National Poetry Month: poemcrazy: following words

I smell smoke. Here at the wooden desk in my basement office (which is not on fire), I smell smoke. It’s a pungent mix of burned wood, paint, and electrical wires from a house fire job I worked this morning. A little like campfire plus paint thinner. But it has garlic, basil, olive oil thrown in since I filled my own kitchen with smoke roasting tomatoes for dinner. I know this because I have my shirt sleeve up to my nose, inhaling and naming the odors.

I’m looking at my hands. Even after washing dishes, the spiraled labyrinth of my fingerprints is outlined in black soot, winding from one knuckle to the next.

There is a lined sheet of paper, bent at one corner, in the case file on the desk with words scrawled haphazardly in pencil as though they were written without looking while driving down a winding gravel road: Farmers and Merchant’s Bank, grain elevator, GPS, population 97, gray snow, gray pickup, khaki Ranger cap, wide smile, Muskrat Farm Supply, farmers in overalls and feed store caps leaning on split rail outside cafe, painted black bears dancing on weathered white barn wall, laundromat (closed), notebook paper taped in window, “uptown,” radio tower, road washed out, “Where are you? I’ll meet you in town and lead you in.”

I make these lists on my road trips. Sometimes they make their way into my writing. Sometimes I tell the stories out loud. Sometimes I just forget. But taking note of the details as I go along gives me images to work with, even if it will be another day, another story, a poem.

Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge suggests in poemcrazy: freeing your life with words that “a useful daily practice is to sit (or walk) with a notebook and focus on what’s happening right now, in minute detail.” (She doesn’t suggest doing so while driving, but I must admit that’s where I make many of my observations.)

It’s important to narrow everything down, make it as specific as you can, down to the tip of a blade of grass, or you’ll leave the reader out. For emotion to arise, writing has to be very specific — describing a particular moment or experience in a particular place. (p. 29)

This is why I write the words on the back of my file log. Why I have my nose in my shirt sleeve. Why I am studying my soot-embedded fingerprints.

Describing the details takes words — words that lend precision, depth of detail, interesting sounds, vivid images. Wooldridge writes of the wordpool, collections of words borrowed from “poems, books, and conversations.” From brainstorming with groups to poring through field guides to even making up words, she’ll tell us to just collect the words.

When I’m playing with words, I don’t worry about sounding dumb or crazy. And I don’t worry about whether or not I’m writing “a poem.” Word pool. World pool, wild pool, whipoorwill, swing. Words taken out of the laborious structures (like this sentence) where we normally place them take on a spinning life of their own. (p. 12)

To play around with the words myself, I adapted one of poemcrazy’s practice exercises which involved taping words to tickets and using them as a wordpool. I only had one orange and white spent train ticket from Buenos Aires to the city of Moron on hand, so I couldn’t use tickets. I just cut out words and paired them on a page of my journal in fun and interesting combinations:

root bridge
bold babushkas
burning bottle
poemcrazy national poetry monthBleep! corner
storm dragons
cherry jazz
rage cup
sea mirror
sailing genie
shaking words
fatal name
magic bread
old song bus
jungle beans
red stones
white jolt
pink wrecking ball
fresh deadlock

Words, when we let them, let us in. This is the meaning behind her tickets. “On one side of some tickets, it even says, ‘Admit One.’ Like a poem, a ticket is small, often colorful and valuable, allowing entrance to a special place.” We invite you to spend some tickets with us throughout National Poetry Month — collecting words, writing poems, making your way in.


We’re reading poemcrazy: freeing your life with words together this month at Tweetspeak. Are you reading along? Perhaps you’d tell us in the comments your thoughts about Part 1: Following Words or any practice exercises you did. Maybe you would even share a poem that came out of this week’s reading. If you post about the book on your blog, feel free to drop a link to your post in the comments. And check out other fun and interesting National Poetry Month events at our Ticket Counter, especially the new Phone Poets Project with Diode’s Patty Paine.

Buy poemcrazy and join in the fun. For next Wednesday, we’ll read Part 2: Listening to Ourselves.

Cover photo by Michelle Ortega, used with permission. Post and lower photo by Lyla Willingham Lindquist.


Buy a year of Every Day Poems, just $5.99 — Read a poem a day, become a better poet. In April we’re exploring the theme Dragons and Creatures.

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  1. L. L. Barkat says

    I agree that detail produces emotion. Thus the job of the writer is to really *see* or *hear* or *taste* or *feel* and so on, and then set it down accurately.

    On top of that, matching sounds to details produces even more emotion. This is why I think poetry is so vital for every writer, even if the writer has no interest in being a poet.

    Loved the mixed smokes here. I could see a poem just from that—the loss of the one and the comfort of the other entwining. What days you have. My.

