Tips for Writers
|Posted by [email protected] on June 17, 2017 at 6:35 PM||comments (2)|
In grad school I began experimenting with poetry form with new purpose, hoping to discover ways to interpret hybrid versions to make my own. I know, I'm a late bloomer. Last one to the party. What poet doesn’t do this, right? Doesn’t drink this kool-aid, then spike it with her own brew until it’s a new version of the original drink? I know. But this is where I’ve discovered some of my best verse and where I’ve witnessed others do the same, so it’s a discussion worth joining.
Before delving into dialogue on poetic form, I’d like to highlight what even draws me to writing and reading poetry. It’s not that it’s cute or catchy—as many of my friends and family imagine it as while they scratch their heads, wondering why I work so hard to blend it into my career. The type of poetry that sustains the test of time and respect in the literary world is the opposite of cute or catchy. In the words of Dorianne Laux, “Poetry is a difficult church.” “The poem,” then, according to Edward Hirsch, “is a soul in action through words.” Those of us daring enough to put in the hard work of poetry know it’s tough to write and often tougher to read (in the sense of facing content, not struggling to grasp it). What I find most inspiring about poetry are the ways it “tries to get at something elemental by coming out of a silence and returning us—restoring us—to that silence” (Edward Hirsch, How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry). Poetry becomes a vehicle for exploring and examining our soul—the good nature conflicting with the bad, the generous with the greedy, the beautiful with the horrific, the carnal with the spiritual. There never seems to be a formula or method for reconciling the characteristics that comprise each side of the spectrum, just an endless cycle where one side of the soul is in friction with the other. Poetry that penetrates our soul space gets us to return to that quiet place of solitude. It keeps us wanting to solve the mysteries of our own polarity. Poetry is often the only invitation we receive to do such reflection—the type of reflection we need to exercise not only to understand ourselves but also to realize what drives the world we cohabit. All this said: it’s often challenging to begin writing a poem with our thoughts alone.
For me, form offers me a container so-to-speak to hold my thoughts as I mold them line by intentional line into a potent poem. Yes, I imagine you shaking your head and thinking that’s a formula for writing the very poems new writers often develop, which tend to sound cute and catchy no matter how dire the topic. You know the ones. Those poems that mimic archaic syntax, strict line end rhyme schemes, formal line lengths and metrical patterns and just scratch the surface of what the poet is getting at. These techniques are important to learn. Yet, great poets learn, learn to use, and then learn to break the rules. And they learn by studying current poets along with the classics. The form and formal conventions that worked for one poet may not be the exact formula that will work for another. If a poet tries to incorporate all or most of the conventions at once, she risks never uncovering the essence or soul of a poem. This being because what drives this type of exercise is conforming and forcing your ideas to fit a set form and formal conventions without alteration rather than discovering what drives the impetus of having to even write a particular piece.
Of all the extraordinary strategies I learned in grad school, the most life changing one for me was the practice of peeling away the surface matter in a poem to get at the essence of the piece and, in doing so, be a fellow traveler in the discovery process. Playing with form and its associated conventions has helped me get at the essence without restricting myself to another person’s thought and speech patterns. My ideas of form experimentation were challenged immediately in my first grad school term with the time I spent dissecting Terrance Hayes’s and Martha Collins’s adaptations of sonnets. Beyond the conventions of the sonnet—14 metered lines, tight motif, the octave/sestet or couplet turning point—I was discovering what the form offered for melding one’s private and public sociopolitical realms. I like what Strand and Boland say about the sonnet in The Making of a Poem as they discuss the history of the form and why poets are still drawn to its conventions. They state the sonnet provides a poet with “a form that is short, easily comprehended and its historic structure still opens the way for living debate and subtle argument.” As a form, it has a capacity to create “imagistic compression of argument” and “tension between lyric and narrative . . . [suggesting] narrative progress through its sequence structure, while, in single units, it is capable of the essential lyric qualities of being musical, brief, and memorable.” A narrative poet striving to bring literary merit to my poetry, I set out to explore these sonnet conventions and experienced immediate breakthroughs in my work. But my time with sonnets was only a breakthrough that lead me elsewhere.
