| Don’t Write Alone
Notes on Craft The Way Into the Poem Is the Decision to Write the Poem
The fear of writing a “bad” poem keeps me from writing at all. But I can’t write a “good” poem without writing any poem.
I always feel like I don’t write enough. I wake up every day wanting to write but often don’t get around to it or struggle to sit down and work if I don’t feel like I have a preexisting idea. Last year, I agreed to write thirty-one poems in the thirty-one days of August with my friend Hala Alyan. It ended up being really helpful in healing my relationship to the ways I think poems get made.
A question that came up for me a lot at the beginning of that process—but also generally every time I sit down to write a poem—is How will I come up with something to write about? So I want to talk about some techniques I turn to when I want to be a little more active in finding that spark, instead of sitting around waiting for inspiration to find me.
I am a writer because I am a reader. And so if I’m not reading, I’m not writing. The iconic book The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron refers to a process of what she calls “filling the well,” writing:
“Filling the well involves the active pursuit of images to refresh our artistic reservoirs. Art is born in attention. Its midwife is detail. Art may seem to spring from pain, but perhaps that is because pain serves to focus our attention onto details. . . . How do we fill the well? We feed it images.”
In addition to images, my personal well needs language. I start every attempt to write a poem by reading some poetry. Sometimes just one poem, or sometimes I’ll reread part or all of a book of poems that I love, as a way to remind myself why I’m doing this in the first place, as a way of reminding myself that language is the great love of my life. There is nothing like seeing someone use language well to motivate me to want to make something, to wield language myself, to stretch and examine its possibilities.
This process of getting excited is, for me, the more agentive version of getting “inspired.” I could maybe sit around and wait for some divine muse to choose me and descend, but then I’ll only have written poetry, like, three times in my whole life. The rest of the time, I have to take matters into my own hands. So, first, reading as a reminder that I love words, that I love poems, and that making poems is so fun and so exciting and I’m lucky to spend my time this way.
That 30/30 with Hala was, on my end, fueled by the fact that I was also participating in The Sealey Challenge, created by the transcendent poet and fashion icon Nicole Sealey, where participants read thirty-one books of poetry (or chapbooks) of their choosing in thirty-one days during the month of August.
This process of filling my well with poems every day was really helpful when I then needed to sit down and write a poem every day. It helped me articulate the ways I want to generate inspiration rather than hunt it—I cannot sustain a hunter-hunted relationship to inspiration. I don’t want to be a hunter. I want to be a host. I want to light candles. The poems I love, by poets I love, are the table I set, the room I furnish to incentivize inspiration to come through. Sometimes this is all it takes. I’ll read a poem, and the spark catches, and then I’m ready to write a poem. Sometimes, I need a little more TLC.
Which brings us to my next tool: the “Words I Like” list. This used to live in a notebook, but I have yet to figure out a system to keep old notebooks, so now this list lives unromantically in my computer as a document called WORDS I LIKE.doc. When I’m reading anything, I am always on the lookout for words that feel particularly delicious, or that I feel I don’t use enough, or that call to me in any other way, and I’ll jot those down and add them to my master list. Tamarind . Basalt . Crenellate . Throat .
When I’m sitting down to write a poem and reading a favorite poem isn’t fully igniting the spark I want, I’ll turn to my list, pick out one or a few words, and give myself the prompt to write a line, or a stanza, or a sentence, incorporating the word or words. That often gets the ball rolling, and the poem starts to bloom out from that line. It’s a little self-generated prompt that lets me make the poem in the way I like best, brick by brick, word by word, exploring, letting the poem reveal what its concerns and curiosities are, instead of telling myself to write “about” something and then trying to come up with a poem that fits a preordained theme or topic.
My favorite prompts, in general, are ones that ask me to write a poem in which I do XYZ, rather than to write a poem about something or the other. This do versus about preference is also why I sometimes reach for inherited forms when I am looking for a prompt. “Write a poem” is sometimes too open-ended an ask, but “write a sestina” comes with tangible instructions—choosing end words, deciding how strictly I want to adhere to the form, changing the end words, looking at a list of homophones and homonyms on the internet to find more flexible end words, despairing, deciding I don’t want to write a sestina, and discarding the form, and by then, any poem that isn’t a sestina feels infinitely easier to write.
I think the reason why my process is increasingly process-related, rather than topic-related, is because I am trying to rethink a lot of my old ideas about what is “worth” writing about. For so long, I thought that I had to be in pain to be able to write a poem. This led to the belief that the most interesting things about me were the ones that hurt me the most. Nowadays, I am trying, instead, to conceive of a life where I am okay and also still writing poems, a life where I don’t have to pick my scabs and mine my traumas for material.
Which is not to say that my poems now are any lighter or chiller or give any indication to the fact that I’m okay. But the process of building them has fundamentally changed. Instead of approaching the poem armed with preselected content that I’ve decided is capital- I Interesting, I like now to approach the poem with a handful of words I like and an idea about form and allow the content to be decided by the poem, by listening to the poem and hearing where it wants to go.
My favorite prompts, in general, are ones that ask me to write a poem in which I do XYZ, rather than to write a poem about something or the other.
One of my 30/30 poems last year was about my grandfather’s cows. Nothing traumatic happened—I just was thinking about the word cow , that yummy long vowel, the hard consonant of the c and soft roundness of the w . I ran with it, and somehow ended up writing a memory I’d never before engaged with my poem-brain, and wrote a poem I probably would never have decided in advance to write. I always want to be surprised like that.
