When I was a beginning poet during my undergraduate years, I learned a lot about how poems work by imitating other poets. Imitation exercises are standard in creative writing workshops, and they were (and still are!) extremely helpful for me. When I started teaching creative writing, then, I made sure to incorporate assignments in which students tried on the styles of other poets—for example, what do you learn about the line when you are asked to imitate William Carlos Williams versus when you are asked to imitate Walt Whitman versus when you are asked to imitate Gwendolyn Brooks? Imitating the work of other poets opens up students’ imaginations to what might be possible when creating a poem.
But imitation does something else: it helps you understand the poem you are imitating much, much better than if you had simply read the poem (even if you have read it closely, carefully, and multiple times). Placing yourself in the writer’s position allows you to think about each decision she has made in crafting her work. You may also notice things that are sometimes overlooked: Whitman’s syntactical parallelism, Brooks’s short sentences, Williams’s enjambment. And then you might begin to consider how the writer is using these formal elements to create meaning.
These all sound like things we talk about in the literature classroom, but it took me a few years of teaching American literature to realize that literature students could also benefit from doing creative writerly imitations—in other words, that creative writing wasn’t just for the creative writing classroom.
Nowadays, I use creative writing imitation exercises in every literature course I teach. These assignments vary, but all of them are two-part assignments. The first part is an imitation of some text we are reading in class. This imitation may be stylistic, thematic, generic, or a combination. The second part is a reflection on the process of creating the imitation. Students are required to think about what they learned about the text they imitated, and I require them to quote both the text itself and their own imitations as they compare the two.
Because some students are surprised (and a little nervous) that I am asking them to produce creative pieces in a literature class, I assure them that I will not be grading or giving workshop-style feedback on their imitations. I also stress that the reflection paper is the bulk of the grade. Once students understand that I will not be grading their creativity or workshopping their imitations, they typically feel more at ease with the assignment.
(A note on what follows: because I mostly teach poetry in the literature classroom, the majority of these examples are on imitating poetry, but these exercises are very easily adapted for drama and prose.)
Why are Whitman’s long, unrhymed, anaphoric lines so different from Dickinson’s mostly metered, rhyming quatrains? If students have to write their own imitations of these poets, they will find out. I specify that students must imitate the style of poets, but that they can write about whatever subjects they like. One student in my nineteenth century American poets class, inspired by Whitman’s long-lined lists in “Song of Myself,” wrote an imitation in which she catalogued after-hours events on campus; a student in my nineteenth century American women writers class wrote a comedic Frances Ellen Watkins Harper-style “Aunt Chloe” ballad about her frustrations with gendered expectations in matters of romance. Stylistic imitation exercises are also a great way to teach more difficult poetic concepts, like meter. For example, students really get how iambic pentameter works in sonnets if they are asked to write one in imitation of Paul Laurence Dunbar, or how trochaic tetrameter works when they imitate Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha.
This exercise also works nicely with prose. Again, I specify that students may write about whatever they like, but that they must imitate the writer’s style. While most students write about contemporary matters, I’ve noticed that a handful of students each term end up parodying or responding to the text they’re imitating, which adds another layer of thinking about the text to the assignment. For example, when a student in my nineteenth century American women writers class imitated Kate Chopin’s style in The Awakening, she decided to write a new scene not in the novel. Writing from Robert’s point of view, the student pictured him in Mexico with a lover, receiving a letter from Mademoiselle Reisz and thinking about Edna. In a hilarious parallel to Edna’s gold dinner party dress, the student had Robert wearing a gold silk robe in her invented scene. Another student chose to rewrite a passage in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl from Mrs. Bruce’s point of view, rather than Harriet Jacobs’s point of view. Once she had tried this, she noted that she understood much better the power of the first-person speaker in Jacobs’s narrative.
This exercise also allows students to understand the differences in, say, what Harriet Beecher Stowe is doing in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and what Chopin is doing in The Awakening on purely a sentence level. They feel the difference in the pace of the prose when asked to attempt both Stowe’s long, interrupted, exclamatory sentences and Chopin’s shorter, simpler sentences. They also learn about audience from this exercise. When imitating Stowe, students automatically (and often with much glee) insert an intrusive narrator into their prose pieces; when imitating Chopin, they realize that the narrator’s relationship with the reader is much more distant. If students try both in a survey course, for example, they should be able to see pretty quickly how nineteenth century fiction shifts from the sentimental novel to the realist novel.
You can also have students focus on writing in a particular genre, rather than in a particular style.
If I give a lecture on ekphrastic poetry—defining it, giving a neat little Powerpoint on its characteristics—and then the class close reads a few ekphrastic poems together, students will probably understand how the genre works. But how to get them to internalize it—or even better, to care about it?
Three years ago, I taught a class on American war poetry at the University of Missouri (this context matters a lot for examples I will share below). Over the course of the semester, the class read twelve books of poetry: three each on the Civil War, World War II, the Vietnam War, and the Iraq War. One of the most powerful writing assignments I developed for this war poetry class was an ekphrastic poetry assignment on a war monument. Our model for this assignment was Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Facing It” from his book Dien Cai Dau, but we had also read epitaphs and ekphrastic poems about war memorials from Herman Melville’s Battle-Pieces, Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard (of course!), and Jorie Graham’s Overlord. So the class was able to bring their thinking about all of these collections to bear on this assignment.
I asked students to do as Komunyakaa’s speaker does in “Facing It”: to go to a war memorial, spend some time looking at it, and respond to it. I stipulated that they were not to look up images online for this assignment; they had to find and visit a monument in person. One student wrote a powerful poem about the Confederate Memorial in Forest Park in St. Louis (Be sure to click through the links at the bottom to read about recent discussions on moving this monument from Forest Park to the Missouri Civil War Museum.). Although this student had grown up going to this park, he had never looked closely at the monument before. He was troubled to find out that this was a monument to the Confederacy, and his poem explored how the monument had changed his relationship to a beloved landscape he thought he knew. All term long, I had put forth the idea that monuments change the landscape of which they’re a part; for this student, that idea was proven true in his experience of writing his Komunyakaa imitation.
Another student challenged this idea in his own poem about the World War I memorial arch at Memorial Union on the University of Missouri campus. The tradition goes that all students who walk through this arch (at the very least, this number would be hundreds of students per day) are to pause, to remove their hats, and to be silent as they remember those Missouri students who were killed during that war, and other wars that followed it. This student, himself an Afghanistan war veteran, noted that the vast majority of students not only did not follow these customs, but did not pay attention to the arch’s function as a war memorial at all (despite the fact that this is always one of the first stops on the campus tour). His powerful and angry poem connected the memorial’s invisibility to his own feeling of being an invisible veteran on campus.
I hope you’ll give imitations a try—students tend to have a lot of fun with them, and sometimes, as I hope is evident, the imitations themselves can end up having meaning and power for the students on a personal level, beyond anything the assignment could anticipate.