National Poetry Month’s Tour de Tania (Runyan), pt. 5

Tania Runyan’s book How to Write a Form Poem saves haiku till last. I suspect she does that because haiku is among the simplest and most complicated of poetic forms. She writes: “Haiku are not a mode of travel, roadside attraction, or even a depiction of such. They are the vibrant spaces between.”

Tania also encourages us to “cultivate the daily practice of reading or writing haiku.” I cannot second this recommendation heartily enough. Even when your haiku doesn’t reach the ideal. Write one anyway. It’s a practice I’ve been following since May 11, 2017, almost four years ago.

I write my daily haiku in my One Line a Day: A Five Year Memory Book, along with a note about what tea I’m drinking. Writing my daily haiku is foundational to who I am. Many, if not most of my haiku do not reach purist standards. I don’t care. They are for me, to record what I want to keep from each day. Like this one from The Joy of Poetry.

Winter Sunrise

orange and pink rises
above our snowy cabin
brighter than cancer

– Megan Willome

I’m spending National Poetry Month celebrating Tania’s new book and my old one. To learn how to write a haiku, what Tania’s haiku journey has entailed, and whether your really need to count 5-7-5 syllables, pick up a copy of How to Write a Form Poem.

National Poetry Month’s Tour de Tania (Runyan), pt. 4

In The Joy of Poetry, I write that as soon as I saw a clump of red poppies at mile 37 of 42 on the Red Poppy (bike) Ride, I knew I had to write a poem about them. But “Each attempt to write the experience failed, until I attempted to follow the form.” Why chose the rondeau form? Because there is a famous rondeau about the red poppies of World War I: “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae. I decided to imitate the best.

In How to Write a Form Poem, Tania Runyan includes McCrae’s poem and mine as well (in the More Stops: Examples and Prompts to Inspire Your Journey section at the end).

At Mile 37

At mile 37 red poppies do abide
near fields of what we think will soon be corn,
past horses pale, their hearts held close inside
thin skin. Today is not a day to mourn
though if I say I am not sad I lied.

You’re gone. We rose and took it in our stride.
We pedaled hard and spied white poppies worn
from drought. Until we reached a red clump wide.
At mile 37.

Only then the red blooms promised for our ride,
sought at every pickup truck’s loud horn
that blared at us for forty-two May miles,
to the right, beneath a black mailbox beside
the road we found red poppies newly born.
At mile 37.

– Megan Willome

In chapter 7 Tania writes, “even without a melody, the rondeau sings.” That’s what the form is supposed to do, to sing. She then talks about her own journey with the rondeau, specifically, about one she wrote in college that her professor criticized. She later learned that a classmate “never forgot the poem’s refrain, and even today, more than a quarter century later, quotes it to me.” That’s the power of this song-like form.

We’re spending National Poetry Month celebrating Tania’s new book and my old one. To learn how to write a rondeau, what Tania’s rondeau journey has entailed, and what is the Scrabble-worthy plural form of rondeau, pick up a copy of How to Write a Form Poem.

National Poetry Month’s Tour de Tania (Runyan), pt. 3

Even poets get to have favorites. For Tania Runyan, author of How to Write a Form Poem, it’s the sestina. She writes, “I’m not even going to try to be unbiased. I adore sestinas. They’re my favorite poetic form, hands down. And they’re kinda nuts.”

Sestinas don’t rhyme — instead, they repeat. The pattern of end-words is a little bonkers, but there is a definite method to the madness. Tania compares the pattern to the spiral staircase in a lighthouse: You wind up, and then you wind down. The steps and words are “never leaving, always changing.” (I really like Tania’s “Seventh Grade Sestina, in chapter 3, because of the way it changes and the way it doesn’t.)

Here is a sestina I wrote in The Joy of Poetry that was entirely built around the word horcrux, of Harry Potter fame. It seemed the only word that could hold the experience of looking in the mirror and seeing my mother in my own face, long after she had passed away. It felt magical, and not in a good way. It deserved nothing less than all 39 lines of a sestina.

Who Am I?

“Let’s go for a walk,”
she’d say, and then my mother
would circle the block. I’d question
why we couldn’t go farther. My body
could handle it. But Merry
Nell’s couldn’t. She needed a horcrux

Or, perhaps, more than one horcrux.
To figure that out, she’d need a longer walk
through the neighborhood. She’d be merry,
as she always was. I am a mother
who likes to push her body.
There’s no question

about it. But every day I question
why I am her horcrux.
Why everybody seems to think I am walking her walk,
that I am mothering like my mother.
It’s true. My name is also Merry,

and I also chose to marry
at 21. That is not the question.
I need to know how to mother
without one. All I have is a horcrux,
one I bring with me each morning I take a walk:
my own body.

But it’s acting strange, my body.
It’s give me signs, as yours did, Merry
Nell. Oh, it can still walk
up actual mountains. But I do question
because it doesn’t feel like mine. It feels like a horcrux.
I feel like I am you, my dear, dead mother.

And I’m not, am I? Holy Mary, Mother
Of God. Pray. You’re not here in body.
Neither is my mom. She’s only a horcrux.
She wasn’t into you, Mary. She didn’t even have a question
about you. Not even when she couldn’t walk.

Like Harry, I am the horcrux. I am not my mother.
I can still walk, and I still dwell in this body.
But I am Merry Megan. No question.

– (Merry) Megan Willome

I’m spending National Poetry Month celebrating Tania’s new book and my old one. To learn how to write a sestina, what Tania’s sestina journey has entailed, and a little bit about lighthouses, pick up a copy of How to Write a Form Poem.

National Poetry Month’s Tour de Tania (Runyan), pt. 2

Like Tania Runyan, I would not describe myself as a sonneteer. But in How to Write a Form Poem, she writes this:

“Until this year, I’d probably written ten sonnets at most. That may sound like a lot if you’re just starting out, but remember, I’ve been at this poetry thing for decades. The majority of these sonnets were required for my prosody classes in college and grad school. While I’ve liked some of them okay, I haven’t bonded with them …. But as I’ve increased my attention to form in recent years, I’ve learned that limitations are my freedom. Structure is my muse.

My own sonnet education came from reading Angela Alaimo O’Donnell’s poetry collection titled Still Pilgrim, from which she read selections at the TS Poetry Retreat in 2019. I soon realized she was playing with form, which let me know I could play with it too. I journaled through the whole collection, then wrote my own sonnets, each one modeled after hers in form. That practice imparted a bit of the sonnet’s structure muse-like power. Now when a poem isn’t going well, I’ll experiment with sonnetizing it.

I wrote more about Tania’s sonnet chapter over at Tweetspeak Poetry).

Here is a sonnet by Helena Nelson from The Joy of Poetry, which turns five years old this month. Although the mother in the poem is nothing like mine, I love both her and the speaker/daughter. Reading it again, I am struck by the desire to “make the great train wait.” I’ve always read that line simply as a big train — and maybe it is — but this time I read it as if death were a train that takes people away. That’s the thing about a good poem: Each time you read it, it offers up new gifts.

With My Mother, Missing the Train

She was always late. At the final minute

we’d run for the city train, which roared right past,

its line of faces scanning us not in it.

The world was turned to terror by the blast

of hot departing wheels. Air seized my mother,

crushing her flustered skirts into a flurry

with me there clinging. Hush, there’ll be another,

she’d say to keep me calm. No need to worry.

But there was a need. The speed of things was true

and rushing traffic urged us both ahead.

I wanted to race again, to burst right through

and make the great train wait. She never said

that missing things was serious, till I grew.

She held my hand more tightly than I knew.

 – Helena Nelson

To learn how to write a sonnet, what Tania’s sonnet journey has entailed, and what the heck is an iamb, pick up a copy of How to Write a Form Poem.

National Poetry Month’s Tour de Tania (Runyan), pt. 1

Five years ago this month — National Poetry Month — TS Poetry Press released The Joy of Poetry. That means my little book is off to kindergarten! And its new sibling on the library shelf? Tania Runyan’s How to Write a Form Poem.

Tania has shown us How to Read a Poem and How to Write a Poem. Now in her new book she shows us How to Write a Form Poem: A Guided Tour of 10 Fabulous Forms: includes anthology & prompts!

Most of the poems in my book are free verse, but there is a bit of form poetry, some of it written by yours truly. In fact, Tania chose one of my form poems to include in her new book.

I got to meet Tania Runyan at a TS Poetry retreat back in 2019. She’s a poet, a musician, and an expert navigator (not something she mentions among her accomplishments, but I am living proof of her skill). Her new book is just like her — welcoming and wise.

This National Poetry Month I’ll be celebrating my book and Tania’s together. If you’re new to poetry and aren’t sure it’s for you, The Joy of Poetry is a good place to start. I wrote it for never-poetry people. If you’re already a convert and want some guidance on how to write poetry (as well as the opportunity to try some fun prompts), then check out How to Write a Form Poem. I’m using it this month as my own private poetry workshop, experimenting with each of the ten forms Tania shares: sonnets, sestinas, haiku, villanelles, pantoums, ghazals, rondeaux, odes, acrostics, and found poems.

Happy Book Birthday, Tania! The tour and the party lasts all month, each Thursday in April. 

P.S. If you’ve ever considered becoming a patron of Tweetspeak Poetry, there are often discounts on the digital versions of the titles. This month Tania Runyan is guiding us through a poetry-filled book club discussion of The Great Gatsby, and the normally patron-exclusive book club is open to the public. Learn more about Patreon membership levels here:

‘Frankenstein’ with Karen Swallow Prior

This is my third time to read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, this time with Karen Swallow Prior’s new edition, subtitled A Guide to Reading and Reflecting. Shelley’s book is one of four Prior has written annotated guides to, the others being Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.

The first time I read Frankenstein I found it thrilling. The second time, discouraging. This third time, with Prior, enlightening.

Throughout this edition, Prior adds Reflection Questions, and the end of the book there are Questions For Further Reflection. It is the final question and its commentary which is sitting with me: Frankenstein is more than just a story–it’s a story about stories.”

Prior is right. Frankenstein is not just the monster’s story. It’s also Justine’s story, the DeLacey’s story, Walton’s story, and of course, Victor’s story — he with the proverbial red pen, editing everyone else’s story.

The thought of so many interwoven and overlapping stories, each distinct, frightens me because it’s so much like life. Who should I listen to? Which story is True?

All of us strive to make sense of our lives by telling our stories — whether with a friend over coffee or in a published memoir. The random becomes purposeful, with a theme and maybe a moral (if we’re extra imaginative, a soundtrack). But this is not reality. Even when we make our own monsters, we can’t always understand how they came to be who they are.

Reading Prior’s Introduction to the Author, I got the sense that with Frankenstein, Shelley found a way to tell her story. Prior writes this: “Mary’s life was haunted by death, and not just any kind of death, but death connected to the act of creation.”

With the background and themes and questions Prior provides, I am reading Frankenstein as if it is Shelly’s own story, not written to amuse or impress, but to express what was deepest within her —her own lifeless pieces. A single story was not enough. She needed to create layer upon layer of story.

But the thing about creating a story — or a person — is that both live independently. More than 200 years after Shelley wrote her story, people still think the monster is named Frankenstein. And yet within that misunderstanding lives a bit of truth.

I recently finished Learning from Henri Nouwen & Vincent Van Gogh: A Portrait of the Compassionate Life, Carol A. Berry combines the stories of three people, showing us that “our own stories are holy ones too.” Shelley seems to shows us something else — that our own stories are monstrous ones too. We may have started them among friends, around a cozy fire, but once animated, they live and move and have their being apart from us.

Prior writes, “Creating is a complicated process, and messy ambivalence about creation is one of the central themes of Frankenstein.”

For this third read-through of the book, my husband is accompanying me. He heard Prior on The Holy Post podcast and was intrigued; if Frankenstein is good enough for Bob the Tomato, it’s good enough for John Willome. John’s not a lit guy, but an economics major, a director of a nonprofit, so a piece of literature from 1818 is an unusual choice for him (but he does like a good discussion question, of which Prior provides dozens). We began our discussion not around a cozy fire but on a cozy porch swing.

