Next Line, Please

Becoming an Obstructionist

By Angela Ball | June 23, 2015


I have the honor of standing in for David Lehman as quiz master this summer, and I’m excited to greet the followers, both new and continuing, of “Next Line, Please.”

Perhaps the toughest part of writing anything is not knowing where the next piece is coming from.  In these few weeks, I hope to suggest some workable answers for this dilemma, and to encourage readers to create and collaborate—as they have done splendidly for the last several months with David as coach and mentor.

Our first prompt has its source in Lars von Trier’s 2003 film, The Five Obstructions, in which von Trier asks a mentor, director Jørgen Leth, to serially remake his 1967 short film, The Perfect Human, in accordance with various crippling stipulations, or “obstructions,” such as “no frame longer than 12 seconds,” “set it in the worst place in the world,” and so forth.

Your job this week is to “obstruct” eight to 10 lines of any well-known poem, using one of the following change-ups:

  • Make the speaker another character in the poem. For example, the “last duchess hanging on the wall” in Robert Browning’s poem, “My Last Duchess,” could replace the duke, with the new title “His Last Duchess”; Pound’s famous adaptation “The River Merchant’s Wife” might become “The River Merchant.”


  • Reverse (fully or partially) the meaning of eight to 10 lines of any well-known poem. Instead of Yeats’s “rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem,” we might have “a gentle spirit floating towards Scranton.” This second idea is inherited from the wonderful poet and teacher Donald Justice.

Whichever obstruction you choose, the goal is to create a short poem (or the beginnings of one) that captures interest on its own and as an homage and/or parody of its source. Have fun, and remember to title your effort.

The deadline for this week’s entries: Midnight, Saturday, June 27.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

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