A few people have asked me about this topic of late, so I thought I would write my answers down here:
- Reading poetry definitely helps to get me into the right frame of mind for writing. It’s not about writing derivatively, but about getting into the poetry zone. One experiment I did a few years back was to set aside a quiet time when no one else was around, for ten minutes a day, pull down a book from my shelf, pick a poem out at random, and read aloud. Then replace the book and try writing something.
- This next idea is from The Practice of Poetry by Robin Skelton (Heinneman 1971). Every night, for ten minutes before you go to sleep, write in a notebook without stopping. Don’t think about what you are writing, don’t worry about repeating yourself. Don’t read it back. After a fortnight, look at it, see what obsessions are arising, pick out phrases you like. This can be repeated until you have hot-penned yourself back into writing poems again.
- In fallow periods – and everyone gets them – edit poems, send poems about for submission, write some reviews. The idea is to keep the toes in the water.
- Do something which involves being outside and is physically demanding, such as gardening, walking (including with a dog), bird-watching, running, fell walking. The rhythm and the quiet will make space for poetry, even more so if you have wonderful views to look at. Swimming is also good for pondering.
- Do some art. Watercolour painting and collage both work for me. Art opens up a non-verbal space which relaxes the subconscious mind so words can come back.
- Take some time away from the internet, and social media. These things flood our minds with short and often vapid updates. They keep us ‘busy’ like busy work bad teachers give, but they tend not to provoke thought.
- Spend time with animals or small children. Watch animals and try to get into their heads. They live in the moment, intensely concerned with survival. Small children pay so much attention to their senses, or are just fun to hang out with, because they also live in the moment.
- Take some time to really savour daily chores like really wiping down the kitchen surfaces in an almost meditative manner. Or do some de-cluttering. That makes space for new ideas as well as new things. I recently got rid of three huge bags of papers I no longer needed from my study, which made me feel lighter and more ready for new ideas.
- Mine old notebooks and paper drafts for phrases and lines from poems which failed at the time. Write them all up in a new notebook, leaving plenty of space to play around with them.
- Try working through some forms, as an exercise, not trying to make good poems, just aiming to be able to have that form at your fingertips for a future occasion. I did that during my self-imposed apprenticeship, and learned I don’t like writing villanelles or sestinas but love sonnets and Japanese forms.
I remember Liz Lochhead telling me many years ago, that she never says she is going to sit down and write a poem. She always thinks – what if I say this? What happens if I write this down? ‘What if’ is a brilliant game for poets.
Some people like to use prompts but I think there are some dangers in that. Poems are shy creatures and can’t be forced. If there is something there, a good prompt can encourage it to come out of the woods on to the path, but if there isn’t something half-formed hiding in the tree, the prompt, or think of it as bait, won’t work. I’d be very worried about people who say they can’t write unless they have prompts, because that shows they only ever write at someone else’s behest. Things like National Poetry Month are great for keeping the muscles working but if someone did a daily prompt, they might get a dozen decent poems out of it, but a whole month’s worth would be highly unlikely. Prompts can tyrannise the writer and drive the poems they really need to be writing into hiding.
There are lots of reasons for losing one’s poetry mojo. It’s common after putting a new collection together and waiting for it to come out. It can happen when the poet is tired, depressed or working too hard at the day job. (I used to find when I was teaching, I’d only have poems calling to me in the holidays, and it took a few days of being off to have the head space to dream poetry).
If it happens to you, be patient. Poetry will come back. Norman Nicholson once had an 18 YEAR gap but came back better and stronger than before. Keep faith.