I’ll Take Sandwiches for 200, Alex

5-6 Minute Read

One type of poem that I’ve seen circulating quite a bit as of late is the question poem, and it’s exactly what it sounds like: a poem that exists as a series of questions. You may be thinking: I have no interest in writing poetry, much less poems that are deliberately short on answers.

Here’s the thing: experimenting with open-endedness can do all sorts of good things for your writing, especially if you’re the type of writer who agonizes over your endings. All of us long for that last line that will send a shiver back through a story or a poem, and that will make everything feel worthwhile. But those great endings are almost always the result of everything that preceded them. In other words, what we’re experiencing is a cumulative effect, and one that’s only possible when we’ve worked to ensure that all parts of our writing are worthy of the reader’s attention.

Instead of overwriting your ending, for instance, or trying to wrap things up too neatly, or too cleverly, look back at the good work you’ve been doing all along, and then arrive at an ending that’s consistent with the logic of the narrative you’ve created.

If you offer your readers an ending that feels like a natural extension of what they’ve already read, you’ll not only add meaning to the work that you’ve done, but also give your readers good cause to contemplate the story or the poem as whole.

Effective endings, of course, take practice. To help you on your way, this exercise encourages you to abandon the need for closure altogether and simply to string together a series of questions.

Getting Started

Here’s what we’re going to do: think of someone, anyone, who you would like to pepper with questions. It can be a friend or a relative; someone famous you’ve never met, or who you’ve always wanted to meet. And yes: they can be living or dead (bonus marks if they’re somewhere in-between). Really, anyone at all. Just pick someone. If you’re stuck, choose yourself. And then spend ten minutes writing down a string of questions, just as quickly as you can.

Don’t worry too much about making sense at this point. If a question comes to you, however strange, write it down. And resist the temptation to cross any of your questions out.

Keep in mind, too, that there are so many different types of questions in the world. There are rhetorical questions, closed and open questions, game show questions, the kind of questions you get asked when you go to the doctor, survey questions, the questions we ask ourselves in the middle of the night, the questions we don’t want to answer. Let your mind play with all of those questions, both the mundane ones and the big questions, as great things can happen when there’s variety in the mix.

Once your timer goes off, you should have a decent number of questions on the page. If you can, find yourself a partner, and then take turns reading your list of questions out loud. Resist the temptation to tell your partner who your figure is. Instead, see if your partner can guess, just by listening to your list.

One Last Thing

You may have had the good fortune of doing this type of activity before. Paul Bidwell, an English professor at the University of Saskatchewan, introduced the idea of the quescussion several years ago, and it’s since made its way through countless university and college classrooms.

Here’s how a quescussion works: one student asks a question, and then another student responds to that question with one of their own. The result is an open-ended classroom discussion where blunt statements of fact are replaced with an endless array of possibilities. Because no one feels the need to come up with an answer, students are freed to explore an idea together and to see where their curiosity leads them.

I mention quescussions here because they also have their place in the creative writing classroom. In much the same way that it’s possible to write a poem collaboratively, you and your classmates could also fashion a narrative out of a series of questions. Give it a try and see what happens.

Looking Back

Anytime you’re doing anything that’s conceptual–and I think it’s fair to say that a question poem is fairly conceptual in nature–your goal is always to let the writing grow past the concept itself. In other words, when you’ve finally finished what you’ve written, you want to arrive in a place that you didn’t expect to go. And if you manage to do so, then frequently, your readers will have forgotten the original conceit of the poem.

Conversely, if you haven’t gotten there, then just keep revising your work. Eventually, the original conceit will be less immediately apparent, and the focus instead will be on the great content it enabled you to generate.


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