Between the Lines

Kathy Steffen

Right now, the world outside is a big ball of anxiety. Schools, sporting events/plays/etc. are canceled. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is advising limited human contact. One bright, shining spot? April is poetry month, and now there is more than enough time to read and write it. So how do you write poetry? Glad you asked …

If you’ve read any of my columns, you know I love lists. They are nets (and organization) for ideas from brainstorming. Start listing concepts, issues and situations you want to write about. What about big events in your life? Are any rants pushing to come out? List them as possible poems. Freewrite (don’t think, just write) until you have 50. Expand the items that grab your interest by writing down why they do and what you have to say about each. List images. What can you see, hear, feel, taste or touch? Your reader experiences the world through senses, so including sensory information will help your reader experience your poem. There. I bet you have the beginnings of a few poems from this exercise.

Get a notebook or journal and use it only for your poetry (or notes on poems you love). Once you sketch out a poem, write about what you want it to say to your reader. Poems have opinions. What is the opinion of the one you are writing? State it directly for yourself, but never to your reader. Once you have a handle on the theme and goal for your poem (groan … I know, that sounds so logic-brained but trust me, any good writing is shaped and revised many times by its author and focus is key) you will get ideas for images, words, metaphors, similes and other intangible lovelies. 

Read some poetry. Some of my favorites are Mary Oliver, Emily Dickinson, Shakespeare, Maya Angelou and Edgar Allan Poe. They never fail to inspire me. Choose a few poems and really look at them, notice the metaphors, simile and imagery used. What about word choice, flow and connotations? What words mean more than the obvious? What can you see between the lines? (Pun intended.) What is not said directly but alluded to? What is the theme of the poem? (Hint: The theme is probably not stated directly. What do YOU think the meaning is?) 

Experiment with different poetry forms. Acrostic, haiku, limerick, free verse. If you aren’t familiar with any of these, look them up. There are hundreds of forms, find lists and definitions. Expand your creativity and learn something new. Win-win!!!

After you’ve read some great poetry, revise. Cut, cut, cut. Cliches, overt sentimentality and weak words. Read your poem out loud. Underline what doesn’t rock your world. Rewrite. Be sure to use concrete words to help your reader get a picture of the poem. Try to end with a twist or a punch. How? Look to the poem’s theme to help you. Write at least 10 last lines and the perfect one will rise up off the page for you — exactly what you want your reader to experience.

Kathy Steffen is an award-winning novelist and author of the “Spirit of the River Series:” “First, There is a River,” “Jasper Mountain,” and “Theater of Illusion.” She writes from her home in Spring Green that she shares with her husband and cats and is grateful for all. Find out more at www.kathysteffen.com.