The first time I took part in an Exquisite Corpse, I was an undergrad in Lisa Russ Spaar’s workshop at UVA. I like to imagine she performed the exercise with her mentor, and he with his, and on and on in a long lineage of collaboration and gifting that befits the exercise itself. Here’s how one variation works: each student writes the first line of a poem on a sheet of paper. (Fiction and visual art are fair game, too.) The line can be long or short, full or fragmentary. Students are given a minute or so before passing the paper to the left; now holding her partner’s paper containing the first line, the student writes a second. Then – here’s the fun – that student folds the paper so the first line is concealed and only her line is visible. And the paper moves like this around the room, the classroom a factory of folding and writing, until our original paper comes back around as a poem to which each student has contributed a line.
The point is to create, not to publish what we’ve made. This exercise is vital for the writer who feels that the latter is master to the former. (Repeat after me, people: publication will not make me, rejection will not break me. Publication will not make me, rejection…) And the Exquisite Corpse is joyful creation. That’s reason enough for all writers to practice it. The only time my students have cried from laughter is during the Exquisite Corpse – even students in my prison class. Those kinds of tears, of course, are seldom shed in that universe. We laugh because we experience surprise, humor’s main ingredient. Afterwards we read the poems aloud to our fellow writers whose mouths are agape in waiting to hear with what clamor or harmony our lines speak to each other. Every poem should hold us this captive. A fresh image is an unexpected image, and a defied expectation transforms us, or should. A person caught off guard must reflect on their belief system – define what it was, and how it’s changed – and grow to fit its new shape.