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You might never cast off your darknesses.
a Little Loves prompt inspired by a poem by Cynthia Marie Hoffman
Hi there! I’m trying out some new formats on Write More, including today’s little love, where I’ll highlight a brief piece of writing I love, then give a suggestion for how that might launch you into your own writing.
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When I lived in Madison, I had the luck to be invited into a really wonderful writing group. We met at Cynthia Marie Hoffman’s kitchen table every other week or so. That group sustained my writing through the beginning of my PhD, the birth of my first baby, and the wild year I was on the job market, finishing a dissertation, and pregnant again. For a long time, when I sat down to write, it was Cynthia’s kind, firm voice I heard guiding me.
During that time, Cynthia was writing these gorgeous, scary prose poems full of childhood terrors and spooky angels. Those poems will be her fourth book, Exploding Head, forthcoming from Persea in February 2024. Cynthia calls the book an “OCD memoir-in-prose poems.” Today’s little love is one of those poems, one of three poems recently published in Electric Literature. You can read more poems from Exploding Head in Birdcoat Quarterly and Image, and you can find Cynthia on instagram, threads, and twitter.
Seven Darknesses No one knows how dark the darkness is. A bat flaps from the hay barn dressed in a shawl of webs. Call to the night. It answers with a thud against the neighbor’s house. It screams like a fox at the gate. The black spots on your heart grow blacker. You might never cast off your darknesses. One trots beside you like a black hole on a leash, barking. No one was meant to live at absolute zero, absolute dark. The earth itself cannot imagine it. Its oceans are strung with lanternfish like fairy lights. Tonight, this spongy cloud blotting copies of the moon across the sky. The warmth of your body emits a single photon detectable by the most sensitive machinery. And then another. And then this fog slipping into your pocket like a ghostly hand, seeking comfort.
One thing I love about this poem is how it juxtaposes really ordinary, absolutely unfancy syntax (those are almost all basically standard subject-verb-object sentences, with a couple of extra phrases tacked onto them, right?) with completely wild imagery and riveting assertions about what we’re seeing and what it means. It’s utterly original and feels completely real. (I can feel the black spots on my heart growing blacker.) It’s such a small, dense poem, and it’s one that really gains texture and depth on re-reading.
a prompt for you: the engine of syntax
Collect a bunch of concrete nouns. Aim for 10-15. You might try to push beyond your usual diction and image set—flip through a couple of books you love and write down concrete nouns you like, ones that you don’t immediately use in your own writing. (I don’t think I’ve ever put a bat or a lanternfish in a poem, for example.)
Now, collect a bunch of verbs. You’re looking especially for action and transformation—Cynthia’s got flaps, screams, trots.
Write your nouns and verbs on index cards or scraps of paper and shuffle them around a little to see the sentences you might make. Cynthia’s poem, as I pointed out, is mostly subject-verb-object (“A bat flaps from the hay barn dressed in a shawl of webs”), and you can make that same pattern with your words by playing around with noun-verb-noun arrangements. See what weird magic appears for you. These aren’t going to be complete sentences, of course—more like ghostly fragments that get your brain working.
Once you’ve got a couple intriguing pairings, freewrite and see what else comes to you. Surprise yourself. (And share an image or phrase below in the comments, if you like!)
even more to love, from the Write More archive
a guest post from on using sound to generate bank of words
Write More, Be Less Careful is a newsletter about why writing is hard & how to do it anyway. Have a victory or an epiphany in your writing life you’d like to share? A struggle you’d like help with? Reply to this email, comment below, or find me on instagram (@nancy.o.reddy).
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