Category Archives: writing process

Free Verse Is Not a Free For All

Since today is Memorial Day, and Freedom is on my mind —

Free Verse Poetry, what’s that all about?” A question from a friend who is often bewildered by modern poetry in general. She likes reading it, but was raised in the grand tradition of Poetry That Rhymes. Don’t get me wrong, I love Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti and a plethora of other rhyming poets. I’ve just learned to widen my scope and dig for other influences. Most poets don’t spring forth from the head of Zeus, fully inspired. Neither do poems, although it would be grand if they did.

Wild Nights—Wild Nights!
Emily Dickinson

Wild Nights – Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile – the winds –
To a heart in port –
Done with the compass –
Done with the chart!

Rowing in Eden –
Ah, the sea!
Might I moor – Tonight –
In thee!

Western poetical tradition (As opposed to Eastern or Oriental tradition) has a keen interest in poetical meter down to poetical feet per line. In the English language each foot usually has a syllable with a stress and one or two without a stress, presented in a pattern. Other languages may vary depending on the length of the vowels and the number of syllables in a word. Up until the last hundred years or so Iambic Pentameter was one of the most popular forms of meter in the English language. For examples, read Shakespeare. If you’re not interested, read him anyway, for the pure joy of how language should look on the page and sound in your mouth, or fall on your ear. At least listen to a good recording done by a British Shakespearean actor. Talk about rapt attention. Or maybe that’s just me.

Sonnet CXV
William Shakespeare

Those lines that I before have writ do lie,
Even those that said I could not love you dearer:
Yet then my judgment knew no reason why
My most full flame should afterwards burn clearer.
But reckoning Time, whose million’d accidents
Creep in ‘twixt vows, and change decrees of kings,
Tan sacred beauty, blunt the sharp’st intents,
Divert strong minds to the course of altering things;
Alas! why, fearing of Time’s tyranny,
Might I not then say, ‘Now I love you best,’
When I was certain o’er incertainty,
Crowning the present, doubting of the rest?
Love is a babe, then might I not say so,
To give full growth to that which still doth grow?

Popular opinion blames Walt Whitman for the downfall of rhymed poetry or the schism that occurred when he published Leaves of Grass and liberated poets to embrace free verse as a style. There was freedom to use poetry and language in a brand new way. Whitman wanted poetry to be ‘natural’, without the constraints of traditional meter and rhyme. I see the influence of Whitman on the Beat poets, on Ginsberg, and reading one then the other is an eye opening pleasure. We cannot escape our past, and as poets we need to mine the past for inspiration as much as we observe what is around us.

From a Wikipedia article: “Free verse is a term describing various styles of poetry that are not written using strict meter or rhyme, but that still are recognizable as ‘poetry’ by virtue of complex patterns of one sort or another that readers can perceive to be part of a coherent whole.”

Free verse is not totally without rules. Free verse poetry still has to hold together internally, to have cohesion and coherence, to make a point, to follow a pattern. In its own way, free verse is as rule bound as a sestina or villanelle. If you want to create a good free verse poem that is.

Kosmos
by Walt Whitman

WHO includes diversity, and is Nature,
Who is the amplitude of the earth, and the coarseness and sexuality of the earth, and the great charity of the earth, and the equilibrium also,
Who has not look’d forth from the windows, the eyes, for nothing, or whose brain held audience with messengers for nothing;
Who contains believers and disbelievers—Who is the most majestic lover;
Who holds duly his or her triune proportion of realism, spiritualism, and of the aesthetic, or intellectual,
Who, having consider’d the Body, finds all its organs and parts good;
Who, out of the theory of the earth, and of his or her body, understands by subtle analogies all other theories,
The theory of a city, a poem, and of the large politics of These States;
Who believes not only in our globe, with its sun and moon, but in other globes, with their suns and moons;
Who, constructing the house of himself or herself, not for a day, but for all time, sees races, eras, dates, generations,
The past, the future, dwelling there, like space, inseparable together.

