Focus on Emotions Using the Epistolary (Letter) Form

The late poet Richard Hugo was for many years head of the Creative¬†Writing Program at the University of Missoula in Montana. In 1977,¬†during a time of insecurity and writer’s block, he published a small¬†volume of poems entitled 31 Letters and 13 Dreams, in which¬†he¬†addressed his poems to contemporary poets and to people of importance¬†to him. He wrote what mattered to his heart and soul and broke out of¬†his writer’s block. The letters are always to someone in particular¬†and written from a particular town or city in which Hugo thinks of that person. Usually,¬†he launches his poem in letter from what his senses experience where he is. Then he makes associations to information about his state of being or to his past that he feels emotionally inspired to tell the person he is writing to. The poems are filled with authenticity, appreciation, vulnerability, love and strong bonds.

The volume of poetry is still available. You can also read these two letter poems online (you have to scroll down a bit to find the poems):

‚ÄúLetter to Simic from Boulder‚ÄĚ

“Letter to Kizer from Seattle

When I was teaching one a writers’ conference¬†in Istanbul, I made an assignment to write a letter from Istanbul to someone you¬†care about letting them know your feelings via the use of images from the city,¬†what your feelings are. The outcome could look like a poem or prose or a prose poem. What mattered is that it had images of the city and associations filled with emotions that would affect the recipient, someone who you would like to allow to know your¬†feelings of connection or of sadness or of guilt–the letter form is¬†a¬†great one to use for making an apology for something larger than¬†yourself.

It was one of my favorite of Hugo‚Äôs letter poems, ‚ÄúLetter from Port Townsend to Wagoner,‚ÄĚ that inspired me to do the exercise by writing to my daughter from Istanbul.

Here’s the poem I wrote while I was unable to sleep because of lingering jet lag:

Letter To My Daughter Emily from Istanbul on Mother’s Day
by Sheila Bender

I write in a circle of women, my feet on an antique kilim
covering a concrete floor in a refurbished building, thinking
of the Christian mosaics in the Hagia Sophia,  how on one wall
they are partly revealed beneath Islamic frescos painted to cover
them when the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottomans.

Amidst our arrivals and our departures, between lire coins and tram
passes and the food we order with names new to our tongues,
I remember that in life all of us are both hidden and revealed,
both essence and clutter, at times hungry, at other times sated.

We visited the nearby Underground Cistern for what was once
New Rome; there two marble blocks with carvings of Medusa’s
head are the bases of pillars because in his time the Emperor Justinian
did not want pagan reminders; still the stone made good blocks
for construction and one Medusa’s head is installed sideways
under the column she holds up; the other one is upside down.

There is a story that this was intentional to break Medusa’s power.
I think the stonemasons were looking for the most stable
stone platform for the pillars to stand on.

We walked back to the entrance and saw the Weeping Pillar,
a marble column with a worry hole in one place. Visitors are
invited to put their thumb inside and rotate it to wipe the smooth
marble and, of course, make a wish. And I did.

I thought of a good luck place you and I visited, Kiyomizu Temple,
the ladles of three waters we splashed over ourselves when you
were in Japan at university and the same ladles years later
when we returned years with your young son.

Tonight when I cannot sleep among the city’s motorcycles
and calls to prayer, I will pretend Medusa is winking at me,
standing on her head, never tired even after centuries holding
up pillars, the snakes of her hair but yarn for spinning the wool
of a strong and double-knotted rug, like the one I bought today.
It comes from Kayseri, 10 hours by bus from this city.
A traveler like you, the rug holds a girl’s story of wishes and love.

Medusa had the power to turn those she loved into stone,
but she winks in my thoughts because she knows, Emily,
when it comes to my love for you, I have always been
revealed and always sated, your life so full of fruit.


You know that I am going to suggest you try your hand at this sort of epistolary writing. Before you start, here is a quick excerpt from the book Getting the Knack by co-authors William Stafford and Stephen Dunning on writing poems:

From their introduction:

What do you already know about letter poems?¬†Plenty. ¬†You know how they begin. ¬†Like letters themselves. ¬†Letter¬†poems ¬†can start with a greeting. ¬†“Dear Somebody.”¬†You know how the usually end–with some way of signing off “Yours¬† truly” or Sincerely” or “Hang by your thumbs.”

So in a sense, knowing about the letter poem’s beginning and end, all¬†you need worry about is the middle. Right?¬†Wrong. ¬†Probably the main qualities of letter poems come from who the¬†letter is addressed to and who signs it. ¬†In ordinary letters written to real people, there’s usually a known relationship, the writer (you)¬†are¬†writing a friend, a relative, an insurance agent. ¬†You and friend,¬†relative, or¬†insurance agent have a history, and that history shapes how the¬†letter goes. ¬†“Dear Cousin Malcolm,” it might begin, if it’s to a¬†cousin¬†you’ve never met. ¬†“Malco-mio” if you’ve known him all your life.

To start they suggest:

Draft a letter to that name.  One page max.  It will begin:


In your letter, tell_______ who you are and what’s on your mind. ¬†Do¬†you¬†want advice? ¬†To ask a question about his her its life or situation?¬†Straighten her/him/it out on a few matters? Serious or silly?¬†Distanced or intimate? ¬†It’s up to you.

In this draft, when you talk about yourself, the real you is talking. Reveal some things, if you dare.  Get close to real feeling. Sign your real name at the bottom.

And a they offer a delightful sample outcome:

Dear Husband,
I write Personal on the envelope.
Someone else opens and reads
The letter I meant only for you.
First time in a month we take
Time for wine in a bar.  Your
Briefcase sits between us, you
Touch papers in your pockets,
Scrunch your eyes, look around,
At work, the operator won’t put
Me through to you.  You are in
Conference, in Cleveland, in-
Communicado.  You never call
Back. Dear distracted executive
Husband of mine, your doors are
Closed. ¬†You’re hiding. Come out.

Your Very Worried Wife.
by Dorothy Schieber Miller and Stephen Dunning


Okay, now it’s your turn!

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Focus on Emotions Using the Epistolary (Letter) Form — 1 Comment

  1. Sheila,

    That I bend more towards prose than to lyric poetry, this post is especially helpful to me.
    Thank you : -)

    To comment on WIR’s new web page — I am keen on it. It’s clean. Space is good.
    Purple is pleasant to the eye.

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