Survival Guide for Poets

I feel an amorphous weight inside. I think it is because of the new series of poems I am writing. Or attempting to write. Honesty does not come easy. Words that should want to break free of restraint and guilt, sit and stare at you with soft, reproachful eyes. I have backspaced more than I have written. I have written more than I thought I could. There is still a mountain to climb. One step up, two steps down. One poem in. Two poems out. The mornings are weary of my wounds. The night refuses to listen.

I read instead of writing. Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’. I read a little. I backspace some more. I meet friends, people who may be friends. I talk a little. I backspace even more.

Austen’s Anne says in the book, “that she thought it was the misfortune of poetry, to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely; and that the strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly, were the very feelings which ought to taste it but sparingly.”

I wonder if poetry should be enjoyed safely. I wonder if it should sear and chill and raise and drown. Both poet and reader. Austen in her dulcet voice sounds a note of caution. For both poet and reader. So, I ask myself as Rilke commands. Must I write?

As if questions matter anymore. Or caution. Or feelings.

I read Darwish. Because that is the horizon. Because he can find paths through trees that don’t know they are forests.

The horse fell bloodied
with my poem
and I fell bloodied
with the horse’s blood …

( The Horse Fell Off the Poem – Mahmoud Darwish)

I read it again. And again. I backspace until all there is, is a universe, a horse, a weight, a blinking cursor.

What happens next?

As the exhilaration of bringing forth a new book begins to settle, it presents the writer with another empty page. The writing has to being again and the poet, like a child, stares out at a freshly scrubbed world, learning anew, words and meanings, tasting phrases and metaphors, slowly, as if the morning is a foreign language, strange and tempting yet utterly incomprehensible.

I started writing what I had tagged #citypoems in the pre-virus era but only sometime after the debilitating second wave, when I had a stack of pandemic poetry, written in the silence and despair of the endless lockdowns, did I start putting “Duplicity” together. But all that seems like a long time ago.

What happens next? What happens on the morning-after-the-month-after-the-book? Today, I sat at my table for a long time. There are thoughts, there are mandates, there is an unbidden force like running through a field that has no end. But I could write nothing. Instead, I read poetry on Instagram, hours of it. Will books give way to “insta-poetry”? Will poetry give way to “posts”? Will poets give way to “influencers”?

What curled around my synapses like an early mist, was a flash fiction piece, that might never be converted to actual words. Something real, current, sharp, acidic, brutal. As if the dream-like hold of poetry was loosening around my wrist. As if there is no more, not a verse, not a line, not a single metaphor left. As if that field fell away and the path turned rocky, slitting skin, the hot ocean air stinging my feet. The zillion parts of the universe roaring in unison. The universe itself slapping against a shore I could not see.

There are journeys, transformational journeys, in which the writer is both the starting point and the destination, both the traveller and the road travelled, both the runner and the field.

Both the empty page and the poem.

Hold it up to the light

it says nothing, it says everything
hold it up to the light again,
some days, you’ll see a poem

An abating second wave (really?), an enraged monsoon (climate change?), a monday-friday grind that mocks attempts at writing, a shrinking world of poetry suddenly made beautiful by an unexpected poem that drops into my timeline – how’re things in your world? What have you been writing? 

10 steps to a new poetry book

1. Compile a rough draft of a draft of a draft manuscript.
2. Slash and burn – round 1/n. Doubt spelling, suspect grammar, hate most lines.
3. Cold acceptance that this is crap but maybe it is marginally better than other crap. No? Probably not.
4. Idea! Write new poems. Abandon idea.
5. Existential question: To book or not to book?
6. Practical question: What to do with all these poems then? Panic.
7. Let’s try one more time – Deep dive edit 1/n: add an em dash and change a line break. Or two.
8. Five stages of grief – Edit, Edit again, Edit yet again, Delete the manuscript. Edit one more time.
9. OK WTF. That’s it. Can never ever read the stuff again.
10. Regret. Panic. Release into poor unsuspecting world. Remember that apostrophe you didn’t change?

That kind of year! Which step are you at? And how’s it going? 


Lay down the aphorisms, brick by brick. Play word-
tricks: the awkward juggler has to catch all the

balls tossed in the air, here homonyms fall neatly,
at their pleasure. Isn’t war, unwarranted? Isn’t man,

manipulated? Was there a poet present when light
emerged to rhyme with night? Dot every ‘i’ in

strength and truth and togetherness. Open a popular
wound. Hyphenate the personal and the eternal.

Bleed a little. This always works. Show just enough
flaw so it seems perfect. (They have learnt this from

sighing at the moon.) Cross every ‘t’ in grief and smile
and morning. Pour a free-size ending that fills every

thirsty mouth. Hurry. Is there room between the first
right and the last rite for one more rhetorical question?

A poet asks if we should keep writing poetry

It’s hard. Not all of 2020 can be kneaded into grief-
shaped poems, most parts are so silent and so

alone – pages filled with punctuation marks that
have lost their words: forlorn ellipses going nowhere,

commas waiting between space and space and question
marks that know answers have been quarantined.

Not all of 2020 can be shaped into light, darkness
shifts in unexpected places, strange, defiant. On a mid-

November Diwali morning, in a year that broke in
March, I wonder what poetry is – anymore? Stepping six

feet away from a stranger, I look into his indifferent
eyes. I pretend he is smiling behind his cotton mask.


A flash of inspiration from Khaya’s post.  Happy Diwali! Wish you love and light and – a vaccine!

The morning after the poem

at first light, on a
single sheet of paper, I found
a poem that does not want to be
read, a sky that will not know its
end, a cloud that realized it cannot
resist the wind, and a moon that
longs to scream over and over and over
again that all it can ever see,
is darkness —

the poet, as always,
did not
show up
at the

A story is a room

A story is a room, with windows that let the outside in, with
corners in which to hide, with a place for the past, even for

seven variations of the present — time splitting into rainbow
hues, each coloured arch bending towards a different end.

But love cannot fit in a room the way it can in a poem. A
poem is a shining eye. A small object. A distant star. A cup

of tea. A raindrop sliding off a leaf. A single drumbeat.
Everything I have to say is held in its tiny fist. There is no

breadth, no depth, no curve to tell you why or when. No
space for reasons, for questions. I see your room, rich with

pronouns trimmed in brocade and velour. I know that kind
of love that has Persian carpets and antique lamps from the

souk. I bring only a blue marble. A swatch of sky. My poem is
a little box of wood. How many are already lost in your room?



For Poets United Midweek Prompt: “Writing Prose”

A Crow That Became A Line

It’s supposed to be a book, a story, but I wish I could start with
a poem instead, there’s something about leaving things half

said, something about a handful of metaphors and line breaks,
that wear their brevity proudly, there aren’t that many words

in the beginning anyway, just an uncertain awkwardness that
stumbles over ellipses, saying little, saying a little. A verse about

a day that wasn’t supposed to be, but was, about a time that
wasn’t meant to mean anything, but did, about the big things

unremembered, about tiny details that stay in the empty frame
like disconnected dots. There was a crow outside the window that

day, watching, as birds aren’t expected to, but do, like a sadness,
an inadvertent new moon, a crow that became a line in the sky,

in the beginning anyway when there were no words. With a poem, I
can stop here. You never speak. The poem becomes the whole story.


Toril Fisher Fine Art


For the ekphrastic prompt at Real Toads. Also for Poets United Pantry.