Saturday, July 13, 2019

Happy Summer!

Happy summer, everyone!

There’s a lot going on behind the blog this summer, and I’m happy to share with you that my next book, a collection of prose poems, has been accepted for publication by Welcome Rain Publishers (who did What Matters and A Lightness, A Thirst, or Nothing at All). Like the first two, the new book will be hard bound with a dust jacket. It will also contain some surprise features that I haven’t seen done before. The most exciting part is that production is moving along quickly: there’s a preliminary design for the front cover and, last night, I received the first pass text proofs.

And so, after just completing a manuscript preparation process for an especially gifted poet whom I coach privately, I now have to begin the task of proofreading my own book. It’s all wonderful but, as always, a little daunting at the same time. 
Other happy news is the publication of A Constellation of Kisses (edited by Diane Lockward and published by Terrapin Books). This collection of poems by dozens of distinguished poets is all about kisses: first and last kisses, hello and goodbye kisses, wanted and unwanted kisses, hot and cold kisses, unforgettable kisses, and many more. (One of my poems is included!) 

Check out the gorgeous cover!

I urge you to order now (in addition to being a great read and addition to your personal library, this book is a perfect gift for the special “kissers” in your lives (parents, boyfriends, girlfriends, partners, spouses, Valentines—anyone who has kissed and been kissed). 

With the new book demanding careful attention this summer, along with editorial duties for Tiferet’s upcoming autumn “Borders” issue, and planning an ekphrastic poetry retreat for September 28th (click here for retreat info), I’ve decided to take a brief hiatus during the last two weeks of this month and through August.

During that time, there are hundreds of prompts for you to explore, interesting articles, ideas and insights from a variety of poets, and lots of suggested reading in the blog archives. I hope you’ll take advantage of this time to discover and to write.

I wish you all a blessed, relaxing, healthy,
and very happy summer!

See you in September!


Saturday, June 22, 2019

Prompt #340 – The Letter I Never Received

Way back in the early days of this blog, I wrote a prompt about writing letters to ourselves. Strangely enough, that was blog post #40, and this prompt is #340! So ... here we are ... 300 prompts later!

Yesterday, while driving, an old song called “The Letter” came up on the radio (one of those “golden Oldies”—listen below), and I thought about important letters I’ve received and one or two that I wish had been sent to me but never were.

How often do we write letters these days? That is, real letters, not emails or text messages? Can a letter become a poem?

The challenge for this prompt is to write a letter poem from someone else, addressed to you. Think in terms of a letter that you never received but wish you had.

Suggestions and Tips:

1. Is there someone in your life with whom you have unfinished business? A relative or friend, former lover or spouse? In lieu of personal conversation, what would you like that person to say to you in a letter?

2. You might want to start with a free write and then begin to organize your thoughts from there. Be careful not to tell too much in your poem. Some details will be great, but don’t overdo, and don’t “tell” the whole story—leave something for your readers to imagine.

3. The body of your poem may be stichic (one long stanza) or may be composed of several stanzas.

4. Be on the lookout for prepositional phrases that you might remove (articles and conjunctions too).

5. The great author Mark Twain once wrote, “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when close together. They give strength when they are wide apart.” This is especially true in poetry. So ... as you work on a poem, think about adjectives and which ones your poem can live without. (Often the concept is already in the noun, and you don’t need a lot of adjectives to convey your meaning.)

5. Avoid clichés (and, while you’re at it, stay away from abstractions and sentimentality).

6. Show, don’t tell—through striking imagery, a strong emotional center, and an integrated whole of language, form and meaning.

7. Challenge the ordinary, connect, reveal, surprise! And … remember that a poem should mean more than the words it contains.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Prompt # 339 – Prose Poems (One Foot in Prose, the Other in Poetry)

“Which of us, in his ambitious moments, has not dreamed
of the miracle of a poetic prose,
musical, without rhyme and without rhythm,
supple enough and rugged enough to
adapt itself to the lyrical impulses of the soul,
the undulations of the psyche,
the prickings of consciousness?”

