Archives for March 2017

Happy 1st year: Still shy


photo by L.L. Barkat

Despite what I wrote last week, I don’t want to lie — I’m still shy.  There’s no reason for me to hide my love for poetry. And yet, sometimes I still do.

Even after keeping a poetry journal for 13 years, after writing poetry, after writing a book called The Joy of Poetry, I still feel embarrassed to admit my love for poetry in public. I’m tempted to apologize for it, to try to let my non-poetry-loving friends off the hook by saying, “I can talk about something else, anything else, if this makes you uncomfortable.”

I realized this inclination when I was eating dinner with a table of strangers at a retreat shortly before the book published. A woman found out that I’m a writer, and she asked what I write. I said I work for a monthly magazine in Waco. Then she asked if I’m an author. I said I had a book coming out.

“What’s it about?”

“The joy of poetry,” I mumbled.


I had to repeat myself three times and say it slowly, “po-e-try,” before she understood.

“Oh, so it’s a book of poetry?”

“Well, not exactly. It has poetry in it.”

“Your poetry?”

“Some,” I confessed, as if I’d done something wrong, “but there’s some good poetry in there too, from other people.”

Then she had a brilliant idea. “Is it a book of faith poetry?”

“No,” I said.

She looked crestfallen. That she would have understood.

So I tried to explain. “It’s a book about my love of poetry, but it’s for people who think they hate it. And it’s about my mom, who died.” The words tumbled out, like I’d spilled cereal on the floor while trying to pour it into too small a bowl.

The conversation moved on, and I realized I’d have to get a lot better at talking about poetry outside of my happy little world of poem-loving people. In the year since the book came out, I have gotten better. Now when I get the question, I answer, “It’s about losing my mom and finding poetry.”

I’m more aware than ever that in general circles poetry is still the p-word. People don’t know what to do with it, and sometimes when they find out poetry is my jam, they don’t know what to do with me. Is she going to start quoting some random poem in the middle of boot camp? No. At yoga, maybe.

But I have gotten better at talking about the book when people are interested, when they want to know more. Then I’m ready. Ready to show that poetry doesn’t have to be a deep dark secret or a closeted obsession. It can be a handful of words that fit together well and slip into your pocket. It’s as portable as your phone. It’s a little bit alive.

Which means it might not always behave. It might say one thing and do another. It might whisper this to her and that to him. It might sneak up on you as you wake from a dream about something else entirely. It might make you read it twice, then say it out loud, then write it out, then write more — more you never knew was there.

I call that joy.

Happy 1st Year: Into the Woods

photo by L.L. Barkat

This is the third in my series of posts counting down the days to April 1, the one-year birthday of  The Joy of Poetry.

Before the book came out I did something that probably served me better than any marketing seminar with a catchy title about how to sell books. I didn’t do this thing with an eye toward how it might help me navigate the book’s release, but it turned out to be essential. I was in a community theater production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods.

I have been a theater fangirl since I was a child, when my mother took me to see a production every year for my birthday. After I got married and had children, our daughter became involved in theater, thus turning both my husband and I into the kind of people who plan their New York City trip around shows. In 2014 my husband and daughter were in Fredericksburg Theater Company‘s production of Les Misérables, playing several chorus roles. For Into the Woods I played the back half of Milky White, the cow, (and Snow White in the finale). Our Milky White was on wheels, and she could sit down or tip forward. My co-cowhand and I worked her like a giant puppet.

What does this have to do with writing a book? Not much. What does it have to do with promoting a book? Everything.

I am quiet, sometimes shy. I’d much rather interview you than have you interview me. I don’t like to draw attention to myself without good reason.

A show is a good reason. So is a book.

We rehearsed for four months. I got to work with a cast of 20 talented people and together, along with the directors and crew, we put on a great show. I am proud of all nine performances, including the one when the cow broke and we went on with the show so well that the director didn’t realize what had happened until someone told him. For those three weekends I got used to being in public. I got used to applause. I invited folks who were only acquaintances to come to a musical about fairy tales, and a handful came just because I was in it. That, my friends, was humbling.

It was also great training for what was to come, after the book published. Suddenly, I was put in the position to invite acquaintances to check out my book, and not something fun like a mystery or a romance. No, I was offering poetry. Sometimes I felt like I was offering chocolate, and all they could see was broccoli.

When you’re in a show or have a loved in one, you know how much work goes on behind the scenes to pull it off. It’s the same with getting a book published. At a small publisher like TS Poetry Press, fewer people wear more hats, but I’m aware that a book doesn’t happen without the equivalent of a director and crew.

Every person matters. Everyone who wrote an Amazon review or a blog post or hosted an event for me went out of their way. They spent time and their own hard-earned cash. It’s no small thing.

Sometimes I wish I could be doing this book thing from that familiar stage in Fredericksburg. I wish the house lights were dim. I wish Ryan was in the crow’s nest, directing the music with his glow stick. I wish I could look to the left see Jim, taking notes. I wish I could hear Donna laughing from the audience. I wish Heidi and Julie and Will — aka Jack’s family — and all my cast mates were close by. But it’s just me and my little book with a yellow flower.

