Collective Protest & Rebellion: Black Study Prompts

A collection of thought-provoking writing & generative prompts provided by featured guests Charles Burnett, Aracelis Girmay, Emily Greenwood, Daniel Alexander Jones, Zun Lee, & Harryette Mullen of CAAPP's Collective Protest & Rebellion: A Black Study Intensive, co-sponsored by the Department of English, The Humanities Center, The Year of Creativity (2019/20), the Center for Creativity, the Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series, and the Office of the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies.

Charles Burnett


What is your unique life experience that would lay the groundwork for a rebellion/social justice narrative or documentary?


JJJJJerome Ellis


Find a text that resonates with you. It could be anything: a poem, song lyrics, a paragraph from a book or newspaper article, a tweet, an email. Rearrange the words and see what new meanings arise. For example, if I take the preceding three sentences as my text, I could write: "Arise, and find words that rearrange you.”


Aracelis Girmay

with with with


To me, my dad is among the most attentive of “listeners.” The ways he listened to children, to my children, to friends and family and strangers. It was so particular. He was so particularly attentive. And it did not stop. He would listen to what you said or tried to do or be once, and he would take it with him across the years. He would ask toward it this way and that way, as though holding something up to a light trying to learn something. I am thinking about the humility and presence of listening toward and within a way that is generous and ongoing. I am thinking about sensing as an ongoing collaboration that has something to do with feeling and understanding what we are sensing and not sensing about the things we are and are trying and are in (historically, structurally, relationally…) and who we are and might be and can be in the Together. It is in this spirit that I offer this small way toward.


1. Be awhile with yourself, and make yourself available to a visit by a few others (three-five). These “others” might be a person, a bush, a gesture, a memory, an object, a sound, a detail of any of those. See what comes. Stay open to their coming for at least 5 minutes.

2. Drink a glass of water. Change your position. Somehow. You might stand if you were sitting. You might lay on your back. Hum. If you were facing north you might face west. Once you’ve changed your position please repeat #1.

3. Then feel awhile who those visitors are and make a note of just one of them that you will work with for now.

4. Listen to the visitor. What does it “say” and how does it say? Take notes. Ask questions (unanswerable and answerable). Make a note/collage of what or who you associate with it. How does it change the way you feel time, the way you make or read a sentence? Its syntax? Take notes swiftly then put your notes in a dark place for a few days. Somewhere where they might grow like yams.

5. Who can you share this with? Find someone to share this writing with. Someone who can help you to listen to what you’ve listening-written. Share with that someone. If you/they can, read it aloud to them. Otherwise share it briefly another way. Ask them to write or say back to you what they “heard” and what they sensed in your telling. What emotions? What surprised? What detail or word do they recall particularly? What new or old idea? What history do they wonder about/toward? What answerable question are they left with? What perhaps unanswerable question?

6. Do the #5 at least once more, with at least one other, one else.

7. Take a day or two. Going about your day, try to recall what they told you and what they sensed. What moves you about their particular listening? (Try to articulate it!) Take notes about what you remember (what they said and how they said). What things do they help you to sense that you had not sensed? What associations, reunions, and separations.

8. Let all that be with you in the doing/being/asking/making/being with.


Emily Greenwood


Groups who oppose racial equality and justice willfully misread the slogan “Black Lives Matter”. How does language matter for black lives in our American present? Consider this question both in terms of past linguistic struggles for naming, self-respect, and the conjuring of different futures, and the novel reinvention of words and grammar to create new possibilities.


Daniel Alexander Jones

MAP of the BODY


This is an exercise that makes a map from an outline of your body. If you are not able to move your body in the ways outlined below, you are welcome to collaborate on this exercise with a partner who can draw the outline for you freehand, for example; and, who, if you are not able to fill in the various categories yourself, can do so with and/or for you. Furthermore, this exercise can be performed as an act of imagination, done entirely in your mind’s eye. You are encouraged to approach it based upon your own ability and to adapt it to your needs. If there is a prompt that doesn’t resonate with you, delete it. And, if there are prompts that rise up from the process, feel free to add them. It is also an exercise that is meant to be explored over more than one day, so do allow time if you can.


