It’s tax time, you had a new project at the office, the kids were serially down with a stomach bug, and your sister came to visit last week. Sometimes taking an hour to write feels impossible. You finally find the time and a quiet place, and your head is still too full of distractions to sense that elusive resonance signaling the start of a poem. How do you get back in after you’ve fallen out?
I depend on my immediate world to supply grist for my work. Some days everything sounds like poetry, and sometimes nothing does. While I’m often entranced by the busy, multi-chromatic noises of schedules and appointment calendars, I often need to subvert those notes before I can hear the whisper that signifies deep, fresh language.
For me, reading is a reliable way to begin, and reading with a pencil is best. I don’t think that it matters what you read, as long as it interests you. Poems, a George Eliot novel, the Science Daily website—write down a sentence, a line, or an image that intrigues you. Make a list. Mix and match. Try at least a page of these, then see what links them, or what sparks when you rub a few together. Don’t worry about changing or altering what you find, or throwing away most of what you collect. It’s a way to shift the brain from the humdrum to the surprising.
I’m a big fan of using found language as a foundation, and the practice of erasure allows a second meaning to emerge from the words of any given document. Use one that intrigues you. Newspaper articles, how-tos, diaries and letters—all can be altered by removing any number of letters, phrases, and words. Otherwise hidden patterns can reveal themselves when you try your hand at redaction. Replacement is another strategy that lets you play with content written by another until you find a connection that stirs you. Replace a verb with the next verb in the dictionary. Reverse positive statements to negatives. Decide that every other noun will be the name of a tree.
Look over some drafts you haven’t touched for a while. Circle your favorite lines and begin something entirely new. Or flip the last stanza and make it the first. Edit the poem so it’s now half as long, or change line breaks so your short lines add the momentum of more syllables, or vice versa. See what happens when you rewrite “enormous” for “tiny,” or “long-tailed” for “bitter.” Be arbitrary, then see which haphazard substitutions grow rich in connotation and sound.
These are a few ways to sneak past the logical, judgmental, censoring apparatus that can stifle us when we come empty to the desk. It’s easy to get out of practice when we’re not feeling particularly inspired, and writing is first and foremost a practice. If you haven’t been writing, there’s a lot on your mind you haven’t been able to process, and these methods can help free what you know is within you, waiting to be formed into poetry.
Once you’ve finished, consider sending your work to The Woven Tale Press’s 2018 literary competition. The contest opens July 15 and extends to September 15, 2018. For more information, go to https://www.thewoventalepress.net/wtp-literary-art-competitions/.
I’m excited to be judging the contest, and I’d love to see what you’ve done.
Blog note: contest has an awesome prize of a week stay in Long Island, NY and requires a $25 entry fee, but regular submissions are no fee to submit
Do you have something say about poetry? An essay on being a poet, tips for poets, or poetry you love? TrishHopkinson.com is now accepting pitches for guest blog posts.
Joyce Peseroff Her fifth book of poems, Know Thyself, was named a “must-read” by the 2016 Massachusetts Book Awards. She is the author of The Hardness Scale, A Dog in the Lifeboat, Mortal Education, and Eastern Mountain Time. She edited Robert Bly: When Sleepers Awake, The Ploughshares Poetry Reader, and Simply Lasting: Writers on Jane Kenyon. She has received fellowships from the University of Michigan, the NEA, and the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, and won a Pushcart Prize. She has been Managing Editor, Associate Poetry Editor, and Contributing Editor for Ploughshares, and ran the Phone-a-Poem project from a closet at Emerson College for several years while she was associated with the journal. She was Distinguished Lecturer at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, where she directed the MFA Program for its first four years, and currently blogs on writing and literature at www.joycepeseroff.com