Archives for June 2016

Keep, Save, & Make, part 1

photo by L.L. Barkat

photo by L.L. Barkat

“How to keep, save, & make your life with poems” was my publisher’s tagline, not mine. I would not have thought of it.

As I’ve sat with these words for the last three months, since The Joy of Poetry came out, I have come to believe they are exactly right, even in the exact right order. It is possible to describe my journey into poetry as a process that started with “keep,” led to “save,” and continued to “make.”

Im 2012, I wrote an official Journey Into Poetry article at Tweetspeak. While that story is true, it’s since been fleshed out in my book. In those pages I also mention my collection of poetry scrapbooks and poetry journals, but I did not go into detail about that process, which has been unfolding since late 2003.

For the next three weeks I’ll tell their story, the story of Keep, Save, & Make.

26 June 2016

Found poem from the words of poet Jane Kenyon, at The Writer’s Almanac, 23 May 2016, on her birthday.


Be a good steward

of your gifts.

Protect your time.

Feed your inner

life. Avoid too much

noise. Read good books,

have good sentences

in your ears.

Be by yourself

as often as

you can. Walk.

Take the phone

off the hook.

Work regular hours.

19 June 2016

Waiting for the end of the world


We stop

on the way to the island to buy food. We know

a hurricane


is coming. They say to hole up with

beer & Pop Tarts. I brought with me

a bottle of Becker. Now I buy potatoes

a week’s worth, the size of my hand


outstretched. If a storm comes, some creature

will eat it, will not suffer

from earth’s treasure rooted free.


Each morning we watch the waves for signs.

Each evening, bake a potato. Eat with butter.

Hold hands.



Creating Joy: she’s not here

photo by L.L. Barkat

photo by L.L. Barkat

If you’d like to catch up on the first three parts of the series, they are here, here, and here. This is the last day.

The day before I ascended my manuscript into my publisher’s hands, I performed a ritual I use when writing something big for the magazine, like Wacoan of the Year. I drove to Starbucks to read it one last time.

The nearest Starbucks is 30 miles away. It was pouring rain in May, which was ridiculous. We didn’t know it would keep raining, leading to Memorial Day floods across Central Texas.

On the drive I called my dad to say I was just about finished rewriting, and, oh yeah, the book is now really about Mom and has a bunch of the cancer poems I wrote.

He thought that was great.

But I was worried. TS Poetry Press is not a religious publisher. No one would accidentally come to Jesus reading my book. What would Mom think of that?

That’s when my dad gave me a tremendous gift. He said, “She’s not here.”

With that short sentence I had the all the freedom I needed to write the book that needed to be written.

I made it safely to my destination, bought a venti-size tea, read the manuscript aloud in my head, made a few changes, and ascended it the following morning.

That was not the end of the writing process, although my publisher did feel that, lo and behold, yes, this version was much better. I was supposed to have sent an outline first, but I don’t usually have time for those at the magazine. Oops.

During the summer I was asked to change the book’s ending (which I hadn’t done in the rewrite) and add a couple of chapters, which meant more sheets of notebook paper and more lists. I had found Kathleen Jamie’s poem “The Dipper” the day I went to Starbucks to do the final read. I’m so glad I had time to get permission to include it in the final version.

In March 2016 I worked on front matter and end notes and listing all those poetry permissions from publishers. The whole process stretched from January 1, 2014-April 1, 2016, when the book was published.

Here’s something interesting: I could not write poems while I was writing about poetry. The few I tried to write weren’t very good. Right before the book came out, I started writing poetry again, even poetry about that other elephant. Maybe in a few more years, it can come out, stomp around and make a bunch of noise.

For all of you who are in the process of writing, I encourage you to be open to what your book needs. What I’ve described in this series may not work for you at all, but maybe you’ll look at what I’ve written and say, “Not this, but that.” Books are like children. As they grow up, they make their desires known. It behooves us to listen and adjust.


12 June 2016

She took my final

order. Brought me my first

martini. Served me my last

dinner at our favorite Mexican restaurant.


She was at least my dad’s age, 70, which is why

we were there, where

we’d dined for, oh, 35 years.

“She came with the place,” Dad said.


She served us the dregs of some other table’s tortilla

chips, never refilled our water or tea,

read her tip in front of us and scowled (though

it was well past 15 percent).


“She was your mom’s favorite.”


Creating Joy: write with pauses

photo by Sonia Barkat

photo by Sonia Joie

I’m writing about the process of creating The Joy of Poetry. If you’re interested, part 1 and part 2 are here.

I had that talk with my publisher around the start of Lent 2015. As I sat in the Ash Wednesday service near the school kids, fidgeting in their dress uniforms, the thought came to me: Write as little as possible.

I decided to take the season to think about, imagine, and sit with the idea of writing about my mom and her cancer as a way to frame and tie together a spirited defense of poetry. When an idea or a memory came to me, I wrote it out. Then I’d close my notebook and move on.

Along the way I began making lists. One was of all the poems I’d gotten permissions for, and I starred my favorites. Then I made a list of all the poems about my mom and starred the ones people liked. I looked at both lists for a while. Did any of those poems go together? Were there any common themes? (That’s when I discovered the yellow connection.)

I started thinking about the word “joy,” since it was supposed to be the theme of the book. What joys lurked in these memories of my mom? Could I organize each chapter around a specific joy? And what did joy have to do with a book that was shaping up to be about cancer, poetry, and death?

