Transform Your Stories Into Poems
by Violet Nesdoly
This is our eighth column in Violet's "Poet's Classroom" series.
In her helpful book, Beyond the Words, Bonni Goldberg Night presses in. As darkness obliterates color and detail, trees become towering monsters. A wolf howls in the distance. But you are not afraid. Rather, you revel in this setting, perfect for stories told around a snapping campfire—stories like "The Cremation of Sam McGee," "The Wreck of the Hesperus" or "The Death of the Hired Man."
Did you notice I used poems as story examples? This is because prose is not the only place you'll find stories. Poetry teems with them—anecdotes, vignettes, and narratives crafted to relate something that has happened, but in the telling communicate more than just a chain of events. Ted Kooser, U.S. Poetry Laureate from 2004 to 2006 comments on the prevalence of story poems: "I'd estimate that out of every hundred poems appearing in literary magazines today, ninety of them could be classed as personal anecdotes."1
This percentage is high with good reason. A story poem is packed with potential. Teacher and poet Aaron Tucker says, "One of the strongest gifts of literature is the ability to capture the human essence within the lens of a singular personal experience. A poem has the ability to explain a particular event through one perspective and, from this pinpoint point of view, translate outwards to an infinite number of readers into a million interpretations."2
If story poems are so plentiful and have such communication capability, they are worth a closer look. In this column we'll suggest ways for you to unearth your stories. We'll also discuss how to transform those stories into powerful poems.
Find your stories
Your stories will arise mostly from memory—part of your brain that possesses interesting qualities. For example, memory selects. If you and a sibling compare memories of the same incident, you'll find differences in what the two of you remember. Don't worry about that. Trust your memory to deliver details that are relevant to you.
Memories can act like triggers; one leads to another. When I think back to the caragana hedges around my childhood home for example, I remember sucking the nectar from their blossoms, tea parties with caragana pods for food, the playhouse, the fir trees on either side of it, the book Heidi. Other stimuli such as smells, sounds—especially songs—and tastes trigger memories too. Exploit these triggers as you explore your memories.
Memories can be transferable. Though you may differ from the characters in your story poems use your memories of pain, ecstasy, abuse or contentment to give them life.
Here are some ways to jog your memory for story poem material:
1. List ten to twelve high points, low points and turning points in your life. For each event, list specific details, why the event was significant and what you learned. Poet and author Michael Bugeja recommends this exercise and states, "More than half my poems are based in some way on that list."3
2. Write about your memories in a broader, less specific way. Think back to people from your past (parents, friends, relatives, teachers, significant adults), places you lived, holidays, games you played, favorite foods, etc.
3. Find ideas in lists of prompts or from books like John Drury’s Creating Poetry or Jack Heffron’s The Writer’s Idea Book.
4. Go through your journals and diaries to find stories and anecdotes to rework into poems. (See "Poem Seeds: Collecting Poems From Your Journal.")
Organize your story
1. Choose a story
Will any story or anecdote make a good poem? It would seem not. Or perhaps it’s not so simple. Maybe any anecdote or story can be a poem depending on how it’s handled. Said another way: “A poem must be something more than an anecdote arranged in lines…. The story itself is merely the material. You have to do something special with the material if you want it to be a poem.”4
Marc Polonsky adds another layer to our understanding of which stories make good poems. “Poems generally give more credence and attention to the internal universe—the realm of the imagination—than do other forms of reportage.”5
Though choosing just the right story for your poem may seem tricky, don’t dwell too long on making the perfect choice. Listen to your intuition and choose one story from your list or prompt exercises.
2. List and cluster
Make lists and do a word cluster exercise to access details and parts of your story you may have forgotten. Don't be surprised when you unearth feelings and attitudes of which you may not have been conscious.
3. Let the writing process lead you
Do a free-write from your lists and clusters. Write quickly and write everything. Don't worry if it's more than you need—get it all down. As Ted Kooser says, "You have to trust in the process of writing to lead you toward the heart of the poem… Sometimes you'll find out during revision that there was more than one poem in that room of your memory… No matter which way your poem seems to be going, it can't hurt to get all the detail in the first draft."6
4. Pay attention to the how of telling
As you work with your material—your story—you’ll discover what your poem is really about. For example, while Megan E. Davis’s poem “Ukrainian Driving” describes a car ride down a road in Ukraine, it projects regret and guilt. And while Linda Yeatts’ poem “New Potatoes” recalls a little girl digging potatoes with her uncle, it also brings to mind resurrection and new life.
