Fourstep Process To Develop Voice

Before you write your next poem, ask yourself:

1. With whom am I speaking? Perhaps you are addressing someone specific in the poem. If so, use a voice to suit the occasion as you normally would during heightened moments (when feeling happy, angry, betrayed or some other emotion). Or you may want to address a person who never even makes an appearance in your poem. If so, this person is "implied." For example, in "The Only Morning My Mother Didn't Worship Her Husband," I'm not addressing my mother but a friend in a private talk. The friend doesn't make an appearance, of course; however, by imagining him across from me, I was able to employ a compassionate tone of voice to suit the occasion.

Finally, you may want to address yourself in a poem as actors sometimes do in soliloquies. Of all the people you will talk to in life, you will talk most often — and openly — to yourself. Every day we congratulate, berate or encourage ourselves in response, usually, to other people or circumstances. Simply align the tone of voice with the latter as you would internally in real life.

2. Where is this conversation taking place? Again, you can include a specific setting in a poem and shape your voice accordingly. Or you may want to imagine a place that is never mentioned in the poem. If so, the setting is "implied." In "The Only Morning My Mother Didn't Worship Her Husband," I evoked the setting of a bar and pictured myself confiding in my friend in dim light across a table. The imaginary surroundings played no role, of course, in the poem; but they helped to shape my voice.

3. What is the nature of the epiphany that you want to share? As you learned in chapter one, each poem should include a moment of truth. In "The Only Morning My Mother Didn't Worship Her Husband," I saw my mother as a woman for the first time. By contemplating your epiphany, you will be able to conceive a tone that conveys your truth with the most clout.

4. What voice is appropriate for Questions 1, 2 and 3, above? After you have selected or imagined the setting and the person whom you are addressing in a poem, and contemplated your epiphany, you should be able to jot down some adjectives describing the voice you want readers to "hear" on the page.

In "The Only Morning My Mother Didn't Worship Her Husband," I wanted to convey a "compassionate, tense, descriptive" voice, which, I thought, would convey my epiphany.

To convey yours, put your poems through this four-step process . . . and you will also reclaim your voice.

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