Sarah Jane Barnett: Three tips for beginning poets


Sarah Jane Barnett’s fabulous, debut poetry collection was short-listed in the Poetry Category at this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards. She has contributed a piece to the ongoing series On Poetry that  NZ Poetry Shelf is hosting. I totally agree with her tip that reading makes a writer (and I would add writing). Read read read write write write (a simple but time-tested formula. There was an excellent interview in the Listener but you need to subscribe in order to follow link.


Sarah Jane Barnett  A Man Runs Into a Woman Hue & Cry 2012 This is what I wrote about this book last year (part of it ended up on the blurb at the back of the book): Sarah Jane Barnett’s debut collection is a gift for the ear. The words are poised, graceful, musical; verbs and adjectives soar and vault and balance. Within her glorious word gymnasium, Barnett is a poetic trapeze artist with feet on the ground and magical arcs and sidesteps in the air. As the cartographer of human experience, she steps boldly into the shoes and lives of others – a cable television engineer, a geographer, a pipeline worker. Her alert mind and canny eye for detail translate and transform what we may have missed in the world into poetic vignettes that are both light-footed and fresh.

the red room Sarah’s blog

Hue & Cry

And now from Sarah:

Three Tips for Beginning Poets

 Even though I’ve been writing poetry for the last ten years, I still feel like a beginner. I can’t imagine this will ever change. Every time I read a new collection of poetry I learn something new. There is always somewhere else to go; some new poems to write. So, while these tips are aimed at writers who are just starting out, I think they are useful for any writer.


1. Read poetry


A few years ago at a writers festival I met one of my idols, Canadian poet Christian Bök. After he signed his book for me I asked him what advice he had for poets just starting out. His one word reply: “Read.”

It seems an incredibly obvious statement to make, but I’ve been given the same piece of advice by many other poets, and it’s now the piece of advice I give to other people. I think that sometimes poets become so focussed on writing new work that they forget the best poetry is part of a wider dialogue with other poems and art forms. It’s not just about reading, though, but reading with a critical eye. Poets are notorious magpies. By reading other poets you can look at the mechanics of their poems. What tricks do they use? How do they use form, language, sound, and imagery? What poems make you excited and why? Once you figure out these things, you can try them out in your own poems. This tends to result in poems that sound like the poet that’s inspired you, but in the process you learn how poems work.

A great exercise related to this idea is to take the first line of a poem you like, and then use that line to write your own poem. At the end, take away the first line.


2. Experiment with form


After I finished my MA in creative writing I had writers block for about six months. No matter what I tried, I could not write a poem. To feel like I was doing something useful with my time I started to write short stories. These came easily and I enjoyed playing with dialogue, narrative, and place, which poets don’t usually get to do. In the end the stories weren’t very good, but after I finished writing them I started to write long narrative poems, and now these are my favourite poems to write.

What I am trying to say is that no time writing is wasted. If you’re a poet there is a lot to learn from writing stories, creative non-fiction, and essays. I think that every fiction writer should write some poems as a way to learn about how to apply pressure to language.

3. Never give up on a poem


I started to seriously write poetry in 2002 after attending a workshop run by Christchurch poet, James Norcliffe. James was the first person to encourage me to send poems out for publication, so I own him a lot. The best piece of advice he gave during that workshop was to never give up on a poem. Sometimes it takes a long time for a poem to reveal itself. It’s a bit like an archeological dig: you’re not sure what the final find will look like.

Take a recent poem of mine. I wrote this poem at the beginning of my PhD and it never really worked. The form was wrong, and the last few lines were rubbish. I’d take it out every three or four months and push the words around the page. A few weeks ago – four years since I first wrote that poem – the poem finally revealed itself.

Sarah Jane Barnett is a writer, reviewer, and tutor who lives in Wellington. Her debut collection, A Man Runs into a Woman (Hue & Cry Press) was selected as a finalist in the 2013 New Zealand Post Book Awards. She blogs at

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