Many famous writers have used their dreams as inspiration for their writing, including Edgar Allen Poe for The Raven and Mary Shelley for Frankenstein. Often, when I sit down to write a poem based on a past experience, my initial writing is “too linear.” One of the occupational hazards of being a former lawyer, I think, as I remind myself: No surprise for the writer; no surprise for the reader.
It used to disturb me that I would often wake in the morning with a “dream hangover” – such a vivid memory of my dream that if I took a few minutes to replay it in my mind or write it down, it would come back to me in flashes all day. But once I started writing poetry in earnest, I saw this ability to remember my dreams as a gift. My dream images are so much more surreal, with odder twists and turns and leaps than I can otherwise make up in my writing, that they invariably add a spice of oddness to my poems. Now, I keep a dream journal by my bed to deliberately capture those dreams as good fodder for future poems. Even one specific image, such as green plant shoots growing out of my face, can start a poem from a place of curiosity and wonder.
In addition, dreams, coming as they do from our subconscious, add psychological depth to your poems. Dreams allow you to write about fears or challenges or aspirations through imagery, where the poem may show rather than tell the reader the narrator’s feelings. In my dream about the plant shoots, I was at first horrified by the image and wanted to run away from it. However, as I journaled about it, I realized that the plants represented my creativity sprouting out through my poetry and art. I also realized that my fear was really about allowing that part of me to be seen at a time I was just starting to send my poems out for publication.
There are many ways to use your dreams as inspiration for your poetry. Sometimes, a simple narrative about a dream can be striking because of the surreal juxtaposition of images as in Traveling Dream by Marge Piercy.
I am packing to go to the airport
but somehow I am never packed.
I keep remembering more things
I keep forgetting.
Secretly the clock is bolting
forward ten minutes at a click
instead of one. Each time
I look away, it jumps.
Now I remember I have to find
the cats. I have four cats
even when I am asleep.
One is on the bed and I slip
her into the suitcase.
One is under the sofa. I
drag him out. But the tabby
in the suitcase has vanished.
Now my tickets have run away.
Maybe the cat has my tickets.
I can only find one cat.
My purse has gone into hiding.
Now it is time to get packed.
I take the suitcase down.
There is a cat in it but no clothes.
My tickets are floating in the bath
tub full of water. I dry them.
One cat is in my purse
but my wallet has dissolved.
The tickets are still dripping.
I look at the clock as it leaps
forward and see I have missed
my plane. My bed is gone now.
There is one cat the size of a sofa.
While many of us have had dreams about being late to a plane or arriving at the airport without our luggage, the specific details in this poem – the clock bolting forward, the four cats in and out of the suitcase, the tickets in the bath, the cat as big as a sofa – all work to create a poem that is memorable for both its strange imagery and for how these images heighten the normal fear we all have of missing a flight or forgetting to bring something we will need while traveling. And who knows if all of these images were actually in her dream? Maybe only one of them was. One of my favorite poetry prompts is: one truth and two lies. This technique can be used to amplify your dream images, especially if you only remember a wisp of your dreams.
Another way to plumb your dreams for poetry is to mix meditations about the dream state and your dream’s meaning with a jumble of images from many dreams to create a larger story about messages in dreams, as in the poem Understand That This is a Dream, by Allen Ginsberg.
In the opening stanza below, he meditates upon the meaning of dreams:
Real as a dream
What shall I do with this great opportunity to fly?
What is the interpretation of this planet, this moon?
if I can dream that I dream / and dream anything dreamable / can I dream
I am awake / and why do that?
When I dream in a dream that I wake / up what
happens when I try to move?
I dream that I move
and the effort moves and moves
till I move / and my arm hurts
Then I wake up / dismayed / I was dreaming / I was waking
when I was dreaming still / just now.
and try to remember next time in dreams
that I am in dreaming.
The poem continues to discuss how the narrator’s dreams reflect his desires, particularly his sexual desires, and then weaves in seemingly random pieces of dreams from different times and places, but all around the theme of sexual desire, including references to his childhood home, chicken coops, horses, a dentist, and midnight rickshaws in Saigon. The poem ends asking:
What should I dream when I wake?
