Getting unstuck…

Sometimes, no matter how long or hard we work on a poem, it just won’t fall into place. Somewhere between the thrill of the first draft and the finished poem, we’ve found ourselves lost. Maybe the poem feels flat or awkward, muddled, or over-familiar, or in some mysterious way ‘just not there yet’. I think of this as “getting stuck”. I like that phrase as it suggests a temporary hold-up rather than a permanent failure and, promisingly, holds the possibility of getting “unstuck”!

Over the years I’ve been stuck many, many times and have received help and wisdom from other writers. The best thing about poetry is that so much support exists at grassroots level: local poetry groups and Stanzas, workshops in libraries and at festivals, poetry collectives and open mics, friendships between poets; there are endless ways to come together in person and online to create community.

So here, a bit like a virtual workshop, are some of the best pieces of advice I’ve received over the years about “unsticking” a poem…

Look at the form

Is it helping your poem to achieve it effect, work its magic? How about trying it in very long lines, short couplets, tercets, one chunky block, lines which indent to create a feeling of fluidity? Rejig your line endings? See how each change impacts the poem. Can you see what else the poem might need or need to lose? (p.s. Save all your versions so you can go back if you need to.)

Find the line

Find the line which feels the most electric or emotionally resonant to you. Write this line at the top of a blank page and use it as a starter for free writing. See what comes up!

Cut your poem up

Cut your poem up and spread it out in your notebook. Use the typed words as stepping stones and write between them. Sometimes, what we really want to say is hiding inside what we’ve already written.

Handwrite your draft

Handwrite your draft, the physical connection of body and poem can activate something fresh.

Ask yourself questions

Ask yourself the questions: What’s running underneath this poem for me? What would I like this poem to gift to the reader? Those simple questions and a chance to think/speak about where the work began can help to unlock its meaning.

Don’t be afraid to let things go

Don’t be afraid to let things go – even the loveliest lines – if they’re not serving the poem. You can keep a separate document or notebook for these discarded treasures and use them in the future. Nothing is lost forever.

Put the poem away for a while

Sometimes time and greater experience allow us to see what the poem needs. The poem ‘Bird’, which opens my first book Black Country, took about five years from the first jottings in my notebook to the final published poem. I didn’t know for a long time what I wanted the poem to do or how I might free it enough for it to be able to do that. Time and experience helped. So don’t be afraid to hold onto things and return to them; there’s so rush.

Liz Berry

Liz Berry is an award-winning poet and author of critically acclaimed collections Black Country (Chatto), The Republic of Motherhood (Chatto), The Dereliction (Hercules Editions) and most recently, The Home Child (Chatto), a novel in verse. The Guardian says Liz’s work is “a sooty soaring hymn to her native West Midlands” that celebrates the landscape, history and dialect of the region. Liz has received the Somerset Maugham Award, Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and Forward Prizes. Homing, her love poem for the language of the Black Country is part of the GCSE English syllabus.

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