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Website prods poets to seek their 15 minutes of creativity

At ancient Greek festivals, poets competed alongside athletes, matching verse with quick-tongued rivals in public battles of wit and wordplay. Two millennia later, you find QuickMuse.com , the modern descendant of those ancient Greek poetry jousts. For the past year, QuickMuse has been asking pairs of well-known writers to create poems on a shared topic and posting the results online.

"It's not a competition like a fight to the death," with clear winners and losers, QuickMuse founder Ken Gordon says. "It's a competition like a bunch of jazz musicians improvising together and playing different solos." Gordon calls these contests "agons," an ode to the ancient Greek poetry competitions of the same name.

The latest participants in Gordon's experiment are rock musicians with poetry-writing experience: the Silver Jews' David Berman and Crash Test Dummies' Brad Roberts .

"In America, everyone's first exposure to poetry is popular music," Gordon says. "I think the best songwriters are people with poetic talent."

On Monday, the poet-songwriters were given 15 minutes to fill a blank computer screen with verse about a photograph QuickMuse provided. The idea, Gordon said, was to contrast Berman's and Roberts's poetry styles and, for fans of their music, to provide a window into their lyric-writing processes.

The results of QuickMuse contests are available online -- not only in their final form, but also as simulations of the poets' creative process. During each second of competition, QuickMuse software captures images of the poets' screens. Afterward, the website replays the images in rapid succession, revealing the poets' writing as it occurred, word by word and line by line. "[W]e suspect QuickMuse will bring readers closer to the moment of composition than they have ever been before," Gordon writes on the website.

The process can be humbling. QuickMuse shows even world-class poets struggling for the right words. In one poem, former US Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky makes a typo. In another, Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Muldoon restarts the same line three times.

Gordon hopes QuickMuse will demystify poetry for readers and inspire new poets. "The average person thinks that poetry happens by divine inspiration," he said. "But QuickMuse shows that even the best poets have to sweat a little bit. When you watch a fantastic writer work hard, it makes you want to work hard too."

Beth Woodcome , poetry editor of the Boston literary magazine AGNI , discovered QuickMuse this week. "It's almost like a poetry documentary, but with all the outside chaos taken away," she said. "You get to focus on just the writing process."

In the latest contest, Gordon picked Berman and Roberts for their experience with both songwriting and poetry. Berman published a poetry collection called "Actual Air" in 1999, and Roberts posts poems on Crash Test Dummies' website.

On Monday, Gordon sent the musicians a photograph of a child clinging to the rim of a makeshift schoolyard basketball goal, and they springboarded off the image in entirely different directions. Due to a technological glitch, QuickMuse did not capture images of Roberts's poem as he typed it, although the final product is available.

In Berman's poem, the narrator offers abstract images about his experience atop the basketball net: "i am the brick butterfly/ the Messiah who tarries/ because he is picking up just a little/ nectar of the blackboard."

Berman said he dreaded writing the poem all day on Monday but ended up enjoying the process. "I've been trying to write the same song for two days," he said. "But using QuickMuse, poets will learn to be less precious about their words, because you only have 15 minutes. You can't be overly interested in editing."

Roberts produced a 65-line stream-of-consciousness narrative about his own love-hate relationship with sports. "I got a frozen hockey puck/ I had a massive black eye the next day,/ and I wore it like a badge of honor./ I thought I looked extremely tough and streetwise," he writes, recalling an experience in elementary school.

"I saw the image and I didn't know what it was. I panicked. So I just decided to write about my experience with sports in general," he said.

In Roberts's opinion, writing under tight time constraints can improve the final product. "You can't think about James Joyce looking over your shoulder," he said. "As the memories come, you just write them down. And God willing, it will take a form."

Robbie Brown can be reached at jbrown@globe.com.

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