It’s become a clichéd question to ask a writer, and yet the answer can be fascinating. Every writer works differently; what is true for everyone is that you need to show up and write for any kind of inspiration to arise but where it arises from is the interesting part.
Research: some of my poems come from researching a particular topic, such as my recent MA Dissertation on the Roman invasion of Britain. I read books from and about the era, watched films and documentaries, visited ancient sites and museums. I made a lot of notes and took a lot of photos. After immersing myself in the subject, I then wrote out all the things that had caught my eye, often a small detail, and expanded on each. Even if you aren’t interested in pursuing a single subject at length, go to a museum if you’re ever stuck on what to write. Each one is stuffed with ideas, waiting for you to find them.
Reading: I wrote a sequence of poems on the Dido and Aeneas story as presented in Virgil’s Aeneid Book IV. I have also written a response to Keats’ Lamia and reworked a section of Shakespeare’s As You Like It for a recent commission from the Winchester Poetry Festival. Your reading can prove to be a rich source of inspiration, from re-writing in a different era or from a different perspective to responding to the text in some way. There are so many ideas and opportunities between the lines of everything you read.
News Stories: I make a point to read a newspaper on Sunday. I know I can get all the news I need from twitter and the BBC News website, but there is something about setting aside time to find out more about the world that helps you to see everything differently. Sunday papers are good for this because they have more in depth reports and interviews but local papers are also an amazing resource.
Conversations: I count both conversations I’m a part of and those I overhear. Sometimes I’ll be talking to someone who will say something so beautiful, or we will stumble on a subject so fascinating that I will write about it. My favourite, though, is the snatches of conversation you can overhear in public places. Those tantalising scraps can often lead you down really interesting roads.
Writing Prompts and Exercises: When I am entirely stuck, I use writing prompts. I’ve collected many over the years and I keep them on scraps of paper in a bowl on my desk. I pull one out and free write for at least ten minutes and then develop it from there. You can find books of prompts to work from, or find them on writing feeds on instagram and tumblr. In his books On Poetry and Drinks with Dead Poets, Glyn Maxwell presents a number of writing exercises that can get you started. I can’t recommend them, or his brilliant books, enough. I can’t say these approaches work every time – sometimes I think you’re just stuck and you need to go away, read some more, live some more and come back another day – but I’ve had some success with poems written this way. I love the fact that they’ve come from playing games with words, almost as if they grew themselves on the page.
So the short answer to where I get my ideas is from the world, in all its beautiful, frustrating, baffling, frightening, funny and melancholy glory. When the world fails me, there are always the words.