Monday, July 29, 2013

Using the Personal Universe to Meet Literary Learning Objectives

"Galaxies and Universes" by Torley Olmstead
Licensor agreement Creative Commons 2.0 
Creating a Personal Universe Deck is an enlightening exercise for poets, but it can be a beneficial assignment for introductory literature students, as well.

At Naropa University's Summer Writing Program in 2006, I was lucky enough to take a workshop with Michael McClure, who explained to the workshop members how to create a Personal Universe Deck. Since that time, I have not only created several decks for my own use and practice, but I have learned to adapt the technique to use as an assignment in my Introductory Literature Classes. Slightly adapted, I use it as an assignment to meet two separate learning objectives. First, I use it to help students identify the difference between concrete and abstract diction. Additionally, I use it as a way to introduce textual analysis.

The "Original" Personal Universe Deck

McClure does not take credit as the originator of this exercise, but attributes its creation to the daughter of friends (Personal Communication, June 2006). The benefits poets find in creating one of McClure's Personal Universe Decks are explained on blogs and personal Web sites all across the Internet. Although he did not create this exercise, he has perfected and propagated it, teaching the rules to students for several decades.

Shortened versions of the rules for the exercise also can be found on several Web sites, but a more complete version of the rules can be found on Paul E. Nelson's blog.

Personal Universe Deck
(Michael McClure)
Your personal universe exemplified in 100 words.
  1. These words are to exemplify your past, present and (ideally) your future.
  2. The words must sound good together, even beautiful, to you.
  3. Your good side AND bad side must be reflected.
  4. You can make up a word or two if you have feelings that current words can’t express.
  5. Use concrete words.
  6. Words should be root words, no words ending in “ing,” “ly” or “ies.” No plural words. Reduce words to their most concrete, original, basic grammatical structure.
  7. Use specific words, not categories. Beef instead of meatLily instead of flower.
  8. Divide 80 of the 100 words evenly among SIGHT, SOUND, TASTE, TOUCH AND SMELL, sixteen each. (To achieve derangement of the senses, of which Rimbaud spoke.)
  9. Use free association to determine the words.
  10. Use ten words of movement. Again, no “ing” words.
  11. Select the words in isolation, preferably alone, with no distractions, in candlelight. Approximate a meditative state. Even the cat must not bother you.
  12. One or two words will be parts of the body. It does not have to be your body. It can be the body of a mother, or lover.
  13. Include some words for personal heroes or SHEroes, places in the universe, invented words, times of night or day, symbolic signs like astrological signs, totemic animals, birds and plants and only one abstraction. What is the most significant abstraction in your life? You should not brood on it; you should possibly take the first answer that comes into your head. Patriotism, prayer and thriftiness are three examples.
  14. If the deck is done correctly, you will get a little high from it.
  15. Get at least 50 three-by-five index cards.
  16. Write each word in big letters on one side of each card. Each side of each of the fifty cards should end up with a word.
  17. Use the cards to play games, make conversations, tell jokes, make poems.

To summarize, a writer will create a list of 100 visceral, concrete words that exemplify his or her personal universe, the good and the bad, the past, present, and future, the real, and the mythological. The point of the exercise is for the writer to be able to tap into his or her psyche, or personal universe. Whether or not the exercise leads to better poetry is irrelevant in the making of the word deck, though it often does lead to such. It's an enjoyable, meditative exercise, hence its popularity and effectiveness.

Using the Personal Universe Assignment to Teach Concrete Diction

A selection of cards from a Personal Universe Deck.
 Personal Universe Deck
The Personal Universe Deck exercise can be adapted to help students identify the difference between concrete and abstract diction. Because the list of words students use for the Personal Universe Deck should, for the majority, be concrete, the use of this listing exercise as an in-class or homework assignment helps the students put the literary terminology to good use. Provided the rules for creating the 100-word list and perhaps a pre-printed table, students can construct their Personal Universes. As stated above, it's an enjoyable exercise, and it offers a teacher or professor the opportunity to immediately assess whether or not a student understands the difference between visceral, concrete language and abstract or vague language.

