10 Poetry Writing Tips For Young and New Poets

Poetry Writing Tips

Poetry writing is a craft – an art or skill acquired with much time and effort. To help you get started, I will discuss very briefly some writing tips that can help you get that poem out of your mind unto the pages of your blank paper. As a practicing poet who enjoys writing poetry, and also having a deep interest in poetry as an academic study, my relative experience garnered over the years as a young writer may help you with any avoidable difficulties you might experience in creating poems

For the young and new poet who wants to develop and improve his craft, you will find these tips very handy. Of course, it is important to note that not all these tips will apply to any single individual. They are only general guidelines or ideas, not a list of must-do rules, Experience has shown me that rules can terribly hinder creativity and kill originality. Just use the ones that work for you, either as a student working on a poetry writing assignment, or a poet who hopes to become published in a book!

Tip 1: A Poem with Only 5 Great Lines should be 5 Lines Long

Every single word you use in your poem should be for a good reason. It must not just be there to satisfy the poetic urge in you, but to contribute indispensably to the overall meaning of the work. To write successful poems, you must be as economical and concise as possible, and a good way of avoiding the unhelpful waste of words in your poem is to….

Tip 2: try using everyday language

When you write, don’t try to sound like a poet by using every big word you can find in the dictionary! In poetry, we use everyday language, but in an extraordinary manner through seeing things in new ways. Remember, simplicity helps you communicate more effectively with your readers, but verbosity and obscurantism simply throw your readers into confusion. I have found, over the years, learnt that a great way you can avoid this amateurish sound-like-a-poet syndrome is that…

Tip 3: whenever you want to write poetry, never allow yourself to be too conscious about it

When you sit down to write, write at a time and place conducive for your creative mind. Write whatever comes to your mind since this is your first draft written at the “moment of creation”. This is why it is important that you free your mind as much as you can rather than trying to be too rational at this point. Of course, because your first draft is never going to be your final work, except you don’t want to be a writer, your imagination is fired up to a very high level. But to come up with the masterpiece you so much desire, this is where you get to the crucial stage of…

Tip 4: re-writing, re-writing and re-writing

You have just got the worst poem you have ever written in your life out on paper! Good, just what you need to write a masterpiece! Do not restrain yourself, else you will hinder your creativity and cut the wings of your imagination. A poem is rarely completed or perfected the first time. Even after publishing, some writers still feel one or two poems could have been better. In your first draft, you most probably have clichés here and there, with lots of pretentious diction. This is a good material that needs re-writing. Re-writing your poem over and over again is what the craft of poetry writing is really made of. So take another look at your poem and start editing. It is advised that once you have completed the initial draft of your poem, leave the piece for a few days or even over a week, after which you then come back to it with a fresh and unattached look. It is a great way of editing in the re-write stage!
If it must take 50 terrible poems before you can put together one great poem, the earlier you get started, the better for you, your work, and your readers. Often times, I have had to write a single poem having over 30 preceding generations spanning weeks or months! But to avoid a time wasting and energy sapping situation where you end up feeding a stillborn child (your poem) in the name of re-writing, you must always be prepared to…

Tip 5: free the work like a bird and let it go!

If it is worth anything, it will certainly fly back to you; but if it doesn’t return, just say ‘good riddance to bad rubbish!’ and start writing again. I cannot keep a count of a number of my first drafts that have completely found their way into the rubbish bin because I could not squeeze any creative juice out of it in the re-writing stage. So don’t be afraid to write a terrible poem – I am sure your greatest mentors, probably Leopold Senghor, Gabriel Okara, Wole Soyinka, J.P. Clark, Kofi Anyidoho, Niyi Osundare, mention them – have all written bad poems before painstakingly coming up with their great poetry! Letting bad poems go and starting an entirely new poem should not be too painful a thing to bear if you…

Tip 6: enjoy the writing experience!

