Saturday, March 31, 2012

How to Write a Ten-by-Ten Poem


The ten-by-ten is my favorite poetic form, consisting of ten lines with ten syllables each. One-hundred syllables in all. When built right, a ten-by-ten is an elegant, compact and powerful machine. I see one as a square window through which to look or a square canvas to fill.

I'm not sure when or why I started writing them. I'd been making a lot of free-verse and accentual poetry. Somehow I needed the framework. I needed to know where to start and stop. Soon I was writing ten-by-tens almost daily about whatever was on my mind or was happening to me.

Like any piece of writing, begin with a topic. You may use anything: how you are feeling, an experience, a scene you observed, an image you wish to convey, a conversation. Always best to write a lot about a little, rather than the other way around. Choose a small detail and expand it. Make it clearer. Help the reader feel, see, hear, smell and taste what you already have. Don't try to tackle massive themes like “love”. Rather, tell me about that glance from your lover and everything that moment did to you.

Once you've picked a topic, free-write. I've been brainstorming since kindergarten and I still do it. Get a chunk of paper and a pen. Write everything that comes to mind about your topic. Nothing is wrong. Don't erase or scratch things out. Describe each detail with as many words as you need and then some, with no care for punctuation and no slowing down. This is not the time for economy of language. Out of the huge pile of letters and ink, you'll find some gems and some ideas you didn't know you had.

I still use the same old seventy page spiral notebooks from elementary school. When writing a ten-by-ten, I like to count off the last ten lines of the page and mark that spot. In the twenty-two lines above that mark, I'll scribble without thought about the topic, creating four or five times as many words as I'll need for the poem. Then I'll read through it and circle the really good stuff. Somewhere there will be a few great images. Somewhere may be ingredients for the first or last line.

At the bottom of the page I'll make my first attempt at a ten-by-ten. I'll plug in phrases from the free-write, counting on my fingers. The poem starts to feel like a puzzle, fitting fours and sixes together, threes and sevens, wrapping twelves from the end of one line to the next. I find a rhythm creates itself. Some lines read fast. Others are choppy and broken. Cesuras, enjambments and end-stops occur naturally. Sometimes I end up with a perfect iambic pentameter line. It is important that the finished product has variety and rhythm, though it usually happens organically.

Commonly, I know how I want the poem to end before I'm through with the middle. I'll put line #10 and parts of #9 down at the end. Then I'll try to link it to the first five or six lines. Now, I hate filler and never want to plump an eight line poem into a ten. That's why lots of free-writing is essential. Hopefully, you're trimming pages of ideas down to a hundred syllables. Getting the middle of the poem to fit usually involves adding another image or describing one more detail.

Making this little machine of a poem fit together perfectly can be frustrating. I always find the perfect nine syllable line I don't want to fatten or struggle with two six syllable phrases in the same line. This is when I look at the poem as a series of tiles. I start moving pieces around, changing tenses, restructuring sentences, telling the story in a different order and eventually something clicks.

Once you have your first draft: rewrite, rewrite, put it away for a while then rewrite some more. Improve weak images. Take three and four syllable words and replace them with better ones and twos. See if the poem makes sense after a week of ignoring it. Give it to someone and find the part that trips them up. Free-write on that for a while. When you finally can read through the whole thing and can find nothing you don't like, chisel it into your driveway and mess with it no more.

One of my favorite techniques, which I even used when writing this piece, is to print your draft. Then type it back into the computer. I find when the words go back into your eyes, around your head and out through your fingers again, you get new ideas and a better sense for the overall flow of the writing.

Make sure your first line hooks the reader. Make sure the last line strikes with a bang, leaving the reader thrilled, moved or shocked by the experience. Use creative nouns and verbs. End each line on a strong word. Don't let your lines sag with “if”, “but”, or “and”.

Sometimes one ten-by-ten verse is the perfect size. Sometimes, it takes two or three. Sometimes five. Sometimes one-hundred. I wish all of you luck and good fun toying with these ten-by-ten boxes. I'll leave you with one of my own. Perhaps my favorite ten-by-ten:

Fake Flowers

I like flowers fake, sewn and glued, nylon
And polyester.  Woven frayed petals
With coarse grain, plastic stems, acrylic dew.
Never lie nor wilt.  Won't curl or change face.
Sunlight or dark, will be with you always.
In a dollar vase, give me fake flowers.
Unscented, no pollen or honeybees.
Not hungry, always growing at the sun.
Fabricate me twelve bomb-proof, pseudo-silk
Injection-molded polymer flowers.

Also, please investigate my two post-apocalyptic novels-in-verse, composed of one-hundred ten-by-tens:



Soon I'll dedicate a section of this blog to my own ten-by-tens.