Easy enough. Unless you want to write a good poem. Now that’s just F-BOMB hard.
Here are a few things I have learned on my way to writing poems:
1. Jack Kerouac was wrong: first thought is never best thought. I like the idea of it and you often start there but ending there will capsize you on jetties of mediocrity. Why? Because, if we are honest, we must admit that out thoughts, on a good day, are just eh. They tend to travel well worn synaptic paths — same old connections time and time again. And guess what? Look around you in any room. Many of those people you see have the same thoughts, the same feelings. That is both good and bad. I think we strive for a sort of epiphanic commonality within a poem; it’s how we reach our hands out to hold the reader. But, we also know that the reader, like us, is a creature of habit – they’ve traveled down the well worn paths, and like us, they like to be a little shocked out of their habits.
2.Give up being original. Originality is a joke we tell on ourselves. I prefer being an inquisitive, self-effacing, humble writer whose ultimate aim is to write something that speaks to someone else, in their own time, for their own reasons. I feel arrogant assuming my own originality — I suspect every thought and word in my head is borrowed in some sense. Why does that have to be bad? As a poet, I want to say something about identity, about self – by asking interesting questions, not by hanging onto an abstract concept of original genius. Genius lives and dies every day sipping lemonade on the porch.
3. Every interesting poem asks an interesting question that is directed at a contemporary reader. So: read and talk about contemporary writers, writing, and life. An interesting poem never, almost never, gives us an answer. It lets us answer for ourselves. It gives us enough room to come up with multiple answers; it gives us milk and cookies, then lets us out to play.
4.Research: YES, research. Research the rich associations that your thoughts about something, a subject, offers. Relax and simply follow your curiosity. Research on my poem “The Walking Tour” took me from skull symbology, to the letters of St.Jerome, to the native trees of Appalachia, to YELP graveyard reviews, to research on a local graveyard and grave site, to a personal visit to an old graveyard that is now a local urban street corner, to a tale about a once wild tree that botanists recorded existing in Appalachia until about 1815, to the conquest of Aztec civilization, to definitions of the word “place” (there are A LOT), to . . . . ok, you get it.
5. It’s all in your head, until it’s not. So KEEP your research handy. I like to type my research into key lines, then cut it up into lines scramble them, catalogue them, find patterns among wildly different kinds of information. I am trying to train my brain to do this on its own but sometimes it needs a little jump start.
6. More is more, until it isn’t. I free-write in long-hand until I’m ready to take it to the computer. More and more associations form as it goes from thought and investigation to long-hand to typing. I just let it happen. It might or might not work. It’s not my concern at this point.
7.Workshop your poem — find the most sophisticated readers you can and get it into their hands. And let them tell you the truth, which is their truth, not THE truth.
8. The poem is an object. Treat it as such. Analyze it. Analyze its structure, language, tone, patterns. Examine critical places where it “turns.” This means: exactly at which spots does it become something else? Where does it change? Are these turnings intentional? What is its question? Is this question intentional?
9. Treat yourself with respect — you are learning a craft. Every poem is an attempt at such. Respect failures, successes, and working drafts. Have faith in your process of growth.
10. Write regularly. I try to draft 1 new poem a week. I don’t so much care when or how that happens — I just want results. I don’t care how much time it takes, how little time it takes — I just want a satisfactory result on paper. I don’t want 1 GOOD new draft. I just want one new draft. I want working material.
11. Declare satisfaction. Once you’ve met your goal, declare yourself satisfied. Practice the art of stopping and honoring the fact that you did what you committed to. This is not easy. There are so many excuses you could have made — but you decided to show up for yourself. At some point, your writing will take on a life of its own — so enjoy the ride.
12. There is no “this is terrible.” There is only “This is material.”