Poetry Workshop: 015

There are many ways to try revising a poem; I hope that’s a lesson that is delivered by these poetry workshops. Of course, another rule that I hope hits home is that there is no “one true way” to write a poem. The goal of any workshop is to point things out, make some suggestions, but ultimately leave it up to the poet to make a decision about how to revise. (By the way, click here to learn more about how you can workshop your poetry with other poets and an instructor.)

Such is the case with this week’s workshop poem:

Untitled Poem, by Lesa Stember


I lie peacefully in my bed,

as my hopes flutter behind closed eyelids.

At the sound of his tiny cry,

I am shaken from my sleeping fantasy

where he does not quake.

Where every day does not bring a new foe.

Where I do not watch pieces of him jerk away.

I open my eyes and instead of daylight,

darkness consumes me.

Blinds me.

The abyss of the unknown invades every part of me.

Choking my hope.

My peace.

Chaos scrambles my thoughts.

Fear envelopes my world.

It burrows deep into my being,

and twines itself there like a tuber.

A permanent fixture in my soul.

Unreachable, it gnaws at me,

poking little holes in my security,

my certainty,

my future.

The holes become cavernous and I fall into them,

only to drown in the unrelenting quicksand of my fear.

Fear of tragic helplessness.

Fear of hurting him.

Fear of the metamorphosis of my family.

Fear of being alone,

of losing myself,

and greater yet,

of losing him




Now, Lesa told me this untitled poem was written about the mother of an epileptic child. I have two general rules about poetry: 1. The poem should communicate its message without explanation from the poet, because the poet won’t always be there to explain it; 2. Poems should have titles (unless there are rules against titling–as with haiku), because titles are a good framing device–even if the poem just uses the first line as a title. So, those are the two places I would focus my attention on in trying to revise this poem.


Let’s start with the title. Since this poem starts off with the narrator waking up, I’d recommend making the title something that addresses the late/early time of day. Maybe something like “2:30 a.m.”


I usually avoid epigraphs (a note or quotation that precedes a poem), but in some cases they can shed light on a poem. If you can find a very good and brief quotation addressing childhood epilepsy or parenting children with epilepsy, that might work wonders for this poem in setting the scene.


The next thing I would suggest is to change the narrative from first person to third person. Here’s the reason: This poem is getting lost in abstractions and emotions. The most powerful poetry moves readers by provoking emotions, not by explaining them.


Here’s an example of what I might try to do:


2:30 a.m.


She wakes to crying in her son’s room again.

For a moment, she wishes she could get
a decent night’s sleep, but then, she catches
herself. She stands up and rushes to his room,

which has gone silent. She thinks, no, no, no.


He’s shaking in his crib, and she watches,

though it never gets easier. When he finishes,

he screams, and she picks him up, pats him

on the back. But nothing helps, nothing helps–
not rocking, not singing–nothing brings solace.




That is just an example meant to show how the third person can help get a poet away from abstractions like “Fear of tragic helplessness” and “Fear envelopes my world.” It’s always a good idea to remember that poetry developed as a way to tell stories. So, don’t be afraid of telling stories in your poems. And the best way to tell a story is to show, not tell, what is happening.


So, here is what I’d suggest for this poem (in bullet list form):

  • Title the poem.
  • Replace abstraction with specifics.
  • Consider switching narrative voice from first person to third person.
  • Consider hunting down a fitting epigraph. 



These are my thoughts on the poems, but I encourage others to give their views as well in the comments below. My best workshop experiences have been those in which many writers gave me their suggestions, which I could then apply or ignore as I saw fit. So please help Lesa out.


I’d like to thank Lesa for offering up her poem. It’s always a very brave act to share your poetry–even more so when you know that it’s going to be poked and prodded in public. Thanks, Lesa!




If you’re interested in sharing a poem for workshop, click here to learn how to possibly make that happen.




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Learn more about creating poetry with John Drury’s Creating Poetry and The Poetry Dictionary. 


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16 thoughts on “Poetry Workshop: 015

  1. Dennis Wright

    Oh, here is Lesa’s comment she wrote the poem for a friend…

    We’ve commented on the sense of immediacy, whether to write in the first person or the third, whether to use the distance of time when rewritting later, etc.. I think the strength of the poem is in its’ immediacy and think it would miss something essential if this immediacy were lessened.

    I don’t think immediacy will necessarily be lost with rewritting. It might even be brought into a greater clarity with a change or two. The theme of the poem is a strong mother/child bond. This comes through clearly. Time might bring this bond in clearer focus, yet I don’t think it will bring distance. There is too much in the way of connection in this work.

