Best writing occurs with practice. The more you write, the more you learn. What you think may work chafes against what does work. You edit. You edit again. Sometimes you start over, scrap the entire manuscript, perhaps saving some of your precious lines in a separate file.

Along the way, be sure you seek books written by others, polished works that met with the approval of the writer, publisher, and a host of readers. Read them. Read many of them. Let their words transport you into their dream, their fascination, their turns of phrasing. Read them, also, with a writer’s eye. Look directly at and between the lines for craft. Notice structure, transitions, dialog, images, and whatever qualities contribute to its distinctiveness. Borrow. Appropriate. Remodel the work with your signature.

Read writing handbooks and glean from them basic instruction, useful advice, and reminders. Agree with them or don’t. Use their suggestions for following a rule or breaking it. Below is my list of recommended handbooks. Following the list is my collage poem composed of lines randomly selected from each book.

1) Exercises in Style, Raymond Queneau
Queneau playfully retells 99 versions of the same simple story: On a crowded bus, a man accuses a fellow passenger of deliberately jostling him. Queneau retells this story as sonnet, alexandrine, numbers, pig Latin, spoonerisms, and so on. The book entertains with its breadth of styles and serves as a reminder that the way we may be inclined to tell a story is not the only way.

2) A Poetry Handbook, Mary Oliver
Oliver concisely summarizes the basic elements of poetry like diction, form, sound, and sense that contribute to making a poem. The clarity of this little book includes one of the more accessible explanations on meter I’ve come across and a glimpse into what makes her among the most read contemporary poets.

3) How to Write, Gertrude Stein
This is not so much a “how-to” book as it is an inspired manifesto into the makings of one of my favorite innovative writers. Stein departs from conventional meaning, grammar and syntax, and captures a cubist consciousness. Put your logical mind on overdrive – or underdrive — and go for the ride.

4) Book of Forms, Lewis Turco
If you’re not familiar with the Welsh syllabic gwadodyn or the Arabic couplet Qasida and are curious about formalist poetic structures, Turco delivers. He provides an encyclopedic range of forms along with explanations. Dryly written, the book is worth an occasional dip and lasting place on a shelf.

5) Rhyme’s Reason, John Hollander
Hollander’s lively book is full of wit and instruction on writing formalist poems using a variety of patterns and rhyme schemes. For newcomers to poetry, the book assists in bringing play to both the reading and writing of poetry.

6) Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide from New York’s Acclaimed Creative Writing School, Gotham Writers Workshop
This book outlines the major components of writing fiction and is chock-full of practical tips for proceeding from start to finish. Fun and insightful chapters written by various writers who were faculty at the Gotham Writers Workshop cover methods, exercises, and hints, all of which make for engaging reading.

7) Coming to Writing and Other Essays, Helene Cixous
“Coming to Writing,” the first essay in this wonderfully translated collection, is a syntactically intoxicating view into feminist writing, and one I return to time and time again for its somatic inspiration and invitation to connect with writing flow. Use it to question the ways your writing is gendered.

8) Break Every Rule: Essays on Language, Longing, and Moments of Desire, Carol Maso
The narrative of Maso’s novels are lyrically distinctive and this collection of essays similarly adopts some of those strategies. She writes about the creative process, her struggles and illuminations, and provokes thought on plot and defying convention.

9) The Practice of Poetry, ed. Robin Behn and Chase Twichell
Find here exercises to prompt free form and structured poems. Various poets informally guide readers into a prompt and an explanation about its usefulness. The book is valuable if you’re new to poetry or experiencing difficulty with getting in touch with your creativity.

10) Poems for the Millennium, Vol 1, ed. Jerome Rothenburg and Piere Joris
Rothenburg and Joris are master collectors in this dazzling compendium of modern and post modern poetry and poetic movements. This book also features commentaries that provide entry into the work.. This volume is essential to any serious poet’s library.

And now, the collaged poem…


Succession of words are so
agreeable. It is about this                                                                                   GS
skinny windpipe, string and cord round his hat and tile. After a scrimmage
and a scuffle he says and states in a lachrymose and sniveling voice,              RQ
Don’t give up the time that you need to get acquainted,                                    MO
a figure like that represents something else, but without naming it,
like a character in the Chinese language                                                           LT
almost “about about about about” or almost nearly
“about about about.” But there are ways of departing that seem to obscure      JH
some truth in this notion. Most genre writers will proudly admit                          GW
Let go of everything! Lose everything! Take to the air. Take to the open sea.
Take to letters. Listen:                                                                                         HC
I want to live on my own terms. Just.
Even the book is a box in this world.
First inkling                                                                                                          CM
romance of the bride and groom                                                                   RB&CT
a constant interplay
deliberately blended
a mix of elevated and low language. Force the mind
out of its normal channels.                                                                            JR&PJ


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