A Poet, a Notebook, and a Pencil Walk into a Bar…

Picture of head sculpture

It’s closing in on that time again. National Poetry Month. Are you prepared? Lots of folks use the month to generate new work, doing the Poem A Day thing. There are prompts galore out there for those who want to give writing a poem every day a try. Sometimes you need a little bit more than a one-word or one-sentence prompt. And sometimes one word is all it takes.

Other ways to get you into the Poetry mindset. 

Read. Read poets you know and love, read poets you don’t know anything about but saw a recommendation for. Read poets on Instagram and poets who self-publish. For a change of pace, read biographies of poets. There’s some fascinating material on them that might serve as inspiration. Read translations and poetry from other countries. There’s a great big world out there of creative inspiration different than you’re used to. 

Research. Flip through the dictionary or thesaurus (online is great) and jot down words that you love, synonyms, words that have a great mouthfeel. Note the definitions. Read up on colors— there are more words for brown than I thought possible. Scope out a birdwatching book. All kinds of fun terminology in there, and descriptions. Everywhere you look there’s words and phrases to write down so that you can use or warp them later on. Jar your brain out of complacency. 

Absorb. Look at art and think of how to describe the feeling. Listen to different music. Watch a movie you love with the sound off, and figure out how to capture the feel of the scene. Commune with nature. study everyday objects. 

As always, carry a notebook and writing implement of your choice with you. Be aware, and you’ll have plenty of fodder to make it through April. 

How Other Folks Do It

Here are some Gyroscope Review Editor inspirations—

Constance Brewer: For some poetic inspiration I like Rainer Maria Rilke, Seamus Heaney, Maya Angelou, Rumi, Shakespeare, and reading lots and lots of poetry journals of all types. And don’t forget YouTube. Hearing poets read is awesome. 

For bios: 

  • Anna of All the Russias: The Life of Anna Akhmatova, by Elaine Feinstein
  • I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg, by Bill Morgan
  • My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson, by Alfred Habegger
  • Neruda: The Poet’s Calling by Mark Eisner
  • Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford
  • Lives of the Poets by Michael Schmidt

For other inspiration: Outside, in nature, including nights staring up at the stars. 

Kathleen Cassen Mickelson: For poetic inspiration, I love flipping through anthologies so I can meander among a whole bunch of poets at once. One of my favorites is The New American Poetry 1945-1960 edited by Donald Allen. In there, I can find many old favorites – poems by Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, and many others. I never get tired of Mary Oliver. Or Naomi Shihab Nye. I subscribe to email lists from Ted Kooser, Poem-a-Day, Rattle, and others that highlight a different poet each day. I occasionally go to readings; a while back, I was lucky enough to meet Richard Blanco at one and he was so gracious. I love bios about reporters rather than poets, which is a little different than my colleagues; particularly war reporters.  And there are sources for the always-important wordless inspiration outside in nature. I love to hike and listen to birds, water, wind, and whatever else is moving. Finally, on days when nothing else will do, I grab my camera and find a different way to focus.

Elya Braden: For poetic inspiration, I subscribe to email lists to receive daily poems from Rattle, Poetry Daily, Poetry Foundation, Writer’s Almanac by Garrison Keller (full of fun facts of the day!), and Poem-a-Day from Poets.org. I’ll often look up individual poets whose work ignites something in me and order their latest book for a deeper dive. I’ll spend a week or two reading and re-reading one poet’s work, deconstructing the ingredients of their “secret sauce,” and practicing those elements in my own words.

I always carry a small notepad with me to jot down ideas, which often come when I’m at poetry readings. Recently, I’ve been fortunate to see/hear Natalie Diaz and Naomi Shihab Nye at The Broad Museum in LA (poetry + art = a home run!), and Ellen Bass, Marie Howe and Jane Hirshfield in Berkeley (what a trifecta!).

I’m also inspired by being in nature – hiking or walking at the beach (outside I take iPhone photos and dictate notes). I’m very visual, so I’m inspired by artwork and photography and love trolling museums for poem ideas. In writing workshops, I’ve used art and/or photo calendars as prompts. National Geographic magazines are also brimming with intriguing and inspiring photos.