What starts & what’s next

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.