Use Mentor Poems to Grow as a Poet by Violet Nesdoly

If you’re a crafter you may have gone to a craft fair, admired items on display, picked up one or two that especially appealed to you, and examined them closely. Why? Chances are you were trying to figure out how they were made and whether you could make something similar.

Growth in any skill is often rooted in admiration and the desire to copy what we admire. Writing is no different.

I’ll never forget the first time I read a pantoum. I was mesmerized by the almost dance-like effect created by the repeating lines. I then studied instructions on how to write one. But it was the poem itself that made me want to try the form.

One of the ways we can grow as poets—indeed as writers of any genre—is by observing and learning from writing we admire. Teachers who use this method in the classroom call such model writings “mentor texts.” A mentor text is “Any text that you can learn from … by just looking at the actual writing itself being used in a really skillful, powerful way” – Ralph Fletcher (teacher, and author of the book Mentor Author, Mentor Texts: Short Texts, Craft Notes, and Practical Classroom Uses).

How to use a poem as a mentor text

  1. Find a poem you admire in a style you’d like to try.
  1. Analyze it by asking questions like:

– Who is speaking?

– What person is the poet using (first: I; second: you; third: they)? What’s the effect of that?

– Is the verb tense present, past, or future? What’s the effect of that?

– Is the poem in a special form (sonnet, haiku, tanka, villanelle, pantoum, etc.)?

– What are some striking images?

– What words or phrases are especially strong?

– Does the poet use vocabulary of a particular discipline or job?

– How does the poet use language to enhance the poem’s sound (is there rhyme, alliteration, consonance, assonance, onomatopoeia)?

– Does the poem have a noticeable rhythm? How does rhythm, or lack of it, affect the poem?

– What effect does the poem create? Does it leave you feeling amused, sad, energized, thoughtful, disturbed, jolted, or…?

– Are there things you don’t understand in the poem? Do they add to or detract from the poem’s appeal?

– What is your favorite thing about the poem?

  1. Write a poem inspired by your mentor poem.

You may choose to copy few or many of your mentor poem’s qualities.

  • A simple challenge:

During April, children’s poet Doraine Bennett posted a daily mentor poem and a writing of her own based on it. The writing challenges she set herself usually included only one or two things found in the model text. See how she did it HERE.

  • A more complex challenge:

Diane Lockward sends out a mentor poem prompt in her monthly newsletter. She usually picks out four or five things from the model poem and creates challenges that are complex and interesting.

The mentor poem in her May newsletter, for example, was a tritina. The analysis of the poem identified and described the tritina form, explained the effect of that form, suggested some subjects that might lend themselves to it, and pointed out a motif in the poem (words that related to “time”). Then she challenged the reader to write a poem in that form on a suitable subject (she listed several examples), and that contained its own motif. (You can sign up for Lockward’s free monthly newsletter in the right sidebar of her blog.)

Using model poems will lure you into trying new forms. It may get you writing in unaccustomed styles. Don’t be surprised if you—a dyed-in-the-wool free verser—find yourself writing rhyme, or vice versa. It may inspire you to coin words. It may send you hunting through the newspaper for suitable copy to make a blackout poem. You may find yourself working with lines from others’ poems to create a cento poem, or with titles from book spines or results of a Google search to construct a found poem. One thing is sure—using mentor poems will challenge you to venture into new territory and with such exploration you’re bound to grow as a poet.

 Violet Nesdoly (med)Violet Nesdoly uses fiction, nonfiction, meditations, and poetry to do what she is passionate about—bringing the Bible to life. Her debut novel Destiny’s Hands, a Bible fiction, was a finalist in the 2013 Word Awards. She blogs book reviews at Violet and poetry at Violet Nesdoly / poems

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