Alice Major on how reading poetry can improve writing

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Reading Poetry Makes You a Better Copywriter Transcript

Hello listeners, welcome to this first interview for the Communicate Influence Podcast. This is going to be the place where we discuss ideas, trends, and solutions in communications and marketing.

What’s poetry got to do with marketing and communications?

In August, I was in Edmonton, Western Canada for a brief time, and had a chance to talk to an award-winning poet, Alice Major. Now, you might be thinking, hold on a minute, what’s poetry got to do with communications and marketing. Well, it’s a lot actually, because reading poetry or even writing it can have a really positive impact on our writing. So if you’re a copywriter, a content writer, or a journalist, you’ll get a lot from this episode; and if you want to know more about Alice Major, go to

Poet Alice Major

Sheelagh: Hi, my name is Sheelagh Caygill. I’m with Communicate Influence, the website for people in PR communications and marketing, and this is our very first podcast interview; and for this episode, I’m not in my hometown of Toronto, I’m in Edmonton and I’m sitting in what looks like a library, but it’s actually poet Alice Major’s living room, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many books in one room. Alice is here with me. Welcome Alice.

Alice: Thank you for being here Sheelagh. This is fun.

Sheelagh: Thank you. Alice is an award-winning Canadian poet, she began as a newspaper reporter in Williams Lake, British Columbia. She was born in Scotland, moved west to Western Canada from Toronto and she’s going to talk to us about copywriting and the use of poetry as inspiration for copywriting. So Alice, tell us, I know that you worked in PR because I worked with you and you were one of my mentors early in my career, which was a great experience, thank you again . . .

Alice: You’re more than welcome.

Sheelagh: Tell us about your experiencing in communications and your work as a poet.

Poetry doesn’t pay the bills

Alice: Well, the first thing you’ve got to know is that being a poet is not really going to pay many of the bills. So you need to work at something else, and I drifted into public relations writing when I came to Edmonton, and I found that, at the same time I was also trying to become a poet, write poetry.

How public relations inspired poetry

I finally kind of got out of the poetry closet and shared with friends and started to take it more seriously. So I’m going along, on the one hand, writing about the utility industry and regulation and translating engineer speak for other people and writing bill stuffers and all the rest of it, and also trying to write poetry. And I found that there were a lot of overlaps between the two for me.

Sheelagh: I find that very hard to imagine you working in corporate communications for a utility company and you found some overlap with the creative and artistic expression of poetry. How does that work?

Alice: Well, let’s say that there is one difference and that’s the editing process, the lovely thing about poetry is I didn’t have to send it up through three layers of approvals, you know, it’s mine.

Writers use the same tools as poets

However, in a way, any kind of writing starts from the same human language basis; and to make it interesting, we use the same tools, whether we’re trying to write a great epic or we’re trying to write a good tagline; we’re trying to grab people’s attention, we’re trying to communicate emotion; and many of the things that we do to do that are built into us from the time we learn speech in our cradle.

" So the way words flow, the way they have a sort of rhythm, the sounds that get repeated, that’s built so deep into us and that’s certainly the building block for poetry, and it’s also what we need when we go into copywriting as well.

Sheelagh: So there’s a connection there between the building blocks, kind of love for language, the rhythm, the expression, the meaning.

Alice: Absolutely, they’re the same building blocks.

Will artificial intelligence replace writers?

Sheelagh: Okay. So if we’ve got the essential building blocks and we want to become better and better copywriters, which we need to do, given the advances in artificial intelligence which could very well replace writers in the next 10 years or so . . .

Alice: I hope it’s never going to replace poets, but still.

Sheelagh: Let’s hope, yeah. I don’t think there’s a room for AI in poetry.

Alice: You never know though.

Sheelagh: No, definitely, we don’t know what the future holds, no one’s got a crystal ball. But I read recently, just to digress, I read recently that there is advancements in AI in copywriting. So you’ve got to be the best copywriter possible or you possibly can be, how can poetry help with that from a corporate communications point of view?

