Happy holidays! Happy New Year! Next post in 2016!
First off, this is an appeal: I need title help again. I wanted to call the Two Princesses prequel just plain Bamarre. But my editor nixed that, alas, so I’m back in title misery.
This no more than what is revealed in the first chapter, but I think you need to know something to get in title mode: The story starts off Rapunzel’ish. Peregrine, nicknamed Perry, is born into an underclass Bamarre family. Impoverished, the father steals from the local Lakti lord’s garden and is caught by Lady Klausine, who takes toddler Perry to raise as her own daughter (concealing her Bamarre origins), and she takes her older sister to be Perry’s maid. Perry isn’t to be told about her birth family or that she was born Bamarre.
I don’t know if this is enough to go on, but I hate to give more away. However, if you need more, please ask, and I’ll answer if I can without too many spoilers. Please post your ideas, whether they look good to you or not. This is no time to activate your inner critic–I need you!
And, as in the past, if you come up with a title, I will acknowledge you in the book and you will get a free copy.
Now for the post: On October 18, 2015, Bug wrote, I love poetry, and would love to be able to write it well. But I’m also not very good at it. Does practice help with this kind of thing? With writing in general? Or do you have to actually figure out exactly what’s wrong with what you’re writing and try to fix that?
Last week, in my poetry class, my teacher asked us, all students in the MFA Creative Writing program at NYU and most of us going for the Poetry degree, if we read mostly poetry as children.
Not a single hand went up. We all read more fiction than anything else and fell in love with poetry later. We became writers, I believe, because of fiction, which gave us our fascination with language along with story. Most of you, I’m guessing, read obsessively. The words get inside us. The first step in becoming fiction writers happened without our noticing, a lot like learning to walk and talk.
But to become poets, since we’re older, we have to take that first step deliberately. We have to read poems, lots of them, old poems and new, rhyming poems and ones that don’t rhyme. Since we’re older, we can sample widely and then concentrate on poems and poets that speak to us. I don’t think reading poetry should be bitter medicine; we should mostly go with what we like. If we’re very virtuous, we can occasionally sample poems that are harder for us to chew.
A warning, though: For those of you who are younger than high school age, get guidance. The erotic is a frequent (and legitimate) theme in poetry.
Another warning: Reading poems by other beginning poets doesn’t count. Read poems that have been published somewhere, picked by an editor. You can find many important poets and poems online. The Poetry Foundation website is a great source of poems, and the poets on the site have been published. Here’s a link: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/. But Warning #1 applies; some of the poems won’t be appropriate for all ages.
A confession: I tend to read poems at the same breakneck speed I read prose, which is better than not reading them at all though not ideal. But if a poem grabs me, I reread and reread and remember. My favorite poems lodge in my brain. And by taking up residence there, they make me more of a poet. Same as with fiction.
If you like a poem, reread it. Read it out loud. Observe the tools of poetry at work! Notice the sounds. Pay attention to the sentence structure. Does the poet vary her sentence length? Or not? (No way is better than any other.) Do most of the lines end in punctuation? Or not? Is the poem punctuated at all (it’s up to the poet)? Is the punctuation regular? Are the lines long or short or varied in length? Does the poem tell a story? Or not? Does it even make sense? Do you understand it? You don’t have to, and it doesn’t mean you’re stupid. (I am susceptible to feeling stupid if I don’t understand, and I’m not fond of poems that leave me feeling that way, but some poets are more interested in sound than meaning, and some readers enjoy that. You may discover that you’re one of them.)
Does it rhyme? Does it rhyme sometimes? Are the rhymes unexpected? Does the tense change surprisingly? Does the person (first, second, third) stay the same or shift? Are there metaphors and similes (not all poems have them)? Is there a surprise near the end? Or anywhere else?
And pay attention to what you feel as you read. Some poems are intellectual, but many go straight to the gut or the heart. I love the emotional wallop a poem can pack.
So reading poems is the absolutely essential, sine qua non step to becoming a poet. A lovely collection to get you started is Step Lightly: Poems for the Journey, anthologized by Nancy Willard. Though I haven’t read it in a long time, I think this one is fine for middle school and up, but check with an adult to be sure. Nancy Willard is a wonderful poet with exquisite taste. Years ago, I took a workshop led by her.
As you read, notice how vast the world of poetry is. Some poems are short and as light as air. The poet isn’t making a STATEMENT. Some are deeply emotional. Some are intellectual. Some advocate causes.
When you write poems, experiment! Poems are generally short enough that we can play around and try many approaches and many kinds of poems. Write serious and silly. Rhyme and don’t rhyme. Learn about meter and try a metrical poem. Go for feeling, and go for intellect. Write long poems and short. Try some of the short forms, like haiku, cinquain, tritina. Try other forms, like sonnets, pantoums, sonnets. If you’re feeling like a challenge, try a sestina. You’ll find descriptions of all these forms online. And my go-to reference book on forms is The Teachers and Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms, edited by Ron Padgett (high school and up).
Suppose you write ten poems today… Don’t judge them! Put them aside for, say, ten days. Read poems by other poets in the meanwhile. Look at your poems again. Still don’t judge them, but revise without judgment. See if you can push the sounds by switching to synonyms with more alliteration and more assonance. Try breaking the lines in different places. Put them aside again and write new poems. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Most, maybe all, learning is subconscious. In reading, we writers give our brains poems and stories, which they churn while we’re unaware, and learning happens.
Aside from improving as a poet and becoming friends with great poets decades younger than I am, what has poetry school done for me and for my fiction? Most of all, I’ve become more aware of sounds in my prose. I notice especially when I use alliteration, which I push sometimes and take out others. I’ve gotten better at noticing words and clauses I don’t need, because poetry is often compressed, so my prose has become leaner, which I like in my work and in everybody else’s. Sometimes I’ve used poems to try out in this short form ideas that I might use in a novel. For example, I’m thinking that I might like my next book to be a strange fairy tale variation on “Beauty and the Beast,” and I explored the idea in a poem.
Back to Bug’s question. Improvement in poetry and fiction comes with practice, more than with identifying what’s wrong and fixing it, although that helps, too. If we can figure out what doesn’t work, of course we should look for ways to address the problem, but we should avoid that negative voice. What we identify should be concrete, like too many adjectives and adverbs, not enough thoughts and feelings, taking too long to get to the conflict. Not: Today I’m going to transform my writing from lousy to good.
There are lots of prompts above, and here are three more:
∙ Write an unsentimental poem about a pet. An example of this is a disturbing and funny poem by Billy Collins. A dog dies and its soul reveals that it never liked its owner.
∙ In a poem, argue a position you feel strongly about, but also bring yourself into it. Show in the poem why you care, why you have something at stake.
∙ Pick a last line from one of the many poems you’ve been reading and make it the last line of your own new poem. This isn’t stealing, because you’re going to acknowledge your debt. Under the title of your poem, write After Name of Poem by Name of Poet.
Have fun, and save what you write!