Tuning in to the Language of Life

sage.gifMessage from the Managing Editor
By Sage Cohen

“We got held up by a lost dog at a busy intersection.”

When I overheard this in the waiting room at my doctor’s office, spoken by the breathless older woman who was evidently late for her appointment, I pulled out an index card from my purse and wrote it down.

“The evidence is stacked in favor of my confession.”

Jon was telling me some innocent story about his childhood in which this sentence got warped into sounding like he was the hero in a thriller. I asked him to pause while I wrote it down exactly as he said it.

Walking through my neighborhood on a hot summer day, regretting a decision I’d made that had caused me pain, I stepped over a yellow piece of college-ruled notebook paper that was lying flat in the middle of the sidewalk and thought nothing of it. On the way back home, I stepped over the same piece of paper again. This time, I stopped and turned around to examine the paper more closely.

In bubble letters, written by possibly a middle-schooler, the page said: “Can’t take back the things that I did before.” I picked it up, flabbergasted, and carried it home. The first thing I did was pin that paper up on my bulletin board. The second thing I did was write a poem titled “Can’t take back the things that I did before.”

In poetry, there is a type of poem called the found poem. A found poem presents language that you’ve discovered in some other context, such as a matchbook, greeting card, horoscope or advertisement. It works like this: you see or hear something that interests you, and then you use it in a poem. Perhaps you have an entire poem composed of “found” language or ideas. Or maybe just a single thought, phrase or idea triggers an entire poem.

Whether you’re a poet, essayist or fiction writer, tuning in to what we are otherwise socially conditioned to tune out might just ignite an idea that takes your writing in an exciting new direction. Next time you’re in a café, pay attention to the couple at the table to your right. What are they confessing in murmurs over their Sunday paper? Who is the sturdy man in sweat pants walking past the window with his English Bull Dog? What was the barista thinking when she had the word “hardwired” tattooed across her lower back?

Yes, I am suggesting that you become a voyeur, a goal-oriented voyeur who politely witnesses the many wonders of human eccentricity to trigger your own musings of what might be possible in the world—and in your writing. When we wake up to everything happening around us in our immediate, day-to-day lives, we can find much material that could be a starting place for the characters, dialogue or scenes taking shape in our own work. So much of what we’re seeking is already around us; it’s often merely a matter of learning to pay attention.

Sage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic, a creative companion for poets forthcoming from Writer’s Digest Books, and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. Her poetry and essays appear in journals and anthologies including Oregon Literary Review, Cup of Comfort for Writers, Greater Good and VoiceCatcher. In 2006, she won first prize in the Ghost Road Press annual poetry contest. Sage holds an MA in creative writing from New York University where she was awarded a New York Times Foundation fellowship. For organizations including Writers on the Rise and Willamette Writers, Sage teaches poetry writing and publishing workshops. Visit Sage at www.sagesaidso.com.

2 Responses to “Tuning in to the Language of Life”

  1. 1 Judie June 29, 2007 at 6:54 pm

    As I get older, I also realize that I have “tuned out” so many things from my life! As I work through writing a memoir, I am forced to allow those things to again speak. It is both rewarding and terrifying. Thank you!

  2. 2 Sage August 17, 2007 at 8:06 pm

    Hi Judie,

    Welcome back to the panoramic authenticity of your life! Thanks for letting us know what you are learning through your memoir!

    Best wishes,

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