writing process blog tour, or, once upon a time, I went to IKEA…


no more depressing photo in all the world (wikimedia)

no more depressing photo in all the world (wikimedia)

…with my dad. This was in the Grim Time. Husband and I were selling a house I could’ve sworn we just bought so that we could move across the country to a town I’d never seen. The trip to IKEA was to pick up items that would add to the appeal of our house: planters, a ficus tree, more lamps, a few prints for the walls — things to convince someone they wanted to live in that house (which I could’ve sworn we just bought — hence, no prints on the walls yet).

Anyway, I hate shopping in general, and I get overwhelmed in large stores, and I could not find my way around IKEA to save my life. A couple of times I asked a worker in a blue shirt how to get to a certain department. They kept saying, “Just follow the arrows on the floor.” Arrows? On the floor? But I don’t look at the floor while I walk. And the arrows didn’t go where I wanted to go, at least not directly. The arrows went other places first. I did not have the energy or the desire to go other places first. Please, just tell me: Where are the freaking house plants?

When Carol Berg tagged me for the writing process blog tour, I immediately thought of this trip to IKEA. The reason why is not immediately clear to me. But I expect that writing about it might make it clear.

What are you working on?

  • A book review of a book you’re definitely going to want to read
  • A series of poems titled “Sick Room”
  • Revisions and submissions, revisions and submissions, revisions and submissions
  • A series of ekphrastic poems based on paintings from this amazing book
  • And other stray poetry creatures that cross my path

How does your work differ from others of its genre? I’m not sure my work differs wildly from other contemporary poetry being written today.  All I know is that there are poems that ask to be written. “Ask” is putting it mildly. “Demand” might be more accurate. I can only assume that the poems that demand to be written by other poets are different poems than those that demand to be written by me.

Why do you write what you do? Joan Didion said:

Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. Why did the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits seem sinister to me in the summer of 1956? Why have the night lights in the bevatron burned in my mind for twenty years? What is going on in these pictures in my mind?

The pictures in my mind are different, but my reason for writing is the same. I write about the things that mystify, confuse, and confound me. I write to try to figure them out.

I also write because once upon a time I tried to NOT write and it just didn’t work. At all.

And I write because I believe that art can transform: the person making it and the person taking it in; suffering into insight; pain into beauty; confusion into (at least momentary) clarity; scrawls of black on a white page into a poem.

How does your writing process work? I always begin by reading the work of other poets. Their words, their moves are springboards into my own work. On writing days I wake early, read, then free write off of what I’ve read. Once or twice a week, I revisit the free writes to see if any (or if any lines from all) are asking to be a poem.

When I draft, I often have an idea for a poem in mind, or a title I’d like to draft under, but sometimes I begin with a truly blank page and discover the poem as I go. I use language-based prompts and/or constraints to bring me to words and images I probably wouldn’t get to without them. Some of my favorite tricks:

  • word banks: Whenever I read a book of poems, I make a list of words that seem important, recurrent, or interesting. I number the lists, then use random.org to select 10 words. The challenge is to get these words into the draft (I also often do this with free-writes). All credit for this trick due to Sandy Longhorn.
  • cut and shuffle 1: I write two short pieces. One describes a physically inactive or quiet scene; one describes a physically active or emotionally charged scene. Then, I incorporate alternating lines from each scene into a draft. Credit for this idea goes to Jack Myers in The Practice of Poetry.
  • cut and shuffle 2: I take a free write (or lines from several free writes) and type up the sentences in a list. Then I go to http://www.random.org/lists/, enter my list, and let the randomizer spit out an order. From there, I construct a poem. This often involves a lot of cutting and re-lineating. This is also a good trick for revision.
  • gaping lines: I take a poem by another poet, or one of my own drafts or free writes, and write the lines on a page with gaps in between. Then I draft between the lines. At the end, I pull the borrowed lines out and see what remains. Also from The Practice of Poetry.
  • twenty little poetry projects: Also from The Practice of Poetry (handy little book, no?), described here. For me, this prompt feels especially fertile for long(er) poems.
  • drive words: From Thirteen Ways of Looking For a Poem. Write down five words in each of the following categories (they can be merely suggestive of each category): flowers/plants; metals; weather/landscape; parts of the body; words you like the sounds of; colors; scents. Choose one word from each category. Then choose five words from another poet’s poem. Use your words and the words of another poet to draft a poem.
  • homophonic translation: Take a poem from another poet and plug it in to Google Translate. Translate it into another language (I often use German because of its wealth of sounds and textures). Then translate it back into English based only upon how the poem sounds if read as English (meaning is not important; in fact, the translation will be nonsensical). Use any lines or phrases that catch your ear to begin a draft.

So, now the IKEA story makes sense, right? Because when making poems, I do wander, and follow barely-noticed arrows, and take detours, and sometimes I never find what I thought I was looking for, but maybe I find something else.

I love reading about other poets’ processes. In case you do, too, here are some poets who’ve written about their process as part of this blog tour:

Carol Berg, Kelli Russell Agodon, Susan Rich, Erin Coughlin Hollowell, Sandy Longhorn, Angie Macri (hosted on Sandy’s blog), Donna Vorreyer, Jeannine Hall Gailey, Kelly Davio.

Happy reading, happy writing!

2 thoughts on “writing process blog tour, or, once upon a time, I went to IKEA…

  1. I love reading your writing, whether it is your poetry or your prose. I hear you, your voice. I am closer to you this way, even given the bazillions of miles between us. Thank God and you for this blog!

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