During Jami Macarty’s Sounds Like, Looks Like, and Feels Like Poetry, a core course of Southbank Writers’ Program, Claire DeBoer, a program mentor, and this blog’s coordinator, asked the following excellent, multi-part, and compelling question:
“On the few occasions when I have felt moved to write a poem (and have been afraid to do so because I had no clue about process) I have worked from the emotions I felt at the time and built words and images around that. What I am left with is lines on a page that don’t seem to reflect any particular type of poem or process. So – do I continue with this method and then try to shape my first draft into a processed poem (sestina, free verse, whatever format I choose)? Or do I leave the poem as is instead of trying to force it into a particular format?”
Here’s Jami’s response:
As I got half way through my response to Claire’s questions, it occurred to me that other writers may be interested in this topic. In fact, Toni Levi, another Southbank mentor, had a similar question a few days after Claire’s. With that in mind, though I am addressing Claire and her question directly, I offer all of you my response:
The way you describe the beginning of your process “when I have felt moved to write a poem” is, as far as I’m concerned, the perfect first step. That is, to allow for an arising movement within you to lead you to words and then paper/screen. And, yes, it’s often par for this course for fear to debilitate that movement.
Fear is one of the many manifestations performing the Inner Critic’s biding. When you “feel moved” to write a poem in the future, I invite you to focus as fully as you can on the energy within that feels “moved.” Write from there. If fear crops up, respectfully ask it to come back later for tea, because right now you’re busy writing a poem. Say it as loudly and as proudly as needed to get the critic to back off for a bit. I’m serious!
Now, it seems to me, dear writer, that “being afraid” to write a poem because you “had no clue about process” is in the category of putting the cart before the horse. It’s pretty common for writers to worry about process and form before they have material to process or form. From my point of view, as a creative writer, your number one and most important focus is to get the material out on the page/screen as authentically felt as possible. That’s first and foremost. So, your “worked from the emotions… felt at the time and built words and images around that” is exactly right.
Then, right! What you will be “left with is lines on a page.” That’s just the first movement. The process continues as revision occurs. Again, worrying about what’s there—”that doesn’t seem to reflect any particular type of poem”— sounds a lot like you’re putting high expectations on yourself to know what’s there before you know what’s there. This takes time. You cannot write a Shakespearean Sonnet (14 lines in iambic pentameter) before knowing what you feel compelled to say. Put the horse in front and let it run.
So, yes, I vote for continuing with the method you’ve been following. I urge you to go as far as you can with the content—getting it to be as true to heart as absolutely possible before the focus shifts to form. I believe content shapes form. In Black Mountain poet Robert Creeley’s words, “form is never more than an extension of content.”
In a way, the writer doesn’t have to concern herself with form. Content takes care of it. I don’t think there’s a “trying” to shape. I think that happens organically from within and out of the poem. I don’t believe the writer chooses a form for a poem.
What if the writer takes as her first task to listen, patiently, for the poem to assert its form and shape? Now, that’s not to say that you can’t create a formal constraint for yourself, and say, choose to write a sestina, as an exercise—to get to know the form experientially. This is an excellent practice. Much is learned about the form, and in the process, the left brain (the Inner Critic’s territory) is highly occupied, which frees the right brain to run and skip and jump and cartwheel as it so desires.
It’s probably clear by now that I am not a proponent of “trying to force it [the poem] into a particular format.” A poem is like a butterfly caught in the house and cupped in the hands to set free outdoors. If you close your hands or hold too tightly, you’ll crush it.
Lastly, reading broadly, exposing yourself to as many different styles and types of poetry will offer you examples of and possibilities for form. Through reading, you’ll gain a sense of how form and content work with and for each other.
To your world of words,
Faculty, SFU’s Southbank Writers’ Program
Image credit: AJU_photography flickr.com