poetry writing

I’m a poet and journalist based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but before that I was a boy growing up in central Pennsylvania deeply wanting to be the world’s best MMA fighter.

Assumptions abound when people stumble on my poetry writing bio; they think I must write decent poetry because I grew up surrounded by poetry books and tinkering with poems or because my parents were poetry professors and they exposed me to the literary scene at a young age. Not quite.

I didn’t take poetry writing seriously until my junior year in college. And everything I learned then I learned because I had great poetry teachers. Yes, the writing of poetry is something that can be taught.

In the last decade I’ve worked in just about every genre out there, and I’ve come to realize that among them poetry is by far the most shrouded in myths.

There are myths telling us, of course, that poetry can’t be taught, that it’s indefinable and a gift bestowed upon a few creative souls. But there are also myths telling us that poetry is only about the extreme emotions that wash over us—the depth of sadness or the exhilaration of love.

Then there are the myths that in order to write a poem you must first learn all sorts of rules, and the ones telling us that all poetry must rhyme, that it doesn’t serve a purpose, that it’s not of much practical value.

In my online poetry class (the intro video is at the end of this post) I attempt to crush a few of these myths while unveiling insights into what I call the “Butterfly Method.” Much of what’s in that 25-minute class I’m sharing with you here.

The Butterfly Method is something I’ve developed and been using for years as it allows me to find a theme, dig in to figure out what tethers me to that theme (that part of me that makes me care about it) and then develop the capacity to be receptive to the “small noticings” around me—those seemingly insignificant details that are at the heart of poetry writing.

Through the Butterfly Method you’ll be able to unlock your creativity and immediately start writing quality poems you can be proud of. Here are the five steps to writing a poem:

  1. Find your poem’s theme
  2. Find your personal thread
  3. Gather the poem’s small noticings
  4. Review your literary toolbox
  5. Begin to write a poem

Before we break each of these down, let’s take a crack at defining the “indefinable” genre of poetry. Words and descriptions are always imperfect and unable to capture the true nature of something, but here’s giving it a go so that we’re in the same realm when we dive into each step of writing a poem:

What is poetry?

This is the question most teachers of poetry ask at the beginning of class. It’s how I was originally introduced to poetry, and it’s a question I’ve certainly used when I first began teaching poetry many years ago.

However, what I’ve found is that while the question can invoke interesting and engaging conversations, it never really led to anything that made sense for me, something I could hold onto. Ultimately I think the question jumps the gun by first asking what poetry is… on first thought (and for many poetry writing beginners) poetry is this thing that at first glance feels far away and too blurry to make sense of.

Instead, I ask, “What is a poet?” In other words, I think we get closer to an answer when we frame the question not as something we’re trying to do but as something we’re trying to be. Then the conversation becomes not what’s out there in some unknown galaxy, but what’s in here, what’s right inside of us.

So here’s my attempt to answer that question, and what I’ve come to believe:

A poet writes to make the small large, and achieves this through mindfully observing the minutiae of life. (tweet this)

By “minutiae of life” I mean the type of unique and often overlooked details that Samuel Green referred to as “small noticings,” that William Blake referred to as “minutely organized particulars,” and what Shakespeare’s line “a bright particular star” has come to mean for me.

Eventually a poet ties those small noticings back to a larger theme they care about… these are the larger concepts that relate to our shared humanity. A poet, equipped with an ability to gather small details and tie them to a larger theme, then uses the literary tools of storytelling, sound and spacing to create a concise package of words that serve to amplify both the small noticings and the theme.

The end result is a poem. With that description in place, the original question feels much more relevant: What is poetry?

For me, it’s everything that happens between that time when we truly commit to writing a poem and when we’ve actually written a poem. The entire stage in between is poetry. So poetry to me is as much about the writing of a poem as it is about how we live.

This is why I believe poetry has immense practical value: because it’s a practice of waking up to what’s around us, to thinking deeply about what we care about, and to remembering and recognizing our shared humanity.

Let’s dive in to step 1, shall we?