While I was rewriting, I dedicated a sheet of notebook paper to each chapter. Each sheet started with the title, and each title is a quote from one of the poems in that chapter, then a colon, then a summary of that chapter’s theme. Next I wrote the word “joy” with whatever sentence in that chapter featured the word. (I literally put “joy” into the search field to check.) Then I wrote the word “cancer,” followed by whatever cancer or Mom stuff was in there. Then halfway down the page I wrote the word “poetry” and listed the poems I wanted to feature in that particular chapter, both mine and those of others. On the back of each piece of paper I wrote a list of what’s in the chapter. For chapter 1, one of those items on the list says “Frederick, ” reminding me the mouse belongs there, with something before him and something else after. I wrote everything in pencil. The chapter numbers were erased multiple times as I rearranged the pages by hand.

Why did I do it that way? It made sense to me.

During that time I only read two books, and I did that on purpose. I wanted to focus on writing that accomplished what I aspired to. One was L.L. Barkat’s Rumors of Water. I’d already read it, but this time I read it for structure, taking notes on how it worked. I got the idea for how to title my chapters by noticing how she titled hers. If you’ve only read this book once, please read it again. It’s quite brilliant.

The other book was Helen McDonald’s H is for Hawk, which is part grief memoir of losing her dad, part analysis of author T.H. White’s life and work, and part how to train a goshawk. It’s three seemingly disconnected strands that she weaves into a braid. In my book, I was using two — Mom and poetry. That’s only a twist.

When Easter came, I started to rewrite. The task of gathering all my notes — spread across journals, on my computer, and on random scraps of paper — took a couple of days and made a mess on my picnic table that serves as a desk. I gathered everything into a yellow Manila folder, since I’d decided yellow was going to be A Thing.

I approached the writing differently this time. I wrote with pauses. Each time I sat down, I worked for 1 hour and 5 minutes. When my dinger went off, if I had time and inclination to write more, I would. The most I ever wrote at one stretch was 3 hours, 15 minutes. If I needed to get on with the magazine or editing or life, I did. Usually I worked on the book early in the day, but not always. I followed this routine six days a week, except for Saturdays, which I took off.

The white space in between writing allowed time for my brain to play, to make connections, or simply to rest. I once read a quote that jazz is all about the pauses. Maybe writing is too.

I gave myself a deadline to finish the rewrite — Ascension Day. I chose the day for the obvious reason that my document would ascend as I uploaded it into cyberspace, to my publisher’s preferred platform. Also because it was a week before my daughter would come home from school, and I wanted a few days to pause greatly before summer’s busyness started.

But before I ascended my manuscript, I needed to talk to my dad.

5 June 2016

Oh, to be the dock, the port

to which foreign ships visit!


To wake up in the same bed

Walk the same dogs

Kiss the same man


Let others adventure, then come here.

Sit by the bay. Share your stories

Have a glass of wine. Tell me


Creating Joy: get another elephant

photo by L.L. Barkat

photo by L.L. Barkat

Last week I wrote about the origin story of my book, The Joy of Poetry. If all had gone as planned once I got the assignment, I’m sure I’d have more to say about those initial nine months of writing. Instead, as I look back I can see I was grabbing things from here and there, old and new, trying to stitch them together in a way that didn’t work nearly as well as I thought it did.

One of my quirks is that if you ask me what a trout has to do with a tree, I can link them. It doesn’t necessarily mean I should. In that first draft, I was basically forming unnatural connections between aquatic and arboreal species.

Halfway through the writing process I started contacting publishers to get poetry permissions, and that weaned the book down—either when I heard nothing or when the fee was too high. Then I gave the manuscript to two friends to read. They helped me find places to cut and helped me know which places were strong. I revised some more, trimmed, turned it in, and waited.

The feedback I received from the publisher was, “This reads like a series of disconnected blog posts.” That feedback came in the form of a two-page detailed analysis of the manuscript. Three different readers at TS Poetry Press contributed their thoughts, and the editor synthesized them into one document, which included encouragement and suggestions to explore in revision. I’d describe the tone as gentle but crystal clear.

The best thing I did was wait to respond. I emailed to set up a phone call a week later.

In the meantime I went to a writing workshop. One of the speakers said he usually needs to write his first draft to figure out what he’s supposed to be writing, what the book wants to be. It’s messy, but it’s his only way in. Then he retitles the first draft and opens a new document. That morning I had already retitled my first draft “Poetry Memoir” and opened a new document called “The Joy of Poetry.”

When I talked with my publisher, I was ready to hear how I might go about rewriting (I didn’t have a clue). She shoveled snow and I paced. Here’s the secret I hadn’t shared until that call: There was something in my life I didn’t want to write about. My first draft was an attempt to write without acknowledging the elephant in the room. I even had a paragraph about the unmentionable elephant.

“You can write about your mom, can’t you?” my publisher asked.

I’d always said I could write about my mom and her cancer, no problem, any day of the week. “Sure,” I said.

Maybe I needed to get another elephant.

If cancer was the elephant in the room while I was growing up, it was one we all knew, acknowledged, and cared for. My parents never lied to me, but, as in discussions the birds and the bees, gave me age-appropriate information. It’s a good thing they did because my mom wasn’t the only one to have cancer during my childhood. My dad did too, plus other relatives on both sides of the family. I literally lose count.

Since I grew up around cancer and have lost four people to the disease, when it came time to rewrite, let’s just say—to use Brené Brown terminology—I’d done my work. When I started rewriting, my mom had been gone for five years. I’d done therapy, spiritual direction, taken a trip with my dad, visited with Mom’s friends, and, most importantly, I’d written 72 poems about her.

Now I just had to use all that to write about this other elephant.