20 Ways to Combat Poetry Writer’s Block

poetry writer's block

Writer’s block is a myth. Do you think chefs have cook’s block? Do you think Rick Bayless wakes up in the morning and thinks to himself, I don’t know what to cook?

Michael Ruhlman probably uttered other statements I jotted down during IACP, but that is the one my mind keeps regurgitating with regularity. Rick Bayless and I took the escalator down afterwards, so I asked if Ruhlman was right. Bayless replied, You cook through it. 

If you’ve ever experienced the sensation of writer’s block, it’s like a blinking cursor on the vast expanse of the blank screen. Do you break out in a sweat? Think you will never be able to string together intelligible words again? It may be a myth but it might also be the cause of a lot of consternation.

Here are 20 ways to kick poetry writer’s block. If you’ve got a tip to add, post it in the comments and I will add it with attribution so we can make this a workable list of ideas.

20 Ways to Combat Poetry Writer’s Block

1//  Give your work a break. Don’t open the document or notebook for a day or two after you’ve written something, so that you can bring fresh eyes to the piece. Open a poem you haven’t revisited in a while and revise with really fresh eyes, even if it means you scrap the bulk of the poem and only keep one line. Use that line as a diving board.

2// Pick up a book like 642 Things to Write.

3// Go to a museum and see if you connect with one of the paintings hanging there- perhaps you will be primed to write an ekphrastic poem.

4// Go to a poetry reading and keep a notebook in hand to write down phrases or lines that catch your attention.

5// Pick up a book of a master poet whose work inspires your own. Steal the syllable count from a poem you think has good flow of theirs. If the finished poem still has the same flow and framework as theirs, credit them in the title.

6// Swipe the rhyming end words from a poem and fashion them into a poem of your own words.

7// Read often.

8// Subscribe to the New York Times (or look elsewhere for large blocks of text to manhandle). Create erasure poems using a thick marker.

9// Learn a new language. Let the sounds creep into your ear and loop around your tongue that you might think about your own language differently.

10// Take a writing class and find peers to workshop your work with you. As you read their work listen for new ways to approach your own work and tics to cut out.

11// Take a sensory walk around your neighborhood. What do you smell? What are the sounds enveloping you? Is the fog thick and damp or sun sticky and hot?

12// Go to work as a barista, a restaurant server, a stay at home mom (or dad), a web designer, advertising executive, marketing professional or cook. Keep a small notebook near you for snippets of poetry that break through everydayness.

13// Begin journaling your days using constraint of only 100 words. Let this force you to be intentional about word choice and be a first draft on hard topics.

14// Write a thank you note. Be specific. Let it serve the purpose of gratitude while being an opportunity to practice concision and description.

15// Read often. Research a subject that interests you. Become an expert. See how it might naturally elbow its way into work that originally has nothing to do with it.

16// Take a photography, painting, drawing, sculpture, cooking or mixed media class. Let the precepts behind one form of creating bleed into your writing.

17// Read a poet’s life work from start to finish. Look for how their voice changed as they aged. What stayed the same? Don’t be hard on yourself. Keep writing.

18// Cobble together a writing tribe for workshop. Listen for comments on your work that line up with the edits you see are needed. Nurture these relationships.

19// Volunteer at a local homeless drop-in center. Eat dinner. Make friends. Listen for the stories you don’t expect to hear. Dedicate yourself to helping a cause you believe in. Let the importance of what it’s seeking to eradicate worm its way into your work. Let your heart expand and your poetry will too.

20// Write one draft. Underline the phrases that are essential. Scrap the rest of it. Write a second draft that largely forgets the first draft, but looks for ways to incorporate those essential phrases. If they don’t work? Scrap them. Keep writing.

City Guide: Chicago

Like a deejay with a favorite song in regular rotation, Chicago used to get played at least once a year in my life. I would exit the McCormick Center after working the NRA show (and lest you envision me donning a rifle, those initials stand for National Restaurant Association show) set out on the Metra for downtown reveling in the architecture and the creative culinary scene in those few evening hours set aside for a bit of exploration. As things go, I haven’t had the occasion in a while to set foot outside of O’Hare or Midway airports. Recently, during a family trip, we carved out 24 hours to claim as our own. If you find yourself in a similar situation or want to take this tasting menu approach to deep diving into a city quickly, you might find it not only a fun challenge but a memorable adventure. And so, with 24 hours in Chicago at your disposal, here’s your cheat sheet of where to go and what to eat.

