Some approaches for writing place-based poems

There are so many places that have meaning for us that we could write about. How to start?

In my recent Tyee piece, I provide three examples of Vancouver-themed poems, written in very different styles. Henry Doyle takes plainspoken, direct approach to describe working at the Main & Hastings washrooms. Former Vancouver poet laureate, Evelyn Lau, weaves together lyric depictions of her neighbourhood, including the last remaining hold-out, a woman with an old home sandwiched between condo developments. Alex Leslie’s hyperbolic prose poem is terrific parody of the typical scenic postcard, transforming English Bay into a surreal and disturbing landscape.

In my March 19 online workshop with the Vancouver Public Library, I discuss various approaches to writing place-based poems. Here are some of the strategies:

  • Ask a grandparent/elder to point out a favourite place on a map and describe a specific event or scene. What did they smell, taste, touch, hear (conversation, stories, nature sounds) and see (colours, objects, animals, plants, people)?  Turn that interview into a poem.
  • Use headlines from an old newspaper or magazine or postcard as a writing prompt
  • Research and write a poem about the history of a significant home, school, restaurant, playground, park, garden or gathering place using an actual scene from your memory or someone else’s (refer to my Possible Resources Page for websites and books about local history)
  • Address a person, place or thing, or have that person, place or thing address you (a speech, a story, a letter, a conversation/dialogue)
  • Read at least 4-5 place-based poems, and then write about the changes you’ve witnessed in your own neighbourhood (see poems listed on my Possible Resources Page)

Once you have managed to put a draft poem on the page, it’s a wonderful feeling! But once the clouds of glory from creating something new have dissipated, it’s time to take a closer look at your draft. Mary Oliver wrote about needing 40 drafts of any one poem, or even more. It take time and effort to refine a poem. What steps can we take to better communicate our vision of the poem to readers? Here are some questions to ask your draft poem:

  • Where does the poem really begin, and where does it end?
  • Is there something contained or not contained in the poem that I am avoiding?
  • How can I hone my poem further? 
    • Word choice: can I use any stronger and more vivid verbs, and can I spot any abstractions or clichés?
    • Figurative language: inserting metaphors and similes
    • Are there places that need “unpacking” (further development) or need further compression or cutting out altogether?
    • Does it flow well? (Read it aloud!)
    • Can I improve my use of white space? (line length, line breaks, stanza breaks)
    • When to “show” and when to “tell”? Where is it best to be indirect (e.g. to imply and connote) and when is it better to be direct (to state)?
    • Are there other layers running beneath the poem to tap into? (temporal, emotional, spiritual)                          

I also recommend this article by Ann Gardner, “Place-based poetry: one step at a time.” It is geared toward high school students, but it provides an excellent illustration of the revision process for anyone who is new to creative writing.