Craft Articles

Welcome to OPA’s new repository of articles on the craft of poetry, launched in celebration of National Poetry Month, 2015!

If you Can’t Lick ‘Em, Join ‘Em: Clichés in Poetry by Anita Sullivan

Poets want to write good poetry, and among many, many other things, we are told this means avoiding clichés.

What’s a cliché?

The dictionary says “a hackneyed phrase,” which is no help. A “hackney” was a horse for hire that ordinary people could ride without risk. So, the so-called “definition” requires immediately a poetic leap to figure out.

You might think of a cliché as a word or phrase for hire, one that ordinary people can understand, can relate to, without risk. For poets, a cliché can be a snare and a delusion (that’s a cliché), because it gives you the impression that you thought it up yourself, and you did not.

Poets usually want their work to be fresh, interesting, a bit unpredictable. But that’s not the same as deliberately weird, inappropriate, dramatic, silly, vulgar, etc. just to avoid being ordinary (hackneyed). Look at the ancient Hebrew poem The Song of Songs, for example. It’s packed with clichés, repeated from poem to poem (“your eyes are like doves, your cheeks like pomegranates”). Yet somehow it manages to remain fresh and exciting after some 2500 years of being spoken and read.

What, then, is the opposite of a cliché? Probably something that could become a cliché, but hasn’t yet. Therefore, shouldn’t we all aspire to write them? We want people to remember our poems, to hum them quietly to themselves, to speak them aloud to family and friends. We want our words to become famous, we want them to become household words, don’t we?

So, maybe it’s not the words themselves that define “cliché” but the situation around the words. The same words in one situation can be like a summer rain shower, while in another they can be like stale song lyrics.

So, again – What is a cliché? Maybe it’s just something tame and familiar in a place where we really want something wild and strange. Nothing wrong with “ordinary” in itself, but poets are supposed to be the ones who push the envelope (to use a cliché) in language, or at least in literature.

Poets, after all, use the same words everybody else uses, but they arrange them differently. And the reason they arrange them differently is because – or partly because – some kind of thought, feeling, image, or little knot of inchoate urgency precedes the word. Don’t rush over this little knot in your haste to get to the words. Linger here awhile.

All humans come into the world not speaking words. But we’re not stupid and useless during that pre-word period of our lives. “Heaven lies about us in our infancy,” said Wordsworth, meaning (possibly) that we come into the world blessedly free of the word-cords that later dominate our view of things. We still know something instead of being told. The first words we each say as babies are, in a sense, clichés, because they’ve been said many times before. But for us, they are like little explosions, rocking our entire bodies, hearts and minds. We enter the world already veterans of a previous set of experiences, that of spending nine months in the womb, and then the birth process itself, which is no picnic. A truly primal and forceful dramatic set of events takes its place in our bodies prior to words, and that set of events becomes part of our memory.

Writing poetry can be a way of recreating the non-verbal experiences of our lives, which continue from conception, all the way through until the moment we write the next poem. Poetry is a way of honoring and – to tell you the greedy truth, mining – this rich lode of voiceless experience. Good work, if you can get it.

Anita Sullivan is a poet, essayist, gardener, translator, and retired piano tuner in Eugene, Oregon. She earned an MFA in Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University, and is an emerita founding editor of the poetry-publishing collective Airlie Press, which published her book Garden of Beasts in 2010. She is on the board of the Oregon Poetry Association.




Three Great Things (and One Not So Great) about CreateSpace by Amy Miller

In the past few years, Amazon’s CreateSpace has become a popular self-publishing platform for poets and authors who have chosen to publish their book on their own instead of going through a traditional publisher. And authors aren’t the only ones using it—literary journals and small boutique publishers often print their books through CreateSpace for its affordability, ease of use, and convenient distribution via Amazon.

CreateSpace is actually a range of services, from low-cost printing for the DIYer to comprehensive design and marketing packages for authors who need more help and don’t mind spending some money. But even at its most basic level—simply printing a book that you designed, and distributing it through Amazon—CreateSpace offers a few perks that, only a few years ago, were luxuries the average self-publisher could only dream of. Here are a few.

Great thing #1: You get perfect binding

This little bit of bookspeak means the book has a spine, as opposed to being bound by staples. CreateSpace perfect-binds every book it does with a tidy-looking squared spine. For a chapbook, this is an elegant, professional touch; most local print shops can’t do perfect binding if your book has less than 100 pages. The average chapbook has a spine too narrow to get any type on it, but if your cover design can be extended to add a pop of color on the spine, that will look nice on the bookshelf.

Great thing #2: You get an Amazon page

CreateSpace is a subsidiary of Amazon, and part of the package is that you automatically get an Amazon page for your book, at no cost. This means customers can order your book from Amazon while they’re shopping for moisturizer and tennis balls. It’s also how you order copies of your book for yourself—say, 20 copies for an upcoming reading. As the author, you get them at a deeply discounted price: A chapbook will cost you about $2 per book, plus about a buck for shipping. That’s roughly what you’d pay a local print shop to do a chapbook for you, but to get that price with your local printer, you’d have to order about 100 copies. Which you don’t have to do with CreateSpace because…

Great thing #3: It’s print on demand

This is another bit of bookspeak, a technology that’s been around for several years and is finally hitting its stride. In the olden days, a printer would print a “run” of books, anywhere from 100 to several thousand, and the publisher—or author—would have to store all those books somewhere and hope they could sell enough to make up for the cost of the run. Today, with digital printing and machinery that can bind and trim books quickly and cleanly in small quantities, we have print on demand: When a customer orders your CreateSpace book through Amazon, the order goes to a printing facility (often in Charleston or San Bernardino), where a machine whirs to life and prints, binds, and trims just one book. Then somebody at the printer mails it to your customer in an Amazon box. Later, if you order 20 copies for yourself, the machine whirs again and prints out 20 books, and somebody mails them to you. And so on. No cartons of books gathering dust in a warehouse, no large print run that you have to pay for up front.

Not-so-great thing: It is Amazon

Of course, not everyone loves Amazon, a company derided for the death of the local bookstore and countless other retailers. But fear not—if you’re Amazon-averse, there are dozens of similar self-publishing programs. Some, like and Lightning Source, have been around for years. Others, like Penguin’s Book Country and Ingram’s Spark, are newer players, and more seem to come on the horizon every day. Shop around, but while you’re at it, you can sign up for a CreateSpace account—it’s free, with no obligation—and start poking around in the program, taking advantage of its easy interface and numerous online forums and tutorial pages. Then, armed with that experience, you’ll know more when you go out looking for a self-publishing platform that’s right for you.

Amy Miller’s writing has appeared in Nimrod, Rattle, Willow Springs, ZYZZYVA, The Poet’s Market, and other journals, and she won the Cultural Center of Cape Cod National Poetry Competition, judged by Tony Hoagland. A longtime editor and print designer, she works as the publications project manager for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.



Plotting in Poetry by Tiel Aisha Ansari

Plot development tends not to get a lot of attention in discussions of poetry. Partly this is because poetry tends to emphasize mood and emotion over the mechanics of plot, and because of the brevity of most poems compared to a novel or even a short story, there’s not much room for conventional plot development. However, even a short poem, a “moment” poem, can imply events that occurred before the moment captured in the poem, and which created that moment: what’s called “backstory” in the movie industry. In this case plot, like character, relies on the reader’s inferential ability.

Burnt Toast

The damn toaster’s on the blink again:
bitter smoke stains the kitchen ceiling black.
One day it’ll burn down the house
and then you’ll be sorry. Penny-pinching old bastard,
I went to school in the same clothes three years running.
I scrape black crumbs and choke on the stink.
Bitter smoke stings my eyes and makes me blink.
One of these days I’ll burn the house down.
Then you’ll be sorry.

The essentials of plot are pretty much all here, though implicit: characters (the narrator and the “old bastard”), situation, conflict. Since the narrator is a child, or leaving childhood (“I went to school…”), there’s also a sense of time moving forward. The narrator’s entry into adulthood will be marked by a liberating and/or retaliatory act. It’s like a Thomas Hardy novel in miniature.

The trick, of course, is to have the story in mind as you write the poem. View the poem as a slice of a longer story, and the necessary implications, backward and forward, will suggest themselves.

Of course, longer poems may have well-developed plots. Such poems are often referred to as ballads. “Ballad” means a couple of different things; there’s a specific poetic form called a ballad, but a ballad can also be any song or poem (rhymed, metered, or not) with a strong narrative element. A good example is Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Ballad of Orange and Grape,” which you can read at .

Is plot necessary to poetry? Depends on the poem. However, we’re story-telling animals by nature, and an implied plot can be a good way to hook the reader’s curiosity and draw them into a poem.

Tiel Aisha Ansari currently serves as President of the Oregon Poetry Association.

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