In my last quarter of college, I took a poetry class. The teacher: Xavier Cavazos.
I wasn’t exactly excited to take the class. I was almost done with my degree. I was burnt out. I was coming from a horrendous quarter of two creative writing workshop, in one of which the professor told us all we sucked at writing. I was burnt out, dejected, and pissed off, and I never wanted to read or write again. I was ready to get the fuck outta there.
So I take this class with Xav, 1. to fulfill one of my last requirements, and 2. because I’ve already taken fiction writing and non-fiction writing, so I might as well get some experience with poetry writing too.
Unlike a certain professor who crushed all my dreams and made me despise fiction writing, Xav encouraged us to continue learning and working hard. Xav actually gave us useful criticism and writing techniques, rather than just telling us “you need more character development!”
Yeah, I’m bitter about that, and I couldn’t really tell you what I learned in that fiction class, except “characters, characters, characters!”
But here’s what I learned in my poetry class (I’m just gonna copy and paste this from the post I made on Tumblr:
Firstly, don’t worry about structure. Not all poems need a specific form or structure. In fact, form poems can often be limiting because it forces the poet to make their words fit into a box and can lead to forced rhymes, phrases, and even whole lines. If you are stressing about writing structured poems, then maybe try free-form.
What I like to keep in mind when writing poetry are these three elements:
- Event—What is the story? What’s happening? It doesn’t have to be a full-blown story or anything, but events help describe the emotion. (Remember “show, don’t tell”?) For example, in William Carlos Williams’ poem “This is Just to Say,” the event is the fact that he ate the plums.
- Emotion—how do you feel about the event? how do you want your readers to feel? Try to convey this emotion by describing the event. (If you tell us directly how we should feel, you risk coming off as sentimental, which means there is an excess of emotion with not enough explanation for the emotion). In Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” Plath uses language to describe her feelings for her father. She tells her father “I have had to kill you, Daddy” and “I never could talk to you.” These lines imply she was upset at her father (at the very least) She later describes how her father died when she was 10, and at 20 she tried to kill herself to get back to him, suggesting that she missed him. Rather than telling us explicitly she had conflicted feelings about her father, she used language that demonstrates her emotions.
- Imaginative leap—This involves using figurative language such as metaphors, similes, and other similar techniques. Langston Hughes’ poem “Dream Deferred” has nothing but imaginative leaps.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
A technique for starting a poem is called “automatic writing” (Or stream of consciousness). Set a timer for 10 minutes and just write whatever comes to mind. This technique is especially popular in the surrealist category.
Don’t worry about writing something shitty. Pretty much every first draft is shitty, but you can’t start revising if you don’t have anything written in the first place.
Final tip: Be aware of how many adjectives you use. In the long run, less is more.