Friday, June 24, 2011

Taming the poetry beast

I am in the curious space in my poetry-writing 'career' where I feel the need to do something other than write more poems and that is review and organize the poems I've already written. (It's almost as if this part of the creativity process - a sort of clearing blocked plumbing, if you will, so that new words can flow...)

In an attempt to do that I've pulled sheets from binders and the pockets of clipboards, sorted them into piles according to the things I write about — faith, nature, family, objects etc. — but it's still a mess. However, I think I may have discovered the perfect tool for gaining some control over my all-over-the-place efforts. It's Scrivener.

I first came across Scrivener some months ago when a fellow writer recommended it as good software for working on projects where you need one place to collect the research, develop the concepts, do the drafts etc. I downloaded the 30-day free trial and used it for working on a long fiction piece. Eventually I purchased it.

Now, after mulling over how to best use it, I'm beginning to enter my poems into it. I'm hoping to collect and organize them so that I can see at a glance what I've written on various themes, what's worth working on or not, what's been published and where etc.

What I love about Scrivener for working on poetry is:
  • its keyword function (which is also searchable). You can keyword each document as to form, subject, published status, contest status, blogged etc.
  • its camera function: You can take a shot of each document before and after tweaking, which keeps all the versions attached to the poem and visible in the Inspector with a click of the mouse.
  • its linkability: You can easily post links in the Inspector, good for when the poem was inspired by an online prompt, for example, or you are planning to link it on a meme site (like One Shot Wednesdays).
I'm hoping to spend some time this summer taming the untidy poetry beast that lives in my office. For that, Scrivener will be my whip and stool.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

"Fresh, Sharp, Witty, Unpretentious*" - Canadian Poet Marianne Jones

I just discovered that Marianne Jones' book of poems Here, On the Ground won The World Guild 2011 Writing Award in the Special Books category. Congratulations, Marianne!

In February 2011 I did an email interview of Marianne for FellowScript. Today seems like a good time to republish that here to give readers some insight into Marianne and her prize-winning book.

"Fresh, Sharp, Witty, Unpretentious" - Canadian Poet Marianne Jones

Marianne Jones of Thunder Bay, Ontario was named Utmost Christian Writers International Christian Poet Laureate in March of 2010. The position of Poet Laureate is not the first recognition this Canadian poet has received for her poetry-writing skill. I interviewed her recently via email.

Violet: When did you first become interested in writing poetry? 
Marianne: I remember working seriously on poems when I was ten or eleven. But when I was younger I remember looking at things—rooftops, trees—and feeling an urgency to find the right words to describe them so that others would feel and see what I was experiencing.

Violet: What were some of the milestones along the path to becoming Utmost's International Christian Poet Laureate?
Marianne: The first time one of my poems was accepted by a literary magazine was a definite milestone for me. And when I won first place in the Northwestern Ontario Writers Workshop competition it was a real acknowledgement from my peers. Stephen Heighton’s praise of my work was an honour. Also, my chapbook, Highway 17, was used as part of the creative writing curriculum at Confederation College in Thunder Bay for several years. That was pretty special, as was receiving a grant from the Ontario Arts Council toward my collection, Here, on the Ground.

Violet: Some people claim they can't write poetry unless they are "inspired." Others write regularly whether they feel specific inspiration or not. How does the process of conceiving and writing poems work for you?
Marianne: Both are part of the process. There are days when my brain feels like sludge and produces nothing interesting. However, I have learned to carry a journal with me at all times and jot down descriptions and images. My poem “Canadian Tire” was written in the car as I sat in the parking lot outside the Canadian Tire store while my husband was shopping. I was bored, but decided to write about the experience. You never know from what unlikely place a poem will come!

Violet: Once you've written something, do you leave it the way it comes out, or edit it? If you edit, could you tell us about your process?
Marianne: My poems go through numerous edits. The first draft captures something—the essence of what I’m trying to say, or an image I like. But I need to sleep on it and revisit it later. Usually the first draft is a mess, which I don’t recognize at first blush. The editing process is the fun part for me, where I experiment with cleaning up sloppy phrases or deleting things that don’t add anything to the poem. The final draft often bears only a slight resemblance to the final product. This process is where I look for more muscular verbs and sharper images, a more graceful flow.

Violet: Your latest book Here, On the Ground (FriesenPress, May, 2010), has poems on a range of topics from Bible characters to life in northern Ontario. What was your concept for the book and what ties these poems together?
Marianne: These poems articulate a lot of my life experiences and thought processes. Tying them together into one theme was challenging, so I grouped them into sections. The Shadowlands section is about Biblical stories that resonate with me, and some of my own experiences in my journey. The red shoes section is about folk tales that speak to me, as well as a few playful poems added. How Canadians Survive Winter speaks to our love-hate relationship with the geography and climate of this country. I’d say that this is a very personal collection, that shows the range of my musings, from the mundane to the sublime.