Enter prose poetry. While this is a form that subscribes to many schools of thought, its reliance on poetic conventions is what keeps it grounded to the genre. Often narrative with paragraphs in place of stanzas, a focus on language, imagery, meter/rhythm, and emotional climate replace character and plot development. What I was after in playing with prose poem form was relying on compression of line, fragmentation, and sound as I wrestled with weaving the private and public while building tension between the lyric and narrative—a practice I picked up during my time with the sonnet. I was also after preserving the integrity of the individual line, which invited interesting discussions in our workshops. During one of them, our mentor, Iain Halley Pollock, pointed out that I may be wasting my efforts at the line level since publishers typically print pages with text that spans four-and-a-half inches. I brought this idea back with me after residency and tried to forget about the line. And my prose poems began to suffer.
What these poems lacked was everything I had grown to love about what the line represents and offers the poet and poem. More specifically, these poems lacked soul. In ditching a focus on the line itself, I began to lose compression, duality, and fragmentation—devices I rely on for tension and underlying meanings. My prose poems felt more like (underdeveloped) lyrical prose than poetry. And for me, when I had just hit my stride with line craftsmanship, I found myself at a roadblock with the bridge out ahead. So, I took these pieces and began to lineate them only to enhance certain parts while the others didn’t benefit. No good. Then, I thought, what if I view them on the page as an editor would during a publication run? When I changed the margins and narrowed my page width to four-and-a-half inches, intentional lines came into focus. With my new white space restrictions, the lines that spanned the page regained potential for compression, duality, and fragmentation, which helped during initial development and revision, where I often tap into the second essence of a piece.
I know this technique is not my invention but, without a term for it that I’m aware of, I only discovered it by coming back at my craft again and again until this struck me. As I play with my version of a prose poem, I continue to discover details and what informed my ideas or experiences. When a new prose poem idea hits me, I strike the page with a purpose that is thrilling to write through. And I get where I hope to go faster. I feel, often, the atmosphere shift as I find the soul in what I’m trying to share in the first draft. I leave you with my newest prose poem, which is a piece that fits into my memoir in verse, Blood Sisters. While it’s currently a fresh piece, it’s realized and demonstrates the strategies I discussed here. I know I’ll revise as I discover new details. Heck, I wrestled with it as I pasted it here to share and found two more places to tighten the line and, in doing so, enhanced the tension and sound in the piece.
|Posted by [email protected] on April 26, 2016 at 3:15 PM||comments (1)|
Poetry speaks to us in ways other texts simply cannot. As with any literary work, the actual text does its job on the surface while it relies on literary devices to suggest underlying meanings that drive the tension in the surface happenings. One characteristic that sets poetry apart from other literary styles is its reliance on line breaks. Line breaks can make or break a poem. Whether you’re a trained poetry reader or not, you will sense and feel when you’re caught up in well-crafted line breaks. The static will raise the hairs along your neckline as it syncs your heartbeat to the verse’s internal rhythms. This static magic is what will pull you back and back again to reading poetry.
I read A LOT of poetry that is good but has unrealized potential. The ideas are present; they just aren’t fully realized in their current presentation. Many of these poems would tap into their potential if poets scrutinized individual lines as much as they do finding the perfect word. In scrutinizing line level elements, poets will get at the very driving force that inspired them to develop the piece in the first place. Scrutinizing at the line level will also lead poets to potent line breaks that pack a punch.
How poets break their lines controls how readers receive information, be this surface or underlying details. Impactful line breaks are one way the poet speaks to readers beyond the text’s surface. The right line break will add depth to the imagery and potential meanings. Consider the following lines. The line breaks here are literal in their delivery. They do not offer anything extra to the poem’s tension or imagery. These line breaks are the standard I see regularly as I review poetry for publication consideration.
My hope drifts away
like a helium balloon
Cat, Beth, Angel, my love,
your faces fade
into a night sky
that never could contain you
Sure the ideas and imagery are here. They just aren’t doing all they can to recreate a powerful experience for readers. Notice, with some simple tweaks, how systems of potential meaning, tension, and imaginable imagery enter when the lines are handled as follows.
My hope drifts away like helium
balloons. Cat, Beth, Angel, my love, your faces
fade into a star-pocked night
sky that never could contain you
Are you imagining things in this second version that didn’t even come to mind in the first reading? Is there imagery evoked in the second lines that is vivid while it reveals something at stake for the speaker. Without digressing into a full-out analysis, consider the duality and meanings evoked in the second version that inform the poetic conventions in the lines. What does likening fading hope to uncontained helium do to the verse? How does isolating helium allow its chemical composition to add unifying elements to the celestial motif? What happens in that second line that radically changes the imagery contained in these selected lines? How does the revised third line inform the imagery contained in the second line? And finally, how does the final line inform ALL the other lines in the excerpt? Each of these observations enhances what is happening for this speaker in these lines, and ultimately enriches your reading experience.