Comms and marketers must understand the audience

Alice: Well, to some extent, the process is very, very similar, and, in fact, points a basic kind of communication planning that we do when we’re writing for corporate structures. The first thing you’re trying to do with a poem is establish a voice, who – and that means you’re trying to establish a conversation with a reader, and you need to know who are you writing this for, who is going to read it, what are they interested in, how do they feel about a subject and how do they want to feel about.

That’s the first thing you do with a public relations plan but it’s also the first thing that’s there in a poem, that first section is going to position you with the reader and you need to understand who that reader is. And then in a funny way, and we don’t think about this in poetry, but – or as much as maybe we do in science writing, but you have to have a certain kind of logical flow.

Poetry needs to be understood by readers

A piece of writing always has to be coherent, and some versions, some types of poets would disagree with me on this, but I figure it’s not fair to a reader of either poetry or a news release to leave them dangling, wondering how you got from point A to point B, there’s got to be an ability to follow the flow. So you’re going to use as much logic, it may not be the A plus B equals C kind of logic, but it’s still going to be an emotional connection that people can follow through what you’re writing or a factual one.

Get back to the basic rhythm of words

The main thing, okay, has got to be how can I make the language more engaging – I think this is really, really important when you’re writing any kind of advertising copy, any kind of motivational copy. That means remembering yourself back in your high chair going ba-ba-ba, getting to feel letters, getting to feel sounds, getting the rhythms of them, and that makes you pay attention to the way the phrases you put together, and practicing poetry, practicing writing poetry makes it come a lot easier when you’re actually writing a news release.

How poetry can aid the copywriter

Sheelagh: Alice, your perspective is from someone who both writes poetry and writes nonfiction. I mean, you’ve written a lot of material for corporate communications, essays, articles on science. Let’s look at the marketing or communications practitioner who wants to be a better copywriter and is open to reading poetry because I know some people aren’t even open to reading it, but they’re not really feeling that they can or want to write poetry – how can that person read poetry in a way that’s going to make them a better copywriter?

Alice: I think one of the things is to try a sampler. Not every poem inspires every person. So what you want to do is encounter it in easy ways, not like having the whole anthology dumped on your desk and having to make your way through it like some sort of course.

" There’s a number of sites that offer a poem a day, the League of Canadian Poets has one, the Poetry Daily site from the US has one, and just a poem in your mailbox. So every morning, I get about three of them, and I just read and the trick with reading poetry is to slow down, give yourself a bit of space, this is not reading for content in the same way you’re galloping through an instruction manual or a news story.

What you are trying to do is feel the words and sometimes the poem will grab you. And many mornings, there’s nothing there that you really want to read again.

" Hold on to the ones that grab you though, and go back and read them again, read them again, read them aloud. Once you actually get the rhythm of speech, of a poetic line in your head, it puts you into that place where the sounds and patterns of language are more raised to your consciousness, conscious levels.

So that is one of the best things I could advise people to do, it doesn’t take a lot of time, it’s certainly better I think than reading some of our morning newsletters where you’re trying to assimilate things quickly and you need, as I say, you need to breathe – poetry is about breath.

Sheelagh: And breath is obviously, well, it’s an essential and fundamental thing that we do without thinking about.

Poetry asks you to pay close attention

Alice: Right, you don’t sit around thinking, oh I’m going to have another breath now, we couldn’t do that; and we don’t sit around thinking, well, what are the sounds in this headline because we’re too busy trying to think of the semantic meaning. But poetry asks you to take that step back into your childhood in a way and pay attention. We loved it as kids, we sang, “Great Big Gobs of Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts… ” We enjoyed language for the fun of it, try and get back there.

Sheelagh: And so we develop this habit of reading a poem each morning, is it then moving on from that, does it become a subconscious process in terms of that assisting us in some way with our writing when we sit down, we write a report for someone or some content, is that kind of infusion of poetry at the beginning of our day, is that going to?

Marketers and PRs need to create a meditative space for words

Alice: I think it helps. It’s a meditation space in a sense. And I think in our busy lives that’s a good place to kind of get some energy to go forward with the day. So one thing that it does is open up this meditative space, which isn’t just a space for being aware of language, but also about feelings, about emotions.

