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Process: a Poetry Friday post

About a month ago, I heard Billy Collins read some of his poetry at the Free Library in Philadelphia. It's the second time I've heard Collins read in person, although I've heard other of his poems online - he is on NPR, and all over YouTube, for example. I happen to like his poems, and I definitely like how he reads them. After his reading, Collins took some questions - and I took some notes. I thought today I'd share a couple of them with you as part of a discussion about process.

One person asked "How do you know when a poem is done?" Collins first replied with this quote: "In order to be a great painter, you need two people: one to paint the painting and another to cut that guy's hands off." He went on to say (I'm paraphrasing) that he always feels like his poems are moving: he starts somewhere and is moving toward somewhere else. But because he feels that sense of forward motion, he starts to feel a sense of arrival when he gets near the conclusion. "The more of a forward roll and a sense of direction you have, the more of a sense you'll get that it's reached its end." And then he said that he likes "to start in Kansas and end in Oz."

Another asked him about his work habits. Here are three quotes drawn from his answer:

"I have no work habits."

"I don't sit down unless I have a little something to write about."

"I don't sit down to write – I walk around to write. The act of writing is always stimulated by an observation or a phrase."

Collins said that for a while, he got in the habit of jotting a word or a phrase at the top of a page, then writing a poem from there, just to keep in practice, which is how his poem "Hippos on Holiday", found in his latest collection, Ballistics, came about.

Which brings me to my own process

As most of my readers know by now, I'm extremely close to finishing my three-year opus, a biography of Jane Austen in verse using period forms. I do not, however, only write in forms that were popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries; I also write using more recent forms (say, the villanelle, which entered the English language during the Victorian era) and in free verse, which wasn't "invented" until nearly the 20th century. My other, non-Jane, poems are a mix - some for kids, some for adults, some in free verse, some in rhyme.

But I've found that in the past few years, many of my poems come from specific prompts. I don't usually scribble a word or phrase at the top of the page, à la Billy Collins, but I have written a significant number of poems as a result of topics pulled out of The Write-Brain Workbook: 366 Exercises to Liberate Your Writing by Bonnie Neubauer. (You can read "The Scar", "The Giraffe Pen on Thursday, at noon", and "Dear Dolores".) At a conference I attended, Bonnie handed out a pocket-sized "story generator" consisting of columns of words. The idea was to pull three at random, then write a story using all three - I chose to write a poem, of course. My three words were Alps, broccoli, and apology, and I wrote a poem that I now call "Stagnant", but which I once shared before it had a title. (If you're interested in Bonnie's stuff, check out Bonnie's website, where she has a "free sample" of her book, plus information on her Story Spinner (another idea-generating device), as well as an online Story Spinner and other freebies.)

Like Collins, for me, it's an idea or a phrase that gets me started. Specific prompts often work that way, but so do the occasional found notion or phrase. For instance, I recently wrote a free-verse poem entitled "These Notions of Pending Delight" after my friend Tiffany Trent (tltrent) used that phrase in oe of her blog posts, because the phrase resonated with me. I won't be sharing it here today (although Tiffany has seen it), since it's out on submission. I've written poems based on visual images before, too - not always ekphrastic poems (poems based on an image that tell the story the image inspires), but sometimes - as with "La Belle Dame Sans Regrets". Laura Purdie Salas posts visual prompts nearly every Thursday at her blog, seeing poems of 15 words or less, but one can always write longer.

The point is, I suppose, that when it comes to poetry, it is always possible to find something to write about. You just have to pick a prompt and go with it. Sometimes it results in a crappy poem you don't care about, but many times, it turns into something you can use. Here - I'll share the prompt I'm working on for the "assignment" I have to share with Angela De Groot (angeladegroot) next Thursday as part of our weekly writing exercise/creative stretch: Write a story/poem from the point of view of a character from a book or movie, who is writing a letter to their dead mother. That prompt came from another poet, by the way.

Yeah . . . I haven't picked my character yet, but I've been giving it lots of thought. If you decide to write along with us, I hope you'll let me know.

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( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 28th, 2010 05:54 pm (UTC)
Elaine M.

