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Filtering by Tag: difficulty level 5/5

NaPoWriMo Poetry Prompt 21: The Golden Shovel

Sarah and Jeff Boyle

Difficulty Level 5/5

Today’s challenge comes to us courtesy the elastic and experimental brain of Terrance Hayes. Our hometown boy—he’s a professor at Pitt—Hayes is a formalist. Usually, when you hear someone’s a formalist, you expect some flowery old sonnets like those of Elizabeth Barrett Browning or the dry iambic perfection of Robert Frost. The formalist has a reputation as a bore. But not Hayes—he breezes by the classic forms (though goodness knows he can write those, too) and makes up his own forms. Today we’re looking at one of those forms: the Golden Shovel.

Some background first. The name “Golden Shovel” comes from a very famous Gwendolyn Brooks poem:

We Real Cool
      The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.


We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

(Click here to hear Brooks read this poem aloud—really, seriously, click through. No one reads poetry aloud the way Gwendolyn Brooks does.)

Terrance Hayes, to pay tribute to the great Gwendolyn Brooks,  turned every word in “We Real Cool” into an end word in his poem “The Golden Shovel.” Say what? Basically, if you read the last word in every line of the  “The Golden Shovel,” what you’re reading is “We Real Cool.” Here, look at the first few lines. We’ve bolded the end words so they stick out:

When I am so small Da’s sock covers my arm, we
cruise at twilight until we find the place the real

men lean, bloodshot and translucent with cool.
His smile is a gold-plated incantation as we


drift by women on bar stools, with nothing left
in them but approachlessness. This is a school

See how he did that? Also notice that sometimes those words come in the beginning, middle, or end of a clause or sentence. The words that make up “We Real Cool” are what we will call the “seed” for “The Golden Shovel.”

Now that you know what you’re looking for, check out the whole poem. (NB: Terrance Hayes actually wrote a double golden shovel here, using the seed poem once in part I and again in part II. In “II. 1991” you’ll notice that sometimes he uses the words from “We Real Cool” as a smaller part of a bigger word, hyphenating the word across the line in order to keep the pattern of end words. In the first line, “we” becomes a part of “we-/akened.” Don’t feel pressured to do this yourself, but we will bow down before you if you do.)

The Golden Shovel
After Gwendolyn Brooks

I. 1981

When I am so small Da’s sock covers my arm, we
cruise at twilight until we find the place the real

men lean, bloodshot and translucent with cool.
His smile is a gold-plated incantation as we

drift by women on bar stools, with nothing left
in them but approachlessness. This is a school

I do not know yet. But the cue sticks mean we
are rubbed by light, smooth as wood, the lurk

of smoke thinned to song. We won’t be out late.
Standing in the middle of the street last night we

watched the moonlit lawns and a neighbor strike
his son in the face. A shadow knocked straight

Da promised to leave me everything: the shovel we
used to bury the dog, the words he loved to sing

his rusted pistol, his squeaky Bible, his sin.
The boy’s sneakers were light on the road. We

watched him run to us looking wounded and thin.
He’d been caught lying or drinking his father’s gin.

He’d been defending his ma, trying to be a man. We
stood in the road, and my father talked about jazz,

how sometimes a tune is born of outrage. By June
the boy would be locked upstate. That night we

got down on our knees in my room. If I should die
before I wake. Da said to me, it will be too soon.

II. 1991

Into the tented city we go, we-
akened by the fire’s ethereal

afterglow. Born lost and cool-
er than heartache. What we

know is what we know. The left
hand severed and school-

ed by cleverness. A plate of we-
ekdays cooking. The hour lurk-

ing in the afterglow. A late-
night chant. Into the city we

go. Close your eyes and strike
a blow. Light can be straight-

ened by its shadow. What we
break is what we hold. A sing-

ular blue note. An outcry sin-
ged exiting the throat. We

push until we thin, thin-
king we won’t creep back again.

While God licks his kin, we
sing until our blood is jazz,

we swing from June to June.
We sweat to keep from we-

eping. Groomed on a die-
t of hunger, we end too soon.

(Poem from Lighthead and reprinted here courtesy of the author.)

So, how do you write your own golden shovel? First, pick a seed. This can be a sentence or a few sentences or just a phrase. Find something between 10 and 25 words long—however many words long your seed is, that’s how many lines long your poem will be. You can make up your seed, find it in the newspaper or in another poem, lift it from a friend’s tweet—it doesn’t matter. Just make sure you credit your source if you borrowed it from someone else. Then list those words down the right margin of a piece of paper. Write your poem, integrating your end words into your sentences as you go.

When you’re finished, give your poem a title. And directly under the title, write your seed sentence in quotation marks (again,  include a credit to the original writer if you didn’t write the seed yourself). Send us your poems at flashbangwriting@gmail.com


Join us in person in Pittsburgh on April 26th at the East End Book Exchange for the Poem-A-Thon Write-In and Reading. We will be writing poems for donations on our old typewriters at 3pm, and at 4pm you are welcome to read your poem(s) as part of the Poem-A-Thon celebratory reading.