Violet: This is your second published collection. Tell us about your first book and the process of publishing poetry collections in general.
Marianne: Highway 17 was an experiment and an act of faith. My daughter had been studying creative writing at Concordia University in Montreal. She told me that self-publishing chapbooks was the norm for poets in Canada, where very few publishing houses handled poetry. A friend helped me to sort and organize my poems, and I self-published a small number of chapbooks. I really didn’t expect much response, so I was pleasantly surprised when the first printing sold out. The second printing is almost sold out now. I did all the work on Here, on the Ground myself, except for the cover photo, which my husband did.

Violet: What activities have you found useful in publicizing and marketing your books?
Marianne: Marketing is the part that every writer hates, but it’s a necessary evil nowadays. I use Facebook, sell at local book tables, do readings and workshops. There is no easy or magic way. You have to realize that there are a million other writers out there also marketing their work.

You have to keep thinking of ways to promote, and enlisting the help of others. I’m not the best marketer in the world, but I plug away at it.

Violet: What advice would you give poets interested in publishing collections of their poems?
Marianne: I didn’t attempt it until I had already published a reasonable amount in a variety of magazines. That was what gave me the confidence that there were people out there willing to pay for my work. It’s great to have supportive family and friends who praise your work, but they may be responding more to you than to the work. The real test is whether editors will pay to publish your poems. After I had done that, and won some poetry competitions, I decided that self-publishing a chapbook was a logical next step.

Violet: What other poetry-inspired activities or organizations are you involved with? How are they helpful?
Marianne: I am a member of a local professional writers group. I am the only poet in the group, but we enjoy each other and support and celebrate each other’s work. I am also a member of the League of Canadian Poets. I do readings whenever I get the opportunity.

Violet: What advice would you give someone who has newly discovered they enjoy writing poetry?
Marianne: Read a lot of good poetry. That will teach you more about how to write than anything. I cut my teeth as a child on Walter de la Mare and Rudyard Kipling, and continued on to Stephen Crane, Wilfred Owen, Robert Frost. Soak yourself in the poetry portions of the Bible—Isaiah, the Psalms, The Song of Songs.
And take your time! Poetry is an activity that requires slowing down, meditating, observing quietly—things that are counter-cultural in the West. What we write in a hurry is likely to be superficial. Stretch yourself to find the unusual metaphor, the original phrase.

Violet: Can we find more of your work online? Where can we purchase your books?
Marianne: People can order Here, on the Ground from Chapters, FriesenPress or Or they can email me directly:

  • My review of Marianne's book is here.

*Words from the cover blurb of Here, On the Ground, by poet, editor & publisher of Penumbra Press, John Flood.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The internet - a great place to cultivate poetry

Writer-poet Marcus Goodyear doesn't believe that all the tweeting and hopping, the bit to bit and the clip to clip we experience when we surf the internet is making us stupid or shallow. He sees fragmentary communication not as dehumanizing but as poetry! He calls the sharing of our work for free via Creative Commons not laziness or thievery but stewardship and sees poetry as an effective way to steward ideas using internet technology to efficiently whiz them around the universe.

In that context, The Books and Culture arm of Christianity Today challenges poets with a prompt. Here it is verbatim:

Write a poem about cultivation. When I talk about cultivation, I mean agriculture but also creativity and culture itself. I am talking about the little place in your world where you have been given a small plot to grow new things and add to the beauty of God's world. Your deadline is July 1.
Read the whole article here.

So we have 14 days to write a poem and post it on our blogs and then link them in the comments of Marcus's article. Are we up for it?

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Research: dietary supplement for your poems

If your poems are weak they may need to be fortified with research. Poems subjected to "studious inquiry, diligent, protracted, systematic investigation" are bound to be stronger and more successful than their unresearched counterparts. Let me explain.

1. Research benefits poems that rely on images

An author's in-depth understanding strengthens poems which include image-symbol, metaphor or simile. If you're a specialist you'll be able to write poems using comparisons in your area of expertise without a trip to the library or an hour spent online with Google.

Poems like "Genealogies"[1] (where Nathan Harms rewrites the story of Cain and Abel using car imagery), "Embryology" (where physician Darlene Moore Berg recounts the in utero physiologically accurate development of God made flesh), and "Surgery"[2] (where veterinarian David Waltner Toews compares the act of discovering a cow's inner secrets to writing poems) give delight because of their precise language and knowledge of specific processes.

However, if you're a novice without a specialist's background you will need the understanding and vocabulary that research yields. It's nearly impossible to write convincing poems based on metaphors outside your knowledge.

To research the subjects of nature and culture, go to places like the library or online to consult encyclopedias and other specialty writings.

2. Research benefits poems based on character and literary allusion

Poets often write about historical characters. For Christians, Bible characters are frequently the inspiration of such poems. Research is part of making this kind of writing convincing.

An example of one such poem done well is Marcia Lee Laycock's "Jacob." Though Laycock enters Jacob's thoughts immediately after he has wrestled with God, flashbacks throughout the poem allude to various events in his life. He remembers his reputation as a deceiver, recounts the reaction of his brother to the theft of his inheritance, and relives the events of the journey just before this encounter. These things make for a rich poem-reading experience. They reassure you that you are in the hands of someone who has researched Jacob thoroughly, is able to tell his story with accuracy and interpret it with orthodoxy.

