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How to Write a Villanelle + Publication!

"You should TWEET James's poetry! Haha! I'm so funny. And I'm just a dumb ceramic bird."

I like villanelles. They have a lot of restrictions, and that is one of my favourite things about writing poetry. I do write free verse, but I am happiest when trying to do something new in old forms.

My latest villanelle was just published online in The Literary Nest.

It’s called “The News in Villanelle” and is about how we don’t change our behaviour even when the news reports similar tragedies over and over again. Please check it out here!

But first, you might enjoy this description of how to write a villanelle. This is not just for poets. I think it’s always fun to learn about the behind-the-scenes practices of art. AND, as a bonus, I’ve put one of my older villanelles at the end of this post as well.

Enjoy!

A villanelle is complicated poetical form that has the following features:

  1. There are nineteen lines in six stanzas.
  2. The first five stanzas have three lines; the last stanza has four lines.
  3. There are only two rhyming sounds allowed at the end of lines.
  4. The rhyme scheme looks like this: a1ba2 aba1 aba2 aba1 aba2 aba1a2.
  5. The a1 and a2 indicate that the entire line repeats in those places.
  6. All the lines should be in the same meter (I usually use tetrameter or pentameter).

Confusing? It is a little bit because it’s like a puzzle when you’re putting it together. First, let’s look at a famous villanelle that you may have studied in high school or university:

“Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas

.

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.

.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,

Do not go gentle into that good night.

.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

.

The poem is in pentameter (five beats per line, which usually means ten syllables total).

You can see that “Do not go gentle into that good night” and “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” repeat and make a pretty badass, memorable couplet at the end.

So how can you write your own?

I usually start a villanelle by thinking of either 1) a topic that would benefit from a form with a repetitive structure or 2) a really great ending couplet (the two lines that rhyme at the end).

The trick is finding two lines that will be able to repeat four times in the poem. I really like to have lines that I can play with grammatically so that every time they repeat, the meaning of the sentence changes.

The first villanelle that I ever wrote was published in 2012 by Wisdom Crieth Without. Their website has since disappeared, so I am going to post it here now for your reading pleasure.

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There’s Nothing Else I Want (Adam’s Villanelle)

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That burning image will forever haunt

me in the middle of my promised land;

despite my fears, there’s nothing else I want

.

to know but why I let that lone tree taunt

me with its secret knowledge on command.

That burning image will forever haunt

.

my love as well. She comes, and from her gaunt

clenched fist pushes a gift into my hand.

Despite my fears, there’s nothing else I want

.

but a taste; it’s too small a fruit to daunt

me, but one bite oils fire and expands

that burning image. Will Forever haunt

.

me as teeth break skin mix fluid? A jaunt

disrupts, the plants disperse, all turned to sand.

Despite my fears, there’s nothing else I want

.

but this new choice — in erring sin — to flaunt

our free will.  Though Eden is forfeit and

that burning image will forever haunt

despite my fears, there’s nothing else I want.

by Gustave Dore

Paradise Lost

By ending line a1 with the verb haunt, I was able to make it refer to a different object each time. My favourite is in the fourth stanza where a period breaks the line and makes the second half part of a question.

Pro tip: Remember when you read poetry aloud, you don’t have to pause at the end of a line: keep following the punctuation as you would prose unless the poet has written the poem in such a way that end stops are assumed to have punctuation.

This poem did not look exactly like this when I first wrote it. I changed it a few times over a few years as I experimented with breaking up the repeating lines. You definitely don’t have to do that (Dylan Thomas didn’t after all!), but it is pretty satisfying to pull it off.

My newest villanelle, as advertised above, can be found here in The Literary Nest!

 

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Poetry Submission Advice: Free Subscription with Contest Entry

Every poetry journal makes the same request when putting out a call for submissions:

read some of our back issues to get a feel for our style.

Reading back issues is important not only to see if you have something that the journal might like, but it also keeps you connected to what is currently being acknowledged and praised in the literary market. Publishing on Twitter and on your own blog can be personally inspiring and rewarding, but if you want to build up some poetic street-cred among the literary journals (so that you can one day apply for government grants to write a collection), you need to hoard some of your best stuff and then submit it.

"Don't look! These aren't published yet!"

“Don’t look! These aren’t published yet!” – Smaug

If you post something on Twitter or on your blog, it’s considered published by most literary journals. This means that if you write a great poem that you’d like to see published in Fiddlehead or Prairie Fire, you can’t put it online for others first. The journal wants first-publication rights; they want to be the first ones to share your masterpiece with the world. You get the rights back after a certain amount of time (read your contract carefully) and then you can do with the poem what you will.

So where can you read these literary journals?

Your public or university library might have subscriptions to literary journals. VPL (Vancouver Public Library), for example, has an excellent selection of Canadian and international journals to peruse (but you can’t sign them out).

The other option is to subscribe. Yes, this takes money, but I have a handy trick for you if you like the idea of receiving new literature at your door every three months—as I do!

"Your subscriptions keep me employed."

“Your subscriptions keep me employed.” – Newman

Most of the big name Canadian literary journals have annual contests with impressive cash prizes and grandeur to be won. The odds of winning are a long shot, but when you pay the contest entry fee (usually between $30-40), you receive a year-long subscription.

This is a great deal if you want the subscription anyway and have some solid poems that you’d like to send into battle.

There are two such contests coming up imminently:

Prairie Fire

Deadline (Postmarked): November 30, 2014

$32 to submit up to 3 poems

Grand Prize: $1250

Submission by snail mail only

For the address and other details (read them carefully!) go to their website: http://www.prairiefire.ca/contests/

.

Fiddlehead

Deadline (Postmarked): December 1, 2014

$30 to submit up to 3 poems if you’re Canadian ($36 Int’l)

Grand Prize: $2000

Submission by snail mail only

For the address and other details (read them carefully!) go to their website:

http://www.thefiddlehead.ca/FHcontest.html

If you don’t have the money to enter both contests, check out their websites or their back issues at the library to see which one best suits you.

I will be posting more writing advice for poets and short fiction writers in the future, so please subscribe and follow me on your preferred social media. (share buttons below too)

Wondering which journals to read? Subscribe to my blog, and I will send you a handy PDF of the annual contests of some of Canada’s most influential poetry journals.


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