Writer in Residence

Alice Burdick on Poetry Exercises

By Jennifer LoveGrove


My next few posts as Writer in Residence here at Open Book will feature short interviews with Canadian poets discussing their relationship to poetry prompts and exercises. They'll talk about what they do if they're "stuck," if they use exercises or prompts, and if so, which ones. I might even try out some of their suggestions.

AliceBurdick pic

photo by Alice Burdick

The first of these interviews is with poet Alice Burdick, who lives in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, and is the author of many chapbooks, and four full-length collections of poetry, the most recent of which is Book of Short Sentences (Mansfield, Spring 2016). She grew up in Toronto, and has been involved in the small press community since 1990. Her work has appeared in several anthologies, including Surreal Estate: 13 Canadian Poets Under the Influence (The Mercury Press, 2004) and in many magazines, online and print. She co-owns Lexicon Books, an independent bookstore in Lunenburg.

What do you do when you’re stuck, when the writing is not coming readily, or maybe not at all? Or perhaps you only have a limited block of time in which to write and you want to dive in but you aren’t sure where to begin? What do you do to get started?

My usual writing situation is that I have a limited block of time, or I have to make the time happen. If I am at home, I just type lines on my laptop. Sometimes something develops from that, and sometimes it’s just a way to prime the pump. I find it difficult to write in larger chunks of time because I have two young children. I’m used to writing coming in short bursts, and know that It’s not all going to be used, but it’s all useful. If I’m out of the house, I always have a notebook handy to write in by hand. I look forward to writing because I do a lot of other things and don’t have large windows of time in which to write. That also can be a stress, but I know I’m not a genius so it’s okay to produce writing that may never be seen by anyone else.

Do you use writing prompts or poetry exercises? If so, where did you learn or find the techniques? If you don’t use any kind of prompts or exercises, why not?  

I sometimes use prompts to get going. My mother was a visual artist so I saw her sketching a lot, and saw the process of development for work – that it comes in stages, and it’s not all used, and some of it ends up invisible, but is important as an element of the final work, structurally. It makes sense to employ a range of strategies to get going, especially if I feel that I’m writing the same stuff repeatedly. Different methods can lead to different routes in words. Some may become very important, and others are just fun for a bit. That’s very valuable in writing I think, to have fun with it, to unsettle oneself as a writer and feel comfortable with discomfort, unfamiliarity. I also was very lucky to take a writing class way back when I was a teenager and getting started with writing, and there were many poetry exercises drawn from everyday available sources that have stuck with me, even if I don’t use them all the time.

Why do you use this method? What about it works for you?

One of my favourites is just collaborating. I find that it can make another type of writing happen when two poets are riffing off of each other’s work. Another is just giving myself various challenges: write a poem of three words per line; take a headline and write from there; describe in an unfolding way the things I see out that window; write from the point of view of an inanimate object or an element of an animate object. There are so many possibilities!

Do you these methods in your own writing, in teaching if you teach writing, both, or neither? Why or why not? If you use them in teaching, what sorts of responses do you get from students?

Yeah, I use all these methods on occasion. Lately I have been collaborating regularly, and I like what happens there. I don’t do a lot of teaching, but when I do, I teach the classics: the exquisite corpse; working from headlines from articles; memoirs by imaginary people. Sometimes the prompts work best initially as collaborations, so don’t necessarily work for an individual writer, but they all demonstrate that poetry can be playful, part of an everyday practise. That can be the biggest surprise for new writers, that writing poetry can actually be pleasurable (and also thus reading it can be too) and not always a massively heavy enterprise. Some people really dislike the surreal things that happen with these exercises, though! Probably because they don’t want to be surrealist poets, or mistaken for surrealist poets.

Do you have a favourite exercise or prompt or two you’d that you’d like to share?

Get an old manual and extract chapter titles or specific short instructions, then use those words and instructions to make or fix something entirely different (ie. a book on small engine repair can be a poem about body adjustment). Another one: give yourself some very tight restraints: write a poem, it can go on a very long time, of only 3 words or 5 syllables per line. Write only about the room you are sitting in.

Are you ever concerned that you’ll rely too much on these techniques?

No, not really. I don’t actually use them frequently, but they can be a way to get through or past a stall in writing, or just to get the words ready to play.

Does a finished poem differ much when you write from an exercise or prompt from when you write without? If so, how?

Most of my poems that have an exercise or prompt involved aren’t obviously different from others. In a way, all poems are intellectual prompts, the mind and general ocean of words lead and change the way of a poem as it is written and edited. I hope there is a challenge involved in each poem, even if it is to be as direct as possible.

Would you like to share any other tips for jumpstarting your writing or using new generative methods?

Don’t be afraid of collaboration! Working with others on poems can go at all speeds and rhythms, and may help you see something you haven’t seen yet. Also, you don’t have to write with an eye towards publication. That’s not what it’s all about. It can actually help to write as if you might not expect anyone to want to read it. Don’t be afraid to be a weird poet. Also don’t be afraid of writing breaks. Sometimes other things in life have to happen – in the meantime your mind will be writing its private poetry. Just make sure to get back to it, and please have fun.

Jennifer LoveGrove's latest book is the poetry collection Beautiful Children with Pet Foxes (BookThug). She is also the author of the Giller Prize–longlisted novel Watch How We Walk, as well as two other poetry collections: I Should Never Have Fired the Sentinel and The Dagger Between Her Teeth. In 2010, LoveGrove was nominated for the K.M. Hunter Artist Award for Literature and in 2015, her poetry was shortlisted for the Lit POP Awards. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications across North America. She divides her time between downtown Toronto and rural Ontario.