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Waxing lyrical about poetry by Alex Reece Abbott

The third category for the Sixth International Hysteria Writing Competition is poetry. That means a poem with the very loose theme “things of interest to women.” Oh, and a maximum of twenty lines, not including spaces. Our writer in residence Alex Reece Abbott has asked some award-winning poets and judges from around the world to share their best pointers for writing poetry for her post this month – big thanks go to the fabulous Frankie McMillan; Camille Ralphs; Jane Clarke and Aki Schilz for their support and valuable insights.

Camille has also kindly shared a poetry generator, so even if you’ve never written a poem before, there’s plenty of ideas to get you started for our deadline of August 31 2017. You can enter the poetry category on the Hysteria website.

Remember, you can make as many entries to Hysteria as you like, and you are not restricted to any category, so you may like to check out our other pointers and generators for flash fiction and short stories too.

So, here’s what my cyberkuia (wise women online) around the world had to say about poetry…

Frankie McMillan

All the best for this project – here are my top tips for poetry…

  • Consider what you’re doing a kind of exploration. See the poem as an interesting journey – be alert and curious as to where it leads you.
  • Let things spill out even if they seem wild or unrelated. Let one thought catch on to another.
  • Don’t record what you already know; fresh insights are more interesting. Judges want to feel as if their view of the world/humanity has been enlarged by reading the poem.
  • Write what you really feel, not what you think you should feel.
  • Stick to the truth, the truth of your perceptions, the truth of your imagination.
  • Use interesting words to texture the poem. Do some research around the topic of the poem, gather a ‘word bank’ together.
  • Write freely and bravely but edit ruthlessly.

Frankie McMillan is a New Zealand short story writer and poet. Her latest book ‘My Mother and the Hungarians and other small fictions’ (Canterbury University Press) was longlisted for the 2017 NZ Ockham Book Awards.  In 2005, she was awarded the Creative New Todd Bursary.

Other awards include winner of the New Zealand Poetry Society International Poetry Competition in 2009 and winner of the New Zealand Flash Fiction Competition in 2013 and 2015. In 2014, she held the Ursula Bethell writing residency at Canterbury University and in 2017, the University of Auckland/ Michael King writing residency.

Camille Ralphs

Judges necessarily bring their own literary preferences and prejudices to bear on their decisions, even while attempting objectivity. Full disclosure: my preference is for concise poems, like those of Dickinson and (generally) Berryman, that explore vast areas through skilled manglings of diction and grammar. I would aim to consider the breezy or bizarre work of the New York School, or any work which attempts to max-out and expand rather than compress, or any “conceptual” writing, under a different set of assumptions. Otherwise, the below observations apply.

Remember that poetry, as “the best words in the best order” (Coleridge), is about compression – one word meaning three relevant things is much better than three words meaning one relevant thing. A poem can almost always be made shorter and more concentrated; make every word work, within itself and within the context of the words around it, for its place. If a word isn’t actively helping your poem, it is actively hurting it. Throw it out on its ear, or it will throw itself out on the judge’s ear.

Further to that: many judges will read a poem aloud as a way of assessing a poem’s overall strength and sonic consistency. Pre-empt this test. If you reach a point where you’re not sure which lines or words are working hard enough and which aren’t, read the poem aloud. If it doesn’t sound right, it probably isn’t.

Similarly, I think Ian McMillan once said that when he thinks he’s finished a poem, he lops off the last stanza, and then he’s sure. This isn’t always true, but it’s true frequently enough to be worth considering. We humans tend to look for (or worse, force) closure in our engagements with the world, and this applies also to our creative work. Sometimes a poem needs to drop the ballast of its too-firm ending to be able to fly. Trust your reader to come to their own conclusion about the poem – it’s what they’re going to do anyway.

I think anyone who’s judged a competition or even sifted through a slush pile of journal submissions will agree that the poems that demand our attention are the ones that remind us, somehow, of why we love poetry. Greg Orr, in his essay ‘Four Temperaments and the Forms of Poetry’, identifies four ways in which a poem can demonstrate excellence: story (narrative and character development), structure (form, at the level of the entire poem and the individual sentence), imagination (description and figuration) and music (everything from internal rhyme to sibilance, and even silence).

Every poet has an area or number of areas in which they excel; where competitions are concerned, it is usually best to play to your strengths, to do the things that you can do better than anyone else. That said, writing solely to enter competitions is certainly ill-advised, so do look to develop your work into other areas too!

Camille Ralphs is a graduate student at the University of Oxford, and is the current President of Oxford University Poetry Society. Her debut pamphlet, Malkin (The Emma Press, 2015) <link: https://theemmapress.com/books/the-emma-press-picks/malkin/> was shortlisted for both the Michael Marks Poetry Award and the Saboteur Award for Best Poetry Pamphlet. In 2016, she won the Lord Alfred Douglas Memorial Prize.

Camille’s poem generating ideas are at the end of this post and you can hear Camille reading her work on the British Library’s channel on Soundcloud.

Jane Clarke

My three tips for writing poetry…

  • Distill your poem to what is essential.
  • Read your poem aloud again and again to find the music.
  • Get distance from your poem through feedback from others and edit it again.

Jane’s first collection, The River, was published by Bloodaxe Books in 2015. Originally from a farm in Roscommon, Ireland, Jane now lives near Glenmalure, Co. Wicklow.

In 2016 she won the inaugural Listowel Writers’ Week Poem of the Year Award, the Hennessy Literary Award for Poetry and was shortlisted for the Royal Society of Literature 2016 Ondaatje Literary Award.

She has also won the 2014 Listowel Writers’ Week Poetry Collection Award, the 2014 Trocaire/Poetry Ireland Competition, the inaugural Poems for Patience, 2013; Listowel Writers’ Week (2007) and the iYeats (2010).

You can hear Jane reading her work on YouTube.

Aki Schilz

My three tips for writing poetry…

Think about form. Nowadays there is an abundance of brilliant free verse poetry. I love it myself, but I also long to see more poets taking time to play with existing poetry formats, from sestinas to sonnets, villanelles to haiga, consciously learning from these shapes and making them new. And great free verse is of course never really ‘free’, but the result of various drafts, all of which test the poem’s heft and shape, the weight of each line stacked against the next, with careful consideration of proportion, and of the decisions that inform where lines break, how long the lines are, and how the poem looks on the page.

Cadence and rhythm: make it sing. A trick I quite like is learning how to scan your poem, and the poetry of others’ – by analysing where the stresses and accents are, you can start to see where famous poems’ tonal shifts are reflected in how the lines scan. You can then start to think about this within your own work. The texture of words and how they flow together will change depending on the mood and tone you are conveying. Any snags that happen when you read your poem aloud often point to places where the scansion/rhythm are off.

Look at beginnings and endings. Much like in prose, writers will often start too early and end too late; in other words, often beginnings can be cut, and endings need work. In a poem, excess words and explanatory lead-in text will be all the more obvious. Try cutting your first stanza out – what happens? It can be tempting with endings to try to ring a bell, and many poems end on far too portentous a note. The other end of the spectrum is leaving things so unresolved as to make the poem feel incomplete. I’m going to steal the words of novelist and writing tutor Jacob Ross and say, allow your poem to come to a ‘point of rest’. Let the ending ring less like a bell, and more like glass.

Aki is co-founder of the #LossLit digital literature project with Kit Caless, with whom she co-edits LossLit Magazine. Her poetry, flash fiction, short stories and creative non-fiction have been published in various magazines both online and in print. She is the winner of the inaugural Bare Fiction Prize for Flash Fiction, judged by Angela Readman, and the Visual Verse prize, supported by Andrew Motion. She is a member of the Advisory Board for the award-winning publisher Penned in the Margins and works as Director of The Literary Consultancy. Aki tweets books, editing and publishing at @TLCUK, and micropoetry at @AkiSchilz.



Starting points and suggestions for new poems…

As a prompt, try taking the last two or three lines of a random poem and use them as the opening lines of a new poem. For example, Poetry Foundation’s Poem of the Day as I write this is Joy Harjo’s ‘An American Sunrise’. Its last few lines are “forty years later and we still want justice. We are still America. We / know the rumors of our demise. We spit them out. They die / soon.” This seems to me like an excellent door into something new, but do look around for a few lines that catch your eye particularly. Remember too, you can always cut the lines when you’re editing later.

I’ve often found that when a poem feels like it’s missing something – a line or an image perhaps – that this something can be drawn out by taking a more scenic route through the idea. Try writing a sestina on the subject you’re exploring, choosing your six end-words based on what you’re trying to figure out. It might take a while, but the constraints will force you to dig for new connections, and you’ll end up with more raw material to work with.

Ruth Padel has previously said that translation is a great exercise to keep up your craft when you’re not working on something original. It can also be a route out of a block, a way of reminding yourself that you definitely haven’t run out of ideas, or a way of lighting up new directions in a separate piece. You don’t need to have another language to do this – starting from other poets’ translations combined with your own intuition is fine.

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