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Postcards from the Realm of the Sublime: Creating a Poet's Journal

Inspiration can find you anywhere. Will you be ready to record it?

By Molly J. Anderson-Childers | Updated September 22, 2018

As a poet and artist, I have learned that inspiration can find you anywhere. When the Muse comes knocking, it's best to be prepared when you answer her call. How many times have you "lost" a poem simply because you didn't write it down right away. "I'll remember it later," you promise yourself, only to forget about it entirely. A poet's journal is a valuable tool — a catch-all for the notes and phrases and word-lists and something funny your cousin said last week; a sort of lost-and-found department for pieces of writing that may yet become poems. A faded old map that will surely lead to buried treasure.

Poetic License

Find a small, portable notebook that fits easily into your pocket or bag. I prefer a small hardbound journal, or a tiny spiral notebook. Invest in a couple of nice pens. Carry these things everywhere with you for a week, and take every opportunity to write everything that comes your way. Long line in the grocery store? Just enough time to scribble down a short poem! Waiting for you laundry to come out of the dryer at the Laundromat? Perfect! That'll give you time to work on that new short story. Stuck in traffic? Write a few notes about that short story you've been wanting to work on, or call yourself at home and leave a message to remind yourself to write down that crazy dream you had last night.

These are the tools of your trade. The point of this exercise is to get comfortable using these tools in different circumstances and situations — in short, to write in places you wouldn't normally do so. The ultimate goal is to become so comfortable writing that you can write under any circumstances, no matter how chaotic. Try it for two weeks, then a month. Carry this journal everywhere with you, until it feels more natural to take it along than to leave it behind.

Once you've become comfortable with your new tools, and have a better sense of focus, you will be able to write in public without feeling too self-conscious. Keep practicing until you don't feel strange at all. This may take years! The important thing is to continue to practice, even if we are not experts at it right away.

When you're able to write in public without fear of reprisal, the real fun begins. Listen in on funny conversations and write them down. These scraps of dialogue may just find a home in your next poem or short story! Describe the people, places and events around you — try for thick description and fresh, original detail. "The man with sad brown seal-pup eyes…" "Her voice like fake gold earrings, jangling…" "The exasperated waitress wants to scream, but smiles instead." This is the stuff poetry is made of.

Use a favorite poem, quote, or song as a jumping off point for your own work. This can be a fun way to play with words and get inspired on a rainy day. For example, a few days ago, a fan sent me this poem in an email, in response to a blog entry I'd done about my book, Stealing Plums:

This Is Just To Say…

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox
and which
you were probably
for breakfast
Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

William Carlos Williams

In response, I crafted this little piece… (Many apologies to William Carlos Williams!)

This Is Just To Say…

I have eaten
the banana bread
in our bed
and which
probably scattered crumbs
all over
the sheets
Forgive me
it was delicious
drenched in butter
but messy

Molly Anderson-Childers

It is important to take poetry seriously; it is also important to have play with words, to have a little fun with your work. I had a great time crafting that little poem; it may not be a masterpiece, but I enjoyed myself. It loosened up my pen a little, and allowed me to go on and write the next thing, and the next thing, and the next. Exercises like this one can help you warm up before attacking a difficult piece, or working out a complicated theme.

What else belongs in a Poet's Journal? Inspiring photographs can help elicit writing; paste a few in at random, and create poetry that ties in with these images. Magnetic poetry kits, word lists, blank tickets with words printed on the backs, and word-pools are all excellent places to go fishing for inspiration. To make your own word-pool, draw a pool or fish-bowl on one page of your journal. Then, fill it up with words and drawings of sea creatures! The next time you're stuck for a particular word, drop a line into the word-pool. What you catch may surprise you!

"What do you write about?" "Where do your ideas come from?" "What is the source of your poetic inspiration?" Always, I am asked these questions. Not, "How do you survive on ten cents a word?" or "Is it possible to work two jobs and still have the energy to write all night like a burning genius?" Everyone seems to want to know the source of inspiration; the best subjects for a poem or a short story; the way I structure my life as a writer.

The answer to all of these questions — and none of them — may be found in a poet's journal. Poets are notoriously slippery creatures, not prone to giving straight answers about anything. By sharing my poet's journal with you, and helping you to create your own, I hope to assist in your journey as a poet, and answer a few of the most common questions I'm asked by beginning writers. In this article, I'll explore these questions and raise some new avenues of inquiry as we continue our exploration of this fantastic tool.

I write promiscuously — that is to say, I write about anything and everything that captures my attention. I write about my obsessions and petty jealousies; my fantasies and my dreams, and I write about the grind — the nitpicking details of daily life. As for where my ideas come from, I truly couldn't say. Sometimes, I'll overhear a conversation and get an idea for a story or a poem that way. Something I see in the newspaper will strike a chord with my Muse, and spark an idea for a novel.

