Photo Research in Action Becka McKay

The Pursuit of Poetry Expression

Becka Mara McKay, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Department of English,
Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters

I will talk today to a younger friend whose husband just told me of her brain cancer, how it will take her, how it has taken already too many of her words. As if birds could carry away their pain while it gives her, she who is losing the handles to her life, color.    

I am so sorry to hear this. My stepmother was also a poet, and the way that the cancer took away her ability to read and write was devastating. She was always comforted by music, even at the very end.

I am told I am too mysterious in writing poems. How do I fix this?    

I think it’s important to remember that poems are not guessing games. If you think of the poem as a conversation between the poet and the reader, you might be more inclined to be clearer with your images. Titles are also very often the key to giving the poem clarity. A good title situates the poem for the reader and can provide some information that you might not want to state overtly in the poem.

On the cento, would you say that creative writing is the mixing of ideas we would not normally see together?   

I don’t know if creative writing is always mixing unlike ideas, but I do know that being able to juxtapose unexpected words and ideas is one of my favorite things about writing poetry. That’s really what a metaphor is, after all – drawing a connection between two unlike things in order to reveal something new about both of those things.

How do you decide the spacing and paragraphs of your poetry?   

I find myself writing mostly in couplets or tercets (three-line stanzas), and I believe that’s because I like the enforced pause/breath (and resting space for the eye) that it affords. I want to give readers (and myself) a little breathing room as they go.

What are the names of the magazines where one might send one’s poems for consideration?    

I think the best resource for writers looking for places to publish their poetry is They list pretty much every magazine publishing poetry these days. It’s important to do your research when looking for a place to publish. Every magazine has its own aesthetic.

For bilingual writers, what is a good guide when trying to translate a poem written in English to say Portuguese (any language really)?    

This is a very big question! There are many great resources out there for people who want to learn more about literary translation, beginning with the American Literary Translators Association. If you are interested in translating poetry from Portuguese, you might want to start by finding a book of translated poems that includes both the English and the Portuguese and really study the choices that the translator made. Every translator makes different choices.

What are some of the criteria used by publishers before deciding if a poem is worth it?    

Every literary magazine has a section on their website that describes (sometimes in detail, sometimes not) what they are looking for. Most of them say some version of the same thing: they want work that does something new with language, that approaches old subjects in a new way, that shakes them up, that says what cannot be said.

Could you explain the "Zip Code Poetry?" Thank you. This was great.    

Thank you for coming! The “Zip Odes” are poems in which every line of the poem contains the number of words that correspond to that number in the poet’s zip code. I was living in the 33444 zip code at the time, and so my five-line poem had three words in the first line, three words in the second line, four words in the third line, and so on.