1. Acquire a large piece of craft paper or butcher paper. It should be slightly wider than the width of your shoulders (most large rolls of this paper in the States are approx. 3' wide). It should be about a foot longer than your height. Also get your hands on a dark, wide-tipped, magic marker to begin with. You will want, additionally, magic markers or colored pencils or oil pastels of various colors. It is possible to do the secondary work with tempera or acrylic paint, if you wanted to make that sort of project of it. You may. But a package of substantial magic markers does fine.

2. Find a space (not a plane) where you can unroll the craft paper on the floor. Lie on your back, centering yourself on the paper, arms along your side. Trace the outline of your body on the paper. You can have a friend do this part, or, being as flexible as you are, you can easily do it yourself. Try to make as clean a line as possible.

3. Get up and fix any parts of the outline that need fixing. Then draw into the outline, any major features of the body that you would like to have represented for yourself - facial features, belly button, etc.

4. Using the colored markers, oil pastels, or paint, begin to create the landscape of your body. Here are some primary categories to work with to help you do this. Use your imagination - things can be literal but are most often not.

a. What are the most vital places?

b. Where are the major cities?

c. Where is the heat?

d. Where is it cold?

e. Are there sacred sites?

f. What are the major rivers, lakes, etc.?

g. What are the major thoroughfares?

h. Where is the capital?

i. Think of topography - mountains, canyons, plains, swamps, etc.

j. Are there different countries - different states - different languages - time zones?

k. Is there peace or are there conflicts?

l. Name things.

5. As you work think of the following questions as well - you may record your responses to these questions visually, you may incorporate them into the topography, you may make a legend, etc.

a. How do your emotions move through your body?

b. Track the homebase and major routes of:






(Add to this list. Then track your additions in the map.)

6. Who are your "leaders"?

7. You may want to consider the organs as sites.

8. What is most public? What is most private? Add to these questions any other thoughts that spring up as you work. I have seen body maps that look like simple sketches, and others that are intricately developed portraits with multiple colors at work, legends, etc.

9. Make a legend/guide to the map at the top or bottom of the paper.

10. Find a place to hang it up - even temporarily.

11. Leave it. Ideally overnight. But even a short break - a walk or run or whatever, will do.

12. Come back, get something to write with, find a place to sit and regard your map. Take fifteen minutes and just look at it. Really look - let your eye take in what you have made, and let yourself experience the map on its own terms. Continue to sweep over the landscape. See what arrests your eye - pick a place to focus upon. Regard it.

13. Close your eyes and ask for a guide to come. They may come in any form. A person, a monkey, a bird, a breeze... Ask them to lead you deep into the world represented by whatever spot on the map you picked. Keep breathing. Go on the journey. Pay attention.

14. When you are ready, open your eyes softly and write what you are seeing/experiencing. You may want to wait until you have had a complete experience - you may, on the other hand want to 'write as you go.'


Be patient - the guide may not come right away. You may uncover information or have experiences that are completely unexpected. Stay connected to the work.

You can repeat - pick another place - ask for another guide. And go.

Don't edit what you have written for at least a day.


Zun Lee


I'm kindly asking folks to watch this short clip with Kevin Quashie and then to sit with Quashie's final statement of "quiet is." What and when "is" quiet? Where do we locate the idea of stillness, intimacy, and interiority in relation to Black being and Black resistance? I don't necessarily want this to result in formulated answers but hope this attunes us to the quiet possibilities for resistance and rebellion throughout our entire week together.



Harryette Mullen

“World enough and time”: Carpe diem. Savor your days.


Carpe diem, “seize the day” or “pluck the day” like a blooming flower or ripening fruit, is the message of a poem appreciating what life offers and urging enjoyment of life’s pleasures. However we choose to spend our time, we cannot save our days, but we can savor them. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Pay attention to moments, no matter how fleeting, when you experience pleasure, beauty, comfort, peace, gratitude, or joy. What is it like to dwell in those moments?

2. Make a list each day of people, places, objects, ideas, creatures, events, and experiences, no matter how ordinary (or extraordinary) that give you pleasure, beauty, comfort, peace, or joy.

3. Write a poem portraying how you (or anyone you know or imagine) might savor moments of pleasure, beauty, comfort, peace, gratitude, and joy each day. Remember to use your senses!


