Poetry I: Introduction to Making Poems | Cameron Conaway | Skillshare

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Poetry I: Introduction to Making Poems

teacher avatar Cameron Conaway, Writer

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      Project Overview


    • 3.

      What is Poetry?


    • 4.

      Finding Your Theme


    • 5.

      Finding Your Thread


    • 6.

      Small Noticings


    • 7.

      The Literary Toolbox - Part 1


    • 8.

      The Literary Toolbox - Part 2


    • 9.

      Begin Your Poem


    • 10.

      Final Thoughts


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About This Class

This class is not about theory or the history of poetry; it’s about how you can start writing quality poems in as short a time as possible.

Cameron Conaway, award-winning poet and journalist, breaks down the myths surrounding what poetry is, who can make it, and how it’s made. He guides us through “the butterfly method,” his own unique process for how to make a poem. This process is at the heart of how he wrote all of his books, including Malaria, Poems, which was one of only four poetry collections named to NPR’s Best Books of 2014 list.

If you’ve wanted to write poetry but felt intimidated or confused, this class is for you. By the end of the class you will have written five poems, all linked by a particular theme you care deeply about, and you’ll be well on your way to putting your first book together.


Connect with Cameron on LinkedIn and on YouTube where he creates videos on the importance of feedback, like this one:

Meet Your Teacher

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Cameron Conaway



CAMERON CONAWAY is the author of six books, including Malaria, Poems, an NPR Best Book of 2014. Of the book, NPR wrote: “In the spirit of social consciousness, Cameron Conaway does the work of calling our attention.” He is a recipient of the 2016 Daniel Pearl Investigative Journalism Initiative Fellowship, an honor given to one journalist each year, and his work has appeared in publications such as Newsweek, ESPN, The Guardian, Reuters, NPR, Forbes, The Washington Post, Harvard Business Review, and Stanford Social Innovation Review, among others.

Conaway has received grants from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and the International Reporting Project, nominations for a National Magazine Award and a Pushcart Prize, and writing residencies from Penn State Univer... See full profile

