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Where Do Poems Come From?

By Douglas Manuel, Spalding MFA Poetry Faculty

At the book launch for her new textbook, Method and Mystery: A Research-Based Guide to Teaching Poetry, Plus Sixty Original Prompts to Take Your Students Deeper, my dear friend Tresha Faye Haefner began the festivities by reading Pablo Neruda’s famous poem “Poetry.” Following the rhetorical figuration of the poem, she then asked us in the audience where our poems come from and invited each of us to write one line answering that question. I wrote, “My poems come from the soiled undersides of stones caught in the throat of a river.”

I suppose I spent too much time staring at the White River at Chief Anderson’s Lookout in Anderson, Indiana, when I was young, too much time lifting stones in the shallow river in order to find crawdads, baby catfish, and frog eggs. I didn’t know I was writing then, but I was writing–the Midwest landscape tattooing itself to the future image-inventory of my poetry. Whenever I get lost in a poem, that imagery rises to the surface of my mind, and I find my way.  

White River

Without our knowledge, during the rest of the ceremony, Tresha’s husband, Allen Rubinstein, was curating the audience’s responses into a poem. At the end of the evening, he read the poem to us, and I must admit that I was pretty moved by what we all had created. This enthusiasm and momentum stayed with me and spurred me to write a prose poem/lyric essay answering the same question: Where do your poems come from? Here is a draft of what I was able to do.

Origin Story

My poems come from the soiled undersides of stones caught in the White River’s throat. My poems come from the lancing looks my auntie gave me. My poems come from the incense my mama used to burn. My poems come from my ancestor’s bones choking the Mississippi river. My poems come from work-songs that smell and feel like sweat. My poems come from lies I’ve tried to forget, lies that have become truths that I need to go to sleep each night. Scuttling across the ocean floor of the Atlantic, my poems come from the graveyard of the Middle Passage. The dead wait in line to rest their skulls against mine. I’ve been translating silence. I’ve been placing jars around nothing in vacant lots in Indiana where factories used to be. I can’t seem to catch nothing anywhere. There seems to be something everywhere! I keep catching fireflies. They keep sending out their flickered messages, keep calling out. My poems are kind of like that: they tenderly glimmer in hopes you’ll come to me, so I won’t be so lonely. There is a me somewhere who used to cry whenever my friends went home. He’s still alive in my poems and in the voices that talk to me when I write. My poems are one-sided conversations with selves I’ve lost over the years, the ones I used to see in the mirror, the ones I’ve been looking for behind my closed eyes. Nothing’s ever lost, just hard to hear. My poems know a pigeon is just a thug-ass dove, know that suburban discomfort matters more than hood blood, know that some of us aren’t granted the discretions of our youth. Crack-cocaine stains my poems: its aroma lifts from my work even when I don’t mention it. My father’s failed aspirations and anger stains my poems. I can’t hear my mother’s voice, but I’ve listened for it in my poems. My poems come from walks where I stopped to smell star jasmine. When I picked a bunch of the vining flowers, their milky sap clung to my fingers all the way home. I hope my poems stay with you like that. My poems come from a belief that language fails as much as it succeeds. Yes, I believe language is a prison for our thoughts, but it’s all we got. A poem is the best snapshot of individual psyche to me, the best way for me to tell you all the things I don’t wanna hear. My poems come from the mice dying on glue traps in my childhood home. They would tremble (their whole bodies an ocean rippling and writhing) and shit themselves before they suffocated in the white. My poems come from the glow of the moon supported and made brighter, made better by all that black that is the night. My poems come from snow, from winter windows crystalized with ice. My poems house more crows than seagulls.

Okay, now that you’ve seen what I’ve done with the prompt, I invite you, my dear reader, to try out this exercise. This assignment is very versatile. I could see it working as a fiction prompt: Where do your stories come from? I can see it working as a creative nonfiction/lyric essay prompt: Where do your essays come from? I could see it as a playwriting prompt: Where do your plays come from?

If you have difficulty getting started with all of this, try starting out in a very literal, direct, and concrete fashion–maybe something like, “My poems come from my mother’s death when I was 8.” Honestly, almost all of the poems in my first book, Testify, have their origins in this event. Richard Hugo would have called this event my “triggering town.” Here is a link to an article in which he describes this concept:

I think this exercise is a wonderful way to learn what your “triggering towns” are. And, if you use the repeating line, “My poems come from X,” this prompt can also be an excellent lesson in anaphora, the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses, and/or litany poems, a poetic form that catalogues a series. So, trust yourself and follow your ear and unconscious and get drafting. Good luck!

Thank you for reading this, my friends! I wish the muse by your side always!

Douglas Manuel was born in Anderson, Indiana. His first full length collection of poems, Testify (Red Hen Press, 2017), won the 2017 IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award for poetry. Douglas received a BA in Creative Writing from Arizona State University and a MFA from Butler University where he was the Managing Editor of Booth: A Journal. He is currently a Middleton and Dornsife Fellow at the University of Southern California, where he is pursuing a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing.



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