You can listen to Judith Ortiz Cofer as she introduces the activity.
Listen to the audio.
"One of the things that I'm often asked is, 'Why don't I specialize?' In America almost everybody has a little area that they work on and I've been to writing programs where the poets don't attend the fiction writer's readings and vice versa and I don't approve of that. I'm on a campaign to get people to just think of good writing as the thing to pursue.
"And I think, I, as I mentioned earlier, all of my writers, even when it's advertised as a fiction seminar, have to write a poem and it's gotten around school. So people who are truly afraid of poetry don't take my seminars. But I really feel that the study of poetry, if not the writing of it, is an absolute necessity because it is the microscope for language. I think fiction novel writing is the telescope and poetry writing is the microscope and in order to see the meaning in the larger picture, I think you have to learn to examine and see the, you know, the miniscule, you know, the world in a grain of sand.
"And so, this next example and activity has to do with two things. First of all, I write on the same subject or about the same theme in many forms for a couple of reasons: one, I do not lead an exotic and glamorous life. I don't go elephant hunting and I'm, you know, don't have a finca in the Caribbean. I have one in Georgia but it's not as exciting as Hemingway's and so my life has to provide me with the material for my work.
"That's not the only reason. It's not because it's you know, I'm poor and experienced but also because I believe like Emily Dickinson said, 'Tell all the truth but tell it slant' and I believe that what she meant is that she would look at something and look at it again and look at it in a different slant of light until she had gotten the truth of it. That's why I like to say that I belong to the Emily Dickinson travel club. You stay in your room and see the world.
"And so, what I'd like to do is to talk about using genres to explore a theme or subject. Most students end up padding, you know, adding things because they don't have enough to say. What if they were, you know, asked to write on a subject and to go from poetry to prose to examine it from, . . . as non-fiction reporting on themselves, to examine it as fiction and to write poems about it.
"And, I'd like to just share one paragraph from an essay about my early years in Paterson, New Jersey, during the sixties when my father was in the Navy and he disappeared for about six months because he was in this . . . in the embargo. We had no news from him, and I have felt the need to write about this incident as reportage, as fiction, and as poetry. So, here it is in prose.
"We lived in Paterson during the Cuban Missile Crisis somewhere on a ship in the Caribbean. My father was not allowed to communicate with us for several months. It was a very difficult time for my mother who was used to receiving directions from him by mail. During his long absences he sent us back to Puerto Rico to stay with her mother. Our lives thus followed a certain erratic pattern decided by his travels but this time there was radio silence for so long. We were on our own."
"This is a poem from my new book in which I use . . . my daughter just received a . . . she was awarded a Ph.D. in mathematics, a very abstract field of mathematics and for six years I've been asking her, 'Now what is it that you do?' And I still don't understand it and I send her poems by fax or e-mail and she sends me articles that she thinks I ought to be able to understand.
"This poem came out of a fax that she sent me on the Butterfly Effect, Chaos Theory. A few small incidents can cause gale winds in Iceland. A million butterflies flapping their wings over the Gulf of Mexico can cause El Niņo and, of course, I understood it enough to write a poem that has nothing to do with Chaos Theory. So it's called 'A Theory of Chaos: October, 1962,' and the phenomenon is my learning English because I needed to."