Level: Beginner

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1. Introduction: My name is Cameron Conaway, and I'm fired up to teach poetry. One introduction to Making Poems. An award winning poet and journalist based here in Philadelphia on I'm, the author of four books, including Malaria Poems, which was named a best book of 2014 by NPR. But here's the deal. I didn't grow up reading books. I didn't grow up writing poems. I was taught poetry through great teachers who dispelled the midst of it and actually taught me how to do it. You may believe in some of these minutes, you know that all poetry has to rhyme or that it doesn't have much practical value, or that Italy deals with things like love and sadness and anger. I've developed the butterfly framework, which I think will dispel some of those myths on also helped get you writing quality poems in a short a time as possible. I believe every poem you write matters, and I believe poetry's a communal act. I believe it's improved through community, so I hope you'll join us 2. Project Overview: here in poetry, one introduction of making poems, we're gonna actually be making poems were gonna make five of them, and they're all gonna be tied to a theme that you care deeply about. You know, when I first got started writing poetry, the biggest challenge I had was how do I start when I have an idea, What do I do with it? How do I get ideas? Can I prime myself to be more receptive to ideas on? And then even if I have a bunch of ideas, how do I pick and choose them and actually start to build something? I had this idea that, uh, you know, a poem just happens. You know, that's one of the myths that it comes from the muses, and it just happens. The more I learned, the more I realized Now you build poems there, made things, Um, So the deeper we get into the butterfly method, the more I think you'll see. It helps you kick start individual poems. But it also helps put you on the way to developing your first book of poems. Which might sound crazy right now, but I think it can happen. Um, but It makes sense if we start with two very basic questions. One. What is poetry? And two. How do we find our theme? So I'd like to start with the 1st 1 What is poetry? 3. What is Poetry?: What is poetry? Huge question, right? It's the question that teachers of poetry all over the world ask and unravel a discussion about for the 1st 345 weeks of a class. It's how I first learned poetry, and it's how I've actually taught my own students. I write it on the board, what is poetry? And we have a great discussion for a few weeks about what it's about. But I felt there were limitations. The about that question, right? It felt very distant on. And while some of the ideas that we talked about were really interesting, it didn't feel immensely practical to me. What felt more practical? It was when I asked myself, What is a poet? Because that took it from what is poetry, Something out here to what is a poet? Something in here, something that I could actually be and do. So what is a poet then, right? I really see a poet as somebody who writes to make this small large. They take the minutia of life, and they expanded in a way that connects with our shared humanity are shared community. That's what I think a poet iss. So then we come back to what is poetry for me. I think it's everything that happens between that time, and we say I'm going to write a poem and then when we've actually written a poem So it's that whole period in between which makes poetry to me as much about the writing of it as it is about the living of it. So that's how I would define poetry. But since we're writing poems about a theme we care about, it makes sense if we learn how to find that theme, and I have a few action steps that I think will help get you started. 4. Finding Your Theme: finding your theme. That's where we're going to get started. And, you know, because we are writing poems, all linked by particular theme, this is a really important place to start, and it's actually the start of our butterfly method. This may look like a carrot, but it's actually the body of a butterfly. We're gonna build out the wings later. The body of the butterfly is represented by the theme. So once we come to the theme, we're gonna write it in the body of the butterfly. Um, I realized that creativity can never be paint by numbers. Uh, there's always gonna be a bit of mystery with poetry, with creativity in general. But as we get started with the butterfly method with our with our our body here finding our theme, I think you don't start to come together for you. So first I wanna share a few insights about how I came to find my own themes in my books. My first book until you Make the Shore. I knew I wanted to write a poetry book. I felt like I had the tolls. There certainly had the interest. At the time I was teaching poetry and a juvenile detention center. And, ah, you know, every time I would leave, I would I would have to pull over to the parking lot because stories I heard were just so, so devastating. And they really they really shook me up. My theme there was pretty easy. I knew that I had to write about what I was experiencing in that detention center. But it wasn't just that it was something that I was physically close to. Obviously it stirred my emotions. Um, and it was also something I was interested in learning more about. I wanted to know how they ended up there, uh, why the system was broken. So I was interested in learning more about the system malaria poems that came together. I was on a kickboxing scholarship in Thailand, and so I thought, Well, I'm ready to write my next book of poems. Maybe I should read it about kickboxing. Then I met a malaria researcher who exposed me to the ravages of the disease and really, how little I knew about it. That was where I thought I knew what my theme Waas. But it wasn't one that really stirred