Writing poems around a theme

April 19th, 2016

Poet and author Shirley McPhillips is back today with a post on how to harvest students’ interest around a specific topic so that it opens up writing possibilities. For more tips on poetry in the classroom, head over to the Stenhouse website to preview Shirley’s book Poem Central.

All I Want to Write About is ——: Poems Around a Theme
By Shirley McPhillips

poem-centralWhat to do about Jerome. “All he wants to do is write about dogs.” Mandy’s a head-scratcher. “She draws stars and spaceships all over everything.” Lawrence is exasperating sometimes. “He’s been scribbling for two months with one topic to show for it. Basketball.”

I read somewhere that writers have only one or two seminal themes in their lives. That everything they write comes out of those. I have no data but I think that’s probably true for many writers. The ideas, situations, experiences, beliefs that infuse and fuel what we think, what we do.

So why not share this notion with Jerome and Mandy and Lawrence? That it’s okay, even grand, to pull different types of writing out of the same writing well. Get them making a collection around a theme. Many poets do.

I’ve given Mary Oliver’s Dog Songs to so many friends for one dog reason or another over the past couple of years. For these folks, one dog poem is not enough. It’s about that special human-canine relationship. It’s also sharing what that relationship reveals about the meaning of our own lives. If I could locate Jerome, I’d put a copy of Dog Songs in the mail.

A few years ago, Tess Gallagher wrote a serious, playful, sassy book called Portable Kisses. “There are as many nuances and inflections for kisses as there are lips to kiss,” she said.

Swirl by Swirl, Joyce Sidman’s nonfiction poems celebrate the elegance and usefulness of spiral shapes in the natural world and across galaxies. Mandy could have used this for inspiration.

Lawrence’s passion for basketball might have been greatly validated as a force for writing if he could have read the 2015 Newbery Medal Winner: The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander. In this coming-of-age novel in verse, we come to know something of the lives of two brothers, both on and off the court. Also, imagine Lawrence being inspired by another sports enthusiast, poet and anthologist Paul B. Janeczko. That Sweet Diamond, a collection of his own baseball poems, shows all the magic, grace and grit of the game from “Prayer for the Umpires” to “How to Spit.”

As we’ve said, collecting around a theme of one’s own poems is an instructive and rewarding project. So is making an anthology around a theme of other poets’ work.* Imagine Jerome getting to read lots of dog poems by other poets. And him, as editor, deciding what poems he would include in this collection. Why this poem? Why would I put these poems together in a collection? Do they fit together in some way? Do I want a variety of style? Length? Tone? In what order will I arrange them? What’s a good poem to begin? To end? What title will reflect this collection as a whole?

Recently, I was asked to submit a poem to a future anthology called Amore: Love Poems being edited by Johnny M. Tucker, Jr. Such an engaging project for me to peruse some of my poems asking: Is this a love poem? What makes this a love poem? Can love lost, or love denied, be considered a love poem? Can it be a love poem without reference to a person? Looking through the lens of “love,” poems took on new meaning. A couple were obviously love poems from the title on—“Love, Off Guard.” Others, like “Selfies of Autumn,” may not be as obvious to a reader until the epigram is considered and the story beneath the text blooms.

This poem appears in a new book, Acrylic Angel of Fate (2016, Finishing Line Press, KY).

Selfies of Autumn
(for Barbara Caldwell)

The day drips with the elixir
of autumn—a dark honey
of orange, a sadness of red,
the steadfastness of green.

A rainpool of birds slap
the summer’s heat from their wings;
beaks strip their feathers as if
to neaten up for a brave new day.

In the garden, I pose with the ghosts
of spring peonies. I can still breathe
their ambrosia heavy as wine, still feel
their heads lean.

Along the woodpath, squirrels
tear and leap, leap and tear, delirious
with an onset of primal intuition.

Above them the bittersweet vine,
blood-burned, still wants to reach,
to wind.

A windburst stirs the leaves
to the gripping point. One golden
soul, all lightness and fluttering heart,
twists and soars.

But time just won’t, I think,
allow for drift. I’ll snap a picture
for eternity, I say. You and me
against the starry cold.

—Shirley McPhillips

(Turn to p. 278 of Shirl’s book Poem Central: Word Journeys with Readers and Writers for a list called “Gathering of Flowers: Anthologies of Poetry.”)

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