Singin’ in the… Tale

First off, I begin my tour for The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre on Monday, and the book releases on Tuesday. If you haven’t already, click on In Person, and see if you can come to any of the events. If you can, please be sure to let me know you found me because of the blog. I will be so glad to meet you!

Second off, on the last post, April Mack said she was having trouble posting her gravatar image on the blog. David can’t find the problem on our end, so I’d like to know if anyone else is having trouble. Please speak up and maybe we can get to the source of the problem.

And now for the post. On November 12, 2016, Margaret Anne wrote, A lot of books have songs in them, like Ella Enchanted, Fairest, then other books like Harry Potter and Hunger Games. How do you write songs to put in your stories? In a book I am writing, there is a tune that a character plays on the piano or hums a lot, but I want there to be words to the song. Any tips?

Two writers weighed in.

Christie V Powell: Study songs of the type you’re going for. Hymn? Folk song? Listen to several and listen to the music. Write down phrases that catch your attention. You can also read poetry for ideas, and check out books or do other research on writing poems. I’m reminded of Shannon Hale’s “Princess Academy” or Ann McCaffrey’s “Dragonsong” trilogy, where each chapter opens with a song.

Song4myKing: I have a character who (like me!) often thinks in song. Because she’s in our world, I use real songs. One is an old folk song, and therefore no problem with copyright stuff. Another is newer, but I keep it because it expresses the changing attitude of the MC over the course of the story. I had another modern one that she sang only once, but I realized that, although the lyrics said exactly what she was feeling, I really didn’t need that particular song (and its copyright). So I made up words that conveyed the same idea. I have found that almost the only way I can write decent poetry is if I have an inspiring tune to start with. So I did. The tune isn’t mine, and in the end doesn’t even fit the words that well, but what mattered was that I had an original set of words that sounded (sorta) like song lyrics.

If you are thinking of a real tune, consider what mood it gives. If you don’t have a real tune, I suggest you find one or make up one! What mood do you want the words to have? Do you want the song to be sung at a particular time? Could the song in some way include a symbol for the story or romanticize a part of the setting?

On using real songs – My sister and I read the book Chime (Fantasy in our world, probably high school and up). My sister noticed that one of the characters whistled one of the songs in the book. She looked it up, saying that if it could be whistled it was probably a nice melody. It was. We both love it now. This last week, she re-read the book, and noticed another song. She looked it up too, and has been singing it all day. Both are old folk songs. It was like an added bonus to us that we could find tunes for them, and that they’ve actually been sung for generations.

Oh, my! I wish I thought in songs! (Wish I could sing them, too.)

I love the idea of considering mood, because music and most songs are fundamentally emotional. Please remember that I’m not musical, but I think mood in music is conveyed mostly through tempo and instrumentation. If there are words, the singer expresses the emotion in her voice, if emotion is what she’s going for. The late, marvelous jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald wasn’t skilled, in my opinion, at expressing sadness. You can hear her smile through the saddest lyrics. I think she was too happy to be singing for anything else to come through, but I also think she was going more for technique than feeling.

In words, meaning predominates. But sound can support meaning. Onomatopoeia is one device that can help. Think of words whose meaning seems embodied in their sound. In school, the example we were given was tintinnabulation. Beep sounds like what it means. To my ear, the same goes for blip. Also, extended vowels, like oo and ee, sound mournful when combined with a sad meaning. Boom sounds ominous. Short vowels, short syllables, and percussive consonants set up a staccato pace, possibly for a martial song or a happy one.

A wonderful sad poem is W. H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues,” which you can find online. It’s worth studying to see how its effects are achieved. The meter, with a few variations, is iambic (unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one, da DUM, da DUM), a common meter in songs. Try singing it.

Sound also adds a poem-y, song-y feel. Maximize alliteration (repeated initial sounds, like red rose) and assonance (repeated vowel sounds, like green leaves) and rhyme, in the middle of lines as well as at the end. You can use a thesaurus to find the sounds you’re looking for if the word you think of first doesn’t contribute sonically. The sound repetition doesn’t have to follow immediately; even if several words come between, the effect will still be felt by the reader or hearer.