And it’s okay. Because I’ve done this before.

Happy 1st Year: poem permissions

photo by Michelle DeRusha

This is my second week to count down the days to The Joy of Poetry‘s first birthday. One thing I haven’t mentioned in previous posts — and frankly, something not enough people have asked me about — is the process of obtaining poem permissions .

The Joy of Poetry contains 30 poems by people other than me. In order to print them in a book that would be sold for profit, I had to get permission from the author and/or the publisher. I began sending requests through emails and letters in the summer of 2014. I did not finish until fall 2015. There are some publishers I never heard from at all.

Imagine my book as a giant tray of assorted cookies. I wanted to share poems that had meant something to me personally. Some of those came from established poets, some came from ones with day jobs, one came from a middle-schooler. I had to get permission for each one, and my publisher had to see the documentation.

Now, I don’t have a problem with poets being paid for their work, especially since there is essentially no money in poetry, whether you’re terrific or terrible. But I am sincerely sad that many poems I wanted to share are not included because I couldn’t afford them. That’s why there is nothing from Billy Collins or Mary Oliver. Also nothing from Wallace Stevens, Pablo Neruda, Seamus Heaney, Grace Paley, John Berryman, May Swenson, and Kevin Young — all of whom had poems on my original list.

This is the economics side of poetry, and it works both ways. If someone reads my book, likes one of my poems, and wants to use it in a different book to be sold, then he or she would have to contact TS Poetry Press.

The responses from publishers varied so widely as to be arbitrary. The publisher of one U.S. Poet Laureate said yes and sent a contract to sign, no fee required. Another publisher wanted to charge $1,080 for a single poem. And then there was the publisher of a poet, one who passed away recently enough that his work is not in the public domain, that said, “Pay us $200 and then we’ll ask the estate.” Wait, I have to pay to find out if I can play? I rewrote the chapter.

I did include some poems old enough to be in the public domain and from some poets who published with smaller presses. Many of them said yes immediately. In most cases the fees were nominal, and I was happy to pay.

I sent a maximum limit of $100 for a single poem. Obviously, I couldn’t do that for every poem, but I needed a guideline. The only poem I paid that amount for — and actually I paid a bit more — was “Write About a Radish” by Karla Kuskin, who died in 2009. I had such a lovely back-and-forth with her publisher, who was thrilled to see the poem used. It felt like we were working together to bring her work to the world after she had left it. Her representative told me, “That one is widely permissioned — a word in my trade.” “Permissioned.” I learned a new word. That was worth the price of admission.

There were many other lovely exchanges. I received a handwritten note from Shoestring Press in the UK, which published Helena Nelson’s “With My Mother, Missing the Train,” that read, “Dear Megan Willome: Thanks for your letter of 30th July. Yes, of course, you have my permission for Nell’s poem. Hope the book goes well.”

Contrast that with this email I received from a permissions editor at a medium-size publisher here in the States. The title of the poem had four words, two of which are prepositions. I thought I had capitalized correctly, but I did not. (My bad.) Looking back, I should’ve used the Look Inside feature at Amazon, something I used a lot after I received this email: “I’ll assume you’ve been checking the poems & titles against the original pages as part of the process, but I wanted to bring that to your attention.” That was my first response to a request for permission. I was so discouraged I wanted to give up. I’m glad I didn’t. I never heard back from that editor on the poem I requested.

But I cannot say enough good things about Holly Amos, acquisitions editor at Poetry magazine. She helped me get in touch with Daniel Handler’s agent and contact the correct family member who handled the estate of Stuart Mills.

I’d also like to give a shoutout to Maureen Doallas, who helped me locate contact information for Joyce Sutphen for a poem that at that time was only printed at The Writers’ Almanac.

And then there was my correspondence with Dana Gioia. I had an in with him because one of our writers at the Wacoan magazine interviewed him several years ago. After he said yes, he wrote, “Good luck with the book. I hope you make some money!”

I replied, “Very funny. It’s a poetry book. I am definitely keeping my day job at the WACOAN. :)”

“Hope springs eternal in human breast!” he wrote back.

He didn’t even charge me. I sent him a copy of the book as a thank you.

There were so many other kind words from poets you may or may not have heard of. Some would ask, “Is there anything else you need?” When I told Claire Bateman, who wrote “Woman at the Stoplight,” the story of what her poem meant to me, she wrote back, “And your message means a lot to me — I’m always on the edge of ‘Why do I do this; what difference does it make?’ So THANK YOU.”

No, thank you. Thank you all.

Happy 1st Year: Bosom Buddies

photo by L.L. Barkat

April 1 will be the one-year birthday of  The Joy of Poetry. Like the birthday of a person, a book’s birthday deserves to be celebrated. So that’s what I’ll do here for the next month, sharing a few more stories about the story — how it came to be, where it is now, where it might be going.

I chose this photo, the one that highlights the dedication page, “For Merry Nell,” because on Monday I spoke to the Christ-centered breast cancer support group she started in Austin, Bosom Buddies. Actually, she was the co-founder, along with Hazel Miller. Both women have since passed away.

