I've decided to dust off some of these once-published pieces, and republish them here on my Line Upon Line blog. They will be a bit longer than my usual blog posts. But hopefully they'll help us all get on with the delightful avocation of writing more, and better, poems.
Let's begin with my first Line Upon Line column from November 2005 — "Courting Inspiration." It's a piece about how to find inspiration on your own, instead of waiting for it to sweep you off your feet.
Interviewer: How long do you carry the “seed” of a poem before you begin to write?
Poet: The process begins with a moment of strong imaginative excitement and out of this ideas flow one upon another – often in complete verses until the inspiration passes. I rarely plan ahead. The least effective of my work (in my view) are those that are consciously and carefully developed; they easily become wooden and predictable.
I read poet Richard Hayes’ response to Nathan Harms’ online interview a few years ago and felt empathy – and disappointment. As a fledgling poet, I too had experienced the “moment of strong imaginative excitement” he described. It was a good feeling. Pity it visited me so seldom.
Was it true, as this fine poet implied, that writing effective poetry depended on the rare occasions inspiration decided to drop in? If that were so I’d probably write only a few dozen poems in my whole life. But I wanted to write more.
I determined that day I would try to prove it needn’t be so. In the intervening time I’ve discovered that, indeed, I do not need to wait for inspiration to show up before I start a poetry-writing session. Instead, writing poems has become a regular part of my life. Here are ten ways I’ve found to court inspiration and come up with poems on even the most unpromising of days.
1. Show up
Like any other kind of writing, to write poems you have to go to your desk, or your window chair, or your hot bath, or wherever you go to write. Poet Mary Oliver describes it this way in her book, A Poetry Handbook:
If Romeo and Juliet had made appointments to meet, in the moonlight-swept orchard, in all the peril and sweetness of conspiracy, and then more often than not failed to meet – one or the other lagging, or afraid, or busy elsewhere – there would have been no romance, no passion, none of the drama for which we remember and celebrate them.
Writing a poem is not so different – it is a kind of possible love affair between something like the heart... and the learned skills of the conscious mind....
The part of the psyche that works in concert with consciousness and supplies a necessary part of the poem ... learns quickly what sort of courtship it is going to be. Say you promise to be at your desk in the evening, from seven to nine. It waits, it watches. If you are reliably there, it begins to show itself – soon it begins to arrive when you do. But if you are only there sometimes, and are frequently late or inattentive, it will appear fleetingly, or it will not appear at all. (1)
So, you’ve showed up. Now what? Here are some things you can try, to get yourself primed and writing.
2. Read a little poetry to get into a poetic space.
On any given day, whom you read will depend on what kind of poem you’d like to write. Ken Nesbitt writes silly kids’ poems. Jane Kenyon’s poetry is thoughtful. Nathan Harms and David Waltner Toews use great metaphors. Have poetry books handy and poetry web sites bookmarked so you can nibble on favorite poems to get those creative juices primed for the writing main course.
3. Use poetry prompts.
Prompts may get you to think about things in ways you wouldn’t on your own. There are a multitude of these online and in books. Creating Poetry by John Drury is good. Poets Online is a favorite web site for prompts but you can find many more by typing ‘poetry prompts’ into the search line at www.google.com.
4. Start writing with lists, clustering and free writes.
- Lists. List all the ideas that occur to you from the prompt you’ve chosen. Or simply generate a list from any word or idea – a color, an emotion, a memory.
- Cluster. Begin a cluster by writing a word or phrase in the center of a sheet of paper and circling it. As an idea comes to you about that word, write that idea, put a circle around it and join the circles. Spend a few minutes noting all your ideas. In the process, what surfaces may surprise you, and hopefully what you want to say will become clear. The queen of clustering, Gabriele Rico, explains the method in her book Writing the Natural Way, and on her web site.
- Free write. Free writing is writing continuously for a set amount of time, say ten minutes. In her book Ms. Rico suggests free writing on the subject you’ve just clustered. Free writing works best if you keep the words flowing, so if you momentarily run out of things to say, simply write the same word over and over until the next idea comes to you. Poems can be developed out of free writing by isolating ideas and refining lines from them.
There’s nothing like a little accountability to scare inspiration out of hiding. The challenge of learning new skills isn’t a bad thing either. Determination to keep up with poetry writing assignments the winter I took a course showed me I could write poetry regularly and to a deadline.
6. Enter contests.
As a variation of writing poetry for course assignments, set yourself a goal to enter contests. These have deadlines and sometimes a theme and prescribed length. Inscribe Christian Writers’ Fellowship has a poetry category in their spring and fall contests, and Utmost Christian Writers sponsors several poetry contests every year. The deadline for their big annual contest just passed on March 1.
7. Join an on-line poetry memes, discussions or critique groups.
Reading and commenting on the work of others often sparks ideas and may well give you the desire to write new poems to have something to share. A site I've recently discovered that has lots of opportunity to post your own poems and read those of others is One Stop Poetry.
8. Find poems in your journal.
Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones says:
"Sometimes I discover poems in my notebook that I did not know I had written....As you reread, circle whole sections that are good in your notebooks. They can be used as beginning points for future writing or they might be complete poems right there. Try typing them up...(2)9. Go in search of poems.
Visit likely and unlikely places – the beach, the mall, the playground – with a sponge-like attitude, and a notebook and pencil in hand. Note everything you see, hear, smell, feel, remember etc. Later use that raw material in a poem.
10. Write when inspiration does visit.
Recognize that times of stress, bereavement, emotional conflict, tragedy or blessing typically evoke strong emotions. Don’t waste these inspirational freebies. Write in the heat of the battle, through the sleepless night, in the warm afterglow of love.
And there you have it – ten ways to make inspiration your servant, not your master. Or, said another way:
I’ve waited too long
for Inspiration to catch my eye
wink, grab me by the arm
lead me into a poem.
The dynamics in this relationship
Now it’s my turn
to flirt, beckon
© 2005 by V. Nesdoly
(1) Mary Oliver, A Poetry Handbook. (Harcourt, Brace & Co., Orlando Fl. 1994) 7,8.
(2) Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones (Shambhala, 1986 ) chapter “Rereading and Rewriting”