Sometimes if I’m feeling stalled in my writing, or when I have a limited block of time in which to write, like an hour at a coffee shop before my fulltime job, I can use some help to get the writing process underway. This doesn’t really apply to editing existing poems; I mean when I’m facing the Big Blank Page. There are a few different techniques I like to use to get started – read a poem or a few poems by someone whose writing really excites me, like Kim Hyesoon or Lynn Crosbie or Cynthia Cruz, and pretty soon that gets me opened up into the mindset to start writing. Other times, I might begin by tweaking or editing a recent poem of my own, and a few small changes can trigger a new way of approaching that piece, or hopefully lead to writing something new altogether. I used those techniques while writing Beautiful Children with Pet Foxes, but I also used a lot of various poetry prompts and exercises too.
Some of these I learned some from Stuart Ross’ Poetry Boot Camp (which if you haven’t already, you should try), and others I found online or in books about writing, like The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop by Diane Lockward, or The Practice of Poetry – Writing Exercises from Poets Who Teach, edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell. Many of these types of books about poetry exercises are geared toward teaching in a workshop setting, but plenty of the exercises are applicable or adaptable to a solo writing experience.
I’ve found that employing a poetry exercise or prompt allows me to access images or modes of logic that I’m not always fully conscious of; they can force me to think a little differently. They offer a starting point, somewhere to begin, and sometimes that’s all I need to get out of my usual patterns and concerns. I like a target; sometimes the “write something NOW” of the blank page can be so daunting as to cause creative paralysis for a while, and exercises are a way to bypass that.
One that I’ve used from The Crafty Poet is where you choose a profession or worker of some kind – plumber, accountant, hairdresser, contractor, lawyer, whatever – then brainstorm a list of words associated with this job. I find nouns and verbs work best. The prompt suggests adding in some contrasting terms, which will add tension and depth later. Your title or starting point is to be “The ________________ said you need” and then you write from there, using your word list. My poem “The Mortgage Broker Asks for My Net Income from the Previous Year” in my recent book came out of this exercise.
Another one of interest is from the aforementioned book The Practice of Poetry, and is called “Writing Between the Lines.” Variations on this exercise are not uncommon, so you may have encountered it or something similar elsewhere already. Basically, it stipulates that you take a ten-to-twenty-line poem by another author – a relative contemporary – and between each line of the poem, write one of your own, suggested by the previous line. Try not to look at the actual next line of the poem you’re working with. Don’t be too literal or obvious in your response line, try to go somewhere unexpected, unique to you. Then delete the original poem’s lines, leaving just your own new lines. Play with them, see if you have the skeleton of a new poem of your own. Sometimes you won’t. Sometimes you might get one good line that triggers a whole new poem or something else. You may not get an entirely new ready-made poem – and it’s probably best if you don’t – but you’ll nearly always get something new you can work with. I like this because it really forces your syntax and line breaks and logic to leap in new ways, and every so often, you can end up with a really fresh result.
I’m not really concerned that I’ll rely too much on these types of exercises. The end result of the new poems is that they’re still somehow me, my voice still dominates regardless of the generative method. I can’t really tell which poems in my book started from exercises and which ones didn’t at this point, unless I dig out my very early drafts and check. Whether or not there’s much of a difference really depends on the exercise or technique used. Usually, I would say you can’t tell them apart, except for my series of “Dream Specimen” poems. The third sections of these poems used an n+1 type word generator (ran through several times), then cut up and reassembled, then edited to fit my vision of the poem’s own internal logic. Some of these poems ended up with turns of phrase that I might never have just thought up unprompted and to me, they feel different from my other poems, but not in an intrusive way.
Don’t be hesitant to try some new techniques in your own writing. During the rest of April as Writer in Residence, I’ll be posting interviews with other poets about their relationships to poetry prompts and exercises. They’ll cite some of their favourites, and maybe I’ll try some of them out and post my results (I said maybe). You can test them in the privacy of your own home and see if you get some interesting new material to work with.
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.