me enough. Malaria stirred me, right? So both books were linked. A to confluence of three important topics. One is it. It's something that you're physically close to to. It's something that stirs your emotions or at least has the capacity to disturb your emotions as you get deeper into it. And three, it's something you're actually interested in learning about, right, because this is a sustainable process. We're not just writing one poem, writing a series, maybe even a book. If your theme is at the confluence of those three, that's a pretty good thing. So very few of us are lucky enough to just have a theme drop in our lap there. It iss great. Most of us have to work for it. I've had to work for it. My students have had to work for it, and what really works is kind of another method that I've developed called action 10. So action 10 10 stands for minutes, and it split up into two. So the 1st 5 minutes is sitting meditation. You can call it meditation or purposeful sitting yours as an or whatever, but we're gonna be intentionally sitting for five minutes. You can set a timer to do that, Um, the other part of the five minutes is free writing, and this is just the act of writing. So you can go to your computer, your notebook. Wherever you're most comfortable writing and you're not going to filter yourself, you're not gonna edit. You're not going to slow down in any way if you go off on tangents. That's fine. You are not going to stop typing or writing until the timer goes off five minutes. So the idea here is that you move immediately from sitting where you're able to tap into some some pretty deep emotions in some insights on. And then there's no break between right, So you're not sitting and then the day passes and then you write your sitting, whatever you capture, whatever themes that you're hovering around, you immediately get into the writing process so that you can capture them. That's action 10. That's how we're gonna find our theme. I recommend not leaping into finding your thread until you feel relatively comfortable that you found your theme 5. Finding Your Thread: so welcome to finding your thread. That means you've already accomplished finding your theme, which I think is one of the most difficult parts. So now we're gonna find our threat, right? We're gonna find the parts of us that is tethered to that theme, that part of us that actually makes us care about it. And I think this is really important because you can have a theme. You can have all the literary tools and all the poetry skills in the world, but the poems that you write might not have the kind of emotional authenticity as if they were something that you cared about. And they certainly wouldn't have the kind of sustainability. You wouldn't be able to write a series of poems or a book of poems if if some part of your heart wasn't in them, right. So finding your threat is a very important part. And it's actually the second part of our butterfly where we have the theme down the body and the thread building out the first wing. So the way we find our threat again is coming back to the action. 10. But this time we're fusing part one and two of our previous action. 10. So instead of sitting for five minutes and then free writing for five minutes, we're gonna sit for 10 minutes. But we're gonna keep our notebook or computer by our side so that as ideas come and these may be ideas that really stir you may be very difficult to deal with. If that is the case, I ask you to try to come back to your breath. Come back to the rhythm of your breath. Think about the texture of your breath. If your mind is going up against something very difficult, take a step back and try to observe it from a distance. Meditation could be a very difficult process, not only just physically sitting, but also emotionally. What comes into the mind? So what? I'm asking for you to dio while you're sitting as ideas come as you feel like you're starting to hover around, you know, what is it that makes me care about this theme? Open your eyes gently Get that idea down on paper. So again we're trying to create is a little separation is possible. You might be at in the grocery store, and you feel like you have your threat and you can't get somewhere to write it. This is carving out a concentrated period of time. We're prime ing ourselves so that when that idea rises were in the perfect place to capture it. So once you found your threat, you may actually have a few threats, and that's fine. But once you feel relatively confident that you for sure have your theme and you definitely feel like you know why you care about that theme, join us for small notice things where we're gonna build out the rest of the butterfly. 6. Small Noticings: welcome to small notice things. It's at this point as a poet that I get really excited because I know my perception of the world is about to change. So once we've committed to a theme and we found why we care about that theme are thread. This is where we start to become more receptive to all those small notice things, all the all of the kind of details that are going to build out our poem. And this is also where we build out the final wing of our butterfly. So Samuel Green referred to details, the kind that build poems as small notice things William Blake refer to them as Minute Lee organized particulars. And when Shakespeare said a bright particular star, I take that to mean small notice ings, which he was pretty good at picking up small notice. Things are the kind of details that we see in our everyday lives. We see them in the bubbles in the dishwasher. We see them in a certain billboard. We see them in the way the sun comes through the window and catches the grapefruit. Those are the kind of small notice things that allow a poem to really shine on the page in the book I'm working on now, which is called Man Box and about halfway through with it. Once I committed