Spacks on Bumpers

Feeling whimsical one day when I heard of a new product — magnetic letters for the car bumper, 84 characters in the kit — I invented a new poetry form called "Bumpers." Immediately my lawyer-friend Lawrence Leone and I started sending the unpretentious little poems back and forth by e-mail.

The simple rule for this kind of wordplay is that each poem-link must consist of exactly 84 characters, including punctuation.

To work up 84's, one depends on the computer's Word-Counter (usually found under Tools), which is why -- along with the e-mail connection -- I claim Bumpers to be the first strictly "cyber" poetic form. BTW, if your Character Counter (a subset of the Word Counter) includes spaces, for convenience you may let those be part of the 84's as well.

Friends can "bump" back-and-forth ("bumpercars") or hey, you can write Bumpers strictly for an audience of one, sending them only to yourself, answering your ping with your own pong.

More enabling than solitaire, this practice serves to dispel mental clouds and allows a writer (amateurs particularly invited!) to relax into sky mind. Or try your next business memo in bumper form and see how the process lifts your spirit even with the driest subject matter!

Maria dollink, the Schwartz invoice
has gotten all f'cocked, o would
you dreadfully mind re-doing?



gotcha, Martin: "dollink" is an actionable
And now I have a copy!

Ping-Ponging Bumpers

Exchanging bumpers, the trick for each link is to bang off at something that extends the sequence thematically, but at a bit of an angle from what the previous 84 offered. "Tell all the truth / But tell it slant" Emily Dickinson wrote (could be she's the real inventor of "Bumpers"!)

Collaborators while ping-ponging may agree in advance on a broad subject – like "the Info Age," or "Fathers," "James Joyce," "Children" among many others that Lawrence and I have composed. But it may be more fun, with more surprises ("how did we get onto sex again?!") to just let exchanges find their own gradual way without a set topic.

Once a sequence starts to get unwieldy in length, we declare a halt with a Bumper that has a nice closure-feeling about it, and start a new series.

These 84's seem to hover in aesthetic effect between Chinese 4-line wisdom poems and the Japanese tanka (a haiku plus a follow-up couplet producing a five line poem with traditional syllable-count 5,7,5,7,7). Closest to tanka in flavor, Bumpers have a tang all their own, and an ability to say just about anything due to their casualness and flexibility.
In the heat of a speedy response, you'll often take off on a line with no way to anticipate how a final product might result. As with any literary "form," content needs to adjust to restriction: rhyme or refrain or 14 lines to a sonnet, whatever supplies a limiting requirement. Length limitation itself often nudges a Bumper-writer toward a new strategy or the joy of an unexpected discovery.

To encourage casual use, I wanted a short form not burdened by tradition like the Persian Rubaiyat or Chinese quatrain, the Haiku or Tanka, the English epigram. Bumpers offer a rare combination of openness and rigor. It's one thing to "commit" a poem – most unused to the art will quail, thinking oh I must have a profound insight or a special image to offer — but throwing down anyoldthing to start, which is what Bumper-use encourages, and then going on to the delicious cunning, concision, extendings and revisings caused by the arbitrary formal constraint, ah that's where the special attraction comes into play.

I confess: the number "84" as a rigor-maker was chosen out of the air. I wish I could say that a consciousness of the number 84 being used by the Buddha was part of the motivation, but that only occurred to me later (Buddha is said to have given a total of 84 Thousand teachings).

One could, of course, write 77's instead of 84's. That would work. Or go the other way, set up the crucial formal requirement as 99. But experience tells me that anything much less than the high 70's or much more than 100 will miss the mystery of the Bumper's utility. Shorter forms lead to a challenge much more like that of the Haiku (those only look easy to write!) and longer limits place the carefree writer back in the quandary of "committing poetry" from scratch (with all its need for special talents and impulses).

Lawrence likes to call them "mind cookies."

Back to the bumpers.