1. First off, poems aren’t magical things that plop from the air and onto your plate, fat and greasy like Grandmother’s dumplings. It might happen, but I wouldn’t count on it.
2. Be open for the unexpected, but be so with purpose. If something comes up, don’t think about how you can turn the adventure into a poem; rather, be in the moment. Be aware of the imagery around you, but try to connect with the people you are with and what you are experiencing. Upon reflection, the important imagery will be magnetized to the emotion you felt in your environment. So often poets forget to live in the moment, trying desperately to fit each experience into a poem, which is impossible and dangerous. Giving context without reflection can often lead to abstraction and generalization, not only with regard to setting, but also to characterization and theme.
3. Read what you hate and find a way to love it, or don’t. Either way, read away from your comfort zone. This won’t only help with voice, syntax, and diction, but it may also provide necessary conditioning for that part of your brain you so often neglect.
4. Take care of yourself. Whether it’s exercise, washing your hands, or eating vegetables, try to make the most out your daily existence. Trust me, drinking and writing do not mix, at least not for long. Pick your vices and cut them in half. Your output will double.
5. Mix up your writing times. My wife is a fiction writer, and she’s on a consistent schedule, but speaking as a poet, I have to write at different times. I get bored easily, so I break it up. Write for an hour, then take a walk, or smoke half a cigarette, or pluck a chicken. If you’re bored or just pissed with a draft, leave it alone. Poems are cats. When they get hungry or want attention, they’ll let you know.
6. Chase things. Imagine you are on a zip line that can go anywhere. Where are you going? What do you see? What do these things have to do with your insecurities, your definitions, you? Also, why are you on a zip line in the first place?
7. Write ugly poems.
8. Stop writing about birds. Poets always write about birds, and I get it, but if you want to write about a bird, dissect it with a hammer.
9. Chances are, you aren’t a genius. If you think you are, I can guarantee you that your friends don’t think so. If they do, dump them. Writers need friends who challenge them. Praise is unhealthy and can lead to stagnant writing. I’m not condoning putting yourself down at every turn or surrounding yourself with that type, but keep any praise in a jar outside of your workspace, and embrace the idea that your writing can get better with honesty and hard work.
10. Know what motivates you. If you have to get pissed off to write, do it, but don’t take it out on other people. That’s bullshit. Be nice to people.
11. Don’t stand in line. Dance with someone you love, and mean it.
12. If you write in a standard form, stop it. It’s boring. I don’t care if it matches some theme or whatever; mix it up. I don’t wear the same black shirt everyday because “I’m making a statement.” Push yourself out of your comfort zone. Disguise a Petrarchan sonnet in the middle of a long poem, and better yet, rock the hell out of it.
13. Stop going to the junkyard. Every poet pulls from old drafts. Sometimes it’s great, can lead to inspiration, or maybe–on the off chance–you revitalize an old draft, but don’t let this become a habit. Stop being afraid to trust your ever-changing self.
14. If you don’t understand your poem, no one else will.
15. Don’t revise. Rewrite. Open up a new document and approach your draft anew. This often helps flush out the garbage sentences and needless stanzas.
16. Now revise.
17. People will read your poems if you send them out. Be professional in every way. Editors will notice.
18. I don’t know why you write poems, but you should.
Kerry James Evans is the author of Bangalore (Copper Canyon). He earned his PhD at Florida State University and his MFA at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. He lives in Tallahassee, Florida.