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3 Rules For Poets From The New Laureate Of Missouri

Courtesy Aliki Barnstone

Missouri has a new poet laureate: Aliki Barnstone, a professor of English at the University of Missouri-Columbia, appointed last week by Gov. Jay Nixon. Barnstone has published seven books of poetry; her first was published when she was 12; her eighth, Dwelling, is expected this fall.

Barnstone succeeds William Trowbridge, who was appointed to the two-year job in 2012 but appeared headed into his fourth year until Barnstone's appointment. (Listen to his "Unofficial Missouri Poem" here.)

The job of poet laureate is generally what the poet makes of it. At the very least, Barnstone will spend the next couple of years reading and lecturing about poetry to school and community groups around the state.

We asked her to begin fulfilling those duties (as we did for Kansas Poet Laureate Eric McHenry when he was appointed last year) by giving poets three pieces of writing advice. Over a spotty phone connection from Greece, where Barnstone is spending part of this summer, here’s what she told us:

1. Don’t write about things.

“That sounds crazy, but a lot of times my students want to write about something they have great urgency about, so they end up with poems that are passionate about the thing but not particularly fresh or surprising. So I tell them: Whatever it is that you are interested in, whatever it is that’s grabbing your attention, that will come out in your poems — but if you do it in a way that’s expected, it won’t be any different or more meaningful than anybody else’s poem. Writing your poem should be a process of discovery, should take you to places that are unknown."

2. Find a different lexicon.

“You can do this a lot of different ways. In my classes, we play a poetry game: We go around the room and everyone says a word, just whatever comes to your mind. Write down those words. Then, with this input from other people around you, write a poem. Look at the words and use them for inspiration, look at them and let them take you wherever they take you. I’ve been doing this with friends since I was a child. Words are powerful, and they take you places that are unexpected. The poem isn’t a discovery unless you allow your mind to leap around in all sorts of wild ways.

"There are other ways of getting new lexicons. I do a lot of research about things that interest me. For example, I wasn’t trained in science but I’m really interested in the environment, so I do research about monarch butterflies or fireflies or the effect of climate change on whales. By doing that, you see a whole other vocabulary, a whole other lexicon that wouldn’t be in your normal vocabulary.

"So these first two rules are ways of moving out of what a lot of people call your comfort zone – but actually, if you want to be a writer, I think it’s more comfortable to be exploring. People wait around for inspiration, or they’re passionate about something so they say, ‘I’m going to write a poem about it.’ What they come up with is not fresh or surprising. But if they allow themselves to go into unknown regions, that’s more likely.”

3. Have a notebook and write in it by hand.

“There are studies that show when you write by hand, you assimilate knowledge better than when you do it on a computer or some kind of screen. Write in the morning or the evening when you’re in that liminal state between waking or sleeping. It doesn’t have to be about anything – it’s just practicing, like training for an athletic event or practicing yoga. Sometimes it turns out to be nothing you’re that interested in, but sometimes it’s, ‘Oh my goodness, did I write that?’

"You don’t have to write every day of your life. I’ll set periods of time when I’ll say, ‘I’m going to write three times a week, or every day just for five minutes and if there are two sentences on the page that’s fine.’ Then, use the notebooks to find an interesting idea and revise it into a poem, or a nonfiction or fiction piece.”

Barnstone told us she has lots of other advice, but the point of these three rules is, she said, “to try to surprise yourself, to discover what’s inside your psyche.”

After all, it’s deep in there.

“Our psyches are full of interesting stuff, but we put limits on ourselves, because you can’t be in a state where you allow your mind to fly all over your place every minute of the day – otherwise, we can’t function as people in society,” she said. “Poetry isn’t like that.”

Poetry shouldn’t, however, be “just the id going crazy,” she cautioned.

“It’s the rational mind combined with the irrational mind combined with the dream mind combined with the waking mind. We don’t have trouble accessing our analytical side or our rational side – or I hope we don’t,” Barnstone says with a laugh. “These are ways to access those other regions.”

Barnstone gave more advice to writers (where she admits to having imaginary "wild sex with Walt Whitman on the Staten Island Ferry" and discusses why she loves going to church) on a visit to Iowa City a few years ago:

C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.

A free press is among our country’s founding principles and most precious resources. As director of content-journalism at KCUR, I want everyone in our part of America to know we see them and we’re listening. I work to make sure the stories we tell and the conversations we convene reflect our complex realities, informing and inspiring all of us to meet the profound challenges of our time. Email me at cj@kcur.org.
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