How to, Photo, Writing Exercises

How to Write a Poem (#2) —from a picture source

I love devising playful procedures for writing and revising poems. Following a set of intriguing instructions often invites my unconscious to offer up a fascinating array of images & surprising connections which I can then work with through revision. Here’s a version of an exercise I made up last Sunday for our penultimate Seniors College class for poetry writing. (It yielded great results!) Try it out with any kind of image: a photograph of yourself from years ago, a family photo, an image pulled from a magazine, a painting by an artist you admire, or a doodle you find in a notebook. Let yourself relax as you put this poem together – it won’t make sense at first, perhaps, but as you work with it, it will no doubt astonish you!


Level of Difficulty = Moderate

Note: it’s best to do this by hand, not by computer.

You will need: several sheets of lined paper or a notebook, a pen or pencil, a picture, a random book, about an hour of time to experiment.

1. First, open whatever book you have chosen as your “random book” and put your finger blindly on a page. Write down the word or phrase that you have randomly “hit” on the first page of your paper. Repeat this 2 times so that you have 3 random words or phrases from your book written on your first page of lined paper.

2. Number some lines on your page from 1 to 15. Now take a look at your picture and write 15 words or phrases that describe what you SEE in your picture.

3. Now, write 3 sentences of any length that describe your picture. It’s okay to use words and phrases from your list above or to ignore your list.

4. Write a question that you have about the picture

5. Finish this sentence [about the picture]: “Looking at it makes me feel _______________________.”

6. Write, in 1 sentence of any length, what happened just before the picture was taken (or came into being).

7. Now, look at your first list of 3 random words and phrases that you took from your “random book”. Choose one of these items and write a sentence that relates the word or phrase to your picture in some way. Do this as quickly as you can without thinking too much.

8. On a new sheet of paper, look at everything you’ve written in response to the instructions so far and fashion the words, sentences, and phrases into a poem shape, using at least 1/2 of the material you’ve written. Change the order of the information, change the structure of the sentences, change whatever needs to be changed as you go along. Your mind and hand will suggest things to you as you proceed.

9. Reread what you’ve written. Now, take another sheet of paper, write a title for your poem, and write the whole thing again, changing as you go and adding or omitting whatever feels right to you.

10. Congratulations! You have a draft of a poem. You can keep going, rewriting and revising until you find the poem has come to a temporary “resting place”, or you can put it aside now for a few days before you come back to it. You will no doubt be surprised by what you’ve written!

Do you want to get started right away? Here’s an image from my collection. Let me know how it goes!

Athen, Sculpture Garden


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