Review Of Inside Out: Poems on Writing and Reading Poems with Insider Exercises by Marjorie Maddox

Cover of "Inside Out: Poems on Writing and Reading Poems" by Marjorie Maddox: a picture of a green pen, pointing up from the bottom of the page, with a cloud of green doodles extending up from it on the upper half of the cover.
Kelsey Books (Daffydowndilly Press) 2020
61 pages, $16

review by Pamela R. Anderson

The Coronavirus Pandemic has stolen many ordinary pleasures. People following CDC guidelines to socially distance try to avoid restaurants, cinemas, indoor concerts, and inside gatherings with family and friends. Added to those kinds of restrictions are school limitations, with students studying virtually and/or attending classes part-time. It seems that the accumulation of “no’s” in our collective lives has been counterbalanced by precious few “yes’s.”

At this time when optimism often is in short supply, Marjorie Maddox’s latest book—Inside Out: Poems on Writing and Reading Poems with Insider Exercises—feels like a much-needed “Yes!”. Yes…anyone can write a poem. Yes…writing poetry is fun. Yes…reading and writing poetry can help to process today’s most challenging issues. 

Maddox opens her book with a letter addressed to “Dear Young Writer”; however, her book appeals and is relevant to writers of any age and at any stage of the creative process. Best of all, her clever and entertaining approach demystifies poetry and poetic forms as she removes perceived barriers with an irresistible, joyous exuberance. 

The first poem in the collection—“How to See a Poem” (“Close your eyes./What swims behind your lids/lights imagination.//Sometimes you’ll recognize flecks/of what is or what was./…”)—is an immediate draw into the “inner world of mind” that Maddox creates. Her next several poems explore sensory experiences of hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching—followed by “Befriending a Poem” (“Invite him home for dinner/but don’t insist on rhyme;//he may be as tired and as overworked/as his distant cousin Cliché”) and continuing with poems that demonstrate a variety of poetic forms (clerihew, triolet, English sonnet, Italian sonnet, Villanelle, etc.) and devices (enjambment, caesura, metaphor, etc.). The poems are fun, but don’t mistake fun for frivolous. These poems teach in the best possible way—by making learning effortless.

Maddox fittingly concludes the first part of her book with “How to Write Yourself Out of a Paper Bag” (“Sharpen your pencil/and your wit. Bring a flashlight/and a watch you can depend on/not to interrupt.”) after which she invites the reader to dive in and start writing with nine “insider exercises” to help guide the process.

Particularly in this time of widespread virtual learning when learning norms have been restructured and reinvented, teachers and students alike will appreciate these easy-to-follow activities that are supported by earlier poems in the book. For example, Exercise 4 (“Simile Explains Metaphor”) is anchored by Scottish Poet Robert Burns’s famous “O my Luve is like a red, red rose” and then challenges the reader to write contemporary similes (What is it like when you get brain freeze from eating ice cream too quickly?). A quick turn back to the poem “Simile Explains Metaphor” offers Maddox’s poetic angle:

        It’s like, you know, like

        not using like when you want to, like,

        say the same thing, like

        your love is a rose

        like that Mr. Burns said, like,

        umpteen years ago.

I hasten to add that Inside Out is not a book that only benefits teens and tweens. During the pandemic, I am reading and writing much more than I did before COVID-19 drifted into my consciousness. As I spend more time with this book—pick it up, read a bit, put it down, pick it up again—poems I now write reflect inspiration that comes directly from this book. When I feel “stuck” and cannot manage to string more than two words together, Inside Out has been a great resource that helps me gain some writing traction.

Marjorie Maddox—Professor of English and Creative Writing at Lock Haven University—has published 11 collections of poetry and more than 550 poems, stories, and essays in journals and anthologies. Among her many awards is recognition for Inside Out as an International Book Awards Finalist. Interestingly, she is the great grandniece of baseball legend Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ general manager who signed Jackie Robinson and, thus, helped to break the color barrier. With Inside Out: Poems on Writing and Reading Poems with Insider Exercises, she has hit a homerun. Learn more about Maddox at: 

BIO: Pam Anderson’s poems have appeared in Volney Road Review, Atticus Review, Coffin Bell, and elsewhere. Her chapbook, Just the Girls: A Kaleidoscope of Butterflies; A Drift of Honeybees (Poetry Box Press), was published in 2020. A graduate of the NEOMFA Program, she and her husband divide their time between Ohio and North Carolina.