April 12, 2016

Thursday, April 19, 2012

30 Habits of Highly Effective Poets #19: Irene Latham on the 1:1 Ratio

Irene Latham is a fellow Poetry Friday blogger. You might call her writing habit the Golden Rule for writers: Read more than you write.

I read an interview with recent Pen/Malamud Award winner Edith Pearlman, who writes short fiction. She reports a ratio of 50:6 -- reading as many as 50 books but writing only about six stories each year.

Here's Irene: Read one book of poetry for every poem you write.
On my night table now, one book by a local poet...

and one nationally known poet. This book won a prize
from the press Irene mentions. (LS)

I first heard this piece of advice Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference in 2010, from the lips of Jeffrey Levine, editor at Tupelo Press.

At the time, I was like, wow, really? It seemed impossible -- I mean, during those mad times (like National Poetry Month) when I'm writing a poem a day, that's like 60 poems a day. And, I thought, (add eye roll here) the advice just might be a bit self-serving, as it was coming from someone who would very much like for me to purchase books from his press.

And that's when I realized I had been really good about making middle grade fiction a priority on my reading list, but my tendency with poetry was to return again and again to the same favorite volumes.

So I decided to actually try it. I started off by ordering Tupelo Press's fantastic subscription series (nearly a book a month for just $99!), and then started making volumes of poetry for children a priority. Talk about win-win: I read these books, keep some, gift A LOT of them. New babies? Give them poetry. Kid birthday? Give them poetry. Friend birthday? Give them poetry.

And here's the best part: I really can tell a difference in my writing. I've been exposed to ideas and inspiration and forms I never would have thought of. It's really opened me up, and also helped to refine my poetic voice.

Try it! Even if you initially roll your eyes like I did, I bet you'll end up finding it a new and valuable part of your (not just writing) life.

Irene Latham is the award-winning author of two volumes of poetry THE COLOR OF LOST ROOMS and WHAT CAME BEFORE and two novels for children LEAVING GEE’S BEND and DON’T FEED THE BOY (coming October 16!)

Family legend has it that since she was four years old she’s been writing love poems – to her mother. To find out more about Irene, visit her at


Tabatha said...

Fantastic advice! (I was also really struck by the concept of writing love poems to her mother. Very sweet.)

Author Amok said...

Isn't that lovely, Tabatha? It makes me want to go through my daughter's old school work and save all the things she has written.

Irene Latham said...

Laura, thank you so much for having me! And y'all: I am still writing love poems to my mother. My book Leaving Gee's Bend? Pretty much a love poem to Mama. I don't have daughters, so I can only speak from the perspective of daughter in the mother-daughter relationship, but isn't it one of THE most complex relationships? Rich and ripe for writing. Thanks again, Laura!

Robyn Hood Black said...

Wonderful advice from a very lovely poet. I hadn't thought about an actual ratio before re. poetry. But my own is certainly better when I'm immersed in reading lots and lots - certainly including Irene's!

jama said...

I also love that she writes love poems to her mother. :) Thanks for featuring Irene and her wonderful advice.

Susan Taylor Brown said...

Wow, I have a lot of reading to get to, stat. It's a good reminder. Why, I wonder, is it so hard for us to remember as poets? I know my ratio is close to that or better with regard to middle grade and young adult and even my adult essays. Worse is the fact that I have made a conscious effort to grow my poetry shelves but OWNING the books is not the same as actually reading them.