My Intro to Poetry students are doing thirteen poems this summer, not all of them being included in the end-of-semester portfolio, but still–I can see how the sheer number of poems could lead to anxiety.
I remember the moment I found out just how much I would have to write as an undergrad taking Intro to Creative Writing at Wichita State. A lot of poems have been written by me since then, so we know it all turned out all right in the end, but what I most remember was walking back to my car from the campus bookstore carrying the stack of books and walking out a rhythm to my newly discovered fear: Thirteen poems and two stories. THIRTEEN poems and two stories. Thirteen POEMS and two stories. Thirteen poems AND two stories. Notice I did not move the stress to two or stories. I figured I had that in the bag. Who couldn’t do two stories in sixteen weeks? But poems, THIRTEEN POEMS, that was another thing. I found out that the poems were way easier than the short stories. The reason why had a lot to do with my reaction to the workload: I walked it out and set up a rhythm that took the same line and moved the caesura to a different place in each line. I was using wordplay and sound to compose as I walked and didn’t know it. What I didn’t know then but found out was that with poetry, there are multiple ways into a poem, not always connected to story.
Here are some of the ways. Sometimes an image strikes me and I gather it up like an artist would a found object. Other times someone says something from across the room and it stays with me. That phrase, whether it makes sense or not (sometimes it doesn’t) starts off a draft that has nothing to do with the people who said the phrase or the place where it was spoken. It was a trigger, and at times it doesn’t even end up in the draft. Yet another way drafts start is with a title. I think of a preposterous title such as “Richard Gere sings Razzle Dazzle to the Cat in the Cage at Petsmart.” I haven’t written that poem because I just made it up, but I think it would start, “Despite what some people say, he can read./ He did not tap on the cage. The song / was waiting …..” I need to stop, but I hope you see how a title, especially the one where you have no idea where it is going, can be a powerful tool.
My point in telling all this is to emphasize that good poems can happen even if you don’t have huge, important stories to tell about your incredibly interesting life. The poem is in the details. The poem is in the small moments, not the large ones. Everyone has thirteen poems or even more in them if they quiet themselves, look around, and listen. Shh! Poetry is happening. It’s being tossed in the air and all you have to do is catch it.