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Joseph Fasano's poetry threads connect the world

An American writer’s poetry prompts are helping people world over articulate difficult emotions

Joseph Fasano has written five poetry books and two novels.
Joseph Fasano has written five poetry books and two novels. (Laura Rinaldi)

My name is Anastasia.

Today I feel like one girl dancing in the ash.

Sometimes I am a bird.

Sometimes I am a silent bird.

But always I am here.

I ask the world, “What does hope look like?”

And the answer is one girl dancing in the ash.

This poem came from the mind of a 10-year-old whose days are interrupted by air-raid alerts in Ukraine. She had a little help, of course. Not just from her mother, who has been home-schooling her during the Russian invasion, but also from a poet sitting thousands of miles away in New York.

An award-winning writer with five poetry books and two novels to his name, Joseph Fasano is also an educator. He is used to addressing diverse groups of undergraduate and graduate students at US institutes like Manhattanville College, Columbia University, and The State University of New York, but a few months ago he faced a much tougher audience. A young relative was reciting one of his poems to her second-grade class and Fasano, who had been invited to accompany her and address the students. Father to a one-year-old himself, Fasano had been pondering the beginnings of a person’s relationship with language. So, he used the opportunity to introduce the children to poetry—with a unique prompt:

My name is (name).

Today I feel like a/an (adjective) (noun) (verb)ing in the (noun).

Sometimes I am a/an (noun).

Sometimes I am a/an (noun).

But always I am (adjective).

I ask the world, “(question)?”

And the answer is

a/an (repeat your words from line 2).

“I used all my experience as a writer and teacher to come up with an environment of words that would allow them to…not be intimidated by poetry and immediately get a result of self-expression,” he says. The class teacher compiled the children’s responses in a small book and sent it to him. On 20 April, Fasano shared one of these poems on Twitter, and it blew up. It has since garnered nearly two million views. But the bigger surprises started rolling in a couple of days later—it began with an email from a woman whose 95-year-old mother suffers from dementia. She had used his prompt to express a yearning to be united with her late husband in “the room where we get to play Scrabble forever” (this tweet has 5.4 million views).

Also read: Why writing makes us happier

This is when Fasano realised that his prompt could help people from all walks of life. Since then, he has been developing a series of poetic structures that tackle difficult emotions like grief, change and self-affirmation. The response has been enormous, spanning countries, cultures, languages, and emotions—a teenager on the autism spectrum making peace with his own being, a brain-injury patient addressing his old self, a second-grader wondering “what is life?”, a non-verbal child using word cards to fill the void that the death of his father has left…

What explains the universal appeal of these poetry templates? Even though they may look restrictive, the prompts have been designed to excavate deep-seated sentiment. The poem you create may, at first, seem far more complex than the simple words you use to fill the blanks but Fasano says the end product is a window to your subconscious. The prompts have also opened a portal to understanding how poetry works.

The poet employs many tools of his craft—imagery, repetition, rhetorical phrases, formal closure, traditional structures like the Hegelian dialectic of thesis, antithesis and synthesis—in a simplified manner, so that the result is not just moving but also technically sound. He hopes that the spark of magic people feel by creating a poem will nudge them to pick up more books. “I’d love for this to be a gateway drug for people to the art of poetry—if not writing, then reading it.”

That would be a welcome change at a time when social media platforms are flooded with banal musings—often rife with cliches, trending words and thoughtless punctuation—labelled as “poetry”. Not only has the word lost all its meaning online but traditional publishers are also seeking out influencers who come with a fanbase.

Fasano is all too aware of this trend and ambivalent about the brevity of expression on these platforms. “There’s a part of me that asks: Are we allowing these spaces to determine the kind of work we create or are they just good vehicles for sharing work that’s already that length?” Another part of him, though, is much more optimistic about great poetry standing the test of time. It is this part that has led him to create the now-viral prompts. The idea is to democratise poetry and adapt it for the online scroller but in a way that doesn’t diminish the ancient craft of it.

“It is craft, after all, that carries an individual’s ideas to the far edge of familiar territory,” said the late Mary Oliver in A Poetry Handbook. Oliver was one of the few poets to have straddled both worlds: She not only won critical acclaim and the Pulitzer Prize but her poems remain a huge hit on Instagram, four years after her passing. On Mother’s Day, actor Zeenat Aman, whose Instagram page has defied all algorithms with refreshing and original content, recited Oliver’s poem, Don’t Hesitate, for her 280,000-plus followers.

Also read: Online writing communities emerge as a space of solace during the pandemic

Any discussion on creativity today is incomplete without a mention of Artificial Intelligence (AI). And a predefined poetic structure is obvious fodder for that great harbinger of unemployment: ChatGPT. I fed one of Fasano’s prompts to OpenAI’s chatbot and it spat this out:

There are days when I am lost

And days when I am found.

My heart is a restless wandering river in the morning

And a calm, reflective lake at night.

If only I could dance in the rain,

I would be carefree.

If only I could let go of fear,

I would be the fearless soaring bird.

Jessica, this poem is for you,

To love you is to be the fearless soaring bird.

In a blind reading, Fasano guessed this to be the work of a seven-year-old who was “reaching for imagery for the first time to express herself”. When I revealed its true provenance, he was unfazed. In fact, Fasano was recently invited to a live poetry face-off with ChatGPT in a classroom. The Harvard University alumnus says he has seen many poems generated by various tools but he’s yet to see a truly successful one. This is because, he believes, AI is analytical by design and while it has vast amounts of data at its disposal, it cannot make the irrational leaps that the human mind makes—for instance, from a withering flower to the hands of the poet’s ageing mother. In this respect, AI poetry is the opposite of influencer poetry, in that it can mimic the craft of great writers but it lacks the lived experience that breathes life into any artwork.

This leads us to a more philosophical question: What is art? Is it the end product—a poem, a story, a painting—or is it the process of plumbing the depths of the soul to express something essential? And if you could use AI to create a great poem, what would you get out of that process? Fasano’s belief is betrayed by a poem he wrote in response to a student using AI to cheat on a paper. It ends with the poignant line: “Love is for the ones who love the work.”

For the ones who love the work, Fasano is now finalising a book of 50 poetry prompts juxtaposed with some of the best responses he has received. This workbook, titled The Magic Words, will be published by TarcherPerigee (an imprint of Penguin Random House) and could be used by anyone—to find self-expression or teach poetry. The biggest lesson from this astounding story, Fasano says, has been for educators like himself: The person in front of you, no matter what their age or challenges, has an incredibly rich world inside. The goal is to find a way to unlock it.

Sumeet Keswani is a journalist and writer of fiction and poetry.

Also read: Two new books of poetry you should know about, for very different reasons

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