Using the Personal Universe Assignment to Teach Literary Analysis

After students have created their charts and met the requirements of the learning objective, they can then use the same blank, pre-printed chart to analyze work written by others. Students can, for example, deconstruct a series of three poems by the same poet by placing all of the words from the poems into columns on the chart, labeled “Sight,” “Sound,” “Smell,” “Taste,” “Touch,” “Movement,” or “Mythology.” The students will have to think carefully about the poems in order to make decisions about which words to place in which columns. Furthermore, after the charts have been completed, the students can then look at the charts and make additional analysis statements about the poems or poet. Students can look for consistency in connotations, archaic definitions, images, or sound devices. Using a chart with which they are already familiar is a fantastic bridging exercise to encourage learning across various levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy: understanding literary terms and being able to apply literary terminology to the analysis of literature.

As a poet, I very much value the Personal Universe Deck exercise as taught by Michael McClure. As an English Professor, I have found that both of these adapted Personal Universe assignments offer real learning opportunities beyond the use of the original exercise.

Want to read more about poetry?  

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Instead of Watching Television

A coconut that's been freshly cracked open.
Have you ever opened a coconut?
Image by Frederique Voisin Demery

Although I am not a television teetotaler, I have found many ways to spend time at home that do not include turning on the television.

Wherever I go, lately, someone asks me about my cable service, my favorite current television show, or my television-watching habits. The questioner is always super flummoxed and sometimes even nonplussed when I tell him or her that I do not have cable, and I rarely watch television. Whether it's an at-home date night or some good time alone, I can always find something fun to do without the noise and distraction of a television show. That's not to say there aren't times when I do turn to DVD's or the Internet to watch shows for entertainment. It's just that there are so many other things to do.

Instead of Watching Television, Play a Game

I'm not a kid, but whoever said playing is just for kids? I love playing games (albeit brainy or geeky ones), building "stuff," or drawing pictures. There are plenty of board games, card games, and even video games that are plenty grown-up enough to hold my interest for long periods of time. Also an activity that makes the time fly is putting to use those expensive building block sets I still have from childhood and have tucked away in the closet. Whether with kids or not, it's very satisfying to have achieved a feat of engineering by the end of an evening. It's likewise more fun than some people might expect to haul out old boxes of crayons, markers, colored pencils, and newsprint or construction paper. Creating low-stakes, playful artwork by bedtime is a great way to unwind after work while avoiding over-stimulation from electronic devices.

Create Something of Your Own

Nothing sucks up productive time and creativity like an entire evening spent watching television. So, whether I'm in the mood to paint, crochet, play my ukulele, bake, dance, write, or make something out of clay, I make time to do it. I always hear people lamenting the fact that there aren't enough hours in the day to get to everything they want to do, but some are the same people who are shocked that I don't have cable. Considering how often I hear people lamenting their lack of time, it is ironic that on June 22, 2011, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released the results of their American Time Use Survey and stated "Watching TV was the leisure activity that occupied the most time (2.7 hours per day), accounting for about half of leisure time, on average, for those age 15 and over" (para. 13). Watching television stymies creativity, so I do what I can to avoid falling into that trap by fighting fire with fire and choosing creativity over television.

Relax Without Electricity and Unplug Gadgets

There are some days when I just want to come home and relax. I want to find some stillness, some quiet, and release the tensions of the day. It's on these days I turn on neither the television nor the computer, but instead opt for yoga, a long walk, a hot bath, a good book, or an early bedtime. Although it might seem extravagant to hit the hay around 9:00 p.m., it can really make a difference the following day, as can a mind-clearing mid-week soak or a well-earned stretch. Especially when something is bothering me or on my mind, the distraction of television only complicates my thought-process, and I find I can better cope with the world if I just relax.