My daily life provides some inspiration for my writing; as do my dreams at night…but sometimes, ideas just seem to fall out of the sky. Characters arrive fully formed and start telling me their tales. I'll see a vision of a whole other reality, a completely different life than the one I'm living, and it's all so real and alive that I can't help but write it down. I would love to think that all of my ideas come from my divinely inspired mind; my poet's soul, but I can't be that conceited. When the writing is hottest, ideas seem to flow through me from some outside source on their way to the page. I step out of the way of my muse, pen in hand, and write like mad to find out what will happen next. What comes out is often surprising, delightful, with a dark singular beauty all its own. So it is safe to say that some of my ideas come from me, and others come from a mysterious outside source and move through me on their way to the page.

The question of what inspires me, however, is a slightly different one. I find sources of inspiration everywhere, and keep track of some of my favorite places to rendezvous with my muses in my poet's journal. Laundromats, bus stations, coffee-shops, galleries, and second hand book stores are a few of my haunts. I often get ideas for poems in the most inconvenient places — if I'm driving, taking a bath, walking the dog, or in the shower, inspiration is sure to strike — even if poetry is the last thing on my mind. But inconvenient inspiration is better than no inspiration at all! Keep your journal close by at all times so you can record these unruly ideas ASAP.

I am endlessly inspired and humbled by nature; the beauty and wisdom; the magic of it. I can glance out my window at the beautiful view of the mountains, or go for a walk at nearby Haviland Lake when I'm in need of inspiration. Where do you feel most inspired? Write a list of all the places you routinely encounter your muses, and visit them often. Seek out new places and points of rendezvous wherever you travel; take a pictures of them, make sketches, or describe them in your journal. Looking back at these entries from time to time will help keep them fresh in your mind, and can serve as an important source for inspiration when you're feeling stuck.

Portable Inspiration

A poet's journal is more than a place to record poems and ideas for poems. When it's done right, it also functions as a portable fount of inspiration; a ballroom in which to dance with your Muses. It is a tool that teaches you to keenly observe the world around you, and challenges you to imagine the unseen worlds beyond the realm of the real. What belongs in a poet's journal? Ideally, there should be space for everything that inspires, challenges, and interests you. Horse races and firemen and martinis and puppy-dogs and mermaids. It might be simpler to ask what does not belong, for the answer to that question is easier: there is nothing that does not belong in a poet's journal.

Here are a few things I always keep in my journal:

  • Inspiring pictures or postcards for free-writing and photo elicitation.

  • Quotes from artists, writers and poets to spur me on towards greatness.

  • Word-Hunting: Create lists of interesting, unusual words. Scan your surroundings for words you can steal — if you're at a coffee-shop, for example, you might notice the poetic quality of the different names of coffee blends: Twilight, Velvet Hammer, Fog-lifter, Aztecan Spice. At a Laundromat, you might find Shout, Snuggle, All, Tide, or — in Durango — Seventh Generation. You might not ever use these lists for anything, but they can be fun to play with, and good additions to your word-pool.

  • Lists of place names, fictional or real; imagined or not, you can use these in a story or a poem. You can also create a separate list of names for characters; fictional first and last names you like; interesting combinations of names, rhyming names and alliterative names; or names that tell something about the person they belong to.

  • Poetry Challenge: Leave some space in your journal for a poetry challenge. How quickly can you write 100 words? Time yourself, and then try to break your record. Or see if you can write a haiku every day for a week. Then, write a haiku very day for a month. If you're really feeling ambitious, write a haiku every day for a year.

  • Book-Surfing: Go to your favorite library, bookstore, or even use your own books at home for the following exercise. Seeking the answer to a sticky question? You'd be surprised how much insight you can get from a random page in a book while book-surfing. Hold your question in your mind, or concentrate on an intention such as "Inspiration" or "Overcoming Writer's Block." While you are focusing on this, cruise the shelves casually. When a book catches your eye, or seems to leap into your hand, open it at random. Still focusing on your question or intention, let your eyes fall naturally upon the page, and read the first thing that catches your attention. Strangely enough, more often than not, this is an amazingly accurate and synergistic way of tapping into inspiration and wisdom beyond the furthest limits of your imagination.

The Common Thread

Don't be afraid to create work that speaks to everyday life. Poetry does not have to be about true love or majestic mountains or epic adventures; but it must be true. You can write a poem about washing dishes, falling in love with the wrong person, losing a fist-fight. You can write about ordinary things — a trip to the Laundromat; walking your dog; the sights and sounds of your neighborhood at night. There is beauty, joy, and enduring wisdom to be found in these simple things. Seek, and you shall find it. It is the poet's job to discover beauty in unlikely places, and send reports of her findings back to the rest of the dullards, who merely wait for proof of the marvelous and have no heart to seek it on their own. It is the poet who sends us postcards from the realm of the sublime.

Next: Creating a Travel Journal

©2009 Molly J. Anderson-Childers. All rights reserved.