No matter how experienced the poet, every writer hits the No Idea wall. A blank page can be incredibly intimidating, especially when we’re approaching it without the vaguest idea of what we want to write about. Let’s look at a list of ways you can intentionally reach into your brain/organ of preference, and pull out an amazing idea.
When you’re writing poetry, there are so many places to look for inspiration. Sometimes, you just need someone to point them out.
Give a girl poem prompts and she can write for a day. Show her origins of poetry ideas and she can write for life.
15 places to help you decide what to write a poem about
Get outside! Go for a walk to the prettiest, weirdest, creepiest places in your town. You might travel out for a hike along the coast or up a lil mountain. Take notes on anything interesting you see, any lines that come to you, etc. You can go back home with a list of writing prompts.
As an example to get you thinking, the following piece is one I wrote after walking past a small church and graveyard. They were quite far off from the town, nestled in a sugarcane field. Outside the graveyard fence, I found a couple headstones from ignominious burials. I thought about what it would be like if the spirits of those were unable to find rest, due to the nature of their death and disgraceful burial. What would they see? (For context, in Louisiana, we burn cane fields every few years.) This is the resulting poem:
pagans, witches, nor cases of suicide by Hannah Lee Kidder
at the edge of church grounds
nested in shadow
stands a sentry stone with no name
to watch cane as it grows and falls
and regrows and falls again to the flames
sugar-burnt smoke silhouettes
and the lone buried’s eyes light red—
the cane grows
and it falls and it grows
and it burns
and they’re dead and alone all the same
Conveying and creating emotions is usually the whole point of a poem, so our own emotions can be quite inspirational. What’s the last strong emotion you had? What moments in your life were so emotional that they stuck with you for years? You might try a free-write simply describing the scene of it. You might get into some metaphors about how that emotion felt. Living as a human is an endless chain of emotions, giving us an endless supply of poem ideas.
Here are some emotions to think on, if you get stuck:
Note: Try to write about emotions without actually naming the emotion.
Childhood is when we do the majority of our learning and developing (duh). That makes childhood experiences very poignant writing topics. If you can remember your first interactions with certain things, people, ideas, information, etc. from childhood, that might be a wonderful place to start a poem. The more we’re exposed to something, the more numb we get to it—if you can recall how it felt to experience something for the very first time, you might be able to write about it from a much rawer perspective.
Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- What is your earliest memory?
- What is your strongest memory about a parent?
- When is the first time you remember feeling embarrassed?
- Who was a non-relative adult you really looked up to?
- What did you think your adulthood would look like?
- What misconception did you have about the world that turned out to only be true for your family?
4. Personal growth
Moments of transformation are another great place to start a poem. How have you changed from this time last year? What was an event that triggered rapid growth or regression within you? What are some pivotal coming-of-age moments you can recall in detail? Writing about these moments is not only an intimate, impactful perspective, but this is another essentially endless source of ideas!
5. Poetic interpretation
In an undergrad poetry seminar, a professor of mine passed around a box of items. Rocks, shells, bits of wood, buttons, old toys… He had us pass the box around and pull out one item each, then write a descriptive poem about it. You might take this literally, or you might write about some emotion or concept the object brings up for you. We can use this strategy for anything! Take a walk in a museum or art gallery and write a poem about some piece of visual art or ancient object you find inspiring. You could even just look around the room you’re in now and select the most interesting item you see to translate into poetry.
Lots of writers keep dream journals, because dreams are PACKED with strange, mystical imagery. And dreams are very easy to forget. You might keep a writing notebook on your bedside table, or a note in your phone, to jot down the dreams you’d like to remember. You can start by writing it literally, going beat by beat of what you can remember of the dream, or you might jump right to the most interesting concept or image and write a poem around that.
Lin-Manuel Miranda read a book about Alexander Hamilton when he was on vacation in 2008. He was so inspired by the biography that he felt the story needed to be told, and he went on to write one of the most successful and ground-breaking musicals in human history.
Lots of writers glean inspiration from real historical events. Try reading up on your own local history, your country’s history, and world history for inspiration.
