January 12th, 2011

I try to pop in on a weekly Twitter poetry conversation Poetry Tuesday (or #poettues for you Twitter-ers out there) that’s guided by Robert Lee Brewer. He’ll kick things off with a question or a theme and whoever is around will chime in. Last week’s discussion was about productivity: what do you do to stay productive as a writer?Sage Cohen gave her list of suggestions in this guest post and a lot of people chimed in on Twitter. Deadlines are always a good motivator. Setting goals with numbers attached – fifty poems, twenty submissions, that sort of thing – was popular too. People read poetry for inspiration and listen to music. Me, I like a change of scenery: I think of my most recent 20 poems, 90% of them were written in coffee shops. I know I’m not alone. January O’Neil says she writes at Starbucks (and hey, if it’s good enough for a poet with a published full length collection, it’s good enough for me!) and Marge Piercy has written an entire poem dedicated to coffee.

One thing I do when I feel like I’m hitting a wall or, what’s more likely to happen with, when it seems like I’m writing the same poem again and again with only slightly different words, is to go back through my old notebooks and pull lines and half-baked ideas from their pages. My notebooks are a mish-mash of drafts of poems, notes on readings, daily journal, gripe session. One page will have notes for a poem on it and the next will be three paragraphs of complaining about the Boychen’s complete lack of table manners. I mean complete. hair-pulling. lack. (But I digress.) Because I use one notebook for everything, the whole crazy mess of my life, it can be a bit of a trial to find those lines and half-baked ideas,so whenever I finish a notebook I let it sit for a couple of weeks and then I read it through from start to finish with a hot-pink or lime-green pen and I circle or underline anything interesting. I’ll write little things like “pursue this” or “not a poem, but a blog post?” I try to read it the way a creative writing teacher would read a workbook her student had handed in. But the key is reading back through the whole journal one afternoon and writing the notes and circling the interesting stuff in that vivid fluorescent pen – then when I’m looking for inspiration I don’t have to read through all the bits about table manners and how much it snowed yesterday. I just look for the colors.

Often I will have completely forgotten writing something. Rarely, a really nice workable draft will be in there that I never typed up and got into my “active” system. Sometimes, if I go back to a really old journal, the things that occupied me are so far from what occupies me now that they feel fresh. When I’m in the middle of something I might write a lot, a lot, I might write the same thing over and over but I can’t make sense of it or get enough distance on it to take it out of the realm of therapy and into the realm of craft. But two years later the storm of the event is over but the words are still there in the notebooks and I’ve got the distance to do something with them.

They’re little gold mines, my notebooks. I have to shovel through a lot of dirt, but there’s always a gem in there somewhere.