Often, I have come across some writers who feel writing is a job that must be done within a specific time! Try seeing writing as a gift, hobby or passion, not as an exhaustive project with deadlines. Don’t get me wrong. As a writer, I take my writing very seriously and dedicate lots of time and energy to make it work, but not without setting a limit for myself so that I don’t hinder the smooth flow of creativity in me. If you get bored with your work while writing, it is most certain that your readers will be too bored with the piece you have created in boredom!
To help you enjoy the writing experience, I will give you an idea of what may be hindering the enjoyment and pleasure that poetry writing should provide: I have noticed that most poets who try to express themselves in a “language of the common man” so as to make their poetry accessible to a wider audience do not largely enjoy writing, compared to the writer who write first and foremost for his/her own creative expression. This is because while the former group would have to focus much more attention on the message in his work, the latter mainly focuses on the language. And in-between these two groups are those poets who are able to use imaginative languages that also communicate the intended meaning or message to the reader. Christopher Okigbo did not become one of the finest poets in Africa – nor did Wole Soyinka win the Nobel Laureate in 1986 – for writing in the “language of the common man”. Many writers who do rarely get the attention of critics whose job it is to essentially place writers’ language within established literary traditions and perhaps explore the themes – still in the context of the language used – rather than helping to pass messages to the people. Those who do so rarely get any attention, and if you ever get any attention, it is very likely to be the kind you won’t enjoy.
If you feel that your message is more important than the language, try using non-fictional means to get it across – articles for instance. After all, it is generally accepted that poetry does not sell! So if you must enjoy writing, use comparisons, inferences, and suggestions, such as similes, metaphors, personifications, symbolisms, allusions, alliterations, onomatopoeia, assonance (I am enjoying this already!) etc. It is when you enjoy the writing experience that you can simply…

Tip 7: write as often as you can

That is what I keep doing as a writer – always scribbling down something on sheets of paper, on my palms or in my phone’s notebook. This is why you should have a notebook at all times to enable you put your ideas down immediately they come to you often when you are not even thinking about it! Ideas go just as fast as they often come, like the beaming wings of fireflies in the dark. But rather than waiting for the next big idea in your closet and end up complaining about “writer’s block”,…

Tip 8: get yourself out in the street!

If you are stuck for ideas, carry a notebook anywhere you go and writer down your observations. Just keep your eyes and ears open so that you are always alert to any sense stimulators around you. Also, work out the time of the day when you are at your most creative moment. For many writers, it is the first thing in a fresh morning, or late at night when everything has gone to sleep with their daily demands. For me, I find that I am neither here nor there – night and day have become merged as far as writing is concerned. But count me out when it is too hot in the day, and too late in the night, except I am just typing my work, which also provide me the opportunity to take a mechanical look at what that Senator has written! But after getting ideas from the street, don’t commit creative suicide by sounding like one who just took a time-travel to the 16th century. So what you must do is…

Tip 9: forget about Shakespeare, carve your own voice!

When you sit down to write a poem, don’t bother your head about trying to sound like Shakespeare or any of the 16th century English poets for rhymes, rhythm and all that! This often chokes your creativity, especially if you are a beginner. What is much more important is to say what you want to say, and the free verse form is a nice way to start. Personally, I am not the poetry-must-rhyme-to-be-good-poetry type. Of the over 200 poems I have written over the years, I don’t think I have written up to five poems that rhyme!
Curiously though, when I started writing in my teenage years, I find that I enjoyed working with rhymes and sometimes even rhythm – and this is also true with many beginners – perhaps sound in poetry has a greater influence on us at a younger age, while content is more of the focus as we grow older. Partly, I think this was what Reeves was talking about when she said that poetry was popular with children because at that stage it was all sweet-sounding nursery rhymes, but as they grow older they begin to ask questions which border on the logic of content, which has now make poetry largely unpopular. Don’t get me wrong, I do not mean that only amateurs write poetry that rhymes, but trying to lay emphasis on how influential the sound of poetry can musically appeal to many. So if you must rhyme, do it nicely and effortlessly, even if lots of time and energy went into it. And whether you rhyme or not, if you ever start yawning tiredly without making any headway, just…

Tip 10: forget about it!

