The Art: “Have Mercy” by Eryn Allen Kane (Music/ Film)
Go ahead and give this song a couple listens, if you have time. It’s often fruitful to try a variety of perspectives. Maybe you listen with your eyes closed the first time, then watch the video on second listen. After each listen, take a moment to reflect on how you’re feeling and what struck you about the piece.
For me, a not particularly religious person, the refrain "have mercy" lands particularly hard right now. While I'm not sure who, or what, I'd be appealing to with that phrase, I do know the world could use a little mercy right now. This song might bring up totally different thoughts and feelings for you and, if so, that’s great! Ultimately, tapping into our personal experiences with art in all their particularity and intimacy is what this class is about.
And while some of this week’s prompts will be very open, for day one, we’re going to start with lots of structure. We’re drafting a list poem, an agnostic benediction!
The Writing Exercise:
After listening/ viewing a couple times, take about five minutes to write a list of names of people you care about. The list doesn’t need to be super long or comprehensive, just try to call each person to mind as you write down their name. Maybe say their name out loud, picture their face or remember the sound of their voice or laugh.
Recall a good time you had with each person, a fond memory. Next to their name, write down an object that symbolizes that experience. For example, on my list I wrote down the name of a dear friend, “Armando”. One particularly fun night we had together was dancing exuberant tango in a hall in Buenos Aires. We were in a renovated church, actually, with a humongous, anatomically-correct paper mache heart hanging from the ceiling rafters. So, next to Mando’s name I wrote, “the paper mache heart the size of a car”. The only rule is that the thing representing each good time together needs to be, well, a thing — a specific, physical object.
Like Kane’s song, this next draft of our list poem is going to make use of the direct address and the imperative in the phrase, have mercy. So we’ll start our poems with the first line "Have mercy on:" with each subsequent line being one of the memorable objects from step two. When you’re done, you’ll have a first draft of your poem. Here’s how mine came out: Have mercy on the cloudy/ lit-up honey in mason jar the horsehair in the wall plaster the extremely sharp pencil the cricket carving/ totem the bell (but only when it is ringing) the paper mache heart the size of a car
Now that you know how the poem will be structured and how it will begin, you may find that you want to change your approach to a line, or change the order of the lines. Maybe a description should be shorter and more concise. Maybe you like the sound of a different phrasing or you want to add more sensory detail. Go for it! Here’s what I came up with after a little tinkering: Have mercy on the extremely sharp pencil the horsehair holding up the plaster the bell (bright, bronze and ringing) the carved cricket the honey in a glass jar the car-sized paper heart, with all its proper valves
As you can see, on second run I decided that, actually, I wanted to work in some aspect of anatomical correctness into that image of the heart. I also decided to squish things down a bit through the use of alliteration (all those Bs... bell, bright, bronze). This are classic revision moves -- bring stuff back, slightly changed, from an old draft and push the language closer to music/ song by attending more closely to how it sounds. Try giving your poem a read aloud and see if any changes present themselves. Give yourself a few minutes to play with revisions, but don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good here!
Please share your work, if you’re comfortable doing so. Did you end up somewhere totally different? If this song got you writing down another path, never fear — that’s why we’re here! Please feel free to share whatever came up for you in the comments below: