“Pick a poem you’d like to get to know,” dares Marjorie Maddox in her latest educational collection titled “Inside Out: Poems on Writing and Reading Poems with Insider Exercises.”
Along with being an accomplished short story writer, essayist, anthology editor, and children’s book author, Maddox brings her skills as a poet and professor of English and creative writing to the pages of “Inside Out.” She entices readers with an approachable guide to poetry by modeling techniques and inviting experimentation.
Exercise 1 of the book, titled “Befriending a Poem,” teaches readers how to approach a poem as they would a question or a favorite subject. “Poems like to meet you where you are,” the exercise states, “whether it’s the backyard, the library, or a soccer field.”
Back when I was an MFA grad student, I once surveyed the general public’s interest in poetry, and the majority confessed to not enjoying the literary form because it seemed pretentious and unrelatable. Maddox reaches young readers early to turn these notions inside out using a combination of poems that explain their own innerworkings and are paired with detailed exercises.
The poem “Paradox,” for instance, reads:
Inside this masquerade of lies,
the truth shines bright,
each glimmer an oxymoron
of sweet sorrow
lighting the way
This poem’s corresponding exercise provides the definition of a paradox, followed by a lesson and writing prompts on this and other “cool poetry tricks,” such as alliteration, the oxymoron, and the pun.
“The Frankenstein Poem,” with its “cartloads of dissected lines/and postmortem poems” brings the concept of personification to life. Readers are then challenged to identify where the technique shows up in the poem, and then to write a persona poem of their own using a list of suggested jumpstarts; for example, “compose…a poem from the view of a piano talking to the person who is taking lessons.”
Maddox refers to earlier pages as the book progresses, easing readers into practicing and combining the presented concepts. The glossary, detailed with examples and in-page references, also supports understanding along the way and is a handy tool for those inspired to blend concepts independently. Readers have everything in-hand for “How to Write Yourself Out of a Paper Bag,” the title of a poem whose first line instructs “Sharpen your pencil/and your wit.”
Without losing its magic, each poem in “Inside Out” is simultaneously an educational model of poetic skills and an entertaining, artistic standalone piece. The knowledge packed into this slim and portable collection appeals best to middle school-aged and young adult readers. It is a savvy tool for poetry workshops and clubs led by educators, guardians, librarians, and community organizers.
Equipped with step-by-step guidance and an encouraging voice, the collection suggests that “There are no right or wrong [line] breaks, just different effects” and to “Play around with words.” Maddox’s “Inside Out” assures those of every age that poetry is open to any reader or writer willing to “choose what and who that poem is.”
Reviewer Nicole Miyashiro writes fiction and poetry, and is an editor for the Pennsylvania Center for the Book at Penn State.