NaPoWriMo, Week 3: Five Secret Weapons in Writing Poetry

Since last week’s post was pure editorial, I wanted to make this week’s post pure resource. I think I may be taking a tremendous risk by revealing these five secrets that I use to help generate original, polished work. I mean, I sunk four years of my life into a degree in Poetry, and now I’m just gonna put it all out there for free on the internet. (100% of PayPal Donations will go towards paying off the credit card debt I racked up post-graduation!)

Before I begin, I want to link to another resource: HTML Giant’s list of Moves in Contemporary Poetry. Study this list. Be able to recognize these moves. Resist them or employ them at your will.

That said:

1. Make An Outline

Chances are, at some point in your studies, whether it was a five paragraph essay or a screenplay, someone forced you to make an outline of ideas before you started writing. Fun fact: You can do this with poetry, too!

Although this technique works well for all different types of poetry, it best services narrative. Mindy Nettifee’s book on the writing process, “Glitter in the Blood,” gives a great technique called “mind mapping,” which is essentially a free association flow chart of ideas that you can use to sort through ideas surrounding a prompt or topic. I would suggest you buy her book if you want to learn more, but I can provide my own example. I used a flowchart approach in a workshop I led where I asked students to write poems about their favorite colors:

mind map

If you can make out my sloppy handwriting in this low quality picture, you can see that I’ve listed several things related to yellow, as well as many things seemingly unrelated but which I realize through free-association, and finally a list of yellow in popular culture. When I was done with this map, I picked a starting point and tried to incorporate as many things on this list as possible.

Another common technique is creating lists before you begin writing a poem. This technique works best in workshop scenarios, when writing toward a concept or theme, or in response to example poems. However, that is not to say that this cannot be recreated when working independently.

Commonly, the poet is asked to create three separate lists of at least five items apiece that can speak to a concept or theme; if you want to write a poem about your racial identity, for example, one list could simply be “Five times someone made you aware of your skin color,” while another might be “Five things you gave up on.”

This technique is meant to organize thoughts; it’s distinct from an outline in that it does not inherently provide order to the poem. Instead, it prepares your mind to be in the space of the poem. The lists are helpful to refer back to during the writing process itself. However, especially in the latter technique, it is not necessary to use some or all of the components.

These techniques are most useful for writing poems when you already have a concept in mind, even if you don’t know, exactly, what the poem should be about. It’s extremely helpful for creating first person, narrative work.

2. Reversing The Sequence

The best advice I ever got while in school was when a professor told me, “Sometimes, you need to get out of the way of the poem.” This advice is helpful in many different scenarios, but there is one specific revision technique I associate it with: radical revision.

I’ll discuss one other radical revision technique a little later, but my go-to is the reversal of sequence within the poem. In this approach, you literally reverse the order of the lines, so that the last line in first, and the first line is last.

This works for a litany of reasons: in rough drafts, it  sometimes takes us the entire length of a poem to figure out our “thesis statement,” 0r the most concrete idea of the poem. On the other hand, first lines can tend to be more concerned with abstraction or naming the concept; these expository moments don’t always ground the poem the way an opener should. Look at a couple of your poems right now and switch the first line or stanza with the last line or stanza, and see what happens.

To return to the “getting out of the way of the poem,” though–this technique will instantly undo the logic within the language of the poem. There’s no other way to make a boring poem suddenly interesting than by fucking with the laws of syntax, grammar, and punctuation. In the reversal, language becomes the driving force of the verse, rather than the attempt at meaning. Often when the poem feels forced, the reversal will undo the strain of meaning and allow the poem to speak for itself.

3. Dictionaries

You ever hear the saying, “You’re so boring, you probably read the dictionary for fun?” I’m literally that person. The dictionary is probably my most often used secret weapon in writing poetry. Visual artists are often inspired by materials; if you’re a writer, words are your materials.

If you’re an advanced enough poet to realize when you’re using language that’s over-done or cliche, the best thing to do is to look up the definition of the word in the dictionary. Obviously thesarauses (thesauri?) are a good way for replacing plain words with more descriptive synonyms, but looking up the etymology and learning the functional properties of words can be hugely inspiring to the concept of a poem.

