Strategies for Building Your Poetry Practice

For me, writing is a practice. It’s something I do nearly every day, and I incorporate a variety of methods to expand and deepen my skills. Before I approached poetry as a practice, I only wrote when visited by “the muse.” Once inspired, I’d write and write and write until the energy petered out. Then my wait to sit out “writer’s block” would start. The cycle repeated itself, and aside from deadlines I might receive in school for a writing project or poem, my writing process looked like this for years.

I’ve learned that to write more—and write better—I need to cultivate inspiration, not tap my fingers and wait for it to arrive. When I first shifted into writing as practice, my goal was to write two hours a day, five days a week. (I’d begun graduate school, so I made the time.) The first day, I sat in my chair staring at the blank computer screen for nearly the whole two hours. (I may have napped a bit.) The next day, I opened my dictionary and copied interesting words. Midway through the Bs, that “eureka!” moment happened, and I started a new poem.

If you have a limited amount of time each day to write, perhaps you only have fifteen or twenty minutes, you don’t want to spend most of it mentally sorting through topics. You don’t want to doze and dream of “the muse.” You don’t want to feel burdened by “writer’s block.” Consider the following strategies to help you keep the words flowing during your writing practice.

Journaling/Free-writing: Write about the ordinary until something catches your imagination. Describe artifacts in your environment. Stretch your observation skills by cataloguing details and descriptions. Get specific. Write in sentences/blocks of prose. It need not look like a poem early on. Gather all sorts of sensory material from your environment: scents/odors, textures/temperatures, visual imagery, sounds, tastes. You never know when these particular details will launch you into a poem.

Writing Prompts: Type “writing prompts” into any search engine and you’ll find a plethora of possibilities. And writing books contain gems, too. One of my favorite poems began from a prompt I read in Kim Addonizio’s Ordinary Genius: Look up from your writing and fall in love with the first thing you see. I wrote a poem about my son’s T-Rex toy. Try copying out and/or printing out your favorite prompts and cutting them up, then mix them around in a container and draw one out each time you’re fishing for topic material or just need a break from your current interests.

Rhetorical Reading for Ideas: Find poems you admire and write your own version. I did this with Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” I once swore I’d never do this because it seems like an overused poem, but as I explored my son’s epilepsy syndrome, I realized how this poem’s structure and approach could help me describe one of the syndrome’s symptoms: aphasia. I wrote “Thirteen Ways of Understanding Blueword”— blueword my term for any word spoken by someone with aphasia.

Reading the World: As you read anything—the back of a cereal box, the newspaper, social media posts—keep your eyes and ears open for poem-fodder. As you move through your day, do the same. One of my mentors, Ted Kooser, always talked about cultivating one’s artistic perspective simply by paying close attention to one’s environment, really tuning in to the sensory world around you. Even everyday acts, like going to the grocery store, can provide inspiration if you look carefully and closely.

Once you feel the creative flow, go with it. Don’t worry about sticking to the “rules” of the prompt or finishing the story of your day if you find something to turn into a poem. The whole point to these exercises is discovery. And remember: not every prompt or journal entry becomes a poem; try not to make writing an “efficient” process. Creative endeavors usually develop their own logics, but having tools nearby to help them along can facilitate it.

What are your favorite ways to find poems?


Featured image by Sean from the creative commons license on Flickr.

4 thoughts on “Strategies for Building Your Poetry Practice”

  1. Christine, my favorite piece of advice came from you at a poetry workshop. You suggested we write in prose to get all the information down we want to include in our poem – more than we’d need. Then we are to go over that material and keep on cutting until what is left is a rich essence of experience – and that’s a poem!

  2. I do not write everyday but do produce 2-8 poems a week. I found two practices that helped my production. Experiment with different forms of poetry. One I started using the Tanka form my production took off. I also keep a list of observations, statements, questions and shared music made by friends or I come across that seemed to touch me. These can be the starting point for an idea for a poem that usually takes me someplace I did not foresee. It maybe weeks or months before I got back to what was said. Out of politeness, I always ask the permission of the friend who provided me with inspiration before sharing the poem with anyone else.

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