One thing I've discovered about myself is that often I like to write towards something. Either I'll have a last line or an image that I want to work towards, or I'll know about how long I think the poem wants to be, or (occasionally) I'll work in a traditional form, like a sonnet or a sestina. Okay, I only committed a sestina once. As well, sometimes I'll set intermediate goals -- knowing I want five-line stanzas gives me a set of turning points to work towards, or even just having a phrase or image in mind that I want to use somewhere in the poem.
So when I get stuck while first-drafting, sometimes it helps to just give myself a word -- any word, as long as it's reasonably specific and reasonably evocative -- and write towards that word. I keep a text file on my laptop called "Words to Use in Poems," and when I'm feeling stalled but don't want to put the poem away just yet, I'll open up that file and pick a word, any word, and start writing towards it. It sounds weird, but something about the combination of looking at a list of words chosen for their specificity and resonance & having that small goal to work towards very often "un-sticks" me. Maybe once you push yourself to see past the stuck place, you can work through it.
This is similar to an exercise I did in Maura Stanton's class as an undergrad (one that I know a lot of teachers use), in which she handed out a list of a couple dozen or so words and told us to write a poem incorporating at least x number of them (maybe it was ten?). The poem I wrote from that exercise is one I still kind of like, even though it's -- oh help -- twenty-three years old now. (Note to self: Never do the math. It's too depressing.)
Here's my current "Words to Use in Poems" list. Feel free to swipe some of them. I've already used a few.
kindnessAnd oh, what the hell, here's the poem I wrote in Maura's class. Please bear in mind that I was what, twenty-one years old at the time. (The poem is older now than I was when I wrote it! Wow.) So be nice. :)
The past has a smell
of musty gray basements,
in windowless kitchens.
I told you once
memory meant nothing to me.
Now I'm not so sure.
I walked with you once in fog,
the air between us visible,
the distant coastline of your face
made faint by moving mist.
With each breath I faded
wanting to cloak myself in night,
invisible, three feet from you.
There was a time alone in snow,
the trees barbed-wire on linen,
I stood beneath your window
looking for dim light
listening for music.
Anything I might have heard
was obscured by falling whiteness,
white, and the damp smell of fog moving in.
I want to hold you like a photograph,
but you are speeding down a narrow tunnel
away from me, receding
faster than light, till only your outline
is visible, a silhouette on paper.
Memory curls in my mind
like black-and-white scraps,
their edges blurred, the smell of basements
and old kitchens, fog coming in,
seeping through barbed-wire,
too quick to be frozen
by shutter or light.
published in Calapooya Collage, 1988