What's left to dream, more Chinese meat? More magic Spells? More youths
to love before I change & disappear?
More dream words? For now that I know that I am dreaming /
What next for you Allen? Run down to the Presidents Palace full of Morphine /
The cocks crowing / in the street / Dawn trucks / What is the question?
Do I need sleep, now that there's light in the window?
I'll go to sleep. Signing off until / the next idea / the moving van arrives
at the Doctor's house full of Chinese furniture.
In this poem, even the strange line breaks, mid-line pauses, and random initial caps add an air of dreamy unreality that reflects the narrator’s state of mind. In addition, the repeating images in the poem echo the sense one often experiences in dreams of returning to the same place over and over or running but seeming to go nowhere.
Dreams can also be used to add humor or mystery to a poem, as in My Dream by Ogden Nash:
This is my dream,
It is my own dream,
I dreamt it.
I dreamt that my hair was kempt.
Then I dreamt that my true love unkempt it.
The poem begins rather prosaically, but the last two lines nail it. The narrator does not bombard the reader with odd images of the dream. Instead, he deliberately gives only one key detail in order to leave the rest to the reader’s imagination. The reader can then paint her own picture of how the narrator’s hair became unkempt.
1. Write down one image (one sentence or even just a few words) that immediately comes to mind from each of the following prompts. These images can come from your dreams or real life – no one will know but you.
2. Write down a piece of advice you’ve gotten from someone you respect or advice you’d like to give yourself now or in the past.
3. Read the following poem, Dream poem because I never write dream poems, by Catherine Owen.
Dream poem because I never write dream poems
Woken just as he was about to go down on me/ that sailor
With the insanely long/earlobes
By a cat clawing at the delicately eroding skin/beneath my eye
Did not make me jovial/one bit
But when I fell back to dreaming and it was/of gypsy women
Catching a stream of bees/pouring from my wounds
Into burlap sacks/or else that inevitable toilet
(Would it be/on a cliff this time or transparent
Or fixed to a proscenium/ or shaped to receive dragonflies
Instead of piss)/ I was none too thrilled at my gallant’s
Failure to return to duty/ and worse
It was now a dream containing advice/Broom Hilda
Appearing to warn me/ I would have to & soon
Get rid of the sphincter in my lungs/if I wanted to sing.
4. After you read the poem, go back to your list of images and write a poem in which you describe an imagined dream using as many of those images as you can. Also, include the piece of advice in your poem.
Image courtesy of Pixabay.com
Gyroscope Review is pleased to once again present our year-end anthology of fine contemporary poetry just in time for your holiday shopping. This year’s offering, From Newborn Stars to Old Woman Moon, shares the work of all 158 poets who appeared in our pages during 2019 and announces this year’s Pushcart Prize nominees.
This special print-only edition makes a beautiful gift for poets and readers everywhere. We’ve made it affordable with a price of $20.
To purchase your copy, click HERE.
For our readers in Canada, click HERE.
For our readers in the UK, click HERE.
Happy holidays, everyone!
What flips you over into a poetry mindset? A word, a smell, a glimpse of a sunset over the mountains, the feel of sand while walking on a beach? Many times, for me, it’s a song. It could be the music or the words, but the winning combination is usually the right mix of intelligent lyrics and great music. Music not only helps me with any type of writing, but it also plays a big part in putting me in the proper poetry creation frame of mind.
Musicians with a love of wordplay suck me in more often than not. I’m going to discuss three artists who appear on my playlist as definite inspirations. I dug up a few YouTube videos with examples for those that don’t have the music wired into their brain. (For the techno-goobers… just click play.)
I love the complicated and complex lyrics of Bruce Cockburn and Roger Waters. On the other hand, some artists can take those ‘easy’ rhymes and turn them into an interesting song, one that resonates far more than a glance at the lyrics would have you believe. Tom Petty manages to take rather mundane rhymes, and rework them into something with a raft of underlying meaning.
A great deal of the impact of the lyrics comes from what’s not said, the things left for the listener to fill in on his/her own. Back that with a driving beat and all kinds of happy poetic inspiration jumps to mind.