Thanks for the information about Billy Collins. I enjoy reading his poetry--and hearing him read it. I've never had the opportunity to see him in person though.

Regarding the writing of crappy poems: I guess I feels it's of value too. I remember once attending a writers' conference at a local college many years ago. The professor who organized the conference said something like the following: Every writer has the right to write garbage from time to time.

Have a great weekend, Kelly!
May. 28th, 2010 06:10 pm (UTC)
I agree with you on the crappy poems issue - they are still worth the time, even if it's just because I've written something - anything. And without the crap, I don't think we get to the good stuff.
May. 28th, 2010 10:52 pm (UTC)
Thanks for sharing the delight of Billy Collins's observations and the glimpse into your process. I read this earlier today and promised myself I could come back later to reread. I love the work of Billy Collins and it sounds like he also talks about it in an engaging way.

I'm all for writing bad bad poems on my hopeful way to a good phrase or two.

I envy you and Angela at your table on Thursday!
May. 28th, 2010 11:04 pm (UTC)
Collins is exceptionally engaging and entertaining. Not sure what he's like as a person in real life, but his public persona is charming.

I don't mind the bad poems either, as long as I get to the good eventually.
May. 29th, 2010 12:50 am (UTC)
would love to write to prompts with you or others this summer. I'm going to be laid up and it will be a great time to write. I tend to do my better poems spontaneously, and most often to prompts. The ones I work on, I tend to overwrite. I haven't found a way to resolve not overworking them yet. But sometimes just writing more and more new ones to similar prompts will develop a poem that can take the place of the overworked one.

I love Collins, and love that you shared your observations with us. He really is an inspiration.
May. 29th, 2010 02:28 am (UTC)
Shall I send you a weekly prompt this summer as Angela and I do them? I could email you. Just drop me a note at my website (kellyfineman.com) if you want me to send you some. Or get a copy of The Write-Brain Workbook, which comes with PLENTY of prompts - enough for one a day, even!
(Deleted comment)
May. 29th, 2010 02:29 am (UTC)
Me too - especially KS & OZ, but I thought he made excellent points.
May. 29th, 2010 01:25 am (UTC)
Thanks, Kelly, for sharing your process. I wonder when you sit down to write, do you think, "I'll write a poem for a child or adult"? Or do you just follow the prompt wherever it takes you?

Thanks for the insight to Billy Collins, one of my favorite poets.

Also, I clicked on your links to your poems. You write excellent poetry. In the poems I read, you make great use of the narrative element.

Laura Evans
all things poetry
May. 29th, 2010 02:35 am (UTC)
Why, thank you for the comments on my poems. Funniest thing is that I don't generally put my best work up here, since I'd rather try to sell it.

The prompts I do with Angela usually lead to poems for grown-ups, in part because the prompts are designed for writers who write for the adult market. But not always. I just go with what springs to mind and go from there.

And if you ever get the chance to hear Collins read in person, I hope you jump on it - he's brilliant!
May. 29th, 2010 09:43 am (UTC)
Thanks for a bit of a Collins fix and for the peek into your process. Both fascinating!
May. 29th, 2010 04:58 pm (UTC)
I love process posts by other people, so I try to post about my own process now and again. What's funny to me is that I find my own process kinda dull . . . but I'm glad you disagree!
May. 29th, 2010 04:44 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the Billy Collins observations! I too am his fan.

I also like writing from prompts. I find it stirs up my thinking about things on which I have opinions, but I didn't even know it because I haven't thought about them lately. Your Bonnie Neubauer book sounds interesting. But I already have her story spinner; I must use it as a poetry prompter.

May. 29th, 2010 04:59 pm (UTC)
It's really funny what comes out of those prompts. And I think you'll enjoy using the story spinner as a poetry prompt. It's interesting to find yourself wandering somewhere you didn't expect, and kicking up thoughts and opinions that you wouldn't usually stop to ponder!
May. 30th, 2010 07:34 pm (UTC)
Two of my favorite things -- Billy Collins and talk of process. :)
May. 31st, 2010 03:39 am (UTC)
We have that in common, then! Although I tend to find other people's process much more interesting than my own.
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )

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