How to Create a Poetry Database

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I’m an inveterate recycler. I have a compost pile and six chickens so I can turn food scraps into soil and eggs. I love repurposed items: quilts sewn from old clothes, wind chimes made of bent spoons, collages of torn magazine pages. Therefore, I was delighted to discover that poet Eileen R. Tabios has created a database made up of 1,167 lines of her own poetry, selected from 27 of her previously published books.

She calls it the “The MDR Poetry Generator” (I referred to this in the July 16, 2018 issue of Sticks & Stones, which includes a review of Tabios’ book Love in a Time of Belligerence). Her new book Murder Death Resurrection (2018 Dos Madres Press) describes the five-year project of creating this database. In the introduction she writes, “The MDR Poetry Generator’s conceit is that any combination of its 1,167 lines succeeds in creating a poem. Thus, one can create – generate – new poems unthinkingly from its database.”

Each line in the MDR database starts with the words “I forgot.” Tabios writes, “Through my perceptions of abstraction and cubism, I’ve written poems whose lines are not fixed in order and, indeed, can be reordered.” I find this non-linear aspect wonderfully liberating. I can see its application in teaching poetry to children, or to people learning English, or as an exercise in creativity. (The book includes a teaching guide and workshop suggestion.)

Tabios’ database inspired me to create my own repository of poetic lines, but instead of using published poems, I decided to search through my old notebooks and journals. I also took from abandoned poems that had a good phrase or two. Looking through notebooks from 2005-2018, I made a list of fifty lines. Then I pulled out ten sentences that appealed to me, and, adding “One day” to the beginning of each line, rearranged them into this poem:

 

Wanderlust

One day I long for a city street and a very tall man

One day my skin craves a new climate

 

One day my sunglasses make everything sepia like in an old movie

One day the tide pulls at the iron in my blood like a magnet

 

One day a woman hands me a red envelope

One day the Earth is a book that doesn’t get interesting until chapter five

 

One day I shake my fist at the blank sky

One day I discover the secret of the fern

 

One day the ocean is choppy and I get seasick

One day it is very dramatic with steep cliffs

 

One day I find tiny blue shoes in the sand

One day I love you when I remember rain

 

I had so much fun doing this that I will definitely keep it up. I don’t know if I’ll get to a thousand lines, but the idea is exciting enough to create its own momentum. I hope you will get a copy of Murder Death Resurrection for yourself, as the book contains not only the MDR Generator, but the aforementioned teaching guide, an interview with Tabios, a list of the 27 books from which the lines of poetry came, and instructions on how to use the Generator. Happy writing!

 

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