Start Up Games

by Barry Spacks

Glenn Gould plays Bach’s Brandenbergs:
listen closely
below Glenn’s humming,
Johann’s humming
— one of my “84”s (see below)

I once offered in this column a quick way to stir poetry-writing juices by starting and ending with arbitrary lines (lines such as: “I once offered …”). Many folks told me they enjoyed the challenge, so here’s another approach — game-playing collaborations — that can strike preliminary language-sparks. I’ve engaged friends and strangers in many e-mail back ’n’ forths I call poetry ping-pong. Example: a prose-poem exchange based on a limitation of exactly 101 words. There’s the word count feature on computers to speed such play.

You might decide to make things stricter by adding to word-limitations the need to respond thematically to the other player’s previous link, or be required to use some of the other guy’s words as the start of your next try. The trick to all poetry sporting events is to respect a chosen limitation.

Let’s say you dash off a 101-draft and go check at the word counter. Uh-oh, only 79, gotta generate some more material. Or, oh no, 143, need to tighten this thing, and so off you go practicing choices, contemplating cuts, tweaks, moving material around, or simplifying sentence structure: In short, you’re busy (and maybe joyfully) working as a poet.

Here are a few other styles of poetry exchange, all with obstacles to overcome (remember Robert Frost’s famous disdain for poets who play tennis “with the net down”).

1) Limit the number of characters allowed in a stanza. My Santa Monica lawyer/poet friend Lawrence E. Leone has been bopping back-’n’-forths with me for years, each link required to hit the exact count of 84 characters. Why 84? It’s a number chosen in modest homage to the legend that the Buddha left 84,000 different teachings to suit the full range of human temperaments. But you might want to specify 79 or 92. The character-counter’s right there available on PCs and Macs (characters being letters plus punctuation). Lawrence and I also add continuing themes to each sequence, like “Eros,” or “Thanksgiving.”

2) Haiku. I do three-part “renga” with poet-friends, not worrying about exact 5-7-5 syllable count, allowing for the looser senryu form (that’s a less-profound haiku without a necessary nature reference). Since haiku evolved from exchanges where a three-line poem was followed by a capping two-line link, a sequence for three-handed ping-pong with players Abigail, Gordon, and Yolanda would go like this: A3 G2 Y3 A2 G3 Y2 and so on. See more about haiku and other exchanges at

Exchanges keep the words dancing, prevent blockage, and lead thought and art in unexpected directions. They can ease you back into love with words again.

I can’t resist just one more:

3) Time-limit poetry, a wonderfully simple device for priming word-inventiveness. I’ve exchanged thousands of pages of time-limited poems with a former student of mine, Jordan Rome. Ten-minute poems (honor system) are our usual choice: We write fast and shoot the results across that great invisible cyber ping-pong table.

The only thing you must have to get into poetry games is a brother or sister player. But hey, we’re all issued at least one friend with artistic yearnings, right? And folks without computers can find a certain amount of free access at the library. Exchanging exercises will often produce surprisingly good pings and pongs. They build poem-writing muscle.

For a more classic sort of stimulation toward getting started, namely reading and listening to poems by devoted practitioners, check out the weekly pod-casting of poets at

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