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FAQs: How Do You Get Started With a Poem? Do You Start With an Idea or Just Start Writing?

I'm thinking of nostalgia and it's role in my life as a poet. It used to be really important to me, nostalgia. Say I was reading Amber Tamblyn's blog post on Iowa and got to the section where she mentioned The Mill in Iowa City. I would start thinking about The Mill and those ever-filling bowls of pasta where you could choose your own sauce, and I would start thinking about the sauce, how I like the mushroom best because the red sauce always smelled better than it tasted, and then I would start thinking about how the air would smell when you left The Mill on a winter night, part diesel fuel, part stale beer, part moth balls, part frozen cow manure, a smell you don't notice after you've been in Iowa City more than a month but that you can't not smell for the first 29 days you're in town. I would think about all those things and then I'd start writing a poem.

It's possible none of those details would stay in my poem. I might end up talking about imbalanced sexual relationships as well, picking up where Amber left off, though still working off memories of Iowa City. Or I might leave Amber out of my final draft all together and write, instead, about why I'm afraid of catfish which is because of the way they swam up to the lights around the bridges in Iowa City, their 4- and 5-foot scaly frames writhing in the Iowa River, though in summer, not in winter, and therefore not, in my mind, related to what I was first thinking about when I read Amber's comment about The Mill.

This is how a poem happens.

Or maybe a poem could happen after I look at Bhanu Kapil's cell phone picture of a book she hasn't read. Maybe I would get to thinking of all the books I've seen and loved the look of but haven't read. (Read: at least 1/3 of my personal library). It could be a poem about shame. It could be a poem about potential. It could be a poem about my grandfather and all the books of his I wish now I had hoarded because instead they have been sold off or given away or maybe pulped and the few books of his I have now I treasure even if I have not read them. So it could be a poem about sadness, about longing, about loss.

If I sit down to write a poem about Bhanu Kapil's book and it's strange binding, it is quite possible I will end up writing a book about sadness, longing, and loss. But, if I start with the idea, let me write a poem about books and what they mean to me, how they trigger sadness and longing and a sense of loss, it is quite likely I will end up writing a poem about the fact that quinoa has become a staple side item for foodies in America who enjoy the way quinoa supplements decadent dishes with its meaty woody crunchy tang, meaning that peasant farmers in Peru and Bolivia, for whom quinoa is actually a staple food (as in starter, side course, main course, and sometimes dessert) can't afford to eat anymore.

This is how a poem happens.

Poems happen asymmetrically, non linearly, and usually without plan. Poems are not prescriptive, even when their prompts are. The whole reason I write to specific prompts (the pantoum, the acrostic, the sestina, the N+7) is because I want to know what newness I can discover by walking through the world with my hands tied behind my back. I don't write set forms because I know what will come of the experiment. I'm after just the opposite effect.

Once I told a workshop that writing poetry is a journey. In a journey you set out and you might know where you're going, you might even know how you're getting there, but you expect to have all sorts of adventures along the way. That's the fun of the journey. That's the whole point of a journey. If you know everything about the path from here to there, that's a commute. No one loves a commute. Heck, technically I commute to and from work everyday, but either I have to do what I can to turn my commute into a journey or I tune out for the duration of the trip. You don't want your readers tuning out do you? No, you do not. So when you're writing you have to turn the trip into a journey. This is how a poem happens.

Originally Published: April 13th, 2012

Poet and editor Camille T. Dungy was born in Denver but moved often as her father, an academic physician, taught at many different medical schools across the country. She earned a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.   Dungy’s full-length poetry publications include Trophic...