We’re so used to clamping down emotion in our working lives, but remember you’ve got readers, remember you’ve got people that are going to hear your ad copy, you want to remain open to emotion, and language is how we often – we convey it in so many times when you can’t actually sit face-to-face in front of somebody like we’re doing right now.

" If your words are going to carry authenticity, if they’re going to carry conviction, if they’re going to carry excitement, you have to be able to feel those emotions at some point in your day, if you want to calm everybody down about an issue, you need to be able to feel calm yourself. I think there’s a back and forth about remembering we are emotional beings and translating that into our writing.

Sheelagh: That makes so much sense and particularly when we read so much about authenticity in leadership in communication, it seems to be lacking, and everyone is striving for that, hoping to reach it. So if you’re not kind of grounded in what you’re feeling.

Avoiding fake authenticity

Alice: Oh you’re going to have this fake authenticity.

Sheelagh: Yeah, fake authenticity, that’s a good way of looking at it, yeah. So let’s stick a little bit more deeply into the language of poetry and, for example, the skill sets and techniques that poets and ad copywriters use, and that could be for anything really, it could be for a marketing copy or writing a speech for a leader. Do you think that they draw from the same skill sets when a poet sits down, right, so when an ad copywriter sits down and writes?

Understand your audience, organize content logically, and be sonically engaging

Alice: Oh yeah, I mean, if you just go back to what I think I was saying earlier, the ability to organize information logically with flow, the ability to make the language as sonically engaging as you can, and the awareness of who you’re writing it for – knowing those three fundamental things, your audience, the need for logic, and the ability to make the language interesting, those are the fundamental skills to both poetry and any other kind of writing, even journalism too.

Sheelagh: So yeah, I guess, the organization of the poem and the approach and then the organization of the work that one does as a copywriter, it’s still the same process, yeah, that makes sense.

Poets and PR people use the same skillset

Alice: It is. Now, mind you, one of the things that I get a little concerned about as poets or as PR people, we are using the same skill set. Ultimately, there is also a question of what you’re using them for, and are those purposes valuable, not only for getting your own paycheck and getting things through the approval process, but are they valuable for human beings.

I think there can be times when we’re asked or asking ourselves, is this the right thing to be writing in a world as fractious and complicated as ours is. It was one of the things that I did find when I was going into writing for a public relations company, nobody asks you to out-and-out lie, but we are often asked to shade the truth a bit or ignore something or not speak of something, and that’s always an uncomfortable place to be.

The misuse of language

Sheelagh: So for someone like you, Alice, as a poet and a writer, someone who loves words, how do you feel about the potential to misuse language?

Alice: I think this is a huge concern for all of us at this time, maybe at any time in human history, but especially now. What we’re working with are tools that have the potential to manipulate people, and even a poem can be falsely manipulative, so obviously, can a lot of copywriting or public relations writing. So I think at times, we do have to, as individuals, in all walks of life, ask ourselves about the moral impacts of what we do and what we write; and maybe sometimes there are moments where you have to hold up your hand.

There was no moment where I was told to write something I didn’t believe in or something that I thought was really a bad thing to write; and as I worked for the company, I started to realize that my assumptions as a journalist about truth, this big thing called truth, should have been a little bit more nuanced – I needed more information than I ever got and I had more as an insider in the public relations business.

" But we still owe a moral obligation to the whole of the world, to the audiences we’re writing for, and we need to ask ourselves time and time again about whether what we are doing with our skills in any field are the right things to do.

Sheelagh: That’s great, Alice, that’s such a good place to kind of wrap things up, because it’s really thought-provoking, and I think a lot of listeners will think about that even if they’re not writers and think about what am I doing with my life, my skills, my talents, and am I doing the right thing and giving the right things to the people around me and the world.

So thanks so much Alice for being on this first ever Communicate Influencer Podcast episode in Edmonton, Alberta, and it’s been great talking to you.

Alice: Such a pleasure Sheelagh.   



Find Alice Major online and LinkedIn

Links mentioned in the show


League of Canadian Poets

Poetry Daily