  2. Sam Nielson

    All that being said by me previously I am trying still to practice. It is a goal, but sometime kicked in with an elbow instead of my foot. But that is where the writing effort comes in. I keep telling myself that. . . .

  3. Sam Nielson

    About titling a poem, or more precisely avoiding titling a poem. I had a teacher who refused to accept a poem with no title, or "Untitled". Because of his situation, I understood he had to go overboard in that requirement. In my opinion there may be AN instance where a title isn’t helpful nor necessary. But having said that, in my experience not being able to title a poem is a firm indication that the poet isn’t yet comfortable/settled with the poem as content. Even if the poem is perfect, if an appropriate title cannot be applied, the poet needs to continue to think things out.
    A title can be crucial, can be nominal, can be a toss off, depending on the poem. It has potential to direct, to misdirect on purpose, to focus, etc. But that is all academic.
    So my opinion is that you still need to work out the kinks in your thinking/writing/subject until you can apply a title appropriately. Sometimes having a title first can indicate where the poem should go. Sometimes the title cannot be applied until long after the poem is written. (Which for the immediacy of an online forum like this, is terrible.)But nearly always the reticence to title is an indication that the poem isn’t complete, or completely understood by the poet.
    I see some powerful things going on in the poem, but it does seem to wander. Poetry can be therapeutic for the writer, but the reader must deserve more than musings. There has to be more award to the reader than that, a goal, a journey. Otherwise, the reader should go elsewhere. Perhaps that is harsh, and I don’t intend that. But it is clear.
    I think Robert is accurate in his thought. But perhaps before the condensation/distillation can occur more lines are needed until the poet her/himself gets the strains of where the poem goes. Then the rewrite comes to make it happen.
    Good luck with your poem Lesa.

  4. Joshua Gray

    Several commentators have now talked a bit about fear. This seems to be how readers see the theme of the poem, and I think this is how you intended it as well.

    As another avenue for theme and title, I would suggest not necessarily spelling out the theme in the poem, but putting it up front and center from the start.

    Perhaps the title shouldn’t be about the topic — "Seizing at 2:30 in the Morning," e.g., but the theme: "Moment of Fear."

    Just a thought.

  5. Dennis Wright


    On your longish title, how about "Awake at 2:30 AM" or "2:30 AM, Awake"? I think they are slightly more percise than "2:30 AM" (sorry Robert. The poem revision was great).

    We relate to the worry and anxious feelings of the mother’s voice in the poem. Lesa did an excellent job in conveying these feelings. She conveyed them so well we here on Poetry Street thought they had to be her feelings, but she might be relating to someone else who has an epileptic child.


    I particularly like this image in your poem,

    "The abyss of the unknown invades every part of me.
    Choking my hope."

    Colette talks about how fear and anxious feelings tend to steamroll. I think this is a particularly helpful comment. Fear of the unknown flows with worry and ebbs with ease. To choke, in another meaning of the word, is to check for breathing. That’s a thought that might help.

    Hope is other time oriented, although we experience it here and now. It has two faces, a positive look to future possibilities, and a negative look on the past with, perhaps, a negative look at the future. When we are positive, we call that hope. When we are negative, we call that despair. Just a thought or two on the emotional expression of the voice.

  6. Colette D

    Hi Lesa, On further thought, I realized I didn’t say something GOOD about your poem! I’m sorry about that. First of all I really love how you wrote this for your friend and tried to portray her experience in an empathetic way. It is a good poem on its own. Your use of action verbs that describe symptoms of epileptic seizures to describe her feelings shows the awesome empathy a mother feels for her children. You yourself showed awesome empathy for your friend by writing this poem the way you did–in first person. I really love this poem! Thank you for sharing it here.

  7. Debbie Feller

    I am the mother of an epileptic autistic child, so I thank you Lesa, for capturing those feelings so well. 🙂 I like it in first person too. I probably wouldn’t have known it was about a child having seizures without the before explanation, so agree with the comments of somehow portraying that, either in the title, epigraph or poem. You did a great job!

  8. Colette D

    Lesa, thank you for offering your poem for this sample workshop!

    I read Robert’s suggestions and revision, and really love them. However, if you choose to stay with the emotional experience of the mother–fear–I would like to see your personification of her fear as one consistent metaphor.

    What I mean is, first her fear is an envelope, then it’s a burrowing twine or tuber, then it’s a permanent fixture, but sharp and poking holes in her, and then it’s quicksand, drowning her.

