Celebrate National Poetry Month with Stenhouse

March 31st, 2015

On this last day of March, we are excited to look forward to April and National Poetry Month. We are doing something fun this year — a Twitter poetry contest!

We have asked poet and author Shirley McPhillips to serve as judge for our contest and she enlisted her poet friend Drew Myron to help out. So, if you feel inspired, head over to Twitter and write a poem with 140 characters or less. Leave space for the hashtag #stenpoems so that Shirley can find and read your words. At the end of the month, we will pick one winner and three honorable mentions who will receive signed copies of Shirley’s latest book, Poem Central. The poems will also be published right here, on the Stenhouse blog. (If you are not on Twitter, you can send your poems to zmcmullin@stenhouse.com with the subject line Twitter poem, or you can also leave your poems in the comments section of this blog post.)

Now, what is a Twitter poem? Shirley wrote this great post about Twitter poems — a great read before you begin to write your own. If you are a teacher, encourage your students to give it a try as well! And if you are a teacher who wants to incorporate more poetry into your classroom, here is a FREE download of poetry resources from trusted Stenhouse authors.

Up for the Count: Twitter Poems
Shirley McPhillips

Shirley McPhillips

Shirley McPhillips

I have made this (letter) longer than usual because I have not had the leisure of making it shorter. Blaise Pascal, 1657

Seems like short is the new long. That’s the fun of a Twitter poem. It’s expected to be short. 140 characters or fewer (including the title, if it has one). We may ramble in the beginning, getting lists and lines down quickly. But then reality sets in. How to write something short that has the qualities of a good poem. Now that may take some leisure.

The 140-character limit has spawned waves of creativity as folks test their ability to do more with less. There’s the twaiku movement and Twitterature, a book containing major works of literature boiled down into a bouillon cube. And lest we think this is an activity for the obsessed techno-masses, four major prize-winning poets, two of them former laureates, published Twitter poems in the New York Times one year: Billy Collins, Claudia Rankine, Elizabeth Alexander and Robert Pinsky.

The New York Public Library (NYPL) sometimes sponsors a National Poetry Contest on Twitter. That’s where I met two Twitter poem contest finalists: Leslie Kenna and Liesl Dineen. Their stories about coming into the world of Twitter verse instruct and inspire.

Leslie’s “Short” Story

Leslie grew up in a New York City neighborhood that has an elevated train (the el) running through it. “For years,” she writes, “everything—eating, shopping, reading, sleeping, dental appointments, etc., was done to the beat of passing trains. I think all that shaking got into my bones.” Here is her Twitter poem:


In a waiting room under the el

each time a door closes

the collection of mysteries and tragedies

rattles and sways.

poem-centralLeslie was strategic in her approach to writing “Bound.” A daydreamer and lover of words, she sat down in a comfy chair, stared out the window and remembered her relationship with books when she was a library-card-carrying New Yorker. After all, she would be submitting to a library contest. She would write about reading on the subway. Standing up. Sitting down. All jammed in, touching shoulders. An escape, making the commute go faster.

Once she had a topic in mind, she wrote down every word that came to mind—even repeating a few—looked over the list and circled words that jumped off the page for her…passengers, carry, one inch, bound, commute, straphangers, immobile, gripping, book, still room, sentence, subway, novel, plot, gripping, Delay, air oxygen, freeing nourishing filling feeding raising relaxing, excursions, expansive, colors ideas novelties trips chartreuse, amaranthine, ideas, thoughts, reach, nourish, deep within She played around, rearranging words.

Then came crafting. “Staring up at the ceiling, reciting words over and over in my head, swapping verbs out, stepping back to gauge the effect.” Neglecting the poem for a while, “returning to it with fresh eyes and ears.” Reading it aloud for rhythm and sound. She also kept in mind that the NYPL was judging on originality, creativity and artistic qualities.

Overall, Leslie finds Twitter poems less intimidating than other forms. “No large blank sheet of paper staring at you.” Since it’s a new form, “you don’t have to be versed in 15th Century Twitter poetry to be taken seriously. You can put it out there.” If people like it, they let you know. Right away. “You can keep trying without feeling bad because no one sends you rejection letters. People can access your poems from a smart phone or computer and even contact you long after you write them.”

Liesl’s “Short” Story

One year Liesl and her husband splurged and bought lovely matching plates but never got around to matching silverware. Pondering the “mismatchedness” of things, she wondered about their future. As she thought about some serious life issues, the sorrow started to flow in. At that moment her husband came booming inside with the dogs, and the kitchen was suddenly full of noise and “this new, mismatched crazy, beautifully rhythmic, full life. John, the dogs, our family and my favorite spoon stirring in the cream of life.”

Our mismatched spoons

stir in the cream

in staccato beats to match

the clickety-clack of dogs in the kitchen.

As Liesl worked on this Twitter poem, “The mismatched spoons,” became “Our mismatched spoons.” Her ear caught the sound of the dogs and that came next. “The spoons weren’t sure what they were doing for a while.” She actually started with milk. She uses almond milk but this wouldn’t do. She was telling a story of chaos and fullness, so cream had to be there. “That word carries so much in our collective. The other words arranged themselves once that fell into place.”

Liesl takes herself to sites that nudge her to practice writing short. There she hones her skill of cutting and rearranging. Recently she worked on a #sixwordstory prompt from @WriterlyTweets. Someone meets a clown. She started with, “The girl fearlessly reached out for his nose,” the idea she wanted. Not short enough, and too dull. She changed “the girl” to “she.” “Fearlessly she reached” took her halfway to six words. Three words left to tell a story. Ah, action. She would beep his nose. A fearless girl might do that! The final six-word story: “Fearlessly she reached, beeping his nose.”