Spend an Evening Learning Something New

Learning something new is always a fantastic way to spend an evening.  It doesn't have to be rocket science, and it can certainly be a lot of fun as well as a great well to spend time with family or friends.  For example, last night my husband and I purchased a coconut at the farmer's market for the first time.  It may not be the most useful of survival skills in this part of the world, but we certainly had a great time learning how to open it!  I've also recently been learning tatting, filet crochet, how to play the ukulele and checkers.  For more ideas, take a look at the Igguldens' The Dangerous Book for Boys and the Buchanan and Peskowitz book, The Daring Book for Girls.

Although I am not a television teetotaler, I have found many ways to spend time at home that do not include turning on the tube. It's these evening of play, creativity, relaxation, and learning that make for a more well-rounded lifestyle and make my rare evening of television that much more enjoyable.


  • United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2011). American Time Use Survey Summary. Retrieved from

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Point of View and Emotion: An Exercise for Artists

Have you ever wondered why certain works of art make you feel a certain way?  Why looking at a painting of a happy subject can make you feel vulnerable, or why a particular panel in a graphic novel can make you feel powerful?  Many times, no matter the subject matter of a work of art, an artist can partially control a viewer's emotions by the use of point of view.

When artists, whether new or experienced, study how various points of view make them feel, they can begin to use what they've noticed about their own emotions within their own work.  In other words, if an artist notices that a certain point of view consistently makes her feel lonely, the use of that point of view in her own work can help her express loneliness.

Point of View and Emotion

More than just perspective, or the use of three dimensional representations on a two dimensional surface, point of view includes the angle from which the viewer sees the world of the painting and the closeness or "zoom" of the scene.  For example, a viewer could view Earth from Mars or from the tip of a blade of grass.

Some of the emotions I've had when viewing particular drawings or paintings are smallness and vulnerability, largeness and power or control, distance and omniscience or loneliness, and closeness and intimacy or closeness and ambiguity.  For each artist who completes this exercise, there will be a diverse array of combinations of point of view and emotion.  Each reaction is worthy of additional study and experimentation.

An Exercise for Artists

A short writing exercise can help artists hone in on their own reactions to a variety of points of view.  More importantly, writing these ideas helps solidify them, allows artists to concentrate on expressing their emotions to other artists, and allows a conversation to take place.  After several observations have been recorded in a journal, the artist should turn those notes and observations into individual paragraphs for each point of view and emotion combination. Each paragraph should cover an explanation of the point of view and emotion, a rationale for the connection, and a potential use for the connection in his or her own work.

Example Writing Exercise 

Smallness and Vulnerability

Looking up while walking though a maze of skyscrapers in the city or through a canopy of trees in the woods can make me feel very, very tiny.  I'm also thrown a bit off balance when I gaze up at towering structures above me, sometimes to the point of feeling dizzy or having vertigo.  That feeling of being off balance or being tiny in a universe of largeness can lead to a feeling of vulnerability.  I know when I want to incorporate that vulnerability, or sometimes awe at the largeness of the world, I can use this point of view to draw or paint my chosen subject.  When painting in the abstract, line can be used to indicate the same "looking up" perspective.

Largeness and Power or Control

When I think of this point of view, I think of the song "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands."  Everything looks so small from a distance or from above a scene.  As the moon rises I can hold up my hand, squint a bit, and trick my eyes into believing I can hold the moon in the palm of my hand.  It makes me feel large, and gives me the illusion of control over my surroundings.  This same feeling can be transferred to a viewer, especially by the use of the juxtaposition of large and small objects in perspective.

Distance and Omniscience and Power or Loneliness

On the other hand, I can also stand above an ant hill and watch the ants work, all of them oblivious to my knowledge of their lives.   I feel omniscient, all-knowing and all-powerful, but at the same time I have some sadness: Although I can see the ants and I know all of their comings and goings, they are oblivious to my existence.  I am alone in that world.  This point of view is contingent upon the scope, closeness or "zoom" of the work and can be emphasized by borders and the use of negative space.

