December 31, 2014

Prompt: Terrance Hayes and the Golden Shovel


Terrance Hayes
Terrance Hayes invented a poetry form he calls the Golden Shovel. You take a line (or lines) from a poem you admire, and use each word in the line (or lines) as an end word in your poem while maintaining the order. So, if you choose a line with six words, your poem would be six lines long.

This borrowing method is not without precedent in poetry. One similar form is quite ancient: the cento, in which you make a poem entirely from other poets' lines. Another form makes a new poem by removing lines from an existing poem - that is known as an erasure.

For my own first Golden Shovel attempt, I wrote a poem for my daily writing practice last year. I chose a poem by Gary Snyder called "Changing Diapers" and used his line "you and me and Geronimo." I wrote it in the ronka form that all my daily poems for 2014 used.

Geronimo [after Gary Snyder]

After the reading, talking briefly to you
and recalling another time – when I, Steve and
you shared coffee conversation – you remembered me.
A wonderful lie. We are men, and
we jump like paratroopers and shout Geronimo.


My poem came out of a brief encounter with Snyder recently when he read at the Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey. It also recalls a longer conversation we had at another Dodge Festival more than 20 years ago.

In what I believe must be the first Golden Shovel poem, Terrance Hayes used a Gwendolyn Brooks poem. He started with Brooks' often-anthologized poem, "We Real Cool." His poem is called "The Golden Shovel.".

"The rules" for this new form are:

  • Take a line(s) from a favorite poem
  • Use each word in the line (or lines) as an end word in your poem and
  • Keep the end words in the order they appeared originally. That means that you could read the stanza at the right edge like an acrostic.
  • Give credit to the original poet (it can be in the title, an epigram or within the poem) and for our prompt also include a note a reference to the poem, though it doesn't have to be part of the poem itself. It would be great if you could include a link to the original poem online so that readers could see your inspiration.
  • The new poem does not have to be about the same subject as the original poem, but it can be related.

We know how poets love to play by the rules. Mr. Hayes pushes a bit on his own rules by using more than a line and and using every word from the Brooks poem. Twice. Setting the bar high. In his collection, Lighthead, he also has a poem using Elizabeth Alexander's poem, “Ladders” (for his "Last Train to Africa") and borrows lyrics from songs by Marvin Gaye and Louis Armstrong for others.

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Terrance Hayes' poem “The Golden Shovel” is from Lighthead (2010, Penguin) which won the National Book Award.




Extra Credit: Think you know why Hayes called his poem and form "The Golden Shovel?"   Tell us your answer in a comment on this post.

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