8. Social network
The best examples of human nature are humans. Look around at the people in your life. What are they struggling with? How do you interact with them? How do they interact with each other? Writers should be eager to hear people’s real stories. Talk to your grandparent(s)! Ask about their life and perspective. Tap into the rich source of stories and emotions of the people around you.
If we spend every day doing, seeing, and experiencing the same things over and over again, we stop really seeing them. Try a location change! Not everyone can travel to a different country (though you should try, if you have the means!) or something dramatic like that, but you could visit a new place locally. You could step into your backyard. Take a walk around the neighborhood. Try to shake up your environment so you can notice things again.
10. The ordinary
That said, there can be a lot of creative value in noticing and appreciating aspects of your everyday life. You could write a poem about the comforting routine of drinking coffee in the kitchen with your wife every morning. The responsibility you feel for a pet. The mess your toddler just made. Even the mundane and ordinary can be shown in a way that’s original, interesting, and indicative of humanity.
11. Current events
Scroll X/Twitter (unless you deleted your account, which I get), browse your local news site, read the paper, get an ear on the local gossip, and see what interests you. It might be a social cause, a tragedy, a community effort, impending doom, or the best bit of news you can find.
A while back, I wrote this poem about the collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel in New Orleans, where the bodies of two construction workers were tragically left hanging from the window for a full year before they were retrieved for burial. The spirit of the poem began with that local current event, but the overall piece became about New Orleans as a whole.
Roll by Hannah Lee Kidder
Laissez les bon temps rouler past corpses
floating in neck-deep poison water
from Calcasieu to Orleans.
You should have seen it from the rooftops,
smelled it in the walls
long after the streets dried up.
We built whiskey halls with loose crypts
for foundation and femurs for rebar,
and the parade don’t slow for funerals.
Times keep rolling if we don’t stop
to see Mardi Gras from the sole
of a dead boy’s work boot.
What are you scared of? What terrifies you about life, about people, about yourself? Fear is one of those palpable feelings that can become a constant muse for writers. Fear of loss. Fear of change. Fear of vulnerability. Fear of fear! Fear of cockroaches. 🙋
Personally, I’ve struggled with depression for most of my life, and anyone who has can understand the kind of fear it instills. This is a metaphorical poem I wrote about it:
collapsed by Hannah Lee Kidder
a cursed thing lives beneath your house
burying splinters deep between his fingernails,
tracing the shape of you behind floorboards
a rattle in his throat shakes candlesticks
you pretend not to hear, and you drink your tea
sit with the demon and live in its house
until one blinkless night is one night too long
the shovel’s in the shed
but you dig with your hands
soil concrete timber cinder
he’s just out of reach, out of hand, out of sight
chase laugh’s rasp, flicked tail, horn’s glean in
your house creaks, cracks, crumbles—
in the last blink of dust, you smile
that you buried him, too
Hey, nerd, I know you’re into this one. Myths, legends, and folklore from your own culture (and others) can provide unique poetry topics. You might adapt the tales to suit more modern themes, summarize an entire myth into a poem, or use a story or creature to represent something else.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Baba Yaga
- Appalachian hauntings
- Pandora’s box
- Dover demon
- Clash of the titans
Related to writing of mythology, you might take a more modern piece of media to adapt into a poem. It might be fanfiction-style, where you expect or imagine something else than what happened in the source material, then write that. You might rewrite or adapt a movie, show, etc, into a poem. I once wrote a poem about the old man from Red Dead Redemption who kept his dead wife in a rocking chair. Pay attention while you consume media—you might find your next poem!
One of my favorite writing exercises is people-watching. You can use strangers as writing prompts, or even as character inspiration. You could start by describing their physical appearance. You might imagine what their life is like. Where are they going? Why are they here? Why are they wearing that outfit? Do they look nervous? Excited? Bored? Make some assumptions! People-watching can be a great source of ideas, and you will never run out of people to look at.
The world around us is overflowing with potential! We just have to learn how to extract those ideas from our environment and mind and turn them into poetry. Remember that we can always fix a bad poem. We can’t fix a non-existent poem. Just write!