How to Write a Poem

To write a poem
Go out the front door.
Walk around
Your neighborhood,
Following your nose
Down this or that street.
Cross for the latest bloom.
Track the ants to their castle
Of dust. See where the bees
Dance their maps. Crawl
On your belly. Open your mouth
And funnel the dirt through you
Like a worm. Listen to the rhythm
Of your footsteps and the song
Of passing cars. Eat daisies.
Smell asphalt. Rub your elbows
On oak bark. All the while
Compare your trip to a bird
Or to death. But if you want
To write something new,
Go home. Go up to the attic.
Open a window and



I got another rejection this week (Can we please agree to stop calling it this? How about a “pass?” Anyone else have a suggestion?). Getting a “pass” is too common to be noteworthy. What was remarkable was that the editor said I was close and told me which of the poems he preferred. (Because he replied to me like one human being to another, I didn’t actually feel rejected.) As I considered the two poems he mentioned, I realized they had something in common, not in terms of the product, but in the process that had produced them. With both, I had somehow let go. I had stopped writing from my head and wrote from my gut. I had gone up to the roof and jumped and out in the air, I had caught something a little more unusual.

To metaphorically jump, I literally did something like a cross between free writing and brainstorming. I wrote as quickly as possible, without judging or revising, or even developing any one idea. I tried to get out as many different approaches as possible. Only after 20 or 30 or 40 different options did I go back and see if there were a few I wanted to develop. I think that by writing quickly and getting out as many ideas as possible, I was able to get off the well-worn paths and find new associations and connections.

What do you do when you want to get past the usual?

I hope you’re enjoying National Poetry Month.

Jama Rattigan has an extensive list of Kidlitosphere events celebrating our favorite month.

Irene Latham is once again hosting the Kidlitosphere Progressive Poem, which I’ll be contributing to later in the month.

For more Poetry Friday, visit Robyn Hood Black.

(c) Elizabeth Steinglass, 2013, all rights reserved













Last weekend I participated in the second round of Ed DeCaria’s March Madness Poetry Tournament. I had 36 hours to write a poem using the word exertion, a truly ugly word in my opinion. The first thing I did was sleep, giving me about 24 hours to actually write. I kept my notebook by my bed, and first thing in the morning I wrote the poem I entered in the tournament:


Hitting the Snooze Bar

I lie back down across my bed.
I pull the pillow over my head.
I desperately need these minutes of sleep
After the exertion of stopping that



That’s pretty much how it came out. I agonized a little over these minutes of sleep, ten minutes of sleep, more minutes of sleep. I went with these because it seemed to work well with need. I liked the poem, but it felt light to me. It’s a moment, familiar and funny, but not much more.

My next move was to consider possible rhymes. Assertion and coercion leaped to mind.

I also started thinking about sloths because sloths are known for their lack of exertion.

Thus I found myself writing this couplet:


Swaying Sloth

The swaying sloth makes no assertion—
Standing up entails too much exertion.


The couplet has more going on than the snooze bar poem, but dare I enter a couplet? It’s so minimal! Also, no one I showed it to seemed to get the double meaning of the swaying and the standing up. I felt I needed something more.

So, for hours and hours, between kids’ activities, meals, chores, etc., I worked on this poem:


Sloth’s Weekly Exertion


Languorous sloth lives a life of ease,
Hanging around in rain forest trees,
Nibbling on leaves between long naps,
Moving so slowly nobody sees.

Yet, once a week the sloth must creep
Down to the ground to find some relief.
Exhausted by her great exertion,
She climbs back up and goes to sleep.


I really liked the first stanza, but the second one bothered me. I didn’t like the rhyme, and it didn’t seem to match the first stanza.

I kept at it, and hours later I wrote this draft:


Sloth’s Weekly Exertion


Languorous sloth lives a life of ease,
Hanging around in rain forest trees,
Nibbling on leaves between long naps,
Moving so slowly nobody sees.

But even a sloth can’t hold it forever,
So down the tree he must endeavor.
Exhausted by his great exertion,
He creeps back up to sleep whenever.


I still didn’t like it. It just didn’t seem to polish up nice and shiny the way I wanted it to, so I threw it back in the drawer and went with the snooze bar poem. Though the snooze bar poem doesn’t do as much, it does seem to do it well.

I was trounced by Dave Crawley and his clever poem about clichés. I am out, but the madness continues! There are many more poems to enjoy and votes to cast.

For more Poetry Friday visit Greg at GottaBook.

I’m going on vacation next week and I’m not taking any electronics! See you in April.