(from Petits Poèmes en Prose by Charles Baudelaire)

I recently conducted an all-day poetry prose poetry retreat for Tiferet Journal and prepared materials for the participants. I thought it might be interesting to share some of those materials with you here on the blog. There's a prompt for you at the end. Enjoy!


Although the term may appear contradictory (or an oxymoron), prose poem form is one that’s been around for a long time and is currently enjoying a renaissance of attention. A prose poem has one foot in prose and the other in poetry, but it commits completely to neither.  In the first issue of The Prose Poem: An International Journal, editor Peter Johnson explained, “Just as black humor straddles the fine line between comedy and tragedy, so the prose poem plants one foot in prose, the other in poetry, both heels resting precariously on banana peels.”

While prose poems are not defined by the line breaks (lineation) associated with poetry, they maintain a poetic quality and necessarily use techniques common to poetry. A typical prose poem is one that resembles prose in structure (paragraph form), but moves away from customary prose techniques in favor of poetry-like imagery and/or emotional effect. The prose poem’s allegiance to poetry is unmistakable in sonic impression, compression, internal rhyme, assonance, alliteration, figures of speech, and imagery. Prose poems may vary in length from a single paragraph to more than a page. All prose poems are presented in paragraphs with lines that break with the margins. Importantly, prose poem margins are justified (left and right whenever possible), and prose poems appear in blocks of language (or as “language in a box”). I like to think that prose poems exist in space in much the same way that sculpture does.

Prose poems may appear as paragraphs, but they lack the narrative structure of prose. Characterized by complete sentences and deliberate fragments, they are often metaphor and imagery driven, and they speak the dialect of dreams. Based in reality, they often give a nod to the surreal.

Prose poems should make sense, though they are often presented through highly poetic language, and they almost always stretch the boundaries of poetry and prose. A confusing mishmash of words, however, is not a prose poem (at least not what might be termed a good one).

By the same token, a prose poem is more than a narrative story told in a generic way; there is always a strong element of surprise in the language, always the unexpected. Prose poems are never ordinary pieces of writing.


Prose poetry can be traced back to the haibun , a Japanese form of prose poetry that became popular during the 17th century. Western prose poetry emerged in the early 19th century as a rebellion against traditional poetic structures. Poets such as Aloysious Bertrand, Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, and Stéphane Mallarmé used prose poetry as a way to defy the literary conventions of their day. Throughout the 19th century, poets continued to embrace the form.

Though examples of prose passages in poetic texts can be found in early Bible translations, in 17th century haibun, and other early writings, the advent of the form in the work of Aloysius Bertrand and Charles Baudelaire marked the most significant departure from the strict separation between the genres of prose and poetry. A particularly good example of the form is Baudelaire’s “Be Drunk,” which is included in the “Examples” section.

In terms of specific works, Louis-Jacques-Napoléon “Aloysius” Bertrand is credited with introducing prose poetry into French literature in 1842 with Gaspard de la Nuit. In 1869, Charles Baudelaire published Petits Poèmes en Prose (Little Poems in Prose) and gave prose poetry its name. The form was firmly established in France by Arthur Rimbaud (Illuminations, 1886) and Stéphane Mallarmé (Divagations, 1897), and interest spread throughout the literary world.

The new form carried into the 20th century, with American poets writing prose poetry in the 1950s and ‘60s, including Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Robert Bly, to name a few. Charles Simic won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1989 collection of prose poems, The World Doesn’t End.

Each group of writers adapted the form and developed their own rules and restrictions, ultimately expanding the definition of prose poems. Other prose poets involved include (among many others) Paul Fort, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams, Kenneth Patchen, John Ashbery, and Mark Strand. However, prose poetry was not embraced by all. T.S. Eliot opposed prose poetry, arguing that it lacked the rhythm and musical patterns of verse.


Although most poems are written in verse, structure alone does not define poetry. When we take other elements of poetry and then reshape the writing into sentences and paragraphs, that’s how we get prose poetry.

According to Wikipedia, “a prose poem appears as prose, reads as poetry, yet lacks line breaks associated with poetry but uses … fragmentation, compression, repetition and rhyme and…poetry symbols, metaphor, and figures of speech.