If you have a tune to work with, consider the beat to figure out where your stressed syllables should go. When you start to write, a thesaurus will help here, too. The first word you think of may not have the stresses in the right place, but a thesaurus may give you alternatives that fit the bill. This can be slow going. In my books that include songs or poems, writing them took longer than writing the prose did.

An easy and popular form for songs is hymn or ballad or common meter, found in, well, hymns and ballads, but also in blues and rock songs, goes like this:

da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM
da DUM da DUM we care
da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM
da DUM da DUM have hair

In other words: four line stanzas; iambic; eight syllables in the first and third lines, which don’t have to rhyme though they can; six syllables in the second and fourth lines, which should rhyme. “Amazing Grace” is in hymn meter, for example. Emily Dickinson’s poems are in this meter, except that she fooled around with it, broke it at will, and made it her own.

A shortcut to using rhythm in a poem or a song is to pick one that you like, analyze the stressed and unstressed syllables, and recreate the pattern with your own words. I did this in the first chapter of Writer to Writer. The verse below follows the witches’ incantation in Macbeth:

Mutter, mutter, dream and ponder;
Writer writes and fingers flutter.
Starting words of a startling tale,
On the paper, laugh or wail,
Days of joy and weeks of woe,
Mountains high and vales below,
Hero’s hope, villain’s might,
Evil’s plot, virtue bright.
With this spell of flash and thunder,
In a vision, write the wonder.

Contemporary songs are sometimes more complex, but often song lyrics are emotionally simple. Ideas that would seem cliched in prose are fine in songs. We find more moons than Jupiter has, more rosebuds than in a botanical garden, and enough broken hearts to occupy a hospital full of cardiologists. But it’s okay. The expression in melody, instrument, voice make it work. When we write lyrics we can be original or we can go with the tried and true, without embarrassment.

We can use songs or poems in many ways. In The Two Princesses of Bamarre, the poems are narrative–telling rather than showing–about the beginnings of the kingdom. In Fairest, there’s more of a range, with a lot of songs that express feelings. So we have options. We can use songs to tell, to show emotion, to reveal character, to create voice, to describe a setting. A few minutes ago over the radio I heard about a band that bases some of its songs on–recipes!

Here are four prompts:

∙ Try your hand at a poem or song in hymn meter. Write at least five stanzas. Sing it. Set it to music if you can. (This is beyond me.)

∙ From a WIP, have each of three characters write a love song–just words, or words and music. How would their songs differ in mood, feeling, thoughts, vocabulary?

∙ Tell a fairy tale as a ballad. You can use hymn meter for this, or not. Include a refrain that encapsulates the theme of the fairy tale.

∙ I just spent a pleasant two minutes on YouTube, watching and listening to the song “I Can Do Anything Better Than You” from the ancient musical Annie Get Your Gun. Write a song with the voices of two characters interacting. You can make up the characters on the spot or import them from a WIP.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Help! And poetry!

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!

Poetry Puzzle

Before I start, I want you to know that I’m going to be part of a read-aloud this Saturday, May 17th, sometime between 11:00 am and noon at Byrd’s Books at 126 Greenwood Ave in Bethel, Connecticut. I’ll be there for a nationwide event for independent bookstores, not to promote my books, so I’ll be reading from someone else’s book, although I’m not sure whose yet. If the audience is toddlers it will be a picture book–otherwise, something for older readers. If you can make it, if you’re anywhere nearby, I’d love to see you. I believe there will be time to chat.

Writeforfun has asked if I’m still taking poetry classes and I promised poetry prompts this week. My classes thus far haven’t yielded prompts or I would have shared. These two came along because I had an opportunity to submit a poem to an anthology in honor of the late poet Gwendolyn Brooks (high school level and above). At first I misunderstood what I was supposed to do and did it wrong. Then I did it right. Both ways, wrong and right, yield interesting prompts. Wrong way first:

To show how it’s done, let’s take this sonnet by Shakespeare, which I picked because it’s in the public domain, so I can copy it here:

Sonnet 18: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
by William Shakespeare

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
   So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
   So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Since it comes from Elizabethan England, some of the language is outdated, so, although Shakespeare may be spinning in his grave, I’m adding a step and doing an update, a step you won’t need if you use a modern poem:

Sonnet 18: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
by William Shakespeare

Shall I compare you to a summer’s day?
You are more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease has all too short a date;
Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimmed;
But your eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair you owe;
Nor shall death brag you wander in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time you grow:
   So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
   So long lives this, and this gives life to you.

