This is the last post on poetry for the time being, but I’d be happy to write more if more questions come in.
On October 19, 2012, Charlotte wrote, …on the poetry front, I’d be interested to hear about your own experience with poetry: do you do it intentionally or just when the mood strikes? What kinds of poems do you usually write? Do you switch things up? How do you edit your poems? How is your process for poetry different from fiction?
I spoke to the sixth graders at a middle school in Connecticut on Monday, where a girl asked me how I can write from a child’s perspective. My answer was mostly about how my most important reading experience was when I was little, and I mentioned that I’ve been writing poetry for adults lately, too, and it feels as if I step from one room in my brain to another to write for kids and to write poetry for grownups. For the new writing book chapters about poetry, I wrote a few poems. At first they were poems for adults, which felt dull for kids, so I had to make a conscious effort to move furniture from my kids’ writing brain room into the poetry room. Then I was able to write about a haunted house and about that “horrible hoodlum Robin.”
In my poetry room I’m less analytical and more relaxed than in my novel-writing room. I’m not bearing the weight of pursuing a long stream of events and a bunch of characters and needing it all to come together logically, satisfyingly. In a novel I relax and play in individual scenes. A blog post is contained too, and pleasurable for that reason (and also because I’m talking to you guys directly). And prompts are the tiniest of all and the most fun.
But I’ve wandered away from poetry. I go into more of a trance when I’m writing poetry. My mind settles.
I generally start poems by writing prose about what will be in the poem. For example, a few years ago I did something online called “poetry boot camp,” which is the brainchild of poet Molly Fisk. In poetry boot camp you have to produce a poem a day for a week. I have never been more observant!
During the week my sister and I visited our aunt and uncle. Aunt Naomi had a form of dementia that had deprived her of speech and the ability to walk, although she didn’t seem unhappy. I decided to write a poem about her, and I started by writing prose about the visit, about what had happened, about the details, about what might have been going through our aunt’s mind that couldn’t break through into words. I imagined what it would be like for her if the dementia went briefly away. That imaginative leap turned it into poetry for me, not just a journal entry. Then I started to arrange my lines. What resulted is a free verse poem that doesn’t rhyme.
If I’m writing a form poem, I’m thinking about the form as I write my prose. If I’m writing a sonnet, for example, I look for meter and hunt for synonyms that will work. When I rhyme I tend to go for simple – I don’t attempt rhyming with hippopotamus. If the form calls for repetition, I pay attention to ideas that can repeat, that are important to the idea of the poem.
You know from the blog that I love to revise. Poetry, the way I write it, is mostly revision. From the moment I get my ideas down in prose I’m in revision mode, happy, happy, happy.
Occasionally I’ll write a poem because the mood strikes, but more often it’s because I’m taking a class. I go to a poetry retreat every January, and write there and often revise when I get home. Sometimes I decide to look in one of my poetry books for a prompt, and then I write a poem. Nobody is expecting poems from me, so I have no deadlines.
Although I’ve written a bunch of poems, I still feel like a beginner, or at best, an intermediate student. Sometimes when I finish a poem, I feel sure about it, but more often I don’t know. A poem is such a little thing. A perfectly lovely poem can be about not much, but even so, often I’m not sure I’ve done enough. And sometimes I worry I’ve done too much, been obvious. I wish I had a poetry editor, like I have an editor for my novels.
I write all kinds of poems except long. I write free verse (no rhyme, no consistent meter, no set number of lines, no anything) and form poems, like the tritina, triolet, pantoum, sonnet. My poems are about almost anything. I wrote a sonnet about a genetically modified apple variety.
And writeforfun asked, …could you address the subject of publishing poetry? I mean, nowadays, it seems like the only thing poems are good for is song lyrics. Of course, you wrote Forgive Me, I meant to Do It, which is poetry, but aside from that, do people publish poetry? Or is it a dying art form? And if it is still alive and kicking, how does one go about getting published?
Forgive me, I Meant to Do It is for children and is the publishing arena I know best. I don’t think poetry is a dying art, but it seems to have limited appeal – which I don’t understand because it appeals mightily to me. I mean poems appeal to me if they yield themselves up to understanding pretty easily. Very dense poems confuse me at this point in my poetry development. But straightforward ones go right to my core and warm me or chill me or thrill me in a way that no other kind of writing does. I mean, I love fiction, but fiction worms its way into me more gradually through the medium of the story. Poetry is like a sword straight to my heart – in the best possible way!
Anyway, here’s the little I know about the poetry publishing world: A lot of people (including me) get the magazine Poets and Writers, which carries classified ads for journals and publishers seeking submissions. The publishers are usually looking for chapbook (from twenty-five to forty-five poems, shorter than a collection) or collection-length manuscripts. Poets and Writers also lists poetry contests that you can enter for a fee.
Here’s what I’ve been told by experienced poets: that contests are a good way to begin to become published; that by reading poetry journals and hanging around the poetry world, which I think is to a large extent an academic (university) universe, you get to know which are the best journals to get published in and you can submit to them.
The Association of Writing Programs (AWP) has conferences that poets attend (I’ve never been) where they network with other poets and with publishers. I don’t know much about this.
I’ve had a few poems for adults published, only one by submitting through Poets and Writers. I haven’t put much time into it. On one occasion I met two people at a signing who published a journal, and they asked me to submit, and they took one of my poems. Five poems got published because I audited a poetry residence at an MFA program.
None of them paid a penny. They paid, as is common, with a copy or two of the publication. That was fine with me. I was just happy to have them published. And publishing them was like dropping a pebble in a well. I’ve never heard back from a reader. I don’t know if my few poems have been read by a hundred people or by three, have no idea if they made an impression on anyone. If I weren’t such a newbie, I’d probably have an idea of who’s reading what. And poetry readings are probably the place to experience a direct audience response. I’ve certainly never read my poems except to friends.
Please! Anyone who knows better and more than I do, please comment!
Here are three prompts:
• Write a poem about something that seems entirely unpoetic, a hair knot, a fork, bumping your head, chewing gum. In the last stanza, find something significant to add. Twist whatever your little thing is into an important statement that lots of people should care about. Don’t start with significance. Don’t even think about going there till you get to the end of whatever you wanted to say about chewing gum or whatever. Naturally there’s a poetry term for this switch: the turn. The turn is a characteristic of lots of poems. We think the poem is taking us in one direction, but skreek! off we go in another.
• Write a poem in which several of the lines start with one of these words or phrases (the term for repeated beginnings is anaphora):
• Write a cinquain, which is a five-line unrhymed poem. The first line has two syllables, the next four, then six, then eight, and then, finally, two. Here’s an example. I wrote this, imagining someone looking down on the New Zealand city of Christchurch after one of the earthquakes that hit there in the last several years (I visited a few years before):
she walks along
the heights above Christchurch
to see what looks the same and what’s
Have fun and save what you write!