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If you read “The Paris Wife” by Paula McLain, then you know Ernest Hemingway’s early days with first wife Hadley Richardson began in Chicago. What you may not know is that his house happens to be near the waterfront at 1239 North Dearborn. Out for a leisurely stroll through the park toward downtown one morning we happened upon his house. I couldn’t believe it and had to glance at the sign in front of the house several times just to make sure it had read it correctly. Sure enough, in 1921, he and Hadley rented the top flat for four months after they first married. Standing outside the fenced in house, I wondered about this phase of his writing life, all of the utter potential that still lay before him largely untapped and how time spent in this flat as a newlywed all culminated to impact his writing.

If you want a slice of Chicago deep dish pizza, the responses vary. Call me sentimental, but only one place satiates that urge. I first happened upon Giordano’s with a local friend and stumbled upon their spinach deep dish. The steel spatula cuts through the layers to move a slice onto your plate with the melted cheese reticent to tear itself away from the rest of the pie. The thick chunky tomato sauce, paired with the buttery crust, cheese and spinach is reminiscent of SF favorite, Little Star Pizza.

Walking in Chicago can take you to unexpected places. Most people are familiar with the “Miracle Mile,” that stretch of North Michigan Avenue that puts you on the path of posh boutiques and familiar brands of clothing stores. If you have it within you to stretch your legs for a while, let them take you well past that mile and down to South Michigan. This is one of my favorite jaunts in the city because of the breathtaking architecture, the lazy river that dissects downtown and the incredible public art. So much of downtown Chicago is meant to be experienced on foot and you can miss the small details when whizzing by in a car or cab. Millenium Park with its beloved stainless steel “Bean” sculpture delights people who walk up close and marvel at their reflection or the cityscape and sky reflected that make it look transparent in the right light. Just beyond it are two tall sculpture towers that broadcast filmed facial expressions along the stonework and water streaming down the surface. If you keep going you end up at the Art Institute and then even beyond that is another sculpture garden. Chicago makes art open to all, displaying natural alongside created beauty on this long walk.

Before you head over the bridge from North Michigan to the Art Institute, stop at Argo Tea. By this point, you might be parched and in need of refreshment. This local tea company has really ramped up their national distribution of iced tea in sleek reusable glass vessels, now available in specialty stores and convenience stores but there’s nothing like going into their teahouses with their vast selection of tea flavors and varieties of presentations. I’m partial to the Mate Latte, a blend of yerba mate, coconut and cocoa that when paired with a splash of milk and served over ice needs no sweetener and gives a lift of caffeine without making you jittery. They also serve bubble tea, hot tea, snacks and small meals. Rejuvenate in the summer with their iced tea sangria or a steaming cup of Charitea in the fall.  

Dirty little secret: if you head to the Art Institute an hour before they close, they drastically reduce the entry fee. If you decide to visit the museum with that approach, have a game plan in place and figure out what exhibit matters most to you, otherwise you might not get to it. I always make a beeline to visit my favorite painting of theirs: “Meekness” by Eustache Le Sueur, a gilded pastoral depiction of this virtue. I also make my way to see “The Bedroom” a fairly frenetic painting by van Gogh. Something about repeat visits to paintings that have left impressions reveals something new about the painting and the viewer. If time allows, visit the Frank Lloyd Wright pieces. But the piece de resistance, the one that is not to be missed are the Chagall windows in the basement. As one of my favorite artists, these windows are an incredible homage to America with the motifs I’ve come to appreciate from Chagall. As you leave the museum, make a pit stop in their museum store for unique finds and think about fist bumping the copper lion statues guarding the museum out front as you exit.

