Charly Cox is the bestselling author of the poetry collections She Must Be Mad and Validate Me. Here, she shares her advice on how to develop your craft, find your voice and make good writing habits as an aspiring poet.
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Many people assume that poetry is the most difficult form of writing to master. Rules of verse, rhyme and form often deter people from putting pen to paper, as they assume that poetry writing either comes naturally or does not come at all.
But contemporary poets are moving away from the rules of poetry that had previously been held up by the English Literature canon and there’s never been a better time to experiment with words. What’s more, poetry can act as a form of therapy, much like journaling.
She has been writing poetry since she was a teenager but only began to share it publicly in 2017 when she committed to posting a new poem to Instagram every day for one month. Charly writes poetry both for herself and for her work and she explains that the two go hand in hand, as, often, a poem that started out as personal for her ends up being published.
If you’ve been meaning to put pen to paper to see what poetry prose may come out, don’t put it off any longer. Here is Charly’s advice for every aspiring poet – covering where, when and what you should be writing – whether you want to start writing poetry as a hobby or professionally.
Be vulnerable in your writing
Charly says that the perception that only certain people are able to write good poetry is nonsense. “You are a poet if you write poetry. It doesn’t mean you have to have been born with amazing wordsmithery or a dark, dark soul that needs excavating,” she explains.
Poetry is an incredible way to make sense of your feelings, Charly says, explaining that the best stuff always comes from the writer making themselves vulnerable, rather than ticking boxes pertaining to form and structure. “The beauty of poetry is that there isn’t a guidebook to follow.”
She suggests starting with personal experience when it comes to finding subject matter for your poems, “Regardless of talent or skill or any poetry knowledge, that you have a unique perspective on the world already means you have the capacity to write an excellent poem.”
Don’t be afraid to dive into scary thoughts if you feel you are in a place where you can do that, says Charly, and don’t shrug ideas off because you think they’re embarrassing either. “Even if you don’t end up with a poem that you love, you have taught yourself a new tool – how to really understand what you’re feeling and why you’re feeling it,” she says.
“Whenever I have a feeling that feels too much, I will try and explain it in a poem,” offers Charly. “And what’s great about that is that they’re essentially little postcards of the past. You can either choose to revisit it and pin it up on your fridge or you can return to sender and never see it again, but you have to realise your voice is worthy and valuable enough to be unedited and unfiltered.”
Create structured and disciplined writing habits
Charly suggests doing something similar to the challenge she set herself where she posted a new poem to Instagram every day for a month, “I think it’s a really great way not to program your brain into not relying on feeling a certain way, particularly if you want to do it as a profession.”
Poetry can often be deeply emotional, so producing new poems regularly can be a difficult feat if you feel your life lacks emotive subject matter at a certain time, Charly explains, “I’ve had to learn quite quickly that I can’t wait to be broken up with to write a book anymore.”
Writing poetry daily, or semi-regularly, makes you able to appreciate the mundanities of life and turn them into something that is beautiful or interesting, Charly says. “It’s quite a skill but it’s also an incredible piece of meditation.”
Ask yourself questions like, “What have I seen today, what have I done today that made me feel something?” Charly advises.
Charly suggests setting a time each day when you will write. “You don’t need long. Really, you need fifteen minutes and you don’t need to sit down with coffee shop sounds on your laptop or brooding over a glass of whisky on the rocks,” Charly says. “My best stuff is when I’m in the fetal position in my living room on my phone.”
“I write mostly by hand,” Charly says explaining that she says writing on your phone isn’t always the best idea because it can be easy to delete words, which makes the poem less authentic.
The convenience of your phone can be useful though, and Charly emphasises the importance of writing down ideas and thoughts in your notes app as soon as they come into your head.
Use unusual methods to develop your writing
Writing poetry no longer requires you to stick to rules of form but this might leave you unsure of whether you have written a poem, or have simply just written down your thoughts. Charly says she knows she has written a poem when she can answer the following questions affirmatively, “Is this a vignette? Does this really cover all the bases in a really fine-tuned, pinpointed way?”