    • says

      So, is this producing emotion or capturing emotion?

      I guess what I’m wondering is if it is possible to produce an emotion without first feeling it as the writer?

      • L. L. Barkat says

        Great question.

        I usually have an emotion floating around that the words capture and bring to light.

        But then I know a set of details can take me back to someplace, sometime and produce emotions unexpectedly.

        Chicken or the emotion. Classic origins question :) (At Tweetspeak, it might actually be the chicken 😉 )

  2. says

    You have a wonderful list of words, Lyla. Looking forward to this month’s book discussion.


    Committed to Combinations

    A sailing genie shaking
    words from the corner
    storm sipped from the same

    rage cup as the dragons
    just then rounding the root
    bridge named Bleep!

    Fatal name it was. Bold
    babushkas fixed their pink
    wrecking ball for the launch

    of jungle beans and red stones,
    a burning bottle of sea,
    a broken mirror promising

    a fresh deadlock over
    the white jolt of sorrows.
    On the old song bus

    all the cherry cups clink
    to sounds of all that jazz.

    • says

      Love your post, Glynn. And most of that *before* you even got around to actually doing one of the practice exercises. :) I got a little ribbing last night when I came upstairs looking for a glue stick.

      Loved the painting you chose. Looks like some of the burns I see in my work.

  3. Anthony says

    What’s wonderful about Poemcrazy is that it takes me back to a time when I wasn’t jaded or cynical about this writing life; that I was actually excited and eccentric and could do these things. When I began reading the first part(s) I kept thinking, well, I’ve heard this before, but then like the words in Casablanca (movie) you find that you’ve heard the words before because they were first composed here.
    I think her primary mode of poem-making is ambulatory, and laudable. There’s nothing like getting up from out behind your desk, up from behind the screen, and get out there in the muck and the magic.

    • says

      Anthony, it seems like this is one of those books that will speak to any writer at any level. Glad you’re finding something that sounds refreshing in it.

      What do you think makes a writer cynical?

      • Anthony says

        I don’t know about “a” writer, but “this” writer grew cynical with three initials: PhD.
        In other words, like Mark Twain and the river, once you know what’s below the surface awe dissipates.

        • says

          I would like to hear more, Anthony. Was it the process of getting the PhD? And, if so, what about it?

          I was daydreaming today about what it would look like to get a Masters in Fine Living, off the books. :) I was musing about how that might be different from an MFA (or a PhD, as the case may be).

          What do you think? How would they differ? How should they be the same, if a person is to become an accomplished writer who writes from a deep life itself?

          • Anthony says

            MFA: Doing
            PhD: Theory

            MFA: Community
            PhD: Individual

            MFA: Writing
            PhD: Reading

            Few if any writer needs a degree, let alone an MFA. The MFA allowed me to teach (its called terminal); the PhD allows me to theorize.

            Neither give me license to accomplishment.

            I completed both in order to do the one thing I can do — write.

            I would encourage writers to pursue their craft in whatever fashion brings them closer to their air; this might include an MFA, but it would hardly, to my mind, mean a PhD.

          • says

            Oh, you could have left it as air. I was liking the idea of a writer finding his “air.” Wondering what that might look like when he found it, how he’d go about searching for it. :)

    • says

      Love the images you shot with this exercise — and thank you for letting us use them. :) I didn’t actually get as far as composing a poem from my word pool, but just enjoyed pairing them together (some seemingly mismatched, but then not so much).

      Now, how long do you think you’ll be able to keep your Spare Oom spare? 😉

  4. Donna says

    4 words: “Words let us in.”

    Yes, indeed. Words let us in.
    And isn’t it amazing?
    This is great Lyla. :)

    I guess I’m off to the bookstore today.

  5. says

    Was going over the chapters again this morning and got through chapter four.

    Struck by the question: what do you collect?

    I am not sure. This probably sounds bad… but I might collect people :) Not in an ownership way, but in an appreciation way. Sometimes they walk off the shelf. You have to get used to that, even welcome it. :)

  6. says

    Words gathered allow me to tell my scattered stories.

    Isn’t that the occupation of outlaw-poets? To stand beyond the boundaries and see what others miss? A renegade fully present to the now.

      • says

        Ruthless attentiveness. Slowing down. Noticing the question beneath the question. Standing upside down. Walking backwards. Going barefoot and bare-hearted. Risking. Liking mystery. Suspending normal. Catching the “between spaces.”

        Outlaw-poets wear “pondering goggles.” Like night-vision googles, they enable sensory vision of the quotidian ordinary which, when noticed, is simply extraordinary.

  7. says

    i have the book.
    but, it looks as though
    i will not be able to read along
    with the group,
    as you all go at a tremendous pace.
    however…i will still be reading.


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