I tried Alphapoems but I didn’t like the technique very much because it was hard to make it rhyme and have decent rhythm when I was constrained by the next letter of the phrase staring at me. Am I doing something wrong? — Confused Alphapoet
Dear Confused — When it comes to journal writing, there’s no “wrong,” just “write” — so in that sense, no, you’re not doing anything wrong. Whatever you’re doing is fine. The question then becomes, are you getting results that you want? And it sounds like with the Alphapoem you’re struggling a bit. Let’s get you unconstrained!
As a brief review: “Alphapoem” is a made-up word for a poem that is organized around the alphabet, A-Z, or a word or phrase that is spelled vertically down the page. Each line of the poem starts with the next letter of the word. Usually the word or phrase is the title of the poem. I’ll demonstrate with a poem called TODAY.
T housands of thoughts and tasks and ideas on my To-Do list–
O verwhelming in the sheer volume of things.
D on’t approach it like that! Chunk it down. Choose five easy things
A nd do them first. Then three more, harder. By then
Y ou’re in a rhythm — by tonight, you’ll feel productive!
My study of poetry therapy switched me on to the work of dozens of contemporary poets (and some classic poets too, of course) who either helped form or grew up in the free verse and open styles of the 1950s and beyond. In the contemporary form, rhythm is far more important than rhyme. Yet even rhythm is subordinated (particularly in the first iterations!) to the capturing of a moment, a mood, a story, an ephemeral wisp of knowing, an image from the natural world, a question, a memory, etc. More often than not, contemporary poetry does not rhyme. If it does, it often makes use of a rhyming form from cultures around the world — a ghazal, a sonnet, a villanelle, a pantoum.
In an alphapoem, like in a classic or contemporary poem, we begin with an idea of what we want to create — MORNING DAWN or DEPRESSED MOOD or MY BIRTHDAY and then the forced-choice letter at the left margin provides the structure and container for the poem (much like rhythm and rhyme create the container for a classic rhymed poem).
My best suggestion is to not overthink the Alphapoem. It benefits from spontaneity and freedom from care. Unhook your brain, set aside judgment or expectation, and see what happens when you just let a word that starts with the next letter emerge and take you somewhere.
Alphapoems are designed not to be poetry so much but to be quick problem-solving devices or documentations of moments to capture and preserve. Does that mean that they can’t be “real” poems? Absolutely not. Vanessa Jackson wrote the closing poem of her volume of poetry, Grief Road (to be published Summer 2019) as an Alphapoem. In a collection of more than 40 strong poems, this one offers an equally strong finish — and it’s written with the entire A-Z format.
After you’ve travelled the seemingly endless road
between the birth of grief with its first shocked
cry and the weary years that trudge to that distant
day when you might find some quiet again—after
everything you’ve encountered on your journey
from one edge of the forest to the other, you will
get, perhaps, to the strangest place of all, one you
hadn’t dreamed of in the darkest moments, not
in those moonless nights when owl’s uncanny requiem
juddered through thick shadows, invisible claws
killing the rabbit’s scream stone dead, and you woke
lathed in the sweat of nightmare. You will emerge after
many torn sleeps like this into a field in early March,
not golden and shining like some child’s Eden, but quite
ordinary—a field with pale grass and maybe by the hedge
primroses just beginning, a pair of blackbirds, bright-eyed,
quarrelling in song—and you will stand there tranced by
revelation, for you’ve alighted at one of those roadside
stations unmarked on the map, a small place dozing in
tranquility and sun. And what’s come to you in a sudden
understanding is that left on the road in the forest are those
visions and revisions, the bloody birth, the terrible grinding
weight that so exhausted sleep. They’ve gone. You feel
exalted and afraid, light but oddly abandoned by your grief,
your companion on the longest road. You see this is the end
zone, the beginning, the sunlit field you have to cross alone.
–Vanessa Jackson (c) 2018, from Grief Road (in press, all rights reserved)
If you have a question about journal writing that you’d like to submit, please do so! You can ask it in the comments or email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Put “Q&A with Kay” in the subject line.