There are times when the words won’t come, when our cupboards are empty, and there is not even a bare old bone for the dog to be had. I had such a time in 2016, and our friend, Elizabeth Crawford, who writes at Soul's Music, offered me a step by step exercise in how to write a poem when you’re blocked. As I followed the steps, and produced a poem, it occurred to me that this info might be very handy for many of you. So we did a chat about it. Recently, I was looking through some of the chats we have done here at Poets United, and happened upon it again. I thought it might be nice to re-visit this exercise, for those of you who are more recent members. And those of us who have been around a while can always benefit from a refresher. Let’s dive in!
Elizabeth: How about I walk you through a step by step process of building a poem? Giving you the steps one at a time, maybe three or four steps.
First step is a stream of consciousness list. But you must make some preparation. Make sure you are in a place and time where you won’t be interrupted. Have clean paper and pen. Have some kind of timer near at hand and set it for five minutes. Sit down and relax. Breathe in through your nose, then slowly release it through your mouth as though you are blowing out a candle gently. Do that three times. It is a signal to your subconscious that you are ready to begin.
Let it float through your mind and begin your list. One or two words, a short phrase, whatever comes into your head. Try to be specific. Use actual names of whatever you see or feel coming at you. People, places, feelings, things, animals….whatever. Continue to write for as long as you can, but for no more than five minutes. No going back to look before you are finished. This is a stream of thoughts, associations, reflections, feelings, nothing more. No sentences, just a few words to remind you.
(For those following this at home, I have a couple of suggestions. 1. What I call word roulette: open a book, or a copy of a favorite poem and after closing your eyes, drop your finger on the page anywhere. Use the word your finger is pointing at. 2. Call a friend and ask them to give you a word, any word that pops into their head. 3. A dictionary works fine, or a thesaurus. 4. Go to past Wordle list posts and do the same thing. 5. Spend a few minutes thinking about your favorite season of the year and create the list of sense imagery from that. Then select a second word from a stream of conscious writing about your favorite activity. 6. Choose a favorite color and write about what it says to you and how you feel about it. Then use that stream of consciousness writing to find a second word by closing your eyes and simply dropping your finger into those contents. 7. Last, but never least, write about writing. What you like most, and least about it. And I also find that words in opposition often work into quite interesting pieces. Choosing the first word and then using an antonym for the second word brings out some very challenging and entertaining ideas.
When we originally did the exercise, I chose your two words very deliberately because you use them more than any others to define your own person, so I knew you wouldn’t have a difficult time relating to them and would have a wealth of material to choose from. I also knew it would make you laugh and that in turn would relax you and make it far easier to write.)
Sherry: At my end, I followed Elizabeth’s instructions to the letter. She sent me the word and it made me smile. It was “Wild”. I started writing and word after word flowed across the page. In four minutes I had written 27 phrases!
I was amazed. Since I was not inspired, not writing at all at that moment, that week, that month, I was impressed at how this process revealed itself to be so productive. This is when I began to think, if an actual poem resulted from this exercise, we would bring it to you to help you through your own thorny moments.
I emailed Elizabeth. What’s next?
Elizabeth: Another word, of course. And the same process repeated with the second word. I will send the word separately, so you can do it at your own convenience. Follow the same instructions that you used for the first word. Just jot down impressions, associations, memories, images, colors, feelings…..
Sherry: I dutifully printed off the second word, eyes averted, and set it aside till I had some time.
The second word was: “Woman”. LOL.
I cracked up! I did my five minutes of word-gathering. Along trotted the words, like eager little puppies. I dutifully wrote them down. Not inspired. Just whatever came: seventeen phrases, full of wildness. I was rather thrilled.
Elizabeth: Next Step: Take each of your lists created from the words and study them. Choose three to five from each list that best illustrate your personal sense of the word itself. Sense imagery is best, what we can touch, feel, taste and smell. But don’t eliminate something that you respond to strongly because it doesn’t seem like sense imagery. This is your poem, your words, thoughts and ideas. Choose items from both lists that best express that reality.
Sherry: I went back and looked at my lists. I took those words and phrases that spoke to me most strongly, and listed them on a separate page from top to bottom, with lots of space around each. I was ready. It was Go-Time.
Elizabeth: The next step is the first line of the poem…..using the two words. Your first line is:
This poem is a wild woman…
And, yes, it may take the boomerang form, or go wherever you wish, using some or all of those items you got from your list. Above all…have fun.
Sherry: I applied myself to my list. What emerged on the page was a first draft. Then it was time to get serious. I didn’t have to work very hard before the poem was complete. A poem I was pleased with – and rather amazed by - emerged easily after the requisite trying, discarding and substituting of any repeated words.
Poet friends, this process absolutely works. We are excited to share this with you again, in hopes it may spark some poems when you need a little nudge.
Thank you, Elizabeth, for sharing your wisdom and techniques, for the love of poetry. You are a wonder. And thank you, Sister Wild Woman, for all these years we have been so privileged to read your wonderful and amazing poems and chat with you about your dragons!
Elizabeth: Sherry, I haven’t been writing anything new for months. Thanks for this reminder and shoulder tap of invitation. My focus has been completely absorbed by the manuscript I'm working on.
I’ve had a few things pop into my head that might go in the direction of poetry, but dismiss them because of that other Call. I just want to thank you for this opportunity to remember that I am a whole lot more than a “Book Maker.”
Sherry: Indeed you are. You are a very talented poet, and teacher. Thanks for a second look at this highly effective guide for writing a poem when we're blocked.
We hope you enjoyed this, poet friends, and find it useful. Do come back and see who we talk to next. Who knows? It might be you!