The prose poem takes advantage of its hybrid nature — it avails itself of the elements of prose (what Dryden called “the other harmony of prose”) while foregrounding the devices of poetry. Prose poetry may best be considered as neither primarily poetry nor prose but essentially a fusion of the two, and is considered a separate genre.

Why Write Prose Poems?

Why would a poet choose sentences and paragraphs over the traditional structure of verses and stanzas?

Maybe the poet doesn’t want to be bound by lineation or traditional poetic forms. Maybe the spontaneity and drive of the sentence appeals to him or her. Maybe the clearly delineated boundaries of poetic form have become restrictive, but the poet loves poetic language and various poetic techniques. Or, maybe the poet is just plain tired of writing in the same format and wishes to try something different—a change of pace.

Why any poet writes prose poems depends on what their poems need to say, as well as on the poet’s personal creative vision. Such vision might involve a block of text that is dense rather than the wispier structure of lines and stanzas. A poem might tell an abstract story that the poet feels is better presented in paragraphs as opposed to verse because paragraphs result in a different flow than lines and stanzas, and the prose structure might provide the reader with a better feel for the rhythm of a poem. But who needs reasons, right?

 Things to Keep in Mind

A prose poem is a poem that:  

1. resembles prose—a type of open-form poem presented in paragraphs with lines that break with the margins creating a box-like appearance (they have been called “poems in a box”),

2. is presented in prose form but is much more then mere prose—it should never be flat, didactic, or preachy,

3. contains both complete sentences and intentional fragments,

4. is strongly image-based,

5. is rooted in reality, but often gives a nod to the surreal,

6. uses sonic impression, internal rhyme, assonance, alliteration, and figures of speech,

7. sometimes uses paragraphs in place of stanzas (more than one paragraph in much the same way that a lined poem has more than one stanza).

8. appears as a small justified block of text in which poetic (and sometimes weird) “things” happen—there is always something of the unexpected in a prose poem,

9. formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm

10. varies sentence length and construction.

Prose poems are not:

1. simple narratives,

2. flash fiction (or any kind of short story poems),

2. memoirs,

3. to be taken only at face value,

4. prose without poetic sensibilities,

5. poems without obvious poetic qualities, including intensity, compactness, prominent rhythms, and imagery,

6. preachy or didactic,

7. a mishmash of rambling words,

8. beyond understanding—they may require considerable thought, they may be “odd,” but they have meaning and often mean more than the words they contain,

9. defined by lineation,

10. ordinary in any sense of the word.

Prose Poem Examples

Be Drunk
By Charles Baudelaire

You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it—it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.

But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”

From Modern Poets of France: A Bilingual Anthology, translated and edited by Louis Simpson, published by Story Line Press, Inc.
Copyright © 1997 by Louis Simpson.

Warning to the Reader
By Robert Bly

Sometimes farm granaries become especially beautiful when all the oats or wheat are gone, and wind has swept the rough floor clean. Standing inside, we see around us, coming in through the cracks between shrunken wall boards, bands or strips of sunlight. So in a poem about imprisonment, one sees a little light.

But how many birds have died trapped in these granaries. The bird, seeing the bands of light, flutters up the walls and falls back again and again. The way out is where the rats enter and leave; but the rat’s hole is low to the floor. Writers, be careful then by showing the sunlight on the walls not to promise the anxious and panicky blackbirds a way out!

I say to the reader, beware. Readers who love poems of light may sit hunched in the corner with nothing in their gizzards for four days, light failing, the eyes glazed. . . . They may end as a mound of feathers and a skull on the open boardwood floor . . .

From What Have I Ever Lost by Dying? Harper Collins, 1992

[my father is ashes]
By Renée Ashley

We are electric I know our conductor He is a very sad man We are not in a field of cosmos We are not is a field I’m only telling you that when the message leaves the body I do not know what to make of the world I make you up from the little I know with almost with soon Is it possible the thing I love most is guilt or that you are gone? We are such pain and we are utterance We are a strange thing in the air You are so imperfectly dead
From Because I Am the Shore, I Want to Be the Sea, Subito Press, 2013, all rights reserved.

