(This is just half of my rockin' word collection.)
“Suddenly it seemed the objects could speak. They’d become poems themselves. Their labels changed the way we saw them. One of our favorite creations that afternoon was a squat, green squash with the label answers near its stem. The answer squash, we called it. My son’s friend Gene was moved by a tattered green oak gal labeled unreturnable love. A colored piece of wood labeled anchovy invited close scrutiny, along with pomegranate, a mere lightbulb. An enlarged photo of a key hole on a peeling door plate had the word betray pinned to it, and a worn scrub brush was labeled diamonds.”
- Susan Wooldridge
Susan Wooldridge, in her book, Poemcrazy (1996) offers both reflections and practices for writers. I can’t remember when I bought my copy. I want to say that it was before I started college, on a cold winter night I spent wandering Barnes & Noble aisles while contemplating the purpose of my life.
I had almost forgotten about the answer squash and the lesson about playing with language Wooldridge offers. Then, while searching for ideas for my students, I remembered. Years ago, I had a word collection written on index cards. There was something both fun and contemplative in the act of mislabeling common household things. Sitting down to journal, I often found stories to tell just by looking at the lamp labeled divining clarity or the ashtray labeled unfortunate romance.
Last week, I read the story of the answer squash to my college students. We discussed making word collections and playing with language again. One student, a remarkably intelligent, scientifically minded soul, asked, “Why are we doing this?”
“To experiment,” I replied. “To see what could happen if we unleashed our thinking and let it wander beyond paper, beyond the computer screen.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Hmm. Okay, but I don’t quiet see the point.”
“Do you ever see the results of an experiment before you start?”
(I like to make photo collages with things near my desk - another form of collecting.)
To encourage my students, and to let myself play with language, I decided to make a collection using river rocks I bought but never used in my garden. Armed with a paint marker and a cup of hot coffee, I sat down to see what words came to mind while holding each rock. I thought this would be a fun way to spend an hour, the sort of teaching preparation that could be fun for both the teacher and the student.
Two hours later, I was still labeling rocks. I had gotten lost in the act of naming. This made me think of the Bible story about Adam sitting with God, creating word and world. Then I thought about animals like the platypus, and decided Adam must have been an aspiring poet. The term sounds like the animal looks, I think. But like most male poets who never publish, he was seduced away from craft by a woman, or so the story goes.
Once the paint had dried, I stood back to see what I had done. I was amazed to learn that I had not once duplicated a word. I was amused to see that one was phallic, another vulvate. I chuckled when I noticed the rock raisin looked a lot like the rock clit. Flat was indeed flat, and comma was also shaped like another, mullet.
Language is such a wonderful plaything. This is one of the reasons I use poetry in my curricula – to help students negotiate description and play, juxtaposition and adjectives. Even a boring noun takes on a new meaning when painted onto something else – and the afternoon spent writing on rocks was a good one. When I finished, I had felt something had been restored to my own sense of writing.
As a teacher of writing I think it’s important to make sure that the lessons planned are reflexive, with something in it for the teacher and the learner. This mutuality helps to keep the inquiry earnest, centered in community, holding onto opportunity as if clutching a rock of truth in one’s palm.
To a writer, everything is an invitation to name and describe. Which is, I think, the core of this lesson. I’m not sure what I will do with all of these rocks, what kind of container they will rest in, or where I’ll put them. For now, it’s just enough to sit down and look at them as if they’re still upon the bottom of the river, with ideas rushing over them in a current of a river I know, but have yet to name.