You don’t need to know what the poem will be about, or how the plot will unfold, or what will happen in the end. Or even, necessarily at the beginning… sometimes all you need is an image or a character or a pair of odd things not usually found together. There’s drama in the incongruous and the unlikely, in the meeting of opposites, in the unusual, or the familiar seen differently.
Use your notebook (snatches of overheard conversations, observations of people, places, weather, unusual situations, objects: how they look, move, sound and feel), clippings, inspiring quotes, funny images, photographs, fliers, tickets, receipts.
Go where the ideas are: visit museums and galleries, stately homes, factory buildings, piers, farms, parks and gardens, amusement arcades, tavernas, train stations. Observe and ask: What’s going on? What happens next? Why?
Using Galleries: Ask what’s the story of the picture? What happened just before and afterwards, what’s the relationship between characters in the painting or photograph, between sitter and artist? Landscape or even abstract paintings can inspire mood and atmosphere: if the painting was a person, what kind of person would they be?
Using Objects: Ask who does the object belong to? What does it mean to them? How did they come to own it? Who else has it been owned by?
Or stay where you are, and look around as if seeing things for the first time, as if you’re the alien just landed from outer space.
If you have a character in mind, but don’t know what their story is, put them in an evocative setting (swimming in a lake at the top of a mountain, waiting at an airport, at a music festival) and have them run into someone who is the complete opposite of them.
If you don’t have a character, take an old shopping receipt from the bottom of a bag and create the character that bought those items (warning: this is not you!), or find one in today’s news, or choose someone who lives in your street you see from a distance and don’t know. Or choose a famous historical character and write about them, or about someone who lived in the same household, or worked for them, and loved or despised them.
Take your character, and write a scene of them having breakfast. How a character eats breakfast tells us so much about them without having to spell it out: their age (are they eating mushed Weetabix from a bowl or rinsing the teapot with boiling water before adding it to the leaves), where they live (are they grabbing a latte from Starbucks or sitting down to eggs benedict in a sunny farmhouse in the Dordogne), their family situation (are they alone and slowly reading the newspaper, or surrounded by grouchy children), whether they are busy and chaotic, careful and precise, content or troubled, whether they are preoccupied by some problem (they burn the toast and they’re out of milk), if they’re looking forward to something (packing chilled champagne in a picnic hamper, perhaps) or dreading something (repeatedly checking the clock and too nervous to eat).
Or write about yourself, from the point of view of someone who knows nothing about you who is observing all your actions and habits.