Let’s say you, writer, are at a loss for words. Some life event has completely stunned you into silence. This happened to me the day after the 2016 election results were announced when my hopes for witnessing a female candidate win the Presidency were dashed. Unable to write my own poems, I created a class, “Election Blues: The Gift of Agency in Poetry,” during which we took up writing centos.
What Is a Cento?
A cento is a poem comprised solely of a group of lines, each borrowed from a different writer. The idea is that you borrow the lines and leave the words largely intact, in order, within the line, but the expectation is that you will rearrange the lines themselves into order in line with your focus.
My First Step
Here’s what I did: I grabbed volumes within arm’s reach off my bookshelf. They were by women writers (with the exception of William Carlos Williams) I admire and love from across time as well as contemporary writers. Working with the cento form, I drew on the strength and power of their words to “get back home” and find my passion again. My dozen or so books were authored by:
- Emily Dickinson
- Joy Harjo
- Bhanu Kapil
- Maxine Hong Kingston
- Audre Lord
- Malinda Markham
- Colleen J. McElroy
- Sylvia Plath
- Kay Ryan
- Joan Swift
- Ruth Thompson
- William Carlos Williams
Adding Tarot Principles to the Writing Process
As a longtime tarot reader, it also occurred to me that I could apply tarot-reading principles to my cento writing process. When you read tarot cards, you focus on a question of the heart, shuffle the cards and choose cards blind (meaning the cards remain face down while you are choosing so the images are hidden until you begin the reading).
The Drafting Process
So when drafting my centos, I used my stack of books by other writers as my working tarot deck. For my project, I focused on five individuals: The female candidate vying for election (Hillary Clinton), the sitting President Barack Obama, the First Lady Michelle Obama, the incoming Republican candidate, and the incoming First Lady. Focusing on one person at a time, I put my hand on my heart and paid attention to the mix of emotions I was feeling. Each time I allowed the book in my hand to fall open and let my eye fall on a line, mimicking the process of selecting facedown tarot cards. Once I had copied down my lines, one from each volume for each person, I brought my poet self to bear on rearranging the lines into a meaningful order that best reflected my various states of love, gratitude, fear, and concern.
Looking for Synchronicity
Having worked with the tarot for so long, I was prepared for synchronicity—and indeed I found it in the five centos. Each randomly selected group of lines provided an accurate mirror for my sensibility. Of course, you can argue that any random group of lines can be made to mean one thing in one context and something entirely different in another, but this didn’t stop me from trying the form and enjoying the inadvertent “reading.”
Poetry, like tarot, works powerfully by association and context. When we plug in a question for a tarot reading or we plug in a person as the focus for a cento, the associations boomerang back to that central question or person, inviting us to look deeper. And more importantly, the process of leaning on our beloveds (other writers, in this case) and the process of asking, seeking and playing gets the pen moving across the page, nudging us to create again.
Writing Your Own Tarot Centos
1) Start by choosing a dilemma, question, dream, or desire you have for which you’d like to consult the oracle of poetry through the work of other writers.
2) Gather up your “oracle books” off your shelf. You may wish to add a randomizing quality to your “deck” by choosing every 3rd book on your shelf or even doing so in the library or bookstore. I focused my “deck” by choosing mostly women writers, a very specific group. Your stack of books can be as diverse or as singularly focused as you wish.
3) Put your hand to heart and go over your question/person in your mind’s eye as you point the arrow of your inquiry. Take one book at a time and either randomly select lines or use some kind of organizing principle (3rd line on every other page). You decide how long or short you want your resulting cento to be, and copy each selected line from each author onto your page.
4) Read over your entire group of lines. Have fun…rearrange them in the order that makes sense to you.
*Keep track of your line attributions to give each writer credit.
Here are links to MP3s of three of the centos from the series of five.
An Iris for Hillary MP3
*An Iris for Hillary was published in America We Call Your Name: Poems of Resistance and Resilience (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2018) https://www.sixteenrivers.org/authors/our-anthology/
Open Letter to Donald Trump MP3
A Thank You Letter to Barack Obama MP3
Tania Pryputniewicz, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is the author of November Butterfly (Saddle Road Press, 2014). Recent poems appeared in the anthology America, We Call Your Name: Poems of Resistance and Resilience and NILVX: A Book of Magic (Tarot Series). Her poetry chapbook, Berkeley Postcard, was a finalist for the Comstock Writers Group Chapbook Contest in 2018. The poem, “Two Gardens,” from Berkeley Postcard is forthcoming in Rockvale Review and won Tania a residency in Tennessee at the Rockvale Writers’ Colony. She teaches poetry at San Diego Writers, Ink and she’d be delighted if you walked into her workshop with a cento of your own to share. Tania lives in Coronado with her husband, three children, blue-eyed Husky, and one formerly feral cat named Luna. She blogs at Tarot for Two and can be found online at www.taniapryputniewicz.com.
*This Tarot Cento exercise is sample chapter from Tania’s Heart’s Compass Tarot and Writing workbook forthcoming from Saddle Road Press; it was also shared with students attending The Bold Poet: Finding Your Muse workshop at the inaugural 2019 San Diego Writer’s Festival.