When I re-read my poems, I generally remember writing them. The ones I most enjoy crystallise a specific moment in time– not just the memory, but the feeling. That feeling might not be related to the subject of the poem. In fact, it’s usually kind of mundane.
It’s like being able to see myself as a stranger. That’s my favourite thing about writing.
When I originally posted the poem, I felt that it had potential.
I wasn’t totally happy with it but, at the time, I didn’t know how to make it work better.
I didn’t think it was bad, but it didn’t hit all the right beats.
It wasn’t unfinished, but I knew it would benefit from more work.
So here are the two versions of the poem side-by-side (you can also find the new version here).
The red text was removed in the re-edit, the blue text was moved or reworded, and the green text was added.
What did I learn?
1. The first version of the poem suffered from too many ideas.
There were phrases and images that I enjoyed, but I couldn’t make them fit well in this poem. That’s not to say they wouldn’t work in another poem. Equally, they just might not work in which case I can let them go.
It is possible to explain a thing too much. Being able to extend a metaphor doesn’t mean that you should. Sometimes stating an idea is enough.
On the plus side, I won’t complain about having too many ideas.
2. Structure is important.
The original poem is less easy to follow. I move between different metaphors and subjects. I like it when a poem feels like a good conversation. Moving things around in the re-edit helped the logical progression of ideas.
3. Words are hard.
I like to play with technical language. I find wordplay and double-entendre satisfying. However, in the first version, too much of this can compromise the intent I’m trying to express.
Simple words can do the job.
This poem might be written to be read aloud. I’d like to become better at distinguishing spoken word from written word. I’d like to better understand how to exist in that overlap.
Speaking of the spoken word
I record myself reading my poems. Here are the two poems for comparison:
I think the recent version is an improvement. I’d like to say something more insightful but I think it might be a little too close to home.
It still isn’t finished.
I just don’t think the poem is quite there yet, you know?
It’s worth saying that this poem might not ever be done. I don’t think all poems need to feel finished. Some poems, including this one, are a stimulus for other poems.
I think my favourite poems are my most authentic. I guess this poem isn’t true– I don’t really want to write you songs. This poem was more of a writing exercise; me playing with language.
The truth in this poem is that I feel frustrated when lack the capacity to express how I feel with words. Especially feelings that are worth sharing with other people; especially love.
The truth in this poem is accepting that it isn’t always possible to capture my feelings in words.
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 a broad question which I hadn’t given much consideration until I was recently asked.
To give you my answer, I’m going to break this down into two parts:
What is a poem?
How do I write a poem?
Welcome to part one,
What is a poem?
The short answer is that I’m not entirely sure.
For me, a poem is an encompassing idea. I think it’s something that is subjective. I’m not sure who decides whether a poem is a poem. Is it the reader? Is it the writer?
Does it matter?
However, at some point I clearly decided that what I was writing was poetry. I even put it in the name of the blog.
So here’s what I think:
A poem is more than a piece of writing.
Being written seems an intrinsic characteristic to some of the dictionary definitions above. I would argue that this is a limiting perspective.
Some poems are rich and deep. Their intricacies and complexities require the permanence of the written word. They are built to be read and re-read.
However, some poems are composed to be read aloud. They are lyrical and they need to be spoken to be appreciated; they need to be performed.
So many poetic devices– rhythm, rhyme and wordplay– work best when read aloud.
Some poems exist only as spoken word and these are often the most accessible forms of poetry. I believe that nursery rhymes, prayers and song lyrics all have a place in poetry.
These are the poems which are ubiquitous. They’re the poems for people who don’t read poetry and they’re the ones that we recite together.
A poem has a meaningful structure.
Structure is a integral to clearly conveying information in all forms of communication. We are familiar with the concept of a beginning, a middle and an end; an introduction, a discussion and a conclusion; conflict and resolution.
Structure may vary depending on media, purpose or concept. However, it is a common success factor in most endeavours, be it a film script, a corporate presentation, or an argument with a loved one.
In poetry, structure is more than a vehicle for getting a point across. The use and exploration of structure may be the purpose for writing a poem.
There can be a joy in the puzzle-like quality of working with different styles of poem.
There are many forms of poetry, some with a defined set of rules. Their structure could be dictated by syllable patterns, line breaks, repetition… Think sonnets, haikus and limericks, for example.
Sometimes it is less defined. There can be list poems and letters. There can be poems which are narratives and monologues. The boundaries can become blurred.
Structure is not just linguistic. Concrete poetry is concerned with typography, the visual structure of the poem on a page.