Well, they raised that horse to be a jumper
He was owned by a mid-west bible thumper
His preacher was a Louisiana drummer
Took all winter to get through the summer
The field hand hit the switch and stumbled
Outside the big engine roared and rumbled
The stolen horse spooked and tumbled
She didn’t speak for a week
Just kinda mumbled
—–Ankle deep in love [4x]
He was caught up in a lie he half believed
Found her hiding high in the family tree
Washed his hands and put her cross his knee
She said daddy “you been a mother to me”
—–Ankle deep in love [4x]
(from Tom Petty – Highway Companion © 2006)
The video is purely a means to get the song out there. Don’t expect much, I wanted to illustrate how the music builds the lyrics up to something beyond easy rhyme.
I like Pink Floyd. Between Roger Waters’ lyrics and David Gilmour’s guitar, I find plenty of inspiration, just not always of the happy type. That's okay, if I was purely a happy poet, I’d work for Hallmark. The underlying dark of some of Waters’ lyrics is appealing in its own way, like a scab you can’t stop picking. Never easy, downright uncomfortable at times, the sly and cynical bent appeals to my inner poetic sadist. My favorite ‘dark’ song would have to be the following. The combination of these lyrics and the slow music always makes me shiver, and my mind switches to poetic contemplation.
When The Tigers Broke Free
It was just before dawn
One miserable morning in black ‘forty-four.
When the forward commander
Was told to sit tight
When he asked that his men be withdrawn.
And the Generals gave thanks
As the other ranks held back
The enemy tanks for a while.
And the Anzio bridgehead
Was held for the price
Of a few hundred ordinary lives.
And kind old King George
Sent Mother a note
When he heard that father was gone.
It was, I recall,
In the form of a scroll,
With gold leaf and all.
And I found it one day
In a drawer of old photographs, hidden away.
And my eyes still grow damp to remember
His Majesty signed
With his own rubber stamp.
It was dark all around.
There was frost in the ground
When the tigers broke free.
And no one survived
From the Royal Fusiliers Company C.
They were all left behind,
Most of them dead,
The rest of them dying.
And that’s how the High Command
Took my daddy from me.
There are numerous video interpretations of this song floating around out there, it’s interesting how the visuals layer a third component to my poetic duet of music and lyrics. With lots of middle of nowhere windshield time, I usually supply my own visuals to songs, but hey, this works wonderfully.
My all-time favorite songwriter would have to be Bruce Cockburn. I’ve been listening to him for … well, let’s just say over twenty years, and the man just keeps getting better. He packs his songs so full, the density smacks you right between the eyes. The lyrics, coupled with his incredible guitar playing are good for more than a few inspirational moments. I’ve got several poems that riff off of his lyrics, where the turn of a phrase set my mind spinning to a new direction, a new poem.
Cockburn paints some wonderfully lyrical word pictures. “When You Give It Away” from the album Breakfast in New Orleans is a good example.
“Slid out of my dreams like a baby out of the nurse’s hands
onto the hard floor of day
I’d been wearing OJ’s gloves and I couldn’t get them off
It was too early but I couldn’t sleep
showered, dressed, stepped out into the heat
the parrot things on the porch next door
announced my arrival on Chartres Street
with their finest rendition of squealing brakes…”
I love that he uses real words, big words, complex ideas and references with no apologies, hence the denseness of his lyrics. For example, this stanza from “Call It Democracy”.
Sinister cynical instrument
who makes the gun into a sacrament
the only response to the deification
of tyranny by so-called developed nation’s
idolatry of ideology
“Idolatry of Ideology” How awesome is that?
Not to mention Cockburn has several songs that are fine poems in their own right.
