How to Write a Poem: Part I

Maybe you like the slick metal weight of a pen leaning on your calloused index finger and the visceral scratch of connection with paper. Maybe you are more of a “clickety-clack-of-the-keyboard” kind of person. Choose.

Then go to the beach. Not literally, no, of course not. Do you want to get sand stuck in your keyboard or in between the pages of your notebook? Find an observation perch in your mind, maybe on a flat rock at the north end of the harbor, where you can feel the pounding of surf in your chest while watching toddlers dig moats around castles.

Sit very still and pretend you have never heard of the ocean or swimming or the tides or anything to do with the beach in your life. Be a stranger in a strange land. You have lost all past vocabulary relating to beaches. This is something altogether new to you.

Make note of all that you smell. Does it bring to mind a conversation you had once forgotten? Does the taste of salt on your lips take you to another place altogether? What do you hear when you screen out all the expected sounds? What do you see now? Is it close up or very far away, at the edge of the horizon?

Go to the page now, the blank sheet or screen, that vast open space – akin to a desert – and fill it up with all those things. Leave worry about grammar or form or appropriate imagery aside. Just keep it moving, keep the words pouring out, fill up the empty page with all the new discoveries and old connections and aha moments from your visit to the beach.

Then let it simmer. How long? As long as it takes. After an hour, a day, maybe a week, go back to those words on the page with your pail and shovel, and start moving sand around. Connect dots. Build walls up here. Dig moats over there. Create a drawbridge between planets with line breaks and commas and hyphens. Punctuation is both transport and traffic cop. Use it well.

Picking a vessel for your words is important. But your words should help you pick the right vessel. Did you capture a snapshot in time, a fleeting feeling in a few breaths? A haiku might be perfect. Perhaps it’s more complicated and rambling with the repetitive but never quite the same rhythm of the ocean. A villanelle might work better to contain your entire thought. Experiment. Rewrite. Play. This is the fun part.

Next, show it to a friend, someone you want to like your poem but who you trust enough to tell you about the bits that they don’t. Listen to them as you listened to the ocean in your mind. Take it all in with the language of your heart. Love your poem enough to make only (and all of) those changes that are necessary.

When you are ready and your words are ready, find a way to give your poem to the world. It’s not doing anyone any good hidden on your hard drive or in your desk drawer. Then go and do it all over again.

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