Sometimes, you try so hard to get to work but nothing comes out of it! For forget about writing for a while, and get on to something else. You can always get back to writing again when you are not so hardened up. For me, when a particular work begins to make me feel tired, I have since begun to accept it calmly because to me it is an automatic beep that tells me it is time to revisit another stubborn work that I had left earlier (maybe days ago) to finally reveal itself to me, or at least, get closer to the revelation. But for the student, please do not get your mind off the poem – to help you, you can have a deadline at the termination of which you must have come up with the poem you have been asked to write, most probably as an assignment from the classroom.


This article is an excerpt from a recently completed book, Complete Poetry: for Students and Writers written by the poet and author, Senator Ihenyen.

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Interview with Senator Ihenyen, Nigerian Poet and Writer by Sumaila Umaisha, Literary Editor, New Nigerian Newspapers

senator ihenyen

Tell us about yourself.

I am Senator Iyere Ihenyen, born in Lagos in the 80s. By origin, I hail from Esan-West LGA, Ekpoma, Edo State. I attended Lagos City College, Yaba, where I learnt the values of how to “to live, to learn and to create”. I am a graduate of Law from the University of Benin, Benin City, Edo State, and went on to the Nigerian Law School, Kano. By God’s grace, in a matter of months, you could correctly call me Barr. Senator Ihenyen after my call to Bar before the end of the year. A young Nigerian writer, I am the author of “Colourless Rainbow”, a collection of poems published in 2011 by Coast2Coast. The book got an honourable mention in the ANA NDDC/Gabriel Okara Prize for Poetry in the same year. I like to think of myself as an aspiring Lawyer and writer.

Are you really a Senator, or how did you come about the name? (Laughs)

I knew you were going to come to that sooner or later! I understand that my first name suggests a Federal lawmaker with a constituency. Well, the Constitution requires, among other things, that one must have attained the age of thirty-five years to qualify for election as a member of the Senate. I am not 35 years old yet! So, I’m not really a Senator of the Republic. I am the Senator without a constituency except my convictions. I am called Senator simply because I was born on the day of a Senatorial election in the country (please don’t ask me when). Senator is my real name.

When and how did you start writing?

As common with creativity, it’s something that has always been there waiting to be discovered, sharpened and projected. At a very tender age, it had always been drawing and painting for me at a very young age, say 10, but I started writing in my teenage years. Some of the poems in my new collection are a decade old, while some others are very fresh. The process of drafting and redrafting, editing and re- editing is usually continual until the manuscript gets to the prints. This is what the writing process has been for me. To a large extent, my early exposure to the literary works of Leopold Senghor, Wole Soyinka, Gabriel Okara, J. P. Clark, Niyi Osundare and many others stimulated my interest in writing. The more I read their works, the more I scribbled pieces of my own poetry. The Internet has also been a great resource to me in terms of a medium of expression. I started professional writing in 2006, but I have been learning the ropes and growing in the literary community close to a decade now. And I have found that the more you write, the more you can write; and the more you read, the more you are read. It’s a literary rule every writer needs to obey. As Foot, my late editor would say: “Make sure you keep writing!”

What inspired you into writing?