But back to the tools. Sometimes my precious Words I Like list doesn’t fully guarantee the spark either. That’s when I turn back to other people’s poems, but this time with more of an agenda. There is a large and varied canon of poems written “after” a poem by another poet. The delicate balance of an “after” poem is honoring a question or device learned from someone else’s poem, without just writing another version of that person’s poem. This is where the question of device becomes really important.
In general, as a reader, I try to always pay attention to what I find compelling in a piece of writing—a beautiful line, for example—and then go deeper with that attention to figure out the specific devices being used in that line. That way, if I want to then go and write a line inspired by it, I am borrowing its tools rather than its words. When I am looking for a way into a poem of my own and the steps so far haven’t quite done it, I can try this way of reading someone else’s poem and extract from it a prompt—to write some lines using a specific device and then see where the poem goes from there.
While making Girls That Never Die , my latest collection of poems, I was trying to learn to write the sorts of poems that you could picture as a movie—scenes, characters, events. I was emerging from a period where all I wanted to do in my poems was to conduct sort of sound experiments, a word to roll around in your mouth before moving to the next word to roll around in your mouth. My concern, my project with these poems, was sensation more than, let’s say, “sense.” But somewhere along the way I pivoted to wistfully reading poems that feel like tiny novels or tiny movies and trying to examine them for signs of how they’re made.
In this process of learning the style, I think of that old thing people say about art school: how you’re taught to copy the masters first before going off to do your own thing. This also might fully be a stereotype—I haven’t been to art school, so I also maybe just heard this on the internet, but anyway, I am compelled by the thought. Now, in a poem, I don’t want to copy the poem itself, but I do want to take each line and boil it down to what it’s doing, then try to recreate that with different words. Like, “line 1: speaker makes a statement about their emotions; line 2: description of the world outside” and so on. Then in the second draft I’ll mess around with the order of the lines, the number of details, et cetera, to make it a little less of a worksheet of someone else’s poem.
But when I am feeling hesitant or shy, it’s been really helpful to me to “borrow” the skeleton of another poem and flesh it out with my own words and images and stories. I think of it as using the other poem to get a prompt for each line. And if at any point while following the prompts I feel myself wanting to break away and take the poem in another direction, that’s exciting because it feels like I’ve found my stride and don’t need these training wheels anymore.
A poem that I loved examining, especially in the first days of the pandemic when I was feeling whatever the opposite of homesick is and thinking wistfully back on old travels, was the poem “Corfu” by Jenny Xie, from her beautiful collection Eye Level . Here’s how I broke it down into little prompts:
one detail describing the place
name the place, time of year, something about the speaker’s state
detail about the landscape
detail about the actual scene
more details about the landscape
something about the speaker’s state relating to the scene
a moment preceding this one
a larger statement (can contain a metaphor) about the speaker’s state/condition
details about the earlier scene
And here is my poem, “Syros,” whose first draft I got to by following that list of prompts. (A note on etiquette here: Cite your sources! I really don’t gain anything from pretending to have invented something or to have come up with something on my own.) Also, here is an Oliver Baez Bendorf poem I love that takes the form of this kind of list of prompts!
I can’t talk about all this without talking about writer’s block, which I guess I’ve been circling this whole time but haven’t actually addressed. When I think I have writer’s block, it usually just means that I don’t already have an idea for a poem. And when I don’t already have an idea for a poem, what keeps me from sitting down and trying to write one anyway is fear of failure. Why is it that even though I wake up every day wanting to write—hoping I’ll write, planning to write—that then I don’t?
When I don’t already have an idea for a poem, what keeps me from sitting down and trying to write one anyway is fear of failure.
It’s usually because I’m unequipped with a ready-made idea and I’m scared that I’ll sit down to write and then the poem I write will be bad. That’s the true nature of my writer’s block: fear of the bad poem. That fear has kept me from writing on so many occasions. Fear that I’ll write a bad poem and that that says something about my abilities as a writer, about my value. But nowadays I’m trying to take away its power. So what if the poem is “bad”? What even is a “bad” poem? Every one of my poems is ultimately just an attempt at something, and that attempt rarely succeeds in the very first draft. And still: An unsuccessful attempt is information. A “bad” draft is information. Because I am a reader. So I can read my draft afterward, maybe when some time has passed, and start to figure out what it needs. And make another attempt. But I can’t keep sitting around hoping for a poem to just land, fully formed. I need to be willing to do the work. And half the work of writing is revision.
So, yes, these tools help, but ultimately I need to release myself from fear of the bad poem. I need to show up and do my work. I need to write poems, some of them “bad,” and realize that a bad poem isn’t the end of the world. I can’t write a “good” poem without writing a poem. The fear of writing the “bad” poem is also keeping me from writing poems that I might actually really love and that I’ll never get to know if I keep letting days go by without writing when I do actually want to, underneath my fear. So, whatever, that’s the major tool, the major key, really: just to show up, and sit down, and write a poem. To take the pressure off the act of writing so I don’t go in expecting to create this perfect fully-formed object on the first try. I’ve learned that a poem is infinitely easier to fix if it’s a real object on the page, instead of a boogeyman in my head. The way into a poem is the decision to write the poem. Everything else will follow.