Writer in Residence

Domenica Martinello on Poetry Exercises

By Jennifer LoveGrove

The next writer featured in my series on poetry exercises is Domenica Martinello. She's a writer from Montréal, Québec, and is the author of the poetry chapbook Interzones (2015). She is also an interviews editor for CWILA: Canadian Women in the Literary Arts. Recent poems, reviews, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Vallum, carte blanche, PRISM, CV2, The Winnipeg Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, and elsewhere. She is completing an MFA in poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and tweets @domenicahope. 

Domenica by Gino Visconti

photo by Gino Visconti

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?

Sometimes having a limited block of time to write is the only way I can actually get started. If I’m feeling particularly stuck, securing an entire day to do nothing but write often chokes me up even more. I put more pressure on myself and inevitably feel guilty and aimless when I haven’t magically figured it all out.

Alternatively, lower stakes and a sense of urgency seem to work best for me when I’m blocked. This means sneaking in 30 minutes to write before running to a meeting, or blocking off an hour to write before I have to tackle other, less creative work. The goal of these tiny, low-stakes windows are usually no more glorious than “transcribe the random thing you scribbled down yesterday.” But often it’s enough to accidentally get me on a roll again. Then the long stretches of time come in handy.

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?  

When I was first introduced to writing prompts and exercises in undergraduate writing classes, I didn’t find them very helpful. Looking back, I think it’s because I approached them so literally. Now that I treat them more as an associative diving-off point, I’m able to have more fun. A good prompt or exercise should have some elasticity.

What about these methods work for you?

Prompts and exercises work for me when I need to get out of my own way. Sometimes I get really into doing research for a poem or project, for example, and then easily lose track of my initial creative impulse. Information can be useful, but information-overload can also stall or stunt your work.

A good prompt can get the creativity flowing again and help me tap back into my own poetic voice. It puts me in a place of play that helps me stop overthinking or over-intellectualizing my writing.

Do you use 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?

I’ve been doing a lot of creative writing activities with teens these days, and I find that they respond best to writing prompts that pivot—some of them want to use the prompt or exercise to dive deep into their feelings, others want to have permission to run wild in a fantastical, otherworldly directions.

To me, it comes back to elasticity. Prompts shouldn’t be too rigid. The results should be unexpected.

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

I was just introduced to a “forced recursion” writing exercise that I’m loving. It has to do with selecting a movie, show, documentary, etc., to put on in the background while you’re writing. Once you’ve selected your material (a fun process), you then play the same, say, four minutes of footage back to back several times. You write associatively along with the footage and then “restart,” playing the same four minutes again (say you do this four times). At the end of the exercise you’re left with four blocks of related, but surprisingly different, texts.

It’s so interesting to see what you’re mind comes up with when it’s being creative while also interacting with background material. Our brains are doing this constantly while we write, but this exercise highlights how incredible and influential it is. I also think repetition is an interesting tactic in poetry, so I love seeing the variations appear after each forced recursion.

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

I’m not concerned, because prompts are not a constant part of my writing process. They just make a welcome appearance here and there.

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

A finished poem with its origins in an exercise or prompt usually finds its form easier than a poem that sprang messily (and often awkwardly) from my mind. The prompt or exercise itself has certain parameters or a structure that often gestures toward the right form.

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

If a prompt isn’t working for you, skip it and move on to another one. Don’t treat writing prompts or exercises so seriously or studiously. They are not homework or tasks to check off a do-to list. Make sure you allow yourself enough space for your own ideas and creativity to take over. The most colourful and successfully designed kite won’t fly without the sky and a little wind.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

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.