What I Think I Learned from a Month of Writing Poetry: Slice of Life #sol18

I knew I wanted to try another daily writing challenge in April, but I didn’t commit to National Poetry Writing Month until probably March 31. I write poetry sporadically during March, but only when a slice idea wants to become a poem. I never set out to write poetry intentionally. I wasn’t sure what would happen when I did, but I knew writing poetry would challenge me as a writer in a way that a daily notebook or even daily Slicing challenge can’t. Here’s what I think I learned from a month of writing and publishing a poem every day on my blog.

Poetry is hard work. Really hard. A lot harder than prose. This probably doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone. But I was surprised by just how mentally exhausting it was. Not just the writing but also the commenting. I didn’t comment nearly as much during Poetry Month as I did during the Slice Challenge because by the time I finished my poem each day, I was mentally spent. I could still read poetry, but I simply couldn’t find words to formulate a comment. Poetry is so intense and requires such distillation and condensation and focus. It is a much more demanding kind of writing and thinking than prose.

Poetry takes me out of my writing comfort zone. After the first few days of writing poetry, I reflected on just how comfortable I am in my little world of prose pieces about reading, writing, teaching, and learning. Even though I wouldn’t call any of my poems confessional or even very personally revealing, they still felt like much riskier writing. They pushed me as a writer and thinker much more than writing prose pushes me.

Amy Ludwig Vanderwater is right: poems really are the best writing teachers. I learned so much about structure, form, the musicality of language, image, metaphor, and revision during April. After just a week of the challenge, I noticed that the quality of writing in my notebook was changing, improving, becoming more focused, more intentional, concerned more with language, words, syntax, not just with getting an idea on the page.

Forms are your friends. I didn’t tackle anything too challenging (no sonnets or pantoums here!), but I did find that I enjoyed playing with form and especially writing in different syllable count forms. I don’t think I would have been able to complete the challenge if I hadn’t had a long list of forms I wanted to try.

And a related insight: everything sounds better when you write it as a haiku. Or a tanka. Or a sijo. An idea that didn’t seem to have much promise miraculously became something I wanted to work on when I imposed a syllable count and form.

I mostly want to write poems about poetry, the prairie, and cats. Given that I am not a poet and don’t know that much about poetry, it was perhaps ridiculous to write so very many poems about poetry during April. But it was a way to distill my wonderings and questions and struggles. The prairie is an endless inspiration for me: I marvel daily at what I see on my drive, how different this landscape is from any other landscape I have known. And I believe cats are basically walking poems anyway, so they’re a natural subject for poetry. I started to feel like I was overdoing it with the poems about poetry, the prairie, and cats, so I tried to make myself write about other things, but I think I would have been happiest just focusing on those three topics for the entire month. (And I am quite proud that my final poem for the month managed to combine all three!)

Poetry requires a tremendous amount of work–and there is no guarantee of a satisfying final product. When I work really hard at a piece of prose, I feel confident that I can eventually get to a final product that will satisfy me. This doesn’t mean that I’ve produced a brilliant piece of writing–only that I have produced a piece of writing that communicates what I am trying to communicate effectively and as well as I can. I have strategies to use when a piece of prose isn’t working. I have a toolbox of prose skills. I don’t have a poetry toolbox yet. When a poem wasn’t working, I couldn’t always figure out what the problem was, and even if I could identify the problem, I usually didn’t have the skills to make it better.

And a related insight: I don’t know how to judge the quality of a poem. For the first week, I really struggled with this. How to know when it’s done? How to know if it works? I’m still not sure of the answers to these questions, even after a month of writing a daily poem. I finally decided that I would simply go with what pleased me and what more or less satisfied my readerly ear and eye.

Even more than encouragement or feedback on my own work, I value walking beside others who are on the same journey. The best part of the Slice Challenge for me is seeing what my fellow writers are up to, and that was true for the Poetry Writing Challenge too. I was eager each day to check out Carol’s and Glenda’s and Margaret’s poetry (and many others too). It was especially comforting to connect with Glenda, since she was also on the poetry writing journey for the first time. I like getting comments and feedback, of course, but mostly I just liked knowing that other writers were engaged in the same work each day. Community is more important for me as a writer than I realized.

Will I do another poetry writing challenge next year? It’s hard to say. It’s much more demanding than I expected it to be. But I did appreciate being challenged and pushed to think and struggle with my writing. I don’t know that I truly became a better poet after finishing 30 poems in 30 days, but I do know that I became a more humble writer and a better reader of poetry.