By example, my poem A Transitive Verb was transformed by this practice. The poem is about the unraveling of a relationship. When I finished the initial free write, I was contemplating titles, and thought of the word “Unfolding.” Feeling that it’d be reductive as a title, I looked the word up in the dictionary and thought the concept of the word as a transitive verb was interesting. I rewrote the poem to this concept.

There’s another radical revision technique you can use, the surrealist game “n7,” wherein you look up a noun in the dictionary and replace it with the word seven nouns away from the original (so “cigarette” becomes “Cinderella,” for example). As with the reversal technique, this is a good way to unpack a poem, and then perhaps revise after you’ve completed the exercise (although in the surrealist game, there is no revising, even at the expense of any sort of logic or sense within the text).

4. Appropriation

Appropriating other texts is one of the marks of postmodern writing. While it may seem like a cheap shot to appropriate others’ words for your own usage, good “found” poems are more often seen as the mark of genius (at least in my poetic circles). If you give credit where credit’s due, you can get a lot of props for taking work which may not have been originally presented in the context of a poem, and then transforming it.

Another technique I’ve used for years is appropriating text from things that are not poems. For several years I wrote “mixtape poems,” essentially listening to songs on repeat and reusing lyrics. The idea behind this was that I felt those songs were relatable for whatever I was going through in the moment, and through this action I was able to put these words directly into the context of my situation. I’ve used this technique with news articles as well, as in my poem Landai.

I’m not sure of the politics behind this move, but I often appropriate poems that have inspired me and use them to my own advantage. I’ll often find myself so enamored by a poem that it sticks in my head, like a song, playing on repeat. I’ve made attempts at rewriting a couple of these great poems, most notably “Holy City” by Anne Waldman and “burn all the letters” by Marty McConnell. These attempts are a mixture of trying to rewrite the poems from memory while responding to the original texts.

I’d recommend keeping poems or texts that you love somehow, in physical or digital form, and be unafraid to appropriate specific lines or images in your own poems. If you’re reading enough to get inspired by the stuff you’re absorbing, you’re doing it right. It’s never a bad idea to give credit when you can, but remember what T. S. Eliot said: “Bad poets borrow. Good poets steal.”

5. White Space

We know poetry comes from an oral tradition. There are many writers who claim to never write anything down, but compose entire works within their own heads. However, especially in a digital age, it is common for many poets to start with their words on the page. Whether works are typed or handwritten, the page becomes an artistic laboratory where poets test their ideas.

Considering the way your words appear means not only a fascination with language, but within the physical space those words inhabit. If you’re a writer whose work depends on the page–whether its function is as a playing field or as the primary means of reaching an audience–you should consider the whitespace (sometimes called “negative space”) of your work.

For centuries, poets wrote in meter and form, not just because it was the popular style of the day, but because this was a way to control the poem. This is why poets use line breaks to emphasize certain images or create double entendre. In a world where poems don’t have to be restricted to forms or a uniform method of presentation, structural vision is the best way to hone a poem and make it unique. Poets should consider the potential to use the ENTIRE page to illuminate the presentation of a poem. There is no need to write only in lineated forms or prose forms.

The way one can utilize the whitespace within a poem can emphasize the lyric or imagistic qualities of a poem.  Working on a computer makes it incredibly easy to experiment with different sorts of spacing or presentation while still creating a document that looks neat and controlled. However, this can be achieved when handwriting drafts, too–why not try handwriting with smaller margins, or isolating certain words at the top or bottom of a page?

The visual aspects of text are often undervalued or completely unnoticed. Considering this aspect of your poetry will give you an edge that will make your poetry more appealing on the page (that means more likely to be published). But don’t forget that even straightforward, lineated poems use whitespace, too. While you should be concerned with the language of your poem, presentation is immensely important as well, and not for superficial reasons.

That’s it for this week’s NaPoWriMo Blog. I’m having as much fun writing these posts as I am writing the poems, although I have to admit, the surprise of landing myself a finalist spot in the Write Bloody book contest has sort of exploded my schedule (which is why this post is going up on Friday, rather than Thursday). I’ll be back next week to wrap up this series, but, since NaPoWriMo 2013 is mainly reminding me of how it is important to examine one’s habits as a writer year round, I suspect I’ll keep up with my take on poetics even after April is over. Feel free to request posts or ask questions in the comments!

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