How to Write Poetry If You're a Fiction Writer
In grad school as a Master of Fine Arts student in fiction writing, I decided to take a poetry workshop. I was required to take a class in a genre different from my primary concentration, and because I’d already taken a nonfiction workshop the year before, I technically didn’t have to sign up.
But two things compelled me to do so. First, I’m a chronic overachiever, and that meant I had to take workshops in all three genres. And second, I wanted the challenge.
Still, I was pretty intimidated by the idea of being the only fiction writer in a class full of seasoned poets. These people were poetry experts, many of whom had been published in prestigious publications. Meanwhile, the only poems I had to share were from my college creative writing classes, which don’t carry a lot of weight in a situation like this.
All of that changed, though, when I read the poem “Jessica, from the Well” by Lucie Brock-Broido.
The poem tells the story of Jessica McClure, an eighteen-month-old child who fell down an abandoned well in 1987. For more than two days, she remained at the bottom of the shaft while emergency workers struggled to free her. The story of her Texas family’s crisis made national news, especially when Jessica was rescued alive and well.
Brock-Broido’s poem is unique in that it does not merely relate the events of Jessica’s accident. Narrated in the first person, it shares what happened from Jessica’s point of view, using terrifying, evocative language.
Many of her poems follow this same style of capturing the voices of real people or characters, a genre called persona poetry.
Inspired by Brock-Broido’s work, I began to write persona poems of my own, an experiment that eventually led to the creation of my chapbook, Bone China Girls: A Poetic Account of a Female Crime, which focuses on the 1965 murder of sixteen-year-old Sylvia Likens as narrated in the voices of the women involved in the tragedy.
What’s Wrong With Writing Poetry?
I think fiction writers become easily intimidated by poetry because they assume it’s more abstract than it really is. In reality, as we’ve discussed in previous posts, good poetry must be concrete. Sensory details, specific word choice, and powerful imagery are what make poems good, not vague ideas or concepts.
This should be good news for fiction writers because concrete details are where they live. After all, they are creating whole worlds and people from nothing, which demands the use of specific details and language. Hogwarts wouldn’t be real to readers without J.K. Rowling’s descriptions of its cavernous halls; Tolkien’s attention to detail in creating the individual races, cultures, and languages make Middle Earth an authentic place.
This isn’t limited strictly to fantasy stories. How about books like The Catcher in the Rye and The Yearling, where the carefully crafted settings of New York City and the swamps of Florida lend reality to their fictional characters’ experiences?
While the locations themselves may be real, the authors still had to conjure up the details of these places and imagine how their characters might perceive them.
The point is this: if you are creating characters and imagining places, you are already closer to writing poetry than you may have thought.
Here are a few ways you can take your fiction-writing instincts and transform them into tools for writing great poetry.
Write a Persona Poem
Persona poetry is a great place to start for fiction writers who want to create poems because its anchor point is narrative voice. It gives you the opportunity to imagine what a character would sound like and how they might see the world around them.
Think of writing a persona poem as creating a monologue. If the character you are writing about stood onstage Hamlet-style and spoke to an audience about their life, what would they say?
Would they tell about a significant experience from their perspective? Would they want to set the record straight about something?
The cool thing about persona poetry is that it can give you the opportunity to shed light on a person, character, or even an object that is already familiar to readers.
For instance, when Brock-Broido wrote her poem about Jessica, it was 1988 and the story was still fresh in people’s minds. The piece tells what happened from a slightly different angle and even makes a point about how much we miss by simply accepting the surface-level news accounts of what happens in the world rather than digging deeper.
If you want to experiment with writing a persona poem, here are a few ideas for “characters” you can take on:
· The villain or antagonist from a book, film, or TV show
· A family member
· A politician
· Your pet
· Much maligned insects such as wasps and mosquitos
· A criminal or the victim of a crime
· A landmark, such as a natural location or a building
Create a Setting
Stories have to happen somewhere, and as stated earlier, the settings of fiction play a huge role in making them authentic and believable. If you write stories, you already know how to use concrete details to bring a setting to life.
So, write a poem about a place. Just describe the sensory details, images, and emotions you associate with it.
Don’t worry about making some kind of deep “point” or creating a “message” for readers. The idea that poetry has to “mean something” is what causes writers to overthink things.
For now, just start with the place and use words to make it live.
Write About Objects or Things
These same ideas relate to writing about the “stuff” from your life. Family pictures, works of art, books, knick-knacks on your desk—all of it can make great subjects for poems.
Like anything else, though, you have to concretely describe it. You can also weave the story of the object into the poem, mentioning people, places, or even memorable things people said that you relate to your subject.
In the end, writing poetry isn’t some kind of mysterious, mystical practice. You are still using language to open up a door and engage readers’ imaginations. You’re still creating characters and places.
By using the skills you’re already practice as a fiction writer, you can discover that you already have a solid foundation for writing poetry, and that’s a good place to start.
Want to learn more? Grab a copy of the Ultimate Poetry Workbook.
It contains prompts, poetry lessons, writing tips, and more for creating and revising your work.
Plus, it’s free, and you get a bonus 1:1 consultation to help you put your new skills into practice.
It’s the fastest, easiest way to start writing poetry at your full creative potential so you can impact and inspire readers.