to my theme, which was masculinity into my thread, which was growing up in an abusive household but also just generally being really interested in concepts of masculinity and the way they're presented in the media. Once I committed to that, everything around me changed. I started to see branding differently when I was at the grocery store and I would see a box of tissues. It was I started to see that it was a purposeful color. There was a purposeful logo on there. Try to tap into masculinity to try to get men to buy or not buy certain products. Um, everything around me changed everything I watched on TV changed. I'm sharing some of these changes that I'm noticing some of the small details and also just how the books coming together in my monthly email at camera conaway dot com. And it's interesting because I've tapped into a lot of the research from Adam Grant. He's a professor here at the University of Pennsylvania. He's a self professed pre crashed in ator. So if he has a talk that he's going to give in six months, he prepares for it six months in advance. So he hasn't totally banged out well before it's due. But what is research unveiled is that when you really commit to a creative project, but you let a little bit of space go in between, the idea is kind of percolate in your subconscious. And so whenever you start to actually do the creative project, really amazing things can happen. So I bring this up because procrastination has a purpose. Typically, procrastination is something that is frowned upon. But actually don't want you Teoh to force this issue. When you've committed your theme, you've got your thread. You're ready to get your small notice things. Commit to that. Commit to the idea that you're going to write five poems for us. Commit to the idea that maybe you're going to actually turn those poems into a book. But don't feel forced to immediately go try to catch butterflies when there aren't any butterflies, right? Let some time pass the ideas, they're gonna percolate in your head, and they're gonna comment random times. So I make sure I have. Ah, phone or nopal candy. If I see something that's small noticing Boom, I get it, I get it down. However, we can kind of amplify this process by moving into our third action 10. And this is an action 10 that that really takes parts from our first action 10 and or second action 10. So we're going to split it up again, so it's gonna be five and five. Our first action 10. We're going to do sitting meditation with the notebook by our side were purposely sitting with the intention of thinking about small notice, things that air in regards to our theme and threat. Right. They're gonna come to you. You're gonna start to see things in your mind's eye that you want to jot down. Get them down, right there's your notebook. Part two, however, is instead of letting so much time passed, we have all these amazing small noticing. But we're gonna let time pass. We're gonna immediately go into free writing. So what I want you to do is when you have your notes laid out, look at your notes. Maybe 15 20 seconds, just kind of peer through him. And then I want you to flip your paper over and immediately start writing about one of those themes again. You may go off on tangents, but I think as you go through as the timer ends at five minutes and you look back through, you're going to see that a lot of those small notice ings are actually expanded into gorgeous narratives that are gonna fill your poems. 7. The Literary Toolbox - Part 1: so welcome to the literary toolbox. Part one. This is where we've gathered everything. We've developed our butterfly. We've started to build out all the wings on and we're ready to put it all together. But we need some tools in order to do so. Eso for that. I want to go. You know, a little old school. Let's go to Shakespeare. Um, I'm just going to read this tongue, Not a word. Come, trusty sword. Come blade. My breast and brew and farewell friends. Thus this be ends A Do I do. I do. So what we have here? What I think is really interesting. We have really three different types of rhyme. We have an internal rhyme with tongue and come, uh, eso that sound in between there is the same and we also have I rhyme First glance of the poem You see word of the sword and you think Ron, that's a literary tool. Um, we also then have direct rhyme right with friends and ends. So in this tiny little p, Shakespeare was able to incorporate three different kinds of Ron. There's also the rhythm of syllables. So not a word trusty sword. So he's matching three and three syllables there, which allows the poem to kind of roll off the tone. There's also a liberation all throughout right. We have farewell friends. We have thus this be so this is Shakespeare again piling all sorts of literary tolls into the short little piece. Lastly, obviously we have repetition. Do it, Do it do but also the come come at the top, which sort of pulses the poem forward as it's through repetition. I'll just read this as well. When it comes to fighting, I count myself as dangerous any day as Grendel so it won't be a cutting edge are wheeled to mow him down easily, as I might. He has no idea of the arts of war of she owed or sword play. Although he does possess a wild strength. No weapons, therefore for either. This night, unarmed, he shall face me if face me, He dares and made a divine Lord in his wisdom, grant the glory of victory to whichever side he sees fit. So so many things to talk about in this Babel of translation. But what I really like is the idea of in jam mint. So when Jam it really means just running line. It means you don't have to have a hard stop at every single line at the end. There doesn't have to be a period, a comma. Some other form of punctuation lines can run into each other, right? So the first line, when it comes to fighting, I count myself and it just runs right into the next