If Emily Dickinson Can Do It—So, Can We!

I’ve used “ephemera,” the fancy word for pieces of trash, for years to dash off a note, line, or poem. What I did not know was that it wasn’t my clever idea. Or my generation’s…or the generation’s before them. I write on napkins and receipts when in a hurry. Emily Dickinson appears to have used envelopes and scraps from notes. Imagine though…Emily Dickinson, the queen, the reason I use the dash—and she writes like me. *dramatic sigh*

Now, this matters because of shape and form. Dickinson’s “Letter Poems” as scholars call them, must have been thought out beforehand and/or the shape must have influenced the brevity and form of the verse. Below, is the picture of “In this short life.” It is a triangular shape that seems to be the flap of an envelope. So—if you do not have a bill from which you can spare the envelope flap—I will provide a form that you can fit in your poem.

Manuscript View for Amherst – Amherst Manuscript # 252 – In this short life – asc:612 – p. 1 (edickinson.org)

J1287 – In this short Life

In this short Life
That  only lasts an hour
How much — how little — is
Within our power

  

Now, what does this form cause? It brings a funnel effect and for a killer poem, the poem must end with a killer word. Think of the most pressing image or question on your mind. Mine is trying to fit everything in a day—sunrise to sunset—how do I do it? That right there will not fit the space. And let’s not even count if I get all “poetic.” 

So, take your first thoughts, write them down, and then cut unnecessary words. This is an excellent lesson in revision in one of the most visual ways possible. When your poem/question fits, what word does it land on? Is it vibrant and echoing? That is precisely what you want. One long line funneling into a powerful word.

The Second Example is “One note from one Bird.”

Manuscript View for Amherst – F1478A (edickinson.org)

One note from
One Bird
Is better than
a Million Word –
A scabbard
holds need has –
but one
sword

Another triangle, but at a different angle. What does this version hold for form? It seems in Dickinson’s there is still a very powerful end word and one that resounds with history. This shape allows for a longer line almost directly in the middle. Arguably, this is the turn, so it was most likely partially planned. For our purposes, let’s devise our longest line first and our last word and build backward.

What word did you end on and what was your middle line? Was it a turn in the poem, flipping back what came before? The comments are burning for you to type in!

Writing With “Personally Hot” Topics

Writing with “hot” topics, and those that I say are “personal” encompass everything from grief to extreme joy. When I say something is “personal,” I define it as something that resonates deeply within us. So deeply, that it is hard to talk about and certainly hard to write about—maybe even to think about! 

For example, I have been writing about loss lately. Sometimes, this brings back unwanted memories, repressed memories, little details I did not know would stick with me. And I will give the opposite scenario, joy, I feel an overwhelming connection seeing old friends again—my heart feels near bursting, but my pen is not. And that is perfectly normal. 

If you are struggling with a “hot” topic. If it makes you ill, hurts too much, brings back flashbacks, put it away. Now. Just file it away in a physical drawer or in a file in your memory. You can even promise to get back to it out loud if you need to. I am not saying forget about it. I am saying be good to yourself. You will know in your gut, in your heart, when you are ready to reveal your truth and your emotion. That is both a brave and scary thing to do.

If you are in the new stages of that hot, fierce, topic, you might want to journal. Catalogue your feeling and the events as you perceived them. What you remember, how you felt while holding the chipped cup while you got news of… But journal—do not craft. Ease your mind. The only way to write authentically and to be able to tell your story is to process it. That means talking to a therapist, a grief counselor, a friend, a favorite teddy bear. I am not poking fun—you have to do what you have to do stay whole. Writers in the past have failed to keep up with their mental and emotional health to disastrous results. We are not them. Process those emotions in a healthy manner. Breathe, yoga, journal, paint…do what you need to do. Then, you are ready for the next step.

The next step, after days, weeks, months, years, will be to un-file those emotions and situations and look at them fresh. If they overwhelm you. Chances are it is still too soon. Put them back in the drawer.

If you feel like, yes, they hurt, but I NEED to get this down on paper, be gentle. Do not pick a form or a length. This will be more than freewriting, but it will form itself as to how you can emotionally deal with the subject matter. That means YOU DO NOT JUDGE YOURSELF. That is the hardest part. All of the I should have told him/her/they that I loved them, or I shouldn’t have told him/her/they that I loved them… will bubble up. Ease through it. Do not have a rush of feelings that are uncontrollable. If you do, walk away. Come back in an hour or day. Drink your favorite beverage. This is brave, extremely difficult work.

So, we analyze the facts first, what happened, how do we feel, maybe look at the old journals, maybe not. Then, details, emotional truths, lessons, anything that sort drifts into your mind. This might be where form or genre starts occurring.  

