Sequin. Arcade. Copperhead. Swindle. Radish.
What do these words have in common? Not much—except that they’re great words. They’re specific, interesting, and full of satisfying sounds. Each of them conjures up an image or story or association of some kind. And each of them could be a great place from which to start a poem.
We often think of poems starting from ideas—poems about love, about loss, about nature. But what about poems that start from language? Poems that begin with the spark of a word that thrills us and go from there? I love words so much that I often think of them in terms of confection, sweet treats that I can savor as I read. And even in the non-Halloween months, I talk to my students about the concept of “candy words”—a phrase I’ve invented for words that sound and look and taste good. These words, I tell my students, are always specific, never abstract or general. They make a poem come alive. And they can be anything at all. Turn to something that interests you and mine its terminology. Obsessed with baseball? How about grand slam, exit velocity, Marlins, Pirates, Diamondbacks? Into horses? How about dapple, canter, fetlock? Do you play Minecraft, or maybe (like me) parent someone who does? How about pickaxe, redstone, wither, lava? Pop culture offers a wellspring of language; in Marcus Wicker’s poem “Love Letter to Flavor Flav,” he name-checks not only the hypeman himself, but also Chuck D, Bruce Lee, and the Green Hornet. Sandra Beasley’s poem “Returning to the Land of 1,000 Dances” references Chubby Checker, Fred and Ginger, Mustang Sally, pinball.
What’s great about starting from language itself is that it instantly roots your poem in specificity. If a poem begins from words like “Copenhagen,” “snakeskin,” and “escalator,” we may not know where that poem is going, but we can be pretty sure that wherever it goes will be interesting.
This Month’s Poetry Break: Words Like Candy
Step 1: Begin by making a list of ten words or very short phrases. No pressure here—you can give yourself categories if you like structure (nature words, verbs, place names, etc.), or just pluck words from your mind (or a magazine, or Wikipedia, etc.). The words don’t need to connect to each other in any way; in fact, it’s better if they don’t. Without worrying about the next step, give yourself permission to enjoy language on its own terms. Remember that these should be words that bring you pleasure (even if the thing itself doesn’t! I love the word “centipede” but panic if I find one in my laundry room).
Step 2: Now choose a topic that has nothing to do with the words you’ve listed, and make that your title. Consider using a big idea (“Love”) or a season (“Fall”) or a place (“New Orleans”). Your task is to write about your chosen topic using as many of your list words as possible. Give yourself permission to make big, strange leaps. Play with metaphor and surprising descriptions. See what happens when you follow the language and let it get weird!
Fall is a night sky like licorice,
stars chiming in the cold.
Go ahead—scoop leaves into your hands.
Watch the frost shimmer.
Fall is a salamander scrambling down
the wall of a crumbling silo.
It’s an old red Cadillac, rusted.
It’s brambles all through the forest,
the moon behind them
white as a skeleton.
Where will words take you? I hope it’s somewhere surprising and wonderful. Enjoy the exploration. Write your life.
Catherine Pierce is the Poet Laureate of Mississippi and the author of four books of poems, most recently “Danger Days”. She co-directs the creative writing program at Mississippi State University.