April 12, 2016

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Poetry Friday: Finding Inspiration with Toby Speed

It's Poetry Friday. Our rakish host is the Rogue Anthropologist, Kara Newhouse. Stop by Kara's blog for all of today's poetry links.

I am announcing my National Poetry Month series today. Find information on that project and how to sign up at the end of this post.

Have you been feeling a little bland in your boots since our Pantone Poetry Project ended? Lacking color and inspiration in your verse, perhaps?

Boring class
From Bored Central
Today, poet and author Toby Speed -- who has been away from Poetry Friday for a while -- is visiting. When you have a daily writing project such as writing in response to colors, it can be hard to transition into another, or a looser writing practice, or no practice at all. It might feel like the safety net of a great routine has flown away in the wind.

I asked Toby to help us transition out of the structure of our colorful writing project by talking about how and where she finds inspiration for writing.

Welcome, Toby!

A Mash-up of Impressions: How I Write

Like most writers, my favorite eureka moment is when I get a great idea for a poem, a story, or a book. Seemingly out of the blue, an idea gels and presses for expression, and I can’t wait to get back to my computer to write it down.

But when I try to come up with an idea by sheer will it scampers away, clean out of sight, its tail disappearing under a rock before I can grab it. What’s left is the dust of an idea without the energy and resonance necessary to take it from start to explosive finish.

What confluence of events, stars, serendipity, and pixie dust does it take to coax forth a great idea and hold onto it? I can’t speak for other writers, but over the years I’ve developed a way to make it happen for me.

Instead of looking for ideas, I focus on impressions: An overheard bit of conversation. A sign on a truck going by. A cardinal outside my window. A discarded list in a shopping cart. Three words as I zoom past a radio station. The smell of baked apples. The song that captures me as I drive down a twisting road. I create a storehouse that’s a mash-up of sights and smells, bits of other texts, random phrases, and memories. Long before I know what I’m going to write – poem, novel, whatever – I’m gathering impressions that will combine to form ideas.

Gathering smells at the
Greenbelt Farmers Market in Maryland.

Many of them will find homes someday; I don’t worry about where to put them now. The confluence I seek is really nothing more than a bunch of impressions that will come together in just the right way and at just the right time to catalyze the writing process.

My children’s book, Brave Potatoes, grew out of the title, which appeared while I was pairing words in long columns on a yellow pad. Those two words combined with other impressions: a dream about flying, some memorable lines from Romeo and Juliet, and the sight of the prize potatoes at a county fair during a summer at the lake with my children.

The nursery rhyme, “Hey, Diddle, Diddle,” played a role in another picture book, Two Cool Cows.

I reworked bits of text from the old rhyme for a story that also incorporated other captured impressions. An erasure poem I wrote recently called, “The Mountains Forget and Remember,” used text from The Wind in the Willows and some visual fragments from the Lord of the Rings movies.

Besides writing down random impressions as they happen, I feed the well to make sure they keep happening. For example, a few weeks ago I downloaded all of Andrew Lang’s fairy books (originally published between the late 1800s and early 1900s) onto my Kindle. I had read them as a child and am eager to see how they resonate 50 years later.

I use the same storehouse of impressions for all my writing. For me, there is no great difference between writing for children and adults, or writing prose and poetry. The finished products are different, but the process is the same: I gather impressions, let them collide with each other, and one day while I’m vacuuming the living room a few of them combine to form an idea. Eureka!

This is a great creative method that works best with long gestation periods. It takes a little faith, a little courage, and repeatedly casting the net to see results. Perhaps a good idea really is a confluence of events, stars, serendipity, and pixie dust, after all.

Brave Potatoes
Toby's adorable book on Goodreads.
Toby Speed writes mysteries, children’s books, short fiction and poetry. DEATH OVER EASY (Five Star), the first book in her mystery series featuring aviator sleuth Emma Trace, came out in October. Her short story, “At the Corner of Night and Nowhere,” is included in the recent anthology, MOON SHOT: MURDER AND MAYHEM ON THE EDGE OF SPACE (Untreed Reads). Toby is the author of seven children's books, including TWO COOL COWS, an American Bookseller Pick of the List and an IRA-CBC Children's Choice Book, and BRAVE POTATOES, which was on both the Publishers Weekly and The New York Times children's bestseller lists. Her most recent poems appear in The 5-2: Crime Poetry Weekly, Light, and Silver Birch Press. Visit to learn more.

Toby and I spent a little bit of time this morning, searching the Internet for some poems that fit her mash-up sensibility.

Some suggested reading:
A blog post on "impressions poems" at Goodreads. (Look for "Memories" by John Lavan halfway down the page.

Roethke's "The Waking"

"The Unwritten" by W.S. Merwin (Posted at Kurious Kitty and presented in the video below)

Both Toby and I loved this poem stitched of found lines, "Life Story" by Jeanne Shannon.