(c) 2013, Elizabeth Steinglass, all rights reserved




You sit by the door
Two old Labradors,
Two rabbits hunched in the grass
To hop after mama,
Happy to welcome
These foul, wandering feet,
Never complaining
You’re not the ones
To go out.
Circled in fur,
Two open sacks folded back,
Two manes without their lion heads,
Without their thoughts,
Without any idea
Where to go
Without me to say
Time for the kitchen,
Time for the office,
Time for bed.
So little do I think of you,
I’ve worn you
Out the door.
It was the feeling of something wrong
That made me notice
You’d gone too far.
I’ve flattened your fur,
Bored a hole in your toe,
But you never complain.
Happily you swish swish across the floor,
Singing a song
Of someone returned



I’ve been preparing to visit a middle school writing/drawing elective. Because some kids are writing and some are drawing, I thought I would bring some odes. My plan is to ask the kids to choose something in the room to draw or write about so they can really examine their chosen subject. I know that when I have my subject directly in front of me I can come up with ideas that would never occur to me if I were simply picturing it in my head. To prepare for my visit I’ve been reading Odes to Common Things by Pablo Neruda and because I’ll be working with kids I’ve also been reading Neighborhood Odes by Gary Soto. I’ve also been inspired by Laura Shovan’s lesson plans for odes.

I love my copy of Neruda’s Odes to Common Things. It has the original poems in Spanish on one side and the English translations by Ken Krabbenhoft on the other. It also has beautiful pencil drawings by Ferris Cook at the top of each page. Even the drawings make interesting pairs—a violin on one page and its case on the opposite, closed scissors on one page and open scissors on the opposite.

Here is the opening of Neruda’s “Ode to a pair of scissors:”


(looking like
birds, or
you are as polished as a knight’s
shining armor.

Two long and treacherous
crossed and bound together
for all time,
tiny rivers
thus was born a creature for cutting,
a fish that swims among billowing linens,
a bird that flies


Gary Soto also uses beautiful and surprising imagery in his odes. Here’s the beginning of his “Ode to Los Chicharrones” (fried pork rinds):


They are shaped
Like trumpets,
The blow of salt
On your lips
When you raise
One to your mouth.
The music is a crunch
On the back molars,
A hard crunch that
Flushes the ears
And tires the jaw.


One thing I hope to discuss with the kids is the language the poets use to describe the objects—how they look, sound, and even taste. I love the images of scissors as fish swimming among billowed linens and of chicharrones as salted trumpets. These images feel new and unfamiliar. One thing we can talk about is how to get past the old and familiar to discover the new.

I also hope we can talk about how odes are about familiar objects and something more. Neruda’s scissors cut fabric and hair, but they also cut happiness, sadness, and poetry. Soto’s chicarrones are so good, ants drop their breadcrumbs in hopes of a salty flake.

I’m looking forward to my visit and to hearing and seeing what the kids come up with.

For more Poetry Friday visit Sheri Doyle.



Whose woods these are I think I know,
Which is why I think I better go.


Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
All I can say is you’re hotter than May.


Do not go gentle into that good night,
Scream and cry and beg for light.


How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
One for the nights. Two for the days.


Because I could not stop for Death—
He sent a snake to steal my breath.


Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Beastly creatures sat beside me, hissed my verse, and left me teary.


I ask them to take a poem,
Ball ‘em up and throw ‘em.


The art of losing isn’t hard to master—
All you have to do is race someone faster.


Earlier this week J. Patrick Lewis posted a poetry challenge on David Harrison’s blog. The challenge was to write a “tailgater,” a couplet that begins with the first line of a famous poem and ends with an original second line, in the same meter, which puts a quick end to the poem. The form would appear to take its name from the metaphorical slamming of the back gate of the pick-up truck before any more words can get in. A number of us found the challenge both fun and addictive.

For more Poetry Friday, please visit A Teaching Life at

As you can see, I’ve moved to WordPress and reinstated the name my parents gave me. Thanks for following me over here and for bearing with me while I get used to my new home.

Dear Teacher,
Please, never
The red
Of stop and blood.
How about blue?
The color of endless skies…
Be sure to write
So I can read.
Read so I can write
Better the next time.
Tell me,
How did I do? Not
Did I do
What I was supposed to do. Not
Did I write
Your point of view.
What effect did my words have on
You? Did I
Amuse? Did I
Confuse? Did I
Persuade you to think another way or lose you
When I took a sudden
Turn? Show me where
I went right
So I know
To do it again.
Yes, I want to spell and punctuate
But not until
My story’s straight.
Remember, I’m learning.
Remember, this is hard.
Ask yourself
How would you like me
To grade you?


Last Friday, Tara at A Teaching Life wrote about the devastating effects that unsupportive comments and grades can have on young writers. I was really touched by the crumpled student paper she found on the floor. Only days before, my son had brought home a paper with a confusing grade and comments he needed help to decipher. I did appreciate that the comments supplemented the circled numbers on a rubric. I can see the advantages of rubrics, but even as a parent (and not the actual writer) they seem unsatisfying, and a very different approach to student writing than I was taught when I went to graduate school years ago. All of this mixed together inspired the poem above.

For more Poetry Friday, visit Violet Nesdoly.

