Writing Poetry in Forms

5 Reasons to write formal poetry and 5 tips for helping you do it.

For most of my writing life, my poetry has been free verse. It seems to go well with my style, which often has a conversational tone. In my poetry workshop class in college, I’d had to try some forms, including the obligatory sestina. It wasn’t my favorite experience.
More recently, I’ve tried a couple of forms and actually found some pleasure and purpose. I’ve learned a few things and thought I would share some reasons why to try forms and a few tips on how to go about it.


Reason 1. Trying to write in a form will make you more aware of the structure. Even if you don’t think your form poem is successful, look at how the line and stanza breaks affect the flow of the poem. Adapt this knowledge when you go back to free verse. I have become better at breaking my own poems into stanzas instead of a solid block of text.


Tip 1. Find modern poems written in your chosen form and then read and re-read them. We all cut our teeth reading sonnets by William Shakespeare and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. They wrote in eras when “thee” and “thou” were commonplace. Don’t mistake the vocabulary for the form. Don’t throw archaic language into your sonnet unless you are trying to make a point.
Find poems by writers whose sonnets live in today, such as Billy Collins, Adrienne Rich, or Jay Hall Carpenter. Try Tracy K. Smith or Alicia Ostriker for a ghazal.


Reason 2. Trying to fill a line with the correct number of syllables, rhyme scheme, etc. will make you take a more intense look at each line in your poem. While writing a sonnet, for example, I needed more syllables and yet didn’t want “filler.” It made me find a way to say what I wanted at a deeper level. Instead of trying to tighten my line to as few words as possible to say what I wanted, I breathed into the line’s constraints and said more.


Tip 2. If you aren’t used to looking for the feet in a line and are out of practice looking for the beats, it can be difficult to meet a form’s requirements. I found some practice was useful. Check out this tool by the University of Virginia’s Department of English: https://prosody.lib.virginia.edu/ . It gives you interactive practice in determining the meter and feet. This will help brush up your comfort with iamb (da DUM) vs trochee (DUM da) and all the rest.


Reason 3. Writing in a form that imposes some type of rhythm will make your poem flow. There’s a reason nursery rhymes and songs can stick with us. Our ears like things that have a rhythm to them. You don’t want to go too far and make your poem sing-songy. That leads to my next tip.


Tip 3. If you analyze one of those sonnets we were taught, you’ll find that strict iambic pentameter isn’t used 100% of the time. Every now and then, a meter will be trochee or anapest (da da DUM) instead of iambic. Not every rhyme will be exact. The occasional near rhyme or switched up meter keeps the reader or listener interested. Unlike a drummer keeping time for the band, it’s okay to be a little bit off now and then. It is a good idea, and switching the beat intentionally in a specific place can add emphasis to your words.


Reason 4. Doing research on what forms are out there can open you up to a new world of poetry. We tend to hear about sonnets and sestinas and haiku, but what about pantoum (Malaysian), ovillejo (Spanish), clogyrnach (Welsh), or rubyaiyat (Persian)? Love of interesting language is universal and this is a cool way to get exposed to something new.


Tip 4. Unless you are trying to get your poem published in a form-specific journal, don’t sweat it. There are literary journals that state they accept poetry in forms (like “Rattle” and “Blue Unicorn”) as well as journals dedicated to specific forms, such as haiku (“Haiku Journal” published by Prolific Press).


Almost any form has its subtleties. For example, haiku is not only about syllable count. There are other requirements, like having a nature reference, having a turn, and so on. There are a ton of people who will gladly tell you where you’ve gone wrong. Take them with a grain of salt but learn from their feedback.


If your goal is to write a good poem, then write the best poem you can, using the constraints of the form as closely as you can. If your turn comes in the wrong line, so be it. You might not fair well with a journal dedicated to that specific form (but you never know until you try). Other venues might be happy to see that poem.


Reason 5. This one is also partly a tip. Did you know there is something called a “nonce” form? Basically, you as the poet creates a form that you use. It could be for one poem or you might do multiple using it. You’ve probably already done this without calling it a form. Ever decide that your poem fits better in three stanzas of specific lengths? Create your own rhyme scheme, just because it seems to work? Who knows, you might create a form and have it catch on.


Tip 5. Have fun. Stretch your writing wings. Give yourself a challenge and see what happens. Not every poem in a form will succeed, but not everything in free verse does either. Experiment and enjoy the process.

For Toni

My poem, “For Toni,” is in the current issue of Poetry Quarterly. Thanks once again to the good folks at Prolific Press for like my work. Please check it out: https://prolificpress.com/bookstore/poetry-quarterly-c-1/poetry-quarterly-fall-2019-p-316.html. This poem was written for a friend of mine who passed away a few years ago. I’m glad to see such a quality publisher include it.

Writing Poetry: Purging vs. Crafting and Why Both are Worthwhile

Sometimes when I meet new people, it comes up in conversation that I write poetry. The odds are good that the other person will say “I’ve written some poems” or “I wrote some poetry in high school.” If I ask whether they are still writing or why they stopped, the typical answers are “I never showed them to anyone,” “I wasn’t very good,” or “It was just high school.”

Many of us wrote those “purging” poems in our teen years. There is so much going on during that time when everything in our lives feels huge, and we know that we need to wrangle our emotions or burst from the seams. Some take up a form of physical expression or release, playing sports or taking up dance. Some grab a guitar or sit behind a drum kit. Some of us take up pen and paper (or keyboard) and contain our explosions in print.

Some folks use that catharsis and take it further, learning to craft their work. They take a step back and use a more detached view. They edit it and find better ways to communicate those emotions. Eventually, they may be brave enough to show their poetry to the world at large.

While this kind of crafting may seem evolutionary, it doesn’t replace purging. In my experience, poems come into being in several different ways.

  • There is a problem or concept that needs to be worked out
  • Some event of my life makes me think and I need to process it
  • A writing prompt catches my attention.
  • Some event in my life or the world at large generates a strong emotion

In those first three cases, words come out on paper with a certain amount of step by step logic. The process of finding the exact word makes the writer think at a deeper level of granularity. We are forced to do the analysis that we may not do otherwise.

In the last case, my emotional teacup gets filled to the brim. The best way to keep from over-flowing is still to put pen to paper and release some of the pent-up energy. I take that anger or grief and break it down to ink marks on a page. I can be as aggressive or snarky as I want on paper, without letting it out in public. Again, the process of getting the right words helps analysis of the situation.

Some of these “purge” poems will get edited, crafted, improved on, and eventually shared. Some of these poems will stay just as they are. Both results are valid, both useful to the poet.

As much as our teen years can be filled with the angst of painful growth, adults also have many things that fill our days with love, anxiety, pain, passion, grief, or hope. When we are fit to burst, we can still put pen to paper, purge our souls for good or ill. We can decide later if the poem will stay-as-purged or craft it and ready it for the world.

If we want to craft our poetry, we can learn to improve our skills by taking a class at the local community college, finding a class online, or joining a local critique group. In any case, both purging and crafting are worthwhile approaches to writing poetry and neither of them needs to be relegated to the past.

Synchronicity

Synchronicity is a wonderful thing. Two things popped into my email today that relate to creative people working in a community, and they came from two very different sources.

The first was my Daily Stoic email (from dailystoic.com). Today it discussed how we are all part of a team, whether we know it or not. The example was about comedian Marc Maron asking stand-up comedians and actors about “who were your crew?” Almost everyone has an answer. Individuals who were working with and around each other and who encouraged and challenged each other. I immediately thought of the band of local poets that I see again and again at open mics in the area and also of my poetry critique group.

Then I opened my daily LitHub email and found an article on “The Imposter Poets of Iceland.” These six women take their name from the Imposter Syndrome feeling we all have/have had/will have. It’s an interesting story on how they kicked that feeling to the curb. I find it inspirational. Check it out: https://lithub.com/the-impostor-poets-of-iceland-issue-a-m…/

Bay to Ocean

I’ve fallen a little behind in updating my publications here, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been working. My most recent publication is the poem “Body Blows” in the 2019 Bay to Ocean Anthology. This anthology is put out by the good people at the Eastern Shore Writers Association. I was introduced to the ESWA this year when I attended my first Bay to Ocean Conference in March. I was really impressed with the conference’s organization and the quality of the workshops. Part of the cost of the conference was for a year’s membership. Each year, as a follow-on to the conference, the produce an anthology with submissions open to ESWA members. I was very happy to have them publish “Body Blows.” If you are anywhere near the eastern shore of Maryland, you should try to get to their conference. It is well worth it.

“Showboat” by Grace Cavalieri – Review

Showboat by Grace Cavalieri is available on Amazon

Showboat can be seen as one long poem or as a series of short poems, but either way, it can also be viewed as a lovely necklace with pearls and nuggets of gold. As she describes the life of a Naval wife, and of those she met along the way, we are given small portraits and long arcs. Showboat is elegant in the way it melds simplicity and depth.

One example is the following stanza:

That august a plane crashed
It was Donna’s pilot          we went there
Her tan arms          her white linen dress
The knock on the door
Thank God          her door          was not our door
         Don’t say that out loud
Blonde Donna who never thought
         anything bad
Now she’s as human as it gets

There is a lovely succinctness to these words. Volumes are compressed into a few lines and we’re taken on a journey of decades within a few pages. I heartily recommend you spend some time and enjoy the ride.

