The Creative Process: Making Poems by Paula Meehan | Resources | Better Poetry Guides | Writing Better Poetry
Diving into the Mystery

Paula Meehan

Hands down, one of the best parts of being Anam Cara’s director is getting to know the writers- and artists-in-residence and their work. They have taught me and each other much about the creative process. Their genre/medium may be similar to someone else’s, but their approach is always unique and inspirational.

As a fundraiser for Pieta House, Anam Cara Publishing is offering Diving into the Mystery: Studies in the Creative Process. For this anthology, 54 former residents and supporters generously contributed their personal essays in which they explore the many aspects and results of their creative processes. The American poet Billy Collins offered his support by writing the Foreword… as well as creating the title! 

Sue Booth-Forbes, Director, Anam Cara Writer’s and Artist’s Retreat.


Making Poems by Paula Meehan

I’m mindful that the inspiration for this volume is to raise awareness for Pieta House. That naturally turns me towards a self that I bring to poetry: the traumatised self. And the poem that accompanies this piece was written to honour whatever muse it is who sits beside me when my heart breaks, and I write out of the brokenness.

There are other selves I bring to the table, or desk, or seat on the DART. The craftswoman self is probably the most helpful in dealing with the traumatised self. She shows me how to discover a safe form to hold the energy that a poem is. She helps me find the true, or oldest (sometimes the same thing), meaning of words; she helps me translate into words the tunes and rhythms that are inchoate sounds coursing through my head as I walk the dog or bop about the place, sweeping the garden or washing the delph.

There is a patterning self that exults in patterning, mirroring, arranging, echoing, assenting to being mesmerized by repetition. This self can be hard to manage. I usually put the craftswoman self in charge of the patterner.

I have a healed self who is both healed by and heals through poetry. I’ve been healed by the poetry of other poets living and dead. I will always be unsure of the value of the poetry I make myself, but I trust that I am channeling something that’s bigger than me. The healed self lights the fire, settles to the task and keeps making poems.

The healed self takes me out walking–the poem often shows up first in the body as the rhythm of the walk, the lines forming from the feet upwards through the legs, hips, belly, into the chest and breath and hopefully into memory to be worked later at the desk.

Which also means the secretarial self always carries a notebook for the Great Thoughts and the Great Lines. I keep many different notebooks on the go at once. A small one for a pocket or a small bag, a bigger one for my backpack, and then I’ve many, many, in my workroom. I’ve one where I write only sonnets–it allows for a title and fourteen lines on each page. It has a picture of Barbie on the front. I bought it at a street market in Sicily, where in the thirteenth century Giacomo da Lentini made the earliest sonnets. That notebook feels lucky and rooted.

Many of the drafts of my most recent collection, Geomantic, are written in Learn to Write notebooks designed for children to learn joined up writing. You have two red lines enclosed within two blue lines as guides for good penmanship. Each page has space for a title and for nine lines. These notebooks were perfect for the form of each small poem in that collection: nine lines in each poem, nine syllables to each line, eighty-one small poems altogether making one long sequence. The patterner was given more than usual headroom over the course of making that book.

The secretarial self will also keep the books organised. She deals graciously, or alas sometimes ungraciously, with the tyranny of the machine, answering emails and managing the diary. She told me yesterday that I have too much on my plate and I need to say “No” more often, or I can kiss goodbye to time for creativity. She is very serious about this and threatens to quit unless I get into the creative zone.

The lyric self revels in the song tradition. A song will sometimes trip her into verse and chorus. Current earworm this early November is Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons singing Leonard Cohen’s If It Be Your Will. Reminds me to surrender in gratitude to this amazing and beautiful creation we are born to.

The inner child just wants to play. She’ll paint and dance and draw her way into a poem. She generally has a great time. Even if another self is writing out of brokenness, she’ll be enjoying building the poem, or colouring in the coffin, or swinging the lines around the sad stanzas.

The critical self is a necessary bitch. I keep her out of the playroom because it is hard to make anything with her nonstop critique; and the critique always, always lags behind the experiment. But her cold reckoning is crucial when I need to let go of the poems. She is a good friend then, and I take her advice.

The scryer will read the Tarot, consult the I Ching and keep a weather eye on the stars and their aspects. She generates energy to nourish and inspire the dreaming self. It is the dreaming self who integrates all the other selves. The dreaming self is the Poet with a capital P.

(c) Paula Meehan

Sister Trauma

Brings me sage and dittany, brings me blue flowers
Sits by my side in the blue hours

The curst path of my star for the misbegotten
Her humors, her transits, her simples, forgotten

Shows me the mountain as medicine chest
Says to walk this earth is to be twice blest

Once blest in Being: Once blest in Naming
Shields of grace against historical shaming

MacCoitir, Mrs. Grieve, Culpeper, Galen
Dogeared old herbals of dearworts and dearbalms and dearbanes

She takes me by the hand to the very edge
Her mysteries of cliff, of river, of littoral, of hedge

Sister Trauma offers me no choice:
The grave’s long silence, her compensatory voice

(c) Paula Meehan

About Diving into the Mystery – Studies in the Creative Process:

In support of Pieta House Ireland, whose mission is to replace suicide, self-harm, and stigma with hope, self-care, and acceptance, Anam Cara Publishing has produced Diving into the Mystery: Studies in the Creative Process, an anthology of personal essays written by fifty-four creative people.

In his foreword, Billy Collins writes, “This collection holds an abundance of insights into the lives of artists [from a variety of disciplines] and their approaches to creativity. Many common threads unite their commentaries. Art often happens not when you are looking straight down the path but when you catch something out of the corner of your eye. Poems come “from the fringes of attention.” Making art is a way of “understanding yourself,” or of trying to make sense of a disheveled world. Art is the result of “repetitive awareness.” Art arises out of landscape. Self-expression combines “humility and boldness” or “alertness and surrender.

“Among the many compelling notions, the most essential agreement for me was among those who saw art as a way of finding out what you think rather than just expressing the thoughts you already have. One wrote: “I don’t know what I think until I speak it.” Another gave this: “If I begin… with something I know… the poem quickly curls up and dies on the page.” In creative hands, the pen, the paint brush, the camera are not recording instruments; they are instruments of discovery.”

Order your copy online here. Or contact Sue at, cost: €12 plus postage and please include your postal address.  See here for more information about ordering and postage costs.

All proceeds go to Pieta House.


About the author

Paula Meehan was born in Dublin where she still lives. Recent books are Geomantic, her latest collection of poems, and Imaginary Bonnets.

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