Poetry 101 -- Martha Carlson-Bradley
compiled by Martha Carlson-Bradley
Read poetry, ideally aloud, as often as you can. Think of it as pleasure, not homework, and fit it into your day whenever you can: while waiting for your child to finish an after-school activity, when taking a coffee break, while taking a trip by bus, train, plane …
Read as many different poets and different kinds of poetry as you can. Read poets who are like you and poets who are radically different from you. Websites like Poetry Daily and Verse Daily feature a new poem every day and can introduce you to contemporary poets you might enjoy reading. Don’t forget the “old guys” from previous centuries, either: they have a lot to teach us about the music of language, metaphor, voice, image … A good anthology or textbook can introduce you to major poets from the past. Your local librarian can guide you to books of poetry.
Do you have favorites among the poems you're reading? Jot down what it is about your favorites that appeals to you. Being able to articulate elements of poetic language and techniques makes it more likely that you'll begin to use such language and techniques in your own work. If you need help with poetic terminology, visit the Bob’s Byway Glossary of Poetic terms (http://www.poeticbyway.com/glossary.html) and the glossary of the Poetry Society of America (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/learning/glossary-terms). Published glossaries include A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch
Go to a variety of poetry readings -- with featured, published poets; with open mikes; with slam poets; with traditional lyric poets … Online calendars of readings are offered by NHWP (http://www.nhwritersproject.org/tags/literary-calendar), Poets & Writers (http://www.pw.org/calendar—filter for “New Hampshire”); and the websites of local bookstores. Readings are also a great way to meet other people who write poetry.
Carry a notebook (paper or digital) to jot down lines or phrases that come to mind as "poetic." Draft poems as soon afterward as you can. Don't worry if you can't finish a draft -- the important thing is to jot down language as often as you can and play with it.
Draft poems as frequently as you can: daily is ideal, but a few times a week or weekly will also help you grow as a poet.
Remember that writing is a process: If you need to skip writing for some weeks, it may take you some time to get back into the flow of writing again, but if you trust in the process and keep writing, you’ll get back to the fluency you had earlier and keep growing as a poet. Really. Just keep at it, even if you feel rusty at first and your drafts seem awful. (So what? You don’t have to show them to anyone.) The cure for being “rusty” or “dry” is just to keep at it until writing comes more naturally again.
Familiarize yourself with poetry websites like Academy of American Poets, the Poetry Foundation, the Poetry Society of America, Poets & Writers, and all the different features they offer poets, like glossaries, bios of poets, sample poems, definitions of schools of poetry and poetic terms, links to further resources and organizations for poets.
It's great to have a mentor, but in the early days of your poetry apprenticeship, it's even better to have several mentors, that is, poets you look up to and listen to. You want to develop early a broad sense of what poetry is and what it can do, and to do that, you should listen to many voices.
Take some workshops or classes. Local organizations that offer classes, discussions, conferences, and workshops include NHWP and the NHWP Book Club for Poets, the Poetry Society of New Hampshire, The Frost Place, Monadnock Writers' Project, the Arts Alliance of Northern New Hampshire, and local colleges and universities.
Familiarize yourself with books about poetry and books of exercises, such as The Practice of Poetry by Robin Behn, In the Palm of Your Hand by Steve Kowit, and The Crafty Poet by Diane Lockward. (Find more books about writing at “Best Books for Writers” on the Poets & Writers website, at http://www.pw.org/best-books-for-writers.)
Get feedback. Find other beginner (and intermediate) poets and critique each other’s work. Don’t think of suggestions as absolute mandates or “rules” – but don’t necessarily ignore feedback either. Every “problem” or “weak spot” in a poem is an opportunity to do something even more compelling. The NHWP Writers’ Day conference and Writers Nights Out are great places to find other poets looking for writers’ groups. NHWP also offers the Critique Partners Match, which pairs writers for peer editing, critique, and commentary.
Learn to love revising. Beginners know the thrill of creating a new poem. More-advanced poets know the thrill of revision and recognize that it’s just as creative as writing down that first draft. It’s part of that process we talked about in #6.
As a beginner, be more focused on writing and learning your craft than on publishing. Give yourself an apprenticeship in writing. When it’s time, you can move on to the intermediate level and begin to think about sharing your work with others.