The Poetry Process - One Way To Write Poems

The other day I wrote out my process of writing a poem and while talking to a friend today, we thought it might be helpful for others to see it as well. Please know this is only one way to write poems. Currently, it's the way that's working for me. But like most things, it could change.

My process for writing poems--

When I sit down to write at my computer sometimes I just start writing about what's on my mind. It doesn't need to be important or world changing, just what I'm thinking about it. I write with line breaks not just in a free write.

If I'm having trouble beginning sometimes I look at poetry books by my favorite writers. These change daily. On my desk now is Robert Hass and Octavio Paz, I've had many other poets here as well. Sometimes I turn on music to inspire. Currently, it's "How to Save a Life" by the Fray. Other times it's been Los Lonely Boys or international radio. Sometimes, it's the wind.

Then I write. I don't think about what I'm writing or if it's making sense. I just write whatever comes to mind. If I get stuck, I grab a book and open to a word or I write ________ in my poem. I just keep trying to move forward. I am not thinking of the poem as a whole, I am just trying to move from one line to another. I'm trusting in what Stafford called "the golden thread."

Once I feel I'm at a stopping point, I save the poem either by a title or the first line into my "In Process" file. This is purgatory for poems. It could sit there a day or a month, or a year. The poem may never get looked at again. Or it may get attention in the evening. It's in limbo. It may become a *real* poem or it may live its life as a fragment, a thought, some interesting words on paper.

Later (usually the next day or sometimes I wait a week before returning to my new work) when it's my writing time again, I open my In Process file and randomly choose 5-9 poem titles or first lines that look interesting to me. Sometimes I seek out a certain poem I'm ready to work on. I open them all and begin reading through the poems until I find one I want to work on and revise. I choose based on what looks interesting to me at that moment and begin revising. I do this process again and again. I keep opening and revising poems. This can go on for days, weeks, or years with the same or different poems.

At some point, one of the poems will give me this feeling of satisfaction and of completeness. I will know there is no more I can do and there is no more that I want to do to this poem. At this point, I will either print out the poem to share with my writing group or I will move it to my file called "Completed Poems."

If I bring it to my writing group, it will stay in In Process until I make further revisions after hearing their feedback. If it moves to Completed Poems, it then becomes a poem I may submit to a literary journal.

For every one poem I complete, there are probably about twenty (or more) poems that are not completed. You will never see the majority of my poems. I may never finish the majority of my poems.

Sometimes I move a poem to Completed Poems too quickly and later return it to In Process because it's just not strong enough. Sometimes, I forget about a poem in In Process and then find it and feel it's complete. Mostly, many of my first poems never become poems. But I feel I need to write those poems to get to the next poem.

I think about Elizabeth Bishop here and Alice Quinn's book with EB's unpublished work. I don't think EB wanted the world to see those poems, just as I don't want anyone to see my In Process poems until they are complete. By knowing that no one will ever see them, I am free to experiment, write about anything, and write freely.

When I write, I do not think of the reader, but of the poem and what's best for it. I do not think, "What will people think of this poem?" or "What will people think of me?" I just write. The world and the reader are so far away when I write those first words, I can't imagine at that point that anyone will ever read it. In fact, mostly likely, you won't. Most likely, my poem will life a life "In Process," in the file with no backdoor to escape from, the file that makes the poem stay in there until it's earned its way out.

Note on William Stafford:

William Stafford leaned forward into his own life, "listening for the next sound," and "rubbing words together until something sparked." He believed that treasures were to be found beneath your feet, and that searching for things that fit together was to follow the "golden thread." About his own works, he once commented, "I have woven a parachute out of everything broken."


  1. Kelli - Thanks for sharing this. I addressed this in a post on my blog linking it.



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