My goodness, what an outpouring of reader responses to “Gentle Way Home,” the cento I offered last week! The feedback has prompted me to do a follow-up, especially since you, like so many others, might be mulling over how to write a cento yourself.
First, a refresher: A cento is a literary work, usually but not always a poem, created exclusively from lines or phrases lifted from the work(s) of another author (or authors). You assemble the excerpts in whatever order you wish, thereby bringing to life a rich, new text. If you’d like, you may tamper a bit with the original punctuation or alter a word or two. Some might consider that cheating, but the creative process is yours. Do what you will!
Amazingly, with a cento you don’t have to worry about copyright violations, but in my view it’s best to credit your source(s). For example, list them at the end, or provide an annotated version of your work, line by line, as I did for “Gentle Way Home.”
I first learned about centos from Gloria Heffernan in her fabulous Exploring Poetry of Presence, a companion guide to Poetry of Presence: An Anthology of Mindfulness Poems (which I co-edited with Ruby Wilson). Gloria’s guide to the collection is a tremendous resource. Among other things, she provides detailed instructions on composing centos and presents a few examples penned by participants in her workshops.
Years ago, I chose to publish The Book of the World: A Contemporary Scripture on behalf of an anonymous author. It’s actually a book-length cento! The author lifted every “scriptural verse” in that text from another source. The Book of the World is now out of print, but if you’d like to read it, you can get the PDF in my store, for free.
I’ve often mentioned the illuminating work of my poet-friend Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, who lives in Colorado. Every day she posts a new, original poem on her blog A Hundred Falling Veils. Her poems drip straight from the heart. If you haven’t signed up to follow her blog yet, you’re missing out.
Last August, Rosemerry and her family suffered the heartrending loss of Finn, her brilliant, imaginative, compassionate, restless son. On the brink of turning seventeen, he chose to end his own life.
Here in South Dakota, so far from Rosemerry, I kept asking myself, “How can I be with her in the midst of this?” I couldn’t fathom Finn so terribly gone. I couldn’t imagine Rosemerry having to survive his suicide; having to learn to live every hour amidst his very present absence. “What can I do? What can I do?”
The answer that finally came was this: Find every poem on Rosemerry’s blog in which she’d mentioned Finn. Jot down any lines or phrases from them that spoke to me. Then, assemble a cento for her, using some of those pieces of text. Let her own poetry about Finn return to her in a new form, as consolation.
Here’s what I came up with. (The cento is too long and its arrangement too nuanced to display here.) I wrote the final draft of the poem longhand on handmade paper and put it in the mail.
Rosemerry wouldn’t mind me sharing this cento with you. Over the months since Finn left this world, she hasn’t concealed her sorrow. She has been kneading it, and letting it knead her, especially through her daily practice of writing poetry. Without intending, she has been modeling for us all that trauma and grief needn’t be kept hidden, or gotten over, or buried. We can allow the most crippling hardship to carry us deeper into our lives, not wall us off. And poetry—a practice of the heart—can facilitate our passage through whatever grievous events must be gotten through, for the sake of love and life.
All this is my way of saying that the patchwork form of the cento is an open invitation into a world of creative—and restorative—possibilities. I hope you’ll RSVP.
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash