Thursday, December 3, 2015

Adding Swerves to Your Poems

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Making Your Poem an Experience for the Reader

Monday, May 20, 2013

Is a workshop for you?

Let me introduce Ann Howells, my dear poet friend whose depth of experience makes this post a valuable one!

Bio: Ann Howells’s poetry recently appeared in Borderlands, Calyx, Crannog (Ire), Free State Review, RiverSedge, and Third Wednesday among others. She serves on the board of Dallas Poets Community, a 501-c-3 non-profit, and has edited its journal, Illya’s Honey, since 1999. Her chapbook, Black Crow in Flight, was published by Main Street Rag Publishing (2007). Another chapbook, the Rosebud Diaries, was published in limited edition by Willet Press (2012). She won first in The Legendary’s Bukowski contest in 2011, was a finalist in both NavWorks and Southern Hum contests in 2008, won first in the Southwest Writer’s Club poetry contest in 2006, and was named a “distinguished poet of Dallas” by the Dallas Public Library in 2001. Her work was read on NPR, and she was interviewed on local television in Annapolis, MD. She has been nominated twice for both the Pushcart and Best of the Net.

Picture the writer, an emaciated poet, bent over his desk, working late into the night by the light of a candle stub. He is wrapped in a blanket, but still shivers in his drafty garret room. Granted, our circumstances are likely not so dire, but writing is a solitary pursuit. Other than readings, lectures, and the occasional poetry festival, how can the writer make contacts with and benefit from other writers? Enter, the workshop.

I am, perhaps, a bit biased, as I have workshopped for over twenty years. During that time I have stayed consistently with Dallas Poets Community, but at various times, I have also belonged to two other groups. Each had its advantages and disadvantages. Not every workshop will be a good fit for a particular writer. It is a good idea, when considering a workshop, to visit once or twice (with or without bringing a poem) and take part in discussion. A poet who writes only sonnets might feel uncomfortable in a group where everyone else is writing in free verse; on the other hand, all participants might benefit from the mix. The sonnet writer might find a different type of critique helpful and be able, in return, to teach other participants something about writing in form. Also, if other participants are a bit more accomplished, you may learn from them. If they are less accomplished, you have an opportunity to teach and to view your poems as a reader might. If members are genuinely interested in poetry, offer constructive criticism and avoid ego, the group will work.

Finding a workshop takes a bit of research. You might ask at your local recreation center or public library where poetry workshops often meet. Check bulletin boards. Ask other poets for recommendations. Find a group on-line; there are many. Some have flourished for years. If all else fails, find several like-minded individuals and start your own group. I have heard tales of workshops in which name-dropping and self-aggrandizement seemed the norm and critique was often hurtful. I have never encountered such a group (and suspect they are urban myths). Another complaint about workshops is that, eventually, everyone’s poems begin to sound the same. I suppose that could possibly happen, but I find it hard to imagine a writer so willing to give up his own voice.

Some workshops charge a fee per meeting, some require you to send your work to other members up to several weeks ahead of the workshop. Some groups exist mainly to approve each other’s work and give little critique beyond spelling and grammar. Some have been meeting together for years and will be difficult for a new member to enter.

Let me tell you about my workshop group, Dallas Poets Community. Our group currently has eight to twelve attendees at each workshop, a good number for a two hour workshop. We have a good mix of sexes, ages (we’ve had as young as 16 up to mid-80s) religious preferences, and ethnicities. A wide variety of occupations are represented. Anyone seriously interested in writing good poetry is welcome. Our meetings are open. Those of us who have been with the group a while can generally recognize a poem by another member of the group by the individual voice (which we consider proof that workshopping has not made our writing generic).

We begin critique by having a member do a cold reading of another poet’s work. This allows the poet to really listen to what he has written. It allows him to catch sound patterns and places where his writing does not flow. Then, the poet rereads his work aloud. After that, he remains quiet as the group discusses the poem, trying to answer four questions:
What is happening in the poem?
What is working in the poem?
What is not working in the poem?
Where might the poem be elaborated or expanded?
We make it a point to critique the technique used and never the philosophy behind a particular poem, and we encourage everyone to voice their thoughts, even dissenting opinions. We also offer suggestions for places where the poem might be submitted, and let the poet know of any other poems on a similar topic or in a similar style that he might want to read. At the end of this discussion, the poet may ask any questions he has about the poem that were not answered or request further clarification about points made.

We bring enough copies of our poem for each person to have one on which is can write comments and either keep or return to the poet. A good workshop will allow you to see your work as an editor might see it, encourage thoughtful revision and allow you to develop your own voice. The Dallas Poets Community workshop has been meeting twice monthly for twenty-three years. We have included high school students, college students, retirees, MFAs, PhDs, and even the occasional songwriter. Some have stayed, some have moved away, some have left and returned, and some gone on to other pursuits. I credit the turnover with keeping the group from becoming stale and predictable. That said, currently five of our members have books published by national presses; one has two. Most of the group has work in a variety of small press and university journals.

If you are new to workshopping, keep in mind that your work will be criticized. If you believe revisions alter the original thought and make it inauthentic, workshops are not for you. If you feel compelled to defend every word you’ve written, workshops are not for you. If you keep an open mind and consider changes other suggest, you might benefit from workshopping, but remember, it is your poem and recommendations put forth can be rejected as well as accepted.
Use what you like, ignore the rest.

Find Dallas Poetry Community on Facebook or their website:

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Out Loud: Giving a Great Poetry Reading

Hi, folks! Let me introduce Michelle Hartman, a guest writer for PoettoPoet. An experienced reader and a frequent attendee to poetry events, Michelle is the perfect person to give us advice on performing our poetry. Enjoy her article, then check out her book!
A little about Michelle: A Pushcart nominee, Michelle Hartman's work can be found in Crannog, Poetry Quarterly, The Pedestal Magazine, Raleigh Review, San Pedro River Review, Pacific Review, Concho River Review, RiverSedge, Illya’s Honey, among others, and numerous anthologies. She is also editor of the award-winning journal, Red River Review,, as well as a past president of The Dallas Poets Community. Her first book, Disenchanted and Disgruntled, from Lamar University Press is available on Amazon here: Michelle's book of poems.

Giving a Great Poetry Reading

If you are like most people the last time you read anything out loud it was a Dick and Jane book. You were six and the other kids might have made fun of you. And now you’ve been invited to read your work in public. It’s Mrs. Edleman’s class all over again. But it does not have to be. There are simple tips and tricks to help you learn to read like Billy Collins.

If you are phobically shy or prone to panic attacks you might want to speak with your doctor first. But for the rest of us who were simply never trained to read in public, the following can get you ready to give a Frank Sinatra performance.

My first and best advice is, go to a poetry workshop. I belong to a free read-and-critique group called the Dallas Poets Community, with two workshops a month. You read your poem and then someone else reads it after so that you can hear it in another voice. This gives you the experience of reading in a small friendly group before launching out into the world.

Once a month, the DPC holds an Open Mic, inviting a professional to open, and then anyone who signs up reads later. This gives a poet a chance to see a pro and ask questions. Check us out in the Dallas area: But wherever you are, a workshop group can help. Or use your family as an audience, but practice, practice, practice. That way you are comfortable with the poem, itself.

Second, go to some readings and pay close attention to the way the poet reads. What do you like or dislike about the way the poet presents his or her work aloud? Maybe you like certain forms of delivery, but be sure it suits your work. Not all poems can be read the same way. Practicing articulation is even more important than slow speed. Avoid monotone delivery and sing-song delivery. You can record yourself on software like GarageBand and analyze your style. We are our own harshest critic. When you are comfortable with your work then you are doing your best.