Find your poem’s theme

poetry writing poem

In the past 10 years I’ve noticed that the poems in poetry books are increasingly connected to a theme; in fact, the individual poems grew from that particular theme. Prior to this, in most poetry books I came across, it seemed the author would write poems about a variety of topics, maybe a few on the same theme, and then title the book in some way that… sort of… maybe… connected them all.

Today, modern poets have pivoted away from writing individual poems and haphazardly lumping them into a collection, and towards writing poems that are all intentionally cohesive. For example, Claudia Rankine’s incredible book titled Citizen, tackles racism. And my latest book, Chittagong, looks at the notorious shipbreaking industry in Chittagong, Bangladesh.

The poems in such focused collections can vary in scope and style, and they can even contain poems that are deeply personal. In Chittagong, for example, I wrote about the devastation I felt when one day I saw my grandmother had liked my Facebook status, and the next day she had passed away.

Whether your goal is to write a single poem or a collection of poems, it’s typically best to find the theme you care about. But how do we find our theme?

The image above may look like a carrot, but it’s actually the body of a butterfly. Finding a theme is where we’ll begin exploring the Butterfly Method. Keep this in mind: the creative process can never be paint-by-numbers; part of it will always remain a bit of a mystery and that’s part of the beauty of it.

Even with the framework I’ve created, you may find that your creativity lets you fill in the wings of the butterfly (coming soon) first. That’s okay. It’s happened countless times to me and it’s certainly a natural part of the process. However, finding your theme from the very beginning, or at least really making an effort to, allows us to step into the level of heightened awareness we need in order to write a poem or series of poems.

In all of the poetry books I’ve written, I’ve found it immensely helpful if, before I start trying to write a poem, I take a mental inventory about what around me is pulling at my emotions.

My first book, Until You Make the Shore, grew because I was teaching poetry in an all-female ward of a juvenile detention center in Tucson, Arizona. Most of my time teaching was actually spent listening, simply bearing witness to the difficult lives some of the girls had gone through.

On a few occasions, as soon as I got home I’d cry about the torment they had to endure, or about what I perceived as my own inability to help their situation. On other days, I’d leave the detention center feeling so empowered by their resiliency—here were young girls who had experienced unimaginable horrors, and yet they were strong enough to tell their story, to be vulnerable, to keep pushing forward to a new future.

For a few weeks I had been tossing ideas around about a potential theme for my first book… until I realized the theme was right in front of my face. What was most stirring my emotions was what I should dig into for a book of poems, even if I didn’t know precisely what I would write about.

And then in my second full-length collection, Malaria, Poems, there was a similar story. I was living in Thailand on a kickboxing fellowship. Everything around me was new, all the smells and scenery and foods were vastly different than anything I had experienced growing up in Pennsylvania. Still, I felt ready to begin my next book, but struggled to carve out a theme.

At first I thought I should write about kickboxing, since I was passionate about it and doing it every day. But I’d recently met a malaria researcher, who helped me realize I was living in a tropical environment and yet didn’t know the first thing about a disease that impacted millions of the people in the region where I was living.

Again, as with Until You Make the Shore, I didn’t have a clue what specifically I would write about, but I realized working on a book about malaria would at once be an opportunity for me to learn and a way to bring awareness to an important social cause that I could see myself growing to care about.

So, based on my personal experience and what I’ve gathered from many fantastic poetry teachers over the years, the best advice I can offer about finding your theme is that it will likely be at the confluence of these three elements:

  1. It is physically close to you
  2. It stirs (or has the capacity to stir) your emotions
  3. It’s something you’re interested in learning more about

poetry writing

To find your theme, let’s get started with what I call Action 10. It’s a critical component of our method for poetry writing, and this first exercise will serve as our entry point:

Part 1: Set a timer for 5 minutes. Sit comfortably, with good posture, and with your eyes closed. This is your time to sit and be with your mind and thoughts, not with distractions or multi-tasking. Let this be a time to conjure up the most profound, but recent, moments in your life. That’s it.

