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April 22, 2010

"Poetry is mad scientism": A Poetry Primer by Jennica Harper

Jennica Harper’s books are What It Feels Like For A Girl and The Octopus and Other Poems. She works as a screenwriter and story editor in the Canadian film industry, and is also an occasional stand-up comic. Jennica holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and a BA in English from the University of Toronto. She lives in Vancouver and she’s my all-time favourite poet.

Dear Kerry,

When you asked me to contribute to your Poetry Month celebrations by writing a poetry primer – defined however I liked – I thought, no problem. But here I am. The month ticks away. And all I can think of is Robin Williams tearing those graph-covered pages out of a textbook to prove that you don’t Analyze poetry, you Feel it. And yet, I don’t quite believe that, either. Sometimes Analyzing is exactly the path to Feeling a poem more deeply.

I’ve come to realize that, at this moment in time, I have no idea how to prime anyone on either the reading or the writing of poetry. Instead, I’d like to humbly offer you some thoughts on what I love about the form.


How I Think About Poetry, A Top Ten

1. Poetry is stand-up comedy. When comedy really works, and you laugh, and you’re elated, it’s because the comic has said something undeniably true, impossibly familiar –plus nailed the timing of the silences, and used the exact right words, in the exact right order.

2. Poetry is jamming in a garage. Also known as riffing, noodling, and disappointing one’s parents.

3. Poetry is revisionist history. It hypothesizes, it offends. It sets the records straight.

4. Poetry is clown school. It’s learning to take chances, to pratfall, to make it look effortless. Sometimes it’s putting on a false face so you can see others clearly.

5. Poetry is pioneering.* It’s a fear of the unknown and a determination – a need – to push forward anyway. Because who knows what’s over the next hill? Maybe land you can put a stake in. *Dowdy styles no longer a requirement in poetry.

6. Poetry is Helen Keller saying “water”.

7. Poetry is hot yoga. It’s meditative, it flexes and relaxes your mind, it keeps your midi-chlorians flowing.

8. Poetry is a surprise party. When I read something I connect with, I can’t help feeling “Wow! You all came here for me?”

9. Poetry is dinner at the Magic Castle. Not sure I can make the metaphor work, I just really want to go to the Magic Castle! Have you heard about this place?

10. Poetry is mad scientism. Unrelated items fused together. Mutations. Or the pieces of dead things sewn together and come back to life.


I would love to hear your Top Ten, or the Top Tens of others in the comments below… together we might be able to assemble the least useful (but most fun) poetry primer ever.

Yours in faithful silliness,


3 thoughts on “"Poetry is mad scientism": A Poetry Primer by Jennica Harper”

  1. Frances says:

    Kerry: This is so true and brilliant and perceptive that I would dearly love to quote it.
    Is this allowed?

    1. Kerry says:

      Probably, with credit to Jennica, of course. So glad it spoke to you.

  2. m says:

    I love this so much. If I ever teach poetry again, I’m going to have them all read this.

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