it in stanzas because it felt that way to me. It doesn't even have a title. For the non-Chicagoans, Pilsen is a neighborhood in Chicago.
Afternoon was two bums on one concrete bench.
The tomatoes hid behind the names we gave them.
They knew the velvet moss, the crunch of backhoes
and cranes, tang of pecorino, haze on the lakefront,
fish smell down the drains and up pipes into the tub.
My feet read the temperature of the room.
Little Beejus was awake on her cot in Pilsen.
Except Pilsen wasn’t there. It was all condominiums
and espresso-soaked ladyfinger gunshots now.
The signs promised federal time, and Starbucks listened.
Suck it up, they responded to the clipboards and petitions.
Because the bridges were up, we didn’t need any curtains.
You better check it, they responded to the injunction.
The derogatory notepad of inequality lit up the garbage
cans and clove cigarettes of the South Loop.
We were all fucked by the sweet benevolence
of the institution. I shaved my head in protest, wore hats.
Sweet Mary Bee was busy alphabetizing vegetables
and shopping for the ultimate black flipflops.
Six weeks later she will be one of the boxes,
and they won’t be able to stack anything in her again.
The burlap sheets were all debunked for her presumed arrival.
Even though we knew we’d forgotten how, we knew how
once we found the where. ¡Vamonos, mija…mira!
The windows cussed us out until we went inside.
One blue cement mixer hustled its way down 18th
toward the glow of Tecate and a crown of marigold brick.
For further reading on "20 Little Poetry Projects" in action, check out this fine article from the University Record.
Anyone out there with 20 little ones to share, or memories of this assignment?