Writing poetry

Writing poetry–notes and questions

WP_20160817_001 (169x300)There used to be a fence attached to this gate.

One day, I noticed that the fence had disappeared, but the gate stood alone.

This morning, while my husband was working on home maintenance, he asked whether I was attached to the gate, or whether he could take it down.

“It’s a metaphor,” I said. “I’m not sure yet to what, but it’s a metaphor.”

He said, “Okay, you can keep the metaphor.” He is understanding, and he understands that he is married to a poet.

I need to understand that if I use a gate in a poem as a metaphor, you’re going to see the gate first.

I recently brought to a workshop a poem called “Self-Storage.” First, I had other titles involving cows or the absence of cows and an abundance of buttercups. I was thinking about storage and hit upon the idea of self-storage, then quickly looked up Rebecca Hoogs’s marvelous poem (in her book by the same name), to make sure that it was different enough to avoid any idea that I could possibly, ever, copy (I couldn’t and wouldn’t, and if you haven’t read her book yet, there’s no time like now).

Okay, that might have been a digression.

Back to it: I meant the idea of storage in a metaphorical way (I talk about a cardboard box in the closet), but people immediately—and understandably—pictured the actual rows of units with the steel doors that roll up. Of course they did. We haven’t even gotten into the poem, and that’s what I’ve given them.

What I learned: The metaphor jumps off from the physical (just as a simile does), so I need to be sure that I’m putting people where I want them to jump.

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This question comes up sometimes at readings: How do you start a poem—with a line or a thought or an image? They’re so closely linked that trying to figure out which comes first can get tricky. But, having read Bethany Reid’s blog posts, I’m going to set all three aside and say that my best poems come from a feeling—the feeling behind or under the thought, something as compelling as a two-year-old tugging at my jacket, something that doesn’t want to let go.

I fail when I ignore that tug or say, “Later.” I’m really not good at stopping whatever I’m doing and writing that poem that’s asking to be written. I have pulled over to the side of the road, but rarely. I have stopped on my way out the door to work, but not often and not this morning.

And this morning, I realized: No matter how well I can remember the words I was thinking, and even if I find time to write them down later, to try to kick-start that poem, I probably won’t have the same feeling. It’s possible I’ll be able to get some echo of it back, but after a commute and traffic, it isn’t likely. By then, I’m at a distance from that initial impetus—a remove that’s great for revising but not for generating.

If what start’s a poem is that feeling, I resolve try harder and be better at stopping EVERYTHING and listening to that poem pulling at my sleeve, to write it down. I’ll need to, because what’s next (what’s now) is graduate school, and I’ll need all the poems I can get.

Recently, at the end of a Costco shopping trip, I did listen, and in my blazing hot car I wrote as long as I could stand it. Because I had to return to Costco today—and just for fun—here is the poem:

This Is My Costco Poem

For the couple ahead ambled, pausing
to peruse each label
as another woman pondered
six or more possible sausage choices.
For I nearly left the new pens
in the basket, having never
purchased pens here until now.
For the mother ahead of me bought
a bazillion wondrous things,
but not the big box of Snapware
on the lower rack of her cart.
For such was then added to my order.
For the cart steered heavy, too heavy
halfway through the parking lot.
For I had no room in my cupboards
to keep that much plastic,
although I coveted the clicks of the lids.
For I found some confusion
at the customer service counter
before it was my turn to return.
For I have red peppers and tomatoes,
I have four kinds of meat
and a station wagon resplendent
under the sun, miles of stop-and-go
traffic with one more store for peanuts.
For I have promised myself
after shopping I will not drink gin
shaken or stirred. For I have sweat
and sweat and sweat and sweat
and this poem that perseveres.

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Someone asked me this the other day. My inside answer was, “How many do you have? I have only a few poems, so far, from all that writing, I am a slow, slow writer” and my outside answer was, “If they’re ready, send them out.”

The next question: “Where?”

There are the easy places to check:
The listings at the back of Poets & Writers and The Writer’s Chronicle
New Pages
The Review Review
Submittable (generally fewer listings, but you can subscribe by email, so opportunities appear in your inbox)

Many people use Duotrope (I haven’t in quite a while).

I also have a copy of Poet’s Market, and I should use that more.

Seeing where other people publish is also helpful. Check the acknowledgements sections of books that have poems akin to your poems. In an earlier post, I talked about reading, which is good for inspiration and learning and also submitting. Where are those poems from? After you read poems on Verse Daily and Poetry Daily and the poems that your Facebook friends post links to, check out the journals. Are they possible venues for your poems?

