Five Things That Dramatically Altered The Way I Write Poetry

by a contributor

from Darren C. Demaree, author of Firework Over the Retention Pond #72:

1. David Lehman’s sprint week at Miami University.

Before Lehman’s week of teaching myself, and my fellow poets at Miami, I took poetry to be a much more dramatic, event-driven act. It was something that the gods, or inspiration, or the right woman would conjure out of you occasionally.  Writing poetry was a sporadic happening for me at that point. What Lehman had done most recently, and was still practicing I believe at that point, was to write a poem a day. He was even simplifying the title process by giving each poem the name of the day it was written. I was twenty-two when I got to hear the man’s musings on poetry, the practice and goal of it, and it was huge for me to hear these lessons from a poetry lifer. From that point on, I tried to make poetry a more regular, daily experience. Now, I write a poem a day as a minimum requirement of my practice. Some days, if time, children, teaching, and mood allows, I will write upwards of four poems in a day.

2. Figuring Out The “Emily As…” Equation for Love Poems.

Six years ago, I was writing every day, but struggling to do anything that didn’t sound like it was straining to be written by an immature Robert Creeley. I was twenty-five, starting to get published some, but I was never really excited about the end product of the work. I kept at it every day, but really was frustrated with a lack of any originality. I started to read a lot more around then. We lived two blocks from a bar, and three blocks from a library, and those two things went together beautifully. Somewhere in my pursuit of finding my own entry point into things, I wrote a poem called “Emily As A Bird.” After I had written it, I was ecstatic. It was different; there was an odd equation to this poem. It was a love poem, but there was an X factor to it. Emily + X = Some Degree of a Romantic Poem. By finding different things, moments, and great phrases from my reading, I was able to create a challenge of figuring out the X of the poem. This pushed both the music of the poetry and the extent that I would have to extend my imagery to make anything of coherence. Sometimes, they still aren’t perfectly coherent, but really neither is a marriage most of the time. What time has added to this equation is something still new and fun for me now, changing the variant of affection on any given day creates, I think, a more realistic poem that leans much less on the nauseating pursuits of a commonly themed love poem. My favorite poem from the hundreds of these I’ve written is called “Emily As Unswerving Realism,” to give an example of one.

3.Addressing The Abstract Of A Poetic Sequence

One of the tools that have helped me greatly in the production department was addressing a vague, abstract topic with many, many poems. This started with “Ohio(s)” (part of my upcoming first collection), continued with “Black & White Pictures,” a sequence about sonograms (also part of the first collection), and has continued with five or six others, including “Fireworks Over The Retention Pond,” which had #72 featured here on Treehouse. What I found were many phrasings, ideas, images, and concepts that were way too big for a single poem. They might work as book ideas, but that would only be if you could really nail down in the end what it is the essence of the sequence was. It’s dartboard poetry, really. I have the concept, but it isn’t until I throw seventy or more poems at it that I really get a fluid understanding of what drew me to the idea in the first place. Sometimes it leads me to a dozen or so poems I really like. Sometimes I end up with thirty or forty of them published, and they work as a smaller sequence tied together as part of a book. So far, I haven’t really killed one of those sequences yet, thus none of them have worked as a stand-alone volume.

4. Repeating The Process

I quit drinking a few years ago, and it used to be that I would like to have a beer or a glass of wine when I would write. So, when I quit drinking, there was a space to fill with the physical act of writing. The chemical part of it, too. So, I established a little ritual I go through almost every time I write. Let’s say, every time I get to write at my desk at home, which is most of the time. My handwriting is god-awful, so any attempt at handwriting a poem first would certainly be a waste, as not even I can really read every work I scrawl. I always restart the computer, just in case Word might hiccup because of an overactive Internet or Skype conversation. I turn on either an Explosions in the Sky album or a writing mix I have on Spotify. I make a cup of coffee and grab some dessert, preferably some pie. I love pie. This is the only time I ever eat dessert, other than a birthday party. This is also one of the few times a day I have coffee. By the time the pie is gone, I have a title. By the time the coffee is gone, I know where it is I want to go. By the end of the album or however many songs on the play list, I have something close to where it will end up. Obviously, this works as a ritual once a day, otherwise I would be huge if I had a dessert every time I wrote something. What it does though is let my body know first that the act of writing is going to occur. After a certain amount of time, my mind has caught up with my body, and I’m ready to try some poetry. I was an athlete growing up, and training was always part of my day. It still is with my daily workouts, but I put that to poetry, and it has helped immensely. If I get away from it for a while, I can still write. If I get away from it for a while, it’s not the end of the world. But like the ringing of a bell for a boxer or for Pavlov’s dog, there is a sequence of physical things that alerts the rest of me that it’s time to be creative. A lot of people will tell you that writing is a muscle, and it is most certainly that, but the act itself can be something conditioned into your day. I have not written on only three days of the last two years, and all three were on my fifth anniversary trip, when Emily asked me politely, suggested, hinted at really, scowled a bit when she told me, I should take a break for those three days.

5. Stepping Towards Something Completely Different

For the last nine months I have been writing something completely different, and something that I have almost no real connection to. I’ve been writing only about the title fight between Ray Mancini and Duk Koo Kim that took place in 1982. Kim died as resulted of the fight. So, as most of my larger projects have been in slightly different veins than the ones before, but this was a big step away from my comfort zone. I don’t really know yet where all it’s going to take me, but it has already pushed me into some really neat places involving life and death, guilt, sport, and the crowd of all of those things. I think once you find a comfort zone, a place where you feel your voice is in some way authentic, you need to demonstrate that fully. After that, you need an after that…So, I’ve embraced research, studying the poetry of boxing, the fight itself, the two fighters, all of the families and their history, and what the fight game really was and is today. I’ll be working on these for a while, but after that I will need an after that. Here’s hoping my growth will continue in writing and in the practice of writing.