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How to Write a Powerful Poem: Q&A with Guest Judge Malika Booker

"Poems could be formal, epiphany-driven, musical, autobiographical, surreal, ecological, persona, prose poems," says Malika Booker, Guest Judge for our Poetry & Spoken Word Competition. "But they have to have been edited well, and each word has to be relevant, each line break deliberate. Poems are the best words in the best order."

In this Q&A, the award-winning poet breaks down her writing process, explores how the form and the content of a poem interact, and gives her advice for writing a winning competition entry. Read it below!

Guest Judge Malika Booker

As a spoken word poet, your poems exist on many platforms, from page to stage to radio. What was it like performing your poetry for the first time, and how has that experience changed as you continue to perform?

When I first began performing poetry, I was very nervous. I would read with the paper in my hand, and although my reading voice was clear, the nerves would cause my right hand to shake, the paper to make rattling sounds, and my jewellery to jingle (I used to wear a considerable amount of bracelets on my wrists). 

I tried various strategies, from performing barefoot to ground my feet to taking the bracelets off my right hand. I gradually realised that I had to set performance goals, so I began to work individually on each of my performance challenges, one by one, until I conquered them. I worked on how to make eye contact; I worked on projecting my voice; I asked for microphone stands to place my paper and learned how to adjust them. I would concentrate on one goal until I conquered it, then move on to another. I also attended courses with stage directors to improve my performance, and studied the way comedians use the stage in order to implement these into my own poetry readings and help me improve my stagecraft. 

To this day, I try to sit in the front seat of any live or theatrical performance so I can study the stage. I also learned to script the poems, banishing the writer and exploring the poem as a director and a reader in order to get the tone, theme, and personality of the poem’s performance across. When reading more than one poem, I think about the set or list of poems that I plan to read in terms of the journey I aim to take the audience on. Now, I am much more comfortable reading my poems to different audiences.

What would you say are the themes or ideas that you return to in your poetry? Are there any recurring messages and values that you seek to convey?

My poems are autobiographical. They try to capture stories and characters from my Caribbean family and culture that I did not see reflected in the literature I read when growing up. I also write considerably about gender — in particular, women challenging patriarchy — and racial discrimination. Strong and vulnerable female characters’ voices resonate in my work. I have also been writing a lot of poems about death and funerals. At the moment, I am writing silenced female biblical voices back into the literary landscape in a project where the St James Bible has been transposed to the Caribbean. I am interested in poems revealing deep moral truths and poems that are emotive and transformative.

Can you tell us about your writing process? Do you have certain rituals for yourself? Do you write a poem in one sitting or over many months?

I create rituals, as these can help me to keep consistently showing up at the desk. At the moment, I light some lavender incense, make a pot of fruity herbal tea, sit at my desk, and begin what I call “desk work” by reading from a poetry collection for 30-50 minutes. Then I do a seven-minute freewrite (which is a warm-up). Next, I set my timer for 90 minutes and work on a piece of writing. If I get into it, I keep going; if not I take a 10-20 minute break to nap/read/grab a snack, then return. If it is all going well, I turn off the timer and get stuck in. If I get stuck or blocked, I usually read poetry collections, freewrite, or brainstorm to get unstuck. Sometimes, if I find a poem I love in a collection during my initial reading, I can abandon the reading and begin writing using the poem as a template to respond to. I believe that if I am not reading poetry, then I cannot write poems. 

I also have a shelf with books full of writing exercises, which I sometimes use to get ideas, or I use postcards, images, art, or music as stimuli. Sometimes, I use the time at my desk to practise a particular poetic form, like sonnets, or to experiment. The first draft is usually the idea; it is during the editing that I begin to create a poem. Some poems just need slight tweaks, while others need complete rewrites. A poem can take a few days or a few years to write. Sometimes, there are over twenty drafts.