That question is not as simple as it appears. I wish I could simply say that I was inspired into writing by a mentor. Perhaps, that I shared the same room with Wole Soyinka or Niyi Osundare in Ibadan (laughs). It is different for me. I have discovered over the years that I have a highly creative mind. Sometimes, the nature and number of ideas that run through my mind on a daily basis is something a curious Psychiatrist may find interesting. Ideas are what my mind is made of, and any mode that provides me a vibrant medium of expression of these inner ideas equally fascinates me. I am fascinated with the expression of original and fresh thoughts, beauty and emotions. Poetry happens to be one of those creative modes of expression. Also, my childhood innocence of wanting to change the world is one great inspiration that I am still inclined to as a young Nigerian writer today. With creative writing, I don’t expect my works to re-enchant the world but that with what I portray in my works, that man could re-enchant himself. I am inspired by the reality of the ugliness of humanity and the near idealism of the beauty of humanity, and all I do is attempt to create a point of contact between these two worlds through writing. I also find the use of words in imaginative ways very delightful. As a poet, I find a lot of inspiration in what I see, hear, touch, smell and feel. This may explain why imagery essentially drives my work.

Your poetry, Colourless Rainbow, could be described as a very imaginative work of art. What inspired you into writing the collection?

Without mincing words, Colourless Rainbow was inspired by my disenchantment with the ugly state of the country, which has continued till date. The collection is an imaginative expression of my thoughts and emotions flowing from experiences fresh from the pages of a troubled nation, against the dreams of childhood. In seven sections, I attempted to symbolise the statelessness of the nation from the military era down to our current democratic dispensation with the image of a colourless rainbow using the paintbrush of childhood. But as Dagga Tolar, the Activist and past Chairman of the Lagos Branch of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), had told me during one of the ANA Lagos meetings at the National Theatre, Colourless Rainbow is not children literature as “childhood” would suggest from the cover-page! Colourless Rainbow is an outburst of anger and frustration with generations of failed leadership. Many of my followers like to describe it as protest poetry.

Why the title, Colourless Rainbow?

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The predominant subject-matter of the poems in the collection, Colourless Rainbow is Nigeria as a failing state. And you will agree with me that since 1960, Nigeria has been a fascinating paradox. We have so much potential for greatness, but that is where it ends. Beautiful country, but ugly countrymen. Rich human and natural resources, but a chronically poor leadership. Good people, but bad system. Nigeria is simply a juxtaposition of everything positive and negative.

So, why the title Colourless Rainbow?

In my tender age, I had this fascination with the appearance of rainbow in the sky. I would run to the backyard just to gaze at it until it fades out. It symbolised everything beautiful to me. Every hope and every dream seemed wrapped up in it. After a dose of one failed leadership after the other, and the resultant deadly effects, I soon realised that the socio-economic and political realities staring at me were not quite the colours of the rainbows of childhood. In reality, these were disenchanting experiences without the colours of hope and dreams. It was the opposite. It was colourless. This was how I ended up with the title, Colourless Rainbow. Colourless Rainbow represents lost innocence, battered dreams and disenchantment, but with the message of a better tomorrow. I must leave the critics to dissect the work, if there are still critics of new Nigerian poetry today.

Some of the poems sound really angry. You think that is an effective way of changing the political mess the country is in?