Not long after her first round with cancer, Mom was invited to join a breast cancer support network. She didn’t like that she wouldn’t be able to share Bible verses and talk about Jesus, so she started her own group. It was just an Austin thing. It still is.

The group meets at Westlake United Methodist Church at noon on Mondays. Want to feel humbled? Have a bunch of Bosom Buddies make you lunch.

It was my favorite talk I’ve given since the book came out. And it was different than all the others. This was the only one in which we could all dive into the Legend of Merry Nell. I always talk about Mom’s 29-year journey with cancer, but these women wanted details, dates, diagnoses. My dad was there as well, so we were able to answer questions as a team.

This group was also unusual in that they felt free to ask questions. Or interrupt me. Or veer the conversation. It was glorious.

Normally, I bring a poem for us to discuss as a group, to show people that all it takes is a few minutes with a few words to appreciate a poem. I’d brought Ted Kooser’s “Selecting a Reader,” but we never got to it. I’d considered bringing one of Jane Kenyon’s cancer poems, like “After an Illness, Walking the Dog,” but worried that the group might be sick of talking about cancer. I was wrong. If that were the case, they wouldn’t be Bosom Buddies.

Instead, they wanted to hear more of my cancer poems than I’d planned to read, especially the ones where I was struggling with Mom’s determination to keep fighting. One woman confided, “I think my daughter’s pretty pissed at me.” Another told a story of hurt feelings at a baby shower, when the grandmother-to-be came late and left early because that was all the energy she had.

I read from chapter 8 of The Joy of Poetry, the one that includes one of Mom’s emails and my poem “Still.” It’s the only time I pair her words with mine in the book. The purple flower she writes about goes well with the bluebonnets I describe in the poem. It was also a good choice for the day because the bluebonnets have been out since the last week in February, and I can’t see a bluebonnet without thinking about my mother.

If the talk was a chance for the women to learn about my mom from me, it was also a chance for me to learn more about her from them. If you’ve ever watched the TV show Big Bang Theory, you know Sheldon has a particular spot on the couch. No one else is allowed to sit there or Sheldon gets snippy. On Monday I learned that Mom had a particular spot on the couch in the church library where the group meets. The spot is, in fact, in the same position — far left (or far right, depending on your perspective) — as Sheldon’s spot. All the old-timers, whose who knew my mom, won’t sit there. Although, unlike Sheldon, they don’t mind at all if someone else does. Mom liked that spot so she could be the first one to spot anyone coming in late. Then she could also be the first person to say, “Welcome.”

Near the end of the lunch, a woman sat beside me to talk. She was in that room in 2007 when Mom announced that her cancer was back after a 23-year remission. This woman recalled being shocked at the news: That’s not supposed to happen.

“And then it happened to me,” she said, “after 18 years.” She was grateful for Mom’s warning. That’s part of Mom’s legend too, not only the blessing of the 23-year break, but the blessing of the warning that emerged when that season ended.

This poem is one of the 72 I wrote during Mom’s last three years, after that 2007 announcement. It’s not in the book, but it is here on the blog, with its sister poems that make up “My Mother’s Diary.”

Legend of Merry Nell


The Comanches tell the story

of She-Who-Is-Alone, the girl who

sacrificed her warrior doll, ended the famine,

was renamed


After the drought of Mom’s cancer finally

ended with her March death, we got better

bluebonnets than anyone could remember.

Even without her, I am not alone.

Everywhere I see a bluebonnet

— in a ditch, in an

emtpy field, in an alley —

I know that she still dearly loves her people.





Two mornings ago I woke up thinking about scorpions. A friend had written a poem about them — creatures unfamiliar to her but common here, where I live. And immediately I thought of the handmade scorpions the Mexican artisans create and leave for visitors to buy at Big Bend National Park.

See the scorpions, made of wire and beads? Note the price list to the right. The soda bottle is where you, as a tourist, put your money. When my dad and I went to Big Bend six years ago — this very week — we saw these makeshift shops everywhere. We stayed at Chisos Mountain Lodge, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Want to see the creators of this folk art?

These two men are wisely sitting in the shade because even in February, it’s hot in the Chihuahuan desert in the afternoon. Presumably, in the evening they walk across the trickle that passes for the Rio Grande at that spot and gather their money, replace their wares.

This is what the border looks like, near the scorpion sellers. Can you tell which side is Texas and which side is Mexico?

Neither can I.

Big Bend National Park is 801,163 acres, making it the 15th largest national park but one of the least visited, due to its remote location. The border with Mexico within the park stretches 118 miles. On the U.S. side is the national park, and on the Mexican side is Maderas del Carmen, a protected reserve. The cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico has increased the migration of wildlife to and from both sides in an area roughly the size of Connecticut.

The park was officially established by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on June 12, 1944. Look at that date for a moment. Do you know what event occurred only six days earlier? D-Day.

What made Big Bend so important that a President would shift his focus from a world in turmoil to the wilderness of southwest Texas? It was a noble purpose. To set something aside for future generations with the fate of the present generation still uncertain was an act of optimism in an uncertain world.”

Thank you, Mr. President.