Even stream-of-consciousness or free form poems follow structure, be that loose or fragmented– that’s the point.
The variety of poetic structure offers options for how to present information and concepts. When implemented well, an awareness of structure gives the poet an opportunity to add another layer of meaning to their work.
A poem uses its words with precision and purpose.
It is good practice, both in writing and speech, to choose our words carefully for meaning and conciseness. However, in poetry, the use of language is celebrated beyond this and, again, could be the purpose of a poem.
On first consideration, I decided that poetry was about distilling an emotion, memory or concept into something eloquent and easily understood. It can be a kind of therapy. I’ve heard it described as the study of simple things. Some say poets search for beauty and meaning where others might overlook it.
These things might be true but, overall, I find it a bit too serious.
There is an idea of a lonely poet who sits in the dark thinking big thoughts and writing very profound things. Whilst there’s a time and a place for this, it is also important to remember the contribution of silliness and nonsense poetry.
I have written poems where the primary purpose has been to make cheap rhymes, bad puns, and fart jokes. I love it and I’m not sorry.
There are so many poetic devices– simile, metaphor, alliteration, onomatopoeia, rhyme, just to name a few. These can be very technical but they can also be a lot of fun. For me, they are an opportunity to celebrate language, to play.
I don’t think that poems need to be beautiful in a traditional sense. By which I mean that they don’t have to be nice, or florid, or finished.
I do think that poetry is beautiful but I think that because I love it.
For me that beauty can be in being raw, vulnerable, honest, unapologetic, joyful… It could be in being ugly. Just vulgar and ugly and a bit gross.
I find beauty in authenticity. I also find it in the fantastical.
It’s contradictory, isn’t it?
Sometimes poetry really speaks to something in us, and sometimes it is totally surface-level. Sometimes it’s about love, sometimes grief, and sometimes it’s about toilets. Sometimes all three.
Overall, for me, wordplay and the manipulation of language are a defining characteristic of poetry regardless of the subject matter.
The short answer is still that I don’t really know what a poem is.
I’ve done my best to articulate my thoughts above, but they are intentionally vague. I think it’s subjective.
Poetry is broad and poetry is personal. It can be laced in meaning or it can be matter of fact.
In my own writing, I can identify some major themes and topics. Despite this, there are pieces that I revisit and even myself be unsure of what they’re really about.In the writing of something, the intended meaning can change entirely.
I enjoy playing with different styles, structures and subjects. I’m interested to see whether this will continue or whether it will change as my writing becomes more established.
I would be interested to know your thoughts:
How do you define a poem? Does that carry through into your own work? Has your perspective changed over time?
A considerable amount of time has passed since I last spoke to you directly. I hope that you’re well and that you’re enjoying things around here.
Let me give you a quick update on five important things:
25-word poems I’m pleased that I’ve sustained writing a 25-word poem for each day since mid-July. It’s been a great way to begin a habit of writing and it’s creating a journal of ideas that I can revisit in the future (maybe).
I would like to find a way to collate these poems by month, possibly in a little e-book. I’ll get back to you on that.
Proper poems Although some progress has been made, it’s been difficult to find time to write “proper” poems outside of my 25-word ones.
I’ve just added voice recordings to my latest poems Counting the days since youand Rain sounds— maybe you’d like to have a listen?
I actually have recordings for all of my longer poems. They can be quite soothing. Here’s a link to my Soundcloud if you feel like listening to my voice on loop.
Additionally, in shameless self-promotion, I’m trying to get to grips with Twitter. I would love it if you followed me there too. I’m not sure how it works so if you have any advice about hashtags and birds it would be very appreciated.
I’ve recently returned from a glorious poetry retreat hosted by Growing Poetry at Ranby Hill Farm. It was divine. I will try and do a write up on it but, in case I don’t, here are the details of their next retreat in February 2020. Highly recommend.
Surprise! You are actually the most important thing. I’ve recently received my 1,000th like on this blog which is kind of a big deal for me. Thank you so much for reading and listening. I’ve started to receive a few comments and it’s brilliant to hear your thoughts. I love it when you talk to me, please continue.
That’s all for now. I’ll try to be good and I hope you do too.
That’s 49 poems in 46 days. I’m pretty happy with that.
The break was good. I’ve loved writing poems but I started to get a bit too focused on the blogging side of it. It’s so encouraging and validating to see people reading and enjoying my work– I love it. Thank you. It’s also a little bit addictive; it’s easy to obsess over the numbers.
