Photo Credit: Jennie Anne Benigas




October 2006

"Usually I begin a poem with an image or phrase; if you follow trustfully, it's surprising how far an image can lead."
James Merrill from Writers on Writing, compiled by Jon Winokur, Running Press, Philadelphia, PA.



Subjects and Themes in Poetry: Some Suggestions

Dear Reader:

I am in the throes of preparing a book length manuscript of my poems, so I have spent time looking at all of them in order to include my strongest work to date. I thought I would pass along some ideas that were at the root of several of my poems.

Two Methods:
The twenty writing suggestions below include the terms "freewrite" and "brainstorming." These two methods help to loosen the brain at virtually any stage of writing, but when I am at the very beginning of making a poem, it is essential for me to practice one or both. I need to know what is on my mind, without censure, without the "editor" on my shoulder, without the interference of reason or logic. Anything goes. They put me in a state of freefall through my consciousness and/or subconscious. If something emerges that embarrasses, excites, frightens, saddens, overjoys or thrills me, it may be the hot spot needed for me to begin a poem.

Freewriting is akin to the automatic writing that Surrealist poets practiced to get at what was going under the surface of their minds. Odd juxtapositions and terrifying collections of images emerged as they wrote non-stop for several minutes, without thinking about hemming themselves in by correctness, "proper" or safe language. I ask you to practice this method and afterward read your freewrites, circling any and all surprising, disturbing, unusual language. Use these words and phrases to begin a poem.

Brainstorming is a list-making device that requires the same "anything goes" mentality. Write quickly and steadily. Begin the list with something like "ten things that I wish would happen," then start emptying out your brain.

Suggestions Loosely Based on Poems I Have Written

  1. What if you could climb onto the rooftop and shout advice to everyone? Put yourself into these short bursts of language, energy and wisdom. Brainstorm at least twenty pieces of advice.

  2. Choose one line from a poem that you are attracted to. Compose a line that means the opposite of your chosen line. Write it down and freewrite for five minutes.

  3. Look out of your window. Observe. Brainstorm a list of what you notice. Use color, texture and sound.

  4. Remember or invent a family story in which your relative was in danger. Freewrite. Change two details. Make a poem.

  5. Go outside. Find an insect or an animal. Observe. Brainstorm at least ten things about what you see, hear or feel about your observations. Research to learn one new fact about the insect or animal. Begin a poem with that fact.

  6. Imagine someone who is trapped and trying to escape. Take on the voice of that person. Freewrite.

  7. Brainstorm a list of five things you are afraid of. Invent five ways to overcome each one. Weave your twenty-five sentences into a poem.

  8. Freewrite a memory or invention of a story that takes place in your neighborhood. Include one person and a reason to call the police or fire department.

  9. Finish one of these phrases with a five minute freewrite: "______ on empty," "when a _____ of wind," or "seek _____ instead of _____."

  10. Freewrite about a person whose occupation is dangerous.

  11. Freewrite about a close call with death that you have experienced or have read about. Read what you have written and add a list of three objects that were involved in the incident.

  12. You know the future. List five things that will happen. Freewrite.

  13. Freewrite about something you did that makes you feel guilty.

  14. Brainstorm a list of twenty things you know and/or remember about your hair.

  15. Brainstorm a list of ten things that are true about you. Make a second list which negates them in some way.

  16. Begin a five minute freewrite with "Waiting for…"

  17. Scan the newspaper and find a story worth repeating because of its irony, its pathos, its humor, or its horror. Read it through once, then rewrite it without looking back.

  18. Find a picture or a postcard from a trip you have taken. Observe it for five minutes. Write about something you had forgotten about until you looked at the image.

  19. Watch a program from PBS, Discovery or The History channel. Take notes during the program. Freewrite.

  20. Locate an image that makes you curious. Begin your freewrite with "I wonder why…"

Should you try to work with any of these suggestions, remember that freewriting and brainstorming are beginnings, ways to pull out your innermost responses. The work continues when the poem begins to take on a life of its own.

I am leaving the door open for next month's topic. Because I am alternating between poetry and art, I will keep alert to what my art muse has to say during the month. You can be sure I will be brainstorming and freewriting my way to the next Judy's Journal. Contact me ( to share strategies that got you started writing your poems.