I used to hate writing poetry.
I always loved reading poetry. It was my mother who introduced me, and I especially loved Shel Silverstein. But writing poetry was different. The only time I ever wrote poetry was in school, where we were supposed to follow rigid forms with strict rules, about topics that meant little to me. As a child who disliked following rules, it never would have occurred to me to do this on my own, for fun.
The first time I realised that poetry could be a real form of expression is when I was eight years old. My dog was hit by a car, and I was distraught. My mother suggested that I write a poem about her. So, I did.
It wasn’t so much a poem as a paragraph, because the only poems I knew how to write were cinquains, acrostics, diamantes, and the like. I remember thinking that the dog who was forever escaping fences wouldn’t want to be crammed into one of those forms. I don’t even have that poem anymore, but that’s what I consider my first true poem; it was the first poem I wrote as self-expression. I had even given some thought to whether the form fit the subject matter. It was definitely a milestone.
When I was eleven, I read a book that completely changed how I saw poetry. It was Love That Dog, by Sharron Creech. It’s about a boy whose teacher helps him learn to express himself through poetry after his dog gets hit by a car (yes, there were obvious parallels). By this time, I had moved past the death of my dog, but I’d lost my grandmother, and there were a lot of emotions that I still had yet to find an outlet for. I soon had a designated poetry journal, and I started writing poetry constantly. The influence of Love That Dog was embarrassingly obvious. I definitely hadn’t developed my own style yet, but it was a start.
The reason I love poetry is that it does such a good job of capturing how one was feeling in a particular moment of time. It’s like a way to snapshot the human mind or heart. There are some poems that I have a hard time going back and reading just because it takes me right back to where I was in the moment I wrote it. For me, only poetry does that.
I get the inspiration for my poetry in two major ways. The first (and probably healthier) way is when an odd little snatch of phrase floats through my mind. I grab hold of it and turn it around and around until I figure out how to build a poem around it. The second way requires that I be absolutely in “the depths of despair.” Needless to say, these aren’t exactly happy poems, but as I wrote in a journal one time: “At least my anxious thoughts make good poetry.” A third, less common way is that sometimes when I read a poem that I really admire, I try to see if I can copy, not the poem itself, but the specific way it made me feel when I read it.
Here’s an example of a poem that started with an unusual phrase: “little pink rivers of ribbon and lace.” It popped into my head, I had no idea what it meant, and next thing I know it’s the title of a poem.
Little Pink Rivers of Ribbon and Lace
Snatches of many sad songs
fade into her mind and out again,
as she sits in the centre
of the floor.
As she sits alone, in an empty room
full of stuff.
And sad songs play on an
endless loop in her
foolish little head.
And the sun hits the
rain-streaked window so that little pink rivers
of ribbon and lace
made of light
trail about the room—
which—of course—starts her thinking of
ribbon-like entrails, pink,
and humans, fragile as delicate lace.
And she sits with her
sad-song thoughts and she wonders if you might sometimes think this way?
Her throat catches:
she cannot imagine
not being alone.