The Blog of John Hewitt

How to write an epistle poetry form

Epistle as a Form

Epistle (pronounced e-PISS-ul) is a poetic form that dates back to ancient Rome and to the Bible. It is a poem written in the form of a letter. The term epistle comes from the Latin word epistola, which means letter. Epistle was used to express love, philosophy, religion and morality. In many cases, the epistle would go on at great length. Many older epistles were thousands of words long.

Most people who think of epistles think of the Bible. Many of the books in the New Testament are epistles, especially the Epistles of St. Paul. The poet Robert Burns also frequently wrote epistles, as did Alexander Pope. There are contemporary poets who use this form, but it will always be associated with The Greeks, the Romans, and the Bible. Nonetheless, it is a fun and loose form to write in if you can get away from the ancients.

Your Poem as a Letter… or Tweet

Over the past hundred years, as the telephone took over for letter writing, letters became less personal and more formal or business related. The concept of writing letters to relatives, friends, colleagues and lovers went out of fashion. In the last few years, however, letter writing has had a rebirth of sorts as the Internet grew in prominence and people began to send e-mail to each other. Over time, this has grown to include tweets, Facebook posts, text messaging, and more. Today, a long letter is an unlikely gift of time and effort. An epistle is an even more unlikely gift.

Luckily, the epistle is a very adaptable form. If you want to write a poem as if it were a series of tweets or updates, that is still within the realm of epistle. I’m not sure if Burns or Pope would agree, but time passes for everything.

No Meter or Rhyme Needed

There are no meter or rhyme requirements for an epistle. Epistle is more a form of voice and persona. A poet can address their epistle to a real or imaginary person and express their views or take on the character of a different writer. The wonderful quality of an epistle is that it can be such a freeing form. The tone can be formal or use very personalized voices. The poems can be many pages long or as short as a post card.

Epistle Guidelines

Some things you should keep in mind when writing the epistle are:

  • Who is writing the letter?
  • Who is the letter being written to?
  • How you would address that person?
  • What would interest the writer and the recipient?
  • How formal or informal would the writer be when addressing that person?

Below is an epistle I wrote several years ago. I think it is a good example of how fun and flexible the form can be. An epistle doesn’t have to sound like a formal letter. This one takes the form of unsent notes.

 

Notes To Shelly

One

Anyone who would give me
A Winnie-the-Pooh book for Christmas
Deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Still, what will it be
To have you disappear?
Don’t make it forever.

Two

Got your postcard today.
Read all twenty-four words
Twelve times.

Three

Saw Rocky Horror again tonight.
And I thought about your first time
And your devirginization.
Afterwards I drove under
Every overpass I could find.

Four

First date since you left.
Took her to dinner
At the Mexican restaurant
You told me gave you food poisoning.
I never told you I’d wait.
But I didn’t want to take her
Anywhere I’d go with you.

Five

I had a feeling this morning
That I would find a letter from you
In my mailbox.
You know better than I
That it was empty.
That sounded bitter, didn’t it?
Sorry.

Six

Reading Marquez.
Love in the Time of Cholera.
Wanted to recite to you the passage
About the ship captain and the Manatees.
Instead I read it to the palo verde in the yard
Much to Mr. Parra’s consternation.
It is important to maintain my image.

Seven

Ran into Maria at the mall today.
We asked each other about you.
Must be fun to be so mysterious and everything.
Maria and I ate lunch together.
She told me she’s marrying Jimmy.
She took my address
So she can send me an invitation.

Eight

Happy Birthday.
On your behalf
I spray painted the walls
Of my living room black.
And splattered little specks of color all over
To make it look like space.
The effect was different than I expected.
I feel like I’m in one of the less exiting rides
At Disneyland.

Nine

The invitation arrived today.
John and guest.
There’s nobody to take though.
Dating really didn’t work out
After you left.
I expect I’ll send my regrets.

Ten

Went to the wedding after all
Because I thought somehow
You would make an appearance.
It would have been a good moment.
Like the mail though
The appearance didn’t come.
Instead I started talking to Tammy.
We started dancing together.
Drinking half the punch.
She’s getting over somebody.
She said I can call any time.
I won’t though.

Eleven

Called Tammy today.
We got even drunker than at the wedding.
We had to walk back to my house.
She took off her clothes
In the bathroom
And slept on the couch.

