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Tribe Exercise

This exercise is basically the same as the Cover Poem exercise. (See

I give it to workshop participants because the two poems provide an outline, the two have enough contrast for participants to get a sense of what they might write about their own tribe and because of how personal, yet universal, this subject can be.

Both versions are read aloud, the first, Ed Dorn’s poem, preferably by someone else, preferably a good reader. I then read my version and students are then given 10 minutes to write their own. (If a majority of the pens are in action after ten minutes, I usually cut them slack, time-wise, unless time is limited.)

As in most exercises of the organic variety, the Kerouac alluvial technique is suggested when a participant gets stuck. (Alluvial is a geological term meaning that which washes down from above. See this link for a detailed description.) So, if you get stuck, go up a few lines in the poem you are writing, or all the way to the beginning of the poem, and read until you get a hit that gets you back on track. It’s usually a phrase or an image. One can also look back at the text of the original, or the first cover and extrapolate from the one related on that line of the original to one’s own experience. (Dorn starts with struggling day labor, my father worked for the railroad all his life, and later my mother and both sisters worked there as well, and there are other examples.)

Always seek the image, the luminous detail and, as Ezra said go in fear of abstractions.

In my case, I’ve mimicked the layout of the poem, one long stanza. Students can do that as well, or not. It takes a bit of steam to read a poem without many stops, but that adds its own kind of energy. And since everyone has a Tribe (in one way or another) there is ample material from which to write and, usually, some kind of powerful energy.

Tribe (Ed Dorn)

My tribe was lowdown struggling day labor
Depression South Eastern
Illinois just before the southern hills start
to roll toward the coal country
where the east/west morainal ridges
of Wisconsin trash pile up
at the bottom of the prairie, socially
a far midwest recrudescence of Appalachia
my grandfather French Quebecois
Master pipefitter in the age of steam
Indian fifty percent, very French
who didn’t derogate himself
as a breed, showed none of those tedious
tendentious tendencies. Came down
from Chebanse, from the Illinois Central
in Iroquois County, to the Chicago &
Eastern Illinois line’s division at Villa Grove
in one of the Twenties boomlets,
the last precipitous edges of the great devolvment

These forebears on my mother’s side
owned a nice clapboard house in old town
where I was brought up off and on during
the intensity of the depression nomadism,
wandering work search, up and down
the bleak grit avenues of Flint, following
other exodus relatives, Belgian in-laws
from another French connexion
Michael Moore-land from the beginning
manmade poisons in the cattle feed way
before Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease and angry cows–
governments always conspire against
the population and sometimes
this is not even malice;
just nothing better to do.

I’m with the Kurds alright–
World Leaders can claim
what they want about terror,
even as they wholesale helicopter gunships
to the torturers–even as they lie like Clinton
and his crazy battle-axe Secretary of State.

But I’m as proud of my tribe as if I were a Kurd,
my pure Kentucky English great grandma–
it would take more paper
than I’ll ever have to express how guiltless
and justified I feel.

Tribe (Paul E Nelson)

My tribe was railroad all the way
Midwest   blessed w/ Island blood
a crucifix   mixt with an unspoken
manifesto of survival:   diphtheria;
the bottle, single-parent family West
Side, poison cats & Orishas this
side   of  the  Sierra  de  los  Organos.
How a syphillitic miasm manages
to plant its seed, get its share of Spring
training, red licorice (not really
licorice) English muffins bake
your own bread, make your own
picadillo and drink away the stink
of taking shit from the boss. (Add
sulfur). Up out of Des Moines
somewhere east of Hollywood,
Illinois, south of the circus.
Danish, Scotch-Irish, English,
Mohawk y Cubano, maybe
from Spanish Celts maybe Islas de
Canarias, from Congress Parkway
to the Northwest Side in the flood
plain of the Des Planes River a six
minute bikeride to the woods where
Carl was Tonto and the connection
between nature and reefer was set.
Mother never made it speaking of
fish stare at that matchbook for
a minute without blinking and it will
turn into an orange Ma’s sense
of humor. Bonfire’d hotdogs
and backyard wiffle, even then
a fascination for fire and numbers.
No one thrives in this meat
packing/eating/making town
w/o guts w/o incorporating
words like dupa & gawumpkies
(meat – of course – rice & cooked
cabbage) and bein’ a workin’ man
lured like a farm boy under the gas
lamps. We break off into splinter
groups so as not to break out the
revolvers on Xmas, but somehow
you know if it came down to blood
they’d be there defending whatever
has become of this tribe in a tribe
forsaken age.

4:54P – 3.11.09
Exercise written 9:36P – 7.8.09