‘So, uhm, how do you write a poem?’: The First Part of Our ‘Gauntlet’ Advice On Writing Series
By Sam Cha, David Lehman, Ellyn Maybe, Mindy Nettifee, Amber Tamblyn, Cecilia Woloch and Robert Wynne
From The Editor: When we first announced our yearlong writing challenge, The Gauntlet, we were pleased to find interest from many fiction writers and journalists, many of whom have years of experience and unimpeachable publishing credentials – serious writers, by any standard. But we were unprepared for what came next: “So, uhm, how do you write a poem?” asked one. “I’ve never written a poem in my life,” asked another. Which makes sense. Writing a poem is a bit like cooking an egg: Easy to do, difficult to do extremely well. We tried to help as best we could, but decided after a bit it would probably be advisable to get some help, so we turned to some of our favorite poets and asked them, “What’s one piece of advice you’d give to someone writing a poem for the first time?”
The answers were equal parts practical and esoteric, sometimes contradicted each other and were utterly brilliant. So without further ado:
MINDY NETTIFEE (Author, Glitter in the Blood): Writing poetry is a practice of exquisite attention. Pick anything – an object, a person, a situation, a thing that happened – that has a little spark of electricity for you. Bring it into your present consciousness, and pay the deepest attention you can to it. Then simply write what you notice, and what you notice about what you notice, and what you feel and sense about this noticing, in whatever tense it happens to flow out in.
CECILIA WOLOCH (Author, Earth): Read a poem that starts a fire in you, a poem whose music you love but whose “meaning” you don’t understand on a rational level. (No “slam” or Twitter poets – go to the greats: try Pablo Neruda, Anna Akhmatova, Paul Celan, Lucille Clifton). Start with that poem. Let that music get into you, and that sense of unknowing and mystery. Start with a handful of words, their melody, and go where they lead you. Let the poem, as it emerges from language, surprise you. Surprise yourself.
ROBERT WYNNE (Contributing writer, Radius): Starting is the hardest part. The white page taunts you with its blankness, and you seem to be standing at a fork in a road (possibly in a yellow wood). The signpost up ahead labels the diversions “Narrative” and “Lyric” – though there are many choices one could make at this juncture, let’s begin there. You could write a narrative poem which tells a story, from a specific point of view, with a clear sense of time, place, and perhaps intention. Or you could write a lyric poem which meditates on a thing, an experience, or an emotion, not necessarily tied to the trappings and context of story. How you proceed depends on you, how you think, what matters to you. When you see a rock on a sidewalk, do you A) Wonder how the rock got there, what it dreams of, whose foot kicked it last, or will kick it next, why it’s so shiny, or do you B) See the rock as a tiny piece of the larger world, fractured and crumbling, symbolic of the way everything ends, however slowly? These are just 2 examples, the first being a narrative approach, and the second being a lyric, but they reflect different ways of thinking, and knowing how you think is helpful when you want to write anything, particularly a poem.
Most forms of writing – novel, short story, play, screenplay, comic book, recipe, letter, grocery list – have specific expectations with regard to form and content. Aside from Form Poems (such as Sonnets, Sestinas, Limericks, Haiku, and the like), poetry does not adhere to such precepts. That can make it particularly daunting when you’re just getting started. It’s much easier to simply fill a pitcher with water, than to have to create the pitcher while you are simultaneously pouring water into it. Exercises and prompts can help, whatever it takes to get the words flowing onto the page. Once you’ve started actually writing, just let it happen. If you are uncertain whether you tend toward narrative or lyric, the poem will be sure to inform you. And each poem is its own process, so you may write a narrative poem, followed by a lyric poem, and they could even come from the same impetus (or Triggering Town, as labeled by the great Richard Hugo). The lack of rules, the lack of consistency by which you can measure your progress, can be maddening. For instance, how do you know when you’re done?
Write until you stop, and then go back and read what you’ve written. Read it out loud. Ask yourself how it sounds. Do you stumble at all? Think about where you breathe when you say the words, and make sure the punctuation clearly offers the appropriate guidelines to the reader. Does it make sense? Do you care whether or not it makes sense? It’s up to you. Does the ending feel like an ending, or did you write past it, or not quite get there yet? That’s subjective, and workshops have proven that differing opinions on endings are common. Did you repeat any words so much that they lose their power? Did you use interesting verbs, specific nouns? Did you include things that can be experienced by the five senses, instead of relying on abstractions (like love, pain, soul, hope) that have no physical presence in the world? These are good things to think about when editing, but giving yourself permission to write that first draft, warts and all, is necessary before worrying about such things. If you try to edit the poem before you’ve written it, you likely won’t write it at all.
