On the night before the project carnival at CMK, the makerspace stays open late. As I’d spent the afternoon working on and off with my team on our prompt machine, as well as assisting others with some projects and wandering around checking out all the amazing stuff that was getting made, I took a much needed break from working and spent some time writing. I was planning on returning to the makerspace later that evening to write the code that would make the Muse’s 1 lights alternate between blinky when the machine was running and not when a prompt had been generated2.
As I wrote, I realized that I didn’t want to spend the evening writing code. I wanted to write poems. And to see if the protocols I had for using the machine would work. So I grabbed a couple of new CMK friends and sat down together to see if the ideas I had to modify Taylor Mali’s Metaphor Dice game could fly in the makerspace. I ran an impromptu Poetry Jam.
“Want to write a poem?” I would ask.
And folks would, for the most part, give me a funny look. Then there were two likely responses:
Response A: “I can’t write poems.”
Response B: Sure thing. Let’s do it.
I didn’t take detailed notes, but Response A was much more common than Response B3.
From there, I pulled out the trusty Metaphor Dice and we got into it. While the directions for the game aren’t too complicated, I felt like to really get people into the writing over the worrying about writing they need to be even simpler. So I worked on the verbal directions, or patter, that I’d use when introducing someone to the machine or the dice.
My parameters for getting in, getting something written, and getting out are simple. Pick your dice. Roll. See what you get. If you like them, keep them. If you don’t, roll again (any or all of the dice.) When you’re happy with your roll, you get five minutes to write your poem.
The roll (or spin of the machine) is going to be either the first line or the last line, or the title of your poem, I told folks. OR, you can ignore the roll and write what it made you think about or wonder about or want to write about. Every other question that someone might ask, usually one that would start with “Can I . . .” I would answer this way:
“You’re the poet. Do what you want.4
So folks would roll/spin, accept and/or reroll, and then wait for the table. Once I got verbal confirmation that everyone in a group was ready, we got to work.
Five minutes. That’s it. It’s not a race, and there are no extra points for finishing first.5
In every single round, I wrote, too. I think that’s really important.
After two trial sessions with myself and a pair of volunteers, I headed into the maker space, set up the Muse at our roundtable, and invited folks over.
I ran three more sessions that evening, with five or six folks in each. Some folks wrote twice, some just once. But everyone wrote. And we worked from both the machine and from the dice.
After each five minute writing session, which I timed with my phone stopwatch, we read our poems around the table. And each time a poet finished, they got a round of snaps from an appreciative audience.
Everyone was successful. 100% of the folks who sat down to write a poem wrote one. And they spent less than ten minutes doing so between the prompting and the writing.
At the CMK project carnival the next day, we would watch lots of folks approach the Muse, find delight in a spin of the wheels, and then sit to write their poems. These poems, while also quite good, were less substantial than what was written the previous evening. I’m almost certain that’s because of two factors: We, as facilitators of the experience, were not writing with the poets, as we were attending to several other matters of looking after all the folks stopping by and asking questions. We also didn’t add the time component. There was no clock.
I think in both cases, that means we weren’t framing the expectations correctly. I’ll have more to say about that in a different post. But even in these shorter pieces, there were moments of surprise, delight, wonder and whimsy.
The Muse works, y’all.
While I’ll take away plenty of powerful memories from the week I’ve spent at CMK, one that I’ll treasure the most is one that happened during the Thursday night Poetry Jam.
Josh Ajima, a new friend whom I’ve known online for a time, sat down when we began our writing in the maker space. He ignored the dice and the machine, and grabbed a piece of paper and just started writing. There was something in his head and heart that needed to come out, and the invitation to write was all he needed. He knew what he wanted to say.
He worked through the explanation of the rules. He worked through the clock. He finished just as time was up.
And then he read a poem inspired by Carla Rinaldi’s beautiful talk to the group earlier in the day.
He stuck around, too, and wrote with the machine the second round, too.
The next morning, as we encountered Carla in the maker space making a tour of projects, we pulled her in to share the poem Josh had written6.
As we introduced her to the poem inspired by her words, she was visibly touched. And grateful. So there was one last thing to do.
— Bud Hunt (@budtheteacher) July 13, 2018
Josh, the poet, was standing across the room. I pulled him over to meet his muse. And he did. There was a handshake. Words were exchanged. And then there was a gentle kiss on the cheek from Carla that was so respectfully tender that I always want to remember it.
The loop of muse, poem, poet closed, I concluded that our machine had won CMK, and done what all of the best machines in history have ever done – they helped people be better people.
I’m tearing up a bit even as I write this several days later.
I sure hope what you’re making, in any mode, with any material, in any place, has the power to touch someone else. At least every once in a while.
That’s the best of what we can do together, y’all. That’s writing poetry in the makerspace.
- The Metaphor Muse is the writing prompt generator we built at CMK. In another post, I will explain what it is and how it works. [↩]
- This turned out to be more difficult than I expected, but not because the code was complicated. It’s because I had to reconceptualize how I thought about it. My assumptions got in the way. More on this in that technical post. [↩]
- That said, I think the numbers for Response B were a little inflated as, at CMK, most folks lean into a “Sure, let’s try it.” mindset. [↩]
- I had a moment of channelling Ron Swanson at one point as I thought through the instructions. “Teach a man to write poetry. Or don’t. He’s a grown man. Poetry’s not that hard.” But poetry IS hard. So I put that voice away. Upon further thought, the “do what you want” is more Ethel Beavers than Ron Swanson. [↩]
- Though plenty of us would loudly declare “Done!” and slam our pen down. I’m not sure why that’s so satisfying, but it really, really is. [↩]
- Folks left their poems behind after they wrote them, and after taking pictures of their words, so we would have examples to share with others. [↩]