Closeness and Intimacy or Ambiguity

The closer I focus on a subject in my work, the more prominence it has, and therefore the more important it will seem to my viewer.  However, if I get too close, my subject will no longer resemble itself.  The subject becomes ambiguous, and that ambiguity may cause frustration, curiosity, or confusion for a viewer.  Depending on the subject, it can also create a feeling of intimacy, like getting exceptionally close to an unfamiliar person when they are experiencing an otherwise private moment.

Final Thoughts

No matter if this exercise is completed as part of a class or program or for private study, it's important the final product is shared.  As stated above, for as many artists there are, there will be diverse and varied responses to the exercise.  Sharing those responses and reactions is a fascinating conversation and study of how we can use point of view to affect our viewers.

Want to read more about painting?

Painting Supplies for Beginning Acrylic Painters
Product Review: Escoda MARFIL Series Brushes for Acrylic Painters
Golden Gel Mediums and Pastes Offer Exciting Acrylic Textures
Golden Heavy Body Artist's Acrylic Paint: An Artist's Review

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess.  Please contact the author for permission for republication.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Tatting! Susan Bates Plastic Tatting Shuttle with Removable Bobbin

This is a Susan Bates plastic tatting shuttle with an end hook and removable bobbin.
The Easy-to-Use Susan Bates Tatting Shuttle
I have recently started tatting.  I began by using the shuttles I found in my grandmother's craft supplies, a metal shuttle with a bobbin and flat hook, and a plastic shuttle with a post and pick.  I was having difficulties using the metal shuttle because of how difficult it was to turn the bobbin and pull more thread while tatting.  It was also difficult to grip and a bit heavy, tugging on my thread and work when I dropped it.  On the other hand, the plastic pick at the end of the plastic shuttle made it difficult to join rings through picots.

I looked at alternate types of shuttles online and was intrigued by the plastic shuttles with bobbins and tiny crochet hooks at the end.  I wrote to the Coats and Clark company in North Carolina, and they agreed to send a Susan Bates tatting shuttle for me to test and review.

Part of enjoying a new craft is to use the right tool for the task, and I feel this Susan Bates tatting shuttle is the right tool.  After putting this shuttle to use on some rings, picots, chains, and folded joins, I can definitely recommend it to beginner tatters like me. 

Best Features

Attached hook
Bobbin is easy to remove
Bobbin turns freely
Bobbin clicks
Small, easy to grip shape
End can be used as a picot gauge

The Susan Bates plastic tatting shuttle with removable bobbin, model number 14278, has made tatting much easier than with the other two shuttles.  It is 3 1/8" long, and the bobbin, the widest point of the shuttle, is 7/8" wide.  The bobbin is easy to remove, it turns freely, and it is lightweight.  The shape of the shuttle makes it easy to grip and to slide over and under the thread.   It's narrow enough to fit between my thumb and forefinger easily.  The hook at the end of the shuttle makes joining rings together through picots much easier than having to switch between the shuttle and a tatting pin or crochet hook, and the opposite end, shaped like a Phillips-head screwdriver, can be used as a handy picot gauge.  Additionally, I do enjoy the clicking noise the shuttle makes when thread is pulled from the bobbin.  The clicks make it possible to hear how much thread has been pulled without looking.

The Best Feature is the Attached Hook


This shuttle is the right tool for tatting!


Possible Improvements

Although there is nothing about the shuttle that makes it difficult to use, there are two improvements that would make it easier to use.   First, having a shuttle come with multiple bobbins would make it easier to keep full bobbins handy, whether or not the bobbins were for multiple colors of thread.  I would be willing to pay more for an additional bobbin or two, as I have already purchased a second of these wonderful shuttles!  Secondly, making the center of the bobbin just large enough to fit over the end of the shuttle, the end shaped like a Phillips-head screwdriver, would make winding the bobbin much easier.  As it is, winding the bobbin requires winding around my fingertips.  Again, the shuttle is by no means difficult to use, but these improvements would certainly make it easier for a beginner.