NOW—what if we can’t use “I”—what if that is too close? Then, you might not be creating nonfiction. There is no hate in that. Personas are brilliant tools. I have stand-in characters and narrators that are dealing with MY emotions and situations, but that are certainly not me. I have used Darth Vader and Flick the Fairy. Both sets have been published, so do not worry about the dirty publication fear right now. 

What really resonates with readers, and what will resonate with you as you write and as you hear how you touch others, is authenticity and details. Share that image of the shabby, dirty periwinkle hospital gown—you just do not have to do it as yourself or with the names of others. Share your real, gritty and grimy, feeling. Be messy, that will touch your reader in immeasurable ways.

Always be gentle with yourself. While you are writing and while you are reading the piece after it has been published. Raw emotions will be there. I sometimes cry while I read published work about my losses. That too is normal and okay.

Always remember that your work is important and needed. Your words will help others in similar situations process their ‘hot’ material, their strong emotions that are overwhelming them. Most importantly, your words will give them my favorite word, “balm.” We are writers. Never forget that we change the world one word at a time and one person at a time. Remember, that person can also be you.

How Do We Find Inspiration?

As writers, that is a really broad and terribly needed topic. I can only tell you how I find inspiration and where you might want to look. I don’t garden, terribly allergic to flowers, but somehow, I have a thing for weeds. Words like “thistle” or “thicket” or “dandelion” or “lichen” come up over and over. These are things that usually are meant to be “tamed” or killed. They are “bad” in comparison to the petunia and the daisy. So, then I find inspiration in what people don’t think of and good or beautiful—perfect. That’s where poetry starts!

Exercise:

Think about five things that you like or (don’t) that people think of as good or bad, ugly or beautiful. For example, my father LOVES his flowers, knows every type of flower, loves a very green lawn. I, however, pray for mushrooms. I love mushroom circles and every time one shows up, his grass loses its pristine and I find true love and magic. So, my word would be mushroom, or maybe a specific mushroom.

Where else to find inspiration? We always say to write the unexpected…nice. How do we find the inspiration for that? Well, today in my class, I wrote about my fast-food restaurant not serving the correct brand of ketchup. How unexpected is that? Going small, molecular, digging in with scientific words, or going to ordinary tasks and putting your turn on it. You have a unique perspective. That means that even if we both write about ketchup, you might have an ode to the organic, or to Hunts, while I try to sway you with my love of Heinz. What about writing about cat litter or how your dog tugs you to the scent of skunk or porridge? Is there something you do that’s weird? Write about it. Do you know someone weird? Change their name, features, (and don’t tell them I told you to do this) write about them. 

Exercise:

Write down three things that are “unexpected.” So, remember it can be about you, the road, your pets, it’s all on the table. Then write a line or sentence and play around and see if you feel it becomes “unexpected.” Example: Kim’s List… 1. has two cats that hate her because she gives them medication. 2. Eats mostly tofu and French fries 3. Unlikely writer (she was told she would never be a writer)

Kim’s line: my tofu cries when I chase down my cats, terrified, I will ink them into paper.

“Big” events tend to bring out words for me. At first, I’m overwhelmed, published for the first time, general angst, someone dying, someone being born—these are all big topics. I also call them “hot”—they are emotionally charged. Sometimes in the beginning these thoughts and inspirations just boil over. Usually, that’s good to create the backbones of poems or prose, but when the topic has cooled—that’s when the inspiration gets juicy. When my grandmother died, I had a hard time writing about what I was feeling. It was abstract—what does morose really mean? It means watching the tv show Scorpion and writing in my journal. Which description shows grief better? Morose or binge watching? 

Exercise:

Find a “hot” topic that has cooled. Can you reflect on it and use it either as ammunition or inspiration? 

Example: Kim bought her grandmother miniature roses and kept them in the nursing home until they needed planted. She did this. And after her grandmother died, she tended these roses, loved these roses, and her father, wanting to tame the garden (he didn’t remember) weed wacked and Kim only had memories left.

How to Make Your Writing Dynamic

Dynamic is a big promise! Luckily, it is easy enough to undertake—most writers just need a few examples and a bit of explanation and BAM! It comes down to three major categories: images and imagination, word choice (diction), and placement.

Images and Imagination

You are looking at a tree. What do you associate with it? Green, brown, tall—what if you kept that associative process but got closer—magnifying your images. Rough? The bark would be rough, leaves could be silky—that could create all sorts of possibilities. Silk like linen, clothes, nature could clothe you—maybe? If you follow associations, your mind will lead you down mysterious and wonderous paths. Just daydreaming and free associating can create fresh images. Everyone thinks and daydreams differently, so those associations and descriptions will be vastly different for every writer. THIS is terrific news! It boggles the mind that just from daydreaming words become captivating and paragraphs and lines no longer feel “stale” or “cliché.”

