Need a Poetry Jumpstart?

I’m sitting in my office on a cold February afternoon, thinking about writing a poem. Not that I am writing one—I am only trying to find my way in. My usual tricks aren’t working—the ten random words, the visual journaling, the inspiring quotes. Nothing quite aligns with my mood. Has that ever happened to you as a writer? I know we all have our bag of tricks, our fail-safe techniques to deal with the blank page. But what do you do when nothing works in the moment you want to write?I remember when I first began offering writing workshops. I collected several books of writing exercises that I could try and eventually adapt to offer in my classes. But there is one book I always go back to for ideas: The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises for Those Who Teach by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell. What I love about Behn and Twichell’s book is that they asked actual poets for their best writing exercises and then collected the exercises in a concise handbook arranged by themes such as “Ladders to the Dark: the unconscious as goldmine”, “Who’s Talking and Why: the self and its subjects”, and “The Things of This World: image and metaphor”. All of these areas—the unconscious, the self, and image and metaphor—serve as familiar pillars to good poetry. We return to these areas again and again, always aiming higher, always in need of refinement.

The Gift of Hands
The Gift of Hands

Much as in learning to paint, one copies the work of Da Vinci and Rothko, in poetry, one looks to the work of Elizabeth Spires, Edward Hirsch, and Rita Dove. The exercise I have chosen to offer in today’s blog comes from poet Richard Jackson, author of Worlds Apart and Alive All Day. I chose this exercise because of the way it leads you into the subject layer by layer— beginning with describing something and then walking you through the prompt so that you can achieve a narrative while exploring something as ordinary as a pair of hands.

I’m going to try this exercise as well and I’ll post my poem in a few weeks. In the meantime, give this exercise a try—I’d love to see your results. Please send your poems and I can post them in a future blog for everyone to enjoy.

“Five Easy Pieces by Richard Jackson”

Begin by visualizing a person you know well, or inventing a new person. Then imagine where you might find this person. Now you’re ready to write!

Write one sentence about each statement below:

  • Describe the person’s hands.
  • Describe something he or she is doing with the hands.
  • Use a metaphor to say something about some exotic place.
  • Mention what you would ask the person in the context of 2 and 3, above.
  • The person looks up towards you, notices you are there, gives an answer that suggests he or she only gets part of what you asked. (taken from pg. 40, The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises for Those Who Teach)

Now that you have five sentences, go deeper. Try expanding each sentence into a stanza. Let the emotions and the exotic place take you somewhere new. You can reveal stories, use dialog. Most of all, enjoy the sojourn into your creative side.