Friday, May 28, 2010

Process: a Poetry Friday post

About a month ago, I heard Billy Collins read some of his poetry at the Free Library in Philadelphia. It's the second time I've heard Collins read in person, although I've heard other of his poems online - he is on NPR, and all over YouTube, for example. I happen to like his poems, and I definitely like how he reads them. After his reading, Collins took some questions - and I took some notes. I thought today I'd share a couple of them with you as part of a discussion about process.

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."

"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."
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.

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 () used that phrase in oe of her blog posts, because the phrase resonated with me. I won't be sharing it here today (although Tiffany has seen it), since it's out on submission. I've written poems based on visual images before, too - not always ekphrastic poems (poems based on an image that tell the story the image inspires), but sometimes - as with "La Belle Dame Sans Regrets". Laura Purdie Salas posts visual prompts nearly every Thursday at her blog, seeing poems of 15 words or less, but one can always write longer.

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 () next Thursday as part of our weekly writing exercise/creative stretch: Write a story/poem from the point of view of a character from a book or movie, who is writing a letter to their dead mother. That prompt came from another poet, by the way.

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.

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