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Writing Advice From Poets

Though the providers of thoughts listed below are primarily poets, their advice is universal to all writers.

We asked several poets two questions: "What is the one technique that makes your work stand out?" and "What is the best piece of writing advice you ever received?" Their answers follow. (For the answers to these questions from fiction writers from Elmore Leonard to Sandra Brown to Richard North Patterson, click here, and from nonfiction writers from Stephen Ambrose to Marya Hornbacher to Jeff Zaslow, click here.)

Laurence Lieberman
Compass of the Dying (University of Arkansas Press)

The Technique: Some time after my first drafts are completed, months or even years, I come back to the material to look for the poems hidden in the handwritten scrawl. I turn to the typewriter when I begin experimenting with forms, usually stanzas employing syllabic or accentual count lines. I never use a computer in working on poems—I want to slow the process down, not speed it up.

The Advice:Marianne Moore wrote to me the following comment that has served me well ever since: "Protest is no match for ardor. . . . Your poems have the gift of praise."

Dana Gioia
Certain Solitudes: On the Poetry of Donald Justice (University of Arkansas Press)

The Technique: Approach revision with the same openness to inspiration with which you began writing the first draft.

Walt McDonald
Blessings the Body Gave (Ohio State University Press)

The Technique: I have the simple faith that words will show me the way. For a while, I feel totally ignorant; I have no idea what's coming. I like that silence: I can feel hair rise on the back of my neck when I type a phrase that intrigues me—a sense of immediate complicity, as if the words and I are up to something.

Karen Swenson
A Daughter's Latitude (Copper Canyon)

The Advice: I was told by Professor Kowenhaven to write 500 words a day; that quantity would lead to quality over time.

Lola Haskins
Extranjera (Story Line Press)

The Advice: My father said, when he saw me for the millionth time scrambling to please, that I needed to learn that no matter what I did, there would be people who just wouldn't like me. When I catch myself adjusting some line, not because I think the change improves the poem, but because I think some critic will like it, I remember Daddy and leave it alone.

Ronald Wallace
The Uses of Adversity (University of Pittsburgh Press)

The Advice: Henry James said, "Write only from experience but you must be one on whom nothing is lost." Dylan Thomas said that he wrote only when he was inspired. But the more he wrote, the inspireder he got. William Stafford, explaining how he managed to be so prolific, said, "Every day I get up and look out the window, and something occurs to me. Something always occurs to me. And if it doesn't, I just lower my standards." The third quote was especially useful to me when I decided to write a sonnet a day for a year.

Lyn Lifshin
Cold Comfort (Black Sparrow)

The Technique: In the Eskimo language, the words to breathe and to make a poem are the same. Remembering that has been wildly helpful to me. It means a freeness to plunge in, almost like doing a finger painting. It's a free flow, suspending fact, meaning, sanity, then seeing, in what pours out uncensored, what can be shaped, fashioned, pared down or enlarged to become a poem.

Carol Muske-Dukes
An Octave Above Thunder (Penguin)

The Technique: Random composition—I work whenever I can, at stoplights, in doctor's waiting rooms, at 3 a.m.

The Advice: During my first year in New York City Daniel Halpern told me that being a writer meant being serious about writing. I came to understand what serious meant—an absolute commitment to the art and craft.

Ruth Daigon
Between One Future and the Next (Papier-Mache Press)

The Advice: I worked with a group of English professors in Connecticut whose favorite expression was "When in doubt, throw it out."

Neal Bowers
Words for the Taking: The Hunt for a Plagiarist (Norton)

The Advice: "Trust the process and the reader." It didn't make a lot of sense to me when my first creative writing teacher, Malcolm Glass, uttered it in 1967. His colorful metaphor of grabbing the tail of a wild hog as it runs by and letting it drag you through the thicket didn't help much. These days, though, I often look back at those unplanned and unpredictable trails my writing makes through the brush, with me hanging on, and I think of Malcolm's wild hog.

Terese Svoboda
Cannibal (New York University Press)

The Advice: Gordon Lish told me, "Don't let what you know stand in your way."

Read the advice from fiction writers.

Read the advice from nonfiction writers.

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