Alas, my revision ruins the final rhyme. If you decide to use this sonnet for your own poem and you want to change eyes can see to eyes can view, the rhyme returns but the wording isn’t as strong. You decide, or find another word to rhyme with you. Or you can stick with the old-time wording throughout the poem.

Since this is a sonnet, it has fourteen lines, so this example poem will too, and each line will end with the last word in each of the sonnet’s lines. I’ll just write three lines:

What, I wonder, will be the flavor of this day
that just began? Monday stormy, Tuesday temperate?
I want to improve on yesterday, but, come what may,
blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah date
blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah shines
blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah dimmed
blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah declines
blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah untrimmed
blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah fade
blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah owe
blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah shade
blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah grow
   blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah see
   blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah you

Got it?

Notice that I turned the month of May into the word may, and you’re free to do the same with this sonnet or the equivalent in the poem you pick to honor. In this example, if I were to change see to sea when I got there, that would be fine too, in my opinion. Notice also that I dropped Shakespeare’s punctuation. You don’t have to stick with the punctuation in the original. And I didn’t capitalize the first letter in each line. You decide if you want to or not. Shakespeare’s sonnet is metrical: iambic pentameter. There’s no need to duplicate the meter, if there is meter, in the poem you pick.

So that was the prompt based on the wrong way. Here’s the right way:

Take a line or two or three in the poem you pick and make each word end the lines, consecutively, creating a poem that’s from six to twenty-six lines long.

Let’s take Shakespeare again, and suppose I pick the line Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May. Nine words in Shakespeare’s line; nine lines in the new poem. If I do the next line as well, which also happens to have nine words, I’ll have an eighteen-line poem. Here could be the beginning:

The strangest wedding I ever attended was a rough
affair–outdoors, on a beach, where the winds
of March howled. I never heard the bride’s “I do.”
blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah shake
blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah the
blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah darling
blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah buds
blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah of
blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah may/May

If you read down the last word of each line, you’ll discover Shakespeare’s line. See?

Notice that we lose Shakespeare’s rhymes entirely. I think this prompt is harder, because we have to end lines with words like the and of, which aren’t often end words, although some poets use them.

Your lines can be any length, but the instructions I got were to make them more or less consistent, all long or all short.

These two prompts force us to use words that aren’t the ones we usually pick, and when we leave familiar territory, in prose as well as in poetry, interesting things happen.

What I love about a challenge like this and about form poetry (sonnets, haiku, acrostics, etc.) is that they’re puzzles. We try them this way, then that way, then a tenth way, and finally they fit together–thrilling!

One more thing: If you choose a modern poem as the basis of your poems, be sure to write under the title of your poem, After Such-and-Such Poem by Such-and-Such poet. My example would read, After Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare. Then no one will think you’re stealing. Instead, it will be obvious that you’re honoring the poet and his or her creation.

If you try these prompts, please let us all know how they went for you. Post your poems if you like.

Back to fiction on the next post.

Poetry finale

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):
I wish
actually
when
do not
long ago

• 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):

Vantage Point

Alone
she walks along
the heights above Christchurch
to see what looks the same and what’s
missing

Have fun and save what you write!

Poetic feet

I’m jumping ahead to poetry because I’ve reached that point in the new writing book, which (have I told you this?) I’m calling Writer to Writer, and hoping my publisher will go along.

On October 17, 2012, writeforfun wrote, I would love a post on poetry! What makes good poetry, how to find the best rhyming words, how to keep good meter…plenty more that I can’t think of right now. Actually, that’s my biggest problem – meter (am I spelling that right?). I tend to “Fudge,” as I call it, the meter so I can fit in the words or syllables to finish the thought, sacrificing rhythm for rhyme. I try not to let it become too extreme, although very few of my poems are consistent enough to be turned into songs. I also do have a hard time with rhyming, usually only using approximate rhyme, but that problem isn’t quite as extreme as the meter.

I’m still very much a student when it comes to poetry, although there are poems in many of my books and Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It is a poetry collection. Last year I took two poetry classes and every January I attend a poetry retreat for female kids’ book writers.

