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Meet the Teaching Artist: Formal Constraints in Poetry with CD Eskilson

by Writing Workshops Staff

A month ago

Meet the Teaching Artist: Formal Constraints in Poetry with CD Eskilson

by Writing Workshops Staff

A month ago

In a literary landscape often dominated by free verse, the resurgence of formal poetry offers a refreshing and invigorating challenge for contemporary poets. Enter CD Eskilson, a trans poet, editor, and translator whose forthcoming class, Formal Constraints: an 8-Week Poetry Intensive (Zoom), promises to reevaulate how we perceive and engage with structured verse.

With an impressive body of work that includes the C.D. Wright/Academy of American Poets Prize and nominations for Best of the Net, Best New Poets, and the Pushcart Prize, CD Eskilson is no stranger to the rigors and rewards of poetic form.

Eskilson's work has been published by The Offing, Pleiades, and Hayden's Ferry Review, and their debut poetry collection, Scream / Queen, is set to be released by Acre Books in 2025. As an assistant poetry editor for Split Lip Magazine and a former poetry editor for Exposition Review, Eskilson brings a wealth of editorial expertise and a keen eye for innovation to their teaching.

In this 8-week intensive, students will delve into the liberating world of formal constraints, exploring traditional forms like the sonnet, villanelle, and ghazal, as well as contemporary inventions such as the duplex and burning haibun. Through rigorous workshops and weekly reading packets featuring poets like Patricia Smith and Jericho Brown, participants will learn to harness the radical potential of meter, stanza, and rhyme to engage with challenging subjects.

Join us as we sit down with CD Eskilson to discuss their poetic journey, the transformative power of formal constraints, and what participants can expect from this exciting new workshop.

Hi, CD. Please introduce yourself to our audience.

Hi folks! I’m CD, and I’m a poet and literary translator. My own writing navigates the intersections of queerness, mental illness, and chronic illness with key obsessions around pop culture and place. I’m also an editor and have worked for journals like Split Lip Magazine, Exposition Review, and The Arkansas International. Once, I was in a punk band!

What made you want to teach this specific class? Is it something you are focusing on in your own writing practice? Have you noticed a need to focus on this element of craft?

Like many writers, I was first introduced to poetic form and formalism in a way that made it feel exclusionary—that it was the realm of dead white guys upholding patriarchal, racist, or classist values. And so I really resisted using so-called “traditional” forms in my own writing for a while.

As I read more and more contemporary poetry, though, I saw that form didn’t have to be used this way. I became enamored with the growing legacy of 21st-Century poets skillfully wielding verse’s inherent aesthetic intensity and architecture as a vehicle for transformation. Poets like Patricia Smith, Wanda Coleman, and Terrance Hayes have frequently used the sonnet, ghazal, and sestina to speak on race, class, and gender while subverting and reinventing verse’s political stakes.

Through their compelling uses of strict meter and rhyme coupled with complete thematic subversion and defiance, these poets have claimed the formal realm as one ripe for revolutionary potential. They’ve made me really lean into formal elements as a subversive tool I can use in my own work. I really look forward to sharing this with others to enrich their own approaches to poetry.

Give us a breakdown of how the course is going to go. What can the students expect? What is your favorite part about this class you've dreamed up?

During our time together, we’ll be doing an overview of some poetic forms that have been really important throughout the history of English-language poetry and remain touchstones for many influential writers today. In particular, we’ll be thinking about how poetic forms—the sonnet, the ghazal, the villanelle, among others—are constantly evolving to meet the needs of those wielding them.

We’ll then have the chance to try this out on our own through the course’s exercises, and get feedback throughout our workshop sessions. We’ll also be discussing how forms that might at first appear super rigid or stuffy can actually be quite subversive and help us to write more radical or honest poems.

Accessibility is key to my teaching practice, and this course aims to invite everyone into the study of form and to claim ownership over these writing these kinds of poems. We’ll begin by thinking about what “form” means more broadly for a poem, then take a closer look at the building blocks making up specific forms—things like stanza length, poetic voltas, and refrains. We’ll dig into examples from poets writing today to see all these components in action and discuss how their poems work!

What was your first literary crush?


What are you currently reading?

Useful Junk by Erika Meitner and Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enríquez!

How do you choose what you're working on? When do you know it is the next thing you want to write all the way to THE END?

As a Capricorn, I approach my writing in a methodical and rather unromantic way. I research my current obsessions and compile notes or scraps of detail about them. I have lots of folders on my computer of photos and ephemera that seem like the seeds of pieces. Then, I dive into one and start writing in response to it and try to just see what emerges. I typically know something is worth pursuing if I hate my first attempt at it—there’s more that needs to be done then!

Where do you find inspiration?

I’ve been thinking a lot about movement and how a poem moves recently. For that, I’ve found a lot of inspiration from music and movies: how songs or albums create a sense of structure to listeners, how a film teaches us to read its mood or tone. Oftentimes, a movie scene or a chorus will illicit a response in me that I want to try replicating in a poem.

What is the best piece of writing wisdom you've received that you can pass along to our readers? How did it impact your work? Why has this advice stuck with you?

“Say the thing.” Earlier in my practice as a poet, I held on too dearly to preserving the mystery behind every poem, or would oftentimes confuse the idea of being deep with writing around my poem’s subject. Poems are inherently a bit mysterious, and as those writing them, we have to clear some of the smoke for readers to find their way through them.

If I’m struggling with a draft, I find it helpful sometimes to write out what a poem is about in paragraph form. To demystify it. What am I trying to say? How am I doing that? Making the poem’s goals concrete in that clear way makes them more manageable, I think.

What is your favorite book to recommend on the craft of writing? Why this book?

The Art of the Poetic Line by James Logenbach really helped me understand the mechanics of a poem on a line-by-line level. If you’re ever struggling to lineate a poem, turn to this book!

Work with CD:

Learn more about CD's upcoming class, Formal Constraints: an 8-Week Poetry Intensive (Zoom), and sign up now to avoid the waitlist!


Instructor CD Eskilson is a trans poet, editor, and translator. Their work appears in The Offing, Pleiades, Hayden's Ferry Review, Ninth Letter, and others. They are a recipient of the C.D. Wright/Academy of American Poets Prize, as well as a Best of the Net, Best New Poets, and Pushcart Prize nominee. Their debut poetry collection, Scream / Queen, is forthcoming from Acre Books in 2025. CD is assistant poetry editor for Split Lip Magazine and a member of the editorial board for Exposition Review, where they were previously poetry editor. CD earned their MFA from the University of Arkansas where they received the Walton Family Fellowship in Poetry, the James T. Whitehead Award in Poetry, the James E. & Ellen Wadley Roper Fellowship in Creative Writing, and the Lily Peter Fellowship in Translation.




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