If you’d told me when I was first writing poems that a satisfying poem could be written from research, I might have scoffed. Though I loved the dramatic monologues of Robert Browning and appreciated Edgar Lee Masters Spoon River Anthology, I hadn’t thought of the way a poet created a world like the ones these poets built.
Even though I wrote poems from different points of view, (most notably "American Girls" which was published in Nebo and nominated for a prestigious award) I wrote that poem from the direct inspiration of a radio story on NPR.
At that time, the thought of using research to write a poem seemed at odds with the confessional and nature poets I read. Now, I know a number of books written from the same sort of research and exploration that I undertake regularly to find inspiration for poems. Drea Brown’s Dear Girl, a short verse biography told from the perspective of Phillis Wheatley; the award-winning verse biography of Sylvia Plath, Your Own, Sylvia, by Stephanie Hemphill; and Myrna Stone’s Cassanova Chronicles are all recent books based on research. The poet immerses herself in the world of an historic figure and then tries to imagine that world for a new generation.
I have a curious and unsettled mind, so when I find it hard to draw on daily images for inspiration, I usually have a question on hand that I’d like to explore a little more. It doesn’t take much research to find just the phrase to unlock a new poem.
Try it. Choose someone from history, someone small that you’ve heard only a few things about, and see what you can discover. See if you find those perfect few words to light the match that will glow into your next poem, or maybe even a book.
Or go to a historical museum, read the placards and interprative displays and write a poem.
Or next time you see one of those historical markers on the side of the road, stop, read it, soak in the atmosphere, and write a poem.
Listen to the radio, read the newspaper, immerse yourself in the world. Then write the world as only you can. And if you write a poem from a news story, remember that you can submit to Rattle: Poets Respond by Friday of each week about a news story you read and responded to that week.
If that doesn't work for you (as it sometimes doesn't for me) go back to your daily life and find inspiration there. Or the dictionary. Or a news story. Or try a new form. Whatever works to get the words on the page. Happy writing.