When I first got started writing poetry, I was confused and overwhelmed. I tripped over myself, trying to find my way. After fifteen years, I’ve found what works for me. Yesterday, I sat down and wrote them into this surprisingly long list. I hope it will be of help to you, if you are thinking about poetry as a serious craft or as a way to help express your emotions.
1. Write! Even if it’s only a line, or you get a flash of an image, or a pairing of words comes to you — write it down. You can’t craft it into something epic unless you have original material to work with. Capture your own raw freshness as best as you can.
- Make time to write, if you need the structure to make it happen for you.
- Or, if you’re like me, it’s spontaneous and happens routinely, so rush for that pen and paper, or better yet, already have them easily accessible.
2. Keep a journal. It’s an emotional place for you develop poems, explore emotions, uncover themes, and play with words. It’s essentially a sandbox for your brain. Be as unstructured as you like. Include clippings and pictures if it helps, or just scribble words randomly that pop into your mind. Review these “notes” at a later date and form poems from them, or workshop poems within these very pages. Alternately, you can keep a journal for poem work and one for your personal life, whatever works for you. The important thing is to have a place to go to with ideas without the structure of “Okay. I’m starting a Poem now.”
3. Date everything. Did you write two words on a scrap of paper? Date it. Wrote a draft? Date it. Scribbled something that seems really right brained and doesn’t make sense, but seems kinda cool? Date it. This is invaluable for seeing improvements over time, changes in your style and voice, keeping track of submissions and revisions, and giving you accurate data about what you’ve written and when. You’ll likely seen patterns of similar themes and symbolism for a given day or date range. Pretty cool, huh? It’s like a cheap psych evaluation, as a bonus!
4. Exercise! I bet you didn’t think a physical activity would be recommended, did you? Pick an activity you like. For me, I weight lift, which makes me feel like a warrior woman. My alternate exercise, and I recommend that you have one, too, that if possible works a different body part or system, is bicycling. Exercise will clear you of stress hormones and center you when your artistic temperament (yes, I know you have one!) gets downhearted. I promise it will motivate your writing, perk you up, and alleviate depression symptoms, making way for more creativity.
5. Read poetry by other poets. In order to learn techniques, make observations about current trends and themes, get a fresh perspective on a subject, hear a new voice, be supportive to the craft and poet community, and to feed your own “image bank.”
6. Title your poems. Show respect for your work. You wouldn’t leave a child unnamed, would you? Even if you only have a tentative title, that gives your poem some dignity and enables you to label the theme and think of associated images in your mind. If you can’t think of a title, use the first line or part of the first line until you decide on a title. Don’t be afraid to change titles, either. If you think of a better one later, make the adjustment.
7. Keep a log of your edits and keep versions. At the end of every poem, which I have in a note-like program, I have a section below it where I keep my edit log. This is also invaluable for seeing improvements and tightening you’ve done, showing the evolution of the poem, and keeping you on track so you know what to do if you lose data, need to replicate a poem, or for having backup options available to you if an editor asks, etc.
For example, mine look something like this:
propped out –> project from
the eyes –> my eyes
From –> lowercase “from” line 2
edit: 6/2/2015, breaks
5/28/2015, handwritten fixes
2/1/2015, original concept
Your log notes don’t have to be elaborate, as long as you know what you mean, it will work.
9. Watch movies and/or read books. Getting involved in other people’s creative works can stimulate you in positive ways, challenge your emotional response, and provide you with viewpoints and images to work from.
10. Do sensory-evocative things. Look at art, and listen to music. For the reasons listed above for watching movies and reading, but also because it helps activate the right side of your brain associated with emotion and associative memory. (Science!)
11. Make positive associations with writing. Drink a cup of tea while you write. Listen to music. Drink wine. Eat a bite of chocolate. Connect something pleasant in reality to your writing experience to manipulate your brain into wanting to do it more often.
12. Share with friends and family. Even if they don’t understand your poems, likely they’ll still be a captive audience. You may even get some useful feedback, or at a minimum some help spotting typos and errors. Sharing with others will help break away the self-consciousness you might be facing, this step is easiest taken with those you are close with.
13. Find a mentor. This can be any living person, such as a high school or college English teacher, or an active poet. Someone who can educate you about the craft, sees you, your work, and provides encouragement and interest.
14. Adopt a poet. They can be living or dead. Do you really like Louise Glück? Read everything you can get your hands on about her — articles about her personal life, books, interviews, poems. Immerse yourself in this person, see what you can take away and incorporate into yourself.
15. Join a writing group. Preferably, a poetry-specific group. You can do this in person, as many libraries in cities have a group or monthly workshop. Many online group options are also available. You want to find a group of people who are supportive and serious about their craft. For example, I have been part of an online group for fifteen years, The Writing Bridge. It is a closed group, with admission given upon a review of personal work based on an application. Do your research, pick one, and try one out. It can be amazingly motivational to share with others.
16. Be open to criticism. You’ve gotten someone else to read you work and offer feedback! Yay! There is a lot to be learned from other people, their skills and knowledge base, it will also help you judge how clearly you are conveying your poetic message. Evaluate it, feel what works for you, make the changes, dump the rest, move on.
17. Submit your poems. Sure, you’ll likely face lots of rejection letters, but that first acceptance will really boost your confidence. Plus, it feels very rewarding to submit, to know your poems are reaching an editor — someone outside of your usual circle of readers.
18. Revise! Think of it as a way of ensuring your original message is communicated accurately. Sometimes, in the revision process, you get an entirely different poem from what you started with, or are able to fill in gaps in imagery. Occasionally, I’ve found I actually have two or three poems in a single draft and split them accordingly. Isn’t that surprisingly wonderful? I think of it as giving birth to twins, when you were only expecting one!
19. Never sacrifice your authentic voice. It’s easy to get bogged down in structure, or get caught up imitating another poet. Imitation is a great tool in the learning process, if you’re new to poetry, or if you are trying out a new form and are using an existing work or poet for guidance. As a lifestyle of writing however, it will kill your heart and keep you from saying your own message. Say what you need to say, the way you need to say it, and make no apologies. I am not endorsing the flavor of avant-garde “cheating” writing, and you’ll know in yourself if you feel a little shameful, that you’re guilty of that. Use skill, use poetic tools, don’t be lazy — just be true.
20. Be honest. This should really be rule number one, but it isn’t entirely understandable until you’ve been writing for some time. Truth shines through, no matter your style or method. Be like a child and convey what is raw and human, stifle nothing, share all senses as if you were talking through a poem to your best friend you’ve known all your life. Be real.