Image by KristinNador
We asked poets from all over the world, particularly young poets aged 25 and under, for the advice they’d give to fellow writers. We also picked the brains of some of the wonderful poets who work at the Poetry Society. We were seriously impressed with all the writing wisdom we received from each one of you – and here is Part I of an inspiring selection for every step of the creative process!
Part I offers advice for getting you in the right mindset for seeking inspiration and getting the ideas flowing and committed to paper or screen. In Part II, young poets and the Poetry Society team share tips for editing and redrafting your poem into the best piece possible.
Getting in the right mindset
Most poets agree that one of the best starting points for writing well is to be aware of the world around you. And the best way of cultivating this awareness? Get a simple notebook!
“Buy a notebook. It is a monster. Now kill it with ideas and writing” declares Anna. Matilda agrees: “Always carry a notebook – where ever you go, whenever something catches your eye, write it down.” Catriona comments on how freeing this is: “Write about anything, literally, that’s my advice. When it’s just you and your notepad there are no silly topics.”
Hannah’s advice chimes with Catriona’s: it’s important not to feel like there are ‘proper’ subjects for poetry. “My rule is that anything goes. I look back on the work sometimes and think it’s really rubbish or embarrassing, but getting whatever emotion or thought I have at a particular moment down on paper can really help to get the creative juices flowing, both in terms of wanting to write more about it and also in terms of getting some powerful feeling out of the way, if I feel like it’s blocking other thoughts from escaping!”
So getting in the right mindset is important – and it doesn’t (necessarily) involve the stereotypical velvet jacket and cold garret! “Enjoy writing and the inspiration will flock to you” advises Anna, whilst Medha has this lovely comment: “Loving life also plays important part.”
How to start right now? Take a leaf out of Tahira’s book: “The best tip is to stand and look out of the balcony.” If you don’t have a balcony then the window will do just as well! And both Jake and Anna report on the creative benefits of a walk – even if it is a “lamentably dull field” (Anna) or “a drab street corner on a glum Sunday afternoon” (Jake). It doesn’t have to be spectacular scenery – as Jake says, “the number of tiny things I’ve observed that have made their way into a poem is significant”. The thing is to make sure you have “a strong grip on earth and on life itself”, in Brandon’s words.
Coupled with this, as James points out, it’s vital to have “an appreciation of language…how a word sounds and feels, the way our mouths create the consonant, the colour of the vowel when it is spoken aloud – this can be a vital part of your choice of language”.
Of course, the best way to hone your appreciation of language is to “Read, read and read some more!” as Jack from the Ofi Press puts it. Do it “voraciously”, says Hannah, “even things you don’t want to”. Reading will seriously broaden your writing horizons, giving you different ideas for themes, styles and forms. As Andrés says, “The more you read, the more your mind is expanded to different ideas, different styles, and different ways of thinking; all of which will surely inspire you to write.” Saga also puts it very well: “The best way to write good poetry is to read good poetry. Make poetry a part of your life. Subscribe to poetry magazines, read a couple of poems before bed or download poetry apps on your phone. Poetry has had 4,000 years’ worth of refining and perfecting, all of the best tips you can get are already out there.”
Read practically, too: Mary Anne notes how “I find it useful to read lots of poems, and think about what features I like and don’t like – then I try to emulate some features and avoid others.” Jack advises keeping a reading journal, “where you can make notes of individual words, phrases as well as your thoughts and emotions when reading poetry. It is always interesting to go back to when writing!”
Poetry Society team: “Keep a diary. Write about what you care about in prose before you forget it; you’ll surprise yourself looking back to find the kernel of a poem in the forgotten freshness of experience… Don’t forget to live. You won’t find poems if you look too hard for them.” Kate
“Try creating a new workspace by:
– Moving into a different room in your home (or the garden – weather permitting!!) – Sometimes being in a new environment will help generate new ideas.
– Using the study space in your local library – lots of books around to inspire new ideas. Sometimes it’s nice to be around other people but not be disturbed by them.
– Meeting with friends and sharing ideas at intervals – if you have friends that are writers you could arrange a time to meet each week to work on new material, share the work you’ve done, give each other feedback and generate new ideas. If you can’t arrange a time when you’re all free to meet you could also try setting up a private group on Facebook and sharing your poetry in posts and as attachments.