That is a very interesting question, sir! The mood and tone of a speaker or voice in a poem largely determines the atmosphere of a work of poetry. Being the author who is god to these speakers and voices in my work, I expressed my anger with the state of the nation-state through them. Yes, I am an angry Nigerian youth. Very angry! I am extremely angry over the wasted generations after wasted generations. My generation has been the worst hit, and sometimes you feel you just can’t take the heat any longer. Colourless Rainbow bottles-up all that anger for wasted lives, wasted years and wasted opportunities. Like you rightly put it, it is indeed a political mess. Now, to the question whether I think venting my anger through my poems is an effective way of changing the political mess the country is in, the answer is in the negative. I am not that naïve to think that the anger of a seemingly frustrated poet can change anything in this country. With the poor reading culture in the society, who cares about poems such as mine. Not even the works of most established poets and writers have significantly changed anything today, if at all. Even journalists struggle with this challenge. Christopher Okigbo and Saro-Wiwa wrote angry works during their time, but nothing seems to have changed. Ojukwu died at a time when Boko Haram was and still is threatening the unity of this country, and Henry Okah would tell you that the Niger Delta under the Jonathan administration is a time bomb waiting to explode if nothing concrete is done sooner or later. The tone in my poems is angry because I am angry, and the Nigerian people are angry. There is no time to beautify ugliness. We cannot at this time afford to miss the message. The message must be communicated in a clear and unembellished manner. Anger when expressed has a way of getting attention. Some of my readers tell me that there so much blood in my work. I simply tell them it is not my story. It is the blood from wasted lives in our nation that has soaked the pages of Colourless Rainbow, not a product of the figment of the imagination of a blood-thirsty poet. Dennis Brutus may have had all the time in the world to write sonnets and subtle satires against racism in South Africa. Leopold Senghor may have had all the time in the world to worship Africa with his Negritude poetry. But at a time like this when Nigeria is nearing the point of a completely failed state, Senator Ihenyen does not have that luxury. Colourless Rainbow is an urgent response in a state of emergency. In my last public presentation at the Abuja Writers Forum in Abuja, the audience greatly appreciated this point. Can protest writing really change the Nigerian society, considering the fact that writers like Soyinka and Iyayi seem to have tried it in vain? Protest literature has existed throughout literary history. Some of the greatest writers in history have employed their talents toward sensitising and awakening people to injustices locally and globally. There are writers who have won the Nobel Laureate based on their contributions to literature and national development. Others have also won same including national awards because they chose to stand against bad governance. From that angle, protest writing could be very rewarding. However, whether such protest literature actually influence decision makers is absolutely a different ball game. It was Chinua Achebe himself who once said that he is a ‘protest writer’ and any good story should have a message. Has his most celebrated work, ‘Things Fall Apart’ changed the Nigerian society beyond being a great novel? Again, considered by many to be the greatest living Somali poet, has the protest works by Hadrawi (Mohamed Warsame) changed the Somali society? From my experience therefore, the answer to the question whether protest writing really changes societies is neither yes nor no. It is somewhere in-between. Personally, I really don’t mind joining the Soyinkas and the Iyayis in the roll call of Nigerian writers who seemingly engage in protest writing ‘in vain.’

In the poem, ‘After the Lightning’, you wrote: ‘after life/comes the drums of death…/tears on earth.’ What is your concept or philosophy of life and death?

When I wrote that poem a long time ago, I had a short dirge in mind. I attempted to capture that idea with the imagery of lightning, thunder and rain to portray the central theme of the transience of life and inevitability of death. Life is really the meaning we give to it and nothing more.

Recently, your book got an Honourable Mention in the ANA NDDC/Gabriel Okara Prize for Poetry 2011. How do you feel about this?

The honorable mention has provided me the privilege of being recognised at the national level for my first book. Though I must say that every writer goes into a competition to get the prize but everyone cannot be a winner. And as it is with literary prizes anywhere in the world, it is not a right. The Judges always have the final say, and I doubt if a High Court judge of a state would be willing to grant an order mandating the Judges to award an aggrieved author the prize! Literature is not Law. It is quite encouraging therefore to have had such honour given to me, and I believe it can only get better in the future.

How would you describe your experience as a young writer?

I believe I will not be doing justice to that question if I fail to approach it from the angle of publishing as one of the greatest challenges to a young and new writer. Anywhere in the world, publishing one’s book, particularly a collection of poetry, is indeed a great hurdle! But in this peculiar part of the world, it is more than a hurdle! Talent is not enough. You must be professional in handling your own work. You must keep writing, but never stop pushing your work. Source information about the literary market. Research on your niche. Get a good editor and pay for the service. Publish in literary magazines and e-zines. Participate in creative workshops and literary gatherings. Again, keep writing while courting patience. I have found that in this industry, one needs hardwork, patience and goodluck. Self-publishing is not the best for a new writer. I was privileged to come in contact with my late editor, Okey “Foot” Okpa, who genuinely took interest in my work, and offered to publish “Colourless Rainbow” in 2008 before his sad death in the last month of the same year. I have the management of Coast2Coast, especially Odili Ujubuonu to thank for fulfilling Foot’s promise, as I have no doubt in my mind that he would be proud where he is.

