Poetry | Free Verse Poetry

Let’s be real. Most of us, the majority of the time, write free verse poetry. Traditional rhyming metered poetry still has its fans, but some of those forms have almost a negative connotation in the poetry market. Many magazines even have a line in their submission guidelines about how they are selective about their rhyming poetry.

So what’s the point of talking about form?

Think of a poem as a building, and every stanza is a room (the word “stanza” even means room). A building’s structure is important for obvious reasons (namely that it doesn’t fall over) but the structural style chosen says a lot about what’s being built: its function, as well as its character. Why might someone choose a colonial style vs. an art deco style for a structure? What do each of those accomplish, both functionally and aesthetically? Those are the sorts of questions we want to be asking ourselves when we select a form for a poem.

Forms are like tools in a toolbox. Being familiar with a number of forms gives you more things to play with when you’re writing your poems. Sometimes I try on different forms when I have material I’m having trouble getting into a strong poem. Each form can contribute towards aiding or juxtaposing a poem’s content and meaning, or its mood. They can also create a certain visual or auditory experience. Repetition can create an experience in the poem, or even be used to help the reader remember something about the poem.

As you consider which forms to play with, think about what this form could accomplish, and how that could mesh well with material that you’re working with. For example, the repeated lines of pantoums makes this form great for recreating the act of storytelling, diving into memories, regret and guilt, as well as conveying a sense of obsession. Sestinas invite a sense of play with their line-end repetitions, allowing for a constant transformation of meanings through punctuation changes and using homonyms. Sonnets are largely used for expressing love and devotion, while ghazals invoke love of loss and longing.

Whatever form you use should be justified. The repetitions of a form shouldn’t be “because the form says so”, but should be transforming with each use—repetitions should propel the poem forward, not hold it back. Like prose, the poem should have a heightening, climax and resolution—this can be narratively or abstract. But the form should be creating that tension, that climax, that resolution. Another thing to consider with form is how it presents itself on the page. What does it look like?

Forms vary in their rigidity. The pantoum for example has no meter or rhyme restrictions, but is rooted in repetition. This was a realization to me as I began to work in form—not all forms require strict rules, and rhyme and meter. I began to enjoy form when I realized that rules in poetry are made to be broken, and that the form should be working for me, not me working for the form (AKA: I should be wearing the dress; the dress shouldn’t be wearing me). A great example with playing with form on a conceptual level is Pablo Neurda’s Ode to Common Things. Forms don’t have to just be played with on a technical level (e.g., using a sestina’s repetition of the word “tea” as “T”) but also on a conceptual level. Retranslate what an elegy is, what an ode is—what it is to praise and mourn. Tell a ballad about a mundane event. Try to figure out what a prose poem is. In the end, the most important thing (I’d argue) is to have fun. A form shouldn’t be a restricting harness but a shaped vessel for a poem to thrive in.

Poets may also create a form to suit their content. For example, Patricia Smith’s 34 uses 34 sections to create a voice for each victim in a nursing home flooded during Hurricane Katrina. In Conversation with my Mother, April Naoko Heck creates a form that visually marks when she or her mother is speaking, allowing the conversation to flow without bulky speech markers. If it doesn’t feel like there’s a form created yet to fit your content, then make it yourself!

If we’re talking about form, we should also mention free verse. Just because free verse is “free” doesn’t mean it doesn’t have structure. Free verse poems still need to think about how they utilize sound, line length, repetition, enjambments, internal rhyme and slant rhyme, meter, and stanza size. In fact, because there isn’t a set “rule” on what free verse poetry looks like, it means we almost need to be more attentive to these elements. The form should be an appropriate vessel for the “fluid” of the poem. We have to ask ourselves then: what should the free verse form look like for this particular poem?


Poets may also respond to or imitate work that’s meaningful to them. Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong is Ocean Vuong’s tribute to Roger Reeves and Frank O’Hara. Eugenia Leigh’s Psalm 107 is both a response to and an imitation of the biblical psalms. This might seem weird or irrelevant to address in a lesson based on form, but I would argue that imitation is a type of form. Look at Psalm 107, and how Leigh takes on a biblical form of parallel structure, using the title to draw us back to the biblical Psalm 107. Imitation of another poetic work makes us as poets have to think more deeply about what’s going on structurally and musically in the piece we are imitating.

Some Cool Forms to Try

  • Calligram
  • Ballad
  • Ghazal
  • Ode
  • Pantoum
  • Terza Rima
  • Prose Poem
  • Sestina
  • Triolet
  • Villanelle
  • Sonnet


Homework: Pick a form and try it. If you want some good books to help you navigate the world of form, I strongly recommend Strong Measures by Phillip Dacey and Poetry Dictionary by John Drury. Write one paragraph about your experience with form—was it easy/hard? Why did you pick this form? Was it to aid/juxtapose content, or not related to content? 

