Monday, April 8, 2013

Make Words Your Playground

Today, in honor of National Poetry Month,  I'm welcoming poet and author Laurel Garver (Never Gone and Muddy-Fingered Midnights) to the blog. Welcome, Laurel, and thanks so much!!

Make Words Your Playground.

I started writing poetry at ten, and it has been a life-long love for me--a way of writing that’s condensed, intense, and musical. But it’s never too late to start. Here are a few favorite tips for beginning poets.

My first, ultra-obvious piece of advice would be to READ poetry. If you’re new to the genre, there’s no need to put historical barriers in your path--start reading contemporary poets. There are loads of free e-zines with wonderful poems. Every Day Poets is a favorite of mine. They post new pieces daily that are accessible (you don’t need a PhD to understand them) and cover a variety of styles and topics. My collection Muddy-Fingered Midnights also offers diverse styles and topics.

Try a beginner’s poetry class hosted by a local writer’s group, public library, or adult education evening classes at your public school. You could also try a free online course.

Or simply read some poetry-writing books and start experimenting. Here’s a list of recommendations from a beginner poet.

If I were to pick one thing that has helped me most as a poet, it would be vocabulary building. I don't mean simply picking up a thesaurus and looking for fancier ways to say things. I mean delving deep into the world of words. A poet must look not only at a word's definition, but also its connotations and connections. A poet must hear the tones and feel the textures of words.

Developing a wide and flexible vocabulary is a life-long pursuit, not something you can master in a few weeks. Most of all, it should be fun!

Here are a few journaling exercises I recommend to open your mind to words’ many possibilities.

Word clouds
Select a word and spend fifteen minutes writing down every word that pops to mind to describe it, that you associate with it, that comes from a similar setting, or has similar meanings, connotations or sounds. Here's an example:

long-eared, cottontail, velvety, fluffy, tawny, spotted, lop-eared, floppy, hop, scamper, skittish, twitchy, whiskers, nibble, hutch, hole, meadows, woodlands, thickets, briar patch, Brer Rabbit, Thumper, tree roots, Peter Rabbit, Flopsy, Mopsy, blackberries, MacGregor's garden, Springtime, Easter, chocolate treats, March Hare, Alice in Wonderland, Bugs Bunny, wascally wabbit, what's up doc, carrots, munching, crunching, large litters, perpetually pregnant, fertility, multiples, growth, expansion, invasion, hare, jackrabbit, habit, Babbitt, rabid, rapid, traffic.

Word studies
Select a word and delve through its many layers. Start with a basic definition. Consider what activities, settings and literature/films/music you associate with the word. What rhymes with it? What almost rhymes with it? What sounds ring loudest in the word? What do you sense(hear, feel) from those dominant sounds apart from the word’s meaning? In other words, if you didn't know what the word meant and had to guess based on how it sounds, what meaning do you hear?

Here's an example:


Definition: A stemmed cup

Associations: wine, Holy Grail, Arthurian legend, king’s tables, celebrations, banquets, church, Eucharist, weddings, toasts, drink offerings, poisoning, drinking games

Rhymes: Alice, callous, cowl-less, Dallas, malice, towel-less

Slant rhymes: ballast, foulest, Gaulish, jealous

Dominant sounds: CH, S

Sound texture: Slicing, whistling, hissing, sword swinging, wind shear

By all means, don't limit yourself to nouns in these explorations. Pick a verb or an adjective. Open the dictionary to a random page and choose a brand new term to research for its meaning and associations (Google can help there).

Let your imagination loose in the world of words, and you will never be at loss for poem ideas.

Does poetry intimidate you? How might read, study, and wordplay help you overcome your fears and set your imagination free?

Laurel Garver is a magazine editor, poet, and writer of faith-based fiction.She enjoys quirky independent films, British TV, and geeking out about Harry Potter and Dr. Who. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband and daughter.

About Muddy-Fingered Midnights
This thirty-poem collection is an eclectic mix of light and dark, playful and spiritual, lyric and narrative free verse. In an intricate dance of sound play, it explores how our perceptions shape our interactions with the world. Here child heroes emerge on playgrounds and in chicken coops, teens grapple with grief and taste first love, adults waver between isolation and engaged connection. It is a book about creative life, our capacity to wound and heal, and the unlikely places we find love, beauty, and grace.

Available now. $1.99 e-book Kindle / Nook / all other ereaders ; $6.50 paperback


  1. I love these ideas, thanks, Laurel! I need to give these ideas a try.

    Connie, it's nice to meet you. Thanks for hosting today! :)

  2. I adore writing poetry, but for some reason just never get around to it any more. :-)

  3. Karen: Glad you found them inspiring. Have a creative week!

    Misha: I often go in and out of productive phases when it comes to poetry. A good way to get back into it is to take a favorite fiction scene you've written and recast it as poetry.

  4. That's very interesting. I admit, poetry does intimidate me a little. :)

  5. I think those exercises would be good for all writers, not just poets. Thanks.

  6. I like poetry, I even try writing it sometimes. But yes, it can be intimidating still.

  7. Jennifer: because poetry is condensed, individual word choices are so important. I think that scares some, but it can be fun to hunt for new words and just play.

    Carol: I think so, too. My favorite fiction writers often have a character or three with really interesting vocabulary lexicons, or who make colorful comparisons all the time. These exercises would help any writer develop characters like that.

  8. Anne: What I've found encouraging is the amount of diversity in topics and styles in nearly any literary magazine. No matter where you are in the craft-building process, there's a magazine out there that likes your kind of work.

    Not everyone will fit with Ploughshares or Parnassus, but there are e-zines aplenty seeking poems every day. Keep writing, keep growing, keep submitting. Readers want to hear YOUR voice, not a knock-off of Shakespeare or Seamus Heaney.

  9. Thanks for this post, these exercises would be good for writers. I like reading poetry.