Having released your debut work, Colourless Rainbow, should we be expecting your second book any soon?

For over five years now, I have been doing extensive research on HIV/AIDS especially in the way it affects how we live today. The product of this is what would be my second collection of poems. But I must warn that with my knack for drafting and redrafting, it is always nearing completion stage (laughs)! Recently, I worked with a student of Screen & Stages, Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada, to produce a special poem for use in an HIV/AIDS documentary film. And as an avid blogger, the Internet has been my best resource in terms of the latest information on the pandemic. Every December 1, there is usually a global traffic on my blog (http://www.senatorihenyen.wordpress.com) interested in poetry on HIV/AIDS. The working title of the collection is ‘Stranger in the Mirror’.

What is your advice to other young writers?

Like many other young Nigerian writers who are still toddlers, I could do with some advice myself (laughs)! However, I have found that there are many talented writers out there. I implore them to keep writing. The more they write, the more they can write. Secondly, to write well, they must fan that creative flame by continually reading other writers. Thirdly, they must be professional by identifying vibrant and useful platforms where they can showcase their works and get constructive feedback. Moreover, they will need to publish some of their individual works in anthologies and e- zines, before working on getting good publishers for their manuscripts. More importantly, from my own experience, I strongly advise that a serious writer needs the services of a good editor. A very good one! They must not be in a hurry to publish. Self-publishing is not a virtue, as far as a new writer is concerned. The more established writers can afford it because, apart from the funds, they have a ready market. This is not the same for a new writer. Also, they must make efforts to acquire creative writing skills. Writing is serious business. You must be highly-skilled to produce a literary work, constantly feeding your imagination with raw materials. Lastly, make the Internet your best resource. Get a blog and start building your network.

Who Deflowered You?

WHO DEFLOWERED YOU?

Innocence sparked in my eyes
when I met you
naked along the silent stream
waking tides of love in my heart
coloured like an angel

under the spotless moonlight
we found a home in my heart
and in my hut, another.

Transfixed, I close my eyes,
Held out my lips of love to yours –

Blood it was that I kissed.

Slowly, silently,
I lay you down on my waiting mat
And lit the wick of our flesh with the fire of desire
But it was a bloodless night –
The last blood of innocence had dried out.

“My beloved –
Who deflowered you?”

My Obsession or What You Will

Since it was a bit difficult giving this poem that has refused to let me be a title, I chose to go with the Shakespeare style of “What You Will”.

This poem is a child of frustration. I kept throwing it away, but kept coming back. Now, like the woman for which the speaker in the poem is obsessed with, there is a certain obsession I now have for this poem! Call it what you will!

MY OBSESSION OR WHAT YOU WILL

why do you stare at me
waiting for the muse in me
to render a poem to you
when you are the muse making music inside me
and I a worshipper waiting at the bank of this river of love?

Let me walk towards your perfection
just to kneel before your beauty, before your magic,
because the lines of a poem to you my love from a mortal mind like mine,
would be like rendering incantations to a lifeless idol,
a god made of wood, not woman made of flesh
for the body throbing before your presence is not wood for fire, but food for nightly infernos

From my knees,
I cannot dare to meander my hands through the curves of your paths,
the twin-hills on your chest, and rabbit hole in the middle between these trees growing skywards
towards your facial horizon only left to be imagined.
These places are too high for me,
like climbing hills of Erin-Ijesha upon a picnic.
Let me stare with awe from the stems of your trees
Like a worshipper waiting for the wonders of your magic wand in the wind,
Waiting for your endowed height to fall upon me
like the seven waterfalls of Erin-Ijesha,
bathing me with your love so immortal,
washing me fresh from the mess of heartbreakers
too mortal to live beyond the lives of their flesh

Senator Ihenyen (c)2012