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A Letter Poem to a Poet – writing prompt & poem by Nancy Takacs

We all have lines from other poets inside us, their voices, narrative or lyrical styles, and syntactical qualities that make their work unique, and loved by us. And we read or know about lives of poets whom we identify with or maybe don’t, in their biographies finding a piece of ourselves within the lives they’ve lived, discovering compassion for their struggles, as well as the happiness they have given with us their humor, their close attention to matters of relationship, impermanence, the sturdiness of a small flower – to poetry.

You might try writing a poem as a letter to a favorite poet, someone well-known, perhaps even a personal friend, after looking at other poems in this form; or writing a poem just about her or him. You could begin with a line by the poet, and take off from there; or simply address some aspect of a poet’s life in conjunction with yours; or you might gather from several poets and/writers’ lines that could make up your entire poem. (In this case, I am thinking of a wonderful Galway Kinnell poem, “Flies,” in Imperfect Thirst, which does not address a poet, but supplies a mixture of lines from different poets, who have written about the fly, he has gathered into his poem.)

To start a poem that focuses on one poet, think about why this person is important to you, what she has offered to you, how you might have been changed by her words, philosophies, observations, dreams. Has your own work shifted because of her influence? What is it about this influence that has helped? Take some notes, jot down lines from the poet, that have stayed with you for a long time. If you are reading her biography, you could write something about her life that has struck you. You may end up using some of the poet’s lines within your poem, or you may just allude to them in your poem. This is laying the groundwork. You also might set your poem in a place that is different from where much of this poet’s work has been placed. For example, if you’re writing about Mary Oliver, how might it be to write a poem to her while riding your city bus to work, instead of near a wild pond? Or if you’re writing about a favorite poet whose life ended in obscure loneliness, you could write about being in a busy place like a supermarket, while thinking of him.

You could draw on the images in that particular place where you are setting your poem. Free write your poem, bringing in images in connection with the poet, perhaps commenting on a specific line or lines of her poetry, that may either meld or conflict with her life and yours, concerns you may have about her, or what you may have learned from her. Enjoy the connection. This may be a poem of praise, understanding, or confusion. Allow conclusions to manifest themselves in your draft. Allow this to be a rough draft, and come back later to add and subtract. Allow your connection to this poet to be personal, although supplying the reader details about the poet’s writing or life, will help the reader understand the intimacy.

Here’s my example of a poem I’ve written to Emily Dickinson, originally published in Red Rock Review.

Wildness
for Emily Dickinson

As you loved wildness,
I am frantically wild,
sometimes afraid to be alone,
looking to stir up some
shrimp fritters with a kick of chili,
or go out and find an oyster po-boy
with or without friends.

Like you, I love the feel of dough
under my knuckles,
how it doubles up
when it works, gives
under pressure, lifts
cleanly from a board
when I roll up its tongue
of cinnamon-sugar.

I too love the touch of lead
on the page, beneath a hurricane
lamp, through a winter’s
litany of snowfalls.

As you loved wildness,
I will not take Xanax.

I will keep up my teeth
for biting into apples,
keep the half-smile of my mother
and watch my pencil-shadow cast red
on my skin at the crux
of thumb and forefinger, as I write
this to you at the Kona Grill at the Perkins
Row mall in Baton Rouge, on the backs
of old receipts from my purse.

I’m eating a spicy fish taco,
and oily fried rice, thinking about
trying a sake` bomber
on my bamboo placemat,
where it’s just me and a gray-haired man
at the next table, who digs in
to his beet salad in a fluted bowl,
a song from Nine Inch Nails
piped outside under our
awning printed with palm trees.

I prefer the sound
of Voodoo Rolls
and their lines on my table menu
in winged italics:
a cool tang of ginger
and a humble citrus,

as I look at your face
on a biography of you,
the only photo known to be you,
thinking I know you,
with your velvet necklace,
a book nearby, your
hand that has to touch
a wildflower.

Emily, I wish my Monday
was a little like yours:
stopping at Sue’s
with a coconut cake
for some gossip
and a sneak of brandy,

not trying to find the right counter
for anti-aging cream and Clinique
Blushwear, worrying
about a ring tone
in a restaurant,
or spilling hot sauce on wool.

You never wore
a skirt that has to be
dry-cleaned. You were wise
with white cotton
for the ease you say
of throwing a dress in the washer
among the bed sheets
with a cup of bluing.

As you loved wildness,
I want to close the door,
open the door, refuse visitors,
and keep to my hand-written poems.

I think of how your friends
carried your coffin lightly
through a field of buttercups,

and how eventually I want to be buried with violets
and a lady’s slipper, and a poem
from you.

Other sample poems:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/51026/to-the-sea

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/55335/to-mary-sidney-on-reading-her-psalms

https://blowingajug.wordpress.com/2009/10/26/letter-to-a-poet-robert-hass/

“For Randall Jarrell” by Norman Dubie in Selected and New Poems

31 Letters and 13 Dreams by Richard Hugo

“Inspiration” by Jane Hirshfield in The October Palace


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

Contact me here if you are interested! 


Nancy Takacs is the winner of the Juniper Prize for her book of poems The Worrier (U of Mass. Press, 2017). She was a 2016 runner-up for the Missouri Review Editor’s Prize. Previous poetry publications include two books including Blue Patina, winner of the 15 Bytes Book Award for Poetry and finalist for the Lascaux Poetry Award; and four chapbooks, the most recent Red Voice, Echo poems from Finishing Line Press.  Her work has appeared in New Poets of the American West, and in the Harvard Review, Kestrel, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Nimrod, and Weber. She lives with her husband Jan Minich in Wellington, Utah.

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