The Colorado Poet, #17, Winter 2012

How Do You Begin a Poem?

Last fall, the Poetry Foundation, on their website at, asked six poets six questions. The poets were Matthew Dickman,  Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Cate Marvin, Cathy Park Hong, Ilya Kaminsky, and Evie Shockley. The first question was “How do you begin a poem?”  Their responses follow with thanks to the Poetry Foundation.

Matthew Dickman: Most of the poems I write begin with a simple word or idea. I'll be drinking coffee and think "I like coffee!" and then I'll start writing about how much I like coffee. It sounds pretty basic, I know. I suppose it's the “like” that moves me to begin writing a poem—some sort of celebration in my chest wanting some words to understand itself, some sort of grief needing a body.

Gabrielle Calvocoressi: Often, I begin a poem with a walk, or a song I hear that begins a movie of the poem getting made in my head. That's funny to write "out loud" but it's true. I'm a daydreamer and a wanderer so a lot of my day is spent imagining the world of the poem before the words even come. Particularly for this new book that I'm working on—the poems are a real story so I spend a lot of time just imagining what the characters might do and how the light looks and the car radio sounds when they do it.

Cate Marvin: All poems, for me, are rooted in either a title or a line. I fall in love with a phrase I've read somewhere, overheard, or come up with on my own, and can't let it go, ever, until I've done it justice by encrypting it into a poem as a title or a line.

Cathy Park Hong:
1. I read a lot, procrastinating from actually writing with "research."
2. I go to the New York Public Library, fill out requests for books, retrieve books, read, and take copious notes in the Rose Room.
3. Sometimes, I force myself to write a sonnet a day, where I just empty my head.
4. Go to museums, films, galleries, where I steal images.
5. I unload most of this raw material into my unlined black notebook that I always buy at a tiny stationery store on 12th Street. The notebook may consist of information, data, "free writing," stabs at stanzas, to do lists, directions to places (I don't have an iPhone).
6. Transfer mess to computer and twiddle with it.

Ilya Kaminsky: I write in lines. So the lines find their way on paper whether I overhear two boys insulting each other at the gas station, or see a gull cleaning her feet, or two old men playing dominoes on a hood of a car, or two young women kissing at the fish market. They become lines on receipts, on my hands, on a water bottle, on other people's poems. Lines collect for years, but once in a while they discover that other lines are sexy and, well, the poems may come from that sort of a relationship. If I am lucky. Which isn't often. But one has to have faith.


Evie Shockley: There is a fullness in my mind, a crowding and jostling and rumbling of ideas, outrages, phrases, and images, reaching as far as my mind's eye can "see" in any direction, and I begin wading into the crowd and trying to make a space from which to think about what some (or all) of the things in it have in common or what they might have to say to each other— if I could only create an arena where that analysis or conversation could happen.

There is an emptiness on a page, a vacuum represented and magnified by the whiteness of the space, that goes until it ends but even in ending implies an endless continuation of that blank refusal of inscription, and I begin to muss it up, to get it dirty, to bring it into contact with the world in which it exists, to pollute it with laughter, injustice, loss, ambiguity, laundry, and any other thing that goes into the human experience of life.