Three Prose Poems
By Charles Simic

        The city had fallen. We came to the window of a house drawn by a madman. The setting sun shone on a few abandoned machines of futility. "I remember," someone said, "how in ancient times one could turn a wolf into a human and then lecture it to one's heart's content."


         He had mixed up the characters in the long novel he was writing. He forgot who they were and what they did. A dead woman reappeared when it was time for dinner. A door-to-door salesman emerged out of a backwoods trailer wearing Chinese robes. The day the murderer was supposed to be electrocuted, he was buying flowers for a certain Rita, who turned out to be a ten-year-old girl with thick glasses and braids. . . . And so it went.
         He never did anything for me, though. I kept growing older and grumpier, as I was supposed to, in a ratty little town which he always described as "dead" and "near nothing."


         My father loved the strange books of André Breton. He'd raise the wine glass and toast those far-off evenings "when butterflies formed a single uncut ribbon." Or we'd go out for a piss in the back alley and he'd say: "Here are some binoculars for blindfolded eyes." We lived in a rundown tenement that smelled of old people and their pets.
         "Hovering on the edge of the abyss, permeated with the perfume of the forbidden," we'd take turns cutting the smoked sausage on the table. "I love America," he'd tell us. We were going to make a million dollars manufacturing objects we had seen in dreams that night.

These three poems originally appeared in The Western Humanities Review (vol. 42, #1) and The World Doesn’t End: Prose Poems (Harcourt, 1990).

Earth Ruin
By Mercedes Lawry
​Only wings remain, no birdsong. The choked river is a psalm of sludge. The moon is but scuffed glass. Gone are stanzas, equations, instinct. Like any apocalypse, there were warnings, tiny threads and filigree, dismissive, derisive, lies laced with pomp and bluster. Poppies burst into red splatter, trees of aching brown, the charcoal stink of the yellowed creek. Cacophony in dialect. Elemental, the last sounds, the final hush of a gutted earth.

From Eastern Iowa Review, Issue 6

By Travis Truax

​You live on the edges of learning, of gaining, of leaving. You live on the fringes, the fabric of life-gone-by. And what do you get? You get the ruddy distances in the desert west, you get memory. You get your mother picking you up from school. You get your grandmother’s tea. You get the crude, rock-drawn novel of where you’ve been. It all returns on the coattails of going, of coming. A carapace of what lasts. The ecotone, the place between. Transition. An estuary, a reed bed, the space between biomes. A blend. You feel, always, the tension of what you walk away from long after it’s gone. That lag in time. The river, trying to understand salt. The salmon somehow understanding both.

From Eastern Iowa Review, Issue 6

La Feria
By Naomi Shihab Nye
Here comes the woman who never looks up with one little girl riding her hip in a shawl and one slinking alongside. The man who fathered these babies is hard to find. He is usually sleeping with the woman he loved before this one who doesn t feel bad about it because she had him first. He is ugly but creative. He has designed buildings in town no one wants to enter because they feel heavy. The first woman says he will marry the second one sooner or later and that will be fine with her. If he says it is time. When the little girls ride a carnival car at La Feria they grip the steering wheel tightly and don t wave. All the other children circle round and round, smiling as the tiny breeze ruffles their hair. They are going on long trips, they say. But these two look grim as if they are staying in one place. 

           From The Prose Poem: An International Journal


Are you ready to try writing a prose poem?

1. For starters, think in terms of a single paragraph as your goal for this prose poem. Approach your subject knowing that you won’t be concerned with meter, stanzas, or line breaks. Your prose poem will take the shape of a paragraph (be sure to justify both the left and right margins when you type your poem), and it will contain complete sentences and sentence fragments.

2. For content: think about a particular image that remains clear in your memory.

3. Now think about how that image entered your memory. Where were you?  Was anyone with you? What happened? How did you feel?

4. Write a paragraph based on the image and about the experience. Bear in mind that your poem’s “muscle” will lie in the strength of your sentences. You will need to express thoughts and subtleties in ways that might be hampered by line breaks.

