The great Harlan Ellison once responded to this least favorite of all questions by saying he sends money to a PO Box in Schenectady NY and gets ideas by mail in return. That glibness actually titled Barry Longyear’s excellent collection of short stories.
Poets don’t get asked this question as much as do writers of speculative fiction but since poetry is “the supreme fiction”, it does come up from time to time. In very broad strokes, here’s a short summary of my own sources, or at least the routes by which they access me.
First are the classic “Inspired” poems, the kind where you stop what you’re doing, grab a pen, and commit excellence to paper. This doesn’t happen to me much. Generally, I dictate ideas into a recorder as they come to me and transcribe them later. Sometimes there are poems in the transcription, but more often there is input material for…
“Self-driven” poems: I comb my old material (sometimes as far back as 10 years) for ideas. Most of the time, these are poems I never finished that I take a new shot at. I don’t consider these inspired, because the inspiration is usually long dead. The character that resembles me in these poems is the me of 2005, not the me of whenever the idea struck me. I call these self-driven because they are derived all from my own thought (self), and are the result of conscious work (drive). Which distinguished them from…
“Event-driven” poems. You know the drill. Something happens in the world, and the writer sits down to write about it. Most of the time, this doesn’t work for me either. I’ve very rarely been able to react viscerally to a current event, and allow the event to pull the words from me. I blame this on (1) being a technologist, and as such feeling the need to see all side of every issue before responding and (2), being a storyteller (or narrative versifier, if you prefer) – I generally write from the eyes of a character. There are some events I have trouble allowing my mind’s eye to embody.
The final category is Prompted poems (any writing in response to a contrived or artificial prompt). I’m more adept at this than I feel I should be, and I think it’s primarily because of that “handicap” of being a storyteller, and the amount of reading I’ve done (and continue to do). It’s frequently easy for me to picture a scene around the most ridiculous things. And I see prompted poems sort of as logic puzzles or mysteries: Here’s what’s left in the room; what just happened?
I could write for days about the kinds of things I find when I sit down for some self-driving, and that would more appropriately answer that terrible, uninformed, wondrously naïve and star-struck question above, but I’ll save that for another time.