Choosing one restaurant to eat at for dinner in Chicago is like asking a mother of 8 which child is her favorite. It can’t be done, at least without devastating consequences for the other seven, right? Contenders for this spot included favorites like Frontera Grill for Mexican, Avec for rustic comfort food, Mercat a la Planxa for Spanish and others that came to mind. But, given that it had been far too long since the last visit to Chicago, we opted for something new with help and advice from local friends in the know. That Balena’s head chef was nominated for a James Beard award in 2013 stood out as did key selections on their menu. Then again, getting to venture down to Lincoln Park also had its perks. What I really appreciated about Balena (pronounced Balayna) is their rock solid hospitality as they had presented a printed gluten free menu for Beck to peruse upon being seated. In the end, we shared a cheese course to start and split a kale caesar salad. For my main course, the Orecchiete, Kale, Lemon, Bread Crumbs and Chili arrived well seasoned and al dente. I still crave the side dish of Sweet Onion Gratinato with white wine and grand padano, highlighting the naturally sweet quality of onions in a creamy sauce with burnished cheese atop. Balena treated us just right.

After dinner, head over to The Green Mill, which is conveniently right off of the EL at the Lawrence stop. We had made plans to spend time with a local friend, who suggested we meet up at this popular locale for Chicagoans ready for a bit of late night jazz. Arrive early as you might be hard pressed to snag one of the small tables after 9 p.m. We grooved along with the music and made friends as our table became communal. Before long, the dance floor filled with  regulars who then frequented a few other tables, peppering them with “hello’s.” This is the place to go for old Chicago swing.

Seeing as I am a fan of chocolate and all things dessert, I can’t recall why I never skipped across town to check it out for myself before because, let’s face it, this is the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory of restaurants in Chicago. Mindy Segal’s playful dessert menu sidles up well with her no joke savory side. This particular day, a few of us swooped into a steaming pot of macaroni and cheese, creamy, gooey and a good side dish to share. I tried a bite of my friend’s burger because he audaciously claimed it is the best in town and I trust his tastebuds, and it was really quite amazing. I gobbled up half of the Philly-style chicken thigh cutlet sandwich with broccoli rabe pesto and taleggio on a garlic-toasted house made hoagie but didn’t leave room for dessert. How that’s possible is beyond me. But, I snuck in a sip of the signature dark hot chocolate and promptly joined the fray at the counter, wrestling over whether to purchase Mexican or Espresso Hot Chocolate, as if any choice existed for this Mexicana. 

While the founders of Eataly would cringe if they heard this, now having visited both locations in New York and Chicago, I would call this the Ikea of the slow food world. First of all, the egress of Eataly pulls in would-be shoppers and diners into discovering items they didn’t know they needed. Since Eataly happened to be a short distance from my conference hotel, it proved the perfect place to steal away with a book for a quiet meal at the counter. If you dine at the counter in La Pasta, line cook Oscar will give suggestions about menu items. The Cacio e Pepe gave the requisite kick of black pepper and creamy Parmesan as I twirled the noodles around my fork. Another time, I sampled the Pappardelle con Funghi, a housemade egg pasta with shiitake mushrooms in a comforting tomato sauce. Yet another time, a small group of us wound our way to La Verdure, a vegetarian restaurant steps away from the ever-popular La Pasta / La Pizza. The notion of multiple restaurants inhabiting the open space makes for easy alternatives. At La Verdure, I ordered the Cavolo Nero salad composed of black Tuscan kale with grapefruit, pomegranate, Parmigiano Reggiano Frico that made a satisfying lunch. On yet another occasion, I opted for the Cannelloni, a decadent trio of housemade egg pasta stuffed with ricotta and spinach, sauced in béchamel. If you happen to be in the neighborhood and want a little something sweet,  head to the Lavazza Café for a short shot of liquid dessert in the form of their Neve Sulla Lava, three layers of flavor and temperature. Thick Italian drinking chocolate makes up the base with espresso granita on top and freshly whipped cream. Yowza. 

