Poem Seeds: Collecting Poems From Your Journal
by Violet Nesdoly
I recently picked up Natalie Goldberg's book, Writing Down the Bones, and read, "Sometimes I discover poems in my notebook that I did not know I had written…"
Natalie's idea came as quite a surprise to me. For years I viewed journaling as self-therapy and writing practice. On the rare occasion I reread what I’d written it was to confirm things like the date we sold the car or to find details for my Christmas letter. The possibility that poems might flourish in my recitation of birthday gifts and Thanksgiving dinners seemed optimistic.
Natalie Goldberg continues, "…As you reread, circle whole sections that are good in your notebooks. They can be used as beginning points for future writing or they might be complete poems right there. Try typing them up…”
I decided to give it a try—and I was surprised at what I found in my journal.
Follow these steps to set up your own ever-productive poetry garden:
Begin Keeping a Journal
If you’re like me, that’s something you’ve done for years. If this is a new venture there are hundreds of resources to guide you as you begin.
The Write Way to Keep a Journal
Keep a Journal: Save a Life
Keeping a Journal
Now… go get started.
Perhaps not daily, but try to make a minimum of two or three entries a week. Write about a variety of things. I find the entries that work best as later poem material are ones where I’ve been honest and gritty. You don’t need to be overly mindful of punctuation, spelling, writing in complete sentences and other mechanical niceties. But do attend to details. Be precise in description. Name things. List things. If the feelings you’re experiencing remind you of something, name that thing.
Wait, Then Reread
Don’t reread your journal immediately. You need time to distance yourself from what you’ve written. Most of us are unable to judge the quality of our writing—or our thoughts, for that matter—without the benefit of time and distance. After a month to six weeks, reread your journal to look for poem ideas.
Trust Your Instincts
The day is west coast vintage fall perfection, with faint haze in the high sky, making the light a little golden. To the north, peeking through breaks in houses and trees, are the dark denim North Shore mountains, tops obscured by masses of rolling blue and gray-tinged cloud…Yesterday I passed a tall Japanese maple dropping its crimson leaves onto a cedar shrub beneath it…
“Today dawned bright and sparkling… But, true to predictions, by afternoon the gray vapors were moving in and now it’s damp and feels almost cold enough for snow. Don’t know how all the blossoms stand it…Despite the inhospitable climate, more and more flowers are bursting out—trees of tight rose buds one day expand to pink lace confections the next. Drab forsythias have now come to life with graceful arching branches…From the shy pink-blue lungwort blooming in the shade of my Japanese juniper to showy azaleas and rhododendron, the season’s show is underway…”
“Feel somewhat like I’m being plowed.—as if God is plowing places in my heart that have never been plowed before—virgin soil…As circumstances plow my life, I am exposed. The furrows that are cut expose areas of stubbornness, resistance, self-will that I know shouldn’t be there.”
“Am concerned about an attitude that came out again this morning. She (my 3-year-old daughter) dislikes prayer. She was complaining about an earache…I suggested we pray about it but she objected most violently. She also objects to prayer at bedtime…How does Christianity become a relevant, daily, wash’n’wear belief system without one bringing it into the everyday occurrences of living, like praying for a sore ear?”
Examine Your Writing
Now look closely at what you’ve selected to see if you can understand what makes it interesting to you. Work on that angle as you write the poem. Here are four things I found in my journal excerpts and which you can look for in yours:
1. Metaphors or similes that can be expanded into entire poems.
In the November 8th entry, I realized I liked the idea of mountains wearing denim. That got me thinking about other ways I could bring in fabrics and clothes. In my final poem (“October Fashion” which was accepted by CAPPER’S) I dressed morning in crisp cotton and smoky tulle, the mountains in denim under fleece, the park in a shawl of embroidered leaves, and the cedar shrub in green boucle accessorized with a red leaf applique.
2. Lively word rhythms and juxtapositions.
When I reread the March 27th entry, I felt a pulling and movement in the language. So I worked on refining and enhancing what I’d already written. “April Show” was the result. I tried to capture the inevitability of Spring’s advance.
Though the afternoon’s snow-cold breaths
and gray vapors threaten
to lower the curtain
flowers keep bursting on stage.
Magnolia’s tight rose buds
fan out to pink confections
graceful arcs of yellow
Pieris dangles blushing clusters
like exotic fruit.
From shy mauve Lungwort
uncoiling under somber Juniper
to Rhododendrons –
fuchsia, orange and red –
promenading in the spotlight
all the cast has caught
the rhythm of the caper
a chorus line in Spring’s
(First published in Time of Singing – Spring 2004)
3. Interesting ideas that invite further exploration.
The thought of being plowed by God in my November 3rd entry got me asking: What does He plow with? What does He find? How does He deal with the obstacles in my life? What’s the purpose of this plowing anyway? The poem “The Plowman” which resulted, begins like this:
God is plowing my spirit
breaking with His Word
through turf of actions
churning them over
to deep motivations
bare and uncovered
furrows laid open
before my own eyes...
4. Descriptions of events that evoke emotion.
Though I reread the October 28th journal entry years after writing it, it still took me back to when I was a new and inexperienced mom. I relived the concern I felt when my innocent little daughter refused to do something that was sacred and essential to me. As I wrote the poem “I don’t want to pray,” I tried to express the longing of a parent who wants their child to meet the Jesus of the Bible.
Utmost Christian Writers purchased my poem, "I Don't Want to Pray," for publication in the Utmost Christian Poets Gallery.
Next time you find your poem plot looking more like winter than spring, take a trip through your journal to gather some fresh seeds. As you give yourself to the task of collecting, planting, nourishing and harvesting the poems you’ve already begun there, you may find your poetry garden is always in bloom!
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