Tactics for Sneaky Poets

Big Tent PoetryI had a great time facilitating the “Tactics for Sneaky Poets” workshop at Theater 150 this morning. The workshop is a flurry of creative exercises designed to demonstrate various “tactics” that poets can use to be “sneaky” with themselves in the creative process–to outwit the negative critic and analytical mind, and keep on keeping on in a free, creative space. While none of these ideas are are “new” in any universal sense, they are all tried-and-true techniques that have helped me along in my own creative process.

I have also been remiss in my role as a “sideshow barker” for the excellent Big Tent Poetry project. So here is a contribution to that ongoing poetic circus–a list of sneaky ways to keep the plates of poetry spinning.

Get inspired. Prime the pump before writing by reading poems you love by poets you love. Transcribe them. Memorize them. Carry them inside you.

Trigger yourself. Smells, sights, sounds, textures. Let your eyes and your mind wander. Memories, fantasies, reflections. Start anywhere. Just go.

Keep going. Try pushing past where you think the ending occurs. Write a “Part II.”

Use constraints. Use word groups, poetic forms, made-up assignments from friends. Constraints spark creative freedom.

Read and listen. Read your own work aloud, get others to read it back to you. Listen to the music. Tune it up.

Focus on language and lines. Read the poem bottom-up, focus on each line. Does it stand alone on its merits?

Play. Cut poems up. Scribble and doodle. Swap lines around, swap stanzas around. Make up zany titles. Play!

Break the rules. Be prepared to break the rules to make the poem better. Constraints are there to get you free. It’s the freedom, and the poem, that counts.

Write bad. Try to write a “bad” poem. It gets you wild and free. Sometimes the harder you try to be bad, the better it gets.

Imitate. Write in the style of a favorite poet (or even one who simply provokes you.) You’ll be imitating your perceptions of them, which are original and entirely your own.

There’s more. Take the attitude that “There’s more where that came from.” If you do, you’ll be right.

Write briefly and often. Robert Hass said, “You can do your life’s work in forty minutes per day.” Write often enough to stay “in the game,” usually several times per week. Set a time limit. You can go over if needed.

Anywhere, anytime. Write when you don’t feel like it. Write when uninspired. Interesting language makes for better poetry than lofty, preconceived ideas. Trigger yourself, set a time limit, and just go. You’ll surprise yourself.

Keep a scroll. In addition to keeping going on a poem, try keeping one big document of poems and poem-snippets, so you’re never at the beginning, just in the flow. Pick up wherever you last left off, write in the date, and just go.

Swap assignments. Make up assignments (constraints) and swap them with friends. Do them all together in small groups, in person or over email. Do it regularly (e.g. once per month.) Then share the results. Learn from each other. Encourage each other. Keep each other free.

Flow. Marvin Bell said, “The good stuff and the bad stuff is all part of the stuff.” Keep flowing with it. Sometimes you’re just “clearing your throat.” Remember to let yourself “write bad,” and that the “bad” can sometimes transform into something great.

Stay in the game. Writing, reading, attending workshops, reading aloud in various venues (including among family and friends), reviewing books, swapping favorites on email–it all counts. But the best way to learn writing is by writing. Keep marking up the page. Keep clacking away at the keys. Every little bit counts, even if there seems to be no “result” that day. Stay nimble. Stay receptive. Stay in the game.

How else do you keep yourself motivated, creative, and free as a writer?