Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 10, 2010

Stumbling into Metaphors

Most of my poems begin with people and the things and places that matter to them. These offer up details that I hope will make readers feel as if they’re there, but because every word matters, the details have to do more than evoke a setting. Sometimes they’ll create a mood, which I don’t have to spell out. Sometimes I’ll repeat them through a series of poems to set a pattern, and show what’s constant and what changes in a life. In the section of Borrowed Names about Madam C. J. Walker and her daughter, A’Lelia, I mentioned water, beginning with the muddy Mississippi and laundry tubs, moving through the cleansing water that mother and daughter poured over hair as they built a business in hair products, and ending with the Hudson River view from the mansion Madam Walker bought with her hard-earned money.

Marie Curie aimed to keep most parts of her life simple so she could attend to science, but she made an exception for roses. She wore one in her belt at a time when she hoped for a less stark life, and had bushes planted outside her laboratory. Her funeral, as she wished, was held without a priest or public dignitaries, but wildflowers waved in the meadow.

Small things and ordinary moments can also be a source of metaphor. I’m reminded of that in the group of poems I’m working on now. I began needing someone for my main character to talk to while she works beside a river, so invented a girl who often shapes palaces or cities from the mud, sand and clay. An activity I’ve seen a thousand times on beaches. But as I wrote I realized here’s another girl building a safe place for her dreams, a small city in her hands. Which I’m pointing here as metaphor alert, but hope it comes through more subtly in the poems.

Most of us have times when we’re writing poems or stories when we get a little gift from the world. We take the wild blue color of someone’s shirt, the geraniums or the texture of elephant-ear-shaped leaves outside a cafe, the sound of the wind, the tattoo on a stranger’s shoulder, an overheard phrase and put it in our work. Sometimes these just add color or light. Sometimes what we put in gets cut. But there are details or bits of voices that through each round of trimming refuse to go, and these are details that I’ll hunker over longer, ask “why are you here?” and really try to listen. I hang around, which I often call revising. Sometimes the geranium or tattoo turns out to be more than a flower or a picture on skin. The details expand or even explode, revealing another level that will reveal itself in a pattern. They may open like one of those Japanese paper flowers in water, or a metaphor.

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  1. “I hang around, which I also call revising.”<–I like that. 🙂
    Happy weekend to you!

  2. I love when this happens. A critique partner told me I needed something–basically a hobby–for my MC to do. The idea of photography popped into my head & when I did some research I found out that it fits perfectly with the times and the attitudes. And then, the more I write, the more I find that it opens doors to those other meanings that–yes–we don’t have to spell out. Lovely post. I can see the little girl now.

  3. No matter what we write, I find that “why are you here” or “why” in general great questions to ask of a manuscript.

  4. Oh, sweet staring and back-tracking. Hope all your work is going well, Jeni.

  5. Yes, that is the coolest experience, when you add an activity and it opens doors to others.
    I started my search for the Tracy Chevalier article. So far, no, but slightly smaller piles… the search will continue!

  6. Well put, Kathy.
    I hope all your summer writing success keeps up through fall!

  7. This is such a perfect reminder for me at the perfect time. Thank you. I’ve been chasing myself in circles trying to fit a certain mold when I know that the words don’t come until I let it all got and reconnect with what matters most to me.
    Thank you.

  8. Thank YOU, Susan. Your words are a perfect reminder for me. Sometimes we have to hear what we know in somebody else’s words to grasp them… over and over. I know your project will arrive in the right place.

  9. Laura and Rose
    I read that section over vacation—AMAZING! So, informative, so moving so well done!
    On to the others…

  10. Thanks!

  11. Re: Laura and Rose
    Thanks, Kevin!
    And glad you had a good vacation — even getting out this chilly morning in kayak? But where there’s a glimmer of sun… and water…

  12. Even getting out this chilly morning in kayak?
    No, this morning’s post was just “wishful-thinking.” My vacation officially ended yesterday.
    The kayaking was GREAT! Though it was pushing the cool-side, I don’t really mind that.
    The Rose-Laura story and poems were great! I never knew much about Laura and “House on the Prairie”—I think that’s more targeted for girls and I’m not much of a reader, period—but the whole daughter “pushed the mother” to write tale was fascinating and inspirational.
    And Rose made it into my illustarted “vacation diaries”—stay tuned for that!

  13. Re: Even getting out this chilly morning in kayak?
    Oh well sometimes I can’t quite draw the line between reality and wishful thinking. Glad you were in kayak in your mind, anyway.
    I’m so happy you liked Laura and Rose’s story — and wow, Rose in the vacation diaries. Right up there with Cindy Lord, maybe? I will definitely be staying tuned!

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