Scott Woods: A Poet and a Piece of Trash Walk into a Museum

A struggling new poet gets a lesson on creation and inspiration at the Columbus Museum of Art.

Scott Woods
A second-floor gallery at the Columbus Museum of Art

I recently facilitated a Walking Poetry Workshop. Basically, I tour a group of burgeoning wordsmiths through a designated location—in this instance, the Columbus Museum of Art—and, along the way, I offer prompts related to something in the area, allow several minutes for composition and then we press on. It’s like birdwatching, but for ideas.

On the last stop of the tour, a poet I did not know pulled me aside and expressed frustration with starting her poems. I asked how long she’d been writing poems, to which she replied, “Two weeks.” I was immediately overcome with concern over how the day must have been for her, going from beautiful place to beautiful place, surrounded by people furiously scribbling in pads or typing into phones, seemingly inspired to no end by the world around them.

We sat on a bench in one of the galleries, and I asked questions about her poetry, feeling out where the hurdles were. We came down on the idea that, because she’d had no formal training in writing poetry, she simply didn’t know if she had any poetic tools. As someone who had to teach themselves poetry, I more than empathized. I felt like I had found a lost cousin.

I considered how to convey the process of inspiration, which is harder than creation. It is easy to show someone how to make things. Construction is simply a matter of tools, some level of craft and a willingness to fail. Fly-fishing the world for inspiration is something that can be refined, but not taught. You either have an eye curious enough to see stories in the world around you, or you don’t. And this was her problem: She didn’t know how to turn what she was looking at into art.

I explained to her that if you can hone your eye to snatch stories out of the world, you can write a poem about anything. I spied a shred of paper on the floor about 12 feet away from us and called her attention to it. In a riff straight out of the ’70s TV show Kung Fu, I asked her about the piece of paper:

What do we know about this piece of paper? Do you think it was a scrap from a spiral notebook that got away? Do you think someone left it behind intentionally? It’s not very big. There’s nothing written on it. It’s really just a rind of a much larger piece of paper that someone used.

How many people have stepped on that piece of paper since I mentioned it? Were all of those people visitors, or were any of them staff or docents? Do you think they don’t see the paper, or do you think they’re ignoring the paper? Of the people ignoring the paper, do you think they believe it’s someone else’s job to pick it up, or do you think they don’t care if there’s paper on the floor?

Where is all of this happening? In the museum, right? That seems important. Everything else here is ordered, pristine, white. This is all context, but that’s concrete context, a frame you can put all these noticeable things in.

I paused my inquisition and told her that, as an experienced poet, I normally do all this math in my head in a matter of seconds. Show me a piece of paper on the floor where it does not belong, and I will give you the bones of a poem in 10 seconds.

Now we had to answer the most important question of all: So what? I told her that we’re not journalists. We aren’t here to record, but to interpret. Most poets fail this part; their work ends up didactic, or like a diary entry. She mentioned that was her biggest fear. I told her not to start this poem about ourselves. We didn’t take all these notes because we like trash. Something has to be done with all of that information. That’s where the poet you are, or aren’t, comes in. It’s easier to show that concept than tell it, so I quizzed her further:

What in your life works the way this scene works? Is there a part of your life where you feel ignored or stepped on or left behind? What does it mean for that to happen in a beautiful place? As a Black man, the first and easy correlation is that I get treated like this by society. From there, it’s not about whether I can write a creative analogy. It’s about reining in all the emotions and experiences that I can now relate to this piece of paper. The thing that makes the poem good or not is balancing the story of that piece of paper against something in my life or beliefs. If I do that in a compelling way, then I have written poetry. If I do that a lot, over a body of work, then I am a good poet.

And then I picked the scrap up off the museum floor. I asked her if she wanted it, and you’d have thought I was handing her a diploma. Metaphorically speaking, I was.