Wednesday, January 27, 2010


This morning, the DWC brings you the first of its Wednesday writing prompts and exercises. Everyone's got their favorites — prompts that produce a surprising piece of writing — and we've asked our instructors, our visiting authors and our students to share what's worked for them, what really gets the pen moving. This week, we're featuring the Cento, a favorite of DWC instructor and visiting author, Derek Pollard.

Over the years and at all levels of teaching — from primary school to advanced creative writing workshops — I have had tremendous success with the cento as a simultaneous reading and writing exercise that helps define and contextualize "authorship," collaboration, and self-reflexive creative praxis. Below is the definition of cento as it appears on The Academy of American Poets website:

From the Latin word for "patchwork," the cento is a poetic form made up of lines from poems by other poets. Though poets often borrow lines from other writers and mix them in with their own, a true cento is composed entirely of lines from other sources. Early examples can be found in the work of Homer and Virgil.

Generally, I will invite a group of students to contribute a single line from a text of their choosing (the texts need not be "literary" nor do they need belong to one particular genre) to add to a line I have selected at random from a text. This new collaborative text expands until all the "authors" agree to end the project. In some cases, no order of contributors is observed; in other cases, no "author" can contribute two consecutive lines. The constraints vary depending on the course and the students. As one example, for a cento begun as part of my DWC course last winter, I myself would add lines only from texts written by female authors. I did not impose this constraint on the other "authors," but I suspect that each of us was bringing one or more of these independently determined constraints to the project. The one rule that must be followed in all cases is this: the "authors" cannot include any writing original to themselves or to their collaborators, and all lines must be documented so that we have a record of the source texts. Lines can be selected at random, based on numerical or mathematical formulae, etc. The texts generated in this way pose many critically productive challenges to the concepts mentioned above ("authorship," collaboration, reading-writing) that we discuss in relation to the text itself.

Derek Pollard's work has appeared in American Book Review, Colorado Review, Pleiades, Six-Word Memoirs on Love & Heartbreak, and Zoland Poetry. He is Managing Editor of Barrow Street Press, and co-author with Derek Henderson of the poetry collection, Inconsequentia (BlazeVOX 2009).

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