Story Poems as Memoir

by Kendra Bonnett on July 19, 2009

Post #4 – Women’s Memoirs, Writing Prompts – Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

Guest Blog #4: Janet Grace Riehl

It gives us great pleasure to announce that Janet Riehl has made Women’s Memoirs one of the stops on her blog book tour for Sightlines: A Family Love Story in Poetry & Music, which is an audio extension of her 2006 poetic memoir Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary. Janet kicked off her tour with a virtual visit at Velda Brotherton’s blog. And on Thursday, June 4th, our friend Susan Tweit will interview Janet for her blog. You can find a complete list of Janet’s tour on her blog.

On June 11th, Matilda Butler and I will be interviewing Janet as part of our Author Conversations series; we invite you to listen in live. More importantly, we encourage you to participate by asking your questions of Janet. We don’t take questions during the call but rather invite you to pose your questions as Comments at the bottom of this post; we’ll be sure to ask Janet your questions.

So before I leave you to enjoy Janet’s thoughts (below), here is the information you need to be on the call when we talk with Janet on June 11th:

Date/Time: June 11, 2009 at 10 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time (1 p.m. Eastern)

To listen, call: 712-432-0600 access code 998458#


Poetry is a genre often overlooked in writing memoir. Writers may feel that “Poetry’s too hard.” “It’s just for special occasions and emotions.” “It’s only for poets living up there in the clouds.” Alternatively, writers may have the opposite set of perceptions: “Anyone can write poetry.” “Even the copy on the back of the cereal box is poetry if you re-arrange the lines.” In believing this, we deprive ourselves of a form that can be a valuable addition to our memoir-writing toolbox. 

Poetry found me when I wrote Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary. Writing from the heart, I created 90 story poems for three people and two places I love. I hadn’t necessarily intended to write poems; they simply spilled out. Although each poem stands alone, the book as a whole is an extended story poem. Each new piece fits into a larger puzzle, making the narrative of the book that much clearer. There are all sorts of other names for a story poem, such as the narrative or prose poem, but that straightforward phrase—story poem—felt in keeping with the work itself. 

What is a story poem? Here’s my definition: A story poem combines highly compressed narrative, musing, and observation using poetic techniques such as alliteration, imagery, and metaphor. In the story poem, as in prose, the sentence rather than the line is the primary unit.

The same material handled in a personal essay would use many times the words and pages. I crafted the story poems in Sightlines to be simple and direct, to reach heart to heart between the reader and myself. 

Poetry is an excellent genre for memoir because of its inherent qualities. It condenses the story, handles emotion deftly, and is open to non-linear constructions. The story poem fosters dialogue, character, event, and understated language.

What happened to our family—an accident killing my sister and severely injuring two family members, including my mother—was traumatic; the story didn’t need added drama. Understated language became the language of healing not only for our family but for the poems’ readers as well. 

I grew up in the Midwest surrounded by songs that told stories, jokes that told stories, and family stories told around the kitchen table. During the year I worked on Sightlines, most of my time was spent in the Midwest, surrounded by plainspoken people who come from farming stock. My writing surrendered to and reflected the language of the people I wrote about. 

The backbone of the book is the story poems with lyric poems interspersed as grace notes. Lengths vary—short, medium, long, and bedtime story-long.

Frankly, I wondered if it was an effective form. Then I received responses that reassured me. A friend, who is a fine musician, said when he first read the poems, “I hear music here. Would you mind if I put them to music?” Needless to say, it was music to my writerly ears. 


Even if you don’t choose poetry as the primary form of telling your story, you can use poetry to toggle between compression and expansion. Try this:

1) Take a story you’re writing in prose, and condense it into a poem or story poem. Even if you don’t keep it in this condensed form, this exercise will reveal the essence of your story. It can take you to the kernel.

2) Take a poem you’ve written and expand it into prose. This exercise will reveal an alternate way to structure your prose, handle emotion, and incorporate more imagery into your memoir.

Both exercises encourage you to see your story from a different perspective. They are also good teachers of craft elements that make your writing strong.


CONTEST: Read the review of Sightlines: A Family Love Story in Poetry and Music here to answer today’s question: “Who wrote the review?” When you find the answer, contact Janet through her website. The first person to contact her with the correct answer will receive a free copy of the audio book.

{ 3 trackbacks }

Sightlines Blog Tour, Week 1 & Featured Video; Nashville Launch Dinner Send-off | Riehlife
June 5, 2009 at
A visit with Janet Riehl « Ronnie’s Ramblings
June 8, 2009 at
Put Story Poems in Your Memoir Tool Box! | Telling HerStories: The Broad View
November 2, 2010 at

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Janet Riehl June 2, 2009 at

Dear Kendra and Matilda,

It’s such a pleasure to be one of your memoir guest bloggers. Your site is so attractive and you have been perfect hostesses at the party. I’m still in awe of all you do, and marvel at how you manage, somehow, to do it across two coasts.

