In my posts so far for this residency, I’ve been thinking about using poetry to celebrate small things, firstly in a general way, secondly by focusing more specifically on the sky. I want to continue this approach today by celebrating another mundane thing, this time an aspect of my poem-writing process: the humble bullet point. This simple typographical symbol is invaluable to me when I sit down to write a poem, as I will go on to explain.
My personal poem-writing process usually consists of four general phases:
1. the initial ideas stage, which I like to think of as the ‘scribblings stage’
2. the bullet point stage
3. developing the poem itself
In this post, I’m going to focus on the first two stages, in order to explain the value of the second. (It’s worth noting that I think this process probably works better for free-verse than for poems written within rigid rhymes schemes or other strict formal constraints.)
How to progress from the scribblings stage?
The first stage of my poem-writing process tends to involve disorderly scribblings: smudged pencil jottings in the little notebook I try to carry everywhere; a frantic freewrite with a couple of phrases highlighted; or a jumble of words from a workshop, decorated with crossings-out and arrows. Or sometimes, there aren’t even any physical scribblings, just a concept that I’ve been turning over in my mind.
For me, it often feels like too big of a leap to go straight from the seeds of an idea to something shaped like a poem.
The question then is: how to get from this initial jumble to a completed draft of a poem? For me, it often feels like too big of a leap to go straight from the seeds of an idea to something shaped like a poem (i.e. to go straight from Stage 1 to Stage 3 in the process outlined above). This difficulty is probably a variation on the ‘fear of the blank page’ that is a familiar feeling to most writers. Even when I have some initial ideas down on a page, attempting to turn these ideas into a poem can feel like a daunting task. The page may not be blank, but what it contains is a long way from a finished poem.
I’ve found a very simple technique to be helpful for overcoming this feeling; when I first type up my scribblings, I write them as a bullet point list, rather than as lines of a poetry or as paragraphs. I then add more possible phrases and variations to the initial ideas in this list, building up a collection of lines and phrases around whatever the poem would be about.
To explain how this strategy works for me, I’ve written a loose illustration of what the ‘bullet point stage’ might look like if I was writing a poem about why I find this technique helpful. The list of phrases below is slightly more ordered than my use of bullet points usually is, but it illustrates the way I circle round a concept to collect possible ideas.
Why I am grateful for bullet points
- Just writing lists of ordinary lines doesn’t feel the same
- And paragraphs feel too much like prose
- Somehow the addition of bullet points flicks a switch in my head
- As if they allow me to accept incompleteness
- As if a phrase flush with the margin is already trying too hard to be a poem
- Whereas the bullet point is just a place for words to sit
- The bullet point is a place for words to rest on their journey from idea to poem
- A bullet point is honest
- A bullet point is straightforward
- A bullet point doesn’t ask too much of me
- Bullet points line up like buttons on a coat
- The bullet point allows each phrase to exist independently
- Before they are threaded together like beads onto a necklace
- It shows that the order of the phrases is not inherent
- Nothing is inherent in a poem
- Nothing is inevitable in a poem
- The poem-writing process is a process of exploring possibilities
- A process of playing with possibilities
- In a list of bullet points, there are infinite potential poems
- All the parallel poems that could be built from these bullet points
- In the bullet point stage, I write the same idea in different ways
- I write the same idea expressed multiple times in different words
- The same idea reworded over and over
- Distorted reflections of a phrase
- Like a whisper passed round a circle of children
- I am taking inventory of the ideas at my disposal
- Tracking my thought process with each black dot
- Bullet points are stepping stones across what would otherwise feel like too large a gulf
- A way to bridge the gap between the scribbled seeds of an idea and something that feels like a poem
- To praise the bullet point is to praise the poem before it is a poem
- To praise the bullet point is to praise the messy in-between
- If I wanted to make this into a finished poem, I’d copy and paste the phrases that stood out
- Move them away from this bullet point scaffold
- See how they feel together when no longer separated
- Put them together like puzzle pieces
- Work out the order the phrases will go in
- Work out the form they will take
- Consider line breaks and stanzas
- Ensure that there isn’t too much repetition
- Rearrange and reconsider and rewrite
- But I’m not going to do that this time
- But this time, I’ll leave it here
- I’ll leave it here in this limbo
- I’ll let you see the bullet points
- I’ll let you see the bullet points for once
Give it a go?
No single writing process will work for every writer, but I’d like to challenge any interested poets to try introducing a ‘bullet point stage’ into their own writing process. You may discover that you don’t like this technique at all, but there’s a chance you might find it as useful as I do! (If you do have any thoughts you’d like to share, you could always tweet at me @BethRSD or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org)
If you’d like to apply this very simple strategy in your own writing process, take some initial ideas or a very early draft of a poem. Write the phrases out as bullet points (I prefer to type them up, but there’s no reason you couldn’t handwrite them). If a different way of wording something pops into your mind, write that down as a separate bullet point. Feel free to write multiple bullet points one after the other with only subtle differences between them. If you can think of different directions the poem might go in, include them all in your bullet point list.
Don’t delete any of the bullet points even if you’re not happy with them. Don’t think too much about what order the phrases might go in. Don’t worry about punctuation or how to connect phrases together.
Let the ideas exist for a while in a chaotic brainstorm stage.
Don’t start trying to make anything that looks like a poem until you have a fair number of bullet points. You might even want to set yourself a target; perhaps you could decide that you won’t move onto trying to formulate the ideas into a poem until you’ve filled, say, half a page with bullet points. Let the ideas exist for a while in a chaotic brainstorm stage. Take stock of the phrases at your disposal. Gather as many possible pieces for the poem as you can, and allow each piece to exist as its own independent bullet point.
Once you’re satisfied with your collection of bullet points, you can start thinking about which phrases you actually want to include in the poem, and how they might fit together. Hopefully, if you’re like me, you’ll find that having laid out a list of potential lines and phrases makes the ‘developing the poem’ stage much easier.
Without the existence of the bullet point, I’d probably have written fewer poems. And, at least from my perspective, that makes it worth celebrating.
Submit your Small Good Thing
For an upcoming post, Beth wants to know your ‘Small Good Thing’ – something small, simple and overlooked that you want to show appreciation for. Submit in just 10 seconds over on this Google form!