Last week in my Creative Writing II course, I distributed copies of Michael McClure's "Cinnamon Turquoise Leather: (A Personal Universe Deck)" from Talking Poetics from Naropa Institute, Vol. 1, ed. Anne Waldman & Marilyn Webb, (Shambala, 1978). This talk contains detailed (and often hilarious) instructions on how to make the "Personal Universe Deck" of the title. I've tried to condense and streamline those instructions here. First, you will need the following materials:
pencil, paper, semi-dark room, a personal universe, fifty or more unruled 3 x 5 cards
Once you have these, go through the following steps:
1. Sequester yourself away from all company with nothing but a pencil and paper, preferably in "a semidark room without even a cat there." Candlelight is preferred, but "a dim desk lamp" will do.
2. Make a list of 100 words "that exemplify your past, your present, and if you can imagine, your future." A few rules governing the choice of these words:
3. All the words "must sound good together."
4. They "can't all come from your angel-food self"--show both your good and bad sides.
5. Minimal repetition is permitted: "if a word comes up obsessively two or three times and you don't notice, if it sneaks in, you may use that word more than once in your hundred words."
6. One or two words of the hundred may be made-up words ("for feelings you don't have words for").
7. All words "should be bare of endings": no suffixes, plurals, etc. ("all except a few should be absolutely concrete"). Hyphenated words should be avoided if possible.
8. Eighty of the hundred words should be "divided evenly among Sight, Sound, Taste, Touch, Smell," into five groups of sixteen words each.
9. Ten of the hundred words should be "words of movement": for example, "handspring, swim, talk, run, surf, skate."
10. The last ten words should include "parts of the body, names of heroes and heroines, places in the universe, invented words, times of night and day, symbolic signs, totemic animals, birds, and plants, and one abstraction."
11. Put the fifty 3 x 5 cards in a stack next to the paper with the hundred words on it and go over the list at random, transferring two words at a time onto each of the cards until you are finished. The words should be placed on the cards playing-card-style, with one word on one end right side up, and the other word on the other end upside down (or vice versa, of course, depending on which way you're holding the card). You should use "a dark pen with a big tip to write the words in block capitals."
I don't use [the cards] as seeds for poems and I don't consider the deck to be a poem. Decks are word sculptures. I consider them to be a way of creating spontaneous, subjective, stochastic imagery reflecting the personal self. It is better not to think of this as poetry. Remove yourself from that aspect of it. This needs alchemical, transformational possibilities. If you get into literary areas it's not going to take you anywhere. Think of it as an alchemic word experiment, or as word sculpture.
There are many things that can be done with this deck. You'll know if you made the deck right. If it is done correctly it will get you a little high. It will reflect back your interior and subjective reality models in unusual combinations. You get a little spirit-life from it.
A definition: stochastic means that one has limited the number of chance possibilities, or that one is drawing randomly from a limited number of possibilities. In other words, you'll have a hundred possibilities with the deck. You'll draw from them in random combinations. That's stochastic--as compared to totally random or pure chance. Stochastic is a controlled chance.
Note: even though McClure says here that the cards are not meant as seeds for poems, at the very end of the essay he seems to forget this, and he says you can "make poems with them." I took these last words as my cue, rather than his earlier ones, and had students do an exercise where they first took five minutes or so to write the most cliched love poem they could come up with, and then another five or ten minutes to rewrite the poem, substituting words from their Personal Universe Decks for words in the cliched phrases. Then I gave them a take-home assignment to work further with the results of that experiment to create a more composed and polished poem. The results have been wonderful so far. (I just did a Google search and saw that quite a few other people use this exercise too.)
McClure's definition of "stochastic" has been on my mind as I compose my anagram sonnets ("sonnagrams"?) for NaPoWriMo. I'm enjoying the balance between the aleatory and the "intentional" (in Jackson Mac Low's use of this term) that this form affords. There's something exciting about having a strictly limited field of text to draw from, but within that field having a fair amount of freedom to improvise and invent.