After 29 years of marriage, we’re still sometimes astounded at how our stories of the same event differ. Even as we walk this same road, there is a John version and a Megan version. I edit his, and he edits mine. The truth is its own creation, independent, spinning its own tale.

I received a promotional copy of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein: A Guide to Reading & Reflecting” by Karen Swallow Prior, but my review is my own.

Searching with Shelly Miller, part 3

I said in part 1 that I took Shelly Miller’s new book Searching for Certainty with me to the beach.

I had lost my father only a month before and was worn out from caregiving. I don’t often write in books, but I couldn’t stop writing in Shelly’s. About halfway through, I flipped to the Acknowledgments and read this:

“Mom, even though we haven’t talked in more than twenty years, I’m thankful that you raised me to love beauty, express creativity, and be resilient despite adversity. Our shared struggles in the early years made me who I am today.” Acknowledgments, Searching for Certainty

I was stunned. The book had already covered some painful memories, but I assumed there would be some reconciliation between Shelly and her mother before the last page. But no.

Shelly is the best person I’ve ever known — period. I believe she was in the center of God’s will. Yet, there was this broken relationship. And that gave me hope.

I have broken relationships in my family too. I have grieved and prayed and schemed and questioned. Maybe all will not be repaired before my last day. Maybe God already knows this. 

If I had gotten the chance to interview Shelly about her new book, I would have asked her how she ever managed to get through my book, which is all about my mostly-good-but-sometimes-hard relationship with my mother. How did she not throw the book across the room? I’m ashamed to admit I might have done exactly that.

I suspect Shelly had dealt with her pain. I suspect friendship and a desire to learn more about poetry overcame any parts of my book that might have stung.

As open and teachable as Shelly was to my poetry feedback, I want to be open and teachable to her book’s challenging lessons.

In chapter 3 of Searching for Certainty, she explores still life photography and invites us to “allow God to reframe what you are currently experiencing with the lens of Truth and being known by him. That same chapter includes my favorite sentence from the book: “Resurrection is free and it costs you something.” 

When I read those words, I thought about a teapot I brought along on my beach trip. It was my mom’s, and it looks like Drummond plaid (my maiden name). I used to have my own teapot just like it, but it broke. My dad let me have this one when he moved next door, since he mostly drank coffee.

Reframing looked like this: Some things break; new things come.

The teapot was free to me. It cost breaking the other to receive a new one — one that is not just a cute vessel but a reminder of the last three years with my dad. I’m certain my mother would be very happy to know about the teapot’s new life.

I only wish Shelly were still here too, so I could tell her.

Searching with Shelly Miller, part 2

I am privileged to be in the Acknowledgements for Shelly Miller’s Searching for Certainty. She writes, “Thanks to Megan Willome for your stellar poetry critiques on the poems I included.”

Oh, Shelly, it was all joy.

She contacted me this spring:

My editor is allowing me to include some short poems as epigraphs for chapters in the new book I’m releasing in October. To be honest, I read them and think are they even well written? I know that sounds funny but I really have no clue as to what I’m doing, just following my instincts when it comes to poetry.

Of course I said yes. She responded:

I’m totally open and teachable. This is helpful for me and I want to get better. Honored to have your help!I’m sitting outside, resting in my walled garden, sipping tea. It’s our first sunny warm day in London—feels heavenly.

Shelly brought her photographer’s eye and her writer’s heart to her poems. And she was as open and teachable as she claimed.

After I sent my feedback, she asked great questions:

I would love to learn why you broke up verses as you did on each of them. And how did you decide to break it up into three stanzas? I don’t have the poetry intelligence to create architecture in that way but want to learn. No rush. Just my random thoughts. I’m wondering if this is something intuitive for poets or learned by experience.

No, it’s not intuitive. We all learn by doing. And Shelly learned quickly.

I have taught several workshops and helped many people with poetry, but I always enter with trepidation. Poetry is such a personal art. Shelly was taking a big risk, sharing with me. How would she respond to my feedback?

