5 Things To Do Before Writing A Poem

1. Obtain necessary materials.

Get a library card and ask the librarian for Lorca, Dickinson and Ginsberg. Avoid book stores, they'll only have Jewel, Richard Thomas and Suzanne Somers. If you see these, beat the book store manager to death with them.

Convince the head nurse that you can be trusted with pens or pencils. Summon up your old beauty contestant smile. Keep a sugar cube and any medications under your tongue; you can spit them out later. Don't waste the pens by making them into shivs.

Get the warden or the matron to let you out of isolation. Only authors of memoirs can write with their fingernails in the dark. Poets need light.

2. Ask others to look at things you've written up to now.

Show your previous poems to relatives or friends. Most of them will tell you it's brilliant, others will advise you to stop with this nonsense and go to secretarial school. Regardless, it won't matter because if you want to be a poet, you'll have shoved your pens through your ears beforehand. 

Show your work to someone who tells you it isn't good enough, that it's derivative, tired, meandering and lazy. Get as angry and butt-hurt as you like, but keep showing everything you write from now on to this person.

Do not show anything you've written to your spouse, lover, priest, employer or attorney. They'll urge changes, codicils, repentance and cessation. 

3. Think about what you'd like to write about.

Ha, j/k. 

Fuck what you'd *like to* write about. There are plenty of rhymes about love or flowers already, on the insides of greeting cards scattered in landfills along with the authors of same.

If you're really meant to be a poet, you'll be told what to write about. It may feel a little like really needing to be sick, or like a medium-sized lizard is crawling up the inside of your throat or under the skin of your fingers. You may think you have an STD or that someone dosed you with Spanish fly, but in your head and heart as well as your sex. You may feel like you're dying, or that it's one of those dreams where you forget to get dressed before going to work or church. If you're a poet, it's not a dream. 

4. Consider your poem's length and form.

If you write haiku, and it's the usual lazy shit, please go through the door on your left and into the crocodile swamp. The door will lock itself behind you once you've gone out.

If you've chosen a form with a rhyme scheme or a syllable count, don't forget all about it by line three and go careering off into the weeds. Don't jam in words that don't belong or make sense, just to satisfy said rhyme scheme or syllable count. That's like shoving a hand grenade smack in the middle of an apple pie and then serving it like nothing's wrong. Don't be a fucking idiot. Form is like bones, it makes a meat bag functional, pleasing, and upright. The knee bone's connected to the thigh bone, not the shoulder bone. Them bones them bones gonna walk around, but it's up to you whether they shamble or dance.

If you choose free verse, that doesn't mean to make it a journal entry. That doesn't mean make it the same as the shit you write in your diary about your ex-boyfriend and similar tiresome claptrap. That doesn't mean break bullshit into lines and call it poetry. If you're going to do that, please swallow this--it's quick and painless.

5. Place your bets.

Being a poet means accepting a certain level of commitment--what the unenlightened might call obsession, insanity, a certain hemophilia of the soul.  If all you want to do is post a picture of a flower above a breathless made-up love ballad every day on your blog, please take up knitting or hosting YouTube videos about boy bands or something, anything, else. 

To survive as a poet, you've got to frack for the black gold way beneath the surface--as well as avoid painfully poor comparisons like this one--and then hold on during the resulting earthquakes. Wear a hard hat. Don't place a lot of stock in the gathered well-wishers shouting "We have to let you go," or "You crazy motherfucking bitch!" from the sidelines of your life--that is to say, work, family, responsibilities. 

Do all of this, and you'll soon see your work on page 32 of Brick Spoons, the quarterly journal of the University of Southeast Nebraska State Normal School, or in an e-zine called The Vagina That Yodeled. Best of luck to you, Padawans, and

happy writing!!!!

for Out of Standard, "List With A Twist" at Toads.


hedgewitch said…
Laughing way too hard here, especially at the locked out haiku spouters--yet in a way, of course, this is deadly serious, and its advice, culled from a lifetime that holds all kinds of nuggets floating the black oil gusher of words, leaves a lingering black waterline mark as the poem goes down--far too many good lines to quote but my favorite is "Poets need light."
".. one of those dreams where you forget to get dressed before going to work or church. If you're a poet, it's not a dream."

Very true. Happens all the time.

"Don't waste the pens by making them into shivs."

Yes – when I ran poetry workshops in a male prison, the poets (unlike other prisoners) valued their pens much too much to make them into shivs or anything else,

Anonymous said…
Oi! Woman! Ahemmmmm ..... I have a bone to pick with y'all. A serious bone. As in my chicken bones are dancing fire as I type this .....

"Take up knitting" instead.

Uh, listen darkling, just fer that comment, I'm never gonna grace yer feet with hand-knitted socks - so yeah, go glow po play in the raspberry thickets and may the brambles catch yer hair into a right knot!

knitting is soul food

LOL - loved this snark filled but oh hidden kernels of truth hanging out like fresh laundry on the line poem .... had me cracking a rib for laughing so hard ....

now, if you'll excuse, my knitting needles are callin ' (lucky you it ain't my voodoo pins!) .... catch ya on the flip side, when my brain stops sitting in the applesauce.

Fireblossom said…
My bad about the knitting! mea culpa! ;-)
annell4 said…
The Best!!! Nothing but the best advice ever given. Yes!! Loved every words, and laughed a bit.

Other Mary said…
Bahahaha! This is the best writing advice ever!
This has all the qualities I prize: accessibility, humor, and truth. La la mosk
Mama Zen said…
Printing . . . printing so I can put it in my journal right next to my collection of breathless haiku about boy bands!
tonispencer said…
hot spring day - advice
given under pine tree - sticks
to one like pine tar
Oh Shay, this made my day, nay my year. Yeppers I know you ain't talking about MY haiku. Truth given to us like medicine in a ball of peanut butter. Hopefully we will all be good bois and gulp it down and dance a happy dance for more.
Sherry Blue Sky said…
A wonderful way to start my morning. Grinning.
Fireblossom said…
Toni, you are my Haiku Queen. You prove that it CAN be done beautifully.
Anonymous said…
There's a lizard in my throat laughing so hard I think he's going to kill us both!
Isadora Gruye said…
I love the prose/poem feel you captured here. This works and a list and a treatise. Or, just something I could print out and keep at my desk. You captured here a very earnest, sharp voice. Now pardon me while I shove these pens back into my ears :) Thanks for posting and viva la!
brudberg said…
Too late for me... I'm lost in my swamp among the alligators (or was it legislators)... form and haiku...

Vivian Zems said…
I've taken this quite seriously... taken notes and everything! Made me laugh and nod in several places. Bravo!
qbit said…
What is the Submittable url for "The Vagina That Yodeled"?
Margaret said…
I almost didn't get past number 4 as I was laughing too hard. (I am an awesome knitter btw :)
kaykuala said…
Very exhaustively done Shay! Very educational!

Kerry O'Connor said…
Ah, Shay.. This is THE mission statement it seems I have waited years to read. It should be mandatory reading in every creative writing class and poetry site. I would also like to print it out (with your permission). I'll stick it up in my classroom.

And even though, you deftly remind us at the end, that most poetry, however good or bad, comes to nothing in the end, you make me want to keep on trying.

Thanks, friend.
grapeling said…
damn. how's that line go, only the guilty feel guilty? raises hand.
funny sh*t here ~
This is So hilarious, yet the advice rings true. So far, I have read this 3 times!

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