5. Pay particular attention to poetic devices (simile, metaphor, alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme, repetition, onomatopoeia, symbolism). Focus on describing the image and your feelings.

6. You may tell a story, but remember that the storyline is second to the language you use to tell it. There are two caveats.

     A. Your prose poem shouldn’t read like a diary entry.
     B. Be careful not to go over the top with poetic devices and poetic language. 


Use poetic elements of imagery, meter, alliteration and metaphor to create pictures in your reader’s mind.

Read what you write out loud to see if it appeals to your internal reader’s sense of hearing

Remember that prose poems don’t function in a linear, logical manner, and write accordingly.
Almost all written language has some form of rhythm. As you read your prose poems aloud to yourself, try to “hear” their lyrical flow.

Poetry requires compressed use of language. You must get to the point to hook your reader. Include only those details that are most important. Use your prose poem’s space carefully.

Metaphors (and similes) can power your poem and buttress meaning. Remember that metaphor enhances meaning in a concise way, so exercise restraint in using them. Too many metaphors, like too many obscurities, can spoil a poem.

Make your language remarkable—that doesn’t mean that you should use a lot of words or lofty (academic) diction. Simply use the best, most accessible, and most evocative words you can. 


Ten Prose Poem Books that You Might Enjoy

·      The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem: From Baudelaire to Anne Carson
By Jeremy Noel-Tod

·      Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present
By David Lehman

·      An Introduction to the Prose Poem
By Brian Clements and Jamey Dunham

·      The American Prose Poem: Poetic Form and the Boundaries of Genre
By Michel Delville

·      The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry: Contemporary Poets in Discussion and Practice
By Gary L. McDowell and F. Daniel Rzicznek

·      Models of the Universe: An Anthology of the Prose Poem (1842 – 1995 / 1995, Field)
Edited by Stuart Friebert

·      The Illuminations
By Arthur Rumbaud (Translation by John Ashbury)

·      The World Doesn't End
By Charles Simic

·      Because I Am the Shore I Want to Be the Sea
By Renee Ashley

·      A Lightness, A Thirst, or Nothing at All
By Adele Kenny

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Prompt #338 – 25 Words

This week, the challenge is to write a poem in 25 words or less—any style, any form, but not a haiku. It’s that simple!


Note: in keeping with the idea, the prompt for this week only contains 25 words!


First Fig
By Edna St. Vincent Millay

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!

By Anaïs Nin

And then the day came,
when the risk
to remain tight
in a bud
was more painful
than the risk
it took
to Blossom.

The Red Wheelbarrow
By William Carlos Williams

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

Saturday, May 11, 2019

When Is a Poem Finished?


My most current manuscript, which I called “completed,” sat on my desk for well over a year. Every time I picked it up, I found something to change; at readings, I heard things that didn’t sound quite right, and I made more changes. Happily, my publisher accepted the manuscript a week or two ago, and the last nerve-wracking round of edits is nearing completion—I mean, it is, isn't it? 

It’s not surprising that I’ve been thinking about Paul Valérys statement that a poem is never finished, only abandoned. At what point does a poet stop and say, “This poem is completed.” I can’t remember ever consciously doing that, and my question is, “Exactly how does a poet know when to stop writing and editing a poem?”

For me, poems are ideas with wings—they move about quite a lot, and the fluttering usually generates a need to see where they want to go—the process takes me with it and it takes time. I try to give my poems a lot of time and space. Most often, I put a poem aside after several drafts and come back to it later (sometimes much later—I actually found one last week that I started in 2006 and “lost”). In most cases, my imagination is a step or two ahead of me, and I keep going back, putting aside, and going back again. Drafts and redrafts can number in the dozens for me, and I still find myself viewing the work from different angles and making changes. First and last lines are usually the most challenging—how to enter and leave a poem—how to invite the reader in and what to leave with the reader.

I have to admit that when I re-read my published poems months or years after publication, I’m sometimes horrified to think I let them go into the world as they are, and I edit them on their pages in the books or journals in which they appear. I thought I was a little weird about this practice until I read that Robert Lowell was famous for revising after his poems were published and even took his pen into bookstores where he edited right there.

