Monday, 3 December 2012

Read a poem, write a poem - Moira Andrew

Well, it’s not as easy as all that – there’s a lot more to writing a poem, as I know to my cost.  The poet Wes Magee has said, Poetry is two four-letter words – HARD WORK!  But one thing is sure, the more a poet reads, the more successful the subsequent writing becomes. 

Photo by Kate Blair
It’s true that we poets have a compulsion to write, stimulated often by the most unlikely things – a flower lighting up the border in winter, a scrap of overheard dialogue, an unbidden memory that makes you catch your breath, the smell of cinnamon … you never know where a poem is lurking. 

And then there is the whole therapeutic reason for writing, words really can bring wellbeing.  Poets write of their loss when someone they love has died, exploring loneliness, grief, anger, uncertainty.  Some of our best and most direct work comes as a by-product of deepest grief.  To quote Michael Rosen, A poem is the best way of saying big things in small spaces.

But poets shouldn’t simply write – to develop our skills we need to read – and to read widely.  No use saying, I’ve done all that – I read Wordsworth and Shakespeare at school.  We’ve all been there.  We keep the work of the traditional poets under our belts, often unaware of the debt we owe them.

No, I’m talking about contemporary poets.  As writers living in today’s world, we need to speak and write in today’s language.  If you go on an Arvon course, the first questions you’re asked, even before the tutor has opened your folder, are What do you read?  Who is your favourite poet?  Why do you like his/her work?

The tutors recognise that poets need to be able to hear the rhythms in contemporary poetry, the way dialogue is used, the various patterns created on a page.  But what about traditional punctuation? I’m asked, when readers are initially floored by seeing verses in lower case or dialogue in italics.  That’s not a problem.  No poet is forced to drop capitals or formal poetic structures – it’s just that sometimes a modern poem reads better that way!

Keep a notebook, all you would-be poets.  Write down scraps of ideas, dreams, quotes … but more importantly, read as much as you can lay hands on of contemporary poetry.  You won’t like all you read, but you can begin to make comparisons and rate different poets in your own private ‘poetometer’.

Photo by Chris Sims

Then experiment by trying different subjects, new ways of placing your words on the page, rhyming and non-rhyming, circular poems, shape poems, riddles, conversations, narrative – your own version of a sonnet.

Explore, invent, cross out, reinvent – experiment with different styles, a different pace.  Occasionally you might see what happens if your try a ‘copycat’ poem, changing ‘Prayer to the sun’ to ‘Prayer to the moon’, adding your own take on the original.  Try using a phrase from an existing poem as a title of a new poem – and see where it takes you.

Photo by Susan Jane Sims

Above all, put down your pen, switch off the computer and spend time reading poetry collections, magazines, anthologies.  You will be surprised at the riches you’ll find – but more to the point, your own poetry will come on by leaps and bounds. Read a poem, write a poem that’s my motto!

Moira Andrew November 2012

Moira Andrew has been writing poetry for children and adults since the 1980's. In the past year she has had two collections published: Firebird (Indigo Dreams Publishing) and Wish a Wish, published by Poetry Space Ltd. 

Wish a Wish, Moira's collection for children, illustrated  by Anna Popescu is available in Poetry Space Online Shop at £5.99

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