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A beginner's guide to writing poetry

UTSC lecturer Daniel Scott Tysdal's new book he Writing Moment: A Practical Guide to Creating Poems explores the art of crafting poetry. (Photo by Ken Jones)

Whether it’s writing a flowery sonnet, a complex ode or letting words fly through free verse, poetry can be a cathartic experience for amateur and professional alike. 

Daniel Scott Tysdal, award winning poet and creative writing lecturer at the University of Toronto Scarborough, explores the many opportunities that exist to create poetry in his new book The Writing Moment: A Practical Guide to Creating Poems.

He sat down with writer Don Campbell to share his advice on how to transform creative ideas into rich poetic verse.

Q. You talk about the importance of recognizing the occasions that inspire one to write poetry. What do you mean by that?

A. That inspiration can come from anywhere. Poetry isn’t limited to love or nature or depression. You can write about an iPod or a complex emotion, your trip to the store or the stories that are making international headlines. Related to this is the idea that poems are born out of occasions plural, not a single occasion. They arise out of a fertile meeting between insight, emotion, language and the world. In my book I talk about the tools and traditions of poetry through these occasions, which makes it both accessible to a beginner and useful for a more experienced poet.

Q. How important is learning form and technique, especially when it comes to learning from other poets?

A. We are surrounded by so many storytellers, whether it’s our friends, family, books, television, or the movies. So we are very adept at reading and creating quite sophisticated narratives. The way poetry allows us to sing and think and feel and imagine is just as essential to us as storytelling. But we often do not have the same daily experience with the tools and traditions of poetry. The key is to write freely and widely and to read just as freely and widely. As with anything, you will learn from your mistakes and you will learn by reading other poets with care, taking them as your teachers. Nothing beats the feeling of finding your poetic community and entering into conversation with it through your own work with words.

Q. Is there a danger of simply copying another poet’s style and of not developing your own unique voice?

A. The way I talk about this in The Writing Moment is the need to nurture the life in art and the art in life. Being a unique individual means your voice and perspective will shine through in your poetry. You will put your own spin on the poets you read and will nurture the life in art. At the same time one of the reasons we read poetry is for its beautiful music, striking phrasing and enthralling images. As poets, we learn to create these qualities and construct the art in life by writing like mad and reading other poets just as intensely.

Q. What is the unique distinguishing feature of The Writing Moment?

A. Before starting the book, I got my hands on a bunch of creative writing textbooks, more than fifty. There are a lot of great resources out there for beginning poets but what I found was that they were composed of long passages of explanation followed by some writing exercises. This structure did not jive with my experience as a teacher. The best way to teach is through hands-on experience. At the heart of this is a simple yet crucial lesson and that is practise precedes abstraction. The book guides poets through a series of hands-on writing moments that give them experience with a given tool, tradition, or concept. The definition and explanation of this tool, tradition or concept then follows. So, for example, the book prompts you to make a metaphor and then says, hey, you just made a metaphor and here’s what a metaphor is.

Q. Why is it important to have another set of eyes on your work?

A. When you’re starting out as poet, you tend to feel anxiety about going to workshops for two reasons. You worry that people will say mean things about your work and you worry that you don’t have any useful advice to give. However, once you take part in a workshop these worries are put to rest. You can learn a lot about your work and build your confidence in the process.  I encourage everyone to find their writing peers and form a writing group, even if the group can only meet once a month. This will give you incentive to write and allow you to see your work in a new way.

Q. What final advice would you give to someone thinking about taking up poetry?

A.  Keep a notebook and pen on you at all times and pay attention—with all your senses—at all times. You can use a cell phone, tablet, iPad, anything to take notes. Don’t be afraid to jot notes down in transit, at a meeting, or at the dinner table.  Put inspiration first.  And once you sit down to write, let yourself write, even if you fall on clichés. Don’t let your internal critic take over too soon. Another key is to write every day, even if just a little. This is how you nurture the emotional and intellectual breakthroughs, the aesthetic highs, which will serve as the foundation of your writing addiction.

© University of Toronto Scarborough