calvino tarot fabulist italian symbolic allegory

Is that a symbol? A #tarot #writing exercise

So yesterday’s litLAB meeting was a wonderfully productive session!  This month’s theme with coLAB arts was Surveillance (which we did last month, conjunction with censorship…whoops!).  To set this apart from the  other activities we’ve been doing, I looked around for a different type of exercise.

I thought, well, we’re writers.  We’ve been talking about oppression and all manner of systemic violence.  But we’re all fairly comfortable – how do I bring that home?  I often ask people to imagine living under/with/around the systems we discuss.  I want us all to practice empathy in our writing.  We must remember that the violence we discuss in our lovely, safe room is very real.  Just because we are not directly living it, we are still in the same world with it.  So we try to stretch our minds some more and place ourselves into some simulacrum of that climate.

First, I had to restrict their language.  In order to force people to be more creative, you sometimes have to get them out of comfortable tropes, modes, and constructions.  I took inspiration from Calvino’s Castle of Crossed Destinies – where a group of vaguely medieval travellers meet up for dinner, but find themselves unable to speak to each other.  They are enchanted into muteness, but they need to tell their stories.  One takes out a tarot deck, and the tale may begin…

calvino tarot fabulist italian symbolic allegory“I realized the tarots were a machine for constructing stories; I thought of a book and I imagined its frame: the mute narratives, the forest, the inn; I was tempted by the diabolical idea of conjuring up all the stories that could be confined in a tarot deck”

– Calvino, Castle of Crossed Destinies

What do writers do when they can’t speak?  As in they live under oppressive forces, like the kind we’ve been discussing?  They may not be able to communicate directly, like those at Calvino’s table.  They use symbol and allegory to say their piece and create art.  So that’s what we did.  Specifically, we were going to start making allegories.  Allegories are works that use symbolism in a one to one correlation with something.  Allegory can sometimes be very broad, or it can be incredibly specific to a population or even individual’s experience.  

tarot literature allegory symbolism calvino kat black golden tarot litLAB litlab
Is that a symbol? Who knows! Surprise me next month!

The exercise was to make their own allegory, using the tarot.  They had to pick a sociopolitical force that surveils and oppresses.  Doesn’t matter which.  Next, to give everyone inspiration to form their own vocabulary of symbol, I took out my deck of Golden Tarot cards (by Kat Black), and had my merry crew pick one card from the major arcana.  A figure, feature, color, anything from that card would be used to create symbolism for the figure/system they wanted to criticize.

Then they took 2 or 3 from the minor arcana. The minor cards would basically provide a smorgasboard of inspiration for all other parts of the allegory.  I did this on purpose to give people a booster shot for their symbolic vocabulary.  Writers do tend to get comfortable, with their own stock of words, images, phrases – I know I need routine shakeups, so why not the litLAB crew?

I gave the barest explanations for how Tarot works because  I didn’t want anyone hung up on “official” correspondences.  I want to see what they do with these strange, dreamy images.  We also changed up the routine a bit:  no one read work yesterday.  We all brainstormed, took notes, made outlines, and I sent the litLAB-ers on their merry way.

I look forward to seeing what on earth the do next month!  My only commandment is “surprise me”!




Editing #Shakespeare!

I had an idea to tuck this away in a list of prompts for litLAB, but as it developed, it was too fun not to try myself! I’ve reproduced it below as I had originally written it, for a small audience of fellow writers.

IMPROVE ON SHAKESPEARE! Oh yes, you heard me right. First, go watch this Rowan Atkinson/Hugh Laurie sketch here, to get a sense of what Our Will went through. Then read the text of Hamlet’s soliloquy here.

Feel free to look up any Cliff’s Notes or No-Fear Shakespeare you like to get your feet wet! Remember context, too. This speech was not delivered in a vacuum. If you’ve never seen Hamlet (do!), visit the wiki and familiarize yourself with what’s going on in the play to lead to this speech.

When you have a bead on the speech, edit it. Put it in modern terms, keep it in Elizabethan language – it doesn’t matter. What I want to see are vastly different ways of putting the same ideas out there.

Remember that Will was a man of his time – “Shakespeare” the institution is a modern invention. He was a businessman, a working writer, selling seats – so think like he did. Add flavor and color – this is not a sacred proclamation from on high!

Shakespeare protip: yes, yes, I know iambic pentameter sounds scary to the uninitiated, and ZOMG it makes teh Shakespurze totes complicated.  But don’t forget punctuation.  That still helps you know where to breathe, and what kind of sentence you’re in.  So as I’m doing this, I’ve copied the text to a clean doc, and I’m separating it out by the sentence.  This will also be helpful in rendering it into contemporary speech, as I aim to do.  You can even put it in a table if that helps you stay more organized!  Technology will work in your favor here.

“Such a strange time it is, my dear” – Ahmad Shamlou, #Censorship, #Art, and #Poetry

They smell your mouth
To find out if you have told someone:
I love you!
They smell your heart!
Such a strange time it is, my dear;
And they punish Love
At thoroughfares
By flogging.
We must hide our Love in dark closets.
In this crooked dead end of a bitter cold
They keep their fire alive
By burning our songs and poems;
Do not place your life in peril by your thoughts!
Such a strange time it is, my dear!
He who knocks on your door in the middle of the night,
His mission is to break your Lamp!
We must hide our Lights in dark closets!
Behold! butchers are on guard at thoroughfares
With their bloodstained cleavers and chopping-boards;
Such a strange time it is, my dear!
They cut off the smiles from lips,
and the songs from throats!
We must hide our Emotions in dark closets!
They barbecue canaries
On a fire of jasmines and lilacs!
Such a strange time it is, my dear!
Intoxicated by victory,
Satan is enjoying a feast at our mourning table!
We must hide our God in dark closets

Ahmad Shamlou, “In this Dead-end”

This month, let’s try to break down the elements of censorship and oppression.  i’d like you all to consider the common tool of these environments: surveillance.

Surveillance, in the current sociopolitical world is a hydra-headed entity.  Networks of networks are not just observing our actions, but also logging massive amounts of data.  Sometimes this is an explicit violation of privacy, but other times we are tricked or comforted into providing our own tastes, habits, and thoughts to our “dossiers”.  And this is to say nothing of what we do to the rest of the world.

My questions to you, when we next meet to write, are:

  • How does art fare in this climate?
  • How does a writer produce?
  • How do you form and sustain personal relationships?
  • How do you revel in the riches of language, thought, and art when all of these are surveilled?

Totalitarian societies  are wildly paranoid; they police not just action but esthetics.  In the case of governments, anything reactionary, populist, anything that reminds people of the time before (or a life outside of) the regime is suspect, degenerate, and punished.


As an exercise, we will try to put ourselves into some small part of Shamlou’s speaker.  Write a dialogue (or poem) with your lover (real or imagined) WITHOUT using the following words:

love, sex, hand(s), eye(s), body, moonlight, warmth, breath, quiver(ing), touch, yearn, need.

Allusions to these concepts aren’t “illegal”, but will be suspicious.  Any trope, image, or metaphor that comes close to these intensely personal, intimate realms will put you on “a list”.  Remember that you have to cover not just yourself, but your beloved.