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Three Fun and Easy Poetry Exercises

This spring I’ve been trying to take my preschool-age daughter to as many local library story hours as possible, and in April during Poetry Month I noticed two events for adults on the calendar: “Paint Chip Poetry” and a week or two later “Book Spine Poetry.” I wasn’t able to go to either, but of course I needed to know what these were and the internet as usual provided. (The names are self-explanatory anyway, but I was surprised to find just how much there was out there about each of these.)

Paint Chip Poetry

As some of you may know, it turns out Paint Chip Poetry is actually a game that comes in a box that can be purchased at many fine retailers. However, doing some deep digging in Google I learned that the exercise, in varying forms, seems to have been popular with K-12 teachers long before the game was released. The earliest mention I found was from the 2004 book Writing Anchors by Jan Wells and Janine Reid.

To start, gather a bunch of paint chips (or try exploring the paint color tool at the Sherwin-Williams site). In one version of the exercise, you use only the paint names to write a poem, arranging the chips as you see fit. This article for teachers from the Poetry Foundation provides a different take on Paint Chip Poetry, where the color name is more of a jumping-off point. (Surprise bonus: the article also has three additional exercises that, while intended for students, could be fun for adults as well.)  Finally, this article has a few more variations on using the paint chip itself for a prompt (for poetry as well as for writers of fiction and non-fiction). This article has examples.

And just for fun, this is an interesting article musing on paint color and paint color names (including their history) that came up while I was browsing around.

Book Spine Poetry

Again, Book Spine Poetry is exactly what you’d imagine: arrange a selection of books to make a poem. The exercise seems to have originated from artist Nina Katchadourian’s Sorted Books project. Writer Annette Dauphin Simon has also published a collection of this kind of poetry called Spine Poems. You can see some example poems here. Book spine poetry reminds me of the encouragement a writing teacher once gave to the class to use browsing the library stacks as a vehicle for inspiration (though the context was actually for coming up with ideas for a literature paper). You could of course just browse Good Reads or Amazon too if you want a digital version (now I’m wondering what a poem made from the titles on Amazon’s various bestseller lists might look like).

Recipe Cut-Ups

This exercise was not on the library calendar, but was one I also came across this spring when I found this article from the BBC about a poetry workshop making use of discarded recipe books as part of a literary festival in Shepton, England. If you don’t already haunt your local library to see what they’re giving away, or at least selling for just a few dollars, I highly recommend it. As the daughter of a librarian I can tell you I’ve shadowed my mother while she “weeded” the stacks, and out of necessity public librarians are ruthless about pulling the old to create shelf space for the new (tip: libraries want your book donations almost never and as far as I can tell these don’t get entered into their system). I remain shocked at what they sometimes put out for the taking.

Participants either cut out the words and rearranged them, or used an erasure technique where they blacked out or otherwise covered most of the words on the page to create a different text (you might remember these as exercises from How to Write a Poem Every Day, if you took the course).

The instructor is quoted as saying, “I have the idea that recipes and food writing lend themselves to quite erotic poetry.” This reminded me of a poem I wrote on a whim almost 20 years ago, which played with parts of a recipe for chicken in orange sauce:





Let me show you:
two medium oranges.


A tablespoon of butter.


Let me show you:
a teaspoon of honey.


Finely shred one teaspoon
orange peel; set aside.


Squeeze juice from remaining fruit;
add butter, honey, bouillon.


Two minutes more.



All these exercises are great for shaking things up a bit, when you want to work under unusual constraint. I had the thought – why don’t we get on Zoom sometime and do them together? I have been meaning to put up some free events on Eventbrite. I’m not able to set a date at the moment I’m publishing this post, but here are three options for learning more: follow me on Eventbrite, sign up for my email list (subscribe at the top of the sidebar on desktop, at the bottom of the page on mobile), or check back here sometime next week.

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