(c) 2013 Elizabeth Ehrenfest Steinglass, all rights reserved

Photo: Jerome Liebling, Mt. Holyoke Art Museum

Your dress hangs
At the top of the stair
A ghost
Without a soul
So we can compare
Your pleats and stitches
To the dress of the day
With its bunches and bulges
And know your every day
Was your own


In the next room
The docent locks the door
With an imaginary key,
“Ah, Maddie—“
She recites,
“Freedom is here!”
Then she points
To the bare table,
The made bed,
The empty basket,
The Franklin stove
Pulled from the wall.


Making my excuses,
I slip
Through the door and stare
At the place
Where you aren’t
I want to grab
Your gown
Run to the garden
Let it fly—
But in my mind
I find it
Hooked on a branch
Floating, going
I stuff my ticket stub and the nub
Of an old pencil
In your pocket
Before going


In December while visiting friends in Amherst, I went on a tour of the Emily Dickinson Museum. Our guide was lovely and incorporated Dickinson’s poetry into her description of the home and Dickinson’s life and times. The contrast between the living woman and the lifeless house was disconcerting, yet it seemed somehow resonant with the poet’s feelings of being most free within the confines of her home, her room, her words.
If you’re ever in Amherst, I highly recommend the Museum and the tour.


For more Poetry Friday, visit Renee at No Water River.

(c) 2013 Elizabeth Ehrenfest Steinglass, all rights reserved

Oh, the night has been nibbling the day!
We barely notice it slipping away,

Until the morning’s been swallowed by night,
And we stumble to breakfast, starving for light.

We wonder what happened to sunlight at dinner,
Finally aware that the days have grown thinner.

That’s when we welcome our families to feast,
To light the candles, and look to the east,

Knowing the night has finished its snack,
And tomorrow the day will start biting back!

For me the worst thing about winter isn’t the cold. It’s the dark. The early dusk makes me tired and ready for bed. Our ancestors were wise to establish traditions that bring light and warmth to the winter darkness. Imagine how terrible the depths of winter would seem without the candles, the cookies, and the togetherness.

Thanks to Heidi for organizing a new celebration of light and togetherness and for hosting today’s Poetry Friday.

Happy Holidays.

(c) 2012 Elizabeth Ehrenfest Steinglass, all rights reserved

Red Dress by Tatyana Ostapenko

I remember
I had to have it,
Sensing somehow
It was already mine,
Sewn to my heart
Torn from me and
Set in the window
For others to claim.
I was desperate
For mending,
Desperate to have that dress
Knitted to my skin.
You understood.
You bought it for me,
Let me wear it home,
Let me wear it everyday
As I skipped through the woods,
And every night you washed it
And told me the story
Of the girl and the wolf.
I thought it was a story
About a girl and a wolf,
Until I met the wolf
And he ate me.
He told me he loved
That red dress,
The way I wore it
When I walked,
Like it was part of me,
Like it was my skin
Flush with the blood
Of my heart.
When you pulled me out,
It didn’t feel like saving
Because I’d already died.
You claimed the body,
Filled it with food
And words,
Until it stood up,
In high heels,
And set off across the land.
It took me a long time
To see the earth
As it is,
As you knew it,
With its dark holes,
Harrowed soil,
Restless waters and
Perennial forests.
Before I enter the room
I see you
Looking out the window,
Seeing yourself
Out there
Among the trees.
I am tempted
To leave you there,
But then I hear your voice
Telling me to do
What I’m supposed to do.
I think you know me,
Though you call me the wrong name,
Because you ask why
I’m not wearing
My red dress.
I tell you I’m grown up,
It doesn’t fit,
It’s been gone a long time,
But you shake your head,
As if I don’t understand
And ask me again.

Last week I participated in SPARK, an internet event in which visual artists and writers share their work to inspire new work. My partner Tatyana Ostapenko sent me the painting above. Over the next ten days I wrote my poem in response. My goal wasn’t to illustrate the painting but to allow it to spark my own creative journey. At the same time I sent my poem “Frog Woman” to Tatyana to inspire a new painting by her.

My favorite part of the process was opening Tatyana’s painting. I had absolutely no idea what I would see. I was immediately captivated by the little girl in her red dress, standing just in front of a deep, dangerous chasm and then far in the distance, a beautiful forest. As I sat down to write I drew on these experiences—sometimes feeling the need to own a piece of clothing as if it were somehow already mine, the innocent joy of Little Red Riding Hood as she set off into the woods, my father’s last days which he spent looking out the window at a beautiful field and forest, and, of course, my relationship with my mother.

SPARK happens four times a year, each time with more participants. For more information and to see more inspired art, go to the SPARK website.

To see more of Tatyana’s art, please go to her website or to her flickr gallery.

Finally, to enjoy more Poetry Friday go to Jama Rattigan’s Alphabet Soup.

(c) 2012 Elizabeth Ehrenfest Steinglass, all rights reserved