Optional Prompt 2: Find a poem from a poet you admire and imitate the poem, or respond to it (see Ocean Vuong’s Someday I’ll love Ocean Vuong).

Kristina Marie Darling is the author of eighteen books, which include VOW, PETRARCHAN, and SCORCHED ALTAR: SELECTED POEMS AND STORIES, 2007-2014, which is forthcoming from BlazeVOX Books. Her writing has been described by literary critics as “haunting,” “mesmerizing,” and “complex.” Poet and Kenyon Review editor Zach Savich writes that her body of work is a “singularly graceful and stunningly incisive exploration of poetic insight, vision, and transformation.” 

Lesson No. 3: Promoting Hybrid Genre Work

One more thing that writers tend to forget: Even when your book or chapbook is artfully written and fascinating to read, people need a way of finding out about your work. With small press publishing especially, it’s up to the author to get their book into the hands of appreciative readers, reviewers, and interviewers. With that in mind, it’s crucial to use multiple platforms (traditional literary magazines, literary websites, social media, etc.) to help readers discover your book. This week, we’ll discuss several of these platforms for book promotion in greater detail. First, we should talk a little bit about how books and chapbooks fit into the literary community more generally.

Conversity: Literary Writing as a Conversation

During her tenure as editor of The Dial, Marianne Moore coined the term “conversity” to describe the way she understood literature. For Moore, writing is a kind of conversation between literary artists, in which each writer preserves some elements of the existing discussion, then modifies, revises, and parodies others. The nature of the discussion shifts as new participants enter the conversation, and others leave. The job of literary journals and presses, as Moore saw it, was to host this conversation. To provide a platform for dialogue.

With that in mind, the most surefire way to make sure that your book does well is to be as involved in this literary conversation as possible. This can mean sending work to journals and websites, but it also means responding to the work of other literary artists. Write reviews. Interview authors you admire. Be an advocate for other poets, essayists and fiction writers. I say this because the more involved in the literary conversation you are, the more people will respond to and engage your work. Getting people to engage your work, to write reviews, and ask to interview you— these things are especially crucial when your book or chapbook gets published.

The best advice I can give is to start promoting your work and the work of others before your first book is even completed. Being a reviewer, editor, or interviewer will also show you where the best places are for sending review copies, querying about interviews, etc. Getting involved promoting the work of other writers will also help you make connections with people in the literary community, who can offer insight if you’re ever unsure about how to promote a project.

Practical Advice for Getting Your Book or Chapbook Reviewed

  • Review copies are valuable things. Query magazines before sending an actual review copy and find out if they’re interested.
  • Keep a list of magazines that would be interested in reviewing your work. Keep another list of potential reviewers.
  • When you find an interested reviewer, match them up with literary markets that have expressed a desire to publish a review. This will benefit you both, since the reviewer will receive a publication credit, and your book will get some excellent press.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask writers to do a “review trade.” You review their book, they review yours. It’s a great way to find out about books you wouldn’t ordinarily read or review, thus broadening the scope of your own work. Everybody wins.
  • Be a reviewer. Review editors will be more likely to assign your book or chapbook to a reviewer if you have an established relationship with them.
  • Contact individual reviewers whose work you admire. Tell them how much you enjoy their reviews. Even if they don’t review your collection, your message probably brightened their day. Reviewers are frequently overlooked, even though much of the literary criticism being published is thoughtful and engaging.

Practical Advice for Getting Interviewed by Magazines

  • Don’t wait for your publisher to set up interviews. Query magazines you admire and see if they’d be interested. You’d be surprised by how many writers and editors run out of people to interview after awhile.
  • It often helps to find an interested interviewer, have them conduct the interview, and submit the finished product to a magazine. Most journals are terribly understaffed, and this definitely simplifies the process for them.
  • Interviews are substantially less work than book reviews. People are much more likely to agree to an interview than a book review.
  • Interview trades are also fair game, and a really enjoyable way to promote your book. This is also a great way to start a dialogue with another writer, and to form relationships within the literary community.

A Note on Genre Categories

  • Don’t limit your promotional work to magazines that specialize in hybrid genre work. Many publications simply have a very generally labeled “Reviews” section, which is not broken up into poetry, fiction, nonfiction, etc.

Writing Assignment | Hybrid, Inc.

For this week, I’d like you to draft a marketing plan for a book or chapbook. This book or chapbook can be something that you’ve just begun, a manuscript that has grown out of the work of the class. Or, it can be something that you’re in the process of submitting and shopping around. It can also be a book that’s published or forthcoming. As you draft your marketing plan, here are some things to consider:

  • What magazines would you most like to be reviewed in? Which markets are your goals?
  • Which review markets seem most attainable? Where can you be sure your work will have a good chance at being reviewed?
  • What steps can you take now to form working relationships with those publications?
  • Where have you had poems published? Do these magazines have a reviews section?
  • What friends, colleagues, or acquaintances also have books or chapbooks that will need to be promoted? How can you collaborate with them?
  • What reviewers do you most admire? Which critics write beautifully and intelligently about the type of writing you’re interested in?
  • As you work on this assignment, free to draw on the list of hybrid markets that was posted in lesson 2. 