Many of Charly’s poems stem from hearing a word she likes or a particular turn of phrase that she then sits down and turns into a poem, working with them and using a thesaurus and a rhyming dictionary to make up the rest of the lines. She also sets out a beginning, middle and end for all her poems to stop herself from getting carried away with details, which makes her poetry more accessible.
Another writing exercise Charly recommends is listening to the karaoke version of a song with a loud beat and writing to the rhythm of the song. She takes a lot of inspiration from music, “When I was a teenager, I used to listen to the Arctic Monkeys really really loudly and then write down most of the lyrics to see how I could steal them and turn them into damning words about boys in the year above.”
In order to develop structured writing habits, Charly posted a poem to Instagram every day for a month in January 2017, which is something she recommends trying if you’re struggling to come up with ideas for your poems or if you are finding it difficult to write regularly. “I think it’s a really great way to program your brain into not relying on feeling a certain way, particularly if you want to do it as a profession”, she says, adding that it was this challenge that helped her get her first book deal.
Write the kind of poetry you like to read
Understanding what you enjoy reading is how you will figure out what kind of poetry you want to write, says Charly, “For me, I love it when you read a poem that rhymes, so most of my poetry rhymes.”
Charly’s favourite poets at the moment are Sophia Thakur, Nikita Gill and Hollie McNish. “They are three women who are selflessly vulnerable within their work because it helps so many people,” she says.
Charly left school at 16 and has never taken any creative writing classes and she insists that you don’t need to spend money in order to hone your skill. A simple, free exercise she suggests trying is looking at a poem you like and figuring out why you enjoy it. If it’s the form, for example, spend some time underneath that poem trying to recreate it in your own words.
“As I’m reading, I take so many notes,” Charly says. “I like the way they used imagery here, for example - very basic GCSE anthology skills come into play. And then when you go to write your own poem, you can think, why did I like that poem? And [the answer] is what you need to implement to write a good poem today.”
Charly also suggests spending fifteen minutes before you start writing, reading something in the same rhythm that you want to write in, “Your brain is such a clever muscle that it just hinges onto that and it helps you get your thoughts to the cadence,” she says.
Speak to yourself to find your voice
“I look at poems I wrote when I was 13 - I was so wrapped up in who I wanted people to think I was if they were to read it, which made it really rubbish,” Charly says. “I think [my voice] is distinctive now because I’m trying to have a conversation with myself and the only voice I can do that with is my own.”
“You will be so surprised by what you have the capacity to spill out. Our grasp of language is actually much greater than we believe and sometimes even the most basic of trivial descriptions can be stunning.”
“If I’m writing with me in mind, I’m more likely to come up with better work,” Charly continues. “It does not matter what the imaginary people in your head think of your work because you don’t know it to be true.”
“Just think about what you would like to read and how you would like to hear it said and, chances are, there are hundreds and thousands of versions of you out there that agree… I write very selfishly.”
Choose nurturing spaces to share your work in
“I think until you’ve written a lot, don’t share [your poetry] with other people,” Charly suggests. “Because it’s not what it’s about in its infancy, it’s about you discovering yourself.”
When you are ready to share your poetry with people you trust, you should only share a few poems that you feel comfortable with. “It’s a bit like, say, I’m going out to a party, I’ll show my friends three carefully curated outfits. I’m not going to show them my whole wardrobe.”
A space that Charly does recommend sharing your writing in is at poetry readings and spoken word events, something she was initially sceptical of. “I think we all have a bit of a distorted image of what a spoken word night is… but the ones that I’ve been to and the ones that I’ve held have been so inspiring.”
Charly says that spoken word events can be useful even if you don’t want to speak, because listening to other people practice their work is a really useful exercise too.
“I always learn from the other poets on the stage,” Charly says. “But there’s also so much to learn when you read your own work to an audience – you realise where it’s faltering.”
The poetry community is one that will embrace you, says Charly. “There’s a lovely sense of community and communion when you open up like that. The wonderful thing about sharing is that you learn so quickly that the most personal is the most universal – and you’re not the first person to feel that way.”
“It’s such a delicate way of expressing something and if you can gift somebody the peace of mind that you too have felt that way, it’s an incredibly powerful thing to do.”
Charly Cox, poet