Assessing quality in poetry is trickier than in stories. Most of us, I think, are confident in our judgment of novels. Good or bad, we pronounce, and then we’re happy to spout our reasons, like, predictable or thrilling or boring or great characters, and so on. When it comes to poetry we’re not so sure. The only hallmarks of a bad poem, in my opinion, are forced rhyme and sickly sweet sentimentality of the sort we find in greeting cards – which are fine for that purpose. By forced rhyme I mean something like Then Jack did run, so as to rhyme with to have some fun. In normal speech or prose we’d say Jack ran. The did run sounds weird and calls attention to itself. Poems of long ago used forced rhyme. That was the convention back then and not a flaw. But modern poems go for a more natural feel.

Aside from those two, I go with what I like, and generally I like poetry that speaks to my experience or that opens me up to new experiences. I’m not fond of impenetrable poems that need to be puzzled over for hours, but many poetry hounds love poems that yield their meaning only slowly. Two poets I adore are Ted Kooser and Lisel Mueller. I don’t have permission to reprint any of their poems, but you can find samples online. Both generally stay away from topics that aren’t appropriate for kids, but they’re poets for adults, so you might have a grown-up take a look first. One of my favorite Ted Kooser poems is “A Jacquard Shawl.” Here’s a link to it, but first a warning: there’s nothing inappropriate, but it’s not happy: http://www.ronnowpoetry.com/contents/kooser/JacquardShawl.html. And my favorite Lisel Mueller poem is “Monet Refuses the Operation.” Here’s a link to that one, which is inspirational, and which, in a single poem, represents why I love poetry: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/236810.

The point is, decide for yourself what you like and what you don’t. Many poems don’t send me, but the ones that do are worth reading the others for. The ones I love pierce my heart.

As for meter, not all poems have it. Free verse, very common today, has no meter and no regular rhyme, although everything, poetry and prose alike, contains words that rhyme. In my last sentence, for example, no and although rhyme. Many many many fabulous poems are written in free verse.

My go-to book on the basics of poetry is The Teachers and Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms (high school and above, I think, but it may be okay for younger kids – check with a librarian). Here’s a snippet of what it has to say about free verse, “…it demands more of the poet, because he or she must question every word, test the shape and sound of every line, and be able to defend the choices made.” Sounds scary, but the idea is just that you should have a reason for what you do in a poem (which can simply be that it appeals to you that way). And that reason can change over time as we become more experienced poets. I confess that when I’m writing a free verse poem I can become confused about where to end a line. I try it one way and then another and then a third. I rearrange the whole poem and switch back and forth, and finally go with what I like best, which I may change a month later if I revise.

Meter and form help with line ending decisions. In metered poetry, the line is divided into feet, each foot a unit of meter. Accented and unaccented syllables determine what kind of meter we have. Shakespeare wrote in iambs, which is one unaccented syllable followed by an accented one, sounding like ta dum, as in the word complain or the two words to eat.

Here are other major kinds of meter in English:

∙ the trochee, which is the opposite of the iamb. It’s an accented syllable followed by an unaccented one, as in the word screaming or the two words jump in.

∙ the dactyl, which is an accented syllable followed by two unaccented ones. The word carefully is a dactyl.

∙ the anapest, which is two unaccented syllables followed by an accented one. Into feet would be an anapest.

∙ the spondee, which is two accented syllables. Very few words are spondees, but here’s one I found online: shortcake. This spondee sentence example comes from my Handbook: “Bad heart, flat feet, sad shoes–bad news.” In that sentence every word receives equal emphasis.

If your head is spinning, maybe this will give you comfort, I once read that it’s impossible to figure out – called scanning – the meter system  in a prose sentence or in a line of free verse. You can see meter only if the poet put it there, which I personally find a great relief. I’ll tell you why with iambs, which I understand better than the others – because I took a class in prosody, which means the study of poetic meter and versifying, and our professor went into iambs very thoroughly.

