Thursday, January 28, 2010

Guest Blog: Perfecting Poetry: 12 Tips for the Beginner

Today's guest blog is by my writing partner Carolyn Howard-Johnson.  Although we've never physically met (we live on different continents!), that hasn't stopped us from collaborating on a series of poetry chapbooks designed to replace trite greeting cards with real, deep sentiment.  We think it's a new concept for inexpensive holiday gifts. The chapbooks include Cherished Pulse, a book of love poetry, with beautiful artwork from Vicki Thomas, and She Wore Emerald Then, for mothers on your gift list, with photographs by May Lattanzio.  A new book titled Imagining the Future will be released shortly, just in time for Father's Day 2010, with further books in the works include a Christmas collection and one with a women's lib slant.   But enough from me, here's Carolyn, the poetry maven, to tell you how to perfect your own poetry.


I encourage my writing students to use some elements of poetry in their other writing and some elements of fiction and nonfiction in their poetry. The genres really aren't isolated. But mostly, I encourage them to try their hand at poetry, real poetry, the kind that comes from the heart. The first step is to make it less scary so they'll feel comfortable with it and these are my Twelve Tips for the Beginner.

  1. Try free verse (no intentional rhyming).
  2. Write dense, poetic prose, then divide it into lines—or not. If you don't, you'll have a prose poem.
  3. Break lines after important words. If you scan down the last words in each line of a poem, you should have a good sense of what the poem is about.
  4. Eliminate as many adjectives and adverbs as you can and strengthen your verbs. You poem will be more powerful.
  5. Eliminate as many of the clutter words as you can. Articles, conjunctions, even some prepositions.
  6. Try making different pictures on the page with the words. Your poem can be in triplets, couplets, indented unusually, even be set up in shapes. Try to make the design fit with the subject of your poem.
  7. Avoid long, Latinate words.
  8. Use images rather than explaining.
  9. Know metaphors, similes, assonance and alliteration. Play with them. Don't strain.
  10. If you want to rhyme, try to use uncommon ones. No moons and Junes.
  11. Read and write poetry even if you don't think you want to. You may be surprised at how much you like it. It’s changed a lot since your high school English Lit days.
  12. Buy a poetry book or chapbook at least once a year.  That gesture supports your learning curve and the arts and you may get inspired.  


Carolyn took up poetry late in life. After she wrote her award-winning novel This Is the Place, she realized she enjoyed metaphor, simile and symbol more than other aspects of fiction. She also found it easier to squeeze short periods of time for poetry into her writing schedule than large chunks of novel-writing time.
Howard-Johnson is the recipient of the California Legislature’s Woman of the Year in Arts and Entertainment Award, the Book Publicists of Southern California's Irwin Award and her community's Character and Ethics award for her work promoting tolerance with her writing. She was also named to Pasadena Weekly's list of 14 women of "San Gabriel Valley women who make life happen."

The author loves to travel and has studied at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom; Herzen University in St. Petersburg, Russia; and Charles University, Prague. She admits to carrying a pen and journal with her wherever she goes.  Her website is: and

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Largest Book in the World

Is bigger better?  The Guardian has published, for the first time ever, a picture of the world's biggest book - the Klencke Atlas, presented to Charles II on his restoration and now 350 years old, on display at the British Library.  The Atlas is 1.75 metres (5ft) tall and 1.9 metres (6ft) wide and takes 6 people to lift it. Try reading that on a Kindle...

Monday, January 25, 2010

Thank you Australia

It was 20 years ago today...that my husband and I arrived in Australia as wide eyed migrants.  It was Australia Day, and we didn't know it, so were pleased at the great reception of flags and parties which we thought were just for us.  20 years on and we're rooted here - a country whose welcome has turned into the sort of relaxed familiarity that means home.  Today we enjoyed several hours at the gorgeous Catherine Hill Bay beach (image shown) where we enjoyed, free of charges, surf, sun, sand and camaraderie (along with a superb lifeguard patrol). What a place. "It's wonderful to be here; it's certainly a thrill." Thanks Australia.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Besties: two of mine and lots of yours

I know that I've blogged on the silliness of all these "best books" lists that keep cropping up, but let's face it, we all like to share our favourites.  So here is a little (incomplete) compendium of the top ten list of top tens.  And just for the record, my own two 2009 faves include Paul Burman's The Snowing and Greening of Thomas Passmore (it was actually released in late 2008, but I read it in 2009), and Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Angel's Game. The latter isn't normally my cup of tea, but like Umberto Eco Zafón is something of a genre buster, and his writing moves way beyond any classifications like "thriller" or "mystery" (click on the link for my more detailed review).  As for Passmore, you can read my linked review for the full gushathon, but all I can say is that, a year on, lines still keep coming back to me.  I'm very excited that Paul Burman has reported another book about to be published shortly on his blog

Now for the others:
Guardian's Author Choice

New York Times
Washington Post
Readings Magazine
Huffington Post

Monday, January 18, 2010

Are you living creatively?

I've been taking a fascinating course on Overcoming Creative Anxiety from creativity maestro Eric Maisel (could this be procrastination?).  Time management is more of an issue for me than anxiety (I'm anxious that I'm struggling to manage my time though), but I have to say that I've been finding the course fascinating, especially about carving out, and honoring the creative space (you know, that time you put aside to write your novel that keeps getting interrupted).  Perhaps allowing and even inviting those interruptions is also driven by a form of anxiety and avoidance.  There are plenty of excellent no cost podcasts by Eric (who is, above all, intelligent and articulate) over at:  "On Being Too Nice" is my current favourite (and I guess a personal issue for me).  A very motivating form of procrastination.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Kurzweil invents the future (again...)

The Singularity Hub reports on Ray Kurzweil's stunning new ebook platform, the Blio.  Blio preserves the original format of books including typography and illustrations, in full color. It also takes advantage of Kurzweil's company's own high quality text to speech capabilities and supports animation and video content. The interesting thing for me is that authors can now begin thinking about how they might create with text, voice, music, image or video as part of the overall content package.  Providing audio and video options embedded in a book might mean a whole new medium for poetry.  I know that these things are already available, sometimes in patchy combination (.pdf will read to you, badly, and online books can incorporate multimedia elements), and I often play with these notions in performance, but having them in one attractive, portable package on any Netbook, iPhone, or e-reader is pretty cool.  Free too.  That's even nicer. Now if only Ray can invent some means of expanding time so we fit in time to create meaningful content for these new tools.  I know he's working on it. 

Friday, January 1, 2010

Love, Wonder and Evolution

The Tangled Bank is a new anthology, edited by Chris Lynch, which celebrates the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species.  The book contains over 100,000 words of fiction, poetry, artwork, and essays, including my poem "Expressions of the Emotions" written after Darwin's less-well-known book by the same name.  The Tangled Bank will launch on Darwin Day, 12th February, 2010.  More information on all contributors can be found at the website.