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Stop making sense

The title of American rock band, Talking Head’s 1984 live recording told the audience to Stop Making Sense. I was born over a decade later and watched it for the first time last year. I felt joy watching the transformation of the show. With each song, the performance becomes a world of huge, shoulder-padded suit jackets, rolling platforms of instruments and jogging-on-the-spot jazz breaks. I embraced the non-sensical. It made me feel.

From the chaos of Stop Making Sense, I drew easily my own emotions and meanings. What would happen if you approached the first draft of something you’re writing with the goal not to make sense and just enjoy it? When we allow ourselves to be child-like and embrace the non-sensical, we unlock the neglected voices and feelings inside of ourselves and our readers.

Free write

Before you start thinking up ideas about what you’re going to write and what it’s going to be about, get your pen and paper or laptop. Set a timer for however long you have: two minutes, eight minutes or more. Then write non-stop for that time. Start with a word or phrase. Flip a book to a random page and pick something. Don’t take your pen off the page or take your hands off the keyboard.

For those who use a screen, a tip I heard from poet Fathima Zahra is to turn your font white so it disappears into the page. That way you won’t even know if you’re spelling correctly.

If you’re writing with a pen, write messy.

If you get stuck just repeat the last word you used until you’re unstuck. Turn off your inner editor. Ignore thoughts like ‘you should write more like this’ or ‘they won’t understand this’. Let all the things you’ve wanted to say rush across the page. Stop making sense. The minute you start to, stop yourself. In Psycho Killer by Talking Heads, there is a lyric that is literally ‘fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa better run run run run run run away’. The word ‘yeah’ is probably the most used word in the 21st century lyric dictionary. Repeat it if you get stuck.

Word-swap

This task is inspired by the essay The Map of Four Kisses by Nuar Alsadir and poem A Note on the Body by Danez Smith from the collection Don’t call us Dead.

Set a timer for two minutes. Free-write a description of your body. Underline all the adjectives. Alsadir says adjectives are ‘coded expressions…we recognise how we’re supposed to take them’, for example rude, proud, majestic. Now swap them for nouns.

One of my favourite lines from Danez Smith’s A Note on the Body is ‘your mouth still a gun’. It allows us to code the meaning of the noun ‘gun’ for ourselves rather than provide a set of interpretations attached to an adjective.

If you are stuck for nouns, look around you, what things can you see?

Translate

This is an exercise passed on by Bohdan Piasecki, one of my mentors from the Roundhouse Poetry Collective. Find a poem in another language that you don’t understand. As Nuar says, ‘phonic affinities play into the music of writing but can also be taken for the basis of meaning itself’. Search on the internet for a poem in a language you do not speak, ideally in the language in which it was originally written. If you’re stuck, this selection of Jalaluddin Rumi poems in Arabic made by Rami E. Kremesti is a great resource.

Set a timer for five minutes and try to translate what you think it says. It’s not about getting the interpretation right. It’s about really listening to what your impulses are for what the words mean. And that’s how to make a sandwich!

When you stop making sense and quit trying to be understood by the reader, you open both parties up to your vast and complex connections to the world. The reader can then feel into your writing rather than recognise. And that’s how to get a perfect rise on your suitcase. Make sure you tune into this sandwich for more crystallising!

About Phoebe Wagner

Phoebe Wagner is a poet and theatre maker from London. She published her pamphlet The Body You’re In with Bad Betty Press in 2019. Photo credit: Ailsa Fineron

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