Twelve

Of course your postcard
Would arrive today.
From Arkansas of all places.
Your message simple.
Just wanted you to know I’m alive.
Don’t worry.
I know.

Fourteen

I didn’t answer the phone today.
I sat in the living room.
I watched the walls.
Late in the day I decided
It’s time for me to buy a TV again.

Fifteen

I repainted the living room today.
My lease is up and I decided
That I didn’t want to stay here.
I’ve been sending out my resume
For a couple months now.
And I heard back from a company in Sacramento.
It seems everybody is leaving California.
Which makes it probably
The most appropriate place for me to go.

Sixteen

Tammy came over last night.
This time we didn’t go drinking.
This time she didn’t sleep on the couch.
This morning, just to be different
I asked her to come with me.
Just to be like you
She’s quitting her job
And jumping lease.
For the first time in a long time
I know I will see you again.
But then, I’ve been wrong before.

More Information

Don’t explain everything in your poem

Don’t treat poetry like prose

One of the key differences between poetry and prose is exposition. The nature of prose is expository. The prose writer tells a story. Generally speaking, the story progresses along logical lines as the reader discovers more and more about the subject and the plot. For this to happen, the writer must explain elements of the story so that the reader can follow the action and make sense of it all.

Poetry does not have to be expository. A poet can explain, but it isn’t necessary to the form. In many cases exposition can be a detriment. One of the beauties of poetry is that a poet can and should cut out everything that isn’t essential. The reader should bring their own experiences into a poem. The more a poet tries to explain, the less the reader has to think about. A little explanation can be good, but too much explanation can leave your poem lifeless.

Say enough to be clear

There is also a danger in saying too little. What starts as concise can become vague. There is a path that each poet must navigate between what should be cut and what must remain. It is a path that each poet must determine on their own. Some poets write as if they are telling stories, and others write as if they are painting an image. Neither is wrong.

Exposition should be necessary and interesting

When you edit your poetry, go through each line and ask yourself if it is both necessary and interesting. Is it a line that the reader will remember, or does it merely serve to move the reader into the next moment? If the line is not necessary or interesting, it should either be cut or rewritten.

Don’t try to control your reader

Don’t waste the time and effort of your reader and don’t try to control their experience. Say what you want to say, but don’t tell your reader what to think about your poem. Allow them to think what they want, even though their interpretation may differ from your intention. The poem is not the poet. Once created and brought into the world, the poem stands only on its own. Unlike a college text or a how-to article, a poem is not created to explain. It is created to involve. Allow the reader to determine their own involvement.

Developing your writing voice

Your writing voice will be influenced by others

Over the years, I have found many poets and writers I wanted to incorporate into my writing. Early on, I was a big fan of Lawrence Ferlinghetti.In college, I grew to admire Ai. I have been a big fan of Charles Bukowski for years and more recently I have been reading Tony Hoagland.

On the fiction side, I have moved through the influences of John Irving, Bret Easton Ellis, Anne Tyler, Walker Percy, Jim Thompson and W. Somerset Maugham to name a few.

As much as these people influence my writing, however, I don’t write like any of them. I can see some elements of each in my writing, a Ferlinghetti-like flight of fancy or a Percy-influenced malaise for example. Still, as my voice has developed (and it is still developing) I have learned to incorporate rather than emulate. While pieces of my writing may echo that of other writers, I have my own system of expression and my own style.

Developing a writing voice takes time and effort

There is no quick route to developing your own writing voice. The key is to keep writing. Write your way through the bad moments and the cheap emulations. Don’t make a conscious effort to write like someone else, no matter how much you admire their writing. Be honest with yourself. Whatever else you do, keep writing, and then write some more.

As you keep writing, you will grow more confident in your style. This isn’t a process that takes a day or a week. This is the process of a lifetime of writing. Your voice will evolve long after you have stopped worrying about developing your voice — if you keep writing.

Influences will become more subtle over time

Once you become comfortable with your writing voice, you won’t be as susceptible to outside influences. You can learn from a poet without copying that poet. You can add the best of other people’s influences to your style. There is value in reading and learning from great poets and great writers. Just as musicians incorporate new sounds and styles, so can poets and writers. Just remember that your voice is the influence that matters most.