Kristina Marie DarlingKristina Marie Darling is the author of eighteen books, which include VOW, PETRARCHAN, and SCORCHED ALTAR: SELECTED POEMS AND STORIES, 2007-2014, which is forthcoming from BlazeVOX Books. Her writing has been described by literary critics as “haunting,” “mesmerizing,” and “complex.” Poet and Kenyon Review editor Zach Savich writes that her body of work is a “singularly graceful and stunningly incisive exploration of poetic insight, vision, and transformation.”

Lesson No. 2: Publishing Hybrid Genre Work in Literary Magazines

Literary Magazines: A Taxonomy

One thing that writers tend to forget: literary magazines are almost always edited by other writers. In many cases, they’re just as deeply invested in subverting genre categories as we are. Don’t think that just because your work doesn’t fall neatly into one of the submission categories (which are almost always cut and dry: Poetry, Fiction, Nonfiction, Book Reviews, etc.) that your work won’t be published. It’s simply a matter of finding the literary editors who read in a like-minded way.

There are magazines that fall on opposite ends of this spectrum, and everywhere in between. Additionally, this interest in hybrid genre work frequently isn’t reflected in the submission categories that are available. Here’s a comprehensive list of magazines that are deeply invested in interrogating genre categories. For each of the hybrid genres (shown in white), I’ll include links to several markets that would likely be receptive to more innovative work.

Lyrical Fiction & Prose Poetry

Lyric Essay

Creative Literary Criticism

This list of markets is only the beginning. It’s intended to be a resource for you as you write and send out work. But I hope this shows that there’s a home for almost every literary text, however avant-garde or genre-bending.

A Note on Submission Categories:  Using Them to Your Advantage

When sending hybrid genre work to magazines, there usually aren’t specific submission categories for genre-bending submissions.  In order to help you navigate these more traditional categories, here are some tips:

• Many of the markets listed above have specific categories for flash fiction and other prose experiments.
• If hybrid categories aren’t available, shorter prose texts (whether they’re lyric essays or flash fictions) are best submitted as poetry.
• Creative literary criticism can be submitted as poetry, fiction, or essay, depending on the work’s formal strategies and length.  If it’s shorter, poetry’s often the best match in terms of categories.  If it’s formally inventive (using footnotes, fragmentation, or typography), many fiction editors would be open to this kind of experimentation.  If the language is very evocative and poetic, this would likely be very exciting to a nonfiction editor.
• Lyric essays can sometimes work as experimental fictions.  This is especially true for work that you may not want to be read through the lens of autobiography.
• You should always feel free to manipulate and push existing submission categories.  They are often unnecessarily rigid.  Your experimentation is crucial for expanding what is possible within existing genre and submission categories.

Reading Assignments | Literary Journals

I’ve chosen one magazine from each list. Please click through the current issue, familiarizing yourself with the type of work that the magazine publishes.

Take the Magazines Apart

Create a catalog of the types of work that appear in the three journal issues you’ve just read. Your descriptions can be creative (i.e., “postmodern hipster fiction” or “beautiful coffeehouse ramblings”) but they should capture the style, tone, and editorial vision behind the work.  As you create a catalog of the types of literary texts in these magazines, think about how each market defines “Poetry,” “Fiction,” “Nonfiction,” and so on.  How far could these submission categories be pushed by an experimental writer?

Writing Assignment | Submission Bombing

From the three listed above, choose the magazine in which you’d most like your work to appear. Then write a hybrid piece geared toward that market. Here are some things to take into account:

  • What length is the typical poem/story/essay in the magazine you’ve chosen? Does the magazine have length guidelines?
  • Does the magazine privilege a certain genre (mostly poetry, mostly stories, etc.)?
  • Does the magazine privilege a certain form (fragmented texts, flash fictions, footnoted texts, lyric essays…)?
  • Does the magazine privilege a certain subject matter, or are they reading for a themed issue?
  • What is the editor’s background and what insight does that provide about his or her biases?
  • Most importantly:  How far can the submission categories for the magazine you’ve chosen be pushed?

Once you’ve done some research, write your piece. There are no restrictions, but it should fit the aesthetic of one of the three markets listed in the Reading Assignments. Once you are reading, submit!

Kristina Marie DarlingKristina Marie Darling is the author of eighteen books, which include VOW, PETRARCHAN, and SCORCHED ALTAR: SELECTED POEMS AND STORIES, 2007-2014, which is forthcoming from BlazeVOX Books. Her writing has been described by literary critics as “haunting,” “mesmerizing,” and “complex.” Poet and Kenyon Review editor Zach Savich writes that her body of work is a “singularly graceful and stunningly incisive exploration of poetic insight, vision, and transformation.”