Situated on the corner of West Randolph, this diner does a good job of playing up its fun modern interpretations on comforting brunch fare that they call “cereal killers,” sandwiches and more. I knew I wanted to visit for breakfast. Little Goat offers a steal of a deal of $10 breakfasts in three combinations with one of them being gluten-free, if you dine between 7-9 a.m. My Simple Goat selection of eggs, hash browns and biscuit offered a lot of food for a small price. Did you miss that time window because of a late night yesterday? No worries. The menu at Little Goat is as creative as you would expect coming from Stephanie Izard. Perched up at the bar looking into the action-paced kitchen window, I watched as the “Fat Elvis” was delivered to the patron next to me, all crispy waffles with a dollop of peanut butter, banana slices, candied bacon and syrup. On my other side, the Spiced Apple Pancakes arrived as big as the plates on which they were served, garnished with oatmeal crumble and buttermilk butter. Next time, I want to try the Spanish Omelette, loaded with cheddar, pickled peppers, masa chips, tomato and sour cream. The portions here are hefty, so come with friends and share or brown bag it. Also, head over to Little Goat Bread to pick up a freshly baked Miche loaf made of wheat, spelt, rye meal and buckwheat to take home, or if you’re in a hurry and can’t wait to be seated at the Little Goat Diner, nab a housemade Onion Rye Bagel smeared with kimchi cream cheese.

What is happening at this small neighborhood outpost in Logan Square is so exciting I couldn’t help but gush with co-founder Ethan about bread for at least five minutes. The restaurant name tipped me off as to what I could expect: whole grains and solid baking. Their canneles, still warm from the oven might depose macarons or cupcakes with the creamy, custardy middles and  crisp candied exteriors. I relished a hearty slice of Bordeaux spinach quiche with roasted onion so creamy and the crust so light that it made for a comforting winter breakfast. What intrigued me the most were the Levain loaves being turned out in the kitchen during our time there. The open kitchen allowed us to peek in from the communal table as Ethan turned the fermenting dough in the cambro where it rested on the shelf. CDP just opened in late February and resembles in the best possible ways the kind of rustic handmade qualities loved in San Francisco’s Bar Tartine. Had we gone for lunch instead, I would have hankered to try the tartine of kefir, charred onion, shaved radish and carrot or the beet salad with sprouted rye. They also have a black garlic sable cookie I will try next time.

One thing most of humanity can agree on is that hipsters know where to find good coffee. I’m not sure if it’s the roasting that draws them in, or theme of a genteel hunting lodge, but Gaslight was definitely the place to be seen and sipping for good reason. The latte commanded creaminess with an assertive espresso foundation. Rishi loose teas, the laid-back vibe and counter seating added to the charm.

It’s no secret that I am obsessed with biscuits. And after trying what I deem to be “the best biscuit in the U.S.” I am ever on the hunt for it to find a viable contender. The biscuits at Bang Bang Pie are just such a biscuit. Since they bake them every hour, they take freshness to a whole new level because biscuits straight out of the oven, all flaky, hot, crumbly goodness. They serve them with fresh jam and fruity compound butter- two gold stars for Bang Bang. Maybe you crave salty over sweet, their Biscuit Muffin Strata brings together squash, nutmeg and pepitas for a savory breakfast or lunch. The sweet pies boggled my mind. I logged the selection of buttermilk custard pie in a vegetarian cornmeal shortbread crust as a must-try for my next visit.

Before Katherine Anne and I had ever met, I knew we needed to be friends after trying one of her caramels. Given that I would opt for chocolate any day over caramel, hers swayed me to the chewy side. Our wedding favors came in small glassine bags of his and hers Katherine Anne caramels. I exulted to see her first storefront confiserie. Along with those ridiculously good chocolate and walnut caramels, the candy case held chocolate truffles in exotic flavors like Goat Cheese Walnut or Fat Elvis. I eyed the Stout S’more. Intriguing flavors of marshmallows included Vanilla Black Pepper. Located in Logan Square, stop here for a cup of hot chocolate with a Champagne and rose petal marshmallow.

