How to Write a Poem—An Unlikely Beginning

Green Apple How to Write a Poem

Squeezed finances. No fun, right?

But I can’t help thinking what would not have happened if I’d thrown caution to the wind and spent too much money a couple of years ago.

In the summer of 2013, my husband and I found ourselves canceling our family’s annual road trip because, well, we ran out of funds. After grieving the loss of mountains and rivers and relatives, I decided to do something I hadn’t planned: sit on my couch in the flatlands and write weekly articles about Billy Collins’s poem, Introduction to Poetry.

Realizing that each stanza in that poem offers instruction about how to get the most out of reading poetry, I wrote an article on each section, every week, throughout the summer. Eventually, those articles turned into the core of a book that also includes an anthology of poems—How to Read a Poem.

When L.L. Barkat, editor at T.S. Poetry Press, asked me to write a companion volume, How to Write a Poem, I told her I needed time to think about it. A few hours later, I decided yes.

There are a lot of poetry-writing books on the market—many truly wonderful ones that helped me in my undergraduate years and still guide me today. While most books take the approach of offering a number of exercises that generate a number of poems, I wanted to go deep with the process of writing one poem. How do you go from the seed of an idea to a fully realized, well-crafted, revised and polished piece, while still keeping your soul alight?

I remember spending hours at my college’s student commons, notebook and Twizzlers in hand, struggling through one line at a time. Ultimately, spending time isn’t the problem. (I would argue the more time spent—if directed—the better.) However, support and guidance can help that writing time feel less like a struggle and more like an adventure, a personal and artistic transformation.

In How to Write a Poem, I start you with freewrite prompts to generate ideas. From there, I show you how to turn that sprawl of stream-of-consciousness words into a framework on which to hang a poem. Then we gradually shape the poem, one step at a time, to help it come alive:

from Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry”

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

         how do I “color in” my poem with imagery?

or press an ear against its hive.

         how do I make my poem buzz unforgettably with sound?

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

         how do I suggest emotion and meaning with my lines?

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

         how do I create those “a-ha!” moments?

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

         how do I step away from the poem enough to allow for mystery and interpretation?

After helping you delve into each of these aspects of craft, the book guides you through Peter Murphy’s Revision Style Sheet as you perfect your poem. Finally, you discover exciting ways to share your work, both through traditional publication and other community venues.

Throughout How to Write a Poem, you gradually find the balance of respecting literary craft while maintaining your authentic voice. Both of these tasks are a lot of work—and immensely rewarding.

The accomplished musician practices her scales for hours on end. She also practices interpreting music with her own artistic touches and emotions. Why not the poet, too? Why not write your best before inviting the reader to listen and make meaning?

I may not have vacation pictures to show off from a couple of summers ago, but I’m collecting words from the writers who have been taking their own poetic journeys. The albums are filling with unique sights and memories. I look forward to hearing about your travels, too.

Photo by Photo4jenifer, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Tania Runyan.

How to Write a Poem

Check out How to Write a Poem!

Too Late for Poetry?

Never Too Late for Poetry
On the eve of National Poetry Month, March 31, I led a workshop on How to Read a Poem at Highland Community College in Freeport, IL.

For an hour, several dozen students and guests from the community came to engage in “holding [a poem] to the light like a color slide.”

First we held actual photographic slides from the 1970s (younger attendees had never seen them) up to the library’s florescent ceiling lamps. Then we took a stanza of a poem into our hands and gazed at it in the same way, turning it slowly and carefully, so that our senses, memories, and emotions illuminated the colors. The real details in the lines combined with our personal lenses created several dozen visions of the poem.

After the presentation, a woman from the audience came to speak with me. “I never knew,” she said, “that this could be done. My whole life, I thought there was just one right answer to a poem, and I was never smart enough to find it.”

She was around seventy years old.

Watching a woman become liberated after so many years of poetry intimidation was powerful and inspiring. It was also sobering to see how early classroom experiences can affect our attitudes for decades–until those attitudes are given a chance to change. Perhaps you had a teacher, most likely well meaning, who presented poems as puzzles or equations to be solved rather than invitations to open. Perhaps you or your children have had to take standardized tests that reduce poems to multiple choice answers. But it’s not too late.

No matter how you’ve experienced poetry in the past, you can face a new poem as the brave new world it is. Beauty instead of boredom, emotions instead of elusiveness, and grace instead of grades. You can read and wonder without the pressure to get it “right,” even just enjoy the sounds of words and rhythms of lines. But it takes work to stop working sometimes. The effort is to arrive with no other agenda than enjoyment.