Exercise: Look at something you see every day. Describe it differently this time. That tree is tall and green, but looms like a giant about to enfold you in its arms… etc. Look at the minuscule that is overlooked or the magnitude that gets lost in the everyday. Let your mind just go. Remember in writing, there are no wrong answers, just unwritten ones.

Word Choice (Diction)

Word choice (diction) can create incredible images in any genre. So, diction—now what? What difference does using the word “hazel” instead of “brown” create? It may make your piece sparkle a bit more. But, if the color is not hazel, and it must be brown—how can you get around being flat? I do not like food references and certainly not when describing people. I would say “glistening brown” or “purpling brown” if describing fruit. The other use of diction is using words that are not normally used in that context. So, what if an angry person’s “brow purpled”—that’s not “turned red”—that of course, is a well-used (cliché). 

Kim’s Pro Tip: If you get stuck on finding the “right” word or the “perfect” word—know that there isn’t one. There are just multiple choices for the right word. You can open a physical thesaurus or an online version—they are more exact. But if you want to free-associate and find a “different” word—then go into your document, choose the thesaurus function—and DON’T use those words on the list. Is there one that might work? Hit on it. There are most likely five different branches of what the word could mean as well as the words associated with it. Maybe you will find your “perfect” word here, maybe you won’t. Hit on another—maybe one that is not as similar to your original word that you typed in. I find that it is in this place—maybe five or six clicks through that I find the “perfect” word for the “right now”—because revision might strip the line out completely. Poetry is not permanent, which means you can play with words as many times as you need to.

Exercise:

Write down five words you use a lot. Then, try to find synonyms or substitutes that pop! Remember you can dig for words using Kim’s Pro Tip.

Placement

Placement means everything in a poem. Having a “hard” word (one that has a harsh or biting sound) hit in a soft place draws attention and its opposite does as well. The same technique works in prose. When you read your work, you can hear how some words “flow smoothly” and others might be “jagged” or “rugged.” The key reason is placement. Think about setting a table. It might not matter which side silverware is on, but what if the fork is placed on top of the bowl—would you notice? The same is true of writing. 

Kim fell into darkness spiraling awake.

Well, that might be true—but is “awake” in the right place?

Kim fell into darkness falling awake. Better—a bit speculative if you like that.

Awake, Kim fell into darkness, spiraling. Doesn’t that sound different? 

Each one can be argued to have a different connotation—but we are going on sound.

Exercise:

Take a line or a sentence that has been bothering you. Rearrange the words. Play with them. Keep the necessary ones and see if you can make the sound smooth.

The Argument for White Space in Poetry—Why do we need it?

I admit it. I was a white/blank space dissenter. A true non-believer. Why must there be blankness in poetry? Isn’t that artificial? SOOOO—overdone and an artsy cliché. As I’ve read and dived into craft, however, I am beginning to become a white/blank space advocate. Now, I admit there is purpose and necessity.

White space or blank space is when the poet or author uses blankness or emptiness to visually create an aesthetic. It is purposeful. Poetry is both seen and heard/spoken. That blankness also creates lack of sound or changes the sound. This makes writing dynamic—visually, orally, and audibly. The term white space comes from the idiom “the blank white page.” This is also true of the term blank space. Both are correct and can be used interchangeably. There are many types and variations of white/blank space. Examples are endless. I suggest trying some in your verse or prose—slide in an extra tap of the return key or an extra indent.

I am going to explain only a few of the reasons to use white/blank space—I believe them to be the most important and the most used, and more importantly, the most relevant. I will explain the reasons for indentation and collapsing the frame, putting space between words in the same line, and creating stanzas (both why a new stanza and what it does it do when adding that space).

Collapsing the frame sounds like taking a photo and crushing it to pieces—and in a sense that is what will happen to the poem or flash fiction that is being condensed spatially. I usually use a 1-inch margin, many lit mags provide guidelines as well, but by condensing the frame a square or box becomes apparent. Lines bleed together. When read, the pacing is fast, breathless even, and individual words pop out, but do not linger. There is no hesitation. Visually, this creates a capsule. It shows potency and density. Prose poems and flash fiction benefit particularly from this method. 