Some Tips From Writers of the Short Form

From our conversations online, Leslie, Liesl and I share some suggestions for you as you write your Twitter poems.

  • A Twitter poem is a little poem with a big thought. Like any poem, it is about one thing or theme. Stick to it. A small moment, a simple action, a sound, can carry a big story.
  • Ideas, lines, images, words, stories, come at us all the time. On the subway train, in the shower, on the treadmill, places inconvenient to writing them down at that moment. Keep a list someplace where you can revisit them and choose one when the time is right.
  • To be generative, to practice paring things down, create opportunities for yourself to write and/or submit lots of short poems. 5-word poems, 10-word poems. Write a Twitter-like poem every day. The more you write the better you get. Try: 14wordsforlove.com; #sixwordstory, prompts from @WriterlyTweets.
  • When brainstorming your topic, be generative. Words beget words.
  • Use words that capture an action and tell more of the story: “whispered” instead of “said;” “cream” instead of “milk” (as in Liesl’s poem).
  • Stay in the present tense to create immediacy and sometimes eliminate characters: stirs instead of stirred.
  • When trying to tighten or shorten the poem find one word to do the work of two or three. Instead of “the girl,” use “she.” Strip your lines of small words you don’t need: and, that, was, the.
  • Make your line endings (breaks) strong by using strong nouns and verbs.
  • Say your poems out loud. Hear them the way readers will, not just the way they sound inside your own head. When something snags or doesn’t sound “right,” change it.
  • Step away from your draft for a while. Come back to it with fresh eyes and ears. You might be surprised or enchanted. A “just right” word might slip into place. A glitch might relax.
  • With the right words in the right place, readers can fill in the “story.” Read this by Erel Pilo. Is there anyone who can’t imagine the story?


Eleven cupcakes.

Twelve toddlers

  • The title counts toward the 140 character limit. Decide if you need one. Leslie’s is integral to her poem. Liesl wants more characters in the body of her poem.

After the NYPL retweeted one of Leslie’s poems she was contacted by a beloved author with congratulatory messages. The beginning of a rich conversation. Months later, the author tweeted her the link to a poetry contest run by NASA. “Writing,” Leslie says, “doesn’t have to be a solitary affair. I can connect with people. Directly! In real time.”

“The real challenge,” Liesl says, “was going public with my voice.” Since then she’s started a blog and writes whole months of poems-a-day. “Entering contests is a great way to grow!”


Entry Filed under: Writing

14 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Carol Kellogg  |  April 1st, 2015 at 11:09 am

    What fun – these are all great ideas! I decided to try them out by mining my travel journals. Here are a couple of haiku (character counts 129 and 113) inspired by two very different parts of the world:


    Allowed to speak? Yes.
    Of course. But always we must
    have something to say.


    August full moon, then
    two days past, snow falls upward:
    corals start to spawn

  • 2. Stephanie Eastwood  |  April 2nd, 2015 at 2:31 am

    Thank you Shirley McPhillips and Stenhouse for this inspiring and practical invitation to whittle tiny poems.

  • 3. Shirl McPhillips  |  April 7th, 2015 at 9:54 am

    Carol, your travel journals are great places to go to “mine” for poems. Thanks for sharing these with us. Shirt

  • 4. Shirl McPhillips  |  April 7th, 2015 at 9:58 am

    Hi, Stephanie. I look forward to reading some of your “whittling.” It’s great fun. Thanks for your comment. Shirl

  • 5. kimberly  |  April 8th, 2015 at 2:55 pm

    so excited about the contest , poetry in general. I am happy I found you today!

  • 6. Shirl McPhillips  |  April 14th, 2015 at 3:33 pm

    Kimberly, I’m happy you found us too.
    Hope you’ll send in a Twitter poem or two.
    And if you’re a teacher, get the students going.
    Good luck!

  • 7. Tools of the Trade: Poetr&hellip  |  April 15th, 2015 at 4:06 am

    […] poem is a venue for taking a small moment and letting it explode into a bigger thought. On the Stenhouse Blog, author and poet Shirley McPhillips explains the process, offers examples, and invites you to […]

  • 8. Shirl McPhillips  |  April 15th, 2015 at 8:04 pm

    Rita, thanks for calling our attention to so many resources to help us engage with poetry. Your passion and wisdom shine through.

  • 9. Chris Kostenko  |  April 18th, 2015 at 11:07 am

    Tomorrow’s mystery today?
    Please, no.
    Now needs full attention.
    I can’t afford spending
    today with tomorrow.

  • 10. Erika Zeccardi  |  April 20th, 2015 at 11:44 am

    Thanks, Shirley. I am just loving this.


    curved back
    leans against the maple,
    bare branches outstretched.
    Faint whispers of red river valley
    dance across the yard.

  • 11. Shirl McPhillips  |  April 21st, 2015 at 1:47 pm

    Chris, thanks so much for giving time for the “short form.”
    it’s contagious, right?

  • 12. Shirl McPhillips  |  April 21st, 2015 at 1:50 pm

    Erika, good on you! Thanks for your poem. And for more to come.

  • 13. Chris Kostenko  |  April 30th, 2015 at 3:30 pm

    t is a contagious thing. I can’t seem to stop picking at it. One more on the last day for this contest:

    Garden Wisdom:

    Sooner or later,
    flowers with big heads
    end up face down In the dirt.
    Others among them,
    still standing, gain
    attention and recognition.

  • 14. Chris Kostenko  |  April 30th, 2015 at 3:37 pm

    Sorry that was too long. Here is an acceptable entry:

    Chris Kostenko ‏@write_on_nj 15s16 seconds ago

    Garden Wisdom:
    Sooner or later,
    flowers with big heads
    fall face down.
    Others, still standing, gain
    attention and recognition.

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