Write your story
1. Who tells the story?
You may tell the story, with the "I" in the poem referring to yourself or you may decide to have a different character tell the story in first or third person. Your storyteller may report in a way that doesn't project personality or you may give the point-of-view person an attitude.
The latter is what comes through in Caitlin McGuire's poem "Iraq" with its short, clipped lines. It begins,
Baptized in the field,
in a tarp,
by the chaplain,
and ends with the terse
(Read all of “Iraq.”)
2. Where does the story begin and end?
You may choose to tell the story in a non-chronological way if its point, the epiphanies and revelations you got from it, are best served by telling it out of order. Polonsky states, "Where I choose to begin and end a story depends on my sense of the story's meaning… Ultimately the structure of a story is dictated by the logic of overall meaning, not the logic of chronology."7
Cindy Beebe begins the poem, "Loving Her," with,
I don't really want to bring her over.
I'm just not in the mood.
(Read all of “Loving Her.”)
She continues with flashbacks of what bringing her over will mean and we quickly realize we've entered this tale somewhere in the middle.
3. How do I create suspense and tension?
Does something bad or tragic happen in your story? You can ratchet up the poem's tension by using words and symbols that hint at danger. Jenneth Lindsay does this in a red herring kind of way in "Waterfall" where phrases like "I mask reality… silence broods… I crash through the mosquito door… We stumble down the rock-torn path…" pull us along with their foreboding. Then comes the last stanza, where the tone changes and the poem ends in an unexpected and hopeful experience. (Read all of “Waterfall.”)
You can also add tension and suspense when you signal the importance of certain people or objects in the poem by magnifying them, i.e. naming the characters and describing the objects in detail.
4. How do I make structure and form work for me?
Form is a lot like background music. Though it may not have as pronounced an effect as the words themselves, its subtleties give the poem mood and ambience. You'll want to think about whether your poem's story will be stronger as free verse or confined to a formal structure (like sonnet, villanelle, pantoum etc.).
I wrote "Corporate Cuts"—a poem about my husband getting fired from his job—both ways. It started out as free verse poem which I read in public once but decided never again. It felt out of control and like I might have embarrassed the listeners with too much private detail.
Then I rewrote it as a sonnet. The prescribed rhythm, rhyme, length restriction (14 lines), and necessary turn at the end made it more condensed and restrained but, I think, a more powerful poem.
Compare both versions at my blog, Line Upon Line.
In form poems, the number of lines in a stanza, rhyme and rhythm are often pre-determined so you won't have many decisions to make there. If yours is a free verse poem, you will want to pay attention to stanza breaks, capitalization and punctuation.
5. How could I use other poetic artistry?
As you write and refine your poem, be aware of all the tools at your disposal. Read the poem aloud to discover and take advantage of the arrangement and repetition of vowel and consonant sounds. Notice all the rhymes—true, slant, near. Does their presence help or hinder your story-telling? Have you used images, symbols and words that add layers of meaning? Is it the meaning you intend?
A poem that is beautiful in its artistry is "Car Ride." In it Alethea Black describes memories of her father driving her to school. Note the description of his hands on the wheel,
Your long-fingered hands rest so delicately against the wheel, it's almost as if you're not really driving. And in truth, you're not. You're roaming over an equation, over and across and back again, in figure-eights.
(Read all of “Car Ride.”)
This month, tap the anecdotes and stories of your life for poem ideas. Then use your poetic skill to transform those stories and anecdotes into powerful poems—poems that will resonate far beyond the campfire circle of family and friends.
Coming April 1:
Come back in April when we celebrate National Poetry Month with an article about poetry readings.
Did you find this article helpful? Please let us know.
Copyright ©2009 by Violet Nesdoly
 Ted Kooser, The Poetry Home Repair Manual (University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln Nebraska, 2007), 81.
 Aaron Tucker, "Identity and Autobiography," youngpoets.ca
 Michael Bugeja, The Art and Craft of Poetry (WriterÕs Digest Books, Cincinnati Ohio, 1994), 7.
 Kooser, 85 & 91.
 Marc Polonsky, The Poetry ReaderÕs Toolkit Ð A Guide to Reading and Understanding Poetry (NTC Publishng Group, Lincolnwood Illinois, 1998), 89.
 Kooser, 77.
 Polonsky, 97.