Timothy Liu is an excellent example of collapsing the frame. “What the Magdalene Saw,” in Typo he writes:

on thread-bare sheets to shroud a beat-up
mattress scarred with tiny cigarette burns
as towel-wrapped lunchtime gents line up
outside the door–peccadilloes that turn

The imagery is dynamic in of itself, but the white/blank space creates a cramped look on the page and a jarring pace while being read. If you want poetry or prose to a have power, collapsing the frame is a valuable and sometimes necessary tool.

Indentation is a variable of collapsing the frame. I mention it more for prose writers, but the technique can be just as formidable in poetry. An indent creates or signals a new line or sentence, and arguably a new thought. This is completely true, but visually, the indent allows the reader to blink and for the prose to appear less daunting and dense. This is the opposite of the collapsing of margins. Indenting gives space and pause and lets both the last word from above and the first word starting the line/sentence to be highlighted. In poetry, the same is true of the visual. However, by indenting the line, the pause is highlighted more than the words leading up to it and the word that follows.

Placing white/blank space in the line allows for pause and reflection on each individual word. In poetry, each space represents a pause to the reader. This means that the pause will be accented as well. e.e. Cummings is well-known for unconventional craftmanship, but “Crepuscule” is a brief example of what white/blank space does to the line. He writes:

I will wade out
                                 till my thighs are steeped in burn-
ing flowers
I will take the sun in my mouth

The poem continues on, allowing images to settle on page and words reverberate on the tongue. If a word or phrase needs to resonate, this tool is effective. While it is used in poetry, it can powerfully create drama and builds intrigue in prose work. Speculative fiction and genre bending writing would greatly benefit from this technique, but as with all creating, imagination is limitless and so are the possibilities.

Finally, stanzas create dynamic and jarring pauses both on the physical page and when read aloud. This is important because emphasis and readability need to be remembered when writing. If there are many short stanzas, the pace is broken up repeatedly. This is good if you want thoughts to linger, bad if you want to have more movement down the page. If there are no stanzas, the pace is usually less broken and a box shape is created. This means the poem will read fast and that the end word of lines will be heightened. Stanzas can be viewed as small scenes, the white/blank space encapsulating and separating images.

There are no wrong choices. But, every poet/writer/author should know why they are choosing a particular method and what the effect of the tool is. There are happy accidents, but nothing beats creating with authority and knowledge.

“Sit down. Take a deep breath. Let’s talk punctuation in poetry.”

There is nothing better than chatting about poetry—that is until we get to “grammar.” In hushed tones, “Do poems NEED grammar? Is it required? What about semi-colons? What about…?”

Hush. This is a very common question. I’m not saying it’s easy to know which punctuation mark, if any you want for your line—but let me explain the options.

First. No, you do not need punctuation. Second. Maybe you want punctuation? This is the traditional and most chosen option.

“But what does it DO?” It all depends on sound. Poems are meant to be read out loud. For thousands of years, longer, we have spoken in rhyme, sung melodies and stories, OUT LOUD. Yes, before there was written language, but also, because of the sound of words. So, punctuation, or lack of it, is all about when to breathe and how a word gets accented at the end of the line.

So—no punctuation and perhaps no capitalization creates a mad rush of sound. A WHOOSH. I would sail right down the page no pausing even if punctuation might be grammatically correct and you would hear passion and lack of air. And if that mad dash and fast pace is what you want terrific! Lucille Clifton is an amazing example. In “the garden of delight” she does not use punctuation or capitalization. Her first stanza:

for some
it is stone
bare smooth
as a buttock
rounding
into the crevasse
of the world

When I read it is a passionate downward rush. There is nothing wrong with lingering from word to word—but that varies by individual. Usually, punctuation shows someone else how to read your poem.

Punctuation in poetry comes down to three techniques. One: no punctuation and no pause. Two: Slight pause and continuation to the next line. Three: End-Stop which halts the line and creates a complete pause.

So, Scenario One, we basically covered. No pause. That means the line is enjambed and the first line is read without breath to the next line. This builds speed. You still want to end an enjambed line on a strong word though. Our minds are tricky and they will pick up if you end on a weak word like “a” or “an.” If it is vital for your poem do it! If it is not—refrain.

An example of enjambment would be several lines in Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Love Song.” This is a translation from German, but the enjambment is fairly accurate from the German

How shall I hold my soul, that it may not
be touching yours? How shall I lift it then
above you to where other things are waiting?
Ah, gladly would I lodge it, all forgot,
with some lost thing the dark is isolating
on some remote and silent spot that, when
your depths vibrate, is not itself vibrating.
After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?


Where there is no punctuation, it is enjambed. Having lines that alternate create a mild tone and cadence.