In a recent interview, a writer described the simple pleasure of shearling slippers. Although she’d felt slightly guilty ordering a “nonessential” item for home delivery, this purchase so improved her life that she now looks forward to waking up in her chilly bedroom, in upstate New York, and sliding her feet into the comforting warmth of those slippers. This reminded me how much I had enjoyed making and eating a crunchy salad after bringing home fresh produce for the week, inspiring me to buy garden tools and start digging in the soil to transplant lettuce, celery, bok choy, leeks, and onions sprouting from cuttings in jars on my windowsill.


Here are five contemporary carpe diem poems:


1. Dean Young's "Delphiniums in a Window Box"

from Fall Higher (Copper Canyon Press, 2016)


Every sunrise, sometimes strangers’ eyes.

Not necessarily swans, even crows,

even the evening fusillade of bats.

That place where the creek goes underground,

how many weeks before I see you again?

Stacks of books, every page, character’s

rage and poet’s strange contraption

of syntax and song, every song

even when there isn’t one.

Every thistle, splinter, butterfly

over the drainage ditches. Every stray.

Did you see the meteor shower?

Every question, conversation

even with almost nothing, cricket, cloud,

because of you I’m talking to crickets, clouds,

confiding in a cat. Everyone says

Come to your senses, and I do, of you.

Every touch electric, every taste you,

every smell, even burning sugar, every

cry and laugh. Toothpicked samples

at the farmer’s market, every melon,

plum, I come undone, undone.


2. Toi Derricotte's "Cherry Blossoms"

from The Undertaker’s Daughter (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011)


I went down to

mingle my breath

with the breath

of the cherry blossoms.


There were photographers:

Mothers arranging their

children against

gnarled old trees;

a couple, hugging,

asks a passerby

to snap them

like that,

so that their love

will always be caught

between two friendships:

ours & the friendship

of the cherry trees.


Oh Cherry,

why can’t my poems

be as beautiful?


A young woman in a fur-trimmed

coat sets a card table

with linens, candles,

a picnic basket & wine.

A father tips

a boy’s wheelchair back

so he can gaze

up at a branched


All around us

the blossoms

flurry down


Be patient

you have an ancient beauty

Be patient,

you have an ancient beauty.


3. Ellen Bass' "If You Knew"

From The Human Line (Copper Canyon Press, 2007)


What if you knew you’d be the last

to touch someone?

If you were taking tickets, for example,

at the theater, tearing them,

giving back the ragged stubs,

you might take care to touch that palm,

brush your fingertips

along the life line’s crease.


When a man pulls his wheeled suitcase

too slowly through the airport, when

the car in front of me doesn’t signal,

when the clerk at the pharmacy

won’t say Thank you, I don’t remember

they’re going to die.


A friend told me she’d been with her aunt.

They’d just had lunch and the waiter,

a young gay man with plum black eyes,

joked as he served the coffee, kissed

her aunt’s powdered cheek when they left.

Then they walked half a block and her aunt

dropped dead on the sidewalk.


How close does the dragon’s spume

have to come? How wide does the crack

in heaven have to split?

What would people look like

if we could see them as they are,

soaked in honey, stung and swollen,

reckless, pinned against time?


4. Yusef Konmunyakaa's "Thanks"

From Dien Cai Dau (Wesleyan University Press, 1988)


Thanks for the tree

between me & a sniper’s bullet.

I don’t know what made the grass

sway seconds before the Viet Cong

raised his soundless rifle.

Some voice always followed,

telling me which foot

to put down first.

Thanks for deflecting the ricochet

against that anarchy of dusk.

I was back in San Francisco

wrapped up in a woman’s wild colors,

causing some dark bird’s love call

to be shattered by daylight

when my hands reached up

& pulled a branch away

from my face. Thanks

for the vague white flower

that pointed to the gleaming metal

reflecting how it is to be broken

like mist over the grass,

as we played some deadly

game for blind gods.

What made me spot the monarch

writhing on a single thread

tied to a farmer’s gate,

holding the day together

like an unfingered guitar string,

is beyond me. Maybe the hills

grew weary & leaned a little in the heat.

Again, thanks for the dud

hand grenade tossed at my feet

outside Chu Lai. I’m still

falling through its silence.

I don’t know why the intrepid

sun touched the bayonet,

but I know that something

stood among those lost trees

& moved only when I moved.


5. Mary Oliver's "The Summer Day"

From New and Selected Poems (Beacon Press, 1992)


Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean—

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?


As these poems show, the theme of carpe diem rests on two related ideas: we are mortal beings with a limited life span, and we increase our joy when we value life and savor our days.