Composition & Creative Writing

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Writing Creative Writing

Raid, Warp, Push: The Pedagogy of Poetic Form
Wanda Campbell

In the MTV television show Pimp My Ride, people convince the host that their dilapidated old cars should be whisked off to a custom body shop to be restored, personalized, and generally jazzed up with new paint and shiny accessories ranging from the practical to the outrageous. The verb pimp means “to customize or modify so as to be more stylish, ostentatious, or flashy” [OED] in relation to the conspicuous wealth associated with pimps but may also be connected to the French verb pimper meaning “to adorn or attire.” So why, a century after Ezra Pound’s Imagist Manifesto called for “direct treatment,” “absolutely no word that does not contribute” and “the musical phrase [over] the metronome” (3) would a poet want to adorn a poem with rhyme, meter, or any number of complex patterns and embellishments? The analogy between pimping a ride and pimping a poem may be imperfect in that the former means taking an old car and making it new and the latter appears to mean taking a new thought and making it old, and yet the enduring desire to trick out the unvarnished image with inherited chrome challenges us to reconsider the value of writing in fixed forms.

When I enrolled in my first creative writing class as an undergraduate, convinced that formal rhyming poetry was a thing of the past, imagine my surprise when our professor handed us a list of traditional forms to tackle throughout the semester. I soon realized that writing in form is not about afterthought and adornment, but rather about forethought and fusion. It is not about the outside in, but rather the inside out. As Mark Strand argues, “all poetry is formal in that it exists within limits, limits that are either inherited by tradition or limits that language itself imposes” (69).

Though I rarely still write in the fixed forms I attempted in that first creative writing course, it was essential to convey my craft “into its own roots” as Walt Whitman puts it in his discussion of “the profit of rhyme” in his 1855 “Preface” to Leaves of Grass (11). Because those early efforts still bear subtle fruit in my own work, I have made writing in traditional forms a part of my creative writing pedagogy for over twenty years and though students are not always satisfied with the product they are, without exception, positive about the process. The student feedback I have incorporated into the discussion that follows, confirms that students agree that writing in traditional forms is a vital and rewarding component of a poetic apprenticeship. According to Annie Finch, one of New Formalism’s most eloquent advocates,“aspiring poets and creative writing students need to learn the full range of English prosodic possibilities. They will gain fluency and resourcefulness as writers, flexibility and sophistication as readers, from learning to hear the many different metrical patterns in English and the rhythmical variation on those patterns” (121).

Dana Gioia’s “My Confessional Sestina” begins with the line “Let me confess. I’m sick of these sestinas / written by youngsters in poetry workshops…” The practice of forcing creative writing students to write in traditional patterns is often mocked and rightly so. Former student now published poet Christine McNair explains why it can be risky, even dangerous: “Dangerous if students are only taught with classic examples. It can change their voice and make them creaky-sounding, often Victorian. Dangerous if there’s no exposure to other poetics, hybrids, mutant forms (those who have warped the form/broken the rules/re-written them. Dangerous if students are taught that form work is the only acceptable way of writing poetry and that anything freeform or different is incompetent or lazy.” Richard Wilbur goes as far as to say “Disgusting idea that someone should sit down with a determination to write in some form or other before he conceives of what the hell he’s going to say” (Cummins 133), and yet throughout the last century and into this one, there have been many poets who have returned to fixed forms with memorable results. By encouraging students to explore the full range of poetic possibilities – to invent, re-invent and experiment – we seek a lively dialogue between the best of past and present. This is not about nostalgia but about making it new. Ken Babstock argues, “At times this seems to me to be a function of being a Canadian poet; performing these backward raids into larger, more powerful traditions; warping them slightly to suit experience and vernacular, and pushing them up against asymmetrical subject matter.” Babstock’s dynamic troika of verbs – raid, warp, push – provides a useful way to incorporate fixed form into poetic pedagogy in a contemporary and kinetic way.