    On another hand, if this was your intention (personifying her fear in an "epileptic" manner), then it would be great to mention that. Perhaps add a line saying something about her "epileptic fear," or her "convulsing fear."

    I think either 1st or 3rd person works here, but either way, Robert is right about needing to clarify to the reader that it’s epilepsy you’re writing about. I like poems that explain it at the end, in a denouement for the final line(s) perhaps, forcing the reader to go back and re-read the poem with an "Aha!" feeling.

    It would also be neat to apply the "fluttering eyelids" to the boy, as well as the mother. That would tie it all together beautifully.

  9. Caren E. Salas

    I agree with Joshua, that this poem is much stronger written in first person. The second poem lost a lot of the frustration and desperation that was in the original. If anything I would focus not on the abstract idea of "fear" but the actual things that trigger that fear: the cries in the dark, the child’s irregular movements/or lack of, the way her stomach knots up to be awoken this way. Just a thought.

  10. Joshua Gray


    My son is autistic as well. Though yours isn’t, to write about it takes courage. I have written about it a lot in many different aspects, from many different angles. For someone who writes about this subject and is not the parent is no less courageous.

    Nicely done and thanks for sharing your poem.

  11. Marie Elena

    Thank you, Margaret. Nice of you to say!

    Lesa, knowing you are not the mother, but are writing on behalf of your friend, makes this piece all the more impressive. Great job getting inside the head and heart of your friend, and expressing it through your words.

  12. Lesa Stember

    Thank you to Robert and to those of you who’ve commented on my poem. I appreciate your time in reading my work. I felt the need to clarify one thing because of the empathy you’ve shown. My children, thankfully, are healthy and don’t suffer from epilepsy. My good friend’s son was born with tuberous sclerosis and is both epileptic and autistic. I wrote the poem for her after she expressed her fears when he was a baby. She’s an incredible woman and I will pass along your thoughts.
    BTW, thanks for the tip about a title, Robert. I’ve written dozens of poems and have never titled them. Oops.

  13. Joshua Gray

    Initial reading of the poem makes me want to concur on several things.

    1. It needs a title. Go with whatever feels right to you, but a title is necessary.

    2. The more specific the better. If switching to third person (storyteller) works for you to accomplish this, great, but

    3. I think the poem is stronger written in first person (character). So revise in third and then move back to first.

    I may have some string feeling about #3, because I do have Epilepsy, and so this poem may speak to me more because of it — and I like the character element. Put yourself in the poem.

  14. Marie Elena

    Being the mother of an epileptic child (now grown), my heart goes out to Lesa.

    I fully understand how this poem originated from the depth of her being, and I think she does a great job of getting across the emotion she feels.

    I agree that it needs a title, but would go in a bit of a different direction. Perhaps "Seized," as this single word describes what happens to the epileptic baby, as well as the mother who is immediately gripped with fear at the first sound of his cry.

    I also agree with Margaret that first-person has the most potential to express the emotional power and drive for this particular piece.

    "I lie peacefully in my bed,
    as my hopes flutter behind closed eyelids.
    At the sound of his tiny cry,
    I am shaken from my sleeping fantasy
    where he does not quake.
    Where every day does not bring a new foe."

    In my opinion, this is an intriquing opening. For me, it portrays the emotion Lesa feels, along with the desire to keep those emotions in check, for fear of losing control. Perhaps instead of "I am shaken from my sleeping fantasy,where he does not quake," I might suggest something that leaves no doubt that she is writing about epilepsy. Maybe something like, "The sound of his tiny cry sends tremors to my spine, jolting me from the slumber that cradles both of us — the slumber that holds seizures at bay, and wards off the foes of each new day."

    The epigraph is a great idea, and I have no doubt there would be a fitting/gripping one out there.

    Great job, Lesa. Bless your heart.

  15. Margaret Fieland

    Robert — I agree with a lot of what you’ve said here — but I think that this poem, written in the first person, has the potential to be extremely powerful.

    I also like a lot of the first part of the poem.

    I agree that the poem needs a title, and that specifics rather than generalities would make the second part much more powerful.

    I think I’d start the poem with the bit about the baby crying ..

    And I might start with a longish title:
    Waking from Sleep at 2:30 AM
    Or Wakened by my Child at 2:30 AM ..

    At the sound of his tiny cry,
    I am shaken from my peaceful bed,
    from my sleeping fantasy.
    Where hope flutters behind closed eyelids.
    Where I imagine my child does not quake.
    Where I do not watch pieces of him jerk away.


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