Lately, I’ve been enjoying some of the exuberant work of Pattian Rogers in her book Firekeeper: Selected Poems. Open this gorgeous invitation, “Place and Proximity.” Open it again and again. Don’t worry about “meaning” as you read it, but eat, breathe, and survive on its “stars,” which are, of course, its gleaming, sizzling words.

Place and Proximity

I’m surrounded by stars. They cover me
completely like an invisible silk veil
full of sequins. They touch me, one by one,
everywhere—hands, shoulders, lips,
ankle hollows, thigh reclusions.

Particular in their presence, like rain,
they come also in streams, in storms.
Careening, they define more precisely
than wind. They enter, cheekbone,
breastbone, spine, skull, moving out
and in and out, through like threads,
like weightless grains of beads
in their orbits and rotations,
their ritual passages.

They are the luminescence of blood
and circuit the body. They are showers
of fire filling the dark, myriad spaces
of porous bone. What can be nearer
to flesh than light?

And I swallow stars. I eat stars.
I breathe stars. I survive on stars.
They sound precisely, humming in my nose,
in my throat, on my tongue. Stars, stars.

They are above me suspended, drifting,
caught in the loom of the elm, similarly enmeshed
in my hair. They are below me straight down
in the deep. I am immersed in stars. I swim
through stars, their swells and currents.
I walk on stars. They are less,
they are more, even than water
even than earth.

They come with immediacy. They are as bound
to me as history. No knife, no death
can part us.

Firekeeper Selected Poems

Photo by PS Lee, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Tania Runyan.

Owning Poems: How a Rose Made Me Like Paul Newman

Li-Young Lee Rose Owning Poems

Nothing helps build appreciation like ownership. My daughters had to save up for their own Six Flags passes to truly understand their value. I had to add my own plants to my new house’s yard before embracing the garden. Paul Newman, for various reasons, had to develop his own spaghetti sauce.

The same goes for reading. While I read a lot of plays, stories, and encyclopedias as a kid, I didn’t encounter much poetry until I was older. In some of my earlier creative writing classes in college, I was transported, via professors and anthologies, to Elizabeth Bishop’s filling station, Theodore Roethke’s greenhouse, and Sylvia Plath’s mind. I loved these discoveries—except they weren’t truly my own discoveries. I hadn’t taken ownership of poetry yet.

In 1992, at the age of 19, I drove up the coast to see my friend in Berkeley. While the big thrill at my decidedly less cool southern California university was going through the Del Taco drive through at midnight, hers was exploring blues clubs in Oakland and taking the BART to San Francisco. At one point during my visit, we walked downtown, and in a matter of minutes, I saw Clinton’s campaign motorcade, my very first Starbucks (What an edgy, new-age mermaid! At a coffee store?) and, gloriously, Barnes and Noble. Now, this was back when it was okay to love a big bookstore. I had never seen or heard of one of these. And, most of all, I had never seen a bookstore with a section of literary journals. Or poetry. Shelves and shelves of it.

While my friend went off to browse the art books, I stared at the poetry collections. These were not anthologies but collections in which every poem was written by the same poet! I wasn’t sure where to begin, so I just started pulling them off the shelves—covers splashed with paintings, bright graphics, and photographs. The first one I sat down to read, however, was quite unimpressive in its design: maroon with white scratchy text and something like an eyeball/bud hanging from a stem. It was, simply, Rose by Li-Young Lee.

Perhaps the book’s humble design and the picture of a relatively young (and handsome) man on the back made me feel, as a beginning poet, that this was a world I could possibly understand, possibly belong to. I flipped through the pages and was drawn into a world of eating peaches, combing hair, and making out in the dew-covered grass. The language was lush: “O, to take what we love inside,/to carry within us an orchard” and “Hair spills/through my dream” and “how the waterlilies fill with rain until/they overturn”. Some of the poems spoke of the poet’s Chinese ancestry, a part of many of my friends’ lives they had chosen not to share. All of the poems filled me with an urgency to live, to write.

I bought the book, of course, my first volume of poems purchased and read on my own accord. I still have the copy—annotated, bent up, and, eventually, signed by Li-Young Lee himself. I’ve read it probably a hundred times. Owning poems: unfortunately for my budget and fortunately for my soul, it was the first collection of many more.

Photo by slgckgc, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Tania Runyan, author of How to Read a Poem.