Part 2: Set a timer again for 5 minutes. This is where we go from thought to written word, reinforcing the practice that what we think can be written down. During these 5 minutes I want you to free-write about the experience that captured most of your attention during your 5-minute sit.

If several themes shared attention, pick one for this exercise. Free-writing means to write (or type) until the timer tells you to stop. Do not edit as you go, do not filter your thoughts, do not stop writing at any point during these 5 minutes. If you stray off-topic, that’s fine. The goal here is to write without stopping.

Note: Some writers can find their theme immediately after this Action 10, but others may need a few days to let it marinate. For some, this may simply be the spark that leads you, maybe days later, to your theme. I recommend not leaping into finding your personal thread (up next) until you have some level of confidence with your theme.

Find your personal thread

poetry writing

Finding our thread is where we begin to build out the butterfly’s first wing. In order to write poetry that feels emotionally authentic, and not simply an exercise in wordplay, it’s important for us to find not only our theme, but why we care about that theme.

This demands, for lack of a better phrase, some deep soul-searching. Your theme should captivate you in some way, but it should also shake you up or fire you up a bit. This is especially true if you want to write multiple poems on a theme over time—the thread tethering you to it must be capable of sustaining your mental and emotional attention.

You may intuitively know what your thread is. If so, consider yourself one of the lucky ones. For the rest of us, we’ll need a process to tap into our thoughts in as focused a way as possible.

The way that has always worked for me, and has been the most successful method for my students, is… yes, we’re going back to Action 10. But this time we’re blending Parts 1 and Part 2 from Finding your theme.

In this case, set a timer and simply sit for 10 minutes, with your eyes closed, but with a pen and paper placed in front of you. The practice of carving out time to sit—call it zazen or meditation or just sitting with purpose—is a practice that has been used by millions of people spanning thousands of years to help them reach a deeper state of thinking or clarity.

For us, this is all about reaching our insight. Closing our eyes can shut out the distractions of sight, and of course silencing your phone or turning off the TV can help shut out sound pollution. Sitting with good posture helps allow our body and mind to stay awake. However, I’ve also created a similar environment for insight while laying in a bed, or even in a bathtub. The goal is to create a dedicated period of time for yourself to focus on one single objective. This can be much easier said than done.

Note: Emotions and/or memories will arise through this exercise. They may run the gamut from overwhelming to joyful and everything in between. If you feel them come to the surface of your awareness, try to bring your awareness back to your breath.

If they continue to surface in your mind, especially if it’s over the course of several sessions of focused sitting, you may be hovering around what your thread should be. This is a good time to briefly open your eyes and jot down the idea. If you’re new to sitting meditation, I recommend starting this practice by setting a 3-minute timer, and eventually building up to 5, 7, and eventually 10 minutes over the course of a few days or until you’ve found a thread you’re ready to tug on.

Gather the poem’s small noticings

write a poem

This is where we find the bones of our poem.

The small noticings, details that are unique and often overlooked in the course of our days, are what separate good poets from great poets. Some poetry writers have a theme they care deeply about, and they’ve established mastery over countless literary tools. Their work covers major, important issues, and can do so beautifully and concisely. However, those gorgeous little slivers of moments are what first drew me to poetry, and the practice of trying to mindfully live with a heightened awareness to notice them is what changed the way I live.

My poetry books came together first through thinking about a theme, then through the process of finding my thread to that theme, and then letting that all sit in my subconscious. I didn’t quite forget about it—because I knew I was going to write a book about it, but I also wasn’t forcing myself to fabricate ideas to fit the theme.

I believed in the process that they would come, throughout the day, and I’d need to have a notebook or a notetaking app on my phone ready to go so I could catch them. It works like this: when you commit to a theme, one you care about, and you commit to writing a poem or even a book of poems about that theme, you begin to see everything around you through that lens.

For example, the book of poems I’m working on now is titled Man Box, and it’s about the dangerous social norms around issues of masculinity. Once I committed to this, I began to see representations of masculinity (the small noticings we’re trying capture), everywhere. I saw them on billboards and in commercials, in the books I was reading and in the conversations I was having. I saw them in my family dynamics, in the way foods are packaged… everywhere.