Whenever I Saw You I Handed You a Bouquet, and
By Sharon Olds

what about those nosegays?! If you were to return
I would give you more, for all you have given us, for
your going first. Those posies might have a
peony, a freesia, a tulip — an eye snack
and nostril snack, I could not get enough of
giving you coronation bundles, handing them
and almost bowing, tongue-tied with
respectful adoring, with gobbling
the sight of you the sound, the bouquets saying mother-
— we would not be here, without your song, your eye.

Source: Poetry (February 2017)

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HOW TO MAKE SURE YOUR SUBMISSION GETS THE ATTENTION IT DESERVES

With one month to go in our current reading period, we’ve received 229 submissions. Of those submissions, we’ve already declined or withdrawn 148. There are 63 pieces in process right this minute, and that will change by the time this post goes live.

Every reading period, we see some of the same trends, not all of them good trends. Since we want you to succeed as poets, want to get submissions that both make us honored to do this work and make you honored to be part of it, we thought it was time to talk about what makes us love our poets.

Submitting work is not always the fun part of being a writer. Okay, maybe it’s never the fun part unless the work is accepted. Acceptances are fun. Acceptances are what we all strive for.

When editors have the opportunity to say yes to a piece, they sometimes do a little dance.

When editors have to say no, for any reason, it makes them a little sad. Much of their sadness, and yours, dear submitters, could be prevented with simple attention to guidelines, details, and a respectful tone.

Is this an editor saying no? Is this a writer learning of rejection? Sometimes they look the same.

Let’s start with those guidelines. You’ve read it and heard it over and over: read the guidelines before submitting. It usually goes with the advice to read the publication to which you are submitting. This is really important. If you’ve read Gyroscope Review at all, you will notice that we publish contemporary poetry. We don’t publish work that sounds like it was around in Shelley’s time or harkens back to Beowulf. We seldom publish pieces that rhyme. We’re picky about pieces that have racist or sexist undertones, don’t care for gratuitous sex, aren’t fond of political rants even though those are tempting at this point in history. So, tone and form are something to study.

Our guidelines also point out some housekeeping items. Every reading period, we have someone who sends us a piece that we like, that we accept, and then we get an email that says, oops, someone else already accepted that piece. We take simultaneous submissions, but we want you to do your part. And what is your part? Tell us immediately if a piece you’ve sent us gets accepted elsewhere. We spend a lot of time reading, thinking, and Google-checking work. If we’ve done all that and made a decision only to learn you forgot to tell us that this piece is no longer available, that’s not respecting our time. Respect needs to go both ways.

While we are on the subject of knowing and sharing the status of your own poems, don’t resubmit something we’ve already rejected. Chances are pretty good we’ll remember the piece and wonder what you were thinking.

Another housekeeping item in our guidelines that someone ignores every reading period is when a submission contains more than one poem in a single document. We have our system set up for one poem in document = one submission. Why? Because when we vote on each poem, we need to be able to filter between accepted and declined. If everything is in one document, we can’t do that on a poem-by-poem basis. Therefore, multiple poems in one document means they will automatically be declined. And don’t think that you can submit one big document four times to make up for there being four poems in that document. One poem in one document = one submission. No exceptions.

Now, can we talk about appearance? We know you play with fonts sometimes. They can make writing something fun, shake things up a little but. We do it ourselves – on our own computers for our own amusement. When submitting, stick to a standard Times 12 pt font in basic black. A piece submitted in purple Comic Sans is distracting and takes us out of the piece. We sit there and wonder, why purple? Why Comic Sans? Just don’t.