Do have your poems ready - it is not fun to watch a poet flip through a book and mumble to himself. Breeeeeeeeeethe... and pause before you start. Take it s l o w l y, but make it short! If you feel you're rushing we won't hear you. Start with one poem and work up to a full routine.
Don't try! Simply hear yourself speak - if you're listening to thoughts about what you just said or are about to say then you're not 'PEARL': Presently Engaged And Really Listening'. Don't over explain – trust the reader and the listener. A short lead in such as 'My girlfriend once said -------- to me' then go into the poem. Or 'My ex-girlfriend used to do this' and go into the poem - just something to tease their expectations and FRAME the poem in their minds. Poems obviously should stand alone, in live performance the audience doesn't have unlimited time to check references, re-read lines, explore possibilities. It is a singular experience, so a little help is good.

Don't try anything too theatrical, but equally, allow yourself to feel the words and subject matter. There's nothing worse than watching a performer who seems indifferent to their own work - it makes the audience indifferent too. Match your material to your audience. Nothing will ever scare you as badly as showing up with a pile of erotic poems and learning most of your audience are evangelicals. Make sure you have sufficient material both in quality and quantity. Maintain eye contact with the audience whenever possible. If your eyes are looking down it is more difficult to build a relationship.

At the end of a poem, don't rush into the next one. A short pause will help the audience absorb the poem you've just read and prepare for the next one. I've seen many poets finish one poem, immediately say "and," then launch into the next piece, as if they were lumping the whole reading into a continuous poem. One thing I do is memorize the last lines of the poems. Then, when I am finishing a poem, I lower the paper even further and finish looking completely at the audience. This also gives them a cue that the poem is over, although it's pretty obvious when mine are done.

If your poems are on sheets of paper, make sure they're on a clipboard or something solid so the pages don't shake as you read--this can be both visually and aurally distracting. Avoid long, dangly earrings and bunches of bracelets (especially if you talk with your hands). I have actually seen poets who were drowned out by the sound of jangling jewelry. Also avoid wearing wild patterns; your clothes should not be putting on their own show. A corollary of this is comfortable clothes and hairdo so that you are not constantly fidgeting and adjusting. Deep poetry is not conducive to wardrobe malfunctions.

Finally, if you can project to the audience and the venue accommodates it (and your nerves permit it), don't stand behind the podium, unless your poetry needs the distancing it will provide. I believe that it's easier to connect with members of the audience if you stand directly before them. This requires more practice, more control of body language, and a bit more courage. But you will get there. Remember, we all started out exactly where you are, and I do not know a single poet who was harmed at a poetry reading.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

"Is my poem good?"

In workshops and classrooms, at conferences and the coffeehouse, writers ask me, "Is my poem good?"

Hate to say it, but the reader is the only one who can answer you, and each one is different. Even as a reader, I might say, "This poem stirs my heart, tickles my brain, makes me laugh, punches me in the gut." But does that make it good? Possibly.

"But good enough?" the poet presses me. Relax for a minute. Throw your beret on the coffee table. Let's talk. What most of us want to know is:
  • Does my work inspire someone besides me? 
  • Do I have talent?
  • Is my work publishable?
  • Will a press ever publish my book?
  • Can I get accepted into an MFA program with these poems?
 Again, tough to answer. One way to find out is to submit your work and see what happens. Apply to the program and see what happens. Put together a collection and submit to small presses and contests. Your work will either float, so to speak, or it won't. Even if it doesn't, your poems might be good. Rejected, but good.

So I can't tell you if your poem is good. BUT, I can offer you a Poem Score Card. This is a self-appraisal, which means that you can lie to yourself, but be honest. See how your poem scores.
  • Images (0-5 points)
    A perfect five looks like this: The poem includes concrete words that refer to objects, phrases that engage the reader's senses, figures of speech, active verbs, and specific nouns.
  • Voice (0-5 points)
    A perfect five looks like this: The poem uses unusual word combinations, fresh turns of phrase, flavorful wording; it posits a specific world view, conveys a personality, and creates a character that the reader wants to hear from.
  • Sound (0-5)
    A perfect five looks like this: The poem repeats consonants, repeats vowels, varies short and long phrases musically, avoids clumsy rhymes, pulses with an underlying beat or beat pattern, uses harsh letters (such as T and K) to convey harshness, uses soft letters (such as S and M) to convey softness, uses repetition of words or phrases.
  • Form (0-5)
    A perfect five looks like this: The poem's lines break at interesting places. The white space is used deliberately. Stanzas cohere or follow a plan, and their lengths harmonize. Line lengths follow a pattern or vary intentionally.
  • Substance (0-5)
    A perfect five looks like this: The poem offers a new insight, shares a unique perspective, explores a human truth in a fresh way, teaches about a little-known part of the world or human activity, or conveys a hard-earned lesson.
Still want to know if your poem is good? See if you can take The Poem Vow.

