Strange Terrain: A Poetry Handbook for the Reluctant Reader from Small Press Distribution, Hobblebush, or your local bookseller. Also, check out Strange Terrain's own website, Strange Terrain is based on the program "Entering the Realm of Poetry" I developed for the NH Humanities Council & have taught in many venues since. If you are interested in hosting or attending the program--in a single session or series of sessions--as a professional development workshop or for lay readers, contact me at 603-835-6783 or by email, and check out my "events" page for programs near you.

STRANGE TERRAIN: A POETRY HANDBOOK FOR THE RELUCTANT READER is an essential resource for anyone who wants to feel more comfortable with reading poetry: individuals, reading groups, teachers, even friends and families of poets. In 8 simple steps, readers will find the tools they need to make their own confident way through poetry’s strange terrain.

Recommended at Alran Books, distributor of educational materials.

"I love this book. It's a terrific text for teaching poetry, but also writing in general."
Deb McKew, teacher, workshop leader, creator of
Words In Play.

from Goodreads, four star review by Tim Averill:

I enjoyed Fogel as a guide and teacher even more than I enjoyed her poetry. Unlike many “textbooks,” Fogel’s handbook is a slow-paced, plushly exampled, and contemplative view of how poets use SHAPE, WORDS, SOUND, IMAGES, EMOTION, AND THOUGHTS . . . [that] carefully examines how poetry works in integrating these elements to make meaning. And, after demystifying poetry, she celebrates the parts of poetry that we do not get, endorsing “remystification” and lack of tidiness as an appropriate response to a poem. I think this book is a refreshing one for all readers of poetry, and it led me to appreciate some poetry that I might have missed before.

from Diane Lockward, from “Blogalicious,” Dec. 1, 2010

This month I'd like to recommend Alice B. Fogel's Strange Terrain: A Poetry Handbook for the Reluctant Reader. The book is designed to make poetry comprehensible and enjoyable to those who are intimidated by it. And it serves that purpose, but it also is a kind of primer, taking the reader chapter by chapter through an understanding of the elements of poetry. What to look for in a poem? What to appreciate? I think the book would also be useful to those hoping to enhance their own writing skills. It might also be useful to someone planning to lead a workshop as it proceeds in a developmental way with first things first, then moving on to more challenging areas. One aspect of this book that I find unique and interesting is that Fogel uses her own poems to illustrate the poetic concepts. I wasn't sure if I would like that approach, if it would seem egomaniacal. And what if I didn't like her poems? However, I found it enlightening and fascinating to observe a poet analyzing her own work, to witness this poet's mind at work. And I did like her poems.


Like the book, PROGRAMS offered in conjunction with it directly address why poetry can and should retain some mystery even when readers know many of the elements it contains. The most important and surprising message Strange Terrain delivers is that poetry is not something that we are meant to “get,” but something that gets us.
“The teacher was excellent. I knew nothing about poetry and now I want to learn more about it.”—Chautauqua, NY week-long workshop participant
“This program opened my eyes to a new world.”—NH program participant
“The best presenter we’ve had.”—Westchester, NY American Association of University Women member


Strange Terrain’s 8 Steps enable participants to quickly see that they already have most of what it takes to feel comfortable with poetry. Through readings, lecture and discussions, Alice demystifies poetry and at the same time shows readers how to value the mystery that remains.


Alice asks teachers, first and foremost, to become regular readers and learners. In this role, they can begin to forge confident relationships with poetry. Exercises and tips on how to pass the same reading process onto their students follow. Teachers may share their own poetry doubts and “traumas,” and air questions like:

What if I don’t “get” poetry myself? What am I missing when I read a poem? What makes a poem “good”? Can students find poetry relevant to their lives? Can I connect poetry to other school subjects, even non-language arts ones? How do I grade a poem, or a student’s reading of one? Will young kids like poems if they’re not funny? What measurable components can I teach, and how do I do that without poetry becoming dry and dreaded?

Rather than repeating elements teachers are already familiar with, such as alliteration, rhyme or meter, participants look at Strange Terrain’s 8 Steps for discovering greater depths in poetry by means of specific, usable, and life-affirming skills. These Steps demystify poems and help participants discover how to move through a poem, and be moved by it, without having to know, or pretend to know, what it “means.”

Finally, the programs cover where to find contemporary resources for age-appropriate poetry, how to separate students’ reading and studying of published poems from their own attempts to write poems, and how to include actual elements of poetry in other school subjects, such as science, and vice versa.


Depending on hosts’ needs, programs may take place on a single evening, in a half- or full-day workshop, or over an extended time. Fees vary accordingly. Strange Terrain and its companion programs invigorate readers by almost instantly changing their uncertainty to confident enthusiasm. And as prose author and reviewer Rebecca Rule said, it all happens “painlessly.”


When I tell people I write poetry, I often experience a sensation of wind; my partner in conversation has backed off just enough to let more air circulate between us, as if it were viral.

