Posted in 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

Posted in How to, Photo, The Writing Life, Writing Exercises

How to Write a Poem (#1)

Try this image as a "Source"

Level of Difficulty = Easy!

1. Find a source. A source can be an object, a memory, a topic, a phrase in a book, a person, a feeling in your body…. Anything you can think of or perceive can be a source. (Example: “rain”)

2. Set a timer for 10 minutes or use your watch.

3. In your writing notebook, write as fast as you can, stream of consciousness, starting from your source. It doesn’t matter if you get far away from your first topic or stay close to it. If you get stuck, just go back to your source and continue writing again. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, or sentence structure. These things will slow you down during this part. You can work on them later when you are revising and shaping.

4.  When 10 minutes are up stop writing. Or, don’t stop writing. Keep going if you are hot on the trail of something interesting. Go ’till you are “done”.

5. Take a pen or pencil of a different colour and read what you wrote. Reading out loud can be very effective. Underline any sentences or phrases that sound good or look interesting to you. Don’t worry about whether they make sense or not. Go with your intuition. What attracts and interests you?

6. Take all or some of these underlined sentences and write them on a new page. Put them in the shape of a poem. That is to say: arrange them on the page putting in line breaks and stanzas based on your intuition. You can add new words and phrases as you are doing this. Try not to get bogged down by wanting it to be “good” or “make sense”. You are exploring and beginning a poem.

7. Now you have draft #1 of your poem! Congratulations! Feel good because you have begun something that wasn’t there before you started writing. Give it a title.

8. Do some revising. My favourite and easiest way to begin revising is to write the entire poem again, changing lines and words, rearranging things, adding new ideas.

If you are doing this process on the computer, start your 2nd draft below your 1st draft and type the whole thing again. Similarly, type your 3rd draft below the 2nd. When you have come to a draft that you feel reasonably good about, save it as a separate file with the poem’s title. Save your earlier drafts with the title plus “drafts”. It is REALLY USEFUL to be able to refer to all of your drafts. I do my first drafts longhand and when I have a draft I like reasonably well, I put it on the computer.

9. Let it sit for a day or two (or a year or two) or get some feedback on it. You will probably go through other cycles of revision with it. No need to be mad at it for not being as beautiful as you want it to be—with more revision it will be. It’s good to feel satisfied with what you’ve created at the stage it’s at right now.

Posted in Diary, How to, Photo

Spider, Catch & Release

When you see the spider, you will be talking on the phone with a friend or you will be naked and have one foot in the bathtub. Or, you will be just about to turn off the light and go to sleep. You do not want to kill the spider. You also do not want the spider to be running around getting into trouble while you are talking on the phone, washing your hair, or sleeping. Especially not while you are sleeping. So, you grab your handy-dandy spider catching kit. A kitchen glass and a piece of paper will do for starters. You pop the glass over the spider and then you carefully slide the paper under the spider so that it is trapped in the glass by the paper. This is a delicate operation the first few times you do it. You do not want to tangle up the spider’s legs or somehow get spooked and let it escape. However, it gets easier the more often you practice. Eventually, you will use a half-size yogurt container and a piece of cardboard and you will leave these two items by the back door for easy retrieval. Not that there are hundreds of spiders in your apartment on the ground floor of an old house. But there certainly are a significant number and almost always a big black one just before a rain or when it has already started to pour. You recently replaced the opaque yogurt tub with a clear plastic sundae container from Dairy Queen. You have found this, along with the rectangular piece of white cardboard, to be ideal. There is even an “S” on the bottom of the container! Sometimes you feel a little guilty about leaving the spider to fret under this man-made dome while you have your shower, get dressed, and eat breakfast. But then you think to yourself: That spider is lucky that I am a “catch and release” kind of gal. You open the back door and hold the cardboard at one end. You lift the cup and shake the spider off the cardboard gently. You watch as it lands on its feet on the wood of the backporch and hesitates for a moment, getting its bearings. And then it disappears between the slats. You will see it the next time it rains.