By Lianna Lazaros
In a creative writing workshop, we are encouraged to imitate other writers. Take this traditional poetic form and try it yourself. Read this author and draw inspiration from their use of syntax. The first time I found myself imitating another poet’s style was last year in Poetry Writing I. I spent months trying to balance writing about a past love while acknowledging its toxic aspects. I didn’t know where to start until I read Crush by Richard Siken. His work helped me realize that the poem’s sentence structure is as important as its content. There’s a phrase of his from “The Torn-Up Road” that I think about often: “his hands around the neck of the beer.” While reading it, I always subconsciously hold my breath until I get to the last two words. You think danger is approaching, and you’re relieved when it isn’t.
Before attempting to replicate what Siken did, I thought, what is he accomplishing with diction? What about the ordering of his images? Why is he meticulous with enjambment? I needed to understand why he made those choices before I imitated them.
For imitation to turn into emulation, you need to comprehend why the author’s decisions benefit the piece. With Siken, I noticed enjambment and word choice created tension between the speaker and their significant other, which reflects their relationship. It adds an extra layer of complexity without explicitly stating how the speaker feels. I mimicked these techniques, which improved my writing. They helped me write about an imbalanced relationship and I used them in poems that have a similar, somber tone, as well.
First drafts of mine typically reveal the imitation stage. If I’m lucky to workshop my poem, I can use feedback to enhance my work. If not, I take a step back and think: where am I losing my reader? Where does the tone shift to a voice that isn’t mine, and is that wrong for the poem? Sometimes, striving to duplicate what another poet did disrupts my writing process and makes me lose track of my original vision.
Imitation shouldn’t undermine your creative skills. During periods of writer’s block, I read. When I expose myself to contemporary poets who write in various styles, I learn. If I see a technique that can improve my writing, I give it a try. Sometimes it doesn’t work out for me, and that’s okay. Good writing is supposed to elicit responses from readers. The desire to imitate something that influenced us is natural. Allow your voice to mesh with the one that inspired you; let it take your poem somewhere unexpected.