April 25: anagram name sketch
a guest post from poet Bronwen Tate
Hello, all! Today’s exercise comes from amazing poet and friend of the newsletter Bronwen Tate. Bronwen is the author of The Silk the Moths Ignore. The jacket copy says the book “animates the liminal, sometimes gothic, spaces of miscarriage, pregnancy, and early parenthood with exquisite defamiliarizing detail”; I’d add to that description how much I love the really precise and tender quality of attention in the poems. They’re great for the kind of slow, deep reading that can lead you back into writing. The Silk the Moths Ignore was recently featured in the very cool podcast The Write Away Promptcast, a bi-weekly writing prompt.
Bronwen also writes the monthly newsletter Ok, But How? and teaches classes I wish I could take at the School of Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. For the Back to Writing series this past fall, I interviewed Bronwen about how she uses Helen Sword’s Air & Light & Time & Space with her MFA students, and that piece is full of great tips about habits and how pre-deciding can help alleviate the stress of writing.
Today’s newsletter is a little long because it includes example poems at the end. If it gets cut off in your email, just click on the title to read it in a web browser.
Now, to Bronwen:
Anagram Name Sketch
Pick a name. You might use your own name, as Harryette Mullen does in Muse & Drudge. Or you might pick the name of a close friend or family member, as Melissa Range does in Scriptorium. Or you might pick the name of a celebrity or historical figure, as an MFA student in my class last fall did by choosing Alok Sharma, who served as president for COP26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference. This student drew on anagrams and sound-driven words like “harm,” “karma,” “swarm,” “koalas,” “sharks,” and “warming shoals” to talk back to Sharma about climate crisis.
Use sound to generate a bank of words.
Here are some ways to gather:
1. Anagrams. Words and phrases made from the same letters. This is your primary technique. Use an online anagram generator like this one. Skim the list and pull out words or combinations that evoke something for you. Try a few versions of the name you've picked (with and without middle name or using a nickname) if you'd like.
2. Homonyms (words that are written the same but mean different things like all of the different meanings of "bow") / Homophones (words that sound the same but have different spellings and meanings like pear/pair/pare) (for the whole word or parts of it). You can do this kind of further riffing with the name itself or with any words you collected in the anagram phase.
3. Letter scrambling or swapping, possible mishearings or twistings. What word shadows or familiars or slips-of-the-tongue can you draw out?
Draw on your collection of words with shared sounds to write a poem either about or addressed to the person whose name you chose (could also be a self-portrait of sorts). Start with anything that feels "hot" to you or pulls you in some way. You can feel out for yourself what your personal threshold is with sound-play and meaning-making. Mullen’s poem tips into nonsense and pure play at times, while Range’s poem remains more closely bound to meaning.
If, as we’ve been discussing, poems require both chaos and pattern, you could say that anagrams offer both: when you’re picking words based on sound rather than meaning, you’re bound to get some weird, unexpected, unpredictable, associative elements. Chaos! At the same time, sound itself offers a kind of pattern: vowel and consonant clusters repeating with variation. You may also find these anagram words acting like Rorschach blots for you—offering new insights into the person you’re writing about. To give yourself an anchor in the chaos of association and word lists, arrange your material into four stanzas of four lines each, as Mullen does. Include the name you chose in your poem’s title.
As you write, try to read out loud or just mutter back to yourself what you've written so far. Do this a lot! As you add new language, imagine yourself feeling your way by ear. Let sound guide you, even if the combinations you're coming up with don't entirely make sense or flow together.
Look for patterns and echoes of all kinds. Be open to surprises.
And, ultimately, here's the thing: we can't get away from ourselves. Even if this gathering and arranging process starts out feeling like a super alienating and detached activity, you will likely find yourself creating patterns, making meaning, and recognizing emotion and expressiveness within your writing. Our brains are pattern-seeking devices.
[marry at a hotel, annul'em]
By Harryette Mullen
marry at a hotel, annul ’em
nary hep male rose sullen
let alley roam, yell melon
dull normal fellow hammers omelette
his splendid mistress
is his sis Isis
creole cocoa loca
crayon gumbo boca
warp maid fresh
a voyeur leers
at X-rated reels
Anagram: See a Gray Pine
in memory, Ena Gay Pierce
By Melissa Range
See a gray pine in January that ought to be green
See me pining for a gray-headed one
See the gray shale with its pines unpinned
See a pin from her pincushion under the bed
See a gray cookpot of pinto beans
See gray hairs caught in an old bobby pin
See me gray, still pining
Whose gray hills are these, unpined?
Gray crone: thine
Author's note on the poem at the end of the collection:
This poem follows the Puritan anagram tradition. Anagrams were a popular form among Puritan poets, who often write elegies in the form of anagrams of the deceased person's name. In this form, the anagram of the person's name becomes the title of the poem and also recurs thematically throughout the poem. My own anagram on the name "Ena Gay Pierce" follows this convention, with one exception: my poem cheats (as did some Puritan poets!) by using the "s" sound of the letter "c" in "Pierce," rather than the actual letter "c," in order to create the word "see."
 Initially published in Muse & Drudge, 1995. Republished in Recyclopedia, 2006.
 Published in Scriptorium, 2016