Summer is coming, and the number of pubs that are reading slims way down, but you can search on something like “poetry year-round submission” to find opportunities. Just remember to check the publication—do you like it, and will your work be a good fit?

Often I try to balance things—if I’m on a roll writing, I don’t worry about submitting. If I’m feeling stuck, that’s a good time for me to invest time and energy in sending things out. Anything to keep from feeling like I’m stuck in the mud. Sometimes, my wheels are just spinning: I have a long list of poems, and then I can’t figure out where to send them to, or they all seem like they need more work–they’re too young or  they’re too flat or I thought they were stellar and now I see only flaws (on the plus side, if I can identify what look like flaws, those are good candidates for revision). It’s easy to get overwhelmed.

And advice to myself: Take the opportunity. A gorgeous anthology is coming out, and I do not have any poems in it—not because my work was turned down, but because I didn’t even submit. I probably saw the call, and I probably and thought, “Oh, I don’t write poems about motherhood anymore” (which is not even true). I didn’t try, which is worse than getting a rejection. Read the guidelines, including the fine print. Try. In the meantime, revel in breathtaking poems by Karen Craigo, Beth Ann Fennelly, and others.

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Last Friday I had the pleasure of reading poetry at the monthly RASP series at VALA Arts in Redmond. It was great to be in a gallery surrounded by art both finished and in progress. People’s creative spaces stood in various states of interruption–brushes, canvases, a pair of shoes on the floor (were they to be worn or drawn?). Plus, I was pouring wine for Cloudlift Cellars, which gave introverted me a way to talk to people before I read for them.

After the reading, during the Q&A, emcee Michael Dylan Welch asked me about my reading habits and how they influence my writing. The next day, I started to remember what I forgot to mention, and I thought that I would return to the topic here.

I started with the easy stuff—Verse Daily, Poetry Daily, Cascadia Review, the Poetry Foundation’s poem of the day, and The Writer’s Almanac, which now comes to me in email. What I like about those last two is that they aren’t tied to what’s new—they feature works across a long span of writing and reading time.

Another great resource also comes to me in email: Dennis Caswell’s mailing list. I appreciate the range of poems that Dennis selects—across time, across styles and subjects. Every weekday I have a gift waiting for me. Sometimes it challenges me. Sometimes I don’t get it. I like that—it’s an opportunity for me to expand my understanding. Then, Monday morning also brings the American Life in Poetry poem. And recently I signed up for the daily poem from Rattle.

The websites and emails often introduce me to poets I haven’t read before—and sometimes I’m smitten enough to pick up copies of their books. That’s one influence.

Books! Last Friday, I didn’t really talk about books, but I appreciate getting to explore a collection of someone’s poems, to see how they structured the collection, to hear the conversations in the poems and between the poems, books that I can return to, read over and over again, books that when I’m feel like I’m lost or flailing help me get into the poetry zone.

I also look at the poems that I really like and try to figure out why—specifically. What can I learn from this poem, what is it doing?

But Michael’s question has stayed with me. How could I extend that influence? I could use the first line of a poem that I like as a jumping off point. Or I could write in the style of that poem. In a Dorianne Laux workshop, we wrote in the exact rhythm of a poem. It was not easy (I did not get very far) but it’s a way to open up new routes in the brain.

What are other ways that you learn from a poem? What are your favorite reads?

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April’s final prompt, again from The Daily Poet, is called “A Life Worth Writing About”: Write down three things you did yesterday, in great detail—sounds and smells, tastes and textures, as well as the visual. Write a poem about one of the things, or write a poem in three sections, with one section for each thing, or braid two or three of the things together.

This is not the end

How has the month gone? Did you write any letter poems? I confess that I’m a little behind, and I’m committed to catching up. If any of the prompts have worked for you, feel free to leave a comment (let me know that I haven’t been blathering on into the darkness—or perhaps I have).

If you’ve checked in during the month, you’ve seen quite a few prompts from The Daily Poet. Many thanks to Two Sylvias Press and to Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Silano for this book. If you don’t already have a copy, keep it in mind as you write into May.

You can revisit these prompts, check out prompts from previous years, try prompts on Poetic Asides (after the challenge, the prompts remain) and Chris Jarmick’s site POETRYisEVERYTHING site. Visit Tweetspeak and sign up for their newsletter to receive  prompts.

Or write without prompts. Be open. Read as much as you can. Be ready. For me, this is hard sometimes, but when that poem is tugging at your sleeve, when that poem is whispering—or yelling—in your ear, pull over to the side of the road and honor what you’re given.

Be well. Keep writing. Let me know how it goes.

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