Repeat after me:
I, (your name), do solemnly affirm that I have used my imagination, my wisdom, my ingenuity, and my best writing skills to make this poem bloom fully. I further affirm that I have considered every line, every word, every figure of speech, and that I have given it everything it needs to go out into the world. I now release it to live the best life it can.
If you can take the Poem Vow, then don't pull out your hair trying to decide if the poem is good. Work hard on it, then send it out. Wave your handkerchief to it at the Post Office, if you must, but set it free.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Adding Escalators to Your Poems

I've been reading Elizabeth Bishop, and I see that this woman likes her escalators.  The poems contain a moment when the ostensible subject is revealed to be just the starting point, and the poem delves deeper or lifts higher.  It's a moment when the reader feels momentum under her feet, carrying her forward.  Escalator moment!

Here's an example from Bishop's "In the Waiting Room."  It begins:
In Worcester, Massachusetts,
I went with Aunt Consuelo
to keep her dentist's appointment
and sat and waited for her
in the dentist's waiting room.
As she waits, she reads a National Geographic.  She is amazed at the images of volcanoes, native peoples, and European anthropologists.  It dislocates her.  She goes on (bold font mine),
And then I looked at the cover:
the yellow margins, the date.
Suddenly, from inside,
came an oh! of pain
--Aunt Consuelo's voice--
not very loud or long.
I wasn't at all surprised;
even then I knew she was
a foolish, timid woman.
I might have been embarrassed,
but wasn't. What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me:
my voice, in my mouth.
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt,
I--we--were falling, falling,
our eyes glued to the cover
of the National Geographic,
February, 1918. . . .
The poem continues, but right there, the poem pulls the reader to a new level.  To me, it's a deeper level.  We've taken a quick escalator down into the collective unconscious, ridden toward the foundations of human nature.  Read the rest of the poem at:

Escalator moments take us up as well.  It's common for that up-escalator to appear in the final lines, as here, in Kim Addonizio's "Mermaid Song."  (bold font mine)
Mermaid Song
by Kim Addonizio
for Aya at fifteen

Damp-haired from the bath, you drape yourself
upside down across the sofa, reading,
one hand idly sunk into a bowl
of crackers, goldfish with smiles stamped on.
I think they are growing gills, swimming
up the sweet air to reach you. Small girl,
my slim miracle, they multiply.
In the black hours when I lie sleepless,
near drowning, dread-heavy, your face
is the bright lure I look for, love's hook
piercing me, hauling me cleanly up.

We, too, are hauled up.  Into hope, I think, and into appreciation of this young woman's potential -- maybe humankind's potential.  The escalator is love, and we ride it to a new vantage point.  The girl reading on the couch becomes something more than just a girl reading on a couch.

I want escalators in my poems.  Moments of new perspective on the starting topic.  Moments of depth and height.  But how can we do this without sounding fake or inflated?  Here's what I'm going to try:
1) Keep the language concrete, even as the ideas soar.  Objects, like Addonizio's hook, resonate with meaning, whereas abstractions run the risk of sounding holier-than-thou or more-insightful-than-thou.
2) Don't set out with a predetermined idea; let the process surprise you.   Surrendering to the creative flow leads us to surprising places.  Frost says, "No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader."  Let the writing itself lead you.
3) Take imaginative leaps.  Addonizio leaps with "I think they are growing gills, swimming  / up the sweet air to reach you."  This fantastical turn makes the escalator moment possible.
4) Shock yourself and the reader by writing the truth.  The truth of our lives is something we need courage to face and to speak.  Once a poem is underway, ask, "What is the truth of this situation?"  Boldly go there.  Ralph Waldo Emerson says, "Insist on yourself; never imitate."  Your reality and your individual understanding of this life should show in your work.  Be real, even as you work with fictions.