Having such a high output is also incredibly time-consuming, especially because I record myself reading all of my poems to you (which I also love doing). Whilst it was magical staying up until 4am to ride a wave of creativity and inspiration, it’s not a sustainable way for poor sad Saba to live.
I’m going to try and post regularly, but less frequently. Maybe every other day? We’ll see how it goes.
This week, I’ve been trying to write difficult poems.
Not difficult in terms of the subject matter, but poems that haven’t quite worked in the last 46 days. Poems that have sat in my phone notes unfinished; one-line fragments that have taken up whole pages of notebooks; words which just wouldn’t cooperate.
Now, every time I go to write, I’m confronted by the corpses of poems that didn’t make it. Harrowing is too strong a word, but its at least a little disheartening.
I need to purge myself of these poems.
I’m having a hard time getting these poems out but here are my main tactics:
1. Get everything in one place There are little shards of poems scattered all over the place. You’re tripping over them and every time you do it reminds you of a poem you weren’t able to finish. This makes you feel not good.
Collect your ideas in one place where they are safe. Put them somewhere that you can easily go back to and where you’re best able to work with them.
I’m going to type mine up on my laptop.
2. Take a look at the bigger picture Zoom out of your fragments of poetry and see what they look like. Are there any key themes? Do any of them tie in together? It’s likely that at least a few of these fragments want to be together in one poem. Maybe that poem has been writing itself over weeks. Take some time to review all of your ideas together.
3. Why has it been so difficult? Now take a closer look at each line and ask yourself why these poems have been so difficult to write. Maybe the ideas aren’t ripe enough; maybe they don’t feel authentic enough; maybe you don’t really have that much to say on the topic. Remind yourself that it’s okay to discard ideas. You don’t have to write things that don’t excite you– what would that achieve? As much as you want to write, forcing things will just make you fall out of love with what you’re doing.
4. Just write In the spirit of Bad Poetry, sometimes you’ve got to stop being so precious about your ideas and just write. Beautiful things happen when you allow yourself to write without judgement. Maybe you’ll write something great, maybe you’ll write something awful– at least you will have written. You’ll feel good. Work through your ideas for now. If you don’t get things quite how you’d like them, you can always come back to them in the future.
Part of the aim of this blog post was to get used to writing again– a little warm up. Now I’m going to carry on with my ‘difficult poems’.
Actually, let’s not make them difficult poems any more. They’ll just be poems. I hope to have some for you to read/listen to this coming week.
[Listen along with me, or feel free to carry on reading below]
But before we start on that, I have to tell you that the biggest change I made was just deciding that I wanted to start writing again. Really consciously deciding. Not feeling that I should be doing it, but knowing that I really wanted to.
Remove any doubt, don’t leave room for excuses; just decide that you want something. It’s only once you commit to an idea that you’ll work out a way to make it happen.
It makes things a lot easier. But it’s something that’s hard to force.
Once I’d decided that I was ready to start writing again, Bad Poetry Reverse Advent was my strategy to achieving this.
Granted, maybe I could have come up with a snappier name.
The aim of Bad Poetry Reverse Advent was to write 25 poems everyday from 25th December to 18th January.
Why “Bad Poetry”?
The idea wasn’t to go out of my way to write bad poetry, but it was important to let myself know that writing bad poetry was okay.
I now realise that writing “bad” poetry is necessary.
I care very deeply about things– which can be great– but it also gives me a tendency to want to produce my very best in everything that I do all the time. This is not achievable. This can prevent me from starting things; this can stop me from producing things that are raw, or rough, or messy. Or just a bit crap. But ideas and words need space. They need room to be ugly, to grow, to be crossed out, redrafted and reinvented. It’s a process.
“Bad Poetry” gave me permission to write for the sake of writing, without worrying about the outcome. Now I feel less like I need permission to do that.
Why “Reverse Advent”?
I’m not big into New Year’s resolutions, but am very much about creating goals and challenges for myself.
By my bed, I keep a handwritten list of things that I would like to achieve– short-term, long-term, at-some-point-term– and every week I write and rewrite that list. Some items are easily ticked off but most of them aren’t. I write and rewrite that list. Some things I achieve, some things stop being so important to me, some things roll on, and some things are added. Writing poetry was on my list.
I’m not big into New Year’s resolutions because I do pre-New Year’s resolutions.
If you make a resolution in November/December, all you need to do is sustain it until January.
Once you get to January, you get a little boost because the rest of the world is New-Year-New-Me-ing so you can ride that wave with them.
