I was surprised when I heard a well-published poet say he writes a line at a time, always finishing one before moving onto the next. Surprised because it is so counter to my own way of writing, and I began to wonder how others write, how others start on a poem. A poetry colleague said to me recently that he often doesn’t start to write until he has an idea – whether the idea is in the final poem depends on how the poem progresses – but that’s where he starts. And Helen Mort, recently wrote that she constructs lines in her head when out walking, and sees whether they survive the return home.
For me, I like to start with free-writing or speed-writing, I pick up pencil or open my computer and start writing without thinking what I will write about and see what pours out, until I land on that ‘aha’ moment when I discover I am writing something that could turn into a poem if given enough time and focus. I know some poets who free-write and then read through their texts to highlight words, phrases and sections that leap out at them as the ideas for development into poems. I’ve tried that but it doesn’t work for me, those words and phrases just sit in a pile like so much lost property unless they have started to take on their own form during the free-write stage.
Completing a poem is then a painfully slow process of editing and rewriting, but always, for me, involving writing it down. Even the thoughts and ideas I have when out and about become something very different during the process of writing them down. So I’ve never started a poem without paper or screen.Perhaps we are ‘head poets’ or ‘paper poets’ when it comes to starting to write poems?
But how do you start to write a poem?