Christian poetry also often alludes to other biblical material by referring to imagery, quotes, and theological concepts. You need handle these elements as carefully as you do character. Check the context from which your material comes to ensure you're using it accurately. If you use a Bible verse, make sure you quote it word-perfect.

Besides using the Bible to do this kind of research, Bible dictionaries, encyclopedias, and commentaries (in book form or online) are useful to explore Bible characters, customs, settings, and interpretations.

You can research other historical characters by consulting encyclopedias, works of history, biography, and autobiography (also in book form or online). When using literary allusion—from Greek legend to Shakespeare —again try to locate the original source so you can check the context and quote accurately.

3. Research benefits occasional poems

Poems written to celebrate or commemorate a special occasion are not the sole territory of the poet laureate. If you need an excuse to write a poem, you have it when your parents celebrate an anniversary, your co-worker retires or your church has its 50-year celebration. Aside from creating a compliment to the celebrant, these writings become especially significant if they include references to, say, events of your parents' life together, memories of the workplace, and highlights of your church's history.

An example of an occasional poem that does these things is Linda Siebenga's "Dance to the Music of Prophets Mending the World"—a 40th anniversary tribute to the organization Citizens for Public Justice. In her poem Siebenga refers to what the organization stands for and specific things its members have attempted and accomplished during its existence.

The method of researching for this type of poem depends on the occasion. If it's a family event you may need to talk to other family members, look through photo albums, and read old diaries. If you're roasting someone from the office you'll want to talk to people they've worked with over the years. A poem commemorating a church or community event will benefit from conversations with old timers or a visit to the local museum. Of course the library and the internet have a wealth of information about national holidays and historic events.

4. Research benefits personal poems

Research done for personal poems—those writings born out of the elements of your life—is research of a different kind.

Sheila Bender says: “In writing personal poetry we must ask ourselves questions: ‘What is this feeling? Where did it come from?’ We search for the answer not through logic but through words, sounds, and rhythms that arise when we engage language in making tangible our sensory and emotional experience” - Writing Personal Poetry - page 6

She says, quoting Jacques Maritain: “There is no question that the language of ‘felt thought’ must be quarried from our personal depths. Like the best gold, it does not lie on the surface” - page 19.

She speaks of persistence: “To write the poem, to find the shape and form of the experience that haunts you, you must keep rappelling into the abyss” - page 20.

There are many poems that do this well. “I Chased My Healing” by Mary Lou Cornish is particularly poignant. In it Cornish describes how she pleaded with God to heal her body. She uses scripture fragments as part of her prayer, and describes physical responses in language both passionate yet restrained:

"My healing rests in God’s great hand
His fingers curled over it. I try
To pry them open
With anger, tears and pleas – Oh! Please!..."

Doing research for such poems may include reading if you have written journals about the feeling or experience you plan to write about. But it will mostly involve dredging up memories, details, and specifics like the names of emotions, places, sounds, smells, tastes, colors, plants, animals, and products. This is research done by writing lists, word webs, and free-writes about the incident to bring it into focus and discern its meaning.

5. Research benefits communication

Just like artists choose between water color or acrylic paints to depict a particular subject and musicians choose between piano and guitar for a song they compose, so poets need to choose the poetic form that best suits their message. You would probably not write a poem about a subtle insight into nature as a ballade or rondeau. Rather, you'd write it as a haiku or tanka. If your poem ends with a surprise, you might consider writing it as a sonnet. A poem about a nagging or recurring thought might make a good villanelle. A pantoum could be the perfect form if you're writing about extreme states of mind like mania, paranoia, or delusion.

The best way to learn about forms and their respective strengths is to read lots of poetry. As well most poetry how-to books will discuss the characteristics of common forms. Glossaries of poetic terms (such as this poetic glossary from the University of Toronto) also define forms.

Some common forms are haiku, tanka, cinquain, sonnet, ballade, rondeau, sestina, villanelle, pantoum and free verse. If you're not sure which suits your poem, try writing it several ways and then decide which is most effective.

6. Research improves your poem’s chances of publication

Finally you'll want to research where to get your poem published. You'll look for this information in market guides—online or in print.
  •  Poets Market is the most popular print market guide for publishing all kinds of poetry.

When you find a possible market, check the publication's web site to see if there are past-published poems in archives. This will help you decide whether your poem fits their publication. Before you submit, find and follow the submission guidelines (also often posted online or available on request by surface mail).

Then send your poem out. Because after all the hard work you've put into it, it would be a shame not to share your meaty and vigorous creation with the world.

Copyright ©2008 by Violet Nesdoly - First published in October 2008 as a Poet's Classroom Column at Utmost Christian Writers


[1] Nathan Harms, "Genealogies." Midnight in the Garden, (Edmonton AB, New Leaf Works, 2000) 20.
[2] David Walter Toews, "Surgery," The Impossible Uprooting, (Toronto, ON, McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1995) 26–28.