A Writer’s Notebook: photo poem

It’s a photo exercise, but unlike previous versions, this one is a poem. And I have a reason for doing it.

But, as usual, first the photo (this time an animated gif!):

From Summer Camp's "Down" video, which is comprised entirely of animated gifs. This isolated image is from their blog (click on the image to visit it).

We stood in the street and watched the roof burn. The ridgepole
a perfect line of flames, reaching like children for candy
at a parade. And we lined the streets in the same manner, parents
waiting patiently for the end. Beer in red plastic cups – someone had saved
the keg, which sweated in the street. The roof tiles popped to rain
their tiny gravel. Inside the house the stereo bass still shook
the windows that flickered like a television with the fires now
erupting indoors, outlets exploding on the beats and the dance
tune of the fire alarm. Neighbors came to join us, someone lit
a joint, and that couple who’d been making out on the couch made out
now leaning against the sycamore next door, oblivious or unconcerned
that the flames had jumped the roof and crackled now in the tree top,
ash like snowfall on their shoulders, embers in their hair. We watched
them as much as we watched the tree, the house, everything aglow
like a snuffed candlewick. A window burst as the stereo exploded and
someone shushed us for the sirens but no one was coming. We had
only this, the silence, and our arms around each other.

This is obviously one of my favorite exercises. I’ve done it before, (the “photo story” post, the “1,000 words” exercise, the “Uninvited Guests” story), and I’ll almost certainly do it again. This time, I sort of combined it with my other favorite exercise, writing from music, because the image above comes from the video for Summer Camp’s song “Down.” (Scroll to the bottom for the video!) And while I mostly just did that for background noise, you can tell it influenced the poem.

But this isn’t just me rehashing an old exercise. As I mentioned last week, a lot of the things I’m working on right now are things I intend for publication, which makes it hard to share. One of those things was a story I wrote to submit to Housefire, which rarely takes unsolicited submissions and usually only seeks out work in response to prompts, as is the case this December.

I chose prompt #2, which invites us to select a title from a cut-up poem and use it to write fiction. But the other two prompts are just as cool: #1 offers a list of titles and asks for a poem or story written from one of the titles, but I skipped it because I just finished doing exactly that for my NaNoWriMo project.

So, this is related to prompt #3, which is a story or poem based on a photo or two people in bed with a dog.

(A quick note, by the way: these prompts are only for December, so they’ll be gone soon. If you want to tackle this challenge yourself, head to the Housefire “submissions” page quickly and get writing! Otherwise, keep an eye out for future calls for submissions.)

I thought about using that dog photo for this exercise, but if I did, I’d probably want to submit it. So I took the idea but found a different photo. (Summer Camp’s photo blog is one of my favorites!)

I decided to do a poem mostly because my fiction has been feeling a bit long these days, and while I’m not the best at writing poetry, I feel like poetry teaches me a lot about compression. I’m still a narrative guy — this poem could easily become a piece of flash fiction — but I was kind of interested in the line breaks I was discovering along the way, so I left it in this form.

But maybe I’ll make a story out of it anyway.


In the meantime, listen to Summer Camp, because they’re awesome.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

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