by Carolee Sherwood and Jill Crammond Wickham
While reading Sarah J. Sloat’s chapbook, In the Voice of a Minor Saint (a wonderful collection … check out all the reviews on Read Write Poem’s Virtual Book Tour!), we stumbled on an old friend: the cento. A cento, or patchwork poem, is quite literally a poem stitched together from the lines of other poets. A patchwork poem can be rhymed or unrhymed; it can be assembled with emphasis on lines, or the lines might be chosen because they work together to create a certain mood or theme.
Sloat used the work of 16 French Surrealists to create the evocative “Naked, Come Shivering,” which begins with a line from Pierre Reverdy, “Not wanting anything to die of hunger … .”
There is much to be learned from patchwork poetry … about the poet(s) you study, your response to them and, of course, the poems you create. Which leads us to this month’s mini-challenge: Fall in love with a poet. (It is February after all, the month of love here in the United States.)
Spend five intimate days (or nights) with your favorite poet. Gather your poet love’s work around you and get busy … reading, of course. Highlight your favorite lines. Tired of your current poet paramour? Spend some time with a poet you’d like to know a little better! (Though it may be tempting to entertain more than one suitor, for the integrity of our challenge, please remain devoted to just one poet!)
Days one and two, craft a poem using only lines by your chosen poet (see process notes and instructions below). Day three is the true test of your new relationship: If you can’t stand to part ways, write one more cento. If you need a break from said love, read on.
In the final days of your tryst, you’re on your own. Your task is to write two or three poems by your own hand, inspired by the centos you have created. Look over the work from your first few days with Mr. or Mrs. X. What themes do you see? Any repeating sounds, phrases? Whatever your patchwork/centos inspire, write it!
A few cento process notes
- Use only full lines of other people’s poetry in the creation of patchwork poems. Phrases and favorite words don’t count (at least not around these parts).
- Change a tense or a participle here and there. Add an ’s,’ remove an ‘-ed’ or other minor stuff like that. The patchwork purist, however, takes lines just as they are. That is an extra challenge.
- While altering tenses and omitting such words as “but,” “and,” “is,” even changing “I” to “me,” or “he,” to “she” is OK, putting your own words into a patchwork poem is not. Save your own words for your original poems, inspired by your centos.
- Always, always credit your muse! Be sure to indicate the poet and poem you have chosen lines from. If all lines are from a single collection, it is OK to simply name the collection.
As you write
Please visit the forums for the February Poetry Mini-Challenge. They will be marked #1, #2, #3 and so on — one for each poem you write for this challenge. Jump into those forum topics and post links to your poems (or the text of the poems themselves if you don’t have a blog), and be sure to visit your fellow poets’ pieces to cheer each other on.
About the poetry mini-challenge
If you’ve signed on to Read Write Poem recently or if you missed the other challenges, you’re welcome to visit the original post for background. Here’s the short version: A mini-challenge is a poetry-writing, poetry-reading or poetry-process prompt that you respond to with a new poem each day for a set number of days. The idea isn’t to warm up the poetry muscles, it’s to feel the burn. Go deeper. Explore further. Pass the place you may have stopped initially. See what comes next. And as if that weren’t juicy enough, you do all of it with the support and encouragement of the other crazy hardworking Read Write Poem members who take on the challenge.
Note: Please save the comments section of this post for discussion on or questions about the process. The poems and links go in the forums associated with the Poetry Mini-Challenge group, located here.
Carolee Sherwood is a poet and artist who lives in Upstate New York. She is co-editor of Ouroboros Review, mother of three boys, and is a veteran columnist and a newly appointed manager here. You can find her rambling about the creative life at Carolee Sherwood and drafting poems at I Am Maureen.
Jill Crammond Wickham has discovered that the frantic pace of motherhood has driven her to write more, not less. Jill writes at Mom Trying to Write. She is a co-editor for Ouroboros Review and a senior columnist and newly appointed manager for Read Write Poem.