Tonic Writing Exercise #3: The “I Am” Poem

A place poem for the listicle generation. 

This is an exercise from one of my first poetry workshops at college. It ended up being a class favourite, partly, I’m sure, because it allowed each of us to feel utterly unique. It let us draw upon the languages of our hometowns. It allowed us feel nostalgic and even tiptoe into the realm of sentiment, much maligned territory for writers, without becoming overly sentimental. The list form doesn’t allow for that.

What it does allow for, and the most clear message that it teaches, is the importance of specificity in one’s writing. Specificity, whether it be in lyrical writing, dialogue, exposition, etc., can be a tough balancing act. But we know it when we have it, because it comes most naturally to write dialogue for a character when we know that character’s eccentricities. It is the elusive, familiar detail of a poem or a short story that sticks in the mind of its reader.

Needless to say, our teacher, Greg Williamson, is a fucking genius.

the “i am poem”

I began, as I am sure most did and will do, by generating a list of those memories of home. I was as expansive as possible at the beginning; collecting a list of things, of places, of memories associated with those things and places that was several pages long before honing it down. I don’t want to give too much guidance here. You’ll find the natural cadence and narrative flow of the piece as you gather the pieces and play with them.

This exercise was inspired by a poem with a title I have forgotten by a poet whose name I am desperately trying to recall. I am hunting that down and will provide an update when I have the original in hand.

a sample

I haven’t touched this poem since my sophomore year of college so it’s been about five years. It’s rougher than I would like and a little embarrassing in the way that most art that we created when we were younger feels embarrassing. But we are all friends here and this is, as clearly stated in the title of the post, an exercise.

I am St John’s Wood, I am London NW8

I am the Jubilee line, a pint of Scrumpy Jack’s,

Regent’s Park rowboats frozen in

and the milky surface of the ice,

I am Borough Market food stalls rattling

under railroad tracks, I am the 113

from Piccadilly to Brent Cross and back.

I am Let’s Fill This Town with Artists

 -easels half price all year round –,

I am champagne bubbles on Primrose Hill

and fireworks like glittered collars exploding.


I am NW8, I am Mind the Gap,

I am bursting Victorian pipes, the Hog and Pound,

the cerulean blue of Tower Bridge, I am mud-larking

on the Thames at high-tide, I am Camden Town

sugar-dusted doughnuts, Yum-Chaa tea pouches,

and fresh orange juice slick from ice baths.

I am patchwork fallen leaves from cherry blossoms

that line Abbey Road all the way home.

I am the quaking of the Millennium bridge.

xox J

ps: The photo at the top of the post was taken near the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona in fall of 2013.

2 thoughts on “Tonic Writing Exercise #3: The “I Am” Poem

  1. EstesJL says:

    I think it’s amazing when people have rich memories of home. When they can connect to that place in such a spiritual way and find pieces of themselves hidden in its features. Then again, I suppose home doesn’t need to be where you grew up. Or even a single place.


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