My craft article was published at Women on Writing today. Enjoy! :)
“3 Tips for Developing Theme within Poetry”
By: Melanie Faith
I started as a fiction writer before discovering the wonders of poetry at the grand age of 17. (Thank you, Mr. B!)
One quality shared by resonant poems I read in literary journals, anthologies, and from my students' pens is a strong theme.
How can we explore theme to deepen our own poetry?
1. Imagery is where it's at. As poets, we are all about compression. Can we say it in fewer words? Can those few chosen words be rich in the five senses? Can the chosen diction include a symbol for a bigger idea? All of these questions help lead us to imagery that razzle-dazzles our readers.
If I wanted to write a love poem about tentative love, it's unlikely my readers will be as stirred by my flat-out stating, "We were on-again, off-again," as they would with a simple mention of a flickering candle on the windowsill.
Imagery is economical and meaningful. It also creates vivid pictures in your readers’ minds that they’ll remember long after reading your work and, in many cases, invite them back for further reads.
2. Characterization and setting can get the job done. I hear a boatload of discussion in fiction and nonfiction classes about creating realistic characters, and for good reason. This same technique can be applied to poetry to create fantastic engagement from readers and underscore your theme without the dreaded (drumroll, please) telling instead of showing [shiver].
Writers can create poems from numerous characters’ POVs to underscore theme. Persona poems develop a narrative and can be read as individual works of art, such as Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” or paired together to develop a longer narrative, conflict, and/or setting. Great examples include Edgar Lee Masters’ 1915 classic Spoon River Anthology, Traci Brimhall’s Saudade (2017 Copper Canyon Press), and poems in my most-recent collection, This Passing Fever (2017 FutureCycle Press).
Paired poems may move back and forth through time and setting (as they do in Brimhall’s work and my work) or remain in one town or place (as in Masters’ collection).
3. Subtlety is your friend.
Sometimes, once we have chosen a theme for our poem, we excitedly write lines that spell out our meaning with all the charm of a doornail. For instance, using the word “grieving” and “died” in a poem whose theme explores death, or stating “flowers always make me happy” in a poem about the therapeutic powers of gardening.
Many poems I see that run off the rails do so when poets begin to explain (or over-explain) rather than trusting readers to intuit the theme on their own.
How can we provide clues for our readers so that they will be sure to deduce the theme?
Glad you asked: figurative language aplenty. Figurative language is understated yet satisfying. Similes and metaphors are often great indicators of theme. As are usage of symbols and imagery. Incorporating sound effects, such as words with hard d sounds for dramatic or tense themes or words with soft m or n sounds for quieter or peaceable themes, can other excellent thematic indicators.
Try this prompt: Choose a poem where you have stated part or all of the theme directly in your poem. Make a list of three images, symbols, characters, or settings that could highlight your theme instead. Pick one detail from your list and, after omitting your theme-stating line, add in details related to your chosen image, symbol, characters, or settings. Compare drafts.
Looking for inspiration to jump-start your Muse in early 2019? Have I got a class for you! Vigorous and Vibrant Verse: an Online Poetry Workshop.
Books and prompts make the BEST holiday presents.
Get a jump-start on your shopping with one of my three AWESOME books and some prompt cards to boot. Hey, stockings also have to be filled, right? ;) I’ll be happy to sign the books with any inscription you’d like. :)
Peruse these classics, make your list, and no need to stand in line or check twice! :) Just break out your gift wrap and surprise them with these inspiring treats:
For the writer of fiction or nonfiction in your life: In a Flash: Writing & Publishing Dynamic Flash Prose. (New to my shop this season!)
For the poet in your life or your favorite poetry workshop or classroom (sponsor a classroom with this lovely book— guaranteed to make students from middle school through grad-school smile and make a teacher’s day): Poetry Power: An Interactive Guide for Writing, Editing, Teaching, and Reflecting on the Life Poetic. (New to my shop this season!)
For the history-buff, teacher, poet, deep-thinker, and/or librarian in your life, there’s this wonderful historical poetry collection: This Passing Fever: 1918 Influenza Poems. (New to my shop this season!)
For the journalers and writers in your life. Makes a perfect gift for Secret Santas or to tuck into a care package for your favorite college student. Renewed: 30 Affirmation Cards.
Does your friend, love, or family member prefer the ever-so-thoughtful and personalized? I’ve got you covered. Commission your own poem. Le voila! Meaningful Poem Art—Typed.
My Prompt Cards make the perfect addition for inspiration for any traveler, writer, teacher, student, or creative in your life. Also, a great stocking stuffer.
Here's a craft article of mine that was just published today. Enjoy!
"Shopping for Images:
3 Tips for Finding Poetry Topics"
By Melanie Faith
Ever have a day where you woke wanting to write, but the ideas were murky or not arising at all? Or maybe you've just finished writing a poem that felt like magic a few days ago, and now any idea feels filled with false starts? What about an afternoon where you finally sit down to write and, thinking of your day, nothing jumps out at you as worthy of verse? Or, after the to-do list is tackled and the wobbly mountains of laundry washed, you open your writer's notebook and stare at a blank page, too tired to focus?
You are not alone. These are common quandaries most writers have at one point or another. Good news! Try one or more of these ideas that have worked for me and my poetry students to release that stuck feeling and get our pens moving once more.
1. Not-so-common Commonality. Certain places and experiences are so ingrained into daily life that whole populations of people share them. Yet we sometimes overlook them as topics for verse. One of the great facets of writing about shared events is that readers will experience their own aha! moments from what you write. You also have the wonderful opportunity to tighten focus on one part of the communal experience that resonates with you and which will make your poem distinctive.
In Alan Ginsberg's prose poem "A Supermarket in California," he takes a mundane trip for groceries and turns it into an event for celebration: "What peaches and penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!--and you, Garcia Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?" Many people have written about food, but none in quite the same playful, exultant way as Ginsberg. Don't think it's all been done before; whatever the topic, no one has written a poem about this topic with the exact diction choices, tone, and images you will. Go ahead, write your own supermarket, food, cooking, gardening, or eating poem! You'll bring something unique to the table [pun intended].
2. The Running List. Sometimes, there's a lot of pressure when we sit down to write to pick a topic out off the top of our heads like a rabbit out of a magician's hat. Lower the pressure with a little list. Try keeping your writing notebook with you as you go about your day or start an email list of topics in your phone (I sometimes quickly email myself ideas before I forget them). We often see interesting ideas all day long but infrequently have time to stop in the moment to write a whole poem, but it only takes a minute or less to jot a note about the image or idea. Begin a running list of topics for the future, and add to it as you go. Then, when you sit down to write, either pick one at random from your list or work chronologically, so you'll always know what your next topic will be. Like a game, it becomes more fun the more topics you've listed, and you'll train your mind to notice imagery that could spark poems more often everywhere you go.
3. Get out of Your Own Skin, or: The Conversation. Sometimes we forget that poetry can include dialogue and/or use a conversation as a sparking point. We also sometimes forget that poems don't have to be centered on our own experiences. Go ahead, have a conversation today with a longtime friend, the clerk at the post office, someone in the waiting room, your frenemy, your children or grandchildren, your coworkers, whomever. Something someone else is struggling with or happy about or angry about might just spark your next poem. Of course, you don't have to stay with the circumstances as they are in real life. Re-imagine your conversation partner's circumstances or trials through the eyes of a made-up character. How would another person deal with these events? What would their actions be? What would their thoughts be? Feel free to make up what that person might say in certain circumstances. The point is to get another person's POV on life and to write from there.