Poetry in the Round

With a few new faces this week at the Bixby Library workshop, I went back to my favorite writing topic: poetry. What poetry is, how to read poetry, and why poetry enriches life are things I enjoy discussing with the uninitiated. Here is an essay I wrote for the library newsletter following last April’s Poetry Month entitled “How To Read Poetry.”


The first exercise last night is based on a chapter of Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, “Why Do I Write?” The whole book is magic, and seems to offer the perfect advice and guidance for my current moment whenever I slice it open. Here is the passage that inspired our prompt:

Ask yourself, “Why do I write?” or “Why do I want to write?,” but don’t think about it. Take pen and paper and answer it with clear, assertive statements. Every statement doesn’t have to be 100 percent true and each line can contradict the others. Even lie if you need to, to get going. If you don’t know why you write, answer it as though you do know why. (123)

We spent ten minutes free-writing a response, keeping our pens moving, avoiding self-editing, trying to get to our “first thoughts,” another Goldberg concept, on the subject. The exercise complemented last week’s planning exercises and it helped warm us up for the next prompt.


We collectively wrote poems in response our second prompt, each writer contributing an addition to the poem that had been constructed by the previous writers, a type of “poetry in the round.” Often this type of exercise simply muddies the intent of the originating writer, and some of this repurposing presented itself last night. Overall, the exercise was great fun, and it did help a few tentative poets jump into the pool of poetic expression.

In a series of five minute periods, we each initiated a poem, then built on the blocks written by those to our right side. First, we each wrote an “American sentence” (see Kim Addonizio’s Ordinary Genius for a nice explanation and some examples), a seventeen syllable sentence. Then, we arranged those words into lines to create a first stanza. That first block was passed to the left, and the next writer added another piece (seventeen syllables, if they wished) that continued the initial direction, tone, feeling of the first block. This continued for several five minute periods until we ran out time. We read the results to the group and most of the group laughed as hard as we have for weeks.

This exercise is an excellent group exercise for forcing writers to styles and tones outside their comfort zone.