Sunday, July 26, 2009

Where Ideas Come From

When I taught poetry at FSU I would tell my students "poetry comes from anywhere." This of course was not the answer they were looking for. They wanted me to tell them to walk outside, turn right, take 30 steps, make another right, then a left at the big tree, walk another 10 feet, make a left at the fountain where the bitchy sorority girls sunbathe, and then go about 22.5 paces and you will find the most amazing idea for a poem. 

This was the biggest challenge of teach poetry to college kids who mostly signed up for the class because they thought it would be easy or it fit their schedules (meaning I don't want class before noon). They were shocked to discover it was not so easy and that they were actually going to have to think. 

I'm a firm believer in the idea that anything can be a poem. There is no subject off limits. If you've read much of my work you will realize how true that is. I get my ideas from everything. Most of my poems are heavily based on my real life and my real experiences, but I get so many ideas because I pay close attention to my surroundings. I listen in on others' conversations and I record my ideas as quickly as I can. I also read a lot. Not just poetry but news or blogs or anything that might pique my interest. 

I keep a "bits journal." The name is from David Kirby who calls it that and made me keep one for a workshop I took with him about three years ago. Prior to the class I was writing down my ideas when I could, but wasn't making a strong effort to keep them all in one place. After the class I kept it going. My bits journal is just a document on my computer where I put little bits and pieces. Some are quotations, some are lines I came up with but don't know what do with yet, and some are just notes or research for possible poems (hell I've even copied and pasted hilarious missed connections from Craigslist in there). Many of my bits I jot down all over the place, but every few weeks I transcribe my little notes into the Word document. This way they all live together and amazingly they speak to each other and suddenly a poem is born. I never know when, some pieces stay in there a long time before they get used, and sometimes I'm surprised how fast they all come together. 

Ideas truly are everywhere and sometimes I don't know which ideas will later explode into something amazing and useful. Anytime I am stuck I open my bits journal and scan through for something to use and often it works or gets me going. 

No matter what I'm doing I'm thinking of a poem, which I think makes some people nervous to hang out with me, because they never know when something they say or do will end up on the page. 

-Stephen (Always Listening)


  1. "I'm a firm believer in the idea that anything can be a poem. There is no subject off limits."

    I agree 100%. I'm guilty of always replying to writer friends with, "Sounds like there's a poem there." Lately, I feel like I have been posting it to a lot of FB updates.

    I sort of have a bits journal-- I voice record ideas on my phone as a back-up, in case I forget the line or image that has found me. But then, I am also guilty of writing a line or idea on a napkin or whatever I can grab in my car without driving off the road---- this makes me realize most of ideas that hit when me when I am not home, hit me in my drive when I driving.

    OK-- I'm rambling too much.

    Bottom line: Nice post. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I love the Bits Journal. I still keep mine as well.

  3. I like your bits journal idea.

    I do something similar for software development.

    I have a tiddlywiki ( that I keep on a jump drive and past in pieces of code, charts, solutions, etc.

    You might find it useful too. Check it out at the link above.

    What's cool about it is you can easily create links between items. In fact, it creates a lot of them for you. So you end up with a hyperlinked series of menus.

    It really helps organize stuff.

  4. Dustin- I haven't tried voice recording but that's good idea, of course I don't have a fancy phone to do that on (I'm sort of old school when it comes to cell phones, my boyfriend has to talk me into getting new ones, I just don't care much for phones).

    V- The bits journal is great and having to do it really did force me to keep all my little pieces in one spot. Thanks Kirby!

    Will- I appreciate the suggestion. I took a look at the site. It slightly confused me, but I will look at it again when I'm more awake. A virtual notebook sounds cool and I like the idea of creating links between things. Thanks for the suggestion.