Dear Linda Gregerson,
My name is Avery. I am in the 10th grade and study literary arts in Petersburg, Virginia. My freshman year I took a creative writing class that let me explore four genres of writing: nonfiction, fiction, poetry and screenwriting. Despite not having written many poems at that point I found poetry one of my favorite genres to write in and something I desired to improve upon. This year I am taking Poetry I and am thoroughly enjoying manipulating language and approaching things in a new and creative way.
One of the things I struggle with and see poets my age struggle with is avoiding cliches and sounding too angsty when approaching certain topics such as love, heartbreak, and like in your poem “Prodigal,” self harm and body image. I’ve also just started out experimenting with more creative line breaks and was wondering why you chose to break the lines the way that you did. I think it flows really well and I love the way the breaks carry the thought to the next stanza. Do you have any advice for making your breaks stronger? I’d love to improve upon this.
Senior year each lit major at my school has to compile a portfolio of their work and present at something we call “Senior Readings.” The thought of doing this is quite intimidating to me. While I’ve gotten used to sharing my work with my peers, am I worried about sharing my writing with my family and speaking in front of a large audience. While I understand your poem “Prodigal” could have easily been a work of fiction, I imagine you have shared many personal poems in your life. How do you find comfort in sharing such a vulnerable side of yourself with such a vast amount of people?
Avery (a writer in distress)
Thank you for your letter and your very thoughtful questions. I can tell you have the makings of a real poet!
First, the question about line breaks: I love the way you focus on the issue of momentum, or carry-over from one stanza to the next. I always think about poetic lineation and syntax (the subject-verb-object part, which is really another kind of movement) as two aspects of a single whole. They fight it out sometimes, line break working against the logic of phrase and sentence or the natural connection of verb to object, adjective to noun. And sometimes they agree to agree, the line break coming just where the syntactical phrase would naturally end. It’s the tension between those two—lineation and syntax—and the variable proportions between resistance and agreement that make for musical pacing in the poem. As you also no doubt noticed, I tend to go for repeating stanza patterns. When I begin a poem, I try out lots of different patterns for the stanza until I find one that feels right. Then I either repeat it exactly again and again or, as in “Prodigal,” I devise regular alterations of that pattern.
As to the question of reading in public (with the even scarier proposition of having family members in the audience), that can be quite daunting. I do write personal poems; “Prodigal” is one of them. And the poet truly is in a vulnerable position when s/he shares a poem with a group of known and unknown people. Do practice in advance—it helps. Make sure you don’t drop your voice at the end of lines or sentences. Make sure to pronounce your consonants so that everyone can understand you. And beyond these technical points, try to think of the poem as both your friend and your protection. That is, even if the material is personal, it is no longer *merely* personal when you have made it into a poem: it has been transformed. It is now a made thing. And it needs to be the object of your primary loyalty when you are reading it to an audience. You *owe* that poem. It will also be a friend to you: you have made it with all the skill and thoughtfulness and rigor you can muster, so now you can stand behind it in both senses of the phrase.
Good luck with your continued writing! And good luck, two years from now, with that senior reading.
Very best wishes—