The Personal Universe Prompt

One of the books of prompts/writing exercises I like is The Practice of Poetry edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell. It is quite a collection of tried and true exercises. You’ll see familiar faces.

The one called “Personal Universal Deck” is by Linnea Johnson who modified her version from Anita Skeen’s 1975 workshop.

The idea is to avoid having nothing to write by doing the grunt work in advance. Pre-digging.
The method involves some lists of words and a hundred 3X5 cards.

The cards. Well, you could just use lists, but when you work with physical objects you do use portions of the brain that don’t come into play otherwise. You don’t have to have 3x5s, but uniformity helps. With the words as objects, patterns and juxtapositions also have a sort of physical correlative

What you are building is a list of words with strong associations FOR YOU.

Johnson says: write down as many words as you can, then sort them into categories.
I say start with the categories and fill them, tailor the words to them.
You would get different lists. Try it either way (or both).

She suggests writing quickly, and being as specific as possible; choosing words that sound good to you; choosing words that are significant.  No plurals (singular objects are more…singular. More concrete)
She also says: No Adverbs

The Categories

16 words for each of the five senses.
That’s 80 words, the bulk of the deck.
Words that FOR YOU suggest taste, touch, sight, smell, hearing. (example: “splintered” might be on your list for sight or touch. Or, you may see the word and remember the smell of wet raw wood after the storm.)

10 words of motion
The words mean, suggest motion TO YOU. (Her example of a word that might be a motion word for some but not others: baby)

3 abstractions
words like freedom, love, abstract

the remaining 7 cards
Names, Places, anything that doesn’t fit. You might want to consider images. or a cue to remember a piece of music. something slightly outside the word list idea.

“When you have the hundred words written down on the hundred 3×5 cards, dpread out the cards. Choose cards to create the skeleton of a poem. Write the poem, the memory, what the cards suggest.”

She suggests that you keep the deck with your journal (yeah, right) and “move them around every other day for a week or choose one card at random from the pack” and write about that memory or what the word sparks.

She calls this a “personal lexicon that can be mined almost endlessly.” (Especially if you make new lists/cards now and then)

I’m breaking the preparation into smaller blocks, spreading the spade work.


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