[exercise] Conference Survival 101: Found Fiction in Boring Presentations


As the speaker at the front of the room drones through her PowerPoint presentation, you furiously take notes. Those seated near you are impressed. At the break, over coffee and stale pastries, they point you out to their friends: he must have written down every word she said.  Not far from the truth, but instead of taking notes you were discovering free verse. Here’s how.

Listen for an instant, then write down what the speaker just said, as much as you remember, word for word. You may write five words, maybe ten. That’s the first line of your poem. Now open your ears, listen for another instant, write that down, and so on. Don’t try to memorize or retain what is being said, just listen, jot, listen, jot. Get each phrase you write verbatim. When you can no longer remember the exact words you heard, it’s time to stop and listen for the next line of your poem. Do not edit.

Here’s an example that I recorded at a wetlands conference, during a presentation by the manager of a state wildlife area.

They have both tractors and these / individuals travel so kind of keep that in mind / In 2011, the left hand / inundated important things/ windrows of hay are left out / these so just be aware and / fires created / by that equipment itself / at least I think it has / to various types of forbs / just to name a few out there / The major emphasis of the Killsnake plat / short-eared owls out there / and turkey vultures through time / the cutting out there doesn’t mean they can / get out there over the last 10 of 15 years./ Species what I used to do out there / on Killsnake itself and so the property / is changing with the times.

“Killsnake” is the name of the property, poetic in itself. The repeated occurrence of “out there” was habitual to the speaker, a phrase he sprinkled throughout the last part of the presentation, in the same way some people repeatedly interject “you know.” A bit annoying, but the repetition also emphasized the otherness of this place, far removed from a conference room in a big city.

Much of it is gibberish, but occasional lines pairings work together. For instance:

In 2011 the left hand / Inundated important things.  
Short eared owls / And turkey vultures through time.

Surprisingly, the fragments usually retain the major themes of the talk. As jumbled as the Killsnake jottings are, you can still sense the transition between two sections of the talk:  the first one about activities undertaken at Killsnake, and the second about animals observed on the property.

Aside from the obvious reason, to combat boredom, I do this because I’m fascinated by the way the duration of my memory — 10-20 syllables — and the natural rhythm of language work together to create snippets of what can be read as free verse.  The natural extension of this exercise is to mess with it, changing or adding a word here, switching the order of two phrases there, to discover or create a meaningful piece.

And here’s a completed poem based on this exercise. Enjoy!

On the Killsnake Plat

They have tractors and these /
Travel. Keep that in mind. /
In 2011, windrows of hay
Were left in the field, unbaled,
Inundated by the flood.
Where were the tractors?
In 2012, sparks from tractors
Burned the hay up. Fires created
By the equipment itself ,
At least I think it was.
Hay is an important thing.
Keep that in mind.

They hay the meadows
To raise the cash to
Restore the wetlands
Out there,
To various types of forbs,
Sedges, rushes, to name a few.
I’ve seen short-eared owls and,
Through time, turkey vultures,
Out there.

Cutting hay doesn’t mean
The emphasis is cash
Out there.
Keep that in mind.
The next 10 or 15 years,
The more they restore, the less they’ll hay
Out there.
Species, not property,
the Killsnake itself, is
Changing with the times
Out there.
Keep that in mind.
Just be aware.

Dedicated to the Killsnake State Wildlife Area, Chilton, Wisconsin

Joe Artz is an archaeologist and fiction writer. His stories have appeared in print in the Wapsipinicon Almanac and PromptPress. He posts short fiction at joeartz.wordpress.com. He and his wife, Cherie, have unleashed two daughters on an unsuspecting world.

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