By Christopher Citro
Welcoming surprises into your poetry is useful because it helps (1) you avoid writing predictable, overly linear poems which bore your readers; (2) you allow for discovery to happen, for both you and your reader; (3) you create an active experience for the reader, so she is making connections of her own rather than merely taking a passive journey down a single path you've created; (4) you avoid the impulse to over-explain, over-narrate the reader out of a poem; (5) you provide an opportunity for the unconscious, intuition, the muse, whatever you want to call the source of our inspiration and the deepest art to enter the poem; and (6) you open a place for mystery in your poetry (as opposed to confusion, which is a bad thing, mystery is a good thing—it's in life and so it should be in our poems).
"Ok, so I want to welcome surprises in my poetry," you say. "How do I do this?" It's easier said than done, right? Sort of like planning to have unplanned fun. Huh? Don't despair, there is hope. I've found a few ways to encourage surprises in my poetry, and they include:
(1) remember that it is a goal, so we can try to nudge our creativity in that direction as we're writing (e.g. I sometimes write "Be surprising!" on a card and set it in front of me when I'm writing); (2) use models to help remind us what surprises look and feel like (read poems that include surprises when you sit down to write and try to dance this dance yourself—maybe check out the poets I've listed above!); (3) avoid the obvious as you're drafting (rather than write the expected next line, take a left turn, choose an apparently unconnected image that's floating in your head); (4) use prompts and exercises to help break you out of your writing ruts; (5) revise not toward linearity and logic and tying everything up in a neat little bow, revise not to get rid of uncomfortableness and mystery but to move towards them.
Here's an exercise that I return to often on my ongoing journey to keep welcoming surprises into my poetry.
Let's Get Started
1. Write a poem as early upon waking as you can.
Just as we have more physical energy earlier in the day, our creative imagination is often more supple, more lively, more capable of the sorts of leaps and surprising images that we want in our poetry the more closely we write upon waking. So write a poem as early upon waking as you can.
2. Don't have a plan ahead of time what to write about.
The closer you are to sleep the closer you are to the dream mind where the brain makes associative leaps naturally and without needing to justify them by logical explanation.
3. Stay focused on the concrete world, not abstractions.
If you need a place to start, try an image from a dream. Or an image from your bedroom, what you can hear, smell, touch. Try to let yourself write as quickly and fluidly as possible. Give yourself permission to be goofy, weird, unpleasant, confusing, whatever.
4. Do this for a few mornings.
Do this for a few mornings, then pick the most interesting and intriguing draft to form into a poem. As you craft the poem remember don't revise the mystery and leaps out!
Christopher Citro is the author of If We Had a Lemon We'd Throw It and Call That the Sun (Elixir Press, 2020), winner of the 2019 Antivenom Poetry Award, and The Maintenance of the Shimmy-Shammy (Steel Toe Books, 2015). His poetry appears in Ploughshares, Iowa Review, the 2018 Pushcart Prize Anthology, Crazyhorse, Missouri Review, Best New Poets, Gulf Coast, Pleiades, Denver Quarterly, Smartish Pace, Witness, and Alaska Quarterly Review. His creative nonfiction appears in Boulevard, Quarterly West, The Florida Review, Essay Daily, Passages North, Bellingham Review, and Colorado Review. He teaches creative writing at SUNY Oswego and lives in Syracuse, New York.