|"Letter to a Poet," by Catalina Viejo Lopez De Roda|
She mentioned a weird nightmare that she had (about the alphabet! What a delightful, odd topic for a nightmare!), and I said she should write a poem about it. Her next question struck a chord with me. She said she did want to engage this part of her mind more, but wondered how to begin.
It’s a question I hear, in various forms, very often. Someone (a student, a friend, a reader, or even a stranger) confesses that they like reading poems, and that they write them. This isn’t the slightest bit strange to me—-I absolutely love when this happens! In high school, it was me doing the confessing and asking, to every teacher and writer I had access to.
The question has various subtexts and hidden questions within it. Embedded within this question, I also hear these concerns:
-Can I write poems? I’ve never done it before. (YES!)
-Who is allowed to write poems? I’ve never “studied” poetry. (ANYONE is allowed to write poems. We don’t have to be experts to make art!)
-My poems might not be any good…what if the poems I write are crappy or ridiculous? What if no one wants to read them? What if I fail? (It’s good to write. Period. I hope you write some terrible poems, because those will only help you. I write so many bad poems…in fact, sometimes I start by telling myself I’m going to write a bad poem. And “failure” is very low stakes here…no one will be harmed in the making of your poems!)
-Is it weird that I want to write poems? Is it childish/self-indulgent/silly? (We are all weird, but it is a good kind of weird! There is absolutely nothing “wrong” with wanting to write.)
-Should I try it? (YES!)
-How do I start? How do YOU start? What is the first step? (Let’s unpack this one).
A Completely Inexhaustive, Low-Pressure Guide to Writing Poems
(Some exercises and tips for getting started)
1. Read some different kinds of poems.
Start with contemporary poets, maybe ones you’ve never heard of. You don’t need to be an expert in poetry to write poems—you’re just getting some new voices, tricks, and muses in your brain. No need to be overwhelmed. Great places to start are online journals, especially ones that post a new poem each day. I love Verse Daily, Poetry Daily, and A Year of Being Here. If you’d like to look at a poetry journal, you might start with Poetry Magazine—you can read it in print or online.
2. As you read, notice what you like.
Print poems out. Copy lines you like. Write in books (if they’re your own). If you notice that you like a certain poem, Google the poet and see what else they’ve written.
3. The hardest part—actually write.
You can treat it as freewriting, where you just set an amount of time and try to fill the time with writing (without judging your work at all). Maybe start by saying, ok, I’m going to write for 20 minutes. Or an hour. Whatever sounds appealing to you. Write anywhere you like, on any material you like—notebook, computer…experiment with it! Or maybe you have a word that’s inspiring you, or a title, or a concept (like the example of Alison’s nightmare about the alphabet). Force yourself to try it. Don’t worry how it will turn out!
4. Wait. What do I write about?
This is WHY writing is so damn tricky. Every writer starts with nothing, and then has to make decisions to create SOMETHING. Don’t let this keep you from starting. Here are some tricks to get started (some of which I use when I write), if the words aren’t coming:
-Give yourself a mini-muse. I like to look at images in order to start writing—I look at the image and ask myself, “Self, what do you notice? What does this remind you of? What’s interesting about this to you?” Look at a photo or piece of art, and write what it brings to mind for you (ANYTHING!). Here’s an image to start with. And one more. You could also start with a song, scene from a movie, object, or food…it just gives you somewhere to start.
-Introduce some randomness into the mix. Pick up the book nearest you, flip to page 37, and look at the fifth sentence in. There’s your title. Write the poem that accompanies it (even if it’s ridiculous!)
-Write about a specific place that you care about (a beach, a park, a street, a room, a yard). Try to put the reader there. What are we seeing/feeling/hearing in this place? What happens there?
-Use the voice of a character to write. What if James Bond wrote a poem? Or a dog? Or Cecil the lion (so sad)? Or your second grade teacher?
-Borrow a style or trick from another poet. Maybe you read Danez Smith’s “alternate names for black boys” and write your own “alternate names for _______.”
-Peruse some other poetry prompts! Here’s a huge, great list of them at Writer’s Digest, courtesy of Robert Lee Brewer. And here’s another list of them from Poets & Writers:
DO NOT WAIT UNTIL YOU ARE INSPIRED TO WRITE A POEM. (This will leave you waiting and waiting!) Set a little, helpful, realistic goal for yourself—maybe it’s to write twice a week, for 20 minutes each. Or to write during your lunch break on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Or to write for an hour in the evenings, once a week. It’s almost like setting up a workout schedule—you are strengthening your poetry muscles.
6. Stretch a little.
Try something new related to poetry. Visit a bookstore (used bookstores often have the best poetry selections) or library, and thumb through a few poetry books that you are attracted to, just because of their covers or titles. Go to a poetry reading, or watch some poets reading their work on Youtube (you might try Button Poetry or—cough, cough—the Paging Columbus Playlist). Be brave, and ask a friend who writes poems to swap poems with you.
To anyone who wants to write—please do! There is always room for more poems and art.
I’d love for you to share your questions and thoughts and advice, too. For those of you that write, what advice would you share? What’s been most helpful for you in writing?