In some ways my creative process aligns with what researcher Adam Grant, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, recently found to be true regarding creativity. According to Grant, procrastination, or delaying your purpose, can increase creativity. Basically it’s like this: If you have an idea and you commit to a project relating to that idea, but you delay your work on it, you’ll be more creative when you start to bring it together.

Grant believes holding an idea in the mind, but not front and center, allows us to invoke a deeper level of creativity about that idea, so that delaying our purpose, or procrastinating slightly, actually has a benefit. It lets the idea percolate.

As poets, though, we’re not simply delaying our work. Our “procrastination” involves collecting the small noticings as they arise. Eventually, when we have 3 or 4 or 20 of them, we’ve got the makings for a great poem or even a great collection of poems. However, even a great theme and a big heart and a ton of small noticings can’t make a poem, we must have some idea of the literary tools that can help us amplify all the parts so the whole can be stronger… so the butterfly can fly.

Review your literary toolbox

poetry writing

In the online course I cover a bunch of literary tools, showing a few poems using them, but you can just as easily look them up on your own. Here are a few to get started: eye rhyme, alliteration, consonance, enjambment, assonance.

In addition to reviewing some literary tools, be sure to check out a few examples of modern poetry. This will help prime you for the writing process to come. If you want recommendations in addition to my poem Fuel, contact me and I’ll send a few your way.

Begin to write a poem

Congrats on making it this far!

To kickstart our poetry writing process, let’s return to our original Action 10, where we split it up with 5 minutes of focused sitting and 5 minutes of focused free-writing.

For the sitting, keep your notebook within reach because this is another time when I want you to capture ideas as they come. Your focus will not be on what your theme or thread is, but on how you see it manifest in your everyday life.

For example, if your theme is about how sounds can remind us of childhood memories, think about the sounds of your sink, or the sound of people coming down the stairs. If your theme is about battling depression, think about how you can show this through senses instead of only telling about—think of colors, how gray is portrayed, how the television flickers, how the birds chirp outside the window.

Then, for your free-writing portion, take a moment to look over the notes you took as you were sitting, then hide them or flip the paper over and start free-writing about them. You’ll see that these small noticings may expand, sometimes into stories or sometimes into new small noticings. Just keep writing for the entire 5 minutes.

From here, fill out your entire butterfly, keeping in mind that it doesn’t actually have to look good. Put your theme in the body, your thread in the thread wing, and a list of the details you’ve collected (or what you see as the best of them) in the other wing. As an example, here’s mine for the poem Fuel:

write a poem

If you’re right-handed, keep the butterfly to the left of you (and vice versa) this way you can see it but your focus is on the blank paper before you.

From there, pull out a detail (there’s a chance one is particularly compelling to you, and maybe there’s even a small noticing that has been in your head as one that would be a great opening line). For Fuel I knew I wanted to open up right at the gas station.

Next step, get to it. Get that detail on paper and trust in your capacity to lead where you take it. Many students find it helpful to focus on these 3 aspects:

  1. An interesting opening line. This is your chance to hook the reader;
  2. A narrative that unfolds, guided by theme and thread, perhaps layering in additional details;
  3. An experience in your final lines that in some way resolves something—even if it’s simply the tying together of your small noticings with the thread of your theme.

One final note about this poetry writing process

Feel free to play around on the page, write additional ideas in the margin, pause to think. And keep in mind the importance of community in the poetry writing process. When you have a piece you’re feeling good about, sit with for a bit—consider joining a poetry workshop group in your community, signing up for the online poetry class below, or attending a local poetry reading (and maybe eventually gaining the confidence to read a few of your poems).

Lastly, if you have any questions about this poetry writing process feel free to contact me. I try to be as accessible as possible. Good luck in your practice!

An Online Skillshare Class by Cameron Conaway

See Also:

Writing Poetry: 5 Ways to Get Started

How To Find the Right Online Poetry Class