After The Rain
After the rain in the streets, light flows like blood
I can just taste salt on the humid wind
Here comes that gasoline
Spreading hungry rainbow over shiny black tar
I’m blown like smoke and blind as wind
Except for when your love breaks in…
I sneaked across the border
It was threatening rain
So I could stand in this tunnel waiting for the roaring train
And watch those black kids working out Kung Fu moves
If you don’t want to be the horses’ hoofprints, you’ve got to be the hooves…
Listening to the songs for so many years it’s hard to separate the lyrics and look at them as poetry without hearing the music resonate in my head. This song shows a deft touch with rhyme, slant rhymes, meter, etc., everything a poet should have in his/her toolbox. After being subjected to the insipidities of pop music downtown one day, I rushed home to inject myself with the antidote.
by Bruce Cockburn
Sunday night, and it’s half past 9
I’m leaving one more town behind
Mirrors are showing the day’s last glow
As we’re spit out into the jigsaw flow
Ahead where there should be the thickness of night
Stars are pinned on a shimmering curtain of light
Sky full of ripplings, cliffs and chasms
That shine like signs on the road to heaven
I’ve been cut by the beauty of jagged mountains
And cut by the love that flows like a fountain from God
So I carry these scars, precious and rare
And tonight I feel like I’m made of air…
What music inspires you? Let us know on Facebook and Twitter.
Being a writer and editor means spending a lot of time in front of a computer. When there’s an opportunity to take these skills out into the community, far away from the familiarity of one’s own desk, it’s important to take it.
I’ve been lucky to have had three such opportunities this fall, all very different.
The first opportunity was getting invited to speak and coach in a high school creative writing class in St. Paul, Minnesota. The students varied wildly in skill level and were working on projects across the creative writing spectrum: poetry, fiction, nonfiction. Part of my contribution was to talk to them about my own creative process. How did I get my work done? Where did I start? This forced me to re-evaluate what I was doing on a daily basis. Talking to teens about the writing process never fails to expose any ruts I’ve fallen into. Teens are apt at poking holes in anything they’re told, so someone like me who presents my own method and work receives unfiltered, unflinching feedback. This is not for the faint of heart, but it forced me to be very, very clear about what works and what does not work in the daily life of a writer. Bonus: the students all said thank you at the end. How often in your daily writing life do you get thanked? Another bonus: reading snippets of work the students wrote, getting a glimpse of what young writers think about (fantastic beasts, dreamy places, haunted treehouses, life after high school graduation).
The second opportunity was an invitation to read at a private party. I have musician friends who planned a performance of their new trio, and they wanted to offer a little something during a break in the music. Here was a way for me to read new work in a comfortable, intimate setting among friends and acquaintances who would never be unkind. I would still be able to tell (mostly) from facial expressions whether what I read hit the mark. How nice to share a stage with friends who were also doing new work. How nice for all of us to feel supported. And there was wine. This sure beat reading in a coffeehouse to six people you’ve never seen before in your life while assorted coffee drink-making noises burble and sputter in the background.
The third opportunity was attending the 2019 Twin Cities Book Festival at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. Large writers’ conferences are exhausting and expensive, but a one-day book festival is just the thing. There I talked to several local publishers about what they published and how many submissions they looked at annually. I bought books directly from the publishers and authors were there to sign copies and chat. And I indulged my love of creative nonfiction by attending an author panel with Christopher Ingraham (If You Lived Here You’d be Home by Now) and Kent Nerburn (Dancing With the Gods: Reflections on Life and Art). Listening to other writers read their work is one of my favorite ways to feel more inspired.
It’s been a wonderful fall with all this writerly activity that did not involve sitting at my desk. I’ve been reminded just how important it is to get out there and feel part of a larger community, sharing skills, swapping stories, reading aloud, and learning from others. Without that piece, the writer’s life would be dull indeed.
In the spirit of community, tell us how you connect with other writers, editors, readers, and publishers. What makes you shut down your computer and venture out? Let us know on our Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/gyroscopereview/) or Twitter (@gyroscopereview). We’d love to have a conversation.
IN OTHER NEWS….
We welcome our new Assistant Editor, Elya Braden. Elya is a Los Angeles-based writer and artist whose work has appeared in past issues of Gyroscope Review. We are delighted to add her to our masthead, and excited to share the benefit of her experience and expertise in continuing to make Gyroscope Review an excellent place for contemporary poetry. Pop over to our masthead page to learn more about Elya.
ONE MORE THING: