A Fiction Writer’s Guide to Poetry

I consider myself to be primarily a prose writer, but I have dabbled a bit in poetry. It’s fun. It’s short. And publishers can fit more of it on the same number of pages, so I’ve found it to be easier to market (not “easy,” just “easier”). Plus, it’s good to be versatile: Sometimes something will “come to you” as a poem. When it does, you want to be able to write it.

Consider the following to be my poetry-writing cheat sheet. Obviously, it takes more than this to write a really stellar poem: inspiration, talent, magical puppy-bunnies. But I’ve found I can write a pretty decent one by doing these four simple things:

  1. Remember that poems can be tiny stories. The idea of writing poetry used to make me itchy. All those adjectives, the lyric language, THE RHYME SCHEMES. But then I started reading poets like Billy Collins and Tony Hoagland and found out that (gasp!) poems can be little mini-stories. In poetry-land, they call these “narrative poems.” They are awesome.
  2. Line breaks are your friend. When you’re used to prose conventions, breaking a paragraph mid-sentence can seem weird. If you’re not sure where to break or why, do what I do and just fiddle with the line breaks until your reader could just read the break words—the last words in each line—and get a sense of the mood of the poem, what it’s about, or it’s central metaphor. For example, in this Joanna Fuhrman poem about architecture and longing, the first handful of break words are “cries,” “says,” “can’t,” “outer,” “tears,” “house’s,” and “beautiful.” If you click through, you’ll see how perfectly those words capture the tone of the poem. When in doubt, break on an action or image word.
  3. Use mood words to add tension. If you’re writing a poem about something sad, you can throw in some words with pleasant or happy connotations to complicate it a bit. And vice versa. Billy Collins does this masterfully in his poem “Snow Day,” which seems to be about a day off from school (hooray!), but he adds tension by throwing in lots of negative words and words connected with revolution. Words like “flag,” “smothered,” “government,” “blocked,” “fallen,” “prisoner,” “sympathizer,” “anarchic,” “cause,” “hide,” “plotting,” “riot,” and “queen” make the reader wonder what the poem is really about.
  4. Finally, don’t be afraid to lie. We fiction writers are, by nature, liars. I used to suffer under the misconception that poems had to be non-fiction. False! Turns out a poet can take on a “persona” the same way a fiction writer takes on a point of view character to tell her (fictional) story.

You can hop over to my Writing page and click on the poetry links to see the cheat sheet in action.

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