And now a little bit about respecting our decisions for our own journal. Let’s say you send us a piece and we have to say no. Maybe our rejection has come to you on a bad day and you rapid-fire write a response telling us we don’t know good poetry from a hole in the ground. And then you hit “send.” When we open that email, are we likely to take pity on you and your submission? Nope. Are we likely to think, oh, that poet must be having a bad day and give you a pass on your rudeness? Nope. Are we likely to remember who you are? Oh yes. Yes indeed. And when we see your name in the slush pile in a future reading period we may not read your work with as much enthusiasm as someone else’s.

Now, if you had sent us a different email that asked us if we could give you more feedback on why your poem did not make the cut, would we be likely to answer? Yes, we would. There are hordes of reasons why pieces get rejected on any given day. Maybe we already have lots of pieces in the same vein. Maybe your piece, though wonderful, is better-suited to a different season. Maybe you’ve submitted four pieces, and we’ve already accepted three. Perhaps the subject matter just doesn’t fit with our vision for Gyroscope Review. And maybe the piece honestly could benefit from revision.

Consider doing revision work in a different space for a new perspective on things.

If you have a piece that gets rejected and you are going to revise it, give it enough time. A revision done within hours of a rejection is too fast. You know how a good stew slow cooks for hours so all the flavors can blend? Good poetry is like that: it needs simmering time for all the nuances and metaphors to come together into a delicious stew of lines that makes the reader want more. It cannot be rushed. If you try to shortcut revision, you will end up with an inferior piece lacking in essence.

And what about sending us something else if we decline your work? You are welcome to do that, but please take a moment or three to think about why we said no to your poems. Think about whether the next batch of work you want to send us looks just like what we’ve already rejected. Think about whether we are a good fit for you.

We should tell you that we have accepted a piece or two – or, well, 18, if you want exact numbers. We expect to at least triple that by the time we go to press; we expect just as many submissions during the last month as we’ve had up to now. So, you still have a shot if you like Gyroscope Review. Get writing. We’re waiting.

Still not sure? Ask us questions at gyroscopereview@gmail.com. We will answer.

Images courtesy of Pixabay.com.

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Writing Narrative Poetry

Writing Narrative Poetry
by Constance Brewer

I am, by choice, a big fan of narrative poetry. I tend to write narrative poems more than any other type. What are they? Narrative poems are poems that tell stories. The Iliad was a series of long narrative poems strung together. Beowulf. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The Cremation of Sam McGee. What makes them different than writing fiction? Narrative poems are stripped down to their bare essentials. They allow the reader to supply details the poem doesn’t have time to tell. Hair color, type of shoes, breed of horse? Unless it is necessary to the poem, it’s not in there. Narrative poems concern themselves with the immediacy of the moment rather than the emotional picture. They plunge you into the action, sword in hand, blood spatters on your shirt.

A good narrative poem is like any good piece of fiction. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Narrative poetry has more in common with short stories than novels, in that it focuses on a specific topic. Generally, the bigger the action, the longer the poem; the smaller the action, the smaller the poem. No one wants to read a twenty page missive on the how you learned to tie your shoes. (Trust me.) A few stanzas should be sufficient. Tell the story you need to tell, and nothing more. While thinking of your story poem this is where you bring in three important words to guide you through the beginning, middle, to the end. “What happened next?”

Narrative poems generally have a theme that runs through them. The theme helps the poet choose the words and meter that will set the tone and emphasize the theme. An important aspect of setting the tone is the choice of POV presentation. If the story is about you, or is significant to you, first person POV may be your best bet. Your narrator mirrors your personality. Third person, or storyteller POV, allows the poet to distance him/herself from the story being told. The story may even be told second or third hand for effect. Part of the advantage of writing poetry is the ability to study a topic in many different forms, through different narrators. The death of a loved one can be examined through a variety of lenses from the intimate to the distant.

