Guest post: Poetry writing tips from Poet Laureate Alice Shapiro

I’m delighted to bring you this guest blog post, today on the topic of poetry, by Poet Laureate of Douglasville, Georgia, USA, Alice Shapiro. Photo of Alice courtesy of John Barker / Douglasville Patch.

10 Poetry Writing Tips

  1. Write Profusely. This is a good way to discover your inner self without judgment. Once I decided to become serious about writing poetry, the words poured out and I had a body of work to look at. Most of these first attempts were so abstract that, six months later, I was unable to remember what I was talking about. Perhaps I went a little too deep, forgetting there is such a thing as reality. However, this led me to the next step.
  2. Ask For Help. Not someone who doesn’t know anything about poetry, but someone you can trust. Pay for it if you have to. I went right to the top and asked David Axelrod, then Poet Laureate of Suffolk, Long Island.  One of my poems made it to an online journal along with his. In his critique he pointed out the abstract nature of my work, which tipped me off to my tendency and how to fix that problem.
  3. Throw Them Out. Not everyone can do this. Some people never throw anything out in case they want to rework the poem or a portion of it. I’m not fond of revising although I see its value, and I gain a sense of freedom to pursue present and future thoughts instead of rehashing the old ones. I’m a different person today than I was last week and may have a new perspective on a subject. Unless I’m doing a retrospective project of some sort, I’m always ready to move on.
  4. Pick a Favorite Place. Some writers need quiet, some flourish amid noisy backgrounds and interruptions, some can do both. I enjoy writing in restaurants where I don’t have to think about doing laundry or making phone calls. Recently I’ve written in my back yard or on the couch in front of the TV (which is usually on).
  5. Give It A Rest. After a poem is written I sometimes feel pretty good about my accomplishment and will want to share it immediately. However, like a good roast beef needs a rest before carving, if I’m smart I wait at least a day to let it sit. Distance often shows me a word I glossed over, a typo and grammatical error, and occasionally a better word choice. For some reason that I cannot explain I sometimes write down a word that means the exact opposite of the word I meant to use.
  6. Join A Group. Critique groups are excellent for honing your work. Others will instantly pick up on that glossed-over word. They also make useful suggestions and correct grammar, spelling and other technical errors. Take the suggestions with a polite grain of salt and be the final judge of what is best for you.
  7. Give A Reading. When you are feeling secure with your poem, commandeer friends and family members to listen to you read it – or go public at a spoken word or slam event if your work is in the dramatic vein. Hearing the words often gives you a new perspective.
  8. Block the Block. I’ve heard that there’s no such thing as writer’s block and that is probably true. But, I stopped writing for 10 years, only 5 years after I started writing. Now I never have writer’s block. If I’m particularly stressed I go for a walk, and the ideas come back. There are many tricks people use to get inspired. Try one.
  9. Read. Read the classic poets and the contemporary poets. In addition to enjoying the poetry, occasionally I begin to notice a particular style or idiosyncrasy that a poet has employed. Often I am able to incorporate that into my own work. More than simply adopting their specific visual style – such as no caps or dashes for emphasis – it could be a unique way the poet uses a word.
  10. Take a Class/Workshop. Knowledge is power. Although I didn’t study writing at university, I recognize the value of an education and wish I could have gone that route. It is also a good way to meet other writers.

Bonus Tips

  1. Write and Switch. Write whatever comes to your mind. Get that complete sentence or thought down on paper before you lose the whole thing. While writing down your sentence, you can be seduced into changing a word or two for a better one but nine times out of ten you will lose the flow of the thought. I try not to judge myself at the first level and just get it down on paper. Then I go back and switch all those simple, cliché or horrible words in front of me. However, don’t just upgrade the word, find another totally unexpected word to express that same meaning.
  2. Pet Peeve. It is very distracting when I see the same word repeated throughout a poem unless it is a deliberate, purposeful act to maintain rhythm, etc. Mostly it indicates to me that the writer didn’t take the time to find a better way to express their thought. What’s your pet peeve?
  3. Inside Out. Use your eyes to see nature, to observe people’s activities, and use your other senses of smell, touch, taste, and hearing. Also, don’t forget to look inward at motives, emotions, locked-away secrets and remembrances. Some writers examine their dreams, but mine are bizarre and nonsensical and do not make good poems.

Thank you Alice! I’ve never heard of poetry being compared with roast beef and I loved it! Being a poetry phobe (OK, not that much but it’s a challenge for me), I feel encouraged having read this (especially given the similarities of your techniques to my prose methods) and I hope I’m not the only one. 🙂 Oh, and my pet peeve – a poet choosing a word that rhymes (or sometimes only half-rhymes) because it fits the rhythm rather than the poem.

Alice Shapiro is currently serving as Poet Laureate of Douglasville, GA.

In addition to her three collections of poetry, one of which received a Pushcart Prize nomination and Georgia Author of the Year nomination (2010), she also won the Bill C. Davis Drama Award for a verse play (Four Voices), is Executive Producer of a TV competition for poets, and was one of the judges for Poetry Out Loud’s 2010 and 2011 regionals.

Shapiro’s next collection, Saltian, will be released early October by unbound CONTENT Press. You can participate in the pre-publishing project at http://booksblog.unboundcontent.com Visit her website at http://aliceshapiro.com and you can also watch the video of Alice reading her 9/11 poem, her first official Poet Laureate duty.

If you would like to write a writing-related guest post for my blog then feel free to email me at morgen@morgenbailey.com with an outline of what you would like to write about. If it’s writing-related then it’s highly likely I’d email back and say “yes please” (while quietly bouncing up and down in my seat with joy!).