How to Write a Poem: Jealousy Can Serve
It’s true. I love this red flag: jealousy.
Jealousy is that piquing of the soul: “I’m not happy. I want. Why not me?” It’s a key which I never, ever throw away (nor chide myself for). You could say I honor emotions for what they try to tell me—rather than judging them, feeling guilty, or sweeping them aside. As humans, we’re built to feel. I like to pay attention.
Paying attention to emotions is a great start. But if all we do is feel and sit still, it is quite likely we will drown in our feelings. So I always act. (And, sometimes, yes, my action is the seemingly sit-still choice to wait and figure things.)
Yes, I sometimes wait. But other times I act immediately. That’s how it went with my Jealous Poem Stacks.
I was reading the poems in Satellite Convulsions and feeling very simplistic. Such words these poets use! Such style they sport!
Part of me knows I’ll never be the kind of poet who uses complex words, but I didn’t care to shoo the feeling away. Instead, I took a very simple action and wrote down the words I loved. Unusual words. Words that felt good in the mouth. Words I’d never heard. Words I wished were mine. I sprinkled a few mundane words between. No one is really going to call these poems. They are poem stacks. Good for starting something. Good for jealous days.
Jealous Poem Stacks
Satellite, pp. 36-46
Satellite, pp. 1-35
Teaching With Poem Stacks
Now the really fun thing is that I thought I was done with my poem stacks. I thought they were a private deal. It’s not like I was going to do anything further with them.
But last week I taught a workshop, and I wanted to get across the idea of how “mining” is part of the writing process. I brought a pile of books on rocks and minerals, North American birds, trees, wildflowers, mushrooms. And I asked the workshop participants to “mine” the books for words or phrases they loved, which they could then simply stack. The exercise was presented at two possible levels:
1. just “mine” and stack
2. “mine” and stack to answer a question like “How will I find my way?” or the Susan Wooldridge Goldsmith question “Who were you in my dreams?” (Or you could make up your own question or switch one of these around, like Donna did below.)
The results were most wonderful when participants read their stacks back to us. What might have initially felt like nonsense to the participants suddenly made sense, especially at the level of sound. Poems were being born, if only in the simplest way. And that is something to which I like to pay attention.
Who was I in your dream?
I was the
I was the
Who were you in my dream?
Who were you in my dreams?
the golden color of ripe wheat
golden ear drops
fragile prickly pear
Baldycypress = Swamp cypress
Loblolly Pine = Mud Puddle Pine
Persimmon = Possum Wood
Fringetree = Old Man’s Beard
Wild Olive = Devil wood
Pinckneya = Fever Tree
dry to moist woodlands
How Can I Find My Way? (unfinished, based on poem stack above)
Next to the edible autumn,
between the conspicuous paw paw,
follow the husks, the petallike
bracts that grow out
of rocky crevices.
Avoid the poisonous touch-me-nots.
Turn when you see the storksbill,
keep going past the nanny berry
and the phragmites…
Try a Poem Stack?
How about you? You needn’t be feeling jealous. You could be feeling inspired. Find a book of solid source material to “mine” and try stacking. We’d love to hear what you pick and place, word by intriguing word.
Photo by Basheer Tome, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by L.L. Barkat.
How to Write a Poem uses images like the buzz, the switch, the wave—from the Billy Collins poem “Introduction to Poetry”—to guide writers into new ways of writing poems. Excellent teaching tool. Anthology and prompts included.
“How to Write a Poem is a classroom must-have.”
—Callie Feyen, English Teacher, Maryland