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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Review of The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop, by Diane Lockward

Diane Lockward's The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop arrived in my mailbox last week, and I am so pumped! 

Why? Because this is a poetry exercise/craft tip book poets (and English instructors) only dream about, a collection divided into sections such as "Sound," "Voice," and "Syntax," each addressing the stated topic with relevant writing/revision suggestions, plus a poem provided as a springboard for writing a poem in a similar mode or form.  There are even examples of poems written from the prompt*. 

The Crafty Poet is a brilliant book for teaching beginning poets to examine poems carefully and learn/steal from them. Diane's clear and succinct descriptions and analysis assist inexperienced poets with handling mood/tone, stanza length, fixed forms, etc. But let's face it: even more seasoned writers (okay, just speaking for myself) need guidance (if not a kick in the pants) when it comes to putting words on the page, especially when subject/setting/situation/ formal considerations aren't immediately jumping to mind. 

I don't know about you, but more often than not I arrive at my writing desk with perhaps a subject but no idea how I will translate my thoughts and/or gathered factual information, into poetry. The danger of this scenario, at least for me, is that I will invariably choose research (think Wikipedia, library websites, wherever Google happens to lead me), amassing pages and pages of notes on, say, mollusks or Leonardo Da Vinci, without writing a word of poetry. Definitely disheartening. One way to avoid this kind of stall out is to grab your copy of The Crafty Poet

Here's how I have been this book to help me reach my goal of writing a poem a day in September:

On days when I am stumped for form, content, trope, and everything in between, I head to a quiet place with Lockward's book in tow, close my eyes and flip to a page. Whatever page I flip to, I open my eyes and begin reading (note: if your eyes land in the middle of an interview, you can scoot to the nearest prompt or read the poem/interview and create your own exercise using it). 

As an example for how this method plays out, the other day I landed on page 196, in the section titled Line/Stanza. First I read "Two Gates" by Denise Low ("I look through glass and see a young woman / of twenty, washing dishes, and the window / turns into a painting ..."). Then I ingested Lockward's deft analysis and her prompt asking me to look back at a former self and "bring forth the person you used to be." Along with a few key parameters, I was being asked to follow Low's format, shooting for 15 lines, with a stanza break between line 9 and 10. 

Suddenly, instead of staring at a blank page, I had an assignment. A poem was in my near future! I set the timer for fifteen minutes, and began writing a poem about a child with a short pixie haircut barred from cheerleading, slumber parties, and meeting boys at the mall. It's not much of a poem after fifteen minutes, but I have managed to write fifteen lines and somehow managed to place my stanza break in the requested place. Small victory! I know that to for it to become the poem I want it to be, I will need to go back to Low's poem and Lockward's prompt, read the sample poems again, and improve on teasing out my prepubescent self. For instance, I haven't yet found a way to "as speaker, look with full knowledge," but instead of having nothing at all, I am inching in the right direction. Bottom line: I now have a poem to work on, whereas fifteen minutes earlier I had just one thing: a blank page. 

I could read the book from cover to cover in one sitting, but then I would be reading for enjoyment, not as a writer, someone who actually has designs to complete all the writing exercises, including the bonus ones!! I have to admit, it's tough not to sit down and read the whole thing at once like a huge box of chocolates. What's keeping me from "stuffing face" (or in this case stuffing brain?) is the desire to stretch out and savor this book, making it last for months, if not years. 

Okay, so that's the skinny on my take on how to make the most of this book. As a writing instructor (one of the other hats I wear), I look forward to the next time I teach introduction to poetry writing because I definitely think students will appreciate the specificity of Lockward's prompts. Students are always asking me for sample poems to go with a particular assignment, and with this book they will be pleased to find not only a "jump-off" poem associated with each prompt, but sample outcomes as well. Yahoo!

There's one other very cool feature I haven't mentioned: The Poet on the Poem. Examples include an interview with Ann Fisher-Wirth regarding her poem "It Was Snowing and It was Going to Snow," and lo and behold, on page 50 in the Diction section, a poem and accompanying conversation with yours truly regarding "It's All Gravy." But that's not why I am recommending this book! The reason I took the time to blog about The Crafty Poet is because I want you, your friends, and your students to write more and better poems in the coming months. With a book like this, and a method something like the one I have outlined, it would be difficult not to. 

*Diane was able to provide samples because this book began as a monthly poetry newsletter you, too, can subscribe to! When she learned that her newsletters would be made into a book, she solicited subscribers to submit sample poems written using her provided prompts. Sign up for Diane's newsletter via her blog

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