A few days ago I commented on Twitter that I'm trying to draft a poem every day and not worry about perfection--just be engaged in being creative as my first goal. Since then I've received a number of messages from fellow poets, asking about the process, so I thought I'd answer them all (and any others of you out there wondering) with a post.
The first thing to keep in mind is that it's not about quality--yet. I want to get down a draft of a complete poem, and I'll come back later to think about quality. Of course I think about quality along the way in terms of the use of form, word choice, approach to the subject, etc., but I'm not after a finished, amazing poem in a single visit.
It helped me (writing-wise only!) that in the first half of 2021, I was miserable at work, and the only time I could make for my writing was at night, after dinner, when I was rather weary of texts and anything requiring intellect. Yet I knew the way to make myself happier was to write, to be creative, so I chose from among a number of embryonic projects one that had a narrative across the manuscript. Thus every night I could sit down and tackle a piece of that narrative, and no matter how much I hated the result--and oh, so often I did, the first couple months--I had put something down on paper that would be useful to have written, if only to be tossed out and replaced with a different approach to the same part of the narrative at a later date.
Night after night I would go back to the manuscript, often starting at eight or nine o'clock and working till ten or eleven. Sometimes I'd draft a section of the narrative, and other times I would start at the beginning and tinker: tinker with the word choice to make it stronger, tinker with the form, the lineation, the imagery, to make it more effective, and so on. Through that night by night tinkering, I saw the manuscript, rather to my surprise, improve. Sections I hated in the first draft I thought nearly there in the seventh or eighth or thirteenth.
What I learned through this process is that as much I hate hate hate writing badly, I can sometimes take bad writing and make it much better, through time, reflection, and effort.
2. It helps to have a specific project, or projects, that you can come back to, so you don't have to come up with new subject matter every time you sit down. Of course, I'm not entirely following my own advice--at the moment, I'm not pursuing a single project, but dabbling in several. For a while now I've been writing occasional prose poems about sentences and what they get up to, and last night I had an idea for a new one of those. The poem the day before came from a turn of phrase in something I read, and the poem the day before was my imagining in advance a meeting with a friend I was going to see that afternoon.
If you identify a few projects or interests you want to pursue when you sit down to write, you won't have to write "cold". You can sit down to your laptop and say, I'm going to work on that healthy waters project tonight and do a little research on South Africa to start, or I'm going to write the next section in my narrative about the weeks following my mother's death.
When I'm struggling to write anything, I find reading--and reading a diverse range of authors--the most helpful. If when I'm struggling to write, I pick up a poet's collection to read, I most likely will end up writing a poem that's a knock-off of their work. If, however, I pick up an issue of a magazine or read one online, the variety of voices, registers, etc. is more likely to give me a way into my own poem, whether the stimulus is a turn of phrase, an image, or the nuances of the poem's tone or voice. I have a shelf of American literary magazines I've saved over the years, which includes issues of New American Writing, Lana Turner, Copper Nickel, Fence, etc., etc., that I find particularly useful given the wide range of approaches to poetry and language therein.
I tried a similar approach to the one I'm doing now in January of last year. Are there some bad poems in the mix? Absolutely--I wouldn't share them with my best friend! Are there some good poems? Yes, I think so, and probably more of them than I would have had if I hadn't written most days. The main result is that already I find myself happier and thinking more creatively throughout the day for the sake of that one, sometimes very quick and short poem. Try it.