Poets Watching TV: Alinea and the Poetry Game
Up Your Creative Quotient & Watch the Tube Like an Artist
Welcome to the first installment of Poets Watching TV, a new feature at PopPoetry, a poetry and pop culture Substack written by Caitlin Cowan. If you like what you read and want it in your inbox weekly, subscribe so you won’t miss a post.
So far, PopPoetry has focused on poets and poems that crop up directly in popular culture, along with considerations of tropes or stereotypes about poetry and poetics (the art and theory of writing poetry). Poets Watching TV is about finding poetry where there doesn’t appear to be any: in shows and videos about food, painting, music, and more.
As Grant Achatz says during a menu development meeting at his famed three-Michelin-star Chicago restaurant, Alinea, “Everything is derivative… that’s ok. That’s normal.” I’m not the first person to engage in the imaginative exercise I’m about to describe, but I hope I do it well.
Whether you write poetry, read it, or are just curious about both, I want to share a new way of looking at the world as a creative person, no matter what your preferred creative output is.
At the heart of Poets Watching TV is something I call the poetry game. More of a thought exercise than a competition, the rules are simple:
Amuse-Bouche: How to Play the Poetry Game
1. Choose a piece of media.
The best kind of media to use for this exercise are tv shows, videos, or a web series about making things. It doesn’t really matter what the thing being made is, it just matters that there is making being done.
Think about how many tv shows are like this: Chopped, Project Runway, Fixer Upper. And then there’s the endless supply of YouTube videos. There are channels like Binging with Babish and NikkiTutorials, hypnotic pottery-throwing channels like Ingleton Pottery and punny DIY craft channels like Glue Guns & Roses, one-off videos of incredible bonsai artistry… you name it!
2. Watch it and/or listen to it while pretending that the people speaking and creating are talking about writing poetry or are actually making it.
This game is adaptable to any creative pursuit you like. For example, you can absolutely alter the game to revitalize your dance, pottery, or bespoke birdhouse practice. I’ll refer to poetry throughout, as it’s my creative pursuit of choice.
Watch and/or listen to your media. Let it wash over you. But while you’re doing that, pretend that everything the speaker, writer, or creator is talking about is related to poetry.
It might seem weird at first, but you’ll catch on. For example, in the video above, Chiako Yamamoto says, “you can’t grow plants when you don’t have any sense of ritual.” What if we repeat that sentence to ourselves as, “you can’t write poetry when you don’t have any sense of ritual.” Whoa! What might that mean for us?
3. See what you can learn.
You can consume the media passively, take notes, draft writing prompts, or any other practice that will deepen your enjoyment. This isn’t work: it’s play, so have fun with it. What insights can you arrive at by interpreting someone else’s ideas and aesthetics in a new context?
Hors d'Oeuvre: A Further Example
How easy is this? Well, I just Googled Ink Master—the reality competition show about tattoo artists—clicked on a random video, and this came up. Listen to just the first 20 seconds of the video.
Season 6 contestant Kito Talbert, who has to choose between tattooing another artist and tattooing himself, says, “What other canvas do I know better than my own body?”
To which I say: !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Think about this in the context of poetry. What does it make you think about? What brainstorming questions or writing prompts could you derive from it?
QUESTIONS FOR JOURNALING & BRAINSTORMING
What does it mean to think of one’s body as a canvas?
Do I know my own body? Why or why not?
In what ways is a body a canvas that does not involve tattoos or body modification?
Make a list of other bodies you know well and why. Then write a poem in which they speak to each other.
Start a poem with the phrase “I know my body…”
Write a poem from the perspective of a tattoo you have or would like to have.
We’re essentially living in the headspace of a different kind of creator in order to up our poetry game.
The first time I ever played this game, I was watching an old YouTube video (okay, circa 2010) of the staff of Alinea, the renowned Chicago restaurant, discussing how they might further develop their menu.
I was stunned by their heady conversation, by their clearly articulated aesthetics, and by the way that they pushed and challenged each other creatively. Since then, I’ve never stopped looking for hidden inspiration for my poetry in other articulations of artistic principles.
Even now, I’m struck by how adaptable the discussion is to my own discipline:
When I hear Achatz say, “we’re not that kind of restaurant,” I hear the advice: know who you are and what kind of art you make.
When I hear another chef say, “When we first start to put something on the plate, like… the initial thought is to regress to what you know… but where do we go from there?” I hear: it’s natural to imitate, but eventually, you have to innovate as an artist.
And when Achatz laments, “The culinary world is closing in, man. Everything is becoming the same. You’ve gotta find a way to carve out your niche…” what he’s saying is right there on the surface, accessible to all creative types if you remove the word “culinary” and replace it with bonsai, embroidery, fiction… only you can tell your story.
Alinea is devoted to “progressive” cuisine, meaning that they like to look forward. Some art, and some poetry, is interested in new tools and in new ways of being: a dessert that looks like a painting, gelatin cubes that taste like Chicago-style hotdogs, edible balloons (What about this isn’t poetry, exactly?). Listening to the Alinea staff talk about their aesthetics can help drive your art forward.
In another video, Achatz says that the term “molecular gastronomy,” the technical term for the kind of food Alinea is invested in, “feels too sciency… we like to base our cuisine off emotion.” He says that he wants to use food to “pull people out of themselves.”
That, to me, is what all good art does, and it’s stunning to hear and feel such fellowship with other creatives by playing this thought game with myself and others.
I love listening to creative people talk about creativity, and the poetry game is one way I’ve been able to gorge myself, sometimes even passively, on aesthetic theories.
Does the poetry game always work?
No. But it does more often than not! Looking at things through the eyes of an artist even when you’re not making art is a great way to improve your practice and help yourself articulate your own artistic beliefs and goals, even if that attentive looking and listening doesn’t bear fruit 100% of the time.
Why does the game work?
In all seriousness, it’s part rationality and part magic. There are certain ideas that artists in various media simply share. Some of it has to do with the workings of your own creative brain and interests, the things you are attuned to and passionate about, and the rest is synchronicity.
In upcoming posts, I’ll share more shows and videos I’ve played the poetry game with and what I’ve learned from each. I hope to bring in guest poets and my own video content, too. Happy watching and happy writing!
Here are some cool things I think you might like!
Victoria Nordlund’s poem, “Things I Learned Upon Binge Watching The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Part 4,” Read it at Drunk Monkeys.
Daniel Kaluuya’s hilarious “disappointed dad face” has me thinking that we need a retrospective of “poet” jokes on SNL.
It’s National Poetry Month! You can follow me on Instagram where I’m posting images of literary journals that have been kind enough to publish my work every day this month.