Enjoy those escalators!

Books of the poets I mention here:

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Learning Sound Devices from Li-Young Lee

Li-Young Lee -- a rock star in the poetry world.  I'm a huge fan, so when I saw that Lee was reading in my state, I packed my suitcase and drove five hours. 
That evening, he read poems and mused about poetry.  He read with a measured, deliberate tone.  Then he talked, pausing a lot and thinking aloud.  He said that we speak poems with the outgoing breath, which is the dying breath.  Maybe he meant that we make art out of death.  Or we make art out of life passing through us.

Back in my room, I propped myself on the bed and reread his work.  I noticed a deliberateness on the page.  An intentionality that I'd hurried over.  Now I slowed down and read the poems aloud.  With his voice in my mind, I noticed an attention to sound that had escaped me before.  I noted the shape of my mouth pronouncing each word.  I listened to air leaving my body, sculpted by vocal chords, tongue, and teeth.

Here's the first stanza of "Early in the Morning" from Lee's 1986 book, Rose.   In just eight lines, I hear a lot going on.  Vowels ooh and ahh.  Consonants thump and click.  Here's a look at the assonance alone:

Early in the Morning
by Li-Young Lee
While the long grain is softening
in the water, gurgling
over a low stove flame, before
the salted Winter Vegetable is sliced
for breakfast, before the birds,
my mother glides an ivory comb
through her hair, heavy
and black as calligrapher's ink.

And check out the consonance and alliteration:

Early in the Morning
by Li-Young Lee 
While the long grain is softening
in the water, gurgling
over a low stove flame, before
the salted Winter Vegetable is sliced
for breakfast, before the birds,
my mother glides an ivory comb
through her hair, heavy
and black as calligrapher's ink.

There's more.  Did you see the rhyme in lines one and two?  And the repetition of "before"?

I notice, too, that these eight lines make one sentence.  But Lee withholds the main part of the sentence until line six -- "my mother glides an ivory comb."  That's a long way into the poem!  How does he sustain momentum for five lines before finally coming to that main clause?  With rhythm, he builds a ramp that launches line six.  Let's ignore the line breaks and look at the phrase lengths:
While the long grain is softening in the water (long)
gurgling over a low stove flame (short)
before the salted Winter Vegetable is sliced for breakfast (longer)
before the birds (shorter)
my mother glides an ivory comb (we've arrived!)
The longer phrase pulls the energy farther out, then compresses back into the shorter phrase like a spring, ready to release the heart of the sentence, "my mother glides an ivory comb."

Another thing.  By breaking the lines in the middles of phrases, Lee pushes us forward at the ends of lines one through four.  We're in suspense, so we read on to find the phrase ending, then another phrase begins and we must read across the line break to find ITS ending.  Momentum accomplished.

Last observation.  I like the way Lee lets us rest for a moment on line three, the half-way point.  The rest stop is "low stove flame."  These single-syllable words make a platform on which we can land and from which we can leap into the next phrases.  Take a look.  Without that rest stop, we wouldn't make it all the way to the sixth line where the kernel of the sentence is waiting.

Early in the Morning
by Li-Young Lee

While the long grain is softening
in the water, gurgling
over a low stove flame, before
the salted Winter Vegetable is sliced
for breakfast, before the birds,
my mother glides an ivory comb
through her hair, heavy
and black as calligrapher's ink.

With that kernel, Lee has answered our curiosity.  We no longer wonder where the sentence is headed.  Having arrived, we're refueled enough to go on through lines seven and eight to the end of the sentence.

So how can we make our next eight lines as amazing as Lee's?  One way is to tickle our reader's ears with 1) vowels that echo through the line  2) consonants that repeat themselves  3) rhyme and repetition 4) line breaks in the middles of phrases  5) creating momentum and rest stops.

Li-Young Lee's work can teach us much more, but I've got to stop typing this and work on a poem!  If you've discovered a favorite technique in a Lee poem, please share it.