Writing Poetry II

So first, I have a poetry collection coming out, from Papaveria Press. It should be out in the next few weeks? It has a gorgeous cover by Virginia Lee and a wonderful introduction by Catherynne Valente. I’m very, very proud of it. Here is the cover:

Cover of ARC of Songs for Ophelia JPG

At the same time, it’s kind of scary having a poetry collection come out. First, because poetry is deeply personal, more so than prose. Some of it is literally personal, in that it’s about me. Like my poem “The Goblins”:

The Goblins

I have frequented the ways, even the byways of men,
I have gone forth silently, still-countenanced and cold;
they have not noticed clustered at my hem
the tattered-earned smirking little goblins bold.

I have bowed and seemed to smile and seemed to converse with them,
while my face remained pale and my words retained their chill,
and the little goblins chattered and clattered at my hem
in voices triumphant and shrill.

This is about me of course: I have little goblins following me around. Not literally, but as a writer, figuratively, imaginatively. I can hear their voices. Sometimes it’s difficult to live in the real world, because I forget that it’s real. The interior word seems so real so me . . .

But all of it, I take personally, which connects to my second reason. I started writing poetry very early, much earlier than I started writing prose. I have notebooks full of poems I wrote in high school, and I actually had some of them published in the school literary magazine. I thought I was going to be a poet. They’re not particularly accomplished poems, but if I were looking at them today, as a creative writing teacher, I would say, “You have something here, a rhythm and ear for language. Keep going.” Then I went to college and took poetry classes with two famous poets, Charles Wright and Greg Orr, that totally killed my desire to write poetry.

What was so wrong with those poetry classes? Well, I want to learn how to write poetry: I wanted to be told, this week we are studying sonnets, so here is the history of the sonnet, here are sonnets to read, go write a sonnet and make it your own. Let’s see how you do. That’s how I would teach a poetry class. But that’s not what we did. Week after dreary week, students would bring in their dreary poems and we would go around in a circle, workshopping them. If you want to be a poet, you should never, ever start with free verse. Good free verse is actually much, much harder than writing a sonnet, just as good abstract expressionism is much, much harder than representational painting. Of course, bad abstract expressionism and bad free verse are easy . . .

Week after week of bad free verse. And nothing fun or funny or whimsical allowed. It had to all be serious. I did not think of it this way at the time, because I was too young, but there was no sense that poetry had originally sprung from song, that it was a form of entertainment.

So I came out of those classes with the distinct impression that what I wanted to do was not worth doing. The poetry I wanted to write was not worth writing. It took years and years of writing and actually publishing poetry, of people telling me they liked it, for me to believe it was worthwhile. And more than that, it took me years and years, working alone, to learn how to write the poetry I wanted to write. I’m still learning.

I think the first poem I ever wrote that I was actually happy with was this one, “Beauty to the Beast”:

Beauty to the Beast

When I dare walk in fields, barefoot and tender,
trace thorns with my finger, swallow amber,
crawl into the badger’s chamber, comb
lightning’s loose hair in a crashing storm,
walk in a wolf’s eye, lie
naked on granite, ignore the curse
on the castle door, drive a tooth into the boar’s hide,
ride adders, tangle the horned horse,
when I dare watch the east
with unprotected eyes, then I dare love you, Beast.

It was also the first poem of mine published. It’s not the sort of thing I could take into one of my college poetry classes, because in those classes, poetry didn’t dance. I want my poems to dance.

So in the poetry collection, there are poems that are supposed to be fun, or funny, or whimsical. There are several that are really for children. There are many that are quite serious and for adults. Many are about what it means to be a woman, about love and death and loneliness. There are several that have already been set to music. They are influenced by all the poets I love, Walter de la Mare as much as T.S. Eliot. They are the poems I wanted to write . . .

I don’t have any great insight to end with, other than the one I think underlies everything I do, and all these blog posts: you must do what you fear, every day. Courage is a muscle, and if it’s to become strong, you use must it. And I guess there is a bonus insight here: you must have the courage to find your own voice, your own style, even if no one can teach it to you. I’m still finding mine.

I’ll end with two things. First, an offer: Papaveria Press is generously making the Advance Review Copy of the poetry collection available, as a PDF file, to anyone who wants to review it, anywhere. So if you’d like to read the poetry collection and are willing to post a review, whether it’s on a blog, on Amazon or Goodreads, or in an official publication, I can send you the ARC. All you need to do is contact me, in the comments section below, on Facebook or on Twitter, and tell me where you would like me to send the file. And then, post a review . . .

Second, some time ago I made a YouTube video of me reading the first poem I posted above, “The Goblins.” Here it is, if you’d like to see it!

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23 thoughts on “Writing Poetry II

  1. I’d like to review the collection; I’ll post it on Goodreads and Amazon. Could you send the ARC to the.elaine.gallagher (at) gmail.com, please?

  2. My God, Theodora, your poetry is amazing. I love it so. I look forward to a posting containing your poetry. A few lines and I am no longer sitting in my chair, I have followed you to amazing places. I feel the cold, I feel the snow, the sun, the stillness, etc. I am so glad you write, my dear. BTW, I can’t wait to get my hands on this book

    • Milka, I don’t remember whether you’ve asked, but if you want an Advance Review Copy, I’m more than happy to send you one! You can see the book before everyone else, though it’s a PDF so not as satisfying as an actual paper book . . . And thank you so much for the kind words! :)

  3. Hello Theodora, I’m looking forward to reading your collection but I’m going to wait for the paper edition :) Just wanted to wish you all the best with it.

  4. I love the two poems you posted and, though I fought with my college teachers over the proper way to write/teach prose, I smiled an nod my head in affirmation when I see by the sample poems posted here that you survived college lit teachers. If you have an extra PDF copy, I would love a chance to read it and post a review.

    Malcolm

  5. I too must read your new book. Your poetry is so delicate and yet, strong, like
    embroidery or the ice pictures on a window in winter. Just lovely.

    Poetry IS private. I had better luck with a teacher, William Stafford who wrote from
    his wandering way of words into something that mattered to him. My first published poem was one I wrote on a dare, in college, about a class visit to a geological sight. It was in the Oregon Geology Journal. I have always cherished that.

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