Inkpop Blog

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How to write good poetry

Posted by inkpop on February 27, 2010

inktip #18: Award-winning author Francesca Lia Block shares poetry basics

Are writers born or made?

Francesca Lia Block may be both.

The award-winning author of dozens of books—including The Hanged Man, the Weetzie Bat series, and the upcoming werewolf novel The Frenzy—was exposed to poetry before she could read. “My parents read poetry to me in utero,” she says. “I love Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, John Keats, William Butler Yeats, H.D., Emily Dickenson, and Molly Bendall.”

In addition to writing fiction novels, Block is passionate about poetry and has published several books of poetry, including How To (un)Cage a Girl, a series of poems that examines ways we can free ourselves through self-knowledge, creative expression, and friendship.

So what exactly makes poetry good? Block says there are several traits, including strong imagery and voice. “Good poetry addresses all the senses, is rhythmic or uses dissonance to convey meaning, and makes you feel something in a powerful way and takes you somewhere,” she says.

Here, Block shares her primary poetry-writing tips.

WRITE ABOUT WHAT YOU LOVE (OR HATE)

“Choose a subject you are passionate about” is Block’s top tip for writing good poetry. “Don’t be afraid to express deep, private emotions,” she says. Whether it’s about love, parental turmoil, BFF breakdowns, or beautiful places, nothing inspires a good poem like strong feelings.

Also, successful poetry often has some kind of emotional arc. “Begin with an emotion like sorrow and end with hope,” she says. “Or, begin with fear and end with love.”

OWN YOUR VOICE

“Think about who your narrator is. Is it you? A character?” Block asks. “Make the voice consistent and interesting.”

PACK A PUNCH

“Make every word of your poem count,” Block advises. After all, that’s what poetry is all about, right? … the art and beauty of words.

ADDRESS LINE BREAKS

“Each line should be able to stand alone or have resonance in some way,” Block says, adding that it’s important to pay special attention to a poem’s opening and closing lines.

BE VISUAL WITH LANGUAGE

“Always try to create pictures with your words,” Block says.

BE YOUR OWN TEST AUDIENCE

“Read your poem out loud to hear the rhythms you have created and see if they reflect the emotional content of the poem,” Block says. Then revise. Repeat.

Need another opinion? Ask a fellow writer or creative type to be a listening ear, and ask her or him how she interprets the poem—you might be surprised (hopefully, pleasantly) how your test subject understood your words.

DON’T OVERDO IT

With all of Block’s tips for writing successful poetry, she’s also got a few “poetry don’ts”:

• Don’t think poetry has to rhyme but don’t think you can ignore sounds and rhythms either.

• Don’t generalize; be as specific as possible.

• Avoid clichés!

READ THE GREATS

Seek out all kinds of poetry, from the classics to the avant garde. One of Block’s favorite poems is Dare by Molly Bendall:

Dear Eros, It would have scared some—
your webby underwings, musty skim milk.
I loved stepping through the eerie luster
of verbs. My eyeliner’s dark outline.

You said, “Her sleeptalk again
her hearsays and murmurings.”
I fell for it—infuriated
with plot, its lovely fine-

penned title giving way. I thought
it was a smooth edge. Gold
fringe.  Tear drop of heat.
My frivolous polka-dotted skirt.

The cypresses flaunting such
green diamonds. Was I sleepwalking?
Our cups on the nightstand. These leaves
and my obscene itinerary. Shadow

drop. Crystal box. I stood at the edge,
the brink of my stage. The sky was fringey.
Near morning, nearer morning.
Bird chime, lace sleep, candle hiss.

— 

Got more questions about writing poetry? Click here to chat with Francesca Lia Block on February 28, 2010, at 5 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, on inkpop Forums.

The inkpop blog is written by inkpopAmy 

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