Flutter Press shutting down

I was sad to hear that Flutter Press, the publisher of my chapbook, “Ghosts of My Own Choosing,” will be shutting down as of October 5th. I wish Sandy Benitez good luck in her future projects. She was great to work with, always willing to answer my questions.

As a result, my book will be available on Amazon through the 5th. After that, if anyone is interested in purchasing a copy, please email me (terri @ terrispad.com – without the spaces). I have a small stock for sale and you can pay me through Paypal.

Summer Reading Pile – Poetry

As a follow-up to my Summer Reading Pile – Fiction post, here is my list of poetry-related work that I’ve been reading and some from my TBR pile. Again, not full on reviews, but some comments and suggestions.

I recently finished “In the Palm of Your Hand” by Steve Kowit. This is a great book on writing poetry. I think my favorite thing about this book is the section on writing experimental poetry. He gives several exercises for loosening up one’s writing style and I’m working on a couple of poems based on some of his exercises. I highly recommend this book.

I also recently read Jane H. Fitzgerald’s “Notes from the Undaunted” which is a book of poems and photographs lovingly encompassing Jane’s husband’s fight with cancer. Jane and I recently met at a poetry open mic and wound up exchanging copies of our books when she found out that I am a cancer survivor.

The other day, I had to wait for a tire to be delivered for some work to get done on my car. I took the time to stop at the nearby Books-a-Million, which is always bad for my budget and good for my bookshelf. Several volumes of poetry came home with me. The first one, “Take Me With You” by Andrea Gibson is a quick and glorious read. Andrea’s poems are short and insightful. The books has three sections, On Love, On the World, and On Becoming. There are many poems in this collection that made me go “oooooh” in recognition and appreciation.

Next up in my TBR is “Wild Embers” by Nikita Gill. Just starting this and already love it.

After that is the brilliantly titled “The Witch Doesn’t Burn in This One” by Amanda Lovelace. I’ve been meaning to pick up Amanda’s “The Princess Saves Herself in This One” but there was only one copy of the Witch left on the shelf and I couldn’t pass it by.

Also in the TBR is “Not Without Our Laughter,” an anthology from the Black Ladies Brunch Collective and “The Smallest Talk” by Michael McFee.

What are you reading? What would you recommend?

Summer Reading Pile – Fiction

As many of us are in the midst of our Summer Reading Piles, I thought I’d talk about mine and make some other suggestions. I’m going to break this up into a list for fiction and a list for poetry. These aren’t full-on reviews, especially as some are still in my TBR pile.

The first book is Hard Time by Sara Paretsky. Over the years I’ve gone on “mysteries with female protagonists written by women” binges. Forgive me that I am way out of date on some of them. V. I. Warshawski is the protagonist of my favorites series. “Hard Time” is the 9th in the series and came out in 1999. As always, the story is great and V.I. is right on target. The series is still going strong and the newest book will be out in October (“Shell Game”)

Last weekend, I read Silence Fallen by Patricia Briggs. This is book 10 in the Mercy Thompson series and is awesome. I describe Patricia Briggs’ urban fantasies as gourmet popcorn. When I get one, I just want to curl up on the couch with it until I’m done. Mercy is the queen of snark and I love the depth of the world that Briggs has built.

Etched in BoneI’m in the midst of Etched in Bone by Anne Bishop. This is the fifth book in the Others series. This alternate vision of our world, in which human beings are far from being the top predator, is marvelous. This world is detailed and the characters intriguing.

On my TBR list, I have several books that I found on lists on Unbound Worlds. Unbound Worlds is a great site for anyone interested in fantasy and/or science fiction. They have a batch of suggested books for different sub-genres. The books in my pile are “House of Stairs” by William Sleator, “The Rook” by Daniel O’Malley , and “Gardens of the Moon” by Steven Erikson.

“Leviathan” by Neil Aitken – Review

Neil Aitken’s “Leviathan” (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2016) has an intriguing focus. This poetry chapbook is about Charles Babbage, considered by many to be the father of the computer for the work he did with his analytical engine. I bought this book because, as a software developer myself, I found the subject interesting, even though I knew relatively little about Babbage. “Leviathan” was a more than pleasant surprise.

Babbage was a scientist and mathematician. He saw the world through his calculations. On the other hand, he loved his wife and children. He outlived his wife and four of his children. The push-pull between an analytical, scientific approach to the universe and the needs of, and desire for, human connection is a struggle that is shown at a deep level. It is a conflict that was strong in Babbage but is not unknown in today. This is from the first poem in the collection, “Cast.”