Located on the corner of Winchester and Augusta, this Ukraine Village restaurant is tucked away and serene. Decked out in white tile and pale wooden tables, something about this restaurant feels both comfortable and modern. This holds true while perusing the menu. The shaved Brussels sprouts salad blends with shaved fennel, salty grana padano, dill and chive for an interesting salad that easily emptied. What is described as Winter Squash Curry consisted of spaghetti squash in a riff on Pad Thai, bringing together a bit of surprise in each bite, bright color, and differing textures. For a future breakfast, I’m keen to try the quinoa hash brown or the mixed grain porridge with apple, cheddar and almonds.

Think you can’t eat a delectable vegetarian meal at a sushi and barbecue bar? After exploring the extensive menu, my skepticism melted away. Cozy up to a table near the fire and pass the sake at this urban restaurant. Start dinner off with the Mushroom Salad with its savory umami notes pairing with peppery rocket leaves. Plumb the clever depths of their sushi offerings including the black rice rolls and order a Shiitake and tempura enoki roll with green onion, avocado and sesame along with their Devon roll, stuffed with sweet potato, chives, pickled radish and drizzled with curry mayo. Next time, I will be sure to try a slice of Yuzu Pie. (Update: Since returning to San Francisco, I have scoured for vegetarian sushi as good as Chicago & Portland. I’m still looking.)

Across the street from the Little Goat Diner, Nellcote is one part swanky decor and two parts eclectic menu. We dove into their assemblage of trumpet, oyster, royale and cremini wood-roasted mushrooms over warm silky polenta along with a kale salad with pecans to start off our meal. Did you know they mill their own flour in-house? Once I learned this detail from scavenging their menu online, a plate of pasta was foreseen and came in the guise of butternut squash agnolotti served in a brown butter sauce with quince, sage and Parmesan. A decadent choice for the evening, I skipped dessert but almost left with a bag of homemade dried pasta using their on-site milled flour. Be still my whole grain heart.

It grieved me to learn about the Adagio tea store on the day before leaving Chicago. Clearly, I don’t get out enough and founder Michael Cramer brews a fine cuppa. This oversight needs to be rectified next time but I peeked into the windows minutes after they had closed, marveling at the modern interior and all the selections of teapots.


Next time, I’m keen to venture over to Spritzburger because the idea of burgers, brunch and bubbles sounds like far too much fun plus Gale Gand is one of the folks at the helm. Also, and trust me it’s from the lack of not having another stomach or self to go everywhere I’d like, I’m still jonesing to visit the Purple Pig, Longman & Eagle and revisit the Violet Hour or their new bar, Analogue which I hear has a ridiculously good chicken sandwich. Next time, Chicago. Until then, I remain fixed in my regret that I don’t live closer to Chicago and the creative food being plated in that fine city.

When you’re in Chicago, where do you like to eat and what do you like to do?

To the Next Superfood – food poetry

To the Next Superfood

To whom it may concern
and who has ears to learn,
what passes the test one

day will fall out of favor.
Even now, I try and savor
my name in newsprint,

the widespread popularity,
my far-reaching availability,
and the rich talking points

that come with this gig each day:
high in iron! Vitamin C, A and K!
Carotenoids! Flavonoids! Iron!

I can’t shake that while it’s all true
why you buy me is because I’m “new.”
Ask acai or broccoli, salmon or spinach.

Every superhero has its moment
to be eclipsed by what’s current.
I will still be as valuable when I’m

no longer en vogue. Just look at
my role in the Middle Ages, what
a supplement I played in WW II.

So even when you say you’re through
with my curly green edges or you’ve
tired of crisping me into cheesy chips,

I will keep growing and begin to regale
because nothing not even turmeric
can take on brassica oleracea, the mighty kale!

© Annelies Zijderveld. All rights reserved. Please do not reprint or post without attribution. 

food poetry-kale-the food poet


Dear Plastic Bagged Bread Poem

Dear Plastic Bagged Bread,

From the center section of a grocery store aisle,
you leer at customers with your plastic smile.

If I stop too long to speculate, I wonder about why they place you
in a coveted eye level space of command- strong sales you must prove.

If I accidentally edged your long bag into my closing palm,
I could crush the squishy mass, but that would be wrong-

because what we need in America is fast access sugar.
We can’t get enough of cheaply made foodstuff.

