Friday, April 12, 2019
What Do You Get Out of Writing Poetry to Prompts?
A friend, a fellow poet, said to me a few years ago, 'Why do you need prompts? There is so much inspiration everywhere!'
I was somewhat taken aback by the question. It sounded a bit like an accusation, though I don't think he meant it that way but was just genuinely puzzled. I guess he himself wasn't short of inspiration. On the other hand, perhaps he wasn't trying to write poetry several times a week.
I can't even remember what I replied. Perhaps something like, 'It takes me in unexpected directions.' Because that's one thing I love about it.
And yes, it's true there is plenty of inspiration around. I'm aware that, on the rare occasions I experience a 'block', I can look at the outside world for subject matter, instead of within myself. But I already know how I typically react to most things in my environment. Who wants to keep writing variations of the same poem – or even the same several poems – over and over again? We try to see things fresh and new, but it can be hard to shake our mental habits. Perhaps we are not even conscious of them.
For me, playing with form works better. Even if the subject matter is familiar, finding a different way to address it makes the process more interesting. (Why would I do this poetry thing in the first place if it didn't interest me?) But I don't need a prompt to find a new form to play with – though I'm glad when I do find them via prompts as well as by searching.
Mostly, I like surprises. I like to receive them, and I like to surprise myself.
The prompts I'm following (at our sister site, 'imaginary garden with real toads') this April – the annual poetry month, if by some chance you weren't aware of this – have mostly been delightfully surprising so far.
One or two have been tried-and-true classics – which many people may welcome – which I've been able to make surprising by subverting them a bit, away from the obvious. This is possible partly because we've been given a lot of scope in how to approach each prompt; various choices for addressing it.
Among the delightful surprises in the prompts themselves have been (so far) one based on the 'Ridikkulus' lesson in Harry Potter: how to enchant your deepest fears into becoming laughable; and another to write about a supernatural creature who is a troublesome roommate. Hmmm, I guess you can see where my preoccupations lie! Even so, I'm sure neither of these would have occurred to me left to myself, and they proved very fruitful.
The childhood fear in particular led me to unexpected places. No problem identifying the fear – a common one which others wrote about too, and furthermore we all understood, as every small child naturally does, that it takes light to banish darkness. What was unexpected was that I found myself going on from there – practically giving a lesson in how to be a Lightworker! Once I started writing the poem, it all poured out and wouldn't be stopped.
The next surprise was that, instead of perceiving it as long-winded and preachy, which I feared, people really got it. A real-life friend even resolved to teach her little grand-daughter the methods I outlined.
'How do I know what I'm going to say until I write it?'
The distinguished Australian poet, the late Judith Rodriguez, once said that publicly in an interview. She's surely not the only poet to operate that way! I suspect we all do, at least some of the time.
Even better than unexpectedly pouring on to the page your deepest personal beliefs is when you bring forth ideas you didn't realise you had, and get to know yourself better. It can be exciting to discover parts of yourself you were unfamiliar with – or at least educational, LOL.
What the prompts do, it seems to me, is mine the subconscious – but in different ways than if one were responding to one's own unprompted inspiration. Our own inspiration may well produce better poetry, as it is likely to be a passionate response to whatever triggered it. But that's OK. The rest of the time, I like to think, we're practising, honing our skills for when those inspired moments hit. And hopefully finding some passion about our topics anyway. Best of all is when such an 'exercise' transcends mere exercise and turns out to be a poem you're thrilled to have written.
Either way, mining the subconscious, learning more about oneself and about what it is to be human, seems to me exciting, fascinating stuff.
Here at PU we don't play the April Poetry Month game. With a weekly program already in place, we like to stick to our usual offerings and approach them a bit more leisurely than every day. But they roll around regularly and offer a varied menu.
I know many of you love our Midweek Motifs from Susan and Sumana. I am usually so busy at that time of week that I don't participate, but every so often there'll be something I can't resist and just HAVE to squeeze time for (or which I find I've synchronously written to recently enough to include). That's another thing about prompts – they can be so enticing. The mind starts playing with the idea, almost unbidden....
The new once-a-month prose prompt from Magaly has been especially exciting like that. After swearing that I couldn't and wouldn't do it, on account of I'm so hopeless at ('creative') prose, I very soon became enticed. With fear and trembling I offered up my attempt, and guess what? It passed muster! Thus encouraged, I have proudly amended the subtitle of my blog, Enheduanna's Daughter. It no longer reads 'Poems by Rosemary Nissen-Wade' but 'Poems, and occasional short prose, by....' (Well, I'm 79. If I don't explore new challenges now, when am I gonna?)
Even our Poetry Pantry, which says in effect, 'Share anything, old or new,' is a kind of prompt, albeit a very open one.
Need I add that one of the great things about writing to prompts, when we do it in a community like this, is getting to read other people's stuff? There's such a lot of terrific poetry out there! And there's not only one kind of terrific. Even when I'm only playing in a smallish community, which is what I like best, there are a number of different kinds of wonderful to encounter. It's very enriching. I mean, we wouldn't be trying to write poetry in the first place unless we loved poetry – and that love arose, of course, from hearing or reading it. So we get to love it anew. First there is the sheer joy of encountering something that curls our toes and makes the hairs on the back of the neck stand up. Then there's the possibility of adding techniques we admire to our own repertoire.
As a bonus, we get to know our fellow-poets over time; they come to feel like friends. Indeed, real and valuable lifelong friendships can be forged.
What do you think? What keeps you coming back here week after week and throwing your hat in the ring? All of the above? Something completely different? Please tell me, and the rest of us, in the Comments. And do come back to read what others say.
The images used in this post are in the Public Domain – except for the moon image, in which I hold copyright.
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