How to make and use a Universe Deck

For those who found last night's exercise interesting, some notes on the Universe Deck.

Making a Universe Deck

The Universe Deck comes from an exercise by Linnea Johnson in Behn and Twichell's The Practice of Poetry.

Take a pack of 100 index cards. A pad of Post-It size notes works too, but index cards are easier to shuffle. A bunch of old business cards would work too, if you can write on the backs, i.e. not too glossy.

On each card, write a word, as follows:

  • for each of the five senses, 16 words each (80 words in all). These are words that evoke that sense to you
  • ten "motion" words. These need not be verbs, but words suggest (again, to you) motion.
  • three abstractions
  • seven random, anything-goes words.

Avoid plurals and adverbs; try to be specific.

Using the Universe Deck

Ok, now the easy way to use the deck is to use it as a random word generator. Pull one card and use that as the theme of a poem; draw a dozen and write a poem that uses at least half of them; or so on.

More interesting, though, is to take advantage of the card form. For example, as a group, we've played draw poker and "Texas Hold'em" with a Universe Deck.

In draw poker, everyone is dealt five (or some other number) of words. They get one chance to trade in a number of words for others drawn randomly from the deck. In Texas Hold'em, five cards are placed in the center and shared, and everyone gets their own two hole cards, so each person has a total of seven words to work with.

You can also use a Tarot style layout, as we did last night. This gives each word a possible relationship to the situation. There are several layouts possible, but I one I use is a variant of the "Celtic Cross":

  • pick a card to be the "significator". This is usually picked deliberately, rather than dealt from a shuffled deck. In traditional readings, this would represent the querent; in our exercise, it can represent a central theme for the poem to revolve around.
  • The first dealt card "covers" the significator. It represents the current situation. Place it over top of (i.e., pile on top of) the significator.
  • The second card is "crosses" the significator. It represents a current obstacle. It is placed over the first two cards, at a right angle.
  • The next card is placed above the pile formed by the first few. It "crowns" the situation, representing an aim or ideal.
  • The next card is placed below the pile. It is "beneath" or "supports" the situation.
  • The fifth card goes to the left of the pile. It is "behind" and represents the recent past.
  • The next card goes to the right and represents what is "before" us, the immediate future.
  • Now we have a cross. The remaining four cards are placed in a line, one above the over, to the right of the cross. The seventh card is the "self".
  • The eighth is our "house", the environment, friends, family, et cetera.
  • The ninth card represents "hopes and fears".
  • The tenth word represents the ultimate outcome of the situation.

More information about this layout can be found in this on-line version of A. E. Waite's The Pictorial Key to the Tarot.

I stayed up all night playing poker with Tarot cards. I got a full house and seven people died. -- Steven Wright