Friday, August 14, 2009

Poetry: Copy-Change - Where I'm From - George Ella Lyon

Copy-Change Poetry
Imitation is the most direct route to mastering a skill—just follow the master step by step and you're bound to get it. There's a long tradition of this in the arts. Go to a museum and you’re likely to find a student tracing someone else's moves.

One specific exercise for practicing imitation is called "copy change." Basically, you borrow another writer's structure and use it as the skeleton for your own work. But isn't this plagiarism, you ask? You may find that the new poem takes on a life of its own, and becomes a very different work than the original. If there's no trace of the source, you don't need to give anyone else credit. If, on the other hand, evidence of the original structure remains, you should give a nod to the first writer in some way. [source]
One popular copy-change exercise given to poetry students is based on George Ella Lyon's poem, Where I'm From. (This is Lyon's official site, where you can find the text of her original poem, along with an audio recording of her reading it.) I suspect many interested in their family histories would have fun trying to write their own version.

Here's the template: (some reading this may recall Mad Libs books of yesteryear.)

I am from _______ (specific ordinary item), from _______ (product name) and _______.

I am from the _______ (home description... adjective, adjective, sensory detail).

I am from the _______ (plant, flower, natural item), the _______ (plant, flower, natural detail)

I am from _______ (family tradition) and _______ (family trait), from _______ (name of family member) and _______ (another family name).

I am from the _______ (description of family tendency) and _______ (another one).

From _______ (something you were told as a child) and _______ (another).

I am from (representation of religion, or lack of it). Further description.

I'm from _______ (place of birth and family ancestry), _______ (two food items representing your family).

From the _______ (specific family story about a specific person and detail), the _______ (another detail, and the _______ (another detail about another family member).

I am from _______ (location of family pictures, mementos, archives and several more lines indicating their worth).

Here's my version. I wrote most of this a couple years ago, though I have made some recent revisions.

Where I’m From
by John Newmark ©2009
based on Copy-Change Template by George Ella Lyon

I am from books --
from hostess ding dongs and lemonade stands.
I am from a three bedroom, finished basement, with a backyard fence our crazy dog was able to jump over.
I am from the dandelions I refused to accept were weeds,
and the tree that was planted in Israel in my name when I turned thirteen.

I’m from Sunday Dinners and talking politics at the table --
Sam and Rose --
fiftieth wedding anniversaries --
and watching Must See TV every Thursday night with my cousins at Grandma’s.

I’m from ‘pick up your clothes’ to ‘make your bed.’
I’m from Christmas Trees and Bar Mitzvah lessons.
I’m from St. Louis, Transylvania, Poland, and Texas --
Chopped liver, corned beef, bagels and gefilte fish.

I’m from a grandfather, who in the 1930s jumped a train with his friends and rode to California
to a grandmother, age 7, on a beebox in her father’s Texas apiary -
she stands in the center
of a photo at my parents’ house
inside a box next to other boxes
filled with books,
high school mementos,
my grandfather’s Cavalry sword from the 1920s, Star of David on the hilt,
and the WWII diary of a great-uncle who never returned.

If you wish to try your hand, don't feel restricted by the structure if it doesn't fit you.

Lyon on her site reminds:
Remember, you are the expert on you. No one else sees the world as you do; no one else has your material to draw on. You don't have to know where to begin. Just start. Let it flow. Trust the work to find its own form.
The country artist, Jason Michael Carroll, addresses the question of "Where I'm From" in a completely different fashion.

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