N.B Do NOT spend too much time trying to find a new space to write otherwise you’ll never start the important business of writing!!” Jo
Image by Alberto Racatumba
There are also lots of specific ways of seeking inspiration for your poems – and if you get into the habit of looking closely at people and objects around you, you will be sure to notice particular inspiring things! As Andrés says, when people-watching, you never know what you might see…
What sort of objects might inspire a poem? Anything and everything! Poppy comments how “I also wrote one about a pair of 1930s dinner gloves I bought in Hay, which wondered about who could’ve owned them previously and what their life was like.” And it’s not just things; as Michelle relates, “Bits of wisdom in a novel, a thoughtful scene in a movie, an interesting conversation with a friend etc have helped me pen stories as well as poems.”
Isobel agrees that other art forms are a rich source of inspiration: “Try telling a story from the point of view of a character in a book or film, giving a new perspective on the story, or trying to tell it in such a way so that people have to guess what the book or movie is.”
Sometimes it can seem like there are certain subjects which ‘suit’ poetry – like nature or love, for instance. But in reality, there are no unsuitable subjects – write about what you want! “If you want to write about zombies, banana milkshake or jumping into hedges then do it,” states Jonny. “The only restriction is not to bore yourself.” (Yes, that seems like a pretty good restriction!)
But you don’t need to feel like you are too modern for more ‘traditional’ poetry subjects, if you are feeling inspired by them. As Jonny says, “If it seems to you that poetry is only about flowers, urns or sunsets (which are all fine by the way) then give us something new to chew on.”
Once you’ve got a theme or topic, Isobel suggests using the many research tools (books, internet, friends and family) available to anchor your poem with some specific details: “Make a few notes on key information, ideas and interesting vocabulary.” These will help keep your poem grounded.
Poetry Society team: “I like to have a book (doesn’t have to be poetry) that has me thinking ‘I want to write like this’.” Maurice, Poetry Review editor
“Personally, I’ve not found forcing inspiration especially helpful but if I’m stuck for a starting point I sometimes produce something riffing on a poem I love or borrowing the argument or posture from a great poem.” Ed
Many poets report that sometimes you just don’t feel like writing. As Anna succinctly puts it, “there is no point in wringing a dry cloth”. But there are still lots of poetic activities you can do to lay the groundwork for when you are feeling inspired. Browse through poetry journals and online magazines; look through the dictionary; play one of the writing games featured in the next article. You’ll have built up as lovely body of ideas and examples for the next time the Muse does take you!
And sometimes it might just be worth fighting through that disinclination to write. Think of your writing like a craft – pottery or silversmithing – craftspeople tend to work at their projects regularly and don’t feel in sway to the idea of inspiration. Even if you throw a weird-looking pot, you will have learnt lessons for next time! As Poppy explains, “I try to write really regularly – once a year, I set aside a month where I try to write a poem a day. It doesn’t have to be a long, competition-worthy piece or anything, but it’s important to keep developing my voice and my ideas.” Jack agrees: “I have a time to write each couple of days and always try to get something down even if I’m not feeling particularly inspired. Often the drafts of the poems I write at these times are pretty terrible but occasional words can be of interest for later.”
Poetry Society team: “I’m not very disciplined at insisting on writing regularly, nor do I really think it’s the best idea for everyone, but I am fairly disciplined in reading. I try to make sure I read some poetry every day. I think if you read enough the writing will come if it has to, if it doesn’t that’s not so terrible either…” Ed
“Know yourself. Find your best time to write. It’s mornings for me, so I try to build in some time before I have to get up. I find the waking mind is fresh but full of mistakes so, again, get it down but don’t set anything in stone.” Kate
“It’s essential, in a crowded life, to have some routine. I try to set aside a couple of mornings a week when I just hang out with notebooks and notebook.” Maurice, Poetry Review editor
Image by qmechanic
Writing games and exercises can also be really productive, throwing up things you would never normally think of. Why not try one of these?
