“How to Write a Poem,” chapter 5

This chapter of Tania Runyan’s book is about the ah-ha moment in a poem. Or, as Billy Collins puts it in “introduction to poetry”

or walk inside the poem’s room

and feel the walls for a light switch

Runyan calls that moment “magic.” She also uses the word “surprise.” It’s the moment when you finally find the light switch.

“You, poet, should be surprised by your own work.”

I think most writers know this feeling, whether they’re poets or not. It’s that moment when you find yourself in unexpected territory, and even if you can’t articulate why, you know you’re on holy ground.

Recently, we attended a production of the play “Greater Tuna” along with a discussion led by one of the show’s creators and original performers, Jaston Williams. The show is largely a comedy, with enough jokes and gags to offend pretty much everyone in the audience. But there is a moment that usually does not offend people—it’s when the play takes a very dark turn. It seems to come out of nowhere, yet it feels completely justified. I think that scene in the funeral parlor is one reason “Greater Tuna” is the most-produced play in the United States. Jaston Williams said the scene just sort of sprang up in the midst of writing a bunch of loosely connected comedic sketches. It ties everything together.

I haven’t yet figured out how to tie everything together in my poem, to make that light come on in this dark room. The editor in me decided to look up whether either Potter or Randall county is dry, and neither is. (For you non-Texans, a dry county or precinct is one in which sales of alcohol are illegal.) I also don’t know anything about snakes in the Panhandle, so I chased that one for a while too. Not sure if my innate need to fact-check is killing my poetic instincts.

Here’s draft No. 4 of my poem.

Roadside Oddity (#4)

There’s nothing odd

about a wee white cross

in a dry Texas county.

Tire tracks dissolve


into pasture streaked by yellow tape;

“Do Not Cross.” We cross

drought-bleached grass

sift debris. The earth


curves away. We plant

a cross—entwined grapevines

rise toward ivory sky.

Prairie wind lifts our zephyr skirts.


  1. Fayma Drummond says

    Loving them all!!

  2. It’s getting better and better – and I loved the first edition.

  3. Megan,

    I know what you mean by the “surprise,” and “holy ground.” These lines in your poem surprised me:
    “into pasture streaked by yellow tape;

    “Do Not Cross.”

    And “Prairie wind lifts our zephyr skirts.” Thanks 🙂

  4. This is amazing and unexpected: I actually did surprise myself!

    Anyway, I thought to delete the first part about the flame-coloring crystals and make the poem about just the log roller. But I just couldn’t let go of the word tulle, so I brought it back around to the end. Here’s my chapter 5 revision:


    My mother favored the fireplace.
    She scattered sprinkles to color the flames
    into fluid movements, like dancers in
    jewel-toned tulle.

    Mom’s newspaper log roller intrigued us
    at first. We cranked the matte-black handle
    and tucked sheet after sheet

    after sheet between the rollers.
    Newsprint ink smudged into depressions

    in our fingerprints. The novelty,
    like last week’s headlines, got old.

    Flames didn’t take on the pages
    rolled too tight. The fire choked out

    before the next layer of news.
    The happenings of weeks and months

    of yesterdays don’t easily burn
    away in ashes. Give me back

    the colored crystals. Shake them over
    a porous, axe-chopped log. Turn
    the breathing flames
    into a rainbow again.

    • Monica! Way to trust your instincts. Yes, you needed that “tulle,” and you needed to bring the color around again at the end. I love that “Give me back” ends a line and then there’s a space and then you bring it on home.