Writer in Residence

Lisa Richter on Poetry Exercises

By Jennifer LoveGrove

Today I feature Lisa Richter in my series on poets and writing exercises. Lisa Richter's first full-length collection of poetry, Closer to Where We Began, was recently published by Tightrope Books. Her poems have previously appeared in journals and anthologies, including The Malahat Review, Canthius, The Puritan, (parenthetical), Literary Review of Canada, and Minola Review. She was born and raised in Toronto, where she currently lives, writes, and teaches English as a Second Language. Her favourite things include artichoke hearts, street festivals, the colour purple, and the word sanguine. For more, visit www.lisarichter.ca.

LisaRichterphotoby Matthew Burpee

photo by Matthew Burpee

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?

There are two conflicting goals or desires that often get in the way of my writing: the desire to be creative and generate new material on the one hand, and the desire to produce new work that I’m immediately satisfied with, on the other. It’s the latter goal that oppressively fills wastebaskets with crumpled up balls of paper and journals with scratched out lines, that keeps the cursor on the blank screen blinking. Sometimes, when I’m in this mode, I’ll pick up the nearest book of poetry (or check the Poetry Foundation website, if no books are close at hand). The act of reading the poem slowly and deliberately, aloud if possible, helps me get out of my head enough to start writing, while simultaneously grounding me in the present moment. I then give myself time free-write, occasionally inspired by a line or title that I’ve just read, and try not to worry too much about making sense, or be too concerned with where I’m going. There’s always time to come back to it later, to revisit, re-shape, revise.

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’ve used a lot of poetry exercises and prompts that I found in books and workshops, which challenged me to break out of my usual routines, experiment with form and syntax, and use language that I might not have thought to otherwise. This year, I’ve been writing from poetry prompts from The Daily Poet by Martha Silano and Kelli Russell Agodon, which has a prompt for each day of the calendar year. I’m also part of a Daily Poet working group on Facebook, where members share the poems they write in response to these prompts. Though I’ve fallen somewhat behind (perhaps I need to follow my own advice on how to get “un-stuck” a bit better), reading other people’s poems helps me get through days when I’m not feeling particularly creative. Writing is usually a solitary act, which makes community so important and necessary.

Why do you use these methods? What about them works for you?

I like having some structure. Having constraints – such as starting with a word list and generating slant rhymes, as I learned in Hoa Nguyen’s poetry class last year—can really kickstart the creative process, and can lead to writing that’s fresh and surprising. It’s a really good challenge.

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?

As an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher, I’ve used many kinds of writing prompts and exercises with my students over the years. I’ve found that students of all levels and ages respond best to photos of people, everyday objects, places, animals and foods, because they’re so tangible and immediately relatable. My favourite creative writing prompt, which I’ve used in countless different ways, is to have students write a dream story, based on a photo or collection of photos of different objects they’ve been given, sometimes individually but usually in pairs, to draw on the power of collaborative writing. I love seeing the joy and surprise of students working together to create a narrative, hear all the surprising links or connections they make between the photos they’re working with, and the bizarre, often hilarious stories that result. This can either be a starting point for a surrealist poem, or left on its own, a great way to break the ice and get students to have fun with writing: the younger students love it, and the older ones tend to enjoy the opportunity to try something new, and take themselves less seriously. When it comes to my own writing, I’m constantly looking for new ways to approach a poem—lately, it’s been writing in another voice or persona, drawing on dream imagery, myths, and fairy tales for inspiration.

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

“I remember” is an old standby of mine, one I first encountered in Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and then used in a workshop with the poet Stuart Ross. I start with writing “I remember,” and list memories, the more specific the better, sometimes expanding one of them, adding clauses to extend the lines, using as much sensory detail as possible. Another exercise that’s worked well for me is picking up the nearest book of poetry, finding a particularly rich line that I like, and writing the words in it down the left hand margin of a page. After that, you write a poem with each line starting with one of those words. During the editing phrase, you can break up the lines, find synonyms or rephrase the original “scaffolding” words, or rewrite the whole poem entirely, to make it entirely your own. There are many variations on this method, but I’ve found that this one especially helps when I have a subject in mind that I want to write about, but don’t know where to begin. Having those “placeholder” words already there on the page to guide me allows me to make more surprising connections that can add so much to a poem.

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

Not at all. I’m more concerned about stagnating, not pushing myself hard enough to grow as a writer.

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

Ideally, when a poem is finished—if it’s a good one—it’s impossible to tell whether it originated from an exercise, or whether it was written without one. “Simple Present,” one of the poems published in my book, began with a writing exercise I learned from one of Stuart Ross’s Poetry Boot Camp workshops, using a Robert Bly poem as the “scaffolding,” or skeleton of the poem. The exercise produced some turns of phrase which even my editor, who was very familiar with my work, found new and surprising, yet still consistent with my body of work. What more could a poet ask for?

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

One generative method I’ve been exploring recently with my advanced ESL students has been to brainstorm lists of twenty words associated with a particular subject: say, if the topic is spring, the words might be sun, grow, blossom, leaves, buds, warm, change, April, crocus, melt, etc. Then write about spring without using any of those words. On the flip side, write about winter, using all of those words about spring. Playing with dualities and binaries, subverting expectations, reordering sentences, physically cutting and pasting, re-shuffling lines, are other tried and true methods of generating new poems.

At the end of the day, though, no matter how many tricks you have up your sleeve, I think it all comes down to doing the necessary inner work, and creating the right conditions—mental, physical, and emotional—for writing. In her incredibly helpful book on the craft of poetry, Ordinary Genius, the poet Kim Addonizio writes: “Everything passes and changes. The creative process is just that. Not a means to an end, but a continuing engagement with being alive.” I believe it is this “continuing engagement with being alive,” a commitment to being in the world, to living, noticing, feeling, changing and growing, no matter how hard it gets at times, that’s both a necessity for writing poetry, and the by-product of it, as well.


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.