Tuesday, August 24, 2010

How “I” Write a Poem by Doug Holder

How “I” Write a Poem

By Doug Holder

I am about to embark on another teaching adventure since being laid off from my job at McLean Hospital over a year ago. I will be teaching two creative writing classes at Endicott College. The class will start out with poetry writing, then move on to memoir and end in fiction. Since poetry heads the pack I have been thinking a lot about my writing process. I view myself primarily as a poet and journalist. I have had a fair share of poems published, edited the poetry magazine “ Ibbetson Street” for 12 years, interviewed a slew of poets from the famous, infamous, to the obscure. Of course what works for me won’t necessarily work for you. Poetry is an art that deals with emotion and feeling—and that is the very stuff that can’t be pigeonholed into any scientific formulas.

First off I carry in my back pocket a small notebook. Like a western gunslinger I am ready to take it out at the slightest provocation. If there is a snippet of conversation that gets my tattered red flag up, if the whiff of perfume from a beautiful girl entices me, if the weathered face of the man adjacent to me in the café sparks my creative juices—I am ready. For me the essential tools for a poet is walking and reading. Walking you say? Damn straight. And maybe even strolling. We move so fast these days that all we get sometimes is the blur from a car window, the animated advertisement outside the subway window, the flash and bytes on our computer screen. I pick up so much material when I walk. The conversations, the parade of people, the strange way nature sprouts from the cracks in the concrete, etc…

Now reading may seem an obvious point to many. But I am surprised to find at times that aspiring poets often read very little. The only way we start to learn is by example. When we are young we imitate other writers we admire (God knows I beat the Jack Kerouac thing to death!), and as we mature hopefully we find our own voice. Now I don’t mean only read the classics. I mean read everything you can get your hot little hands on. The morning rag for instance. Scans of the daily newspaper are great places to glean ideas. I always read the Arts/Leisure section of the New York Times, book reviews, and obituaries (I love these to “death”). There is always something to use, and make sure you jot it down in your little book. Also-read poets of course-- from Homer to Hollander. Browse through contemporary literary magazines like Poetry, Rattle, Istanbul Literary Review, American Poetry Review, Ibbetson Street, Endicott Review, and others. This of course covers a wide spectrum of magazines. I believe you should read the little magazines, as well as the top shelf ones to see what is out there.

For me, and I think most writers worth their salt will agree; it is important to write every day. Write, write, and write, even if it is gibberish. Keep a journal. This will keep you in the practice of writing. Writing is like a muscle—it gets flabby when it is not used. Make writing a daily ritual, like that 8A.M. cup of java.
I would also advise you to form your own writing groups. Despite the romantic notion that poetry should be written in isolation, while you moodily walk along the beach downing pints of whiskey— well, you can forget that. I mean there are retreats and such, but you need to get feedback from other writers. So form a group with writers you respect and who will be honest about your work. And make sure you have a tough skin. When you are passionate about your work and someone criticizes it can hurt and hurt badly.

Remember first drafts of poems or any writing are seldom finished. I don’t think any poem is truly finished. The famous poet Robert Creeley told me he never revised a poem; if it didn’t work he threw it in the trash. I wouldn’t advise that. Good poems come from bad poems. Great things come from the compost heap of literature. Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” was gleaned from a cheap soap opera of the day for instance. So Revise, Revise, And Revise.

I was once writing an article about Robert Pinsky, the former Poet Laureate of the United States. He said the problem most young writers have is that they are afraid to appear stupid. To compensate they use big words, and high-toned rhetoric that sounds pretentious and stilted. Don’t afraid to be stupid. Success is built from failure. They are opposite sides of the coin, but they are still part of the same coin.

Of course this is just the barebones of poetry writing. But hopefully it will get you in the right frame of mind to write. And remember it won’t be easy at first, but as my cornball uncle used to say “It could be verse!”

***** Doug Holder is the founder of the "Ibbetson Street Press." His work has appeared in Rattle, the new renaissance, The Boston Globe, Endicott Review, and many others. He holds an M.A. in English and American Literature and Language from Harvard University. He teaches writing at Endicott College in Beverly, Mass., and Bunker Hill Community College in Boston.


  1. Excellent piece Doug and just what I needed to keep me going today on the writing front. Important to remember: poetry is emotion and poetry is all around us, in words, objects, scenes, and juxtapositions of ideas. Thanks Yoda.

  2. Nice piece, Doug! A good reminder for poets in all phases of their careers.

  3. Always for strolling!

    Thanks, Doug.

    Your description of your practice/process may be a lively model for your students.