Here’s my spin on things condensed into five happy little bullet points:
#1. Show us, don’t tell us. For example, instead of telling us that you were sad (or happy, or angry, etc.), show us the situation that made you feel that way, and let us draw our own conclusions. It shows that you trust us as an audience to empathize with you (and we also won’t get bored of you trying to explain things to us that we already emotionally understand).
#3. Edit, edit, edit. I don’t believe in the whole “but it came out perfect from my soul the first time” nonsense. Great for you if you are the flawless 1st draft prodigy, but for the rest of us, we’re going to need some revision. All of my poems go through about 5-10 different drafts before they reach “completion.” If you work on Google docs, it saves all of your revisions as ghost copies that you can return to if you need. This means that you shouldn’t be afraid to do huge cuts or revisions. My friend/mentor Mike Mlekoday always says that “you have to kill your kittens to make an omelet.” Basically, if you ignore the fact that metaphorical kittens are being murdered, this means that sometimes your favourite lines are not your best lines (or that they don’t belong in this particular poem), and you’ve got to sacrifice and take risks to progress your art. It’s how we grow.
#4. Have a thesis. If you don’t know what your poem is about, we sure as hell don’t either. It’s easiest to process one or two emotions at a time, so give us something to settle on and dig our heels into. This doesn’t mean that you don’t get to be creative or talk about complex emotions. It just means that you’re grounding us in reality so we’ll be able to connect with you the entire way through. You’ve got to hold our hands a little (we’re needy).
#5. Read and watch other poetry. One of the best ways to improve writing is to absorb through osmosis. This doesn’t mean steal other poets’ lines (please don’t do that; it’s not a good time), but it does mean to borrow certain things that you like and make them into your own. If you love the way that Jeanann Verlee creates intense metaphoric fantasy worlds and all of her raw and crunchy energy, try that. Test out different styles to see how to create your own. Remember, the point is to develop your own voice, not to just mimic someone else’s. If people wanted to hear Rachel McKibbens, they would go find her poems. And no one does Rachel McKibbens better than Rachel McKibbens, so just be yourself.
P.S. You can have a little fun, too, if you want.