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.
Special thanks to Cynthia Schnall for sending me this product for review.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Painting Supplies for Beginning Acrylic Painters

Sheep Eating Orchid, Acrylic on Canvas by Amy Lynn Hess

Becoming a painter is an exciting prospect, and shopping for supplies is one of the best parts! 

The question, though, is what to buy?

When I worked at The Loft, an art supply store in Athens, Georgia, customers would often come into the store with only a general desire to paint or with the intent to purchase the perfect gift for someone who had just started acrylic painting. These two types of customers were my favorite customers. I would listen to what they wanted to achieve or what type of painting they did, and I would then try to work with them to find the right art supplies for the right price. I became quite adept at putting together beginner's art supply kits for acrylic painters. Every beginner's kit for painters should include, at minimum, brushes, pre-stretched canvas, and acrylic paint.

Purchasing Brushes for Acrylic Painting

It's important to purchase a few, high quality brushes with excellent "snap."

I recommend buying brushes at an art supply store. There are more and better options there than at a big box or department store, and the brushes will be labeled "acrylic," "oil," "oil and acrylic," or "watercolor." There are short handles, which are mostly for use at a table, or longer handles, which are mostly for use at an easel. A variety of brushes will be used by any individual artist in the way that is most comfortable and effective per project.

There are some basic tests to perform when picking out acrylic paint brushes. A quick brush across the heel of a hand a few times can help a buyer test for snap and loose bristles. For beginners, it's easier to learn to create lines and strokes properly with brushes that create a smooth line and that don't lose any bristles when stroked. A good brush will also have a little snap to it, meaning the brush will bounce back into shape when bent. A good brush will have no extra bristles sticking out here and there, and a good brush will have deeply crimped lines where the metal meets the wood of the handle. This ensures it won't come loose after a few uses.

Brushes come in shapes and sizes: flat, round, filbert, fan, bright, and angle in sizes from #2, #4, #6, #8, #10, and up. They also come in many bristle types, including boar bristle, synthetic, and soft natural hair in many "stiffnesses." Palette knives also come in many sizes and shapes, and they are found in the brush aisle, as well. The only limitation for brush purchases is the buyer's budget. I do quite well with only a few well-maintained brushes in rotation, and they've all lasted over fifteen years. There are eight brushes I use most often and could not live without. I use my

  • #12 boar bristle filbert
  • #10 synthetic flat
  • #6 natural hair round
  • #6 natural hair bright angle
  • #4 synthetic filbert
  • #4 synthetic flat
  • Short-handled #4 round
  • #2 synthetic bright.

On professional-grade brushes, the size or size and style of brush will be imprinted into the brush handle.

Purchasing Pre-Stretched Canvas or Canvas Boards

For beginners, I suggest the ease of purchasing pre-stretched or factory-stretched canvas or canvas boards over purchasing the canvas, frames, and gesso (the primer paint), separately. Trying to learn to stretch a canvas takes time, and canvas that has been stretched improperly is difficult to paint on, and that may discourage a new painter. Of course, any number of surfaces can be used, such as cardboard, wood, leather, ceramic, metal, or glass surfaces, but they would require gesso, also.

Pre-stretched canvas and canvas boards come in a variety of sizes. There are a few simple ways to determine how large a canvas to purchase for a project. Start by thinking about the painting's purpose, and if there is a predetermined location for the finished product. The size of the canvas should look aesthetically pleasing in the space. If there is no predetermined purpose, the only other suggestion for choosing a size is to choose based on a budget: the size of the painting surface determines the amount of paint required to cover that surface.

No matter what the size, not all pre-stretched canvas or canvas boards are made equally. Some have corners that are well-constructed, neat, and tidy. Some are uneven. Some have stretchers that fit together nicely and when placed on a flat surface will lay flat. Some lay lopsided, which they will also do after being hung on a wall. It is worth a few extra dollars to purchase quality pre-stretched canvas.

Purchasing Acrylic Paints

Golden paint is an excellent brand.

