One person asked "How do you know when a poem is done?" Collins first replied with this quote: "In order to be a great painter, you need two people: one to paint the painting and another to cut that guy's hands off." He went on to say (I'm paraphrasing) that he always feels like his poems are moving: he starts somewhere and is moving toward somewhere else. But because he feels that sense of forward motion, he starts to feel a sense of arrival when he gets near the conclusion. "The more of a forward roll and a sense of direction you have, the more of a sense you'll get that it's reached its end." And then he said that he likes "to start in Kansas and end in Oz."
Another asked him about his work habits. Here are three quotes drawn from his answer:
"I have no work habits."Collins said that for a while, he got in the habit of jotting a word or a phrase at the top of a page, then writing a poem from there, just to keep in practice, which is how his poem "Hippos on Holiday", found in his latest collection, Ballistics, came about.
"I don't sit down unless I have a little something to write about."
"I don't sit down to write – I walk around to write. The act of writing is always stimulated by an observation or a phrase."
Which brings me to my own process
As most of my readers know by now, I'm extremely close to finishing my three-year opus, a biography of Jane Austen in verse using period forms. I do not, however, only write in forms that were popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries; I also write using more recent forms (say, the villanelle, which entered the English language during the Victorian era) and in free verse, which wasn't "invented" until nearly the 20th century. My other, non-Jane, poems are a mix - some for kids, some for adults, some in free verse, some in rhyme.
But I've found that in the past few years, many of my poems come from specific prompts. I don't usually scribble a word or phrase at the top of the page, à la Billy Collins, but I have written a significant number of poems as a result of topics pulled out of The Write-Brain Workbook: 366 Exercises to Liberate Your Writing by Bonnie Neubauer. (You can read "The Scar", "The Giraffe Pen on Thursday, at noon", and "Dear Dolores".) At a conference I attended, Bonnie handed out a pocket-sized "story generator" consisting of columns of words. The idea was to pull three at random, then write a story using all three - I chose to write a poem, of course. My three words were Alps, broccoli, and apology, and I wrote a poem that I now call "Stagnant", but which I once shared before it had a title. (If you're interested in Bonnie's stuff, check out Bonnie's website, where she has a "free sample" of her book, plus information on her Story Spinner (another idea-generating device), as well as an online Story Spinner and other freebies.)
Like Collins, for me, it's an idea or a phrase that gets me started. Specific prompts often work that way, but so do the occasional found notion or phrase. For instance, I recently wrote a free-verse poem entitled "These Notions of Pending Delight" after my friend Tiffany Trent (
The point is, I suppose, that when it comes to poetry, it is always possible to find something to write about. You just have to pick a prompt and go with it. Sometimes it results in a crappy poem you don't care about, but many times, it turns into something you can use. Here - I'll share the prompt I'm working on for the "assignment" I have to share with Angela De Groot (
Yeah . . . I haven't picked my character yet, but I've been giving it lots of thought. If you decide to write along with us, I hope you'll let me know.