Friday 28 April 2023

Teen Talk: Writing and Revising Poetry By Aimee Romano

So here you are, staring at your laptop. Maybe you're here by choice. But more likely, your teacher has assigned you a poem to analyze, or even worse—a poem to write. You wait for the perfect words to smack you in the face. We all have been there. My students frequently say reading poetry is too confusing and writing it is nearly impossible. You might agree with them. But writing poetry can be extremely rewarding, especially if you aim to get your point across quickly and don't want to blather on and on like your teacher does when she dives into classic literature.

After reading these tips, you will no longer be hesitant to explore poetry. You may even learn to love the art and write poems for fun (*gasp).


Banish the blank page

The worst thing a writer can do is stare hopelessly at a wordless document. That blinking cursor or empty line is like an aggravating little friend. But pretend it's 40 degrees Fahrenheit outside, and that friend is taunting you into jumping into the deep end of a swimming pool. What would you do? You would jump. Do the same with writing. Leap into your document and start typing. Sometimes, I start by listing random ideas. Some of the poems I have enjoyed writing the most materialized from messy notes. If you know what your topic is, begin brainstorming. Write everything you can possibly think of related to the topic: dumb ideas, great ideas, pointless ideas, off-the-wall ideas. The main goal is to write. You can always cut the entire list and start over. In an article published by The Guardian, columnist Oliver Burkeman suggests working on "morning pages," in which he encourages writers to tackle "three pages of whatever comes to mind first thing."

If waking up at the crack of dawn to write doesn't interest you, don't fret. A poem is simply defined by Merriam-Webster's (a.k.a. the dictionary) as "a composition in verse" or "expressiveness, lyricism, or formal grace." Nowhere does the definition say a poem only can be classified as a neat, old-school, formal, rhyming group of words. By Webster's definition, a poem can be anything. A poem can consist of a few words or one. Or it can be simply a series of descriptions. So dial back the pressure. You are free to write whatever you want, however you want. And you'll still be following the official definition of poem.


Pay attention to your line breaks

A good line break is everything in poetry. A break is when the last thought of the line continues onto the next line. It is meant to be read aloud as a complete sentence. You already know how to write sentences, so just press enter somewhere other than the end. Then, rearrange your words into logical lines and add imagery to give a mental picture to the reader. That's all there is to it.

But there's a difference between writing a mediocre poem and a good one, and that difference starts with a great line break. My go-to technique is to craft lines one at a time, and then return to the poem later and analyze my breaks. I determine whether or not the last word in each line leaves the reader with the intended impression. Can I move a word to increase the impact? When the poem is read aloud, how do the breaks sound? Or maybe I don't want a break. I want an end-stop, where the line ends in a period. All of these decisions are up to you. Poetry may be the one area in your life in which you have complete control.

An example of an effective line break is illustrated in Danielle Chapman's "Catch-All." Chapman creates an enjambment—skipping from the last line of a stanza to the first line in the next stanza—in lines 10-11 that shifts the meaning for the word "rib." The poet states, "the quivering gobble of her chin / teacup clinking dentures as she sprang / up into her wattle hut / and broke a rib / of aloe vera" (7-11). Upon first read, I could assume the speaker is talking about literally breaking a rib, but when I jump to line 11, I see she is discussing how her neighbor squeezed gel from a plant to soothe an injury. Additionally, Chapman cuts line 8 at "sprang," and continues "up" in line 9. This enjambment and perfected line breaks are effective in propelling the story forward.


The weirder, the better

Some of my favorite poems would probably make you roll your eyes and ask, "What even is this?" Poetry should make you sit up straighter at your desk. In a sea of zoned-out faces (yes, I'm looking at you), your reader's should be perky and alert. Otherwise, the poem is not weird enough. And I don't necessarily mean the topic. The best poems use strange word combinations and unexpected similes and metaphors. If you choose to write the overused "He ran as fast as a cheetah," your reader will keep her eyes trained off the page and out the window. Same for exact, predictable rhymes. You want your writing to zap the reader, making him or her want to finish the piece, to figure out the puzzle.

Again, Chapman uses surprising imagery in "Catch-All." Using unexpected word choice, Chapman tells readers her neighbor is elderly without explicitly stating it. She describes the neighbor's "gobbling" (line 7) neck and "dentures" (line 8). The poet waits until the third stanza to include these images. Additionally, a "wattle" is a neck fold, so Chapman explaining the woman's "wattle hut" solidifies this idea of age. So why didn't Chapman just say, "The woman had wrinkles and a saggy chin"? The weirdness of her descriptions makes her poem interesting, forcing the reader to stick around until the last word.


Play around with language

Pretend you are 8 years old, at recess with your friends. Remember that feeling? That whatever you imagined was real? Harness that. Give yourself permission to have fun with words. The beauty of poetry is that formal grammar and language rules don't apply. I once had a student ask me if she could lowercase an I in one of her poems. Yes! With poetry, you don't have to follow your teacher's rigid grammar guidelines. Lowercase your I's (*teacher cringes). Eliminate punctuation. Indent where you want to. Make up words, even. Whatever you can imagine is real. I wrote a poem that used the word "mouth torch," something that doesn't exist. I loved the way it sounded, so it survived the revision process. A mouth torch became real to me. I will never forget when a colleague, Joshua Luckenbach, used Emily Dickinson's name as a verb in his poem, "Crossing Over." He describes Dickinson "Emilying around" in her garden. Just writing "Emily was walking" is boring and expected. The idea is to embrace play.


You're not done until draft ten, and then you're still not done

            Don't let that number ten scare you. Once you learn to enjoy poetry, there will never be enough drafts. Don't envision revising as a chore; see it as a perk. It's a gift—one that gives you the ability to fail without consequence and fumble in order to express your point of view. Keep this in mind: whatever you write can always be erased. Probably, you can write a good poem, but crafting a memorable poem takes several edits and revisions.

Letting your work "sit" is vital to the revision process. Your poetry needs to collect dust for a little while. I have been working for years on several of my poems. Each time I close the documents, I think the poems are ready. When I revisit a poem a month or two or five months later, I still can find places to revise and perfect. In "Revising Poetry Just Got Easier," David Biespiel says revision allows us to "see afresh the way a reader sees afresh."

Embrace the life of revision. You no longer have to worry that writing poetry is too hard or impossible. You'll understand that you are going to revise the poem several (*cough, a billion) times anyway, so have fun exploring and trying new things.


Represent yourself well

If you claim yourself as creator of a piece of writing, be sure you are proud of it. Never turn in work you haven't spent adequate time fine-tuning. If you are completing a poem (or research paper or short story) at the last minute, you might submit work that misses its chance at greatness. Give yourself needed time to create something meaningful. All assignments should pass the sniff test: Am I proud to label this work as mine?

About the author 

Aimee Romano is set to graduate in the summer from Texas Tech University, with a master's in English with a creative writing concentration. After working as a journalist for years, she received her teaching certification. When she is not in the classroom, she can be found binge-watching True Crime documentaries.

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