Writer in Residence

Susie Berg on Poetry Exercises

By Jennifer LoveGrove

The latest poet featured in this series on poetry prompts and exercises is Susie Berg. She's the author of two full-length poetry collections from Piquant Press, including her most recent, All This Blood. She has also published two chapbooks and a Lyrical Myrical Press handbound book with one of her mentors, Elana Wolff. Her poems appear in various journals and anthologies, and she spent two years as the curator of Toronto’s Plasticine Poetry Reading Series. Find her online at http://sber40.wixsite.com/susieberg

SBerg pic by Elana Wolff

photo by Elana Wolff

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?

This happens to me most often when I know I should write, but I’m not actively in the middle of something I can work on. So I actually do go to prompts for this, because I know I’ll have to force myself regardless. I have a few prompt sites bookmarked and I either scroll through until something hits me or I force myself to go with the first one. Often I find one-word prompts, such as those that come as blog topics from a Rabbi I know in Chicago. So she’ll do a 14 or 30-day challenge, with words like ‘launch’ or ‘open’ or ‘end.’ And with those, I almost always know right away what I’m going to do. Something in those words conjures up ideas for me and I start writing.

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 use both. I wrote a series of poems written from lines overheard at Starbucks. I write from the blog prompts I mentioned. I have used the list of 50 exercises from the back of Pat Schneider’s ‘Writing Alone or With Others,’ or have just read her book cover to cover and stopped to write based on any prompt she offers.

I’ve also learned techniques for writing through exercises picked up in various workshops. From one I learned to write centos using lines from other books; I learned to write list poems; and I learned to write poems with two sentences per line. From Schneider’s book, I learned the scramble method — writing out a narrative, breaking it into sets of 3 lines, then grouping all the first lines, all the second lines, all the third lines — as well as the method of writing from what just happened and what’s about to happen in a photograph.

What about these methods work for you?

What works for me about prompts is the magic that I can use the same prompt dozens of times and get a completely different result, based on where my mind and brain are at the moment.

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?

My instructors have taught us not to see exercises as separate from writing, and so I don’t. They are a way to shake loose ideas from my brain, or to shake loose the structures I impose on my work (or to impose structure on writing that is too loose). I consider prompts and exercises the core that starts my writing, though I do a great deal of work after I get the initial writing on the page.

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

From Pat Schneider’s book, I love the exercise to write down the ages of both your parents at your conception; write a brief description of the house where you were born, as you remember or imagine it, the write to one or both of your parents, or about them. I also adore the exercise to write a childhood story without using the letter ‘a.’

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

I’m not concerned — I don’t expect to run out of poems or ideas. But I do know that I will rely on my own teenage-diary-word-vomit style of writing if I don’t force myself to think differently. And prompts and exercises do that for me.

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

Very much so. But I had to learn to change it. I used to be very tied to the exercise or prompt. A workshop with Ellen Bass taught me much more about craft, about discovery over the course of the poem, about the sanctity of metaphor as a way of creating wholeness between writer and reader. So I go through my entire toolbox of tips and tricks and lessons learned over the years and I let the poem become ‘a made thing,’ as Ellen taught. Interestingly, I am workshopping a lot of my scramble poems these days, and though the words have great friction and interest rubbing up against each other, the critiques seem to be that the sense is lost. I’m eager now to get back to what the originals were and see what I might have missed in the narrative in favour of sticking so specifically to the exercise.

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

Great, now I have writer’s block.

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.