line as dangerous. And you could do some really interesting things because you know the readers, I is going to be at the end of your line and you have about a millisecond so they their eyes adjust and start back at the far left line. Right, so you can put a word like possess. He does possess, which really leads the reader. It creates a little bit of tension to lead them. What does he possess, right? It makes them ask a quick question, and then you answer it in the beginning line, so jam. It is a very important literary toll most modern poets are using and jam it, and I encourage you to as well, also what I think is really important. If we are using in jam, it is to end on strong words, right? So there are no is. There are no the at the end of these of these poems. And, of course, with the Shakespeare poem as well myself. Grendel wheeled. Might war possess therefore me Lord victory fits the end. Word is always, always very important on if you throw out a week word like is out there. It doesn't really lead the reader much, and it doesn't create an expectation that something really awesome was about to happen. I also want to talk about Charlotte's Web. Um, it's not a poem. It's probably a book, you know, all of us were exposed to at some point in school. Um, this particular passage is taught because of the way it's able to use sentence structure to capture the topic. So what's happening is there's a swing, right. There's a swing set, and I'll just go ahead and read it. Mr. Zuckerman had the best swing in the county. It was a single long piece of heavy rope tied to the beam over the north doorway at the bottom end of the rope was a fat not to sit on. It was arranged so that you could swing without being pushed. You climbed a ladder to the hayloft, Then holding the rope, you stood at the edge and look down and you were scared and dizzy. Then you straddled the not so that it acted as a seat. Then you got up all your nerve, took a deep breath and jumped for a second. You seem to be following to the barn floor far below. But then suddenly the rope would begin to catch you and you would sail through the barn door going a mile a minute with the wind whistling in your eyes and ears and hair. Then you would zoom upward into the sky and look up at the clouds and the rope would twist and you twist and turn with the rope. Then you would drop down, down, down, out of the sky and come sailing back into the barn almost into the hayloft, then sail out again. Not quite so far this time, then and again, not quite so high than out again, Then in again, then out then in. And then you jump off and fall down and let somebody else try it. That last part there was purposely breathless. It was capturing what it's like to be on a swing and then toe hard stop and get off and let somebody else come on on. And so this was just an excellent example that I that I always turn to with with Charlotte's Web, because I think a lot of people see it as a Children's book. But there's so many literary tools to look for in here. So next we'll move on to literary toolbox to where we'll take a look at what three modern poets are doing on the page and how we can use their techniques in our own work. 8. The Literary Toolbox - Part 2: so welcome to literary toolbox, Part two. Right now, we're gonna jump into Lucille Clifton, one of one of my favorite poets, and she actually wrote a series of poems that I think taps into what we're trying to do. So her first poem is called And Your Mama. Her second poem is called Uncle Ben Hur. Third poem is called Cream of Wheat. I think you can probably pick up that there's a theme that ties these together. What Lucille does beautifully, I think, is she's not writing simply a poem called Auntie Momma. She's not writing a poem called Uncle Ben or Cream of Wheat. These products that we so often see on the shelf She's actually inhabiting them. She's taking on their persona and imagining what it would be like to live like them on the shelf. So I'll read Cream of Wheat Sometimes at night we strolled the market aisles. Ben and Jim, I'm and me. They walk in front, remembering this and that I lagged behind, trying to remove my chef's cap, wondering whatever pictured me, then left me personal. Iss Rastus, I read in an old paper I was called Rastus, but no mother ever gave that to her son. Toward Dawn, we returned to our shelves are boxes Ben and Jim. I'm and me. We pose and smile. I simmer. What is my name, really? Just a beautiful use of inhabiting another perspective. It's radical empathy at its finest from Lucille Clifton. What Lucy was also doing is she's breaking the roles that poetry has, uh, which one of the myth says that you have to use certain kinds of punctuation, not a single method of punctuation in here, not even a comma, not a period. Nothing. She doesn't even capitalize the letter I So these air purposeful and she's she's really using them to improve the poem. So think about how you're using punctuation in your bones. The other two poems I would like to discuss are really two of my favorite, and I don't want to point out any literary tools so much as just have you listened to them and read them? They both really, um, the first poem Dust by Dorian Law. Uh, it talks about what happens when a small notice incomes, but you just you can't get it. Um, either you're too lazy or too tired or you just can't. So I'll read out dust. Someone spoke to be last night told me the truth. Just a few words, but I recognized it. I knew I should make myself get up. Write it down. But it was late and I was exhausted from working all day in the garden, moving rocks. Now I remember only the flavor. Not like food, sweet or sharp, more like a fine powder like dust. And I wasn't related or frightened, but simply wrapped aware. That's how it is. Sometimes God comes to your window, all bright light and black wings, and you're just too tired to open