Advice givers (and their numbers are legion) often say, “Write what you know,” as if that would never occur to us. Of course we write what we know! What they don’t say is that it is also good practice to wander out of your comfort zone, to “go deep” into those dark areas we previously considered “ignorance” by writing what we “don’t” know.
One interesting way to explore your inner ignorance is to check out poetry journal calls for thematic issues. It used to be, when I saw guidelines with rigid thematic guidelines, I’d quickly take a pass and move on to the next “general submissions” market.
Mistake, turns out.
For example, let’s say you come across a magazine that wants to publish an issue devoted to the theme of monsters. “Monsters,” you say? “What is this, Marvel Comics? I’m a poet, for heaven’s sake!”
Calm yourself, Mr. Poet Laureate. Remember that your lack of interest in and knowledge of monsters might actually be the kick in the creative pants you need. You might tackle something you don’t know and, out of the blue (or any available color), have a eureka moment.
Poetry editors love expansive interpretations of thematic topics, so pull that poetic license out of your wallet and write about monsters that don’t have green skin or one eye: the monster called rush-hour traffic among horn-blowers, the monster called pain in your body (its cave), the monster called your mother-in-law in the kitchen on Thanksgiving.
Why so literal, in other words?
Sometimes your ignorance is more informed than you think, too. Recently, I found a market that focused on the environment but lamented it had been receiving too many poems about birds and beaches and magnolia bushes. It was interested in more urban environmental poetry, for a change.
My knee-jerk reaction? I’ve never lived in a city (well, not since I was two) and have no experience with urban living, so why would I abandon the security blanket of “write what you know” and write about cities?
But before I moved on, I thought again. Deep in the darkest alleys of my urban ignorance, there was a light. When I was a kid, my mother would take me to Hartford to visit my great-grandparents in an apartment building that was so different from my suburban home that I found it fascinating.
I wound up writing the first draft of that poem in a burst. I was amazed at the number of memories I had boxed up in the basement of my so-called ignorance and lack of experience. Details about that cluttered apartment, inside and out, came rushing to the fore, ready for service.
Presently I am revising this poem and hoping to gussy it up for market. It serves as a lesson, too: The narrow confines of themes can often liberate a writer, whether it is to look at a topic in new ways (the monster of only writing what you know, for example) or to find that perceived ignorance (of city living, for example) is just that–mere perception.
Stop. Think. Go deep using themes as inspiration. It might just shake things up and lead to new, productive places.
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AND sometimes, if you remain receptive and you’re lucky, a WORD, a phrase, an overheard bit of conversation, will kick off a good poem, one that doesn’t graze along with the common herd of autobiographical domestic poems that end with a small epiphany. Words drive poets.