I had to laugh when I read your sweet encouragement about coming into my voice and shorter being what I need to lean into. Laughing with God because your words were a sacred echo.I feel like being concise and clear has been God’s choice of spiritual discipline for me for at least a decade. It’s all leading somewhere and I’m grateful to be a student, but sometimes it can also be frustrating. Thanks for being part of that process. I am learning a lot each time we have these exchanges.

I learned a lot too. Writing about spiritual topics is hard to do well and definitely not my area of expertise. Shelly showed me how it might be done with full faith and love and without sentimentality.

She came later to poetry, but after reading my book, The Joy of Poetry, she began incorporating it into her life, especially on her Sunday sabbaths. She deeply loved the poems of Wendell Berry.

When Shelly told me my book helped get her into poetry, I started sending her poems. She always responded.

But when she was diagnosed with a massive sarcoma, I debated what poem to send her. Finally I chose one from John O’Donohue’s To Bless the Space Between Us, “For a Friend, on the Arrival of Illness.” At Chronic Joy, I wrote about choosing the poem and Shelly’s response. (Although I didn’t say it was Shelly. Somehow I hoped she’d get better.) 

There is one stanza of O’Donohue’s poem that makes me think of Shelly’s brief and intense journey with illness:

May you find in yourself
A courageous hospitality
Toward what is difficult,
Painful, and unknown.

Shelly found that “courageous hospitality” and shared it with everyone she knew. Yes, the news that her cancer was terminal hit her hard. But when asked for prayer requests, she asked for simple things, like to be able to enjoy her food, to sleep well, to share good moments with family and friends. She went quickly. She went in peace.

Shelly Miller — our rest mentor — is now at rest.

Next week, what Shelly’s book meant to me. And to read last week’s post on my visits from a Shelly-bird, click here.

Searching with Shelly Miller, part 1

This is not how a book review is supposed to go.

The day I joined Shelly Miller’s launch team for Searching for Certainty, my father passed away. I did what I could to help promote the book over the next few weeks, but didn’t have the mental space to read more than the first couple of chapters.

Shortly after publication, I took her book with me on vacation and started again at the beginning. I did nothing that week but walk and read and rest. I was searching for answers, or at least direction. Shelly delivered.

Back at home, I sent her an email to thank her and broach the idea of doing an interview, but she never responded. She passed away only days later, on November 1, All Saints Day.

That Sunday I was cantoring at church and both excited and nervous to sing the Litany of the Saints. I’d recorded my pianist playing the first minute of the song and then drove to a secluded street where I could park and practice. Normally I drive while I warm up, but I needed stillness to hit replay while reading from the long list of saints. 

Enter: Disruption.

A small bird, possible a titmouse, accosted my parked car. I wish I could say what kind, but I wasn’t paying attention. I had holy work to do. 

The bird dropped from nowhere and started pecking at my side mirror. Then it pecked at my passenger window. Then back to the side mirror, and so on. I sang on, and it pecked on, almost violently: Look at me! Let me in to your Litany! 

I ignored it. When I drove off, it finally flew away.

When I learned that Shelly had died that very day, I felt sure that the bird was somehow sent from her, trying desperately to get my attention. Look at me! Let me in to your Litany!  

That Sunday was not the first time I’d encountered a Shelly-bird. On the day of her massive surgery to address her sarcoma, I went to a garden to pray for her, because Shelly loved gardens. In between the sanctuary and the Holy Family Center at St. Mary’s is Cynthia’s garden, named for Cynthia Collins Pedregon, who passed away from cancer. She and my mother were friends, so I feel close to both of them when I am in that garden. It was May, and the magnolia tree was in bloom. And an unseen bird, maybe a titmouse, was singing.

I sent a recording of the bird to Shelly, so she could listen while she was in the hospital, secluded from chirpy things. When she redid her website, in preparation for Searching for Certainty, she added a robin. In our interview, I planned to ask why. 

Because poets don’t just post random birds. And Shelly was a poet.

More about her journey into poetry and how I got to be part of it, next week.

Glynn Young’s ‘Dancing Prince’

It begins and ends with an open door. 

“The first line of the book and the last line. It’s so subtle,” said Glynn Young, author of Dancing Prince, the fifth and final in the Dancing Priest series.  