It’s all in the pattern. Let’s take the first stanza from a sonnet I wrote about a new kind of apple. It’s a Shakespearean sonnet, which means it’s written in iambic pentameter with a certain (Shakespearean) rhyme scheme. Pentameter means there are five feet – five iambs (ten syllables) per line. Here they are:

The Arctic Apple, perfect apple, skin
a blushing scarlet, flesh as pale as snow–
flesh slow to brown and oxidize; it’s been
revamped, its genes were modified. It grows

If you read it out loud in a ta dum rhythm I think you’ll hear the stresses, the iambic-ness of it. Of course, that’s a terrible way to read the poem for any other purpose, like meaning or feeling, but  try it just for now.

Here’s how poetic notation shows the stresses:

The Arc’tic App’le, per’fect app’le, skin’

The syllable before the apostrophe gets the stress. For example, Arc is stressed and tic isn’t. I don’t know how to do it on my computer, but if you want to show the unstressed syllables, you’d put a little u above them.

And here’s how poetic notation shows feet:

The Arc’/tic App’/le, per’/fect app’/le, skin’/

What’s between the slashes is a foot (and the first foot doesn’t start with a slash).

Now let’s look at the word oxidize in this line:

flesh slow to brown and oxidize; it’s been

My professor explained that we look at relative stresses when we scan – figure out – meter. Oxidize is a dactyl; that is, the first syllable is stressed. But if we look at relative stress we notice that we emphasize dize a little more than that i in the middle. Because of relative stress, oxidize works as iambic. If it weren’t for relative stress, metered poetry would be really hard.

It isn’t so hard once you get used to it. If you write ten poems in iambic pentameter you’ll get the feel for it, especially if you use a thesaurus. If you switch words and move words around you can say anything in iambs, because much of English falls naturally into an on-off pattern of unaccented-accented syllables. To make it even easier, it’s okay in an iambic poem to throw in an occasional trochee (called a trochaic substitution) or an occasional extra syllable. It’s also okay to drop the first unaccented syllable in a line and to add an unaccented one at the end. Shakespeare does all of these frequently. Still, most of the poem needs to be in iambs so that a reader can pick up the pattern. Because I’m not very experienced with writing in meter, I try to stick to the straight and narrow, but that’s just me.

Let’s look at these two famous lines from Hamlet:

To be, or not to be–that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

They’re written in iambic pentameter but each has eleven syllables, that last unaccented syllable hanging off the end of each line. Both lines contain trochees, trochaic substitutions. I wouldn’t feel confident enough to do it, but this is Shakespeare.

Here it is with the stresses and the feet:

To be’,/ or not’/ to be’/–that’ is/ the ques’/tion:
Wheth’er/ ’tis no’/bler in’/ the mind’/ to suff’/er

Having said all this in a very long post, I found a neat little shortcut to meter worries. For the beginning of Writer to Writer I wrote a writing spell, which I wanted to have a strong rhythm and to feel spell-like, so I looked at the witches’ spell in Macbeth and I pretty much matched syllables and stresses.

Here are two lines from Macbeth’s witches:

In the caldron boil and bake;
    Eye of newt, and toe of frog,

And this is what I turned them into:

On the paper, laugh or wail,
Days of joy and weeks of woe,

In some of the other lines I altered the syllables slightly but for the most part I stuck to Shakespeare’s meter, and the result has a strong rhythm. There’s nothing wrong with doing this. It’s not cheating.

So here’s a prompt: Pick a poem or a fragment of a Shakespearean play or song lyrics that has a strong rhythm and go syllable by syllable to come up with a new poem with entirely different words (except for the unimportant ones, like and and the).

And here’s another prompt: Look at song lyrics that you like and see what’s going on with the meter. Use what you learn in your own poem.

And another: Pick a poem you’ve already written and revise it so that it’s in iambs. Or write a new poem in iambs. It can be short, say six lines.

If you’re in need of poem topics, here are a few:

• a spell to make something happen or to keep something from happening;

• a poem about winter or something you do in winter or from the POV of winter itself;

• a fairy tale told in a poem.

And here’s a final prompt: Please tell me if this was much too complicated, if you wanted to throw your computer across the room, or if it was interesting, or if I went way too deep into the weeds of poetry. Tell me if you felt moved to try writing in meter. I don’t think I’m going to go into this level of detail in the book – or even if I’ll go into meter at all, but I would welcome feedback.

Next week, rhyme, which is a little less complicated.

Have fun, and save what you write!