“How to Write a Poem,” chapter 1

(Pre-Script: I really love the poem that opens this chapter, “To a Poet, For a Poem” by Jennifer Wagner.)

As with Tania Runyan’s companion book, “How to Read a Poem,” this one is also organized around Billy Collins’ poem titled “introduction to poetry.” The first chapter is about getting started.

“In fact, I recommend starting without a poem at all.”

Instead, she says to start with freewriting.

“I use it when I begin essays, fiction, and, always, poetry.”

I started doing this a little more than a year ago. What started as a journal got too maudlin, and so I veered into freewriting. Now my columns, my poems, even the intros and conclusions to articles usually emerge in my freewriting.

As I said in my last post, I wanted to write about the day my brother planted a cross beside the highway where my cousin died. In Runyan’s book, she shares her freewriting followed by several drafts of the resulting poem. I’ll do the same here. One of Runyan’s prompts was “a roadside oddity,” which will eventually become the title of my poem.

It’s not a roadside oddity. There’s nothing odd about seeing a cross on a Texas highway. Although this one is not in some dead man’s curve or at the edge of a cliff. It’s just past mile marker 95 on I-27. Miles of flat pasture, so flat you can see the curve of the earth. How could anything happen here? How do you crash when there’s nothing to run into? And the cross—not white but made from grapevine. Brown. Adorned with tacky fake flowers, which, he told me, he tore off and threw away. Bare brown. Rising above the parched October grass. “Careful. There could be snakes,” he says. But there’s no water. Is it a dry county or only partially wet? The sky is white, clouds streaked across like someone poured all the water into the white and thinned it and painted over what had to be a better blue. Tire tracks lead nowhere. “Do not cross” the sign says. We cross. We walk unshielded, unbidden and plant a cross where nothing grows. 


  1. I’m so glad you are doing this! I think I will have to buy this book.

  2. Fayma Drummond says

    Megan, without question, this brought tears. And, without question, many things; memories, laughter, pictures, seeing loving family and friends, not seeing loving family and friends, Jaxson, — and the list goes on — bring tears. But I search for happy times, sometimes find them, sometimes not. One of the happy times was just yesterday. A conversation that Jaxson and I were having led to him saying that his mother was no longer living. My response, somewhat tearfully and somewhat happily, was that his mother was living, but in heaven with Jesus rather than here with us. His response: “And she is living in my heart and she always will.” Is it clear to anyone other than myself how this brought tears and happiness at the same time?

  3. Megan, I look forward to seeing the way this poem takes shape. (btw, Jennifer Wagner was a guest at our Seattle Mischief Cafe w/Ms. Laura Barkat….a local friend of mine.) I will forward this post to her.

  4. I just started this book. Here’s what I ended up with at the end of chapter 1:

    My mother used to get Lillian Vernon catalogues,
    the ones with weird inventions that attempted to make life
    more convenient and efficient, like the slitted toothpaste caps
    you didn’t have to unscrew. No mess, it claimed.

    Another tooth-brushing accessory: tube squeezers.
    Now everyone has to squeeze from the bottom.

    The fireplace was probably Mom’s favorite part
    of the house. She bought sprinkles that made the flames
    burn in different colors. (We discovered later that
    glossy newspaper ads burned in those same colors.)

    My favorite gadget she bought, which the catalogue touted
    as environmentally friendly and convenient, was
    the newspaper log roller. (‘No need to cut down trees!”
    No need to recycle your newspapers!”) Decades before it was
    common knowledge that “reuse is better than recycle”
    Mom bought the imposing contraption, all black
    with a roller handle. Put in sheet
    after sheet from the newspaper pile, crank the handle,
    and make your own logs.

    But they didn’t ignite well. The roller was too efficient.
    Fire needs air to burn, but the papers were altogether
    too miserly, being rolled all tight like that, and the flames
    choked out after every layer of newsprint. The happenings
    of weeks and months of yesterdays
    don’t easily burn away in ashes.