Though these revisions might seem subtle on the text’s surface, they drive the poem forward in multifaceted, arresting ways. Potent line breaks are just one way poets enchant their art. Imagine that line breaks are to a poet what a brushstroke is to an artist. Each line, like each brushstroke, must contribute depth in its placement while it also contributes to the overall piece. Just as a great artwork will captivate viewers, a well-crafted poem will take readers on an enchanted trip that rocks their world, even if only for a moment. And readers needn’t be concerned with how the magic works, only that they’ve been caught up in it during the journey. Take a moment to consider the following: How do the line breaks in your favorite poems impact you?
|Posted by [email protected] on March 9, 2016 at 2:45 PM||comments (0)|
Writers employ imagery in their work so their written worlds become vivid in readers' minds. A well-crafted image enriches a text as it helps readers visualize an otherwise abstract space. Regardless of the written medium—poetry or prose, academic or trending—how an author invites readers into the visual space the text inhabits will influence its lasting effects. Consider all the texts you find most memorable. Were there visual elements or interesting juxtapositions that still stand out in your memory? Chances are you just nodded your head. While writers write for many reasons, writers share their writing to inspire reactions from readers. These many reactions include connection, empathy, insight, curiosity, exposure, outrage, support, enjoyment, conversation, celebration, activism, and so forth. This said: when we as writers develop work to share with audiences, we infuse it with illustrations and examples designed to aid readers in better envisioning and understanding our presented ideas.
Writing memorable imagery is a science or sorts. The science in writing imagery is as intricate as it is disparate, which leaves many ways it can be approached. Such vastness also means there will be many reactions to one unchanging image. Imagine a landscape with several footpaths that all lead to the same destination and you can begin to appreciate where I hope to take you. Since each path enters the target point from a different place, each perspective view will differ. Every traveler sees from his unique vantage point and may even notice things others do not—whether in his sight line or not. The same is true for each reader’s experience with a text. How readers experience the course and ultimate entrance to the text’s landscape may differ due to vantages, perceptions, biases, views, and values. So how do writers get an audience of diverse readers on the same page? Is the point even to deliver one universal reaction? Or is the point to evoke an experience in readers’ imaginations that they will make what they will of it? Like any worthy exploration, let’s dissect a tried and tested way I have approached imagery with wonderful results.
From birth, the average child is read to or told stories on a regular basis. We are conditioned from this early age to imagine landscapes and worlds along with their contents and value systems. Whether grounded in realism or symbolism, the details in these stories are usually vivid and often metaphorically encoded, likening one thing to another in interesting ways. We learn to write and express ourselves on the page by mirroring these childhood storytelling strategies. Then, somewhere in our educational years, many of us are taught to put away our childish thinking and write using our words—not our images and illustrations. This being my own experience and that of many of my college students got me thinking. Aren’t the most memorable texts those that master using words with images and illustrated examples as backup?
Of course, the answer is there is room for both literal words and the illustrations that make the text vivid and imaginable. Readers really do need to be shown in many instances to comprehend what’s going on. So it’s no wonder Show, don’t tell is a lesson writers learn and re-learn through their careers. There are many strategies writers can employ to develop wonderful imagery. For the remainder of this post, I will focus on one approach I find to be rewarding for writers and their readers. An exercise I do with students to help them develop interesting imagery is to literally bring science into it. Take an idea and/or image and explore its scientific information. Then find interesting ways to bring these details into your text. The ways are limitless. For instance, consider the hermit crab. When I was developing my poem, “Pushing Paper,”—a piece about my tendency to withdraw into a self-made shell when relationships begin to simmer—I thought about hermit crabs. Not knowing all their facts, I looked them up and began to note their habits, life-cycles, and character. I took all my notes on the crabs and mined them for details I could use in my writing. My idea about withdrawing into my shell like a hermit crab quickly shaped into something more profound, more vivid, more meaningful. The lines about the crabs now read
I never noticed the hermit crabs before. / They spend entire days assessing vacant shells / & assigning the gathered crabs their new homes. / Whoever said size doesn’t matter hasn’t factored // in the rewards of shell surfing. Abandoned shells / become growth charts—memorials that measure // one’s loss as another’s gain. [The dynamics / of vacancy chains in motion].