Yours in Memoir,

Suzy Garrison June 2, 2009 at

Janet: I listen to all the Memoir Author Conversations on this site and am especially excited about your upcoming interview. Here’s my question: I am interested in creating an audio memoir. I have a series of brief vignettes about my years of growing up on a ranch. Can you tell us a little about the process of creating an audio memoir? Thanks, I’ll listen in on June 11 for your answer.

Maddy June 2, 2009 at

I have a question for Janet. Sightlines seems like it must have taken a long time to create. I am just blown away. How long did it take you to create it — from decision to planning to recording to production? Maddy

Janet Muirhead Hill June 3, 2009 at

Janet, I have listened to your audio book. The way you tell your family story in poetry, music, and casual conversation is unique, comforting, and touching. You and your father found a way to confront terrible grief as well as to enshrine the memory of your beloved sister, mother, and a way of life that is unfortunately disappearing. Death often tears a family apart as each member grieves in isolation in his or her own way. Did your family ever experience that to any degree? Did your and your father’s poetry serve to bring your the family together after your sister’s death? Have you heard from people outside your family, strangers perhaps, who find help in dealing with their own losses by reading your book, Sightlines, and listening to the audio book? I have.

I will have many more questions for you when I interview you on my blog on July 8. I look forward to continuing the discussion then.

Janet Riehl June 3, 2009 at

Oh, ladies! I’m loving your comments. Now I’m really jazzed about next week’s telecall. We have so much to discuss. I’ll be in Santa Barbara then, visiting a friend on holiday. This will be a first for me to do a call on the road.

Keep those cards and letters coming!

Janet M. June 3, 2009 at

I’m a Janet too! I’m looking forward to your call. I am a singer – not famous, at least yet! I’m working on my memoir and would really like to combine it with some of my singing. What are the pros and cons of a written memoir with a separate CD with just my singing versus an integrated product of me reading a chapter and then singing, reading, singing, etc. Any thoughts? I admire what you have done.

Alice Babson June 5, 2009 at

Hello Janet. You have told a family story. You even go across generations. What was the hardest part of writing Sightlines (the printed book)? Did you ever get stuck? If so, what did you do to get unstuck? I guess that is several questions! Thanks. I’d really appreciate knowing your answers.

JoEllen Myers June 7, 2009 at

Janet, I just love, love, love what you have done. First a book and now the CDs. I’m wondering what you have up your sleeve next? More promotion of this book and CD? Or, do you have another writing project?
Would you write more poetry?

Rose Johnson June 7, 2009 at

I’m definitely NOT a poet. I’m at the other end of the continuum as I want to include as many words as possible. Here’s my question: Did you ever, before you wrote Sightlines, think of yourself as a poet? I’ve read your guest blog and you say these poems are just the way your story came out. Did you originally think you would write narrative? What you have done is clearly powerful so I am trying to better understand the relationship between the author and the form (narrative vs poetry). Anything you can say about this will help me as I try to figure out how to tell my story. You certainly have sparked an interest in story poems. Thank you.

Connie A. June 7, 2009 at

I tend to learn the most from mistakes. I have my full set of mistakes but sometimes I find I can learn vicariously from others. I wonder if you learned any lessons in creating the CD Sightlines. Anything you would do differently next time? I really like what you have done and am starting to think about how to do a CD version of my memoir. I have a bunch of short vignettes so I think that might work. But it looks like a big undertaking and I’d sure appreciate sharing in any wisdom you gained from your experiences.

Edith June 8, 2009 at

You published your book of poetry some time before producing the CD. What encouraged you to ‘give voice’ to your story poems?
Also, I found your prompts very stimulating. Do you have more?!

Halle S. June 10, 2009 at

Hi Janet, I listen to these interviews often and am amazed at the people Kendra and Matilda get to appear on their Author Conversations. You really offer listeners like me a different perspective on book production and marketing. I’m listening to your CD now and curious if the techniques you use to promote your audio are different from your book? Also, has the audio re-stimulated sales of your 2006 written version of your memoir. Can’t wait for the call. Halle

Barbara Jenkins June 10, 2009 at

Gosh. I hope I’m not too late to get an answer to my question. Janet, I’m fascinated by your comment about using poetry to toggle between compression and expansion. I write a few poems and thought I’d use one as the theme setter at the beginning of each chapter of my memoir. I wonder if you might say more about compression and expansion. That would certainly help me to know more about my use of poetry and prose. It will be so exciting to listen in to your interview. I’m truly in awe of what you have done. Thanks, Barb

Jude Whelley June 10, 2009 at


I loved Sightlines, was enchanted by the love and honesty that circles through all the poems. But, the audio version is even better. The poems are enhanced by your and Pop’s narratives and the musical interludes make it a total immersion experience.I hope to be able to participate in the call and look forward to your sharing and advice.


Hal Manogue June 11, 2009 at

The Audio Book is a wonderful expression of love.
I appreciate all you do.

Susan J. Tweit June 19, 2009 at

Janet, I’m tuning in late here, but I’m looking forward to listening to the interview. Both versions of Sightlines are beautiful achievements. Congratulations!

Janet Riehl June 19, 2009 at

Thank you, Susan. You are a big inspiration for me…in the work load you carry and fulfill so effectively.

Thanks for your help along the way.

Janet Riehl

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