It starts with a whisper. An image. A single word. An idea so subtle that if you don’t sit still, it will evaporate by the time you blink.
That is poetry.
More than any other genre of writing, I feel that poetry is able to weave the gossamer threads of our collective consciousness into a blanket or a gong, a bolt of lightening or a warm kiss. But you have to become skillful enough to convey these images to readers with the same intensity that they appear in your mind.
And like any other craft, this takes dedication and practice. Yes, there are established rules and forms created by every poet who has added his or her genius to this very old tradition. These exist to scaffold your words, sharpen their impact, present them in familiar ways to readers. But your goal should be to become so good at this that you create your own forms.
Though I respect tradition, I’m not the sort of poet who likes to play with words just to marvel at my own cleverness, or amuse other poets with obscure or archaic devices; my words need to do something out in the wider world, stir something within the average person that lifts us all higher. For that reason, I like to keep it simple.
But, no matter what your artistic philosophy as a poet, there are a few tips that I feel can help you bring out the brilliance that is buried just beneath the surface of your mind.
For me, writing is essentially listening. No matter where I am or what I’m doing, if an arresting image enters my mind, I stop to honor it and write it down. Sometimes it appears as a single word, sometimes a phrase. Sometimes, it’s even a drawing, which will eventually inspire a poem.
The important thing is to allow space in your life for listening to happen. Is there a daily routine that demands quiet and solitude, like a morning walk, riding the bus, or sitting down for some coffee?
All you need is 10 minutes of silence to allow the net of your conscious mind to pull down ideas that have been lingering in your peripheral mental vision for weeks, or months.
Release the Dam
Writers very often want every precious word to be brilliant in that first draft, and this is precisely when blocks happen. Let the words flow onto to the page, like a stream of consciousness. They aren’t going to be a poem at first. They will be a lovely mix of imagery, phrases, maybe even quotes or song lyrics by other artists you admire. They are all the base ingredients from which you will distill a kick ass poem.
Don’t judge what you’ve written. Go ahead and swear. Use slang. Talk as your grandmother talking to you. Quote the mad man on your street corner. Use every mode of communication that brings you closer to conveying the emotional reality and ideas that have momentarily set you on fire. Don’t worry about arranging them neatly in the beginning. Just throw the paint on the wall and see what the whole thing looks like.
Sound like You
If you’re a writer, you’re a reader. This is as it should be. But it also means that you’ve got a mental file of a lot of different literary styles from years of reading great works. And you may unconsciously pull from them when you are trying your best to write a strong poem.
But, there’s only one you. So, you should sound like you.
As you start to refine your first draft, look at the language and rhythm and imagery you’ve put down on paper, and speak it out loud. Does it sound like something you would actually say? Have you used the word ‘soothsayer’ to describe a high priestess when the word ‘mambo’ or ‘Hoodoo woman’ might be more natural to your particular regional lexicon?
Our most beloved artists, the ones whose works survive over time, sound like no one but themselves. You must be confident in the unique beauty of your self-expression, apart from any other artists crafting similar work, and in your ability to effectively communicate your thoughts.
Polish Until Shiny
This part can be painful. But if you release yourself to this process, you’ll begin to enjoy the exfoliation.
Now that you have your central ideas down on paper, you need to refine the poem so that it takes the best possible shape to do the work you intended for it to do. Sometimes, a sonnet might really need to be a haiku. Sometimes, a haiku really needs be a lyric poem. The key is to find the best format for your ideas to make the most impact.
First, go line by line. Look at the language, the imagery, the sequence of events, the point of view, the tone. Are all of these elements creating beautiful music with your words or just noise? Look also at line breaks and stanzas; these are not random formatting choices, but essential to the meaning of a poem, often creating a heightened sense of drama or suspense.
Don’t be afraid to make the first line the last or the last line the first. In other words, don’t be too fixed about the language or structure in the beginning. Eventually, the best way to say what you want to say will emerge—but only if you allow yourself to see the poem from many different angles at first.
Most importantly, have fun! If you enjoy your poem, so will the reader.
Keisha-Gaye Anderson is a Jamaican-born poet and creative writer living in Brooklyn, NY. She is the author of the poetry collection Gathering the Waters (Jamii Publishing, December 2014). Her writing has been published in a number of literary journals, magazines and anthologies, including Renaissance Noire, Mosaic Literary Magazine, African Voices Magazine, and the Mom Egg Review. Keisha is a past participant of the VONA Voices and Callaloo Creative Writing workshops, and was named a fellow by the North Country Institute for Writers of Color. She holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from The City College, CUNY. Follow her on Twitter @KeishaGaye1.