“Just as the compiler now ponders like a god at judgment, weighing
each line of code with what it means or fails to mean.
How each casting of a thing engenders the creation of another.
Nothing is ever the same after translation, after the name
has been hefted, then posited to the waves. The dark world dimming
in its simple downward trajectory of terms, the endless run of zeroes
widening back to the farthest shores. This melancholy of form.
To be. To become. The shape of nothing, how it is skinned
and laid to rest. In the hour of our words and their departures,
we are captive here to whatever comes, whatever returns,
be it beauty or love, or the unfurled wings of their manifold ruin.”

Aitken touches upon the highlights of Babbage’s life, meeting his wife, her death, and other events, as well as his meeting with Ada Lovelace. Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron, was the one to recognize the potential of Babbage’s analytic engine and is considered the first computer programmer. This is from “Babbage Circumnavigating the Room, Encounters Ada, 1833.”

“…And now, three-quarters of the way
around this milling mass, you find Lady Byron again, and the girl who asks
the most remarkable questions. Who stops you with a calculated word.
In her eye, the same fire as yours. The same urgency to be understood.
How is it that the poet’s daughter is so attuned to number, to the secret language
of order, the unheard symphony of the machine you have been composing
in your mind all these years? How is it that you know instantly that in her
beats the same heart of pain, the same proclivity for loss and disaster?”

All of the poems are written in couplets, some with a single line to finish. The lines are relatively long and it seems to give the words room to maneuver, allows the reader time to ponder Babbage and his dream. It’s masterfully done. I highly recommend this chapbook.

You may find “Leviathan” at Hyacinth Girl Press and check out Neil Aitken at his Facebook page.

R.I.P. Ursula K. LeGuin

One of the legends of science fiction passed away on Monday, January 22, 2018. Ursula K. LeGuin was a strong pillar of my sci-fi universe. She was not afraid to take the tropes of the field and toss them out the window. To me, her feminism shown through her fiction without hitting anyone over the head with it. I’ve been meaning to reread (again) both “The Dispossessed” and “The Left Hand of Darkness,” which posits what happens when a human meets up with a world without gender. I’m also very fond of her translation of the “Tao Te Ching.” She approached that translation as a poet and a student of the Tao and her talent comes through. If you haven’t encountered her writing, treat yourself.

Ursula K. LeGuin obituary

Honoring Your Reality

Gabriela Pereira talks about honoring your reality as a writer (DIY MFA Podcost #47, that is understanding that each person has their own way to be a writer. Sometimes what works for someone else isn’t going to work for you and what worked for you in the past might not work today.

I bounced up against something that made me take an unplanned time out. In August, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Luckily, it was stage 0, but I still knew that I would have a bunch of doctor appointments, radiation appointments, and some surgery to deal with. I had been working on a non-fiction project and on poetry. I looked at all that and gave myself a timeout until the new year. Even though my available hours might not change much, and it wasn’t constantly on my mind, I felt like I had a balloon taking up space in my head. When the seed of a poem came to me, I wrote it down in my notebook for use later. By not putting pressure on myself to get writing done, I did still get several first drafts written. I gave myself permission to leave the book alone, and now that I’m past all the big stuff, I anticipate starting back up on it over the next week or so.

I think being gentle with myself was less stressful and gave me maneuvering room when I really needed it. It also means that I don’t see the book as a burden, which might have been the case if I made myself continue when my head was not in the space. So now, onward and upward!

My Writer’s Origin Story

I joined the DIY-MFA Book Club this month and the first question/prompt is “How did you become a writer?”

I’ve said that my love of poetry comes from a mix of Mother Goose and Edgar Allan Poe. I remember sitting with my big book of Mother Goose poems and reading “The Lion and the Unicorn.” I knew that there was more to the story than what was told in that poem. Many years later, I learned that it referred to England and Scotland, but at the time, I just knew there was more. There were layers, there were symbols, even though I might not have known that word either. This fascinated me. Rhyme and rhythm and meaning all came together.

When I was eight or nine, my mother had a big Royal typewriter. It was on a table in my room. I remember standing there and typing out something, my first poem, although today I couldn’t tell you if I was more in love with the idea of writing a poem or just looking for an excuse to use that big, beautiful piece of machinery. I’m pretty sure the poem wasn’t very good, but also fairly sure that it is in a notebook somewhere in my basement.

In high school, I discovered “The Raven” and, like so many others, fell in love with it. Memorizing that poem helped me solidify my relationship with writing. It showed me the complexities of emotion on the printed page. While I’ve penned fiction and am working on a non-fiction book, poetry is my first love.