I never know what I’m writing about until I’m at least a couple of lines into whatever it is. In the same vein, beginnings have always presented the greatest problem. It got to the point that I spent several years shamelessly looting the back of poetry anthologies in the local library for opening lines, just to get started.
I did play by some self-imposed rules though. The poem had to be one I was unfamiliar with and I could not know just who it was I was stealing from. Which worked pretty well; although there was the constant risk of embarrassing myself by expropriating some old chestnut that everyone else had had to write a term paper on in Grade Eleven English class.
Then, once I’m started and the form has become apparent, things generally develop in a pretty linear fashion.
Forty some years of focusing on public performance has shaped the way I work in that I am always conscious of how a line or how a stanza will play for an audience, how it will sound, what the cadences will be, which means I tend to work in rhyme a lot though I pride myself on having gotten pretty good at disguising end rhyme and avoiding the tired old dah dah …dah dah…dah dah.
The opening line of This One Could Go Either Way I stole from Auden’s Musee de Beaux Arts.
The narrative I got from reading the United Nations Reports on the Death Camps that came out after World War Two.
I was working as a janitor in a small college in the mountains of British Columbia one winter and these Reports had somehow wound up in their school library—those and the memoir of an American serviceman who had participated in the liberation of a concentration camp. Both works told pretty much the same story of GIs turning their backs as survivors dealt out summary justice on their erstwhile guards.
It didn’t come together until some thirty years later, but this is one of those rare pieces where I can trace the antecedents pretty precisely.