Recently, I was asked to speak to a writing class (of adults) about how I read as a writer. Specifically, how I read as a poet. As I prepared for this talk, I realized that I often get ideas for poems from other people’s writing. I’m totally an idea thief!

Here are a few examples.

While reading The Mephisto Club, a mystery novel by Tess Gerritsen, I came across the following passage:

She walked through the piazzetta and headed up the narrow alley leading to Via di Fontebranda. Her route took her toward the town’s ancient fountain house, past buildings that once housed medieval craftsmen and later slaughterhouses. The Fontebranda was a Siena landmark once celebrated by Dante, and its waters were still clear, still inviting, even after the passage of centuries. She had walked here once beneath the full moon. According to legend, that was when werewolves came to bathe in the waters, just before transforming back to their human forms. That night, she’d glimpsed no werewolves, only drunken tourists. Perhaps they were one and the same.

Ding! Ding! Ding! The parallel of drunk people sobering up and werewolves changing into people totally catches my imagination. This would be an adult or teen poem, and I haven’t written it yet. But the excerpt has gone into my Poetry Pot until I’m ready to write about it.

Here’s an idea I got from an existing poem. I was listening to an audio recording of Robert Graves reading “To Juan at the Winter Solstice.” The quality was poor, and I could barely understand much of it. But two lines caught my ear:

How may the King hold back?
Royally then he barters life for love

These two lines made me think about what we are willing to trade our lives for. And so often, it’s not the glory-bound things we give our lives for. It’s the daily drudge. We literally trade our lives away when we spend our time doing inconsequential things like gossiping or worrying about what other people think about us. This is a topic for a teen poem, I think, and I’ve got some phrases rolling around my brain, but no complete draft yet.

But really, I DO sometimes actually write poems inspired by other works. I was reading Song of the Sparrow, a lovely novel in verse by Lisa Ann Sandell. I came to this part:

The moon plays
on the ground in pools of
ghostly light.
As we walk between the trees,
their bark peels away
from the trunks
like scrolls of silver parchment.

Isn’t that gorgeous? I love birch trees, and this idea of them revealing themselves and serving as scrolls, messages—I thought that was wonderful. I stole that idea and wrote a haiku:

Birch Bark

Curling silver scrolls—
           Secret love notes to the world—

Peel back, exposing heart

–Laura Purdie Salas, all rights reserved

Another way to steal a poem is to try a found poem. I get a magazine from my state’s Department of Natural Resources. I was reading an article in the kids’ section about migration. I decided to try a found poem from part of the article about wolves:

Wolf Ways
The largest member of the wild dog family in Minnesota is the gray wolf, or timber wolf. Wolves live in packs and do not migrate, but their home territories sometimes cover hundreds of square miles. Just as you learn your way around your neighborhood, wolves learn how to get around their vast home ground to find food and shelter.

Wolves in Minnesota follow moose or white-tailed deer to hunt them. Then the wolves somehow find their way back home. They return home by instinct, or by a sense of home that is part of the brain and nervous system.

Good Noses
Wolves depend on their sense of smell to find the boundaries of their large home ranges. Like your pet dog, the wolf urinates to mark its scent on stumps, rocks, or shrubs. Other wolves pass by and “read” these scent posts — they find out who claims the territory.

Wolves howl to communicate within a pack. If a wolf gets separated from its pack, howling can help it reunite with the pack and its home territory.

From this article, I picked out words I liked and then looked to see what kind of poem I could make from them. Here’s what I came up with:

Finding Home

gray territories
cover vast miles

do not

hunt your

learn your way


–Laura Purdie Salas, all rights reserved

These are just a few of the ways I create poems that are inspired or filched from ideas or words that I read. I think every poet does this. It’s how we process the world around us, including the things we read. So the next time you’re reading something, when you feel your brain or your heart spring up in response to some words on the page, take a second to consider whether you might have just stumbled across a great idea for a poem!

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