September 14, 2023
by Greg Pape, poetry faculty
Over the years I’ve read many craft books about writing poetry, books meant to inform, guide, encourage, or inspire poets. Some of these books are resting on my bookshelves now in like-new condition, lightly read and likely to stay that way. Others are worn and dog-eared from many readings, books lent to friends and students, handled and referenced over many seasons because they contain sparks of renewable energy, true things said in memorable ways; for instance, “When cutting an axe handle with an axe, surely the model is at hand.” This is from perhaps the first craft book ever written and preserved, Lu Chi’s Wen Fu, The Art of Writing, from the third century Chinese. The Wen Fu is written in a form called Rhyme-Prose, which the translator Sam Hamill describes as “irregular poetic lines arranged as verse paragraphs rather like those used by Allen Ginsberg in Howl, but rhymed.” The book reads like a series of poems describing the art of poetry, with a preface and the following sixteen sections: The Early Motion, Beginning, Choosing Work, The Satisfaction, Catalogue of Genres, On Harmony, On Revision, The Key, On Originality, Shadow and Echo and Jade, The Five Criteria (music, harmony, feeling, restraint, refinement), Finding Form, The Masterpiece, The Terror, The Inspiration, Conclusion.
When I was in graduate school, my mentor, Philip Levine, recognized that I needed to learn more about what I was trying to talk about in workshop. He recommended The Prosody Handbook by Shapiro and Beum, a book still in print in the Dover edition, that provided me with a vocabulary to talk about sound and rhythm and form in poems.
Mary Oliver’s two craft books, A Poetry Handbook and Rules for the Dance, are both very slim volumes that shine with clarity, insight, and wisdom. I keep them on the reading list because I keep reading them from time to time.
Another heftier book that my students and I have found valuable and enriching over the years is The Discovery of Poetry: A Field Guide to Reading and Writing Poems by Frances Mayes. It is like a good class with a good teacher, an excellent anthology of poems, and a useful handbook all in one.
One of the friendliest and most memorable books on craft that I have read is Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town. Hugo, the man who said, “When in doubt, sit and stare moodily out the windows.” He believed language was a sort of musical instrument that he could play imaginatively into shapely tunes that made a kind of temporary sense of experience. He said, “Your triggering subjects are those that ignite your need for words. Your words used your way will generate your meanings. Your obsessions lead you to your vocabulary. Your way of writing locates, even creates, your inner life.”
Excellent craft book Number 7 is not yet in print, so this is like a sneak preview. The title of the book is both plain and unusually ambitious: The Poet’s Guide to Publishing: How to Conceive, Arrange, Edit, Publish, and Market a Poetry Collection by Katerina Stoykova, who has an MFA from the Naslund-Mann School of Writing, where I was privileged to be one of her mentors. Now, as I read The Poet’s Guide to Publishing, I realize she is my teacher. She is a multilingual poet with several published books of poems, as well as books of translations. She is founder and co-owner of Accents Publishing, where she’s selected, edited, and published more than a hundred poetry collections. She also has a background in computer sciences and project management and a degree in business administration. In the introduction to her book, she says, “I use a few of the best practices I’ve learned in these seemingly unrelated disciplines to apply to the art of poetry. Art is science, science is art.” Although The Poet’s Guide to Publishing shares some things with the other books in this list, a distinctive voice and vision grounded in “the three aspects of writing poetry, instinct, technique, obsession”(K.S.), an attention to the stages of writing and revision, and an encouraging tone, this craft book is like no other I have read. A look at the table of contents makes clear that this book covers subjects in detail that most craft books avoid. The five large section headings are 1. Concept, 2. Arrangement, 3. Revision, 4. Publication, 5. Promotion, with an intriguing appendix: Obstacles or How to Not Write Your Book, Writing in Sprints, The Book of Horrors, Bonus Parting Words.
I can imagine Lu Chi, Mary Oliver, Richard Hugo, and Katerina Stoykova sitting together around a table in The Brown Hotel. Hugo and Mary Oliver are laughing at some joke Hugo has just told. Lu Chi, sitting straight and attentive, looks on with his hand over his mouth and his brow furrowed. Katerina Stoykova stops laughing, smiles at Lu Chi and the others, and goes on explaining metafiles, “The point is to meticulously and deliberately preserve ideas and intentions as soon as they appear in your head. Having a dedicated space to channel one’s vision for the future collection encourages dreaming, aiming high and taking one’s own ideas seriously. Good things, y’all. Good things.”
Greg Pape is the author of ten books, including Four Swans, Border Crossings, Black Branches, Storm Pattern, Sunflower Facing the Sun (winner of the Edwin Ford Piper Prize, now called the Iowa Prize), and American Flamingo (winner of a Crab Orchard Open Competition Award). Greg’s poems have appeared in The Atlantic, Iowa Review, The New Yorker, Northwest Review, and Poetry, among others. He has received the Discovery/The Nation Award, two National Endowment for the Arts Individual Fellowships, the Pushcart Prize, and the Richard Hugo Memorial Poetry Award. He served as Poet Laureate of Montana from 2007 to 2009. He holds an MFA from the University of Arizona.