Tuesday, January 9, 2018

When the poems don't come

Lately, I’ve been finding it hard to write poems.

With a second full-length collection coming out this summer, I should be hitting my poetic stride. Yet I can’t shake the sense that each time I write, I’m writing the very same poem—and that I’ve written the same poem over and over for years.

Sure, I alter bits—focus, diction, syntax, rhetoric, form—but what drives each poem feels inalterably the same. Each one stands as its own tiny chapter in an ongoing treatise on loss.

Poetry is my preferred genre—my “genre of choice” is another way of phrasing it, although poetry seems to have chosen me, rather than the other way around. I write what demands to be written, even if sometimes I first try to chase it away, like skunks from a garbage can, with noise and blue light. 

I find—I’ve always found—that I get very little pleasure from writing poems. I like it when they’re done—I’m proud of the artifacts—but pushing them out into the world is hard and painful work. When the writing isn’t hard, what comes out tends to be something other than a poem, or at least something besides a good one.

I’m decades in to being a poet, but it continues to hurt to write them. On those occasions when they don’t hurt, they read to me as either slick or incomplete. Maybe it’s that I have no skin in the game. Maybe I’m operating from the surface, the top of the head, rather than deeper down inside.

That’s a really apt metaphor, by the way. The intellect operates in a place beyond hurt. Things that come into poems as the product of active reasoning have little capacity for aching. Stitching together a logical if-then series of arguments isn’t a bruising strategy. Even the physical manifestations of mental gymnastics are mild. Maybe we squint a little.

In writing these deeper poems I’m referring to, I’ve found myself doubled over, rocking, clutching my gut. There can be physical pain with deep revelation. When the poetry is good, I’m convinced a higher power is talking to and through me. The only catch is that God speaks in a language of acid.
Let’s be clear: As I stated, this is, in fact, a metaphor. All thinking comes from the brain; we have no other organ with the capacity to reason or even to feel. We think we feel gravel with our feet until we sever our spine and feel nothing.
So this gut talk? That’s still referencing a cerebral process—but as is so often the case, the metaphor feels truer than anything we know about physiology. It is at once physiologically nonsensical and absolutely true that good poetry comes from the gut, and almost anyone who writes understands this to be true.
Throw in some spiritual talk about connecting with a higher intelligence (a god, a muse, the collective unconscious) to get at the heart of a poem, and you’re proving yourself to be willfully ignorant and beyond help—but there’s the voice again, teaching me things I didn’t consciously know.
If we concede that writing must go deeper than the intellect to reach the truths we’re hoping to find (and there’s no reason to believe this—I know plenty of poets who are heady and marvelous), and if we concede that going deep is generally painful, it’s clear why it’s so hard to sit at the writing desk some days.
I have a few methods I use to sneak up on myself, poetically, intellectually, and spiritually:

  • Writing upon waking. When we write while fresh out of bed, we’re closer to that storehouse of dream images, and to that profound intelligence that visits us when we sleep. Making writing the first thing we do provides a welcome shortcut into the mystical woods.

  • Relying on chance. Most insight I have comes when two unrelated things are ratcheted and bound together. These “things” can be images that play together in a fascinating, new way, or they can be words that I hadn’t associated with one another previously. Which cards does the fortune-teller throw down, order and direction random? Which words does the thesaurus pull up? (Fortune-teller, soothsayer, augur, diviner, clairvoyant ….)

  • Chanting. There are a lot of online videos of people chanting, including those offered in long syllables or those in different languages, like Latin or Sanskrit. I find that using my actual voice to chant warms up my poetic voice so that I’m more ready to meet the page.

  • Walking. In “On Walking,” Henry David Thoreau wrote of the value of walking in the wilderness, an activity he called sauntering, for shaking off the village and its cares. “What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?” he penned. I benefit greatly from being in the woods, and my writing thrives on the storehouse of images I see on even a short walk.

  • Taking political action. There’s a lot to contend with in the world, and thoughts of the environment being harmed, or of people being subjected to pain, can keep me from wanting to focus on my (selfish) thoughts. But a writer has to be self-ish. The self is the one who does the work, and it must be given rein. I find that if I spend a little time involved in action—letters to legislators, since writing is the way I know to have an impact on the world—I can give myself permission to do my private musing. One caveat: I wouldn’t write a letter to a senator immediately before writing. That’s pointing our consciousness in the wrong direction.

  • Jotting. Sometimes I like to write Jane Austen style—quickly jotting a few notes to chew on and then hiding them from view when someone enters the room. It’s a skill any parent-writer develops naturally, but it’s an excellent way to keep the consciousness alert and ready for when it’s time to approach the page.

Another good strategy is to write a blog post, I think—so now I’m off to write. We’ll see how it goes.


  1. I love this list of ways to inspire yourself. Unlike any I've seen!

  2. I agree with Sour dank meme kid: Great list, great post!

  3. I'm always happy to read your words. I co-sign with SDMK: love the list. I've used some of the methods and eager to try the ones new to me. I send virtual hugs to you and your boys.

    1. Thank you so much! Would love to hear about your methods. Always encountering this problem!

    2. I haven't thought directly about this in years, but it just came to me that something I do I learned from Gillian Conoley when I was starting my MFA at San Francisco State (I later transferred to UW Seattle.). She had us write in the style of one of our class mates; it was a lot of fun. Especially when paired with someone with a dramatically different style. I do this with writers and poets I love, and also those very different from me. It's a good jump start to take a line and go from there, or take a line, scramble it up, and go from there. Sometimes I get viable poems and sometimes it jolts me out of the doldrums enough to take off from there.

  4. Great list! Two I use are prompts and reading poems by others.