I distrust everything that follows.
Because there is no magic formula, there is no script, there is no Users’ Manual. So, asking me how I write a poem is like asking an octopus why it changes colour (except, most of the time, I am not being chased by large aquatic predators). But since you asked...
Usually I start with a word I’ve stumbled on or a phrase, or even a quote. When I’m stuck, sometimes flipping through a book (any kind of book, whatever is to hand) helps unlock the wordy (mouthy?) part of my brain. It’s a simple reset button I use all the time. Does it always work? Hell no, but what does always work? A word prompts another word prompts a visual prompts a reference prompts a source. Or prompts me to stop. Whenever I’m asked “how do you write a poem” I counter with the simple question: how do you know when to stop writing a poem? I am never sure.
When we talk about poetics, it feels to me like we are also talking about luck, whether we mean to or not. Of course, if one is writing a particular type of poem, a sonnet or a ghazal, one needs to learn the rules. But after that, really, discovering that perfect word, that just right rhythm, is luck. On a lucky day, the words come into my head, with great speed or great weight. On a normal day, the words wander off, don’t quite fit, sound horrible in my head, or just are not there, not there at all.
s I age the words come to me less quickly. But when they do come to me, they carry more, signal more. Perhaps because I’ve used them before, perhaps because now the words mean very different things to me. Both reasons are good. You can’t argue with your own brain. Or history.
As I’m writing this, I am working as Writer in Residence at my old university, the University of New Brunswick. The young writers and students ask me all the same questions I had at their age. The same questions, ultimately unanswerable.
Just try to get it to sound like it came from your own head, I tell them. Everything after that is negotiable, and don’t get too attached to a line, or even a whole poem, I tell them. Nobody knows the secret to a good poem, I tell them.
But everybody knows the secret to a bad poem. A bad poem is a poem that didn’t get written. A blank page is a bad poem. Poetics is luck plus nerve.
RM Vaughan is a Canadian writer and video artist. He lives in Montreal.