Friday, September 20, 2013

Becoming A Poet

Many beginning poets are full of questions. How do I write a poem? Where do I get my ideas? As a new poet, you may be looking for words and ideas that have meaning for you and ones that can work to convey that meaning on many different levels. Write freely and make room for experimentation and word play.  There are as many different poets as there are poems. We all came to our love for poetry in different ways.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been in love with words. As a grade schooler, I collected words, ones that sang to me like wisteria, moonshine and sapling. My love was indiscriminate. I read the backs of cereal boxes, the copies of McCall’s that topped my grandmother’s end table, and, of course, books.
At first I read Nancy Drew and Elsie Dinsmore books; later, I graduated to L.M. Montgomery and Laura Ingalls Wilder. I read my first adult novel in fourth grade – An Episode of Sparrows by Rumer Godden. Then, one of my elementary school teachers read to us the William Blake poem “The Tiger” which begins: “Tiger, tiger, burning bright/in the forests of the night/What immortal hand or eye/Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” I was hooked by Blake’s passionate and symbolic lines. Better yet, these lines burned a visual image of the lovely but menacing tiger that has never faded. I now understood the power of words.
I don’t have my first attempts at writing poems, but I imagine they were full of abstractions. Now I admire poems for their focus, their specificity, their honesty.  Poets pay attention to the world around them and attempt to capture their vision in words. I also liked the small scale of poems. A poem can be written on scrap paper, tucked in a pocket to be worked on later. I have boxes filled with the rough drafts of poems in various stages of revision. Sometimes I take these sketchy beginnings and use them as the starting point for a new poem.
As a teacher as well as a poet, I always urge my students to read as widely as possible if they want to improve their writing skills. Some ideas I recommend: peruse the shelves of local bookstores and libraries; ask friends for suggestions about their favorite authors; and read novels, plays, non-fiction books,  as well as poetry books.
One of the things I love about writing poetry is that I can take anything for my subject matter. It wasn’t always this way. As a beginning poet, I thought I had to write about the big themes: love, hope, war, friendship. Then, in college, a friend brought a poem about avocados to a writing workshop. It changed my perspective entirely.
Over the past two or three decades, my poems have addressed everything from hairballs to the prospect of having eye surgery. I do tend to write poems based on personal experience, perhaps having been influenced early on by confessional poets like Anne SextonSylvia Plath andRobert Lowell.
Another thing I have discovered is that I can be patient when reworking a poem. Sometimes, letting a difficult poem sit in a drawer for six months is a good idea. When I return to it, I look at it with fresh eyes and fresh ideas. Sometimes I have to let a poem go. Maybe the images or metaphors aren’t working or, despite some great lines, the poem doesn’t hang together. Still, nothing goes to waste. It’s all fodder for my growing pile of papers.
One of my favorite books and one I’ve turned to many times to answer my own questions is Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. The book consists of ten letters that Rilke wrote, beginning in 1902, to a young man conflicted about joining the military. It’s a spare, eloquent offering to someone wrestling with issues of creativity and artistic identity. This is must-reading for poets, beginners and experienced alike.
At some point, poets will decide whether to take the next step. This might include joining a writing group. During my years living on Cape Cod, I have been a member of two poetry groups. I’ve found the experience of sharing manuscripts with fellow poets is invaluable to helping me revise and rework my poems. A note to new poets: develop a thick hide because not everyone will understand the poem as you intended. Also, it is helpful to combine compliments with criticism to sweeten any writerly advice.
Another way to grow as a poet is to attend poetry readings and read aloud to an audience. It’s a wonderful way to hone your skills to address an audience directly and see the impact of your words. I haven’t participated in slam poetry events but many poets enjoy these events, too.  I love the idea of experimenting with my life as an artist. I have also attended writing workshops and the annual Cape Cod Writer’s Conference in Craigville, MA. Last summer, I had the good fortune to spend a week studying with William Wenthe, a wonderful poet who teaches in Lubbock, Texas.
The final step is the decision to publish. Many poets are so eager to see their name in print that they spend more time promoting their poems than in the actual writing. It’s always better to take the publishing process slowly. I recommend subscribing to Poets & Writers for ideas about literary markets and contests as well as checking out websites like Poetry DailyVerse Daily, and The Writer’s Almanac.
Writing poetry is a means to self expression and self awareness, but it’s so much more. I find that writing poems helps me to make sense of the world and my place in it. Emily Dickinson may have said it best, that good poetry made her “feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
So, go with your gut and your pen. Enjoy the ride!
Robin Smith-Johnson has had poems published in such journals as YankeeThe Larcom Review and Sandscript. Her poems also appeared in “A Sense of Place,” an anthology of Cape women writers. She was a finalist for the 2009 Providence Athenaeum: Philbrick Poetry Award, judged by Marge Piercy. Robin teaches as an adjunct professor in the English Dept. at Cape Cod Community College, as well as working as the newsroom librarian at the Cape Cod Times, where she also publishes a blog about Cape Cod history called Cape Rewind. She is a member of the Lead Pencil Poets and lives with her husband and three sons in Mashpee, MA. When she finds time, Robin shares her writing with brother and BTM contributor, Dell Smith.


  1. Thank you for sharing your journey to become an award winning published poet!

  2. Thanks, Cindy! I should mention that this posting first appeared on the Beyond the Margins blog site in Feb. 2011.