Erica Goss is the Poet Laureate of Los Gatos, CA, and the host of Word to Word, a show about poetry. Her first book, Wild Place (Finishing Line Press), was published in 2012. She won the 2011 Many Mountains Moving Poetry Contest and was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2010 and 2013. She writes The Third Form, a column about video poetry, for Connotation Press. Recent work appears in Lake Effect, The Red Wheelbarrow, Passager, Main Street Rag, Pearl, Rattle, Wild Violet, and Comstock Review, among others. Learn more about Erica on her website.
Excerpted from Vibrant Words: Ideas and Inspirations for Poets
© Erica Goss 2014
Note from the author: People often ask me where I get my ideas. It’s a fair question, and I take it seriously. I don’t take creativity for granted, and I don’t believe ideas come from thin air. Like anything worth doing well, writing is the product of a little inspiration and a lot of hard work. As a poet, I am always on the hunt for the raw material of poetry. I started a series on Facebook titled “Friday Poetry Prompts,” which eventually became Vibrant Words: Ideas and Inspirations for Poets. I hope you enjoy the following chapters from the book.
Parking Lots as Inspiration
Poets are inspired by nature: mountains, oceans, Yosemite, the stars. Those are endlessly fascinating, to be sure, but I read a lot of nature-inspired poetry that doesn’t tell me anything new. I’ll let you in on a secret: although I’ve written many nature-based poems, I find inspiration in parking lots. Yes, parking lots, ordinary stretches of asphalt that cover the ground, miles and miles of parking lots that surround buildings. I wonder what used to be there, before we needed a place to temporarily leave our cars. I look for the flaws and cracks that undermine every parking lot ever built.
Lanesboro, Minnesota, is a tiny town of about seven hundred. Recently, their visionary arts council decided to transform an ordinary parking lot into a Poetry Parking Lot. Instead of leaving the car in the lot while you go do something else, the lot itself became a destination. I call that brilliant.
Next time you’re in a parking lot, take a look around. What do you see? What do you hear and smell? Each parking place is a little home for your car, gypsy that it is.
My poem “This is a Wild Place” began in a parking lot:
This is a Wild Place
On the last day of winter,
my car, filled
with chaff and spare parts,
fits neatly in its painted slot,
a motion box, stopped.
The little junk birds peck at foil,
and I am called away from my body
to forage for my life
out in the open.
When I was eleven
I climbed a huge pine
and had a vision
of flying into the thin
mountain air; my mother called
my name softly, standing on the red earth,
and her voice was a ladder
I climbed down.
I have seen the sky
in late winter, watched clouds
form the ribcage of a fantastic beast,
the world is stitched together
from the loosest of tissues – even
with faint cracks
for the smallest seeds.
You might not see the possibilities in parking lots, but I challenge you to find some place that no one else has claimed. Is it the dumpster behind the fancy restaurant? A particular public restroom? An alley or side street? Poems wait for you there.
Years ago, I was a student in a drawing class trying to draw a tree. My teacher came by and said, “What you’ve drawn is your idea of a tree. This is what you’ve been told, all your life, is a tree.” My tree looked exactly like the trees I drew in elementary school. “You have to minutely observe something to stop seeing what you think it is, and see what it really is.”
Today we’re going to look at something closely. Throw away your idea of what an object is, and try to understand what it actually is. The more carefully you look at something, the stranger it gets—that’s because you’re seeing details you don’t usually pay attention to. Take any object. For example, I am looking at my desk lamp. If I describe its contour, I get this: “smooth, metal, screws, base, cord, bulb, switch, hinge, shade, arm, knob, arm, hinge, base…” and if I start to look at it more closely, I get “dusty, dead fly, scuff mark, silver, black, heavy, hot, too bright in that position, not bright enough in the other position, tilt, triangle thing the cord comes out of…” now I drill down again, and I get “casts shadow over my keyboard, makes the veins on my hands look like a topographical map, lights the tops of my books and the two-dollar bill I use as a bookmark, leaves my overstuffed files in the shadow.” Hmm. There is a story in this ordinary desk accessory. Is my lamp a metaphor for something else? Isn’t everything?
The experience of seeing this closely can simultaneously exhilarate and terrify. When I first saw a blown-up photo of a dust mite, it gave me the creeps for days, but I finally accepted the fact that the world is full of tiny, invisible living creatures.
Spend the day looking closely at things. Look at your children, your pets, your furniture. Look until you don’t recognize them anymore. Write down what you really see.
If you are familiar with the CrossFit exercise program, you know that it promotes a group of intense, varied workouts. These include the WOD (Workout of the Day), which is never the same set of movements two days in a row. The CrossFit faithful are convinced that the intensity and the variety of the exercises give them a superior workout.
What do a bunch of sweaty people yelling “arrrrgghhhh!” and throwing twenty-pound medicine balls around have to do with poetry? Well, plenty. If you ever embarked on an exercise program only to find that it became less and less effective, you understand the need to mix up your workout, whether it’s physical or literary. Varying your writing routine can lead to new insights, a more confident tone, and can break you out of the creative doldrums.