it. Beautiful poem about capturing small notice ings uh, be prepared. They will come from nowhere. You may be very tired. You maybe just falling asleep. In one comes. A true poet really tries to get up and get it down. And I think Dorian was really capturing something beautiful there. The next poem, Dusk, is actually by Ray Arm and Trout, who's won every award in poetry imaginable. But I think the poem that she's writing here is basically a small noticing that she just added a little bit too. So this is a really great exercise for you to take a small noticing, Add something to it and share it with our class. It's really away. Teoh kind of have an icebreaker where you're not submitting a fully fleshed out long poem. You're just saying, Hey, I have a theme. I have a thread. Um, and I have some small notice things and look what I could make up them. So I'll read this desk by Ray arm and Trout Spider on the cold expanse of glass. Three stories high rests intently and so, purely alone. I'm not like that. So now that we've built out or Butterfly, we found our theme. We found our threat. It's been sitting with us for a while and we're starting to see small notice things all around us. We're capturing those small notice things. Now we have some literary tolls, So when we do start writing, we can really go in and apply some of these tolls of sound and spacing and structure and punctuation. So now that we've explored some tolls and I know you've already got your theme, you've already got your thread the world around. You is changing because you're pulling small, notice things out of it. Now it's time to actually start writing a poem. So let's do that 9. Begin Your Poem: So this is where we actually begin. Our poem is where we take everything that we've learned All the literary tolls we take, the action tends that we've done. We put it all together and we build the first of our poems. This is also where our butterfly framework becomes sort of a butterfly action plan. I actually don't want. You should just use the butterflies. A framework. This is a blank butterfly. I'm gonna show you what it looks like when I filled it in here in a second. Um, that's the blank butterfly. Here's the butterfly framework. Nice organized. Here's what a butterfly framework actually looks like when I start building on a poem. So this was based on my last poems called Fuel Eso. You see, I have my theme here. Masculinity. Um, my thread had an abusive father. I've been interested. Social norms surrounding masculinity on gun. I have some small noticing. So I'll read these and they just came, you know, some came through action tens. Some came just throughout the day and I captured them, wrote them down in my phone or in my notebook. So I've read through how seeing someone for the first time in years closes the gap of time . How time changes perspective of size. How lies make the same sound. That's truths, how our lives are silent stories and we rarely know the impact they have on others. So as I was sitting for inaction, 10 I, you know, I realized I kept going back into a memory of when I saw my father at a gas station. So there have been many years in between the time when I last saw him on and I realized that it would be really strong to open the poem right at the gas station. And as I start to build that poem, pull in the small notice things that I think fit. So if I hadn't read that poem is called Fuel. He was leaving the gas station and I held the door for him. Caught a glimpse. My father, the sleeves of our winter coats, brushed together his green eyes. The gap of 15 years closed quick. I didn't want to watch him get into his car, but I wanted to. So I did stole a few glances, saw face different than the one I stared into as he painted mine for Halloween saw hand smaller than knows that caused me harm. He started his car, backed out, pulled away into a smoke cloud. What a shame that lies make the same sound as truths that we feel so large under a low roof that we can hear engines, but not the stories we create and then leave behind. So I think you can probably see where I pulled in the small notice things. How someone seeing someone for the first time closes the gap of time. How time changes perspective, how lie sound like truths, how our lives are silent stories and we don't know the impact of them. I was able to pull in those small notice things into the narrative of the poem, so I hope that by giving you a glimpse into how I build poems, you could start to find your own process for building poems. And I really encourage you to tap into the insights of your teammates. Share your share, your poems. It's a community there. I look forward to reading some of your work 10. Final Thoughts: if you've made it this far. Congratulations. You're a poet. You've worked all the way through the butterfly method. You found your theme. You worked really hard to find the threads that tie you to that theme. What makes you actually care about that theme? And you've also worked really hard to find and live by those small notice ings those things that build out your poem and really help your home shine. So here's what I expect. I expect a lively dialogue. As I've said before, poetry is a community act. I really want you to help each other to build better poems. It's important. I also expect you to write a few sentences about how you found your theme. How you found your threads. I also want 15 small notice things. This will just show me how that process worked for you. I also expect you to show me three literary tolls that you used on maybe even a note about why you felt those tools were particularly important to you. And lastly, obviously, I want you to submit your five completed poems. Your poems that you shared in class have received feedback on and have worked to improve throughout our class. Show me your five best poems and I'll do my best to respond to each of you.