In your poem ‘Libation,’ for which you recently won a Forward Award, you use a lot of enjambment – sentences that are broken across several lines. What was the intention behind using that literary technique in this poem? How should our young poets be thinking about the ways form and content inform each other?

In the poem ‘Libation,’ enjambment enables each line to enact multiple meanings. For instance, let us look at the first five lines:


“You climb into everlasting and so it begins

ancestor, nine nights of praise of honour,

white spirits poured into the ground to feed

your thirsty mouth. The sting of alcohol

at the back of your throat. And so, it begins”


Notice that the meaning of the word ‘begins’ at the end of the first line shifts once the reader's eyes see the word ‘ancestor’ at the beginning of the second line. The meaning transforms from the beginning of a story and turns it into an address to the ‘ancestor.’ This happens again with the use of ‘feed,’ which, in the third line, seems to suggest that the ‘white spirits’ are feeding the ground. But this idea is transformed when the reader sees ‘your thirsty mouth.’ Enjambement allows a multiplicity of meaning so the poet can layer the poem.

Poets must always remember that the difference between prose and poetry is that of the ‘line’ and the ‘sentence.’ Prose writers use sentences, and poets use lines. Lines and the way we edit our lines allow us to control the reader’s experience. And we use punctuation and line breaks to enact a performance on the page. 

Poets need to ask themselves the following question when they are editing: What does the line hold? The line can hold a thought, an image, musicality (assonance, alliteration, internal rhyme). The way one breaks a line can also enable the word at the end of the line to have double meanings. It might have one meaning in one line, which might shift slightly when the sentence continues onto the second line. Form should always reflect content. An end-stopped line will create a different impression than an enjambed line, where one sentence can be pulled across two or more lines.

This enjambed line, for example:


“I wrongly walked further up these forlorn hills, bruised

grass, trampled underfoot by clumsy fatigued me.”


would have a different rhythm than this end-stopped line:


“I wrongly walked further up furlong hills, over bruised grass.

My feet clumsily trampled green stalks, with each fatigued stumble.”


What are you looking for in a winning competition entry? Any other advice for the writers, especially those who are new to writing poetry?

I am looking for originality: poems that haunt (when I am judging, there are always poems that seem to follow me into my everyday life like a haunting), poems that transform the ordinary into the extraordinary, poems that surprise, poems that make me laugh, poems that capture life in unique and remarkable ways. The poems could be formal, epiphany-driven, musical, autobiographical, surreal, ecological, persona, prose poems — I like variety. But they have to have been edited well, and each word has to be relevant, each line break deliberate. Poems are the best words in the best order. Sometimes, poets have a great poem that is undermined due to bad endings. The ending must be surprising and transform the reader and the poet. I always feel as if the poem has to land just right.

About the Guest Judge: Malika Booker is a lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, a British poet of Guyanese and Grenadian Parentage, and co-founder of Malika’s Poetry Kitchen, a writer’s collective. Her anthology, Too Young, Too Loud, Too Different – Poems from Malika’s Poetry Kitchen, was recently published to celebrate Malika’s Poetry Kitchen’s twentieth anniversary. Her pamphlet Breadfruit (flipped eye publishing, 2007) received a Poetry Society recommendation, and her poetry collection Pepper Seed (Peepal Tree Press, 2013) was shortlisted for the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature and the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry Prize for First Full Collection. She is published with the poets Sharon Olds and Warsan Shire in Penguin Modern Poet 3: Your Family, Your Body (2017). Booker and Shara McCallum recently co-edited the issue of Stand Magazine, curating an anthology of poems by African American, Black British, & Caribbean Women & Identifying Writers. A Cave Canem Fellow and inaugural Poet in Residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Booker was awarded the Cholmondeley Award (2019) for outstanding contribution to poetry and elected a Royal Society of Literature Fellow (2022). She is the first woman to win the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem twice: The Little Miracles (2020) and Libation (2023). (Photo credit: Siro Micheroli)


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