There is this belief that we can sit down at a laptop or open our notebooks and write a poem.
While some can do that, there are many who, when they sit down and see the blank screen, follow that lead—they go blank as well.
Writing poems as a group using various prompts and play has become my favorite way to write. Why? Not only does it create community, there is an energy in the room that helps keep the work progressing. Others’ poems inspire our own work—maybe you hear someone’s new poem and they are using vocabulary you usually don’t.
Next thing you know, you have an armadillo and the name of one of Jupiter’s moons in your poem and have used the term prophecy in an innovative and surprising way.
Here is a step-by-step guide to writing several poems in an afternoon:
1) Schedule the time for it and show up.
This is, of course, the most important part. It can be on your own or at a class. I suggest at least two hours of writing time, but better is much more advantageous for your work as sometimes you need that “warm-up” time. (I have a good friend who comes to my house at 3 pm on our writing dates, we have a small meal, catch up and start writing around 4ish. We plan on her spending the night and we write until about 10:30–11 pm. I am always shocked by the number of drafts we get.)
2) Create some prompts to get you going.
These can be easy prompts like grabbing a book of poems, pointing to a line and having it be your jumping off point or making a list of 20 words and trying to use as many of them as possible in a poem.
Or, if you’re more organized, it’s always helpful to have prompts thoughtfully written out ahead of time (This is why taking classes on generating new poems are so popular—someone else is doing the legwork, you just show up and enjoy all their writing exercises!)
3) Get a timer.
When you start writing a poem, give yourself a time limit. Maybe do a few quick 7-minute warm-ups to begin, then do a longer 20-minute poem, then mix it up with a 10-minute writing prompt where you have to write a short poem on a large subject.
The timer gives you a starting and stopping place. It also gives you the knowledge that if a prompt/poem isn’t working for you, you know it will be over soon enough.
4) Share your poems after you write them.
If it’s a small enough group (1–4 people), consider going around the room and sharing what you wrote (even if you think it’s not good enough). If it’s a larger group, ask if anyone wants to share what they wrote, or a line from it. Sometimes just hearing what someone does in one exercise, inspires you to do something new.
5) Lower your expectations.
Remember, this is the first draft to a poem. When a baby comes into the world, we admire them for what they are—babies. We don’t expect them to speak in full sentences or immediately be brilliant, we let them grow up. Your poems deserve that same respect and understanding. You just wrote a poem! Don’t criticize it, praise it for showing up and being born.
6) Have fun.
We aren’t doing open-heart surgery here. No one lives or dies depending on whether we write a good or bad poem. We are just playing with words. Like painting, throwing some color on the canvas and seeing what we can make. So just play, see what happens, write down some words and call them a poem.
I have always said the world would be a much better place if more people wrote poems, so please, join us in my upcoming class, Let Me Live, Love, and Say it Well: Writing Poems Inspired by the Work of Sylvia Plath. There’s always room for one more.
Kelli Russell Agodon is the cofounder of Two Sylvias Press. Her most recent book, Hourglass Museum was a Finalist for the Washington State Book Awards and shortlisted for the Julie Suk Poetry Prize. Her second book, Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room won the Foreword Indies Book of the Year Prize for poetry. Her work has been featured on NPR, ABC News, and appeared in magazines and journals such the Atlantic, APR, Harvard Review, The Rumpus, Prairie Schooner, and O, The Oprah Magazine. She also coauthored The Daily Poet: Day-By-Day Prompts for your Writing Life with Martha Silano.