Avoiding Poetry Contest Scams

There are many legitimate poetry contests in the world. Unfortunately, there are probably more scams out there than there are legitimate contests. Poetry contests scams prey on people who want to see their names in print. There are so many people in the world who write poetry, and who want to see their poems published.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be published and recognized, but unfortunately the market for poetry is not very big. For every successful book of poetry, there are hundreds of successful novels. This doesn’t mean that you can’t find legitimate poetry publishers and contests, but it makes the task much harder.

Legitimate poetry contests are generally sponsored by newspapers, magazines and accredited schools (such as universities). They offer small prizes and frequently the opportunity to read your poetry at local gatherings or workshops. In a legitimate poetry contest, you will never be charged to be published, and generally you will receive at least one free copy of whatever the publication is that you appear in.

Here are some indicators that a contest is a scam:

Everyone’s a Winner!

Poetry contest scams often have a large number of “winners”. This is because they make money by publishing books of poetry that are bought almost exclusively by the “winners”. In other words, they publish you because they expect you to buy copies of the book. These books generally have thousands of poems in them so that they can charge as many people as possible. Besides the book, they may offer to put your poetry on a plaque, an audio CD or even a web site for a fee.

Big Prizes

Contests with unusually large prizes are very suspicious. If you can win a thousand dollars or more, chances are that you’ll be paying more money than you’ll be getting, often through…

Reading / Entry Fees

Many contests make money by charging you to enter or charging to “read” your poems. These are contests you should be very wary about entering. Contests that charge a fee are either funding the prizes with the fee (not great, but not terrible) or funding the prizes and pocketing the difference (worse). Legitimate poetry contests generally have small prizes and no fees. If you are going to enter a contest with a fee, understand what you are doing — paying to compete with other poets.

Travel Opportunities

While it is a great honor to be asked to read your poetry in front of a gathering of other poets, be careful if a contest selects you as a “winner” and then tries to sell you a trip to a poet’s or writer’s workshop/symposium. If it is going to cost you several hundred dollars to go, and they’re the ones you’re giving the money to, then you’re probably being scammed.

Classes

One of the classic scams is that you will be selected for special poetry writing classes. These scams tell you that your poem is very good, but that you could benefit from one of their teachers. There is nothing wrong with taking poetry classes, but it is wrong to disguise advertisements for classes as a legitimate poetry contest.

Avoiding The Scams

  1. Always research whatever organization is conducting a contest or offering to publish your poems.
  2. Think carefully and investigate before you agree to pay a fee to enter a contest or to have your poems published.
  3. Never agree to pay to have your winning poem published.
  4. Avoid contests that sound too good to be true.
  5. Get involved in the poetry community. The more you are involved in and understand the world of poetry, the less likely you’ll be taken in by the cons.

7 Ways to Be the Victim of a Poetry Contest Scam

The number of people who get ripped off by poetry contest scams every year is incredible. These scams predate the Internet by at least a hundred years. Here the ways you make yourself a victim.

Don’t do any research about the people holding the contest

Most contests that spend more than a little money on advertising are trying to make a profit. Most legitimate poetry contests have small prizes and a local focus. That doesn’t mean the one you found is bogus, but it is a good idea to check.

Join poetry contests that advertise big, big prizes

Do you actually think that lots of rich, nice people are looking to give away big prizes for a single poem? Does that make sense to you?

Expect your poem (first one you ever wrote) to win a big money

Sure, thousands of other poets probably entered, but your first effort will beat them all. That is a reasonable outcome, right?

Buy their stuff

Do you think that when you win a contest, you should have to pay for a commemorative plaque, buy the book your poem is in, or pay for a trip to a conference? If so, by all means fork over your money. Everybody deserves to win an out-of-pocket trip to Las Vegas or Miami.

Avoid becoming a part of the legitimate poetry community

People who are a part of the poetry community around them learn pretty quickly about what is and is not a legitimate opportunity.

Pay that reading fee 

The reading fee is a staple of how for-profit poetry contests work. If a contest offers a $10,000 prize and the reading fee is $10 a poem, they only have to find 1001 suckers, I mean contestants, to start making a profit. Of course, that is without all of the “runner ups” who pay for copies of the books their poems appear in.

If it sounds too good to be true then it MUST be true

If you want someone to take all of your money, make this your mantra.