Tag Archives: poetry

Are You a Poet or a Fiction Writer? Does it Matter?

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People used to tell me I was really a poet, not a fiction writer because I tended to focus more on wording than plot. I disagreed. For one thing, I was afraid of poetry and had always preferred to read stories. Years later, after much writing, reading, and teaching, I’ve learned a lot about plot and character development, and I’m no longer afraid of poetry either, as I explain in this Tiktok video.

I tend to like more accessible poets, but if they’re too accessible, they don’t reverberate- which is one of the best properties of poetry. “Reverberate” is my word for when you keep finding more layers of meaning as you go over it. I liken poetry to a riddle. It’s like playing scrabble or chess. You want it to give you something to unravel, but you don’t want to be totally left out in the cold.

It’s hard to teach poetry, because it’s so darn subjective, but I believe I’ve come up with some good general rules: It should be compressed, it should make leaps of association, it should shift in some way (for example, from inside to out, from past to present, from abstract to concrete), it should make meaningful use of line breaking, it should appeal concretely to the senses, and it should be original. The parameters are broad intentionally.

I have a fondness for Wallace Stevens, even though he can be pretty abstract. I’ve found that it’s easier to understand a poet if you read a lot of their poetry all together, because you start to be able to crack their code. Memorizing poetry is another way to to understand a poem, and it has the added benefit of being good for your brain and making you seem super erudite (not that we need to try, right?

I have a terrible memory, so it took me a while to memorize Wallace Steven’s “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour.” Making a tiktok out of it was the clincher.

@lalette.a.tete

“The Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour” by Wallace Stevens. #poetrylover #booktok #professor #indiewritersoftiktok

♬ Night Trouble – Petit Biscuit

Summing up the meaning in a few sentences does it a disservice, so just take this as a conversation starter. The poem suggests our imagination is a powerful force, as powerful as that thing we call God. Yet sis poems “The Emperor of Ice Cream” and “Of Mere Being,” suggest he was an atheist, so poem seems to be suggesting that i wrapping ourselves in the beauty of poetry and the brilliance of a mind that puts itself to good use makes life worth living.

Sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury said he warms up for writing every morning by reading poetry first. You can tell by the poetic nature of his lines. Many writers write in more than one genre, but this isn’t well known because publishers think pigeonholing us makes us more marketable.

We don’t live to be marketable, and while I wouldn’t mind selling a few thousand copies of Strange Appetites, my book of short stories coming out in September and Blue Woman Burning, the novel coming out in December, I don’t write to be marketable, either. I write to be lifted by that candle Stevens talks about that lights the dark. I aim to blend a good plot with the best aspects of poetry. And my hope is that when you read my work, you too, are warmed by it and find that “being there together is enough.”

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Facing It: Poetry Writing Prompt

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Kenneth Koch’s Rose Where Did You Get That Red is classic book of poetry invention exercises geared to fourth graders. He uses the structure and premise of existing poems as a template or recipe for a new poem. For example, the recipe you might extract from William Blake’s “Tyger” is: ask a magical creature how it was made and what makes it tick, and make each question describe an awe-inspiring aspect of the creature using metaphor. This recipe technique is a common writing prompt for adults, also.

Inspired by Koch and the “Where I’m From” poetry template broadly available online, I developed a template based on Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Facing It” which has resulted in some excellent student work in my college introduction to creative writing classes.

If you haven’t already, outlining some basic components of poetry reliably steers students in the right direction, especially those afraid of poetry.

Rough Poetry Rules

Poetry usually:

  • Uses images and more than one of the five senses to show rather than tell
  • Balances concrete and abstract word choices
  • Uses the space on page for evocation (line breaks to emphasize last and first words, white space and stanza breaks, etc)
  • Comes from the unconscious and speaks to the unconscious
  • Reverberates with more than one layer of meaning the more you read it
  • Uses language concisely (is compressed)
  • Involves leaps of association (from light to dark, inside to outside, etc)
  • Progresses (as in change of mood, plot, character-development, or perspective)

Good class discussions also occur when I ask students to extract their own recipes from published poems.

The Writing Prompt

Preparation: Yusef Komunyakaa’s  poem “Facing It” takes place in front of the black, reflective surface of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C.  Read the poem two or three times, each time asking students what images they remember ( as per Sheridan Blau’s literature workshop).  Note how Komunyakaa uses reflective surfaces to shift from outside to inside the reflection, from flesh to image, from surface to depth, from past to present, and from illusion to reality.

Directions for students:

Compose a poem following these steps. Break the rules wherever inspired. The numbered directions loosely correspond to the lines of the poem. When confused, notice how Komunyakaa’s poem does it and substitute your own images/ideas. Read the rest of this entry