Poems are difficult to understand and even harder to write, yet three Valley poets are adding new writing constraints to their daily poems in an attempt to make the art form more accessible for everyone.
Kelly Nelson, Elizabeth Evans and Andrea Dickens are celebrating National Poetry Month by turning newspaper clippings into poems. The project is meant to highlight poetry and its place in history and culture.
“Poetry has been the means for millennia that so many cultures use to tell their history and that’s important for us to keep alive,” Dickens said.
The project, started by the Found Poetry Review, uses the oulipo style this year. Oulipo was started by a poet and mathematician, and places constraints onto poetry like form, which vowels can be used and where in the newspaper the words can come from.
The three poets use newspapers like the East Valley Tribune, Arizona Republic and Phoenix New Times as their source materials for their poetry and then find words or phrases to use in their poems. Some prompts have required the poets to find iambic pentameter (for example “the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office”), use only one vowel or write a sonnet.
Dickens, a Mesa resident, participated in the Found Poetry Review’s challenge last year and wrote 30 poems inspired by the Pulitzer-winning novel “The Way West,” which made her want to participate again.
“The book is very gruff and very masculine,” she said. “It’s very different from my natural style, which is very feminine and meditative. It really opened up what I could do with poetry.”
She said participating in the month-long challenge is sometimes a struggle; her career as a teacher at Arizona State University and makes it difficult to find the time to create the time-consuming poems.
“Every poem that we publish is a first draft; it isn’t going to be a final version and getting over the fact that it doesn’t have to be perfect on the first attempt is something I learned last year,” she said.
Evans, a Phoenix resident, said she has become more interested and immersed in the rhythms and language of everyday writing through the challenge.
“I’ve never been disciplined about (writing poetry),” she said. “I just wait for a poem to come and sometimes they take a long time. Making myself write a poem everyday makes me write more of everything else I want to write, too.”
Evans has participated in daily poetry challenges, but this one is different. Rather than writing an unconstrained poem or haiku each day, she is focusing on putting layers of meaning into poems that are highly structured.
Kelly Nelson, who lives in Tempe and teaches at ASU, said the process is like a big puzzle she has to solve, but it is also a very creative process that promotes discovery.
“I will run through this loop 30 times of basically solving a problem,” she said. “I have these certain words and this form they have to fill, so how am I going to do this? At first I’m this mix of anxious and confused, but then it will start to take shape and I’ll be able to put it together.”
Through the daily challenge, Nelson has started looking at words a little differently because of the constraints. In a previous prompt, she was only allowed to use words with the vowel “a,” and words she had never looked at for spelling suddenly jumped out at her.
“You don’t know at first what you could possibly make out of it, but when you do come up with something there’s just that sense of accomplishment and discovery,” she said.
• Shelby Slade is a sophomore at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She is an intern with the Tribune this semester. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.