December 21 — Cutoff for posting bone poems at midnight CST.
December 23 — Voting begins for December Hall of Fame Poets.
December 30 — Voting ends at midnight CST.
December 31 — December winners declared and January word announced.
I hope that everyone can take a few minutes to enjoy the remarks of my blog guest today, Marilyn Singer. She has much to offer and has managed to be concise and helpful at the same time by first responding to six questions and then suggesting 10 tips for writing poetry. She threw one of the questions back to me so I have a reponse in there too. This is the kind of information you’ll want to refer back to from time to time. My thanks to Marilyn. Without further ado, read on.
(David) How did you know you were a poet? Describe your decision and how you went about getting published.
(Marilyn) Hmm, well, I thought I was a poet at age 6 when I started writing poetry. I didn’t think about whether my poetry was great so much as that it just was. And it’s probably a good thing that I have held this belief for so long because it has allowed me to keep writing and writing, no matter what. I remember one teacher suggesting that I try some free verse instead of rhyme, and I wrote a short story (a very short one, but still…). It took a while to understand what free verse was, but I was still confident that I was a poet.
In college, a creative writing teaching told me that my poetry was actually pretty good—but my fiction sucked. That reinforced my belief that I was a poet. Unfortunately, it also made me feel that I couldn’t write fiction for years. I’m not sure what changed that perception, but at least it did change—so much so that my first children’s books were picture books and novels. It was a number of years before I wrote poetry for children and submitted it for publication. That book was TURTLE IN JULY—and it started out as a prose picture book! But then I realized it should be a series of poems. When it was published and well-received, I knew I could write other poetry books for kids. Have they all done well? No way. Do I still have trouble getting poetry (and other manuscripts) accepted? You bet. But at least I know it’s possible to get children’s poetry published. And I still think I’m a poet.
(David) Why are some people afraid of writing poetry? How can a beginning poet get past the fear factor?
(Marilyn) I had no idea that some people ARE afraid of writing poetry—other than the stereotypical “poetry is for sissies” notion. I mean, some people don’t like to write anything, so poetry seems just part of that mix. I know that people are afraid of READING it because it seems (and sometimes is) abstruse. To be honest, I think that kids are more willing to try their hand at poetry than at prose because it appears to be easier to write—closer to their feelings and fun to rhyme, if they use rhyme. The operative word is “appears,” however. I’m going to throw this question back at you for a dialogue—why do you say some folks are afraid of writing poetry?
(David) Agreed that children are more fearless than adults about making up a poem. Many teachers face a fear factor because they lack formal training in writing poetry and feel uncomfortable standing before their students and revealing that their own poems may not be much better than the kids’. Men who might tackle a short story or even a play on the grounds that they’ve always been good at telling stories sometimes balk at putting it all on the line in a poem. I’ve even met a few poets who were influenced by a prevailing notion that circulated for years through academia that verse was simply too hard and one should stick to free verse, particularly when working with young people in elementary school.
(David) Which is easier to write, verse or free verse?
(Marilyn) Neither. They’re both difficult. In free verse, I believe you’re focusing more on the imagery and emotion; in rhyme, there is of course both of those things, too, but the main focus is wordplay that gets across your point. Conveying all of those things is always tricky, especially in poetry, where every word counts. Because many people associate poetry with rhyming, I’d say there’s a lot more bad verse out there than free verse. But I may be wrong.
(David) Why poetry? Why not stick with fiction or nonfiction? What attracts some writers to poetry?
(Marilyn) “Stick with”? There’s no question of sticking with or not sticking with. Different pieces require different types of writing. Poems to me are about capturing moments in time, answering questions I ask myself, exploring emotions I feel, or, if I’m writing narrative poems, capturing the essence of characters. They’re also about playing with language in ways that are impossible to attempt in prose. Novels are extended developments of story and character. Nonfiction is information, which may be conveyed lyrically, but again, is extended and factual and calls for prose. All of these genres are appropriate…when they’re appropriate. I like having them all in my toolbox.
As far as poetry goes, it’s true that it is my favorite thing to write. I can’t speak with other writers, but for myself, I love the succinctness, the imagery, the capturing of moments, and the play aspects of poetry. I find writing poetry generally more relaxing than writing prose—although my forthcoming book, MIRROR, MIRROR: A Book of Reversible Verse (Dutton, March 2010) was not particularly the latter. I created a new form called the “reverso.” You read one poem down and then, with changes only in punctuation and capitalization, you read it back up and it’s a different poem. The reversos in this collection are all based on fairy tales. It was really hard to write this book, but it was energizing!
(David) How much does a children’s poet need to know about poetry to become a poet?
(Marilyn) Do you mean the history and scope of poetry, or the forms, or something else? I think it helps to have some knowledge of history, scope, forms, etc. I took a lot of classes in the classics, and we read a lot of poets. I learned a number of the forms and I like to fiddle with them. Writing in set forms helps sharpen my skills, I think. However, I have to confess that I don’t know all of those forms, nor can I write poems in all of them (a sestina? Uh uh) and I’m not very up-to-date with contemporary adult poets. I am pretty in touch with contemporary children’s poets, though, especially since I co-host the ALSC Poetry Blast at ALA each year and we feature lots of poets. I read all of their work, so I’m lucky if I find time to read folks who write strictly for grown-ups as well.
(David) While waiting for the big break from an editor, how should budding poets work to perfect their craft?
(Marilyn) My answer to this is really obvious: write, write, write. Reading helps, too. So do workshops and classes. It’s especially good to HEAR poets read. Poetry is an aural art. My husband says he didn’t really appreciate some of my stuff until he heard me read it. I feel that way about some poems/poets I’ve read. So, listen…and learn!
TEN TIPS FOR WRITING POETRY
1. Pay attention to the world around you—little things, big things, people, animals, buildings, events, etc. What do you see, hear, taste, smell, feel?
2. Listen to words and sentences. What kind of music do they have? How is the music of poetry different from the music of songs?
3. Read all kinds of poetry. Which poems do you like and why?
4. Read what you write out loud. How does it sound? How could it sound better?
5. Ask yourself: does this poem have to rhyme? Would it be good or better if it didn’t? If it should rhyme, what kind of rhyme would be best? (For example, 1st and 2nd lines rhyme; 3rd and 4th lines rhyme—“Roses are red/So is your head/Violets are blue/So is your shoe”; or 1st and 3rd lines rhyme; 2nd and 4th lines rhyme—“What is your name?/Who is your mother?/This poem is quite lame/I should try another.”
6. Ask yourself: does this poem sound phoney? Don’t stick in big words or extra words just because you think a poem ought to have them.
7. A title is part of a poem. It can tell you what the poem is about. It can even be another line of the poem.
8. Before you write, think about what you want your whole poem to say.
9. If you end up saying something else, that’s okay, too. Poet X.J. Kennedy says, “You intend to write a poem about dogs, say, and poodle is the first word you’re going to find a rhyme for. You might want to talk about police dogs, Saint Bernards, and terriers, but your need for a rhyme will lead you to noodle and strudel. The darned poem will make you forget about dogs and write about food instead.”
10. Go wild. Be funny. Be serious. Be whatever you want! Use your imagination, your own way of seeing.
Have questions for Marilyn? Post them.