How to sketch a poem

Also, as few of you know, I moderate an online poetry forum. This is a strange community I fell into about two years ago, when I was still living in Istanbul and looking for another artistic outlet. It’s a community which requires everyone to give feedback to others before they post a poem of their own, which prevents people from doing drive-by bloggings where they blast out their sadboi feelings and disappear, never to return. Moderating that poetry forum is a bit like filtering through the internet’s collective unconscious. Or its digestive tract.

Here is a thing I wrote about “how to start writing poetry if you’ve never written poetry before” for the forum. After reading a few hundred dozen iterations of the same Xtreme edgy feelproblems diary entry type poem, you start getting a feel of what people need to hear to write much better poems. So, I hope you find this useful.

***

A lot of novices approach poetry trying to write out their feelings, explore gigantic ideas, sum up existence or love or life with a single verse…my advice is to narrow the scope. Just look at one thing. I mean, actually really look at it. A tree in your yard. The vapors coming off a pot of boiling water. The color of the wood of the table. What that person said to you offhand the other day. You know how when people are learning to draw, they just make sketches of everything? They draw hands like a trillion times in different positions. You’re just sketching but with words right now. Just try and notice a very small thing as truely as you can.

Five principles to follow:

  1. Use as few words as possible. Too many words can fill your poem with static.
  2. Embrace imperfection. You will feel like you’ve done a bad job and not really described something as completely as you could. This is a good thing. Poetry works its magic through being imperfect. A poem moves, and moves fast. It’s like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: you can know the velocity or the position of a poem, but not both. Allow yourself to only capture one.
  3. Listen. You’ll start to feel ideas or sensations or words pull you in different directions at first. It takes experience and judgment to know which ones to follow, and you can’t follow them all in a single poem. Just listen to that interior sense. And:
  4. Go wherever the writing takes you. It might make absolutely zero sense, but you’re writing poetry. It can not make sense. Allow yourself to mash up words, ideas, images, or feelings indiscriminately, and just see what works later. You’re a mad scientist, or a mad chef, I suppose, and you might discover unexpected things through your experiments. Don’t worry about editing until you’re done.
  5. REVISE. Set whatever you’ve written aside for a day or a week or a year, and come back to it. Read it as if it were written by someone else. Ask: what was this person trying to say? How are they trying to say it? Is there a way it could have been said better? Most people who start writing poetry do not ever learn to revise, and holy shit, your poems are always going to suck unless you learn to revise.

And then of course once you feel like you’re getting the hang of it, you can go back and learn about all the technical terminology and shit like that. Read a lot of really off the wall and classic poets at all times, and try to notice what they do.

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