The single most common question posed to poets is this: “Where on earth do you get your ideas?”
One would be tempted to answer, “Poughkeepsie” or “Peru,” but it’s much simpler than that. A working poet who pays no mind to such myths as “block” gets his ideas from those rare bits known as “what’s around him” and “what’s happening every day.”
Naomi Shihab Nye tackled this precept in her poem “Valentine for Ernest Mann,” which opens with these two instructive stanzas:
You can’t order a poem like you order a taco.
Walk up to the counter, say, “I’ll take two”
and expect it to be handed back to you
on a shiny plate.
Still, I like your spirit.
Anyone who says, “Here’s my address,
write me a poem,” deserves something in reply.
So I’ll tell a secret instead:
poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them.
In other words, the problem lies not in elusive ideas that would germinate into poetry if only we could find them, it lies in the way would-be poets approach their daily lives. If you’re open to the mundane and attuned to possibilities in the quotidian, you will find poems abundant as zucchini in August. You will never lack.
Just this past week, I heard a familiar autumnal sound: the scratch of a mouse above me in the attic. Ah. Winter approaches! I started writing a poem about (you guessed it) mice in the attic, creatures that, when sighted outside, are actually cute and beyond harmless, but when they become a sound in your attic or walls are worse than ugly–a threat, even. From a humorous angle, it’s amazing how resourceful mice are. Buy a mouser or hire a pest management company and see who wins the game. Right. The whiskered wonders who can squeeze through paper-sized cracks, every time. The Lord works in mysterious (and often tiny) ways!
If you are a “blocked” writer and this all sounds too obvious to you, survey your own published poems (or, if you are unpublished, poems you are proud to have written) to see if Occam’s Razor does not apply. I looked at opening lines of poems in my book, The Indifferent World, and one after the other, they spoke to Nye’s Undeniable Truth: “Poems hide…What we have to do is live in a way that lets us find them.” Some examples:
“Barnstorming the Universe” opens with a decrepit barn, one I just happened to see while running past a Maine field one summer morning. It sparked a fanciful poem predicated on the idea that a barn might lean not from time, but from a crash landing from outer space:
The big barn must have landed
overnight, the jolt of its descent
crippling one side so the whole
structure leans south.
“Crows” comes from the sound of my dark friends on the roof. I was hunting ideas one day when they hunted me, cause for joy:
From my cedar-walled study,
I hear them–the scratch
and claw of tar-colored talons
against asphalt–and consider
the tiny avalanches, schist
granules riding there roof’s slant.
“Momentary” had its inception in the sight of a small boat, the first to appear on the early morning mirror of a quiet lake:
Drone of an outboard,
then, out of the cove, trout-scale
glint of an aluminum boat
unzipping the water.
I even channeled some Naomi Shihab Nye by naming one piece “Hunting the Unwritten Poem,” which begins like so:
You see them in the mercury
light of water, the expanding
orbs of silver where trout
breathe. You hear
them in the sleepy kiss
of rainfall on pine
needles, smell them
as if they were snow
to the west.
You get the idea. First drafts as journal entries, almost. Your daily life, experienced via the five senses, via imagery, becoming the lifeblood of your poetry. Yes. Really. Start there. And excise the entry “block” from that Dictionary of Poetry Terms while you’re at it.
Poems hide not in Poughkeepsie or Peru, but in the not-so-rare air around you.