Writing and Editing Poetry, from Jim Stewart’s talk

Notes from Jim Stewart’s talk

Jim returned for a much anticipated second visit where he talked about writing and editing poetry.

  1. Start with the ordinary. Evolve toward the unique. Your poem will probably start out very ordinary and that’s fine. Reread it, change it, rewrite it… until…
  2. When you’re no longer creating, it’s time to stop. (And if you’re still not satisfied, come back later—six months, six years…)
  3. While editing, you’ll probably add and change visual metaphors—write what you see, and more than you see.
  4. Get rid of adjectives that don’t need to be there. What’s left are the ones that really count.
  5. When you’ve edited your poem, retraced your steps, re-edited etc, you just might have two very different poems arising from the same beginning. One stanza/thought might take you in a whole new direction.
  6. Write whenever the words come to you. The middle of the night’s okay.
  7. Grammar and punctuation are not essential but might be important. They alter how something is read, so they might alter how the poem sounds. The initial version of the poem might have no punctuation. Later versions will have more. But, like the words, the punctuation has to be deliberate—it has to be there for a purpose.
  8. Poetry is the oldest art and may even predate music. Yes, there is rhythm. You define it. Could be rap, but doesn’t have to be.
  9. Poetry has fashions. Some fashions remove all punctuation.
  10. Poetry can have rules—ethnic rules—haiku. You might rewrite a poem to fit a format. You’re less likely to start it to fit the format, but with a format in mind, you might nearly fit it at the first attempt.
  11. Form, sound and feel… how many lines in a stanza… where do the lines break: All these change how the poem reads. A line break is a pause. A stanza break is a silence. A line break raises a flag in the reader’s brain.
  12. Line and stanza breaks affect how the poem looks on the page too. Appearance matters. Try writing in a small journal so you have to have more line breaks to fit on the page.
  13. How do you choose when to break a line? Underline a phrase that really matters. How can you make sure your reader “gets” it? Maybe break with the important phrase and rephrase what came before… or hide a phrase by removing a break so you can bring it back later, even stronger through repetition.
  14. Sound matters. Read your poetry aloud then change and reorder phrases.
  15. How do you know what’s important? Try moving things around to get a feel for it. Writing poetry is like a voyage of discovery.
  16. And like a song. Which comes first, the lyrics or the tune? Poets and musicians often work together. Usually the music comes first, but no always.
  17. Lyrics often rhyme. Rhyming creates anticipation in listeners, making them guess what will come next.
  18. Start with flow of consciousness and see where it takes you.
  19. Novels have to be edited by someone other than you—someone who doesn’t hear what you expect them to hear. In poetry you’re trying to make people hear what you expect—more condensed—more diy. The reader of a novel reads through their own eyes. The reader of a poem reads through the poet’s eyes.
  20. So, what if nothing you’ve written seems worthwhile. Stafford says, “Lower your expectations.” And keep writing.
  21. If you’re stuck, ask “What’s missing in my poem?”
  22. Poetry can be collected and published in chapbooks. Again, appearance matters. Choose your paper size, type, color and fonts carefully (and enjoy reading a history of fonts). Fonts and kerning (space between words and letters) are important!
  23. How do you collect the poems? Here you might want someone else—an editor—to help, though…
  24. Writers and poets do tend to be solitary, so join a group. Willamette Writers conferences are expensive but membership is cheap. And there’s always Wordstock.
  25. Keep writing!

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