13 responses to “What I Think I Learned from a Month of Writing Poetry: Slice of Life #sol18”

  1. readingteachsu Avatar

    I loved your poems and wanted to comment on more than I did. I started out to write too, but I couldn’t keep up and I’m sorry for that. I want to try to give it another go. Perhaps like slicing, I have to give it a running start by doing poetry Friday and planning out what I might write about and the styles in a heart mappish way. I appreciate your insight. I consider you to be a far more accomplished prose writer than I am, so to hear about the specifics of your struggle is encouraging. I remember how much struggle slicing was at first, and can still be without inspiration. Thanks for sharing both your poetry and your thinking.

  2. Scott Avatar

    I’ll try a month of writing poetry. My thoughts ramble. The practice of distilling those thoughts will be excellent exercise.

  3. arjeha Avatar

    I have always admired how poets can say so much with so few well chosen words. This is something I am not good at hence I write very little poetry. I really like your reflection on what you learned and the struggles you faced during the poetry challenge.

  4. cvarsalona Avatar

    Elisabeth, National Poetry Month was busy and I did not get around to read as many posts as I would have liked so I stopped by your blog today to see what you learned from your month writing poetry. Since poetry is my go to form of writing, I am trying to push myself too to try forms that I may not be comfortable with and I see you tried that also. I would like to invite you to create a prairie poem for my Sense-sational Spring Gallery (invitation is at: http://beyondliteracylink.blogspot.com/2018/04/spring-salutations-with-invitation-to.html). In the meantime, I am going to check out what you have been up to.)

  5. elsie Avatar

    I think you should have used cats as your theme for all your poems. 🙂
    Poetry is hard to get the right words to express what you meant to say. I marvel at Valerie Worth’s poems.
    Your month of poetry will be of value as you talk with students about what it takes to be a writing teacher.

  6. edifiedlistener Avatar

    I’m totally captivated by what you’ve discovered about yourself, about writing & about poetry. I’m not sure that I would muster the necessary discipline but perhaps like you, if I decide to join at the last minute and know that I’ll find community I might surprise myself. Congratulations on completing the challenge. You’ve given us a lot to work with and consider.

  7. margaretsmn Avatar

    I appreciate your reflection on writing a poem every day. I didn’t make it every day and had to be OK with that because it’s hard and my expectations are high. I’ve studied poetry for a long time. My advice is find a writing partner (do you have a writing group?), read poets you admire, and keep writing. I love that you decided to go with what pleased you because that is really the most important thing.

  8. Wondering and Wandering Avatar

    Elisabeth — Congratulations on writing a poem each day in April. I did as well, and completely agree with your thoughts. It was a lot of work and a challenge, but a good challenge. Much was neglected in my life because of the time I dedicated to this venture — feeling a bit guilty about that! I love that you said Slices sometimes want to be poems. I do find this happens at times. I start out writing what I intended to be prose, and all of a sudden it’s feeling poetic.

  9. Trina Haase Avatar
    Trina Haase

    First of all, what an accomplishment that you kept up with writing a poem every single day. I loved reading all of the poems by you and Glenda.

    As for this post, there are SO many things that resonate with me. I, too, wonder when a poem is finished. I could revise and revise… I haven’t read ALV’s book yet, but I also agree that this is so much to learn from poetry.

  10. glenda funk Avatar
    glenda funk

    Those folks who stuck to one subject all month amazed me. I’m trying to do Poetry Friday, but I’ve already found myself slipping into old thought patterns. I think summer will help me write poetry, and I know the poetry challenge will impact my teaching of poetry in AP Lit next year. I’ll give more credence to form, for one. I love poems about poems/writing/lit devices, anything metafictional. I always start AP Lit w/ a unit of poetry that is self-referential.

  11. Amanda Potts Avatar

    I absolutely loved reading your poems every day, and I really appreciate the reflection you’ve posted here. I was inspired by your various attempts at form and meaning; that, combined with what you’ve learned, inspires me to consider trying poetry month in the future. Thank you for sharing both your poetry and your thoughts about it. It makes me a better writer and teacher.

  12. Akilah Avatar

    Poems really are the best writing teachers. Teaching poetry has made me a better teacher of other writing (though I was terrified to do it at first). I love reflection posts, so you know I dug this.

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