Emily Wall: Revising into Form

spring I teach an intro creative writing workshop, and every single year, in
the first batch of submissions, someone turns in a poem written with a rhyme
scheme. In class two, when we workshop the poem, we always have a rousing
debate about the merits of a rhyme scheme. 
Usually I’m alone in my let’s-not-use-rhyme-schemes-yet corner, with everyone
else encouraging the poet to keep along this path. It’s a delicate moment. I
have to subtly insinuate how problematic it is, while not entrenching them
further in their poems-should-rhyme positions. 
It takes me a while—a few weeks at least—to get them to begin to explore
the territory of free verse. Usually by the end of the semester they are
rolling their eyes if they encounter a rhyme scheme and wouldn’t be caught dead
with one hanging off their arm.  Having
thus indoctrinated them into the world of free verse, I send them on their
merry, writerly ways.

But in
the fall I teach an advanced workshop, and one of my greatest pleasures is in
reintroducing form and rhyme schemes to them.  They are naturally suspicious of form (and of
me, I suspect) and that’s a good place to begin studying form. We play a little
with sestinas, haiku, and sometimes villanelles.  But we spend most of our time on free verse,
which is what most of them want to write.

This fall
I’m going to teach a whole workshop on form and I’m pretty excited.  I’ve never taught a form class and I’m
elbow-deep in some great texts like After
New Formalism
and Rebel Angels.  It’s amazing to see some of the really
terrific form work being done.  One of my
all-time favorite poems is “Interpreting the Foreign Queen” by Beth Ann
Fennelly (in her book Tender Hooks).  It has a sweet abab scheme that you don’t even
realize is there until you’ve read it a few times. 

finding myself actually falling in love with form.  I’ve dabbled in it before, but never really
done serious work with it.  In my book Liveaboard I have two sestinas and a
ghazal. At a reading recently someone asked me how I could write a sestina
without losing my mind.  What works for
me is not starting out to write a sestina. That is crazy-making. What I discovered a few years ago is that the
sestina—and other forms too—are terrific revision tools.  If I have a long, messy, meandering poem
that’s not going anywhere, it’s a great candidate to put into form. The act of
creating a sestina out of it somehow triggers a different kind of thinking; it
helps scrape away all that unnecessary stuff and get to the meat of the poem.
If you haven’t tried this yet, you should. 
It’s also much easier (or at least less scary) to start a form poem with
something already on the page. And it’s helped me resurrect a few poems that
would have been recycled otherwise.

The last
thing I’ll say about form is to encourage you to try one you’ve never been able
to do. I faithfully teach the villanelle to my advanced workshop and admire the
few students who have written them. But somehow I just could not get that form
to work for me. After years of trying I finally had my first (possible) success
this year. I was working on a birth poem for a friend and just couldn’t get it
to work. Finally I tried the villanelle form and something just clicked in the
poem—the obsessing, the refrain—they were right for this particular poem.  I like the poem, but even more I like being
able to break through the barrier of the villanelle. And of course my intro
students are right—there’s something so seductive and intense about rhyme.

So I’ll
leave you for the week with this parting shot: if you haven’t tried form
writing, and especially if you have a disaster poem on your desk, go for
it.  And if you’re Facebook friends with
me, send me a copy—I’d love to see it. 

Emily Wall is a poet and an Assistant Professor of
English at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau.  She has been published in a wide variety of
literary journals and has won several poetry prizes.  Her second book of poems,
Liveaboard was published in February of
2012.  Her first book,
Freshly Rooted came out in 2007.  Both books are published by the Irish Press
Salmon Poetry.  Emily lives and writes in
Juneau, Alaska.
You can find her online at: www.emily-wall.com
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