Guest Blog Posts

5 ways to challenge your writing, “Excelsior!” – guest blog post by Joan Leotta

Onward and upward. I don't recall all of the Longfellow poem, “Excelsior” but I do know it deals with a young man, who in face of bad weather continues onward and upward into the Alps with a flag emblazoned with the word, “Excelsior!” The Italian Alpine society was so impressed with this 19thc poem that the young man’s banner word became part of their motto.

For me, the call to keep moving onward and upward has been and still is a way to keep myself moving in my chosen field of writing, a calling which like mountain climbing has a lot of ups and downs. (Bad pun intended)

We often hear about moving onward through rejection, using rejection as building blocks to success, learning from rejection. The many voices that speak to this part of excelsior stress persistence, revision to make the work better, selecting markets more suited to this piece of work. I agree with this approach and indeed, persistence has a hallowed place in my reserve of tools to keep myself going.

However, I have come to realize that success also needs prodding from motto, Excelsior!

Receiving an acceptance letter from a magazine or press is time for joy, for celebrating. The acceptance validates that piece of work as being worthy to be read by the public at large. The danger, however, is that we might receive this as a message that we have arrived, we are in the place we need to me and need only now to keep producing work at this level. Instead, I believe we should take each acceptance as a challenge to move higher. Yes, we can rest on the plateau we have reached, but then we have to move onward and upward, challenge ourselves to write even better poetry, break into even more difficult markets.

I love all of the poems I have sent out--that’s why I send them out. I want to find readers who will also enjoy them, maybe even love them. However, I also love the craft of writing. So, I challenge myself continually in five ways to continually improve my writing. I have found these to bring success to me and hope they will do the same for you.

  1. Seek out journals of a “higher” level (with regard to acceptance/rejection rates and or journals that publish people you admire, but that you have not yet “cracked.” Read the poetry they have accepted. Study that poetry as you studied poems in school. What makes them work? Are they interested in poems in a particular form? Free verse with attention to meter? Edgy topics?
  2. Look at forms of poetry you have not yet tried and strive to write in those forms and find publication homes for your work. Read those forms. Over the past year I tried villanelle, ghazal, and haiku. I succeeded in villanelle and ghazal, but those tiny little haiku proved elusive until this year. Last fall I attended a workshop on haiku. Just this past week I read an essay on writing haiku (by a poet I admire) and it added further insights which led to a group of haiku and acceptance of one of that group by a literary magazine specializing in haiku.
  3. Challenge yourself by taking a poem you have already written and transforming it into new shapes and forms.
  4. Challenge yourself with a contest--a topic you have not thought of before and writing out.
  5. Challenge yourself with timed writings, or writing in a particular form or number of words each day. You might not get much that is worth publishing out of this, but it will lubricate the wheels of your creative engines.

Above all, avoid the temptation to regard success with complacency. Acceptances are a call to move on, climb higher, and to reach deeper into our creative selves to craft poems that come before more sets of eyes (and ears for audio poems), and touch more hearts.

Do you have something say about poetry? An essay on being a poet, tips for poets, or poetry you love? is now accepting pitches for guest blog posts. 

Contact me here if you are interested! 

Joan Leotta has been playing with words on page and stage since childhood in Pittsburgh. She is a writer and story performer. Her poetry and essays appear or are forthcoming in Gnarled Oakthe A-3 Review, Hobart Literary ReviewSilver Birch, Peacock,Postcard Poems and Prose among others. Her first poetry chapbook, Languid Lusciousness with Lemon, was just released by Finishing Line Press. Joan’s picture books from Theaqllc, Whoosh!, Summer in a Bowl, Rosa and the Red Apron, and Rosa’s Shell celebrate food and family.  You can find more about her work on her blog at, follow her on twitter @beachwriter12, or on Facebook at Joan Leotta, Author and Story Performer.

3 replies »

  1. Joan, the word that comes to mind is “complacency”. I love your five methods for challenging our writing! I especially like number one in seeking out journals who have published poets we admire. The one I NEED to do is number two because, dangit, I fear pantoums, sestinas, and sonnets!

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