Kay’s Journal: June Q&A with Kay

Kay Adams

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.

Open Country
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 kay@journaltherapy.com. Put  “Q&A with Kay” in the subject line.




4 Responses to Kay’s Journal: June Q&A with Kay

  1. Kathy Jakolat June 13, 2018 at 4:36 pm #

    I really enjoyed your explanation of the alphapoem and the subsequent poem. My writing group often struggles with alphapoems and this will help a lot! 💕

  2. Lynn D. Morrissey June 14, 2018 at 7:13 pm #

    Were your ears burning???!!! Ah the serendipitous nature of your post for me. First, sincere apologies. This is a sure reminder that I need to send you that alpha via email. Mea Culpa–truly!

    Second, I presented a framed alpha to a beautiful restaurateur in Kimmswick, Missouri today, in remembrance of her precious dad, who died at ninety a year ago last month. Mary was totally overwhelmed by this poem. She wept and wept, for joy, for remembrance, for the fact that someone would think enough of her to write this and to work undercover to learn her dad’s story. I had never met the gentleman. She said the alpha captured him perfectly, and will now sit on her bedside table beside the alpha which I had written in remembrance of her mom (whom I had also never met). She died five or so years ago. Mary’s reaction is not unusual. One gentleman, a magnanimous patron of a chorus to which I belong, lost his beloved wife nearly six years ago and grieved her terribly (and still feels her loss). This is a man who literally has everything, except, now, his beloved by his side. Our chorus sang at the funeral, where I was able to hear the eulogy, personal remembrances, and also where I read a beautiful program filled with memories about her life. I pieced this altogether in an alpha that I framed and gave to him. He wrote a beautiful thank-you letter to me shortly afterward, but it was only recently that he told me that he hung that framed poem on the wall in their bedroom and reads it daily! I could tell you other similar stories, and also I’ve written more lighthearted alphas for occasions like a one-year-old birthday, weddings, and anniversaries. They are always met with genuine gratitude. And just tonight, I was singing your praises as my teacher, and so grateful for your teaching your CJF students this technique. Sheridan’s former baby-sittees (they’re teens now) visited for art lessons from her. With Father’s Day fast approaching, I suggested one of the best things they could do would be to write their dad an alpha and perhaps paint around it in watercolors (ala Sheridan’s art lesson today). They seemed intrigued. I copied two of my alphas for them and sent them on their way. They seemed inspired as well. And funny you should talk about to rhyme or not to rhyme. I explained to Sheridan’s kids that these poems do tend to limit my artistic devices, b/c of the pull of the acrostic. Sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised, though, with inner rhyme, alliteration, and assonance–the typical poetic devices, but these don’t always emerge (I never force that). But that said, the surprise of the poem is in the insights which spring from words I never would have normally conjured. The acrostic pleasantly “forces” the unanticipated! I told the kids that my teacher (you!) said that these poems are magical–and they are! They’re amazing, and I can fire them off generally far more quickly than I would a typical poem (and they end up being more personally meaningful for the recipient). And now, Kay, for the kicker: I told the girl that these poems are officially called abecedarians. She immediately perked up, and said, “I know that word. My brother spelled it correctly, and won the spelling bee.” When I asked him to spell it again, he did so easily. When I asked him what it meant, he hadn’t a clue!! 🙂 So I sent them on their way with alphas on the brain, and I pray their dad receives the best gift ever this Father’s Day (and if they do this, it will be because of you)! How I thank you for encouraging this really unique, insightful, and memorable container! 🙂 These have blessed many a life.


    • Kay Adams June 22, 2018 at 7:32 am #

      Lynn, you are amazing. To have a fluency and gift for capturing the essence of a being – even if you don’t know the person, or know them only slightly – in an Alphapoem is a beautiful and unique gift. I should know; I am the recipient of one of them – the astonishing framed Alphapoem you sent me using my mother’s full name, just before Mother’s Day (and my birthday, which we always celebrated together). I too wept innstantly as I read it, and I read it nearly every day. It captures her essence and spirit so clearly and eloquently. It sits between two vintage 8×10 photos of my mom – her wedding photo with my dad and a portrait I think was taken in her early 20s. Thanks for the Alpha, and thanks for your story. It’s pretty cool.

  3. Carol Roberts July 7, 2018 at 2:58 pm #

    Yes, thanks to Kay and Lynn: I have new hope for alpha poems and will look for an excuse to write one hopefully for someone who needs a lift.

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