It’s good to remind yourself that there are no right answers. Learning your own tendencies as a writer is good for understanding how to judge what you’ve written, how to hone it, and it also affords you the opportunity to challenge your own expectations – which you can’t do unless you recognize them. But in the end, just write. Form and genre are blurry things. Let the words come out, and see if they like being in lines of verse, or in paragraphs of prose. The Latin root ‘vert’ means ‘turn’, and verse got its name because the words turn away from the edge of the page before they reach it, which puts an emphasis on the words at the end of each line, and adds visual space that can also lend itself to brief pauses after lines and stanzas when reading aloud. Prose poems are a thing, too, and they tend toward longer sentences, with no added emphasis or extra space. Let the work tell you what it is. If you’re in doubt, ask a friend. The most satisfying poems I’ve ever written have surprised me, because I didn’t know where they were going until they got there. And it’s been no shock to me that it’s those poems which have also been most appreciated by others. Here’s one example that’s been tucked away on my hard drive for a few years. It’s only seen the light at a few readings in the past, but it is certainly pertinent to the topic at hand:
How to Write a Poem
Begin with a leaf. Notice how its veins ache
for ink, how it hurls itself at the ground because
it can’t bear to be near the branch any longer.
Remember to mention love or death,
but not directly. Consider the way
the multi-vitamin lodges briefly in your throat
every morning, like nervous laughter
hiding in plain sight. Play “So What?”
by Miles Davis, and as the timbre of his breath
settles on your inner ear, answer the question.
DAVID LEHMAN (Editor, Best American Poetry Series): Listen to Count Basie and orchestra play “April in Paris” and write.
AMBER TAMBLYN (Author, Dark Sparkler): To quote the poet Jeffrey McDaniel, You have to imagine your ass off.
SAM CHA (Poetry Co-Editor, Radius): Pragmatic advice: Read poems until you find one that you love or hate; figure out why you love or hate the poem. Try to do better.
Procedural advice: Write what you usually write. Erase everything, except for one word. Why did you pick that word? Think about it. Now, write what you usually write, but this time write it in such a way that you can’t erase anything. Read it out loud to a stranger. Did you feel like it worked? Keep it. Did you feel like it didn’t work? Start over.
Spiritual advice: You don’t write a poem by setting out to write a poem. You write a poem because the thing you need to write can only be written as a poem.
Somatic advice: Talk to yourself while you’re walking. Walk at different speeds and see how your talking speeds or slows to match. Walk uphill and down. Walk in crowds or alone. Walk when you’re angry or sad or happy and see how your talking and walking changes. See what you see and don’t see; what you hear and don’t hear. Different moods have different sounds have different rhythms; offer different sights and sounds. This is what (at least one kind of) poetry is, at its core – a choreography: a unity between the movement of the language, and the movement of the body.
Practical advice: Your poem probably won’t be very good. That’s fine – most poems aren’t very good. You are writing in the Grandest Tradition.
More practical advice: Read it out loud. Did you stumble? You probably need to edit.
Etymological advice: Poetry – the word itself – comes from the Mediterranean side of English vocabulary, like the word vocabulary. More specifically, it comes from ancient Greek, from the ancient Greek verb poiein – “to make.” Except it’s not quite just to make; it’s more like to poem is to bring things into being. In Plato’s Republic, for instance, when Plato has Socrates talk about poets, he has him draw a distinction between what a poet does and what a painter does. A poet makes, where a painter imitates. So it’s not enough, originally, to make something in a form that is already there, it has to be something new. A poet is somebody who makes something new, or at the very least re-news. But poems are made out of words. And yes, we make new words all the time, out of need or playfulness or ignorance, but mainly the words we have are very old things that have been handed down to us. To poem, then, is to renew words, to make them new, within and against the constraints, the bonds, the fetters, the promises, of the old.
Poundian advice: “Make it new,” which is probably the single most pompous sentence in English, which is pretty impressive if you think about it, since it’s only three words long. Much economy, so concise. Wow.
Sinological advice: The Chinese character for poem is 詩. This is a combination of the characters 言(“speech”) and 寺(“temple; court”). It would be tempting to therefore say that a poem, in Chinese, is either holy or official speech, but that’s not really how Chinese characters work – it’s just that the character for poem has to, obviously, be grouped with other language-related terms, and it sounds like the word for temple or court, so the semantic and phonetic halves smoosh together, et voila. Ezra Pound was a fraud. Sorry.
Odinian advice: Hang, suspended between life and death, for nine days and nine nights from a branch of the World-Tree.
Bardic advice: Get drunk.
Shakespearian advice: Be everyone but yourself.
Keatsian advice: Tell the truth –
Dickinsonian advice: Slant –
Whitmanian advice: With contradictions, and –
Strunkian advice: Omit.
Lovecraftian advice: Poems are spells. They are the names of gods and demons, who wait for worship. Call on the biggest, baddest gods you can, the ones you are afraid to name, the ones who will eat your soul.
Strategic advice: Write something your reader will enjoy.
Vonnegutian advice: Don’t be an asshole.
Political advice: Don’t be an asshole, unless you think your reader wants you to be an asshole,
Moral advice: – and as long as being an asshole serves the greater good.
Tactical advice: Forget about the reader, and forget about yourself. Just write.
Existentialist advice: We’re all going to die. There is no meaning except for the meaning that we make, together, in vanishingly brief moments of questionably authentic human contact. Write the fucking poem.
ELLYN MAYBE (Author, Walking Barefoot In The Glassblowers Museum): Don’t worry about being judged, do your own thing.
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