By February, you’ve been achieving your goal for three months already and it’s becoming a habit. I’ve done this for the past few years, especially with fitness goals, and it’s been working really well.
On 25th December 2018, I decided to write a poem everyday.
It was important to put a timescale on this. Without an end-date it would be impossible to achieve the goal because there wouldn’t be a finish line.
Because I’d started on Christmas day, a reverse advent seemed logical. In my secular world, advent is advent calendars– one piece of chocolate for the 25 days up to and including Christmas. Therefore, I would produce a sweet treat of a poem for the 25 days including and following Christmas.
Simple and silly.
The main message– four things I’ve learned that have helped me make big changes
Maybe you don’t want to write poems.
But, if there is something you’re hoping to achieve, this is what I’ve learned so far. I hope it helps:
Decide what you want to do. Make it something specific and really commit to it. Accept that you are going to achieve it. There aren’t any other options for you to entertain– you’ve decided you’re going to do it, therefore you are.
Be kind to yourself. It’s important to push hard and give things your all, but you also need to nurture and support yourself. Talk to yourself like you would a friend. Things don’t always go to plan, especially when you’re trying something new or finding a way to grow. It’s okay. Just keep going.
Take it seriously, but not too seriously. If you’re in a place where you’re setting yourself goals and reading blogs about it, you’re probably taking things fairly seriously. It’s good to be motivated and ambitious, but not at the expense of silliness and joy. Remember the reason for what you’re doing and make sure it keeps fulfilling you.
Have a finish line. How will you know when you’ve achieved your goal? I like to have a skill-related finish line (e.g. 25 poems) and a time frame (e.g. 25 days). Make sure these are realistic for you with your current lifestyle. Having a finish line will help you to forage for morsels of motivation when you’re flagging.
In essence, it’s simple. Decide what you’re going to do, when you’re going to it, and just do it. How can it be so simple?
I’ve spent a lot of time doubting, waiting, being indecisive and thinking too much about other people. But now, realising that things are simpler than I’d thought, in the last year I’ve managed to buy my first car (all by myself), leave a bad relationship, get a new job, finish my degree, move to a new city, move home twice, get fitter, have new hobbies… loads of stuff. I’m proud of myself.
Just because it’s simple, it doesn’t mean that it’s easy. That’s important.
Generally deciding, or accepting, that you’re going to do something is harder than the part where you make it happen.
Anyway, if you were looking for some ideas, I hope this helps.
So how did it go?
In a future blog, I want to talk to you about my experience of getting back into writing. I’d like to go over some of my poems, and also take a look at how the blog has been doing so far. I’d never intended to have a blog, this was just supposed to be a way to collate my writing.
I like that I get to talk to you though. Let’s talk more soon.
I knew that I loved poems before I knew what a poem was, but I didn’t know that I could write them.
I first knowingly wrote a poem when I was seventeen and was told that I was quite good at it. I entered a few competitions and did quite well. Within a few months, I’d written a handful of decent-ish poems. Decent enough.
I wasn’t very happy at that time of my life.
I was struggling a lot. I tried, more than once, to find help but it didn’t ever work out. I felt things far too deeply and had somehow become numb to feeling at the same time.
Writing poetry wasn’t an outlet for me; it was pressure.
It was me, by myself, thinking about myself. Surrounded by myself. And I did not want to be myself. I didn’t want to be anyone. I didn’t want to think.
After those few months, aged seventeen, I stopped writing.
Life got harder, problems became bigger, and escalated to a point where myself and those around me could not ignore them.
Slowly, more recently, life got better.
Aged twenty-four, I wanted to get more involved in poetry again. I remembered that I had loved it. I remembered how to love it.
I started going to open mic nights. Sometimes I thought they were silly, but I always adored them.
I still couldn’t write. There was too much in my head and I didn’t want to listen to it. I didn’t want to sift through it; I didn’t want to organise it; I didn’t want to beautify it.
Now, aged twenty five and a half, I am writing poems again.
For the first time since I was seventeen.
I am still struggling but life is the best it has been. I am the me-est me I have been.
I don’t feel strong everyday, but everyday I do know that I am.
I am enjoying this.
I don’t know how long it will last. I don’t know how many ideas I have left. I don’t know how many ways there are to rearrange the words in my limited vocabulary. I don’t know how I’ll feel in the future. But, for now, I am enjoying this.
I hope that you are enjoying this too.
Thank you for reading, thank you for listening and thank you for your support.