After discussing writing prompts and exercises with a friend the other day, I thought it might be helpful to share some of the books I’ve used over the years. With any of these, you have to jump in and try the exercises, even if they don’t necessarily appeal to you. Not everything will work out, but you might find some surprises. And if nothing else, you continue to prime your creativity for “the real thing.”
The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron – A 12-week course to get you more in touch with your own creativity, whether it’s writing poetry, painting, or something else. You can sometimes find facilitated classes based on this book; I’ve not taken one, but from people who have, I understand it is quite a meaningful and enlightening group experience. I found the book itself to be revelatory for me.
The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life by Julia Cameron – Short chapters with exercises that are not necessarily designed to give you a prompt, but to help you tap into ideas, attitudes, and beliefs that may lead to something. Great book if you want to write but need some encouragement.
The Practice of Poetry: Writing exercises from poets who teach edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell – Exercises from well-known writers such as Rita Dove and Stephen Dunn (as well as poets I’ve never heard of) with some insight about why they use these exercises in their teaching. This is one of my favorites.
Poemcrazy: Freeing Your Life with Words by Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge – Reflections on poetry along with suggestions for practice.
Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse by Mary Oliver – An excellent guide to understanding the formality of poetry: feet, scansion, iambs—it’s all there for the learning.
Ordinary Genius: A Guide for the Poet Within by Kim Addonizio – Examples of poetry, what makes it work, ways to think about it, and suggestions for practice.
In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop by Steve Kowit – I’m in the middle of this book right now. The author provides detailed analysis of sample poems and why they work or don’t, in some cases going through iterations to show how a poem can be improved. Quite a lot of ideas to generate your own poems.
What other books do you suggest to inspire the writing of poetry?
A burn on my arm
I stick with snakes
for years after that
Breakfast at Wimbledon
Glorious Sundays when
American gents have
tussled before Brits
Fire truck siren
circles the park
leading a parade of
crêpe paper spokes
sprawled with Riesling
Stars & Stripes
(and traffic) Forever
in pots on the porch
Red, white and blue
We’re home, We’re free
A “list” poem, prompted by Margo Roby. Thanks, Margo!
Rattling faintly in the shell
Hull with little meat
Writing exercise (from Kim Addonizio’s Ordinary Genius, p. 148-155): What is your “pain-body”—that negative field that feeds on and tries to increase your pain? Meditate for a few minutes to give that pain-body a physical form. Draw the image. Then write a poem. If you’re up for it, try a pantoum. (I was only up for a haiku this evening.)
That’s it in a nutshell. (Har-har.)
A writing exercise (from Kim Addonizio’s Ordinary Genius): Instead of writing a haiku (5-7-5 syllables), write a 17-syllable “American sentence” à la Allen Ginsberg. One of his (you can Google more):
Four skinheads stand in the streetlight rain chatting under an umbrella.
This is a great warm-up exercise and worth the attempt. It can be quite challenging to come up with 17 syllables that say something pithy, meaningful, melodic, compelling, vivid.
My three best attempts (of many) this evening…
We worry so much what others think, we forget others worry, too.
Two octogenarians squabble over chicken and apple pie.
The orchid spray frames my penholder, a delicate shield from ink thieves.
Even if your American Sentence isn’t of Ginsbergian genius (as mine clearly are not), it may springboard you to something else. An American Sentence I wrote a couple weeks ago turned into what I consider a quite nice poem a few days later. I might need to write these more often…
When I don’t know what to write I turn to poetry exercises. A defined poetic form such as a ghazal or pantoum or sonnet, a set of random words required to be used, or a series of instructions about simile, meter, number of words, etc. I tend to use writing books to find exercises, but if you don’t have one to hand, you can simply make up your own constraints.
I think I am drawn to writing exercises for the same reason I am drawn to ballet. The rules exist to give shape and form, and they are not to be ignored or avoided; but they are meant to be transcended. Follow the rules, but go beyond the rules. Make the rules invisible.
Most audience members don’t know all the rules of ballet—they just know when it looks good, great or amazing. Only the most sophisticated realize that 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th are not just positions for practice at the barre—they are required positions for the ballerina’s feet to pass through between each particular step. They are some of the constraints within which the dancers must work. When they transcend those constraints, they soar.
One risk of doing a writing exercise is that you may not get anything “good.” But even when that occurs, a “good” idea frequently manifests later as a result of the exercise.
And occasionally you find an exercise leads you to something amazing and unexpected. Occasionally you achieve transcendence and you, too, soar.
In the woods I am grateful for
the rocking of the hammock
the lullaby of the wind
the mobile of light through leaves
I am grateful for quiet foot-
steps on the pine path
I am grateful for the chance
Writing exercise: Write a poem using a repetitive phrase, e.g., “I am joyful when…” “I think of you when…”
Start by listing as many things to finish the sentence as you possibly can. When you run out of ideas, think of at least 10 more. Then see what you’ve got to work with.
With all due respect to Yoda,
Try, try again.
Writing exercise: This poem was triggered by an exercise in Kim Addonizio’s book Ordinary Genius. Start with a title (she suggested this one as well as many others), and write a poem. My writing group added another constraint: 20 minutes.
Et voilá! Well, not quite so easy…
My initial attempt started out very prosy, describing two types of failure: 1) failure to accomplish something you attempted, and 2) failure that comes from not trying at all. Immediately Yoda’s quote came to mind: Do or do not; there is no try. And I kind of wanted to start an argument with him!
My thinking shifted to examples: When had I made an attempt that failed but did not deserve to be abandoned? A prosaic list.
Knowing my time was short (panic!), I asked myself how I could make my existing ideas more impactful. I stripped down the dull sentences into Noun. Adjective. and added the last line to juxtapose Yoda’s quote with the old maxim “If at first you don’t succeed…”
Speed exercises may not turn out world-class poetry (although you may surprise yourself), but they sure get your brain going. One of my writing partners–not a poet–came up with a fabulous poem with vivid imagery that even included a solid (not simplistic) rhyme scheme. Another writing partner created the beginnings of a fabulous essay about who defines what failure is–I can’t wait to see the polished version.
Now that I’ve spent more time describing the process than I did writing the poem…back to your regularly scheduled programming!