The most exciting part about buying acrylic painting supplies is buying the acrylic paint! Beginners should choose a brand of acrylic paint that has a smooth consistency and shiny sheen. Just as with the brushes, the smoother the paint, the better the line and stroke. The paint can always be mixed on a paint palette after being squeezed from the tube, but if the paint comes out separated, it can be difficult to achieve an even quality. A salesperson may be able to open a tube for a quick look to see if the paint is clumpy or separated, but there are some brands of acrylic paint that come in clear tubes.

As stated above, paint can always be mixed, which makes every tube one more possible combination. For a beginner's kit, it's really only necessary to purchase one red, yellow, blue, white, and black. However, to have a little more leeway with color, two hues of each color will offer endless possibilities. As with everything else, price is always a factor, but paints range in price from very inexpensive (especially when on sale) for $2.50 a tube, to very expensive at almost $50.00 a tube. It all depends on the color fastness, density, and content - especially content of toxic metals, such as cadmium. Non-toxic paints will be labeled as such and will normally cost less than those with metal content.

No matter what a beginning painter's budget, supplies do not have to be a financial burden. An acrylic painter can begin with three items, if need be: a brush, a canvas, and a tube of paint.

Want to read more about acrylic painting?  

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

How To Create a Shadowbox for Heirloom Jewelry

Create Your Own Shadowbox to Display Heirloom Jewelry

I have had a few very special pieces of jewelry, mostly pins and brooches, for quite some time.  Each pin or brooch has come from one of my grandmothers, great-grandmothers, or my mother.  Instead of keeping these beautiful family heirlooms hidden in jewelry boxes or drawers, I decided to find a way to display them in a shadowbox.

Heirloom Jewelry Shadowbox Project Supplies 

In order to begin my project, I needed to collect together all of the jewelry I wanted to display along with a few additional supplies.  Most importantly, I needed to find an affordable shadowbox frame large enough for my project without being too large.  I found just what I needed on clearance at Target, luckily, and the rest of the supplies I had at home.

  • Target RE Brand 12" x 12" Shadowbox Frame ($12.00)
  • Jewelry Cleaner
  • Superglue
  • Iron and Ironing Board
  • Velvet Fabric (13" x 13")
  • Faux Fur Fabric (10" x 10")
  • Needle and Thread
  • Fabric Scissors
  • Safety Pins
  • Flat Head Screwdriver
  • Newspaper
  • Vinegar

Putting the Shadowbox Together

Putting the project together took about 3 hours from start to finish, and it was a project that required some spreading out.  I worked on the bed and floor in my well-lit bedroom.

  1. The first step was to clean and layout on the back of the shadowbox frame all of the pieces of jewelry I wanted to display.  
  2. Next, I took a digital photo to remind myself of the layout before moving the jewelry.  
  3. I cut my velvet fabric using the back of the frame as a template, then I ironed it on a very low heat setting.
  4. I aligned the velvet fabric with the back of the frame, again, and began pinning the jewelry to the fabric.  Any jewelry that had no pin was pinned with a safety pin or sewn with loose stitches to the fabric.  
  5. I added all the pins and pieces to the velvet fabric, then placed the faux fur in the center of the back of the frame for padding before gluing the top edge of the pinned velvet fabric along the top edge of the frame back.  I glued only the top edge in case I needed to disassemble and reassemble the shadowbox for any reason.
  6. I cleaned the glass of the frame with vinegar and newspaper, then assembled the frame by laying the spacer (that keeps the back of the frame an inch from the glass), the glass, and the frame on top of the back and jewelry.  
  7. After all the pieces were aligned, I used the flat head screwdriver to fold the tabs to hold the back in place.
  8. Finally, I created a template with the names of the jewelry owners to tape to the reverse side of the back of the frame.
I will be able to hang my shadowbox with our family photos in the living room, easily, because the frame has a well-attached hanger already through the back of the frame.  I'm very excited to display and enjoy this project.  If you try this yourself, please let me know how it turns out in the comments section!