Raid: Continuity
The notion of a raid suggests an inroad or incursion made by those who are outside. It also suggests there is treasure, something we want and need, on the other side of the wall. This is not mere guerilla warfare but rather taking advantage of our freedom to glean the best from the fiefdom. And now, for inhabitants of the global village, both past and present traditions are wider and richer than they once were in that we can draw on not only the established forms of Europe but also those of the whole world. Former student Tegan Zimmerman argues that working with fixed forms “can teach the historical ‘progression’ of poetry’s history and movements so the student has a solid understanding” of the roots of contemporary poetry. Though it seems to be the goal of each generation to break with the past, the benefits of continuity should not be underestimated. Mary Oliver reminds us that “Five hundred years and more of such labor, such choice thought within choice expression, lies within the realm of metrical poetry. Without it, one is uneducated, and one is mentally poor.” (ix)

Through these backward raids, we become connected with the community of poets that has come before us, the strong shoulders upon which we stand, with the treasures of past poetic practice, and even with the fundamental human rhythms of our own bodies. In his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads (1800), William Wordsworth speaks of the “complex feeling of delight” generated by “the music of harmonious metrical language, the sense of difficulty overcome” (317) and nearly two centuries later, Frederick Turner and Ernst Pöppel argue that human information processing is among other things, rhythmic, reflexive, and hemispherically specialized: “Poetry, as we have seen, enforces cooperation between left-brain temporal organization and right-brain spatial organization and helps to bring about that integrated stereoscopic view that we call true understanding” (247). Even Keith Mallard, who questions some of their conclusions and the science behind them, admits that the article “The Neural Lyre: Poetic Meter, the Brain, and Time” is “a fascinating read” (58). Turner and Pöppel suggest that ‘our species’ special adaption may in fact be to expect more order and meaning in the world than it can deliver” (248) and that our efforts to seek them in poetry and elsewhere may be one of our most effective survival strategies. “We now know more of the linkages which connect any art to human function,” writes Louise Bogan, “and this knowledge should make us take more pleasure, rather than less, in form” (213). Former student Jen Huizen puts it this way, “These traditional forms still exist for a reason. They appeal on some level to our mind, how we perceive words, or quite possibly simply stimulate distant memories of more ancient days, when the primary ways of obtaining knowledge was through oral tradition.”

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Cut It Out

Cut It Out

10 Simple Steps for Tight Writing and Better Sentences
also available: Paperback
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Have you ever slumped over an essay and blurted out one of the following?



  • I don’t care what a gerund is! I just want a better mark on my next assignment!
  • My writing is abysmal. But I have four classes, a part-time job, and a Bernese mountain dog to care for. I don’t have a lot of time!
  • I loathe grammar sites and grammar handbooks. They’re boring and impossible to navigate.
  • English is my second language, and I can’t find my mistakes. English verb tenses are crazy!



If so, then read on. You’ll learn how to write powerful, concise sentences without becoming a technician of English grammar. You’ll obliterate excesses, creating openings to delineate your weighty ideas. And most importantly, you’ll humour your professors by submitting intelligible essays and assignments.

How to Use This Book

You’ve probably heard it said that writing is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. I don’t completely agree with that ratio; writing is in many ways a transcendent affair. But certainly, you will not improve with the wave of a hand. You must do the time. You must learn how to see—how to imitate as Hans-Georg Gadamer defines it: understanding essence. You must discover who you are as a writer.

In this book, I’ve outlined ten common sentence errors that perhaps have caused your grades to dip below the surface. I begin each chapter by stating—and violating—one of the rules. Then, I give a sample of deplorable writing that you and I together will repair.

There is no answer key at the end of the book; writing isn’t about right and wrong. There are rules, certainly—but then there is instinct. There are landmarks. And the landmarks, like the inuksuit, will guide you through an often-barren landscape and invite you into a larger narrative that is always evolving, always unfolding.

As you read, you’ll find bolded terms that are defined in the glossary; each term is given both a colloquial and a conventional definition.

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Elements of Indigenous Style

Elements of Indigenous Style

A Guide for Writing By and About Indigenous Peoples
also available: Paperback
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CHAPTER 1: WHY AN INDIGENOUS STYLE GUIDE? The need to Indigenize publishing

The paramount purpose of literature focusing on a specific cultural group should be to present the culture in a realistic and insightful manner, with the highest possible degree of verisimilitude. However, the body of literature on Indigenous Peoples mostly fails to achieve this standard. The failure has been a long-standing concern of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.

The failure comes from a colonial practice of transmitting “information” about Indigenous Peoples rather than transmitting Indigenous Peoples’ perspectives about themselves. The anthropologist Franz Boas put a name on this perspective in the mid-twentieth century. He called it ethnocentrism, which he recognized as a barrier to cultural understanding. Cultural understanding, he realized, can only be achieved by a “perspective from the inside.” Indigenous and other scholars have since coined other terms for this perspective, such as Eurocentrism, and have written about, for example, the British-centrism of Canada.

Some members of the Canadian literary establishment have also long recognized the damage of this perspective. Margaret Atwood wrote in 1972, “The Indians and Eskimos have rarely been considered in and for themselves: they are usually made into projections of something in the white Canadian psyche.”