NaPoWriMo Prompt 13: Video Poemz

Sarah and Jeff Boyle

Difficulty Level 5/5

Admitted: you probably won't be pulling this off in one day. But we want so very badly to see video poems become an internet-devouring phenomenon that we had to make them a prompt.

Your task today is to write a poem and then--using your smartphone, camcorder (does anyone have those anymore?), GoPro, dSLR and whatever video processing software you know and love--turn it into a video. Think of the video poem like a music video; they're pretty much the same thing. I've combed the archives of MotionPoems and The Poetry Storehouse and found something close the perfect video poem. 

This is "Penelopiad" by Jade Anouka (warning! there is one not-so-safe-for-school word in here):

(poem embedded here with permission of the poet. Check out her website and follow her on twitter at @jadeanouka.)

Here are a couple questions to consider when planning out your video poem. Do you want to record your poem separately from your images and use it as a voiceover? Or do you want to film yourself or someone else performing it? Do you want to include any music with your poem? What imagery would best complement your poem? Should it be a literal enactment of the poem or should it be a symbolic representation of your poem? 

Write it. Film it. Upload it to Vimeo or YouTube. And please oh please send a link to us at flashbangwriting@gmail.com. Jeff and Sarah will be making one of these this month, too, so stay tuned to the blog to see what we come up with. 


Have you registered for the Poem-A-Thon yet? Sign up to write poems and raise money for the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council today! We just ordered some pretty sweet one-inch buttons that are yours for free if you play along with us. And don't forget to send us your poems for publication on this here blog: flashbangwriting@gmail.com.

NaPoWriMo Poetry Prompt 11: Just Between F and T

Sarah and Jeff Boyle

Difficulty Level 5/5

It's the weekend, so we're asking you to get out your big poetry guns for today's prompt. Reproduced just below is a poem by Matthea Harvey. You may recognize her name, either because she is one of the most delightful and inventive poets we have these days or because we have a quote of hers up at the top of this very blog. The poem is from one of two series of poems in her book Modern Life. The first series is called "The Future of Terror" and tells a story about the end of the world from the soldiers' point of view. The second series is "Terror of the Future" and flips the first series on its head with civilians narrating the end of the world. Why don't you read it before I let you in on its generative engine:

Terror of the Future / 9

The teacups tied to strings along the walkway
stayed silent, had no warning songs to sing.
We shook talc onto our tastebuds
and watched the skyrockets, starry-eyed,
until night blacked them out like a giant
malevolent Sharpie. Scouts gathered
in the square and surveyed the Room
For Rent signs. In this and only this did we have
supply and no demand. It was a long time
since anyone had felt a quiver on the railroad.
We argued timetables, regardless,
(I was just glad you were speaking to me).
You wanted to go to the provinces.
I wanted to see the palace. Of course,
given the state of the ozone, we weren’t
going anywhere. We weren’t outdoorsy
anyway. Our anoraks were moth-eaten
for a reason. You said, I am morose, a new kind
of rose. I pointed hopefully at my foot and said
mistletoe? No. You wouldn’t get within a meter
of me. Later, when your lungs filled with liquid,
you might have said love, you might have said leave.
I said I love you too and left the room.
There was no ice storm, no helicoptered-in help,
no Hollywood ending. Just a gasp and then
no more you, which meant the end of me too.

(From Modern Life, by Matthea Harvey. Reprinted here with permission of the poet.)

You maybe noticed that there are some unexpected words and images in that poem, like a teacup on a string, talc on tastebuds, and the entirely unexplained possibility of a trip to a palace. How did Harvey come up with those images? She used the dictionary. In her own words, the poems in these series "were inspired by making lists of words in the dictionary between 'future' and 'terror.'" I've taken the first ten lines of the poem and bolded those dictionary words for you, so you can see the poem's engine (engine, by the way, being a word I think I stole from Matthea Harvey herself to describe what makes a poem work or run or function or come to life):

The teacups tied to strings along the walkway
stayed silent, had no warning songs to sing.
We shook talc onto our tastebuds
and watched the skyrockets, starry-eyed,
until night blacked them out like a giant
malevolent Sharpie. Scouts gathered
in the square and surveyed the Room
For Rent signs. In this and only this did we have
supply and no demand. It was a long time
since anyone had felt a quiver on the railroad.

Now it's your turn. Pick a two-word phrase you want to write about. If you're feeling really daring, let an algorithm choose one word (or both!) for you by using this username generator. Then open up your dictionary and make a list of interesting words between your beginning and end words. Keep those words in alphabetical order, and add write in between them to create your poem. 

Help! Help! Emergency Level Down, Difficulty Level 4/5: Make a list of words from the dictionary in between your two chosen words. Then use them in any order in your poem. 


Have you registered for the Poem-A-Thon yet? Sign up to write poems and raise money for the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council today! We just ordered some pretty sweet one-inch buttons that are yours for free if you play along with us. And don't forget to send us your poems for publication on this here blog: flashbangwriting@gmail.com.