The best strategy I’ve discovered is to read poems in process aloud to myself because it enables me to hear places where the poems breathes and sings, where the music stops, where images miss the intended mark, and where over-writing begins. I don’t imagine that many of us experience Yeatsian moments when, after revisions, “a poem comes right with a click like a closing box.” It must be wonderful, but it’s almost never that simple or easy for me.

With all of this in mind, I sent an inquiry to several poet friends whose work I respect and admire and asked them to answer the question,” How do you know when a poem in finished?” Their responses follow, but before you read on, here’s a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye that addresses our subject.

How Do I Know When a Poem Is Finished?

When you quietly close
the door to a room
the room is not finished.

It is resting. Temporarily.
Glad to be without you
for a while.

Now it has time to gather
its balls of gray dust,
to pitch them from corner to corner.

Now it seeps back into itself,
unruffled and proud.
Outlines grow firmer.

When you return,
you might move the stack of books,
freshen the water for the roses.

I think you could keep doing this
forever. But the blue chair looks best
with the red pillow. So you might as well

leave it that way.

How do you know when a poem is finished?

The Poets’ Responses

Donna Baier Stein:

That’s a tough question to answer! Even after a poem is published I will sometimes make changes when I am reading the poem out loud at an event. So in that sense, it’s never completely finished! But there is a visceral feeling, after working for weeks, months, or even years on a poem, that I get when I feel like I’ve caught what I intended the poem to convey. It’s almost like the closing of a lid, or a sigh of completion. It’s that moment when, to my ear, the poem sounds right and true.


Maria Mazziotti Gillan:

I have to say that, for me, I am often wrong about when a poem is finished. I work on it a long time and then I think it’s ready for the world, but if a few weeks go by and I read it out loud, I can tell that a line is off and that it needs to be changed. Sometimes, I don’t notice when there are lines that I’ve repeated or “wrong” words that I’ve used until several weeks go by. I admit that sometimes even after a poem is published, when I get up to read it to an audience, I will spot things that I didn’t realize before; and often in my books that are my reading copies, I make changes years after the poem was first published. I don’t feel that I’ve abandoned poems but more that I need to see them with new eyes as time goes on and to hear them with new ears as well.

Poetry Website: 


Joe Weil:

I don’t really abandon poems (though I forget them) and the usual line is “poems aren’t finished, just abandoned.” I keep writing until I no longer feel I am in the poem. Then I step back, and squint at it, the way a painter might squint at a painting to see its overall effect. Then I leave it alone for two weeks and go back and read it. While I wrote it, I kept going back to the beginning and reading it, so the poem has been read by me maybe twenty times in different phases. But now is different. After two weeks, it doesn’t feel like my poem anymore exactly, and I see where its “parent” forgot to take the tag off the pants, and left the child wearing the cuff of the pants caught on a sock, and how there was a mustard stain on the shirt I’d chosen (almost gone but not quite). And I feel sad, very sad because the poor kid is going to get mocked if I let him go out like that. I change the shirt or tuck it in more where the stain doesn’t show, and I take the cuff out of the sock, and put just a little spit on my hand to flatten out a wayward cow’s lick (but not too much) and more or less make sure the kid is presentable. I don’t dress my poems fancy, so a comfortable lived-in look is what I’m going after. Here’s the scary thing: sometimes I forget to go back and re-read the poem and I never read it again or think about it. Years later, while in a panic about some other poem, I stumble over it. My poem has grown up without me. I either like it or I am sorry I sired it. I lose more poems than I revise. My favorite part of poetry is the writing, and sometimes the revision. Because I read the poems so many times while I am writing them, I always almost have them memorized and that means, even if I lose a poem, parts of it, a part here or there, still hang out in my brain. Those are usually the parts that should be in the world. I wrote 20 versions of “Morning at the Elizabeth Arch”—including one as a Pantoum and another as a sonnet. The final version is in on Rattle’s web site. I do re-takes, not just revisions. To me this should have a sense of dress up and play. When you’ve put together the right ensemble, you know your child can walk out the door, get a lover, and put you in a nursing home when you grow old and annoying. Then the poem is done, John Donne.