One way to write narrative poems (you may want to cover your eyes, writers) is to outline them. Yep, the dreaded outline is a useful tool in organizing a narrative poem. “But isn’t that like using a sledgehammer to smash a fly”? Not in my opinion. Any tool that helps bring definition to a piece of writing, and more importantly – enables me to write faster – is a good tool. You wouldn’t build a birdhouse without a blueprint, would you? (If your birds are living in Dali-esque housing, no need to answer.) Even something as simple as: What is my topic? What is my theme? Whose voice do I want to tell this story in? What is my beginning, middle, end? A sentence for each. Even a word or two for each, anything to make you consider the options before you write. Then, with the objectives firmly fixed in your mind, go forth and write the first draft.

Poetry, especially narrative poetry does not spring forth complete as if a child from the head of Zeus. I really wish it were so, but one of my favorite quotes by L. Sprague de Camp sums it up. “There is no mistaking the dismay on the face of a writer who has just heard that his brain child is a deformed idiot.” Revise, revise, revise, until you have the story that you wanted to tell, in a form that makes people want to read it. Lyric poetry wants to clue you in on the thoughts and feelings of the poet, hence the elegy, ode, and sonnet. Dripping, gooey with sentiment. Emotions are the driving force of lyric poems. It’s a big reason Plato and Aristotle thought poets had no place in their utopias. All those messy emotional appeals. Narratives might have had a chance; for narrative poetry it’s all about the story. Everything else is gravy.

The openings to some narrative poems.

Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!” he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Casey at the Bat by Ernest L. Thayer

The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day;
The score stood four to two with but one inning more to play.
And then when Cooney died at first, and Burrows did the same,
A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game.
A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast:
They thought if only Casey could but get a whack at that,
They’d put up even money now, with Casey at the bat.

The Shooting of Dan McGrew by Robert W. Service

A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune;
Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
And watching his luck was his light-o’-love, the lady that’s known as Lou.

When out of the night, which was fifty below, and into the din and the glare,
There stumbled a miner fresh from the creeks, dog-dirty, and loaded for bear.
He looked like a man with a foot in the grave and scarcely the strength of a louse,
Yet he tilted a poke of dust on the bar, and he called for drinks for the house.
There was none could place the stranger’s face, though we searched ourselves for a clue;
But we drank his health, and the last to drink was Dangerous Dan McGrew.

And a different take on the narrative-

‘Out, Out—’ by Robert Frost

The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,
Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.
And from there those that lifted eyes could count
Five mountain ranges one behind the other
Under the sunset far into Vermont.
And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,
As it ran light, or had to bear a load.
And nothing happened: day was all but done.
Call it a day, I wish they might have said
To please the boy by giving him the half hour
That a boy counts so much when saved from work.
His sister stood beside them in her apron
To tell them “Supper.” At the word, the saw,
As if to prove saws knew what supper meant,
Leaped out at the boy’s hand, or seemed to leap—
He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!
The boy’s first outcry was a rueful laugh,
As he swung toward them holding up the hand
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all—
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart—
He saw all spoiled. “Don’t let him cut my hand off—
The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him, sister!”
So. But the hand was gone already.
The doctor put him in the dark of ether.
He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath.
And then—the watcher at his pulse took fright.
No one believed. They listened at his heart.
Little—less—nothing!—and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Revision

So, you are overcome with the urge to pen a poem. You were inspired by the sunrise, sunset, your last date, the neighbor’s new puppy, the snow, footprints in the sand, a romantic movie, or [fill in your favorite inspiration here]. Words flow, flowery, full of adjectives and adverbs.

Alternatively, that last political debate got to you. You’re incensed by Trump, Clinton, Cruz, Sanders, Rubio, [choose your least favorite politician]. The latest news from Syria or Afghanistan inflames you, the last shooting disarms you. You are driven to your keyboard to unleash the rant to end all rants, damn it, and make sure they (whoever they are) see reason before it’s too late. Then you shape that rant into quatrains or couplets or a long train of free verse.

Either way, you’ve gotten your thoughts into a form you now call a poem.

