Top ten tips for writing poetry: Monika Cassel

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As flipped eye celebrates its 20th anniversary, one of its leading poets shares her advice

1. Read widely

If you don’t already read a lot of poetry, get started now! I can think of no better teacher than reading other poets’ work: reading extensively expands your vision. There is so much great work out there, and with so many incredible independent presses publishing new work, there’s always something to discover. I seek out poets who engage with similar themes as mine or use forms or techniques I’m attracted to, but I also make a point to read books with very different topical or formal concerns. And then sometimes I return to poets I’ve read many times—the poets that first got me interested in language and writing—or to newer (to me) books that I keep finding myself thinking about. I notice new things every time I reread a poem or collection.

2. Write poems out

This may sound odd, but it is one of my longest-running reading habits. When I was a teen I copied poems into my journal to collect them. As an undergraduate, I found that copying out poems really helped me understand the poems I was writing essays about, and I continued that practice during my academic training. I also wrote out some poems I really loved just to hang them on my wall. When I began writing my own poems, I returned to the practice to look at poems from a craft perspective. I find that writing by hand slows me down more and helps me really internalize a poem, but typing is a great choice too if you’re more comfortable with it or if writing by hand is difficult for you. I sometimes even write a poem out twice, or I write it once by hand and then type it. The repetition is helpful and different methods of reproducing the poem show me new things.

3. Memorize poems

This is a piece of advice I need to get back to myself! I memorized quite a few poems in my teens and twenties but have slacked off in the past years. However, I have retained several of the poems that I memorized decades ago, and I treasure the feeling of having a poem live inside me. Each poem I’ve memorized gives me greater insights into sound, rhythm and meaning. If memorizing seems daunting, try this: a friend recently said he records himself reading poems he’s thinking about and then listens to the recordings on long walks. Reading poems aloud and then listening to them off the page slows him down and shows him different things than he’d seen when just reading silently. (This could be a great revision strategy for your own work, too!)

4. Build community

It makes a huge difference to connect with other writers who may be facing some of the same challenges you are, or who can energize you when your motivation is flagging. If you can find writers to exchange works-in-progress with, that’s even better. If you don’t already have a writing community, start building one! It can take time and patience to create those relationships; I am still building my own local poetry community after moving several years ago. There are a lot of ways to engage with other writers in your area. As soon as the pandemic allows, I particularly recommend community workshops as a way to meet other writers in your area. Online workshops are a great way to connect with writers from all over. 

5. Translate poetry

You can think of translation as a more intensive form of “writing out” a poem. To translate a poem from another language into your primary language, you really need to understand the poem. You also need to be able to see how it’s working on a technical level. Translation has been one of my best teachers and has expanded my horizon of what I think is possible in my writing. If you are a heritage speaker of a second (or multiple) languages, you might tap into something deep about how those languages live inside you. If you have learned additional languages for whatever reason, then that is also a great place to start! You don’t have to be an expert to discover something unexpected by translating a poem. If you’re new to translation, I suggest writing a “rough” sense-based translation as a first step, then revising it while comparing it to the original to make sure you are satisfied with how you’ve interpreted the original text. Then put the original aside and just revise the translated piece as a poem. Take breaks between steps to look at your work with fresh eyes.

6. Write about what you read

Translation can be a great tool to deepen your understanding of the workings of a poem; another powerful way to reach that goal, without another language, is to write about poems. You can do this informally, for yourself, keeping a journal where you react to poems or books you read, noting aspects of the work that you love, examples of particularly notable use of a literary device, or something that puzzles you. Try to take it a step further by explaining how the writer has achieved a particular effect.

7. Write a review

Another great way to write about poetry is to review a collection. There are a lot of journals looking for reviews of books—some maintain lists of books they’d like reviewed, and others will take pitches or even submissions of finished pieces, though I only recommend writing a review unsolicited if you’re happy just doing it as an exercise for yourself. A careful reading of a book (not a thumbs-up-or-thumbs-down critique but a description of what you, as a reader, found in a book of poems) is a great way to sharpen your eye, and it’s also a very generous act—a great way to give back to the poetry community.

8. Try erasure or collage

I am not a visual artist, but I love visual art and have a special affection for visual poetry. As a high school teacher, I always included a visual poetry unit in my poetry classes, in part to make poetry more accessible to students who felt less at home with words. The physical processes of crafting a piece guided by visual forms but driven by language can really help free your mind. Erasure poems and collage poems, in particular, are great for shaking up your usual patterns of engaging with language: cutting and pasting, circling or crossing out words, finding visual patterns and creating or working with decorative elements all take poetry out of your head and put it into your hands. You don’t have to be a visual-arts maven to do this, and you may be surprised by what you uncover.

9. If you’re stuck, maybe you’re growing

I go through times where my work surprises and delights through all stages of the writing process, and then I go through periods where nothing seems to work. Every time I have hit a real wall with my writing, hindsight has eventually shown me that I stuck because my vision was outpacing what I’m was currently capable of. I’ve learned to be a bit more patient at those times—they’re like growing pains. Some time later I’ll have another breakthrough and assimilate this growth into my writing, just the way I’ve looked up at my children on some days and noticed that they seem to have grown an inch overnight. Trust those fallow periods and keep reading, or take a break and go on a walk. Something important may be growing unseen inside you!

10 Keep at it

It took me a long time to figure out a direction for my writing and to gain the confidence to really commit to it. There is no definite point of arrival here—ten years later, I have so much more to learn, but I have at least gotten better at defining my goals. And uncertainty and rejection are part of the process. I won the first pamphlet contest I entered but have lost at least fifteen since then! Give yourself a little time to grieve a rejection or nurse your wounds, take some time to reevaluate your work if you’re ready, and move on.


Monika Cassel is the author of the poetry collection Grammar of Passage, out now from flipped publishing.

 

Here are some more top tips on how to write a poem - this time from Katherine Lockton.