Larry Colker on What Makes a Successful Poem

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Posted 6.3.13 by RW Blogger

P&W–supported Larry Colker blogs about successful poetry readings. He has co-hosted the weekly Redondo Poets reading series for about fifteen years. In 2006 he won the California Writers Exchange poetry contest, sponsored by Poets & Writers, Inc. His first book-length collection, Amnesia and Wings, was published by Tebot Bach in May 2013. By day Larry develops and delivers systems training for Kaiser Permanente. He lives in Burbank, California.

I am happy to have this opportunity, as the June Readings/Workshops Writer in Residence, to give something back to Poets & Writers. I have been the beneficiary of much largesse from P&W, in the form of remuneration for being the featured poet at readings and as poetry winner of the 2007 California Writers Exchange Award.

By way of introduction, I would like to share a few thoughts in no particular order. In subsequent blog posts I will be more essayistic. But to start off, maybe you are curious about what I think about poetry.

As cohost of a long-running open mic reading with featured poets (Redondo Poets at Coffee Cartel), I am biased in favor of poetry that reads well aloud, to a broad audience. That means that usually there is followable movement and memorable language, with at least some performance presence or awareness on the poet's part. That is not to say that some of my favorite poems do not come across well aloud. And that is also not to say that all styles of spoken word poetry appeal to me.

My two top criteria for a successful poem are: (1) you want to re-read/re-hear it right away, and (2) you want to tell someone about it.

When I am asked, “How do you know when a poem is done?” I answer that in the best cases it is when the hair on my neck stands up when I read it. In most cases, it is when the poem says what I wanted to say and it is as concise as I can make it (no unnecessary words). In most cases, what I end up saying in a poem has only a thin connection to what I started out to say, to what I thought I wanted to say. I write to put into words what haunts me emotionally, like trying to render in words the frustratingly ineffable emotions you may wake up with when a dream ends. But I also have a taste for wit.

Having heard eighteen thousand or so poems read over the last fifteen years, I realize that one's poetry is a reflection of one's identity, and by identity, I mean our personal mythology about what makes us who we are. And one doesn't always get at it at the outset. Of course we imitate others at the outset. But one of the greatest pleasures I have as host of a regular reading series is witnessing a poet coming into his or her own unique voice over time.

Photo: Larry Colker. Credit: Fred Turko.
Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

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