The need to Indigenize writing, editing, and publishing in many ways parallels the evolution of writing about African Americans and women in the late twentieth century, and the development of concepts such as “Black History” and “Herstory.” Indigenous writers, editors, and publishers have asserted that the experience of being an Indigenous person is profoundly different from that of other people in North America. Many Indigenous Peoples and authors have cited cultural appropriation, misrepresentation, and lack of respect for Indigenous cultural Protocols as significant problems in Canadian publishing. Indigenous Peoples have frequently taken the stand that they are best capable of, and morally empowered to, transmit information about themselves. They have the right to tell their own story. When an author is writing about them—even in established genres such as anthropological studies, history, and political commentary—Indigenous Peoples would at least like the opportunity for input into how they are represented on the page.

Indigenous Peoples add their voices to the argument that it is important for any national or cultural group to have input into the documentation of its history, philosophies, and reality as a basic matter of cultural integrity. In some respects, this is especially pressing for Indigenous Peoples in Canada and other parts of the world, because they have been misrepresented for so long, which has created a body of literature inconsistent with, and often opposed to, Indigenous cultural understandings.

In So You Want to Write About American Indians, Devon Abbott Mihesuah writes, “If you plan on writing about Natives you must know much more about them, such as tribal history, their language, religion, gender roles, appearances, politics, creation stories, how they dealt with Europeans, and how they have survived to the present day.” Mihsuah further contends, “Can you secure tribal permission for your topic? If you are doing a serious study of a tribe, you can not do the work adequately without conversing with knowledgeable members of the tribes.”

Some improvements in Canadian publishing have come from a slow awakening to the impact of colonial ethnocentrism on who has been writing about Indigenous Peoples, with what process, and in what words. But works are still being produced that contain old stereotypes and perceptions, and that lack respect for Indigenous Protocols and perspectives. In 2017, for example, I asked a well-respected Indigenous colleague, who works as a freelance editor and validator of Indigenous content in a variety of Canadian publishing contexts, for examples of projects that had gone well from her point of view. Her frustration showed in her answer, which was “really none.”

Many Canadian publishers have a sense that they’re not editing work by and about Indigenous Peoples as well as they could. For the most part, they want to do it right, but often they don’t know how to do it right. Part of the solution is to develop and train more Indigenous editors and publishers, so they can work in publishing. Part of the solution is also to train more non-Indigenous editors and publishers so they can better work on Indigenous titles. I take heart from the responses of the more than forty Indigenous and Canadian editors who attended the Indigenous Editors Circle (IEC) and Editing Indigenous Manuscripts (EIM) courses offered at Humber College in Toronto in August, 2017. The IEC faculty (which I was part of until 2017) has been surprised by the increased number of Canadian publishers who are interested in attending the sessions.

Another part of the solution is to recognize work already in progress. Indigenous writers, editors, and publishers are developing and defining emerging contemporary Indigenous Literatures, and they are establishing culturally based Indigenous methodologies within the editing and publishing process.

This style guide aims also to be part of the solution—part of the process of instilling Indigenous Peoples in the heart of Canadian publishing.

Principles of Indigenous style

The twenty-two principles of this style guide are placed in the context of the discussion where they arise.

They are also collected at the end of the guide as an appendix.

Here is the first principle, based on the discussion above about the need to Indigenize publishing:




The purpose of Indigenous style is to produce works: that reflect Indigenous realities as they are perceived by Indigenous Peoples;that are truthful and insightful in their Indigenous content;and that are respectful of the cultural integrity of Indigenous Peoples.

The place of non-Indigenous style guides

This style guide does not replace standard references on editing and publishing, such as the Chicago Manual of Style or the MLA Handbook. Neither does it replace the house styles of individual publishers.

You should still follow these styles, in general, when you are writing, editing, or publishing Indigenous authors and Indigenous content. In some cases, however, Indigenous style and conventional style or house style will not agree. When that happens, Indigenous style should override conventional style and house style. If you are not familiar with Indigenous style, this may not feel right to you at first. Indigenous style uses more capitalization than conventional style, for example, and it incorporates Indigenous Protocols, which require time and attention to observe correctly.

It is helpful to keep in mind that Indigenous style is part of a conversation that aims to build a new relationship between Indigenous people and settler society. Indigenous style is conversing with you, perhaps for the first time, in an ongoing decolonizing discourse.


Works by Indigenous authors or with Indigenous content should follow standard style references and house styles, except where these disagree with Indigenous style. In these works, Indigenous style overrules other styles in cases of disagreement.

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