Eight tips for new poets from West Virginia's poet laureate

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Eight tips for new poets from West Virginia's poet laureate
Marc Harshman, poet laureate of West Virginia, is providing tips for the budding poet in all West Virginians.

(Editor's Note: Ever think of writing poetry? We've asked Marc Harshman, the of West Virginia, to provide a few tips to help new poets move forward. As the 2020 COVID-19 epidemic is leading many people to isolate, we thought it might be an ideal time to help nurture the poet in each of us.)

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Don’t worry. Be happy, or, rather, just be—happy or sad, angry or scared. Worry or don’t worry, but be. Be present—and do. Scribble words down without forethought, and let them simply lead you forward. Call this cathartic or cleansing. Do not here concern yourself with meaning.

A corollary that seems to grow out of this first and becomes a second point is—don’t concern yourself overmuch with form if that inhibits you. Likewise, if form helps you, well, then don’t worry, and write for yourself a straight, strict Shakespearean sonnet—or rondeau or limerick or triolet. Need inspiration for your sonnet? Follow along with Patrick Stewart’s reading of them all during this time of pandemic. And triolet? Because I just like saying the word aloud.

Don’t write, but walk. Yes, whether it is around the room, around the house, around the yard, around the neighborhood—albeit this latter whilst maintaining social distance. But, the point is to let your feet lead, and let your mind surrender, and follow. Let your mind be not inward but outwards, and then, afterward, take up your pen or pencil or place your now eager fingertips overtop of the keypad and let flow.

Immerse yourself in the poetry of others, be it a poet you like or even a poet you don’t like. Obviously, there are poets and poems that set you on fire, that give deep comfort, melt your heart, steel your courage. Well, let them do that, and let your own words pour forth in response, in an imitation of spirit or even of direct form.

As for my suggesting poets you don’t like or get, it may sound crazy, but for many years now I have drawn inspiration of a sort from poets I either don’t quite ‘get’ or even poets I really don’t much like, but somehow the challenge or even irritation they present to me makes me grab a fistful of words and go charging forward with my own work in reaction.

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Discipline? Yes, take on discipline. I don’t mean some kind of blood-drawing flagellation; there’s surely enough suffering right now, be it the actualities of life-threatening illness to the near-universal suffering of fear and anxiety. No, simply take up a discipline you’ll define yourself but that likely will include some kind of regularity. Write once a day for ten minutes, for a half-hour, for an hour, whichever.

For many, having the same place, same time, same notebook and pen, same lamp as company for your laptop on your lap—this sameness seems to help. And this regularity might include various other self-invented rituals. Maybe you want to start with a period of reading from your favorite poet or a poet that irritates you. Maybe it starts with listening to music, watching a dance. Maybe it follows that walk.

Another corollary point rises up here, and that’s simply to let the other arts inspire you—often a starting point for my work throughout my life. As I tell young writers, immerse yourself in all the arts. I’ll leave you with this bit of advice given to a young girl named Alice:

"Alice" illustration by John Tenniel

“There is no use trying,” said Alice, “I cannot believe impossible things.”

“I dare say you haven’t had much practise,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

—Lewis Carroll, from ALICE IN WONDERLAND


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