There is something about poetry, about how it was taught, about its reputation as encoded messages only a certain kind of person can crack, that makes otherwise healthy, highly functional people, literate and perfectly intelligent—even those who love to read—squirm with a sense of inadequacy, burst into sheer belligerence, or quietly avoid it like the plague, especially in public.

But deep inside, there may be a wistfulness, some primal memory that knows it could be different—we could be let back in, we could have a nonadversarial relationship with these mysterious missives from the hearts and minds of others; we could be readers of poetry.

Think of it as Poem Traumatic Stress Disorder.

This book is your self-help manual.

It is my belief that everyone can gain from the “news” that poetry brings us. With a bit of instruction, poetry will bring you significant new interactions with the world around you, with ideas and sensations, with yourself and others—not to mention that it will literally expand your mind: According to a study published in New Scientist, billions of neurons per millisecond light up like Times Square on New Year’s Eve whenever we read poetry.

To these ends, STRANGE TERRAIN is structured around three premises or necessities integral to being comfortable with—and finding comfort in—poetry: Demystification, Information, and Remystification.

First, demystification: Readers will benefit both from a glimpse of what it is that poets are up to in pausing to write about their experiences or perceptions of the world, and from a reminder that poetry is not personal or private “journaling” but an art and a craft. The two introductory chapters that follow this give you a chance to discard any sense of estrangement you might have felt in the presence of poetry in the light of this basic demystification of what poetry is. It may still feel like strange terrain, but at least you'll see landscapes you’re interested in exploring.

Information is what the Steps of this handbook are all about. They provide a walk through the strange terrain of poetry by means of 8 basic tools that I’m going to show you are already in your backpack. The reason that poetry is, in fact, approachable and effective (once you’re guided into its realm) is that it employs these elements that are so—well—elemental to our existence as humans here on Earth. While the poems you pass through here may not all be easy, you will become familiar with their landmarks—their shapes and words, their sounds and images, their narrative techniques. And through guided observation you will see, without being forced to analyze anything or to submit to the question, “What does it mean?” just how much meaning, emotion, and thought emerge from these elements.

The most important of the three necessities for appreciating poetry is the third, the one I call Remystification. Let me get to it in a round-about way, by talking a bit about teachers.

Amongst the many people who may shy away from poetry are, of course, teachers—for the very obvious reason that they too are regular, educated, literate people who themselves had teachers of poetry who . . . etc. As a visiting artist-in-the-schools, I often hear even those teachers who do include poetry in their lessons, knowing it has value, confess with some embarrassment their doubt or helplessness in the face of it. Some have their students write poems, some assign readings, others march right in, full of technical information and blowing dust off manuals or texts they seem to have dug out of a time capsule. And why not? Poetry has been around a long, long time, hasn’t it? And so, with good intentions, most ask kids to write poems before they know what concrete things actually make up poems, analyze poems for their “hidden meaning,” underline examples of onomatopoeia and alliteration, and count and label the rhyming scheme.

Two crucial aspects of understanding poetry are missing in all of this, without which poetry can become alien and then anathema: the demystification and the mystery.

Here are some of the things I wish teachers were doing instead in opening their classrooms to poetry:

  • Reading a poem and saying nothing at all about it while the sounds and sensations sift through the room, through the listeners’ beings, through the windows and out into the day.
  • Expressing wonder at the amazing feelings, thoughts, rhythm, music, or mystery that a certain choice of words on a page can evoke.
  • Talking with gratitude about how poetry opens our hearts and minds to our lives today.
  • Bringing in local poets to talk about their lives and their writing process, and including in the discussion those students (at any age) who already identify themselves as writers.
  • Bringing in contemporary literary journals and poetry books to be pawed through and pored over.
  • Telling themselves and their wards in words and in silent attitudes this mind-changing secret about appreciating poetry: “It’s not about getting it.”
And that’s the most important lesson I hope you take away with you from this book. Poetry will give you endless ideas to think about, confusions of emotions to explore, images of beauty and horror and everything in between to contemplate and share. It will surprise, delight and inform about all the ways language can be artfully arranged to viscerally express the impact of the world upon us. It will connect you to nature and civilization, other people near and far, now or then, and to your own inner life.

But it will not give you answers.

The mysterious nature of what poetry says—what often cannot be paraphrased—is its lifeblood. That doesn’t mean poetry must elude us; it means the meaning of life itself often eludes us. If you want to grapple with the value of this better, you can turn directly to “Step 8: Unknowing," because it explains in detail why poetry can’t be entirely explained. The only reason it comes last in the instruction process is because it is simultaneously the least definable and most defining of the Steps.

Keeping the need for “remystification” in mind throughout may help you as you proceed on this exciting journey towards a deepening relationship between you and poetry.

“The quality of concentration, receptivity, and deep feeling that you bring to your teaching--and overall, really, to your interactions with other people (and probably other species, too) is powerfully inspiring to witness.”