Written By: Mag Gabbert
In my experience I’ve found that “poetry block,” as I’ll call it, is an entirely different beast than other varieties of writer’s block. When I sat down to write this post, for example, I didn’t know what I was going to write about…but it was a different kind of sensation than not knowing where or how to begin writing a poem. In prose, sometimes, we have to take time to plot out a sequence of events, or the internal conflict of a character, or the development of a relationship. And sometimes it’s hard to just get into the groove; we know what we want to write, but each sentence has to be coaxed out slowly and nothing feels natural.
In contrast, when I sit down to write a poem, I often don’t know what the poem is going to be about. I may have a general subject, or a line, or an image that I want to begin with, but that is usually no indication of where the poem is going to go. Part of what makes poetry its own genre—and what makes it so magical—is that poems have to find their own way. They’re associative and intuitive. A poem may start with a line about a solar eclipse and then end up being about grandma. It is, in a sense, exactly the opposite of the process of writing prose. In order to write poems like this, the poet has to be completely mentally available. They can’t have too many preconceived ideas about what they’re going to say or spend all their time plotting things out; instead they have to allow their thoughts to move freely and associatively, kind of tapping themselves in to the way all human minds work, a broader human consciousness.
The process of “tapping in,” wherein you identify a thought and begin to consciously follow it, is what’s most difficult for me as a poet. I have all kinds of little rituals and superstitions—as many writers do—to help me ease in to that mindset, and although it may sound a little hokey, I think it can be helpful for any poet to try out some of their own pre-writing strategies. Here a few of the practices I’ve found particularly helpful:
- I begin by reading the newspaper. Sometimes it just helps me to separate myself from my own personal, nagging cares, but other times an article can serve as great inspiration for the beginning of a poem.
- I make sure to have a tasty drink on hand. For me it’s usually iced tea, but any drink will do. The point is to be comfortable, so that you don’t have to get up in the middle of writing and lose a thread of inspiration.
- I often begin the process of writing as soon as I wake up. Lots of writers have a particular time of day that works for them—it doesn’t have to be the morning. I like the morning because it’s the time when my thoughts are most clear and uncluttered; others prefer late at night when they’ve already accomplished their tasks for the day. Try out some different times and find one that works for you, then stick to it and make sure you’re available to write—even for just a few minutes—during that time everyday.
- Lastly, when I’m about to begin writing poetry, I like to read one or two of my all-time favorite poems. Reading those poems inspires me; it reminds me how much I love poetry, and also what it is I want to accomplish with my own poems. Some writers prefer not to read others’ work just before writing, as the mind might subconsciously try to imitate that work, but since I read the same poem or two each time it’s easy for me to recognize and squash that urge. In general I find it extremely helpful.
If you’re ever having trouble finding your way into a poem, give a few of these techniques a whirl and see if you find them helpful. Most of all, I recommend trying out some pre-writing activities of your own until you find the ones that work best for you. Happy writing!