How to start a poem with Rob Miles


07 October 2021
The multi-award-winning poet discusses making a habit of getting in the zone

When is poetry happening? When people talk about the difference between poetry and prose, I’m often most curious about the author’s process of producing each part of the writing in the first place. I like the fact it’s ungraspable, but ever-fascinating. It’s likely something the writer was not too clear about themselves. Even if, line by line, they can’t always be told apart on the page, I understand there are distinct poetic and prose states of mind and practices, and we intuit shifts and nuance and alternate modes. There is much prose poetry these days, some of it stunning, but I’m just as interested in those poetic ‘vibes’ seen in some prose. I’m not talking about the fireworks or flourishes of what is suddenly very ‘poetic’, but moments where the writer seems to have tapped something even beyond themselves. 

We sometimes read or hear, I think particularly from prose writers in interview, about conscious discipline and keeping to certain hours of the day, some regular dedicated time alone concentrating on writing. We sometimes even read about word counts or other goals. In the hectic modern world with all its distractions, many writers can’t always work like this of course, can’t have their days mapped like Hemingway or Didion. This kind of work is about affording precious time, but I am sure most successful writers would say that even if it’s twenty minutes a day, just making notes, re-reading the last thing, keeping it ticking over is vital. Stick at it.

This holds true for that initially more conscious aspect of honing poems too: especially when a poem, or several poems, have been started and can be considered safely ‘in progress’, then perhaps this kind of regular time – grabbing a moment in the morning or night when the world is sleeping – will be for free-writing, re-rereading, polishing, perhaps even printing and walking them around out loud.

Starting a poem, that is, getting anything on the page that seems to have some life of its own – a sound seed – can be a whole other business. If we keep it going, we may be in ‘the zone’. To be able to talk about how anybody – whether they think of themselves as confirmed (perhaps regularly published) poets, dabblers or absolute novices – starts a poem we have to really be honest about the oddness of the process: it’s the strangest combination of the apparently inattentive, lazy and then the absolutely disciplined. For me, the kitchen window, the front room carpet, and the taps at the end of the bath, have a lot to do with it. Sometimes a poem just happens all at once, almost always when inconvenient, and the follow-up work is mere tweaking. That can’t be said for a chapter of, say, a book of prose fiction, though the outline of it might be there quickly, but the whole thing can’t land in the way that sometimes a poem can. As serendipitous as that seems, it is still about training ourselves to get it down.

I would argue this kind of lucky occurrence is also dependent on regular practice, a certain frame of mind that might be exhausting to remain in all the time, but should be tuned into as regularly as possible, so that if something does surface or occur – if there’s a certain spark or emotional pressure, or some words just stick, words overheard in our own minds in passing or even drifting down the bus –  then we must have the discipline and tools to catch it. It’s akin to what Picasso is supposed to have said: ‘inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.’ I think Picasso is also talking about the zone here.

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What I look forward to doing in online workshops is not being prescriptive – that’s impossible and probably stultifying – but stirring and stimulating, shuffling around the idea of other writers, mixing in my own experience, everything from the formal exercise that took forever before a breakthrough to the true eureka moments – but all of them possible because of an encouraged state of mind, a sort of place poets can sometimes train themselves to visit. It’s always fascinating to compare notes with prose writers about this process too.

Rob Miles is from Devon and he lives in Leeds. He is published widely in anthologies and magazines such as Ambit, Poetry Wales, Orbis, The Interpreter’s House, Stand, South Bank Poetry, The New European, York Literary Review, The Anthology of Age and The Anthology of Love (both the Emma Press), Remembering Oluwale, and Yorkshire Poetry (both Valley Press), Live Canon, and in two of the Ten Poems series by Candlestick Press. His poems have appeared on postcards and buses, have been set to music by postgraduate students at Leeds Conservatoire and in the annual Leeds Lieder event, and one was selected to be offered to museums nationally for display with ancestral remains.

Rob has won various competitions including the Philip Larkin Prize, judged by Don Paterson, the Resurgence International Ecopoetry Prize, judged by Imtiaz Dharker and Jo Shapcott, and the Poets & Players Prize, judged by Sinéad Morrissey. Recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry News, One Hand Clapping, 14 Magazine, Mediterranean Poetry, The American Journal of Poetry, The Scores, Spelt, New Welsh Review, and Australian Book Review.


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