Life Story
by Jeanne Shannon
(published at The Found Poetry Review)

I started out in the Virginia mountains.
Cardinals flickered against the snow like feathered garnets.

In the kitchen we strung beans.

I was a Catholic school girl.
I was hinged between worlds.

In summer dusk I recited my future.

There were years of white gloves, straight-seamed hose.

I wanted to be a nun.
I said to the world Don’t try to tempt me with your ripe persimmons.

It was necessary to have more hope than fear.

I see us
in the garden, in light rain,
a young couple planting a row of peas.

Read the rest of the poem at The Found Poetry Review.

I love how Shannon gathers lines from other poets (and favorite poems?) and creates something new.

We all have favorite poems. But I've been thinking about something a little deeper: Source poems. Poems that I draw like water from a well, again and again, to quench some thirst.

For National Poetry Month 2014, I invite you to think about and write about your own source poems. A source poem could be:

1. The poem that made you realize you wanted to be a writer.
2. A poem that shifted your thinking about what poetry is.
3. A poem that changed how you view yourself and your place in the world.
4. A poem that you have memorized and internalized. It's cadence is a part of you.

A source poem is also:

1. A poem that you read again and again and again.
2. A poem that you love to discuss and share with others.
3. A poem that carries special meaning in your life as a writer or as a human being.
4. A poem that has a back-story for you.

This April, I invite readers to submit an essay/guest post about one source poem. Your post might cover all, or just some of the above points. We'll include the poem (or a portion of it). If you have or would like to write a response poem to your source poem, go for it!

This April, I plan to blog just three days a week. If you'd like to sign up for my National Poetry Month: Source Poems series, please send me an email at Be sure to select a first and second choice date from this list:

Wednesday, April 2
Friday, April 4
Monday, April 7
Wednesday, April 9
Friday, April 11
Monday, April 14
Wednesday, April 16
Friday, April 18
Monday, April 21
Wednesday, April 23
Friday, April 25
Monday, April 28

Here is an amazing, drool-worthy reading of the source poem I will be writing about, William Carlos Williams' "This Is Just to Say."

In April -- it is the cruelest month -- I promise to tell you how I almost got into a brawl over this poem when I was a freshman at NYU.


Diane Mayr said...

Kurious Kitty thanks you for the shout-out!

Source poems...hmm...I'll have to think about that some more and get back to you.

Toby is now a neighbor of mine! She's moved up to my neck of the woods, and, with any luck, we will one day run into each other!

Author Amok said...

Thank YOU, Diane. How lucky for you and Toby. It's great to have Poetry Friday friends around. I am lucky to have Tabatha Yeatts and Heidi Mordhorst nearby -- live and in person!

Linda B said...

What an inspiring interview from Toby, Laura. I love the poems you chose, and the Merwin from Diane is always a favorite, especially read aloud! Thanks for all the poetry love!

Toby Speed said...

Thanks so much for inviting me, Laura. It's a joy to be here.

Your source poem idea should generate a treasury of rich poems for April. Good for you for thinking up such a great National Poetry Month project.

I'm excited to be in New England and am looking to connect with other poetry lovers in the neighborhood!

Tabatha said...

Love seeing Toby here today -- I miss having her as a Poetry Friday regular. And I love listening to Matthew Macfadyen recite poetry, happy sigh. "The Unwritten" is also an old favorite of mine. You have a lot of goodies packed in one post!

jama said...

Wonderful to hear from Toby today. Love the idea of gathering impressions over time to spawn ideas. I miss her as a PF regular too!

Sounds like a great PM series (I'll link to it in my Kidlitosphere PM Roundup post). Sigh, that was the best reading of WCM's poem ever :) . . . . loved how Matthew wrapped his lips around the words "cold" and "sweet." *faints*

Author Amok said...

I watch the most recent adaptation of Pride & Prejudice at least once a year because <3 <3 <3 Matthew Macfayden.

Joy said...

Great inspiring post. What fun. I enjoyed the videos.

Liz Steinglass said...

Great post. It is hard to transition from a project. It feels a little like swimming without knowing which way the shore is. I will definitely think about my source poems. I've never thought about them quite that way.

Margaret Simon said...

I love the idea of gathering impressions. This seems to be what I do without really naming it. Now that Toby has named it, maybe I will honor the process more. Thanks!

Michelle Heidenrich Barnes said...

Once again, a great idea for a series, Laura! (You do know how to cook up those sweet and savory ideas!) I'm all for the gathering impressions approach to writing... of course, the tricky part is getting them to swim in a synchronized fashion!

Doraine said...

A wonderful post. Thanks for hosting Toby. I'm always intrigued to hear someone's process, see how it works, and try my own version of it. Thanks, Diane.

Bridget Magee said...

Laura, an amazing interview with Toby Speed - Brave Potatoes was one of my girl's favorites. Your source poem project will be one I will be following in April. = )

Toby Speed said...

I appreciate all the kind comments. Thank you to all who stopped by!