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Alison Chisholm

Writers Bureau Tutor Talks About Writing Poetry

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WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR IDEAS FOR YOUR POETRY FROM?

There isn't a single source of ideas for poems. A lot of them come out of memories, or out of things you've observed, you've heard and seen, sometimes an idea pops into your head, you don't know where it comes from, you're just very thankful that it arrived. You can always add imagination too, to make the idea more interesting, to make it fizz along more. You can get lots of ideas for poetry from reading the poems of other people. You don't do this in order to plagiarise but simply to get your mind into the way of thinking along poetic lines and to inspire your own ideas.

HOW DO YOU CHOOSE THE FORM OF A POEM?

Once you get the first germ of an idea you have to be willing to experiment. You need to do a number of pre-writing exercises to explore it in every direction and try out such things as rhyme and free verse, writing from different angles, using different characters. You have to be willing to spend a lot of time on this experimentation and it may be some considerable time before you find the definitive way of writing the poem, but you have to remember that this is never time wasted, it's all adding to your own skills as a poet. You're involved in an apprenticeship, but you're never going to graduate, you're just going to keep on getting better.

HOW IMPORTANT ARE TECHNICAL DETAILS?

If you're going to be taken seriously as a poet, you have to be accomplished in the technical details, things like grammar and rhyme and metre. Now this might sound like the boring bit but in actual fact you have to remember that you are the guardian of the language as a poet as well as being its innovator. If you cannot manipulate the language properly with good sentence structuring, with good grammar, with appropriate use of rhyme and metre, then the language is going to fall apart. If you have a big problem in this area it's comparatively easy to be able to put it right, you can soon acquire the knowledge you need. But if you don't acquire that knowledge, you're in the same place as a musician who can't play a scale or an artist who can't mix a colour.

DOES IMAGERY PLAY A BIG PART?

Imagery is the life blood of poetry. It's through good imagery that the poet can actually communicate the message straight into the mind of the reader. When you're writing poems if you can think in terms of what you can see, hear, taste, touch and so on and convey those senses, the reader's going to pick them up and recognise them immediately because these are shared, the reader will experience the same things. By putting those experiences back into something from his own past and memories, that poem becomes individual, it ceases to be your poem and it becomes the reader's poem and that's a very strong place for your work to be in. When you're choosing imagery, you should always go for the specific and concrete and not the vague and general and abstract. It's very difficult to write in huge concepts. Just as an example, if you wanted to write a poem about grief and death and loss, you could sum it up in something as small and focussed as a woman's inability to get rid of her partner's toothbrush after his death.

HOW DO YOU KNOW A POEM IS FINISHED?

One of the hardest things about writing poetry is knowing when you've finished. You think you've done the correct version but you still have to put it away before you start the revision and then get it out when you've distanced yourself slightly from the excitement of its creation. Look at it very carefully, checking that the whole message is communicating itself and then looking at all the details, every sentence, every phrase, every line, every word, making sure that it's exactly right. When you've got it exactly right, you put it away again and then you take it out again. You look at it all again and so on, you repeat the process as many times as it takes. I reckon that if you can look at a poem on two consecutive occasions and find that there's nothing else you want to alter, you've probably just about finished. One important thing to remember though is always to keep a copy of every version either on paper or in the computer. But sometimes you get to a stage where you say, 'I think I got it right three versions ago'. If you haven't kept those records, you're stuck.

IS THERE MUCH OF A MARKET FOR POETRY?

Very few people can make a living out of writing poetry but there are lots of outlets for your poetry. You can have them appear in small press magazines, in anthologies, they can be delivered at an open mic event or at a poetry reading. You can just share them for the pleasure of your family but, there's nothing that quite beats that feeling of satisfaction when you have a win in a competition or when you hold your first published collection in your hand.

 

 
 

Sarah Plater Writers Bureau's Writer of the Year 2017

“I’m currently working on my fourth book, have been paid for my writing by at least 15 different magazines, and now earn half my income from writing – all thanks to The Writers Bureau’s course."

Sarah Plater - Writers Bureau Writer of the Year 2017

Read Sarah's full story.

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