• Some useful exercises I find are to write down words that I like, or come to mind throughout the expanse of a day, then later write a short piece with those words in it. I find it easily reflects my feelings throughout the day, and provides a spontaneousness that makes pieces interesting. Matilda
• Forget about line breaks and assonance and rhyme, etc, and just write your subject and theme at the top of an A4 sheet. Underline it. Exclamation mark it. Now write. Cover the white space with words, with feelings, with moods, with phrases, with lines – anything related to the subject and theme no matter how tenuously. Don’t stop until you’ve covered the sheet. Back and front. Horizontal and vertical. Leave it a while. Then get a different coloured pen or highlighter and underline the bits that aren’t too bad. Write them onto a different sheet of paper. Come up with ways to connect them. Stitch them together like Dr Frankenstein making some beautiful monster until… IT’S ALIVE! Adam
• I enjoy word games a lot. Scrabble, spellathon etc. It helps exercise your brain for all the words you know and also you learn new words. Michelle
• I try never to use the word ‘I’. I was told it was the most used word in poetry, so I try to resist the temptation to write in the first person. I prefer to write more amorphously. Sylvia
• A game I enjoy playing while travelling is the word association game in order to make stories (one friend says a line and we all follow on to make a full, comical story). I also study English language so I have learned a lot about the bare bones of what makes a good story. Sarah
• If you speak a foreign language, translating a poem into English is a really good exercise when you are stuck for your own ideas. Ruby
• Write a stream of consciousness at least every other day. It’s done wonders for me!… Write in a new form you haven’t tried, like villanelles or sonnets. It’s difficult but also interesting and you might find something that works for you better than others…Try writing at different times. I once got up at four a.m. to write something and found that it’s apparently my most productive time slot!…Go through a newspaper article and highlight various words to make a phrase or sentence and see how abstract you can be. Hannah
• One of the best tips I can give my fellow young writers is to try to be someone else. Everybody’s crazy about the “Be Yourself!” notion and we often forget that in writing, sometimes it is okay not to be ourselves. When I write, I often place myself as someone else and explore different point of views. I often imagine what it’s like to lead a life different than my own. Be a fictional character. Be a dead person. Be an animal. Be an inanimate object. Be something else entirely, and use that different voice to experiment with your poetry or prose. It’s such a refreshing and fun way to write. Christie
• If you are at school, studying novels or poems, it is always a good thing to experiment with poems in the style or based on (or parodying, cue ‘I wandered lonely as a dumpling’ – a poem in the making) the writers you are studying, I find it helps with connecting to the work you are doing. Anna
• Sometimes, if you have a topic but don’t know how to start to write your poem, it might be a good idea to try writing in prose for a bit, to give you a few ideas on what you want in your poem, and the words you use may give you an idea of what rhyme scheme or rhythm you want to use. You can write in sentences, or just make a list of adjectives or verbs, and see what you come up with at the end of that. Isobel
• Usually I start off with a single line or phrase, and that’s what makes me start writing the poem. But occasionally I have an idea for what I’d like to write a poem about, sort of ‘what happens’ in it, and I find it hard actually to transmute it into poetry. In these cases I sometimes write an almost prose version first, and then afterwards focus on a phrase or a line at a time, trying to make the syntax or the imagery as interesting as possible, and trying to make it sound arresting in some way. Mary Anne
• A writing exercise taught to me in a workshop that I have found helpful is called “word vomit”. You put your pen to the page and write continuously for a minute or two, not once lifting the pen from the paper. Andrés
• I do an alphabet vocabulary boost; I look for words in the dictionary from A to Z that I either don’t know or find interesting. New words usually inspire me to start writing a poem… I choose an object; people, inanimate objects, actions et cetera. Angelique
• What I find works really well is by starting off with the very last line of a poem; it just gives you an idea of the structure, so that when you start writing the rest of the poem, you already know where it’s going to go, and how it’s going to end. Serena
• Try researching news stories online or in newspapers if you are stuck for ideas, or try to describe an everyday object without mentioning its name. Isobel
• Writing in different places is also helpful, and writing with different materials. One poem I wrote with a burnt out match. One I wrote with a quill. One I wrote whilst walking to school, and another in French class. Poppy
Poetry Society team: “I find it useful to improvise, to ‘free-associate’ but using a formula for repetition. There are many such poems. Christopher Smart’s ‘My Cat Jeoffry’ is a classic example.” Maurice, Poetry Review editor
“1. Select an artwork/picture/ photograph etc that you have a strong reaction to. Then think about the following:
– What emotions do you feel when you see this?
– What objects/images stand out in this piece?
– What are the strongest colours?
– Does it remind you of anything i.e. memories, books you’ve read, music etc
– Do you like this artwork/picture/ photograph?
2. Using your notes from the previous questions highlight key words you’ve written and use them to form the outline of a poem.
Notes: when in charity shops or museum or art gallery shops look out for interesting postcards and start a collection that you can refer to when you’re stuck for inspiration. You can also add ideas and notes to the back of these.” Jo
Whatever you choose to do, “A deadline will help – move on if it’s not happening.” Kate
Many thanks to all the poets who gave us such valuable advice!
Once you’ve written your first draft, see Part II of our feature for lots of brilliant ideas to help you edit your poem. And then why not submit it to one of the competitions or publications in our list of Poetry Opportunities?