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.

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