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Writing into

This is more the seed of activities that can be devised using a common technique, than a worked-out activity.

I learned about "writing into" from John McGough, a TDU organizer and lover of poetry. He sent me this poem by Robert Kelly in which Kelly writes his own poem into Walt Whitman's "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer." Here's the first bit of Whitman's poem followed by Kelly's version:

Whitman:
WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;

Kelly:
When I wanted to learn when poetry happens
and what good it does in cities, Death’s own greenhouses,
or in the army’s killing fields, I heard a voice
left over from my childhood
when I still believed the things I learn’d
were true and I wanted to be an astronomer, an alchemist,
to summon friends out of the sky who would come to me,
when I hungered for the proofs of love
revealed in how the figures of desire behaved
who were ranged in columns of women and men before me...

This technique can be applied to many texts: simple instructions for use of a product, advertising copy, political slogans and chants, union contract language, prayers, curses, songs, emails... there are endless possibilities.

I like the way it puts the reader (who is now a writer) into the text, opening it up for any type of reaction: satire, inspiration, random imrpovisation... It reveals the activity of the reader as interpreter, admirer, selector, questioner. It can be used to breathe life into cliches and truisms.

    What do we want?
    Contract!
    When do we want it?
    Now!

    WHAT am I doing here with you, shuffling, penned up, half-heartedly reciting? DO WE really WANT to be like this?
    Who signed the CONTRACT with a mandatory routinism clause, that gave up wandering imagination in exchange for half-hearted zealotry?
    I came here for the beautiful moment
    WHEN we DO the thing we fear, open up a new space, expose ourselves to the help WE WANT and offer IT in return.
    What do I want? NOW!

As always, I think it is best to treat it as a game -- who is bold enough to write into Whitman? -- permitting yourself to be terrible, foolish, embarrassed, for the fun of exploring and trying.

As Kelly puts it, describing his work: "The present text inveigles words of my own, to say my own confusions, into Whitman’s text, without changing at all the order of his words (printed here in italics). The reader is free to discard all my words, and readers who do so will be left with the pure Whitman text, fresh as ever."

Variation:
One sentence version: take any sentence, at random, and write into it. The goal is to inhabit the sentence, to use it to express a feeling.

Cliches version: take any cliche and write into it as a way of expressing your own thoughts or feelings on the subject of the cliche.

Erasing into: take a piece of narrative text, of any kind, and remove words until only the absolutely essential words are left.

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