Ed Romond:

When I first became serious about writing poetry I attended a lot of workshops where I received feedback on my initial drafts. I considered my poem “finished” if and when the group, especially the leader, considered it a completed poem. As years went on I became more and more a self-editor although there were and continue to be certain friends I share my drafts with for their take on them. These days I read my drafts out loud to myself to hear how they “sound” and to discern if there is dead language that is impeding the poem’s impact. I think I pay more attention now to how I conclude a poem and might decide to change an earlier moment in the poem that will be more congruent with the ending.  Finally, even though I read my drafts out loud to myself I find presenting it at a public reading gives me a strong indication about the poem’s completeness or, in some cases, its need for some further work.


Laura Boss:

For me, I almost instinctively know when a poem I’m writing is finished. Maybe because I’m basically an intuitive poet (whatever that may mean to different poets), I invariably hear a click in my head that says “finished.  Sometimes the intellectual part of me wants to add more details to finish it off (and at times I have), but mostly when I hear that mental “click,” (often at a place of impact), I know the poem is finished.


Bob Rosenbloom:

Aside from “never really finished,” I’d like to try and get onto paper the reason why I was drawn or attracted to the poem in the first place. Does the poem get to that point anywhere at all? Are there enough moving parts? Does it click? Can I trim the language, use more striking words, if not vocabulary, polish it up, use some irony, twist it, tweak it. Sometimes, the poem isn’t going to happen, which happens enough. Possibly, I’m too lazy or it’s not such a great idea to begin with. Does the poem get off the launching pad? If I write about a parent, does this poem add to what I’ve already written about them or should that matter?

These are good questions, which I should ask more often. Usually, if I stop writing it’s because I get a general sense I don’t like the poem as much as I thought I would and I should quit while I’m ahead. That’s where writers say keep a notebook. I don’t keep a notebook but it’s probably a good idea. I try to keep an idea in my head but that doesn’t always work.

On the other hand, Saul Bellow said somewhere that we become writers because we liked reading something and feel we could do something like that, repeat a good experience for someone else. Why not?


Tony Gruenewald:

I like to take the poem for a test drive in front of an audience at an open reading. I can read it aloud at home, but for some reason I get a better feel for the rhythm and breath of the poem in front of people. I also immediately hear what goes clunk to refine the sounds and rhythms. And sometimes someone in the audience hears something, for better or worse, that I don’t hear. A fellow poet once resurrected a poem I’d written off as too obscure and it ended up receiving a Pushcart nomination.


Renée Ashley:

I do many, many drafts, usually, and the last drafts are oral. I read it out loud, and, if it reads as I’d like it, I read it into a recorder and play it back. I do this a couple of times.  It’s astounding what I catch listening to those recordings. And if I’m changing even a single word or punctuation mark I have to start all over again to assess the whole. And I’d say that I’m aiming to make the language precise and sonically seamless—or, if I’m going for crots, let them have their way (as long as their way is my way)—and that I need to feel a smooth closure that allows me to exit the poem while I still feel I’m pondering the issue or have what may only be a sense of slipping out of the poem but only with a resonant egress. Something needs to be hanging in the air when a poem’s done. No answers nailed down; perhaps a hovering sense of approaching understanding of one thing or another. Something like that. Of course, every time you write a poem it’s the first time you’re writing that particular poem, so you’re a novice every time—who knows what’s going to happen? All this is my ideal composition, though—and how often do we approach our ideal?


Nancy Lubarsky:

You don’t always know.  Sometimes you are on a deadline and you have to end it, finished or unfinished.  Sometimes it is too painful to continue and you have to just leave it. Or you write yourself into a corner and don’t know where to go.  If everything is working (and what a great feeling when it is), you finish the last line or the last edit, and you say, “Yes, yes, yes ... this is it.  This is what I wanted to say and the way I wanted to say it!” 


A big THANK YOU to all the poets who contributed their thoughts
(and their time) to this post!
I’ve included links to their websites and/or recently published books.
Please be sure to visit them online!