How long will we abide the villainy denouncing whole
grains due to your packaging claims on a bag of white rolls.

But, I know how you would rebut: Americans don’t care
from where the food comes or how it gets made

as long as the pantries fill up from 10 for 1 deals -
you’re from San Francisco, you don’t partake of these meals!

I’m so sick of your bag doing all the talking
what happened to taste, smell, texture – it’s got me balking.

I’ve been learning your game to slip a curveball past you:
a rising minority is proof the ranks are changing and are through

with second rate sandwiches, toast that underperforms,
blaming grains – gluten-full or free for the sad state of norm

that is what we call bread. Just ask a starter, you of the plastic two-
face, as it bubbles up fervently to respond. What it says, we might rue

because to make fermented bread requires more than just money,
but regular feedings, time, love and care, honey.

So, maybe that is too much to ask for, but you, I will still eschew.
And, for now, I’ll go back to baking my own loaves of bread. That’s what I do.

Sourdough Bread Poem- Annelies Zijderveld_9869

© Annelies Zijderveld. All rights reserved. Please do not reprint or post without attribution. 

What We Really Need

Sourdough Bread | Annelies Zijderveld-2

On a cover of last week’s New York Times, a jagged thunderbolt line of people spanned one edge of the above-the-fold photo frame to the other. They waited in line for food and staples like bread. That image tugged at me long after I had left the corner store, quickly exiting with a dozen eggs and a brick of butter. It didn’t escape my notice that as I looked at the tightly packed pixelated line of people waiting to purchase bread, a bowl of bread dough waited at home, proofing on my counter. Even after my house filled with sweet, slightly sour notes of bread baking, I couldn’t shake the disparity.

A day before, while waiting at a stop light, I spied a homeless man taking shelter under a bus awning. Something about the way he clutched at his coat with one hand and buried his other hand in his hair arrested my attention. Even as he stared into the sidewalk with a look of desperation I have never experienced, I choked up. The ragged image kept my eyes open that night, as I flipped in bed trying to resolve my personal comfort with the knowledge of a homeless man asleep on concrete crosstown.

Earlier that week, a portrait by Lee Jeffries haunted me enough to push me into the web to be caught and stunned by the other photos in his Lost Angels series. In this collection of unbelievable captures, his photos evoke grit and raw emotion in the faces of homeless people he encountered and befriended in Los Angeles and London. Their faces tell their stories etched in hard lines that furrow in shadow. Some of the photos disturb and unsettle the spirit, but can you expect anything less from good portraiture of homelessness? It’s too easy to walk by a homeless person and look away or not see them, but what Jeffries does is provoke a response from his viewers while dignifying and lifting up the people in his photos. An elemental instinct  draws my eyes in and keeps them locked on the emotion conveyed in the eyes looking back at me. Perhaps this consists of seeing basic needs unmet and feeling helpless to resolve them in a bigger picture beyond merely handing a homeless man a few bills.

Sourdough Bread | Annelies Zijderveld-3

Something about the way we all need the same things ties us together. Without food, water and shelter, how can we survive? Just as important, though, being known and understood in community and being loved keep us intact. What would happen if, then, we really took to heart and to hand the idea of treating our neighbors as ourselves? How would our cultures and countries change? Would a country usurp another’s sovereignty? Would we glut ourselves on excess while others starve?

I’ve been asking myself challenging questions as all the recent headlines jumble together in my head. Reading beyond hard headlines helps cultivate empathy with people we will never meet, letting their stories of struggle become our own for the two minutes it takes to read the article. That we might think of them well beyond the confines of the article continues forging a bigger community for us to be a part of, than the one we have carefully cultivated at home. To stretch ourselves and grow more into the people we will be is to not ignore injustice or stay silent about oppression. It’s to care about the welfare of the people of Crimea and the Ukraine even as the Academy Awards dominates the airways.

What we really need isn’t much: we need each other and perhaps a hunk of sourdough bread to remind us that a little naturally leavened yeast goes a long way and yields something bigger than itself.

Sourdough Bread | Annelies Zijderveld-4