This is one of the questions that always makes me feel like a bad poet, because I don’t have one set way of approaching poems. There are some poems that arrive to me quite fast like “My God, Lick Him Clean” from my book Fantasia for the Man in Blue (Four Way Books). Then again, that might not be the whole picture.
The painting that sent me to the poem, “Portrait of Christopher D. Fisher, Fourth Reich Skinhead, 1995” by Peter Williams, had been in my head for years. It’s on view in Detroit of Institute of Arts (DIA). Before The Pandemic, I was a frequent visitor to the DIA, so the painting was always a stop on my perusal through the galleries. Nightmarishly grotesque yet somewhat whimsical, the painting challenged me and terrified me.
The DIA approached me about participating in a poetry series called “Poetry is Art / Art is Poetry.” They asked me, and a few other poets from Detroit, to pick a painting from the African American gallery, and write a poem in conversation with that painting. Of course, I knew it would be Williams’ painting. The actual writing of the poem took three months, but, unbeknownst to me, I had been writing it in my head over the years, each time I visited the painting.
With all of that said, I do think I write poems in my head, but don’t realize that I am doing that work. When I am pressured into writing a poem, a deadline or something like that, is when the thing actually comes out. Then there are some poems that, at the time of creation, I think of as false beginnings. I have abandoned many of those only to come back years later and go, “Oh, I know what you were after now, Tommye.” So I guess both are true for me in how poems begin: sometimes it requires pressure to get it from my head to the page; and other poems require a few years for me to catch up to their initial impulse.