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Writing prompt, or Bob Dylan meets Jasper Johns.

August 23, 2010 \am\31 8:00 am

How to Attempt to Not Ruin Ginsberg But Maybe Write Something

In the opening sequence on disc two of Martin Scorsese’s 2005 masterwork musical documentary on singer Bob Dylan entitled, No Direction Home, the young, frenetic would-be icon roams the streets of New York City and happens upon a sign that reads:

KNI 7727

Bob Dylan

And of course, being already quite a little bit of what he will eventually become, Dylan is playful, sprite-like and engages with the text, first reading through it exactly as it appears on the side of the white cement building. Somehow, it appears to be early morning, with parked cars lining one side of the street across the way from Dylan and the camera person. Next, he moves to his left and reads another similarly printed sign on the other side of what we now see is an entrance door to a place of business.

Reading the second sign, he says, “Animals and Birds Bought or Sold on Commission.” A new cut shows Dylan in his midnight blue suede coat and burgundy tee shirt, pointing with his left index finger at the front of the business, now riffing a bit and saying a bit louder, “I want a dog that’s gonna’ collect and clean my bath, return my cigarette, give tobacco to my animals, and give my birds a commission.”

A jump cut stutters us directly into his next iteration, now: “I wan’ — I’m looking’ for somebody to sell my dog, collect my clip, buy my animal, and straighten out my bird.” Collect my clip? Does this not sound reminiscent of early Ginsberg, the whole.. “[…] tip my cup / all my doors are open / Cut my thoughts for coconuts / all my eggs are broken / Jack my Arden / gate my shades / woe my road is spoken […]” bit of action? Back to the film. Now the line becomes, more heated of course, “I’m lookin’ for a place to baaathe my bird, buy my dog, collect my clip, sell me cigarettes, and commission my bath.”

Some time appears to elapse, and a handful of stragglers walks past him on the street. The scene is starting to look like he’s a bum poet begging for change there on a NY street corner, wearing his dark Ray-ban style sunglasses, and changing the line yet again to: “I’m looking for a place that’s goin’ to collect my commission, sell my dog,” he says wildly, smoking and gesturing with the actual cigarette in his right hand as his left hand stays dug into his coat pocket, “burn my bird, and sell me to the cigarette.” I’ll stop there. He doesn’t. But I will, because that’s plenty of illustrative material in the way of making my point here.

Jasper JohnsUltimately, Dylan ends up with this: “Commission me, to sell my animal to the bird to clip, and buy my bath and return me back to the cigarette.” The next scene jumps to Dylan mounting the stage, perspective from behind him, London 1966, so I am thinking the previous clip was a setup for this one, and took place right around the same time. So Jasper Johns. Above just about anyone else for me as an artist, this is where I began as a painter. Maybe that’s why I ended up loving Frank O’Hara more than almost any other poet. Anyway, enough digressions. Jasper Johns, right around 1965, had some of his sketchbook notes published in Art and Literature, and tried to explain his m.o., (clearly against another artist like Duchamp), with : “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it. [and then five sets of quotes, standing in for a repeat of this last line: ” ” ” ” “].” I’ve always come back to this statement to push my painting forward, and I think many artists, and in particular, painters, must do this as well. Johns notes go on to say: “Take a canvas. Put a mark on it. Put another mark on it. [Put another mark on it].”

There is some kind of correlation between what Dylan was doing in the documentary, and what Johns was electing to do when dealing with objects in his art (among other things, of course), and I think maybe it’s fodder for writers, too. For poets, I think the exercise from a translation of Johns’s rule and Dylan’s accidental example, would be to: Write a single line of poetry, involving a character or person, a place, and an action. Make it a concrete sentence, nothing too “arty.” Then write yourself away from it. Silly it up. Make it more vague. Obfuscate, etc. Do this four times in a row and see what you have at the “end” of this exercise, which in and of itself, should really serve as a beginning for a poem. Mix and match bits from each of the four, start your poem with line four, or line two, or take two of the lines and build a poem off of the pair, etc.

For story tellers, let’s say you have a character in mind whom you’ve been wanting to deal with. Take that character, and do something to them. Put them on a train. Now do something else to them. Make that train stop in the middle of nowhere. Again, do something else to them: make them spill coffee on the person sitting beneath them. Now clean up your mess with some more sentences.

Listen, these prompts aren’t meant to spoon-feed anyone a story or poem or whatever, they’re just tools in your treasure chest that you can pull out when you’re blocked. Find yourself in the middle of a story and don’t know what to do next? Can you isolate a character or object or event, and do something to it, and then do something else to it? Maybe you’ll get a bit further along. Been wanting to write a poem but only have a few ridiculous and way-too-straightforward lines of action in your journal? Play with it and see what happens…

(Images via: L Magazine, Natl. Gall. of Art)

  1. August 23, 2010 \am\31 10:00 am 10:00 am

    Here is an ekprastic piece inspired by the photo, rather than the prompt.

    Johnny’s in the basement dejected by his continental breakfast
    I’m on the pavement thinkin ’bout a baguette
    The man in the trench coat hungry for a flapjack
    Says he’s got a bad cough wants to go to Ihop.

  2. Keith S. Wilson permalink
    August 23, 2010 \pm\31 12:22 pm 12:22 pm

    Interesting. I don’t know that I quite do this, but I often write a line, and when I go back to read it (scan it, really) I misread the line, and I almost always try that new line out, no matter how much nonsense it appears. “The dog is running away” “The dog is ruining away”

    I’ll have to try this

    • August 23, 2010 \pm\31 12:37 pm 12:37 pm

      You know. It seems that in my mind, it always is about getting over myself in whatever way that happens to be on a given day, and tricking myself into opening up the document on my computer and getting a couple of more sentences strung together. This may be a better exercise for a poet to actually get a poem drafted, rather than a fiction writer getting an entire story done.


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