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Every year at the end of January, my hometown hosts a huge, national poetry festival, the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Our small community is inundated with poets, song writers, cowboys, ranchers, and journalists for an entire week, and there are venues all over town where you can sit in and watch people recite and perform their poetry.

Most of the poetry has a western theme, but like any great poetry, the poets explore all of life and society through their words. It’s a super fun event.

This week, I got to take a group of students to work with one of the poets in a poetry workshop for teen writers.

Paul Zarzysky, who lead the workshop, calls himself a “Rodeo Poet” because he prefers the sound of those two words over “cowboy poet.” He is a phenomenal poet and performer, a man who makes his living writing and performing poetry, a feat not many have achieved.

Throughout the day, Paul gave us some great tips and insight on how to write poetry.

1) When you’re writing, you don’t owe allegiance to the truth. You owe it to the music of the words.

He writes from personal experience but feels that he doesn’t have to convey his experiences exactly. For example, he might change the name of a bronc he rode or the type of car he drove, if that makes the poem sound better even if it’s not accurate or truthful. After all, this is a poem, not a textbook.

2) Give your imagination and say and let it go! He said, “the best poems about memories are when you allow the imagination to have its say!”

3) Be as specific as you can and fill your poems with concrete images for the reader to grab onto and give your poems energy. Use sensory imagery too as you create those images. The example he shared was riding a motorcycle in high school with a girl on the back. He was writing about love but the image he used was feeling her breasts smashed into his back as he drove. Such a memorable image! Always ground your poems with strong imagery. You can read the poem here.

4) How you deliver a poem can make a huge difference in terms of adding emotion and humor. You can even “fix” weaker stanzas if you deliver your poem well.

5) Poems are all about the sound of the words, so read your poems out loud and listen to them. Hear the vowels and the consonants and play with them until the poem sounds right.

The video below is Paul performing a poem about picking up the mail. He talks about anticipation and delayed gratification through that one concrete experience of driving his car to get the mail. You can also see how he delivers the poem. He LOVES poetry and it comes through so strongly in his delivery. Enjoy!

In the comments below, share your favorite poem OR your favorite tip for writing or performing poetry.