“How do you write a poem?”
It’s a broad question which I hadn’t given much consideration until I was recently asked.
I’ve broken my answer down into two parts. In part one I discussed what it means for something to be a poem– you can find that post here.
In this post, I want to talk to you about my techniques for writing.
I don’t intend for this to be overly technical or instructive. The purpose is to offer an insight into how I work. I would love to hear whether you have a similar approach or, even better, an entirely different one.
Some of these techniques (“The Golden Shovel” in particular) are ones I encountered at Growing Poetry, an amazing poetry retreat that I attended last September. Do take a look at their Facebook page– there’s a lot of inspiration and new favourites to be found.
Stream of consciousness or “Free-writing”
This is how I write a lot of my poems. There’s no special secret; I write, write and rewrite.
There are blessed days when I start writing and I might be able to deliver a poem almost fully-formed and perfect. I might be suddenly inspired with an opening line and then find that the rest follows naturally. This is rare.
Often I’ll have a starting point: a phrase, a subject, an idea, a rhyme. Sometimes it’s a conversation I’ve had or one I wish I could have. It can be something I’ve thought of myself, or maybe something I’ve borrowed.
Then, I’ll allow myself to write without judgement. It might be for a set amount of time, a certain number of pages, or until I run out of steam.
Then comes the rewriting. Like I said, some poems need a lot more work than others. I go back through what I’ve written and pick out elements that seem promising. This could be a theme, a line or a single word. I might find a strong image that I want to explore further. I might find many things compelling in one exercise of this, or I might not connect with anything. The poem that results could be completely different to what I started from and it’s possible that more than one poem might come out.
Below is an image from my notebook to help illustrate what I mean.
In that session of writing, I was thinking about what makes a poem a poem. You can see that I explored a few different directions (“his face is a poem”, “a poem is perfume”, “a poem is an immune response”).
I haven’t finished putting any of those poems together, so I’m not sure where we’ll end up. Be sure to look out for at least one of these– now you’ll know where it started.
For a few months last year, I wrote one poem of twenty-five words every day. You can have a look at them here. The main purpose of this exercise was to get into a habit of writing regularly. Twenty-five words isn’t very much– it was something I could write and post from my phone.
Inspiration isn’t a promise and it isn’t magic. Writing every day meant writing even when I wasn’t feeling inspired or creative. It proved to me that I can do it. Now I can’t tell myself that I have writer’s block because I know I can write something every day.
These short poems forced me to focus on choosing my words carefully for clarity and impact. The poems cover a range of topics, from the mundane to the magnificent. Looking back over those poems, I have been able to learn a lot about myself as a writer. I’m able to identify strong themes running through the variety. I can hear my own style emerging but I can see where I need to challenge myself more.
I’ve also found that if you tell yourself you only need to write twenty-five words, you can often end up writing a lot more. Sometimes making the time to write is more difficult than the act itself.
Writing from a prompt can be useful when you’re faced with a blank page and you’re not sure what to write about. The prompt can be used as strictly or loosely as you choose. I like to break the rules and often try respond to prompts obtusely. Sometimes I challenge myself to take them more literally. Whatever the approach, you’ll end up with something at the end.
Almost anything can be used as a writing prompt. I might choose a random word or a line from a book, listen to music (with or without words), pick an image, look for new words or concepts. How I interact with any prompt will vary: it might be something I choose to describe, it could spark a new idea or an old memory.
If all of that choice seems too overwhelming, look for more prescriptive prompts online (e.g. “Write a poem about silence”)– have a look!
Poems which have clear rules for their structure give us an opportunity to play with words and rhythm. It can be a fun way to challenge ourselves, almost like a puzzle. It’s also a good tool to develop our writing by switching focus and trying something new.
Have a look for forms of poem you’d like to try. I often use poems that play with syllable structure like tankas, haikus and limericks. Other types of poem that I’d like to try in the near future are sonnets, acrostics and concrete poetry.
“The Golden Shovel”
This is a technique in which you take a line (or lines) from a poem of your choice. Each word of that line then becomes the last word of the poem that you write. You must keep the words in the same order as the original line.
So if you choose a line with four words (e.g. she sells sea shells), the poem you write must have four lines and each line must end with one of those words in order (e.g. line one ends with “she”, line two “sells”, line three “sea”, line four “shells”).
You can find more background and explanation on this technique in this article from Poetry magazine.
This particular technique isn’t one I use a lot, but there are many ways to borrow from poems that inspire us. Rearrange all the words in a poem, borrow a title, use the same subject, or repurpose a line. It could be interesting to use a poem that you’re less familiar with– a different poet, era, genre or style. I’ve even thought about using my own work.
One of my favourite ways to do this is by starting with something that isn’t a poem; what about a newspaper or a shopping list?
In its simplest form, this can be a helpful starting point to write from. It can be further used as an appreciation of others’ work, or a way to enter into dialogue by offering different perspective on a theme.
The more invested I’ve become in writing, the more important it has been to remind myself that I write because I enjoy it. I enjoy it, I love it, and I don’t want it to become something I dread or torture myself with.
I love working on this blog. It is both gratifying and humbling to have my poems read, listened to and liked. The danger is that this can bring a sense of pressure. Sometimes I find myself becoming very self-conscious about my work– Will people like it? Will they read it? Is it good enough?— often before I’ve written anything.
That’s just no good.
Of course I want always want to improve my writing, but I don’t want that to stop me from writing all-together. After all, that’s what the whole “bad poetry” concept is about.
When the going gets tough, the tough get silly. When I’m struggling to write, it can help to take the pressure off of myself completely. I hope I always enjoy writing about animals, farts, pizza, and making silly puns.
What do you think?
Those are my thoughts, but I’d love you know what you think (for all of my writers, not just poets):
How do you write?
What techniques do you use when you’re struggling to write?
It’s been great to talk to you,