What is additionally interesting about my discoveries regarding the hermit crabs is how I learned something about myself, and in the process, realized a new way of viewing life situations. I also discovered vivid ways to infuse the text with visual aids I was also able to build on later in the piece. These visual aids acted as unifying elements that allowed me to create metaphoric meaning. In the final section of the poem, I take on the identity of a hermit crab as follows:
I wake one morning as one does in a dream. / The cloudscape’s distorted,its dialect unfamiliar. / It’s clear I’ve entered a foreign landscape.
This new development works to set up my final moment in the piece, where
Neither [person] notices me in my circumscribed shell.
While my hermit crab tendencies started as a simple act of hiding in my shell—the queen cliché—my exploration led me to a renewed way to express the idea and a more meaningful conclusion. The beauty here is that I could not have arrived at these details without researching the science. I couldn’t even get beyond the abstract idea without exploring what it meant to inhabit the hermit crab’s identity. And that’s the magic for us writers during the writing process: finding our way through the abstract in order to discover the concrete. Readers sense these developments and it’s what keeps them there with us throughout the text.
Whether readers can or cannot relate to a writer’s ideas or images is not the point. Making said ideas or images tangible is key. Finding a balance between explaining, demonstrating, and illustrating is a worthwhile challenge. What science can you bring to your writing that will make it more vivid, more interactive, and more memorable? Pick an idea, concept, or physical item and research it. What do you discover that you can bring to your text? What do you discover about your current text or yourself or our shared world while spending time with the science? How have you incorporated these findings into your work? If you care to share your discoveries or own tricks, comment below. I look forward to experiencing the magic crafted into your images.
|Posted by [email protected] on January 30, 2015 at 1:30 PM||comments (0)|
First things first, before you send your work out to potential publishers, make sure it's polished—and dare I say, error free. The last thing a writer wants to do is earn a reputation for sending drafted or sloppy work that isn't ready for publication. Sure, even the most seasoned writers and grammar nerds miss things. I'm not talking about the horror of your piece having a missed copyedit item or two. I'm talking about writing that hasn't gone through sessions of revision and editing (self and/or other eyes) because it's new, or it's an oldie-but-goodie that you just pulled back out, or you, the busy writer, somehow think it's the publishing editor's job to catch these things—because, doggone it, your stuff is worth the effort. For the love of dedicated writers everywhere, don't be this type of submitter.
That out of the way, let’s talk shop. I’ve found social media invaluable when looking for submissions opps. Both Facebook and Twitter are great networks where literary journals and magazines—of all sizes and print venues—share their open submissions calls and contests. I know there are other social networks you can utilize this way: LinkedIn, Google, Yahoo, even Myspace are places I see creative types connecting and sharing insider information. It’s as easy as friending, following, or liking their pages and just like that, their posts show up when you’re mindlessly—or intentionally—scrolling your newsfeeds. Connecting with such sites on social networks also keeps you up-to-date on other industry related deets, like new publications by aspiring, emerging, and well-known writers; upcoming readings, workshops, and seminars; and insider tips and other writer resources.
Staying connected to writers’ resources organizations and networks via email and newsletter subscriptions are also great ways to learn about submission opps, contests, workshop and seminar events, writing resources, and job openings in the industry. Duotrope (duotrope.com), Winning Writers (winningwriters.com), and Yahoo’s Creative Writers Opportunity List (CRWOPPS-B Yahoo groups) are all accessible outlets for writers of all levels to connect with. Many nonprofits, writing programs, teachers, and writers are also passionate about seeing writers succeed. So bookmark these pages and sites when you find them, and follow or subscribe to them when possible.
A NOTE BEFORE SUBMITTING YOUR WORK: Do your homework on the publication. Otherwise, you’re most likely wasting your AND the publication’s time—time all parties could have used to do something productive. In this fast-paced existence, technology makes it easy to figure out if potential lit mags and journals may be interested in your work. Read the publication’s vision and work it’s published already. Then send work that you feel fits their vision and audience. And brace yourself for the rejections as, even with well-published writers, these will greatly outnumber the acceptance letters. Rejection sometimes means the work you sent just doesn’t fit the issue under development, not that the work isn’t publishable. So pay attention to rejection letters that contain side notes and comments that encourage you to send more work. As for rebounding from rejection letter overload: keep finding places to submit and never lose sight that you will find homes for your writing. Consider sending to small, medium, and larger publications simultaneously. And while you’re growing your publication portfolio, share work you’re proud of, and not concerned about using that first publication right, on your own sites. This is a great way to grow a readership and interest in your writing.