Scenario Two—the slight pause. This is slightly dramatic, gives a breath. I would say that the punctation to do this (and there will be some discussion and disagreement) is the m-dash. That is the double—line that is two hyphens. It works beautifully to merge end-stop and no punctuation. When reading, there is a lingering on the word and then a quick enjambment. This is the true in-between. The other, which I feel would be more controversial in-between is the ellipses. That’s the dramatic… Yes—it can be end-stop. But I think in the middle of the poem in provides a slight pause that leads into the next line, much like the m-dash. The colon and semi-colon are also argued about. They create a larger pause—but cause a continuation. Emily Dickinson’s “After great pain, a formal feeling comes – (372)” is a terrific example. The dashes can be read as end-stops or as I read them, slight pauses.

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?

Scenario Three: The End-Stop. Okay then—what does that do? It stops your line. Of course, right? But, when you read out loud, it creates a place to breathe. A real pause. The comma is arguably end-stop. There is a breath—a long one, but not as long as if a period or question mark was there. So, before we get confused, these are the end-stop punctuations: the period, the question mark, arguably as mentioned the semi-colon and colon, the ampersand sign, parenthesis (arguably), slashes, brackets []. and what seem to be also called brackets or less and greater signs < >. Of course, there are more, but these are the main ones. All these punctation marks create a huge LINE ENDING pause.

So, you want to end on a very, very strong word. It will resonate and be emphasized. “Are you the new person drawn toward me?” by Walt Whitman is made up of entirely end-stop lines.

Are you the new person drawn toward me?
To begin with, take warning, I am surely far different from what you suppose;
Do you suppose you will find in me your ideal?

Try reading a poem you’ve written out loud. You’ll hear natural breaks and rhythms. You can choose to go with these, or you can break the sound with any of the scenarios above. Make sure you are CHOOSING though—there are happy accidents, but it’s best to know why you are breaking or not breaking your line.

Now go forth! To enjamb or not enjamb—that is no longer the question!

“Pull up a seat. Take a sip. You can write.”

Whenever I give writing advice, I acknowledge the other writer’s anxieties and insecurities. We all have them. So, for advice and conversation—let’s set them aside. Pretend we are sipping lattes—or if you prefer, a bottle of your favorite brew. The first question—what about writer’s block? The second question—I can’t concentrate what should I do? The third question—how do I get inspired? The fourth—the almost, but not quite secret one—I have a disability, but I want to write—can I? Well, take a swig, because my answer is mostly, passionately, the same for every question.

First, writer’s block doesn’t exist. It exists in the mind of the writer—paralyzed by fear, by “I’m not good enough?”—negative thoughts. Throw those out and write with colored ink for five minutes. Throw in a peppy sticker. Doodle your character, maybe sit in the grass and daydream. That counts as writing! So, then you write. Question two and three—concentration and inspiration. Colored pens or fonts, colored paper, fancy journals, stickers, music. Everyone is unique and you have to find your individual blend. Recently, I had problems keeping a regular journal—I have kept a journal for over twenty years, so this was a profound problem. I found that I could use a “junk journal” and write daily. A “junk journal” can be made or bought—but I write on scraps, old bookmarks, coffee filters—all intended to break up that blank white page. I suggest breaking up the blank page for inspiration, concentration, and writer’s block! Beware, as we change, our needs change too. So maybe you’ll need a different cushion, different pen, new drink… I guarantee anyone can make it work and find their blend.

Now, fourth, the definitely not secret question—yes, if you have a disability, you can most assuredly write. I am Bipolar, have pretty much the whole gamut of anxiety disorders/attributes, and I still write. So, for everyone that confesses they have a hard time with grammar, reading slowly, concentrating because they are manic, ADHD, or are simply too energetic, get out your notebook. I couldn’t read for four and a half years because of a medication I was taking—it saved my life, but it took away a lot of what made me “me.” I couldn’t write or watch TV. But I could absorb what went on around me, got plenty of material, and listened to music. This means that there are ideas even in woe. I was taken off the medication, my literacy came back, but I was slower, had trouble with words, sometimes, I still do. But, I write.

We overcomplicate and belittle ourselves. My answer to this—as by now you figured out—is colored pens, magnetic poetry boards, grammar books, the thesaurus, the dictionary, sleep, and giving myself permission to write. Take another swig of that imaginary drink, look me in the eyes—be gentle with yourself. If you cannot write a page, write a sentence. If you cannot write or read a sentence, write or read a word. Congratulate yourself. Congratulate and reward yourself for every victory. You are a writer if you can pick up a pen or pencil, or speak into a computer program—if you love words.

Now, finish your drink. Pick up your pen—you’ve got this. Go lay in daises, listen to music, and write like the galaxy needs the hum of your verses—because it does. Write.