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A Blog by Poet Elizabeth Oxley

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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Oxley

Surprise!: Day 6 - Marin Poetry Center Online Covid Confinement Poetry Retreat

Updated: Jun 20, 2020

June 20, 2020


Welcome to our sixth day together.

We've talked about secrets and clutter, the importance of writing explicitly and the opportunities we have to amp up a poem's musicality and meaning. These are all ways to cast a careful eye/ear toward our writing. But how can we be careful editors and still leave room in our poems for surprise? Why be concerned about the element of surprise at all?

Consider what happens when we're surprised. We jump or shake. Our hearts race. Often, we stop short (Mr. Costanza's favorite romantic move in Seinfeld) and quickly take stock of our surroundings. Now comes the part I love: after surveying the situation, we either keep our boundaries in place, or we move them.

Move is an interesting word. We say something has moved us, but we don't mean physically. We mean that our internal boundaries have shifted. Our interior landscape has changed. Maybe it's because we've read a book, watched a movie, or read a poem. Perhaps we've witnessed a piece of art. Sometimes, it's a simple conversation with a friend that moves us, or a chance encounter that occurs as we're going about the business of daily living.

I believe readers come to poetry to be moved, which is to say that they come to poetry to encounter the surprise of fresh language and unique perspective. Even if they know in advance what a poem is about, they're looking for a new take on its subject, that aha moment produced by unexpected language or ideas.

Illustration of a horse grazing on lightbulbs in a meadow while coffee, toast, pancakes, and an egg float overhead.

If a poem contains no surprise, the reader doesn't actually need it. Surprise is memorable. Its effects linger. Surprise offers the reader the opportunity for change—a chance to shift and stand on new ground.

I believe most of us crave change. Few of us wish to remain as we are for very long. Our period of quarantine has demonstrated this.

We can't force someone to be surprised by our work, but we can increase the likelihood that it will happen. It's sometimes said that if there's no surprise for the writer, there's no surprise for the reader. Here are several ways we can surprise ourselves:

  • Try a new poetic form. Make it a bop, villanelle, or haiku. Writing in a new form shakes up our boundaries and often moves us into new content.

  • When writing, ask ourselves if we're emotionally invested in what we're writing about. If we're invested, the reader will be, too. The topic doesn't have to be enormous. We can be emotionally invested in mowing the yard.

  • Take a look at a poem's beginning and ending. Are they saying the same thing? Has the poem remained flat the whole time? If so, we can return to the poem's center and take a sharp left. We can always turn back.



by Jackie Kay

You might forget the exact sound of her voice

or how her face looked when sleeping.

You might forget the sound of her quiet weeping

curled into the shape of a half moon,

when smaller than her self, she seemed already to be leaving

before she left, when the blossom was on the trees

and the sun was out, and all seemed good in the world.

I held her hand and sang a song from when I was a girl—

Heel y'ho boys, let her go boys—

and when I stopped singing she had slipped away,

already a slip of a girl again, skipping off,

her heart light, her face almost smiling.

And what I didn't know or couldn't say then

was that she hadn't really gone.

The dead don't go till you do, loved ones.

The dead are still here holding our hands.


  1. Flip through these surprising photos on (be forewarned that not all of these photos are warm and fuzzy), or browse these odd fashion pics from

  2. Choose one photo that speaks to you, and write a poem about it. Start by describing the photo itself, but try to land somewhere in your modern-day life. What (or whom) does the photo make you think of? What kind of instant relationship do you have with the photo you've selected?


Speaking of surprises, the name of this publisher is Flying Ketchup Press. (I'm fond of quirky names. This one had me at ketchup.) From their website: A Kansas City Publisher for the epic acceleration of great literature, poetry, children's books, and fine arts materials.

This press is accepting submissions to June 2020: Deep Poetry until June 30, 2020. Click here to review some of their upcoming opportunities.

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