We all know that great feeling of brainstorming a piece of verse, getting down all those things that have us swirling. And sometimes it feels like we have to send it out right now, before it cools off, before is loses its glow and we lose our nerve. A writer might be so anxious to call themselves a poet that they haven’t taken the time to read, to observe and settle into their thoughts, to probe and probe some more until a gem is discovered. The heat of the moment sweeps them away and takes their ability to discern good verse from knee-jerk reaction along with it.

Creating a decent poem is a process. Sometimes, it’s a long process that involves intense immersion in some relevant piece of the larger cultural conversation that goes on around us every moment. For example, we get plenty of submissions here at Gyroscope Review that recap some current event. We have received poems about hunger, poverty, refugees, David Bowie’s death, technology, and politicians. Those submissions mean something to the poets who sent them, but often those same submissions get rejected because they don’t do anything more than tell us what we already read online or in newspapers or heard on the evening news. They don’t take the reader deeper into a space where thoughtful and delicate teasing out of what this all could mean happens. Why is this important? Why has it captured the poet’s attention and why should the reader care? What are the larger metaphors and historical lessons? What does this say about humanity?

We also get plenty of submissions about love and loss and death and grief. Poets lay themselves open, reveal their hearts’ desires both realized and thwarted, and send it off. What often kills the piece for us is that there is nothing new in that poem. Nothing we haven’t seen. And then we wonder whether the submitter has read widely on these topics to see how other poets handle them. What separates the rejected work from the poems that see publication?

Revision. Revision. And revision.

Successful poems reflect life, and they also question it, probe it, turn it over and compare different facets. They keep their focus, but draw from a range of experiences and images. Successful poems respect the reader by offering ideas and feelings without telling the reader what to think. This does not happen in one sitting.

How do you get a poem from brainstorm to publication? Here is one suggested path.

1. After your brainstorm, let the poem sit for a while.

2. When you return to the piece, read it through and ask yourself what you want to focus on. You might have more than one poem in that brainstormed piece.

3. Do you need to do any research about your focus? This is particularly relevant when writing about current events. Make sure you know what you’re talking about and you understand the backstory. This can only add depth to the evolving poem.

4. It’s okay to throw in everything about that focus and then choose the strongest bits as you go through the revision process. Choose your imagery carefully and deliberately.

5. Once you have the images and overall idea you want to include, work on that language. Strong verbs. Few adjectives or adverbs. Take a hint from the poet Mary Oliver, who said, “Every adjective and adverb is worth five cents. Every verb is worth fifty cents.” (p. 90, A Poetry Handbook. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 1994.)

6. Does the language you chose fit the topic? Is it understandable, clear? Obscure poems don’t pull readers in. Poet Ted Kooser puts it well: “Poetry’s purpose is to reach other people and to touch their hearts. If a poem doesn’t make sense to anybody but its author, nobody but its author will care a whit about it.” (p. xi, The Poetry Home Repair Manual. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.)

7. Look at the line breaks and white space. Does the way the words flow mimic the feeling you want? Have you allowed space for the reader to pause and let the words sink in?

8. Does your ending answer or somehow return to what you offered up in the beginning of the poem? Is it strong or does it sort of dribble away?

9. Let the poem sit some more and return to step four.

10. Let someone else read the piece and comment. Do not freak out. We all need honest readers who will tell us what works and what doesn’t. Better for a reader to point out gaps and necessary tweaks than for an editor to reject your work; editors usually don’t tell you why.

11. Let the poem sit some more and return to step four.

12. Keep revising until it feels right. Mary Oliver claimed to revise her work 40-50 times. Don’t be afraid to toss out a poem that isn’t working.

13. If you’ve gotten this far, then what are you waiting for? Find somewhere to submit your revised work.

There are online writers communities and plenty of books that talk about the writing process, especially revision. All you have to do is Google either one. But the real work of writing happens when the writer is alone with the poem, when there is quiet space and time for creativity to show itself without competing for attention. Don’t be afraid to disconnect from the very world about which you write.

You just might surprise yourself.

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