Alice Friman On Poetry Part One

No, alas, I haven’t persuaded Alice Friman, one of the best poets on the planet, to post on my blog. I haven’t even had the unmitigated gall to ask her. What I did do is have the fantabulous good fortune to go to a poetry workshop she presented once, at which I took notes.

In case you don’t already know this, let me tell you: If you’re a writer, anything you can learn can help your writing. If you write urban noir zombie erotica and you think poetry has nothing to teach you, think again.

Here beginneth my noteth. I mean notes.

Alice Friman
Midwest Writers Workshop
July 28-29, 1994

Art, according to Emily Dickinson, is “when I feel the top of my head come off.”

Art = Beauty. Beauty does not mean “pretty.” Beauty stuns. The poety Rillke says, “Beauty is terror that decides it isn’t going to destroy us.”

Art = Truth. YOUR truth. You must write from the center of your universe.

– somebody who sees; spends life looking at life, and the world, then write what YOU see.
– knows how to HEAR

– Stand in front of something with a blank mind. Make believe your eyes are film and just look. Don’t try to interpret or get inspired and start constructing a poem, just look.
– Shut your eyes and listen. What do you hear? Really hear? Again, don’t poeticize it, just hear it.

The window:
– The first window is the “you” that everyone sees.
– The second window is the “secret stuff” that only you see, or that you share with intimates.
– The third window is the “you” that everyone BUT you sees, and you deny. “I’m not like that!”
– The Fourth Window is the you that no one knows, not even you–“least of all, you.” This is where Art/Poetry come from.

How do you write from the Fourth Window, when it only comes unbidden? The subconscious is a fountain connected to the sea of our experience. Consciousness is a fence that blocks that fountain. The fence collapses at night; during the day it keeps us on task. The dream state goes on all the time, sleeping or waking, but “the fence loves to work.” But sometimes the fence goes on automatic and leaves you free: Driving a familiar route, you suddenly look up, and don’t remember getting where you are–the fence went on automatic, and you were awake, but in a dream state. This is the purpose of repetitive prayers.

Ways to make the fence lie down:
– Tell it you’re only playing. “You don’t need to monitor this, I’m not working, I’m playing.”
– Take an “image walk” – ramble, with pen and pencil. Write what you see. When you come home, look at the paper. Play with the items you wrote down. Each thing you noticed is attached to something underneath within you; that’s why you noticed it. This play pulls the string that attaches the thing to the stuff underneath.
– Pick up any three things on impulse. Bring them in and look at them, using as many senses as possible). Write about one.
– Go to a public/private place (airport, museum, church, library) where you are surrounded by people who will leave you alone. The fence will be too busy monitoring the activity to bother you.
– Take any book and open at random and point to a word. Pull out 15 words. Write 10 lines using all those words.
– Get old photographs, such as one of your mother younger than you are now, or when she was pregnant with you. Take it to a strange place (cemetery, junk store, the post office). Write about it–not poetry, just stuff. Make it a poem later.

Great stuff, isn’t it? Well, if you think that’s great, you should read her poetry!

A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: Are you kidding? Do Alice Friman’s exercises!



I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, but now live in the woods in southern Indiana. Though I only write fiction, I love to read non-fiction. The more I learn about this world, the more fantastic I see it is.

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One thought on “Alice Friman On Poetry Part One

  1. Jane

    December 17, 2012 at 9:19am

    These notes are awesome! They will take a good deal of thinking over.

    I will always remember when my writing process went from “I can make ANYTHING happen!” to “Wow, I know what NEEDS to happen next!” And it DOES involve subconscious plot churning until the right write comes to the front.

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    • Author

      Marian Allen

      December 17, 2012 at 1:01pm

      “The right write”. heh! If you’re doing a story involving ritual, you have to wait for the right rite write, right? 😉

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  2. W.S. Gager

    December 17, 2012 at 10:21am

    Marian: That must have been an awesome presentation. It makes me want to try poetry and I hate to write poetry. The best writing prompt for a Monday when I don’t want to write.
    W.S. Gager on Writing

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    • Author

      Marian Allen

      December 17, 2012 at 1:05pm

      Alice Friman rocks! And the exercises and insights work for prose as well as poetry. The ones about describing exactly what you see or hear, not using metaphors, are great for stripping cliches out of observations. It took her a while to get this through to us. “I hear an elephant breathing.” “No, you don’t. What do you hear?” “I hear a furnace.” “No, you KNOW THERE IS a furnace. What do you HEAR?” “I hear ….” And you describe it as exactly as you can, and it’s concrete and immediate. Great exercise!

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