Here are some suggestions to help you develop your core strength as a writer:
Change your writing routine. For example, you might be convinced you write better in the wee hours of the morning, or in the afternoon, or at midnight. Try writing at the time of day when you normally feel less effective.
Practice writing in short, timed bursts. Set a time limit—say five minutes—and write. Then decrease the time by a minute until you’re down to one minute. Then decrease it to thirty seconds. Learning to write this way can be very helpful when you get a sudden inspiration but you’re not at your desk.
Change your location. I don’t mean swap your nice comfy desk for the local café—that’s too easy. Remember, we’re using CrossFit for a model here! Take your notebook to a place you have never written before: the edge of the ocean, an animal shelter, the freeway overpass, a construction site, a karate studio, an appliance store, a gas station, a preschool, a pharmacy. Practice those short, timed bursts. Don’t worry if you attract attention.
Vary your reading diet. Always stick to free verse of a certain period? Try some of the New Formalists. Tend to read mostly people of the same gender and ethnic group as yourself? Well, there’s really no excuse for that—but sometimes it takes an effort to seek out what’s different. Read more challenging work, and don’t give up right away.
Write a bunch of poems with titles like “Squat,” “Deadlift,” “Dips,” “Rope Climb,” “Pull-ups,” and “Holds.” Make them muscular. Make them sweat. Then do it again.
Food is one of my favorite topics for poetry. The Spring 2009 issue of Caesura, Poetry Center San Jose’s literary journal, was devoted to food. I was the co-editor, and we had fantastic poetry from Diane Lockward, Jane Blue, Bill Keener, Robbi Nester, Paul Hostovsky and many others.
As I wrote in the introduction, “Food is survival, and so much more: memory, pleasure, tradition and culture.” A few titles from the issue: “Ars Poetica as Porridge Breakfast in Paris” (Greta Aart), “Not Exactly Millefiori” (Lianne Spidel), “Corner Restaurant, Butter Pats Shaped Like Ducks” (Susana Case).
When writing about food, we can involve all of the senses: taste, appearance, aroma, texture, and even sound, as in the crunch of carrots rattling in the ear. Treasured recipes speak of family connection and love.
I wrote this poem about the much-maligned fruitcake.
Many people feel that these cakes improve greatly with age,
though not everyone agrees.— Joy of Cooking, “About Fruitcakes”
A cake that takes a month to set
brooding in its rum-soaked wrap;
a cake robust with strange sweet fruit
waits for us on Christmas Day.
No one really likes it
sticky with its offbeat parts,
raisins, kumquats, pineapple,
citron, cherries, lemon peel
fermented with alcohol
and proudly served by the elderly.
Some have based their comedy
on insults aimed at fruitcake
but long before the jokes and jabs
our grandmas chopped and snipped and sliced
saving bits of this and that,
insurance against leaner days.
Nights grow darker, cold and wet
as the year comes to its end.
Appreciate the fruited cake –
some things do improve with age.
This poem is really about my Oma, my dad’s mother, whose fruitcake was a marvelous concoction of nuts and candied fruits, held together with butter, eggs and a generous soaking of rum. As a child, one slice left me a little tipsy as the cake settled into the pit of my stomach.
What food reminds you of a beloved grandparent, or a country of origin, or a childhood event? What food do you associate with a holiday? What food do you secretly crave, or openly detest? Go through the grocery store and make a found poem from food labels. Try this at different stores – an upscale, organic market, a Walmart, a convenience store. Find the story, and write it down.
Assemblage for Poetry
Assemblage is an art form that consists of repurposing found objects into 3D collages. It’s a useful tool for the writer, as well, especially if that writer keeps a fairly consistent journal.
I recently wrote a poem made largely of lines from my journal that I collected over a period of weeks, and then sat down to see if they connected.
October 7, 2013: “The joyful bounce of an insect as if air was a giant fluffy bed meant for playing on.”
October 8: “I love when a book comes with a map or a family tree.”
October 9: “I love that my ‘lite’ breakfast comes with two slices of bacon.”
October 20: “I love it when a man well past youth speeds past me on his bike, arms outstretched, head bare, and the smile of the boy he used to be glowing on his face like the gap-toothed grin from a jack-o-lantern.”
These little scenes struck me with their humor or irony, but I had to figure out why I’d noted them, and the story that would link them. The resulting poem, titled “The Weight of So Much Compassion,” ended up being a kind of ramble through the month of October, with flashbacks and fast forwards, trips to the past and anxieties about the future, and arranged itself in long lines that flowed across the page.
I like this poem for the following reasons: it surprised me to write it, but it’s authentically my voice; I don’t usually write long lines, but I found a rhythm and sound pattern that pleased me and helped keep the sentences strong; and it really feels like an assemblage, even though I wrote the lines myself, so it’s not properly a “found” poem.
Start with an observation, something comical or sad that strikes you. Write one such insight down every day for a couple of weeks. Find the story, and let the poem dictate its form. Allow yourself to ramble, to add lots of adjectives, and then cut until the poem emerges, beautiful and surprising.