“They are very different kinds of doors and implications. I would like to say I plotted it out, but I did not. As I was finishing, I knew, ‘That’s how it has to end, just before they walk into the room.’ Then it hit me, ‘That’s how it begins.’”

I had not noticed this symmetry, although I liked the first sentence so much I did a sacred reading on it. Just a little lectio divina on these seven words:

She must have left the door ajar.”

At first I assumed the POV was Michael’s, as most of the books are, in that close third-person way. But this is book is different. This book is not about the father but about the son, Tommy. What happens when Tommy walks through that “ajar” door and when Michael walks through that same door, left “slightly open,” those events set up the whole book. 

“What none of them understood was how the incident in the studio would reverberate for the next twenty years.”

When I think of a door ajar, I think of the wardrobe door in Narnia. In Glynn’s book the characters don’t walk into a fantasy world but into a new destiny. The plot changes because of that open door. And when the book ends with someone opening a door, it is an opening into a new life.

For such a short sentence, the individual words do a lot of heavy lifting.

left—There are leavings in this story. There is the leaving of death, the leaving of moving, the leaving that is a deep conflict in relationship.

door—One of the key plot points concerns two paintings, hidden behind doors.

ajar—Something can be left ajar on purpose or by accident. In leaving this door ajar, Sarah is making an opening where one did not exist before. It’s messy, but fundamentally, she’s right, and her rightness will be proved later. Her studio is always where she’s right.

The unexpectedness of the book’s opening — it surprised Glynn too. 

“It wasn’t planned this way at all. Book number 8 or 9, that was going to be the Tommy book. But this kid kept sticking his head in. It got pretty annoying. It’s hard to describe that, but he kept sticking his face in everything,” Glynn said. Then he decided, “if this is the last story, [Tommy] is the one it’s going to be about.” 

What happens behind the open door is conflict, both momentary and lasting.

“What I had running through my head as I wrote that section was the idea of what happens when a work responsibility — in Michael’s case it was greater because it’s who he is, he is Government — what happens when the demands become so great that things suffer, things you don’t want to have suffer. It was his relationship with Sarah, with the family, that’s what suffered.,” he said. “It’s a small thing that triggers that conflict. But it was not a small thing that was being triggered, and [Michael and Sarah] both recognized it. Tommy becomes the reminder of that.”

Near the end of the book is a scene when Michael and Tommy are sitting together, confronting all the water beneath their mutual bridge. 

“It was inspired by a sermon that our pastor told a couple years ago. It so rocked me that I wrote down a line that he used and put it in the scene,” Glynn said. “Some of it, too, is personal. I had something of a similar relationship with my father, although of course not exactly that. I understood what was happening with Michael. Blow-ups happen for absolutely ridiculous reasons.”

I think my favorite part of the book is the epilogue, a novella titled “Island.” Again, this part of the story was a departure for Glynn.

“When I sent it to the publisher, he said, ‘Did you write this? This is so different from the Michael and Sarah stories.’ I said, ‘It is.’ The idea goes back years. I’d been reading off and on about Viking history and the Orkney Islands and the Celtic and Viking history that saturated the Orkneys. It’s true that there were Irish monks who were missionaries to Vikings. So I created this fictitious island. I wrote it in present tense, which was a different thing to do. It just seemed like it made the story a lot more immediate. I tried writing it the traditional way, but it didn’t read well. I thought, ‘Present tense, this works better,’” Glynn said, adding, “And it’s the transition because I think want to write other things. This was a way for me to sort of get there.” 

I also think “Island” is the entire five-book series, in miniature. It’s got the hallmarks of the story Glynn has been telling all along — an international setting, violence, royalty in unexpected places, the “far love” of parent-child estrangement, kindness and respect for society’s outcasts, and of course, true love.

 “When I think about it, although this has been published over an eight-year period, it was written over an 18-year period. I’d reached a point where I thought there were three or four more books, but I then I thought it might be the time to bring it to a close. Nothing prompted that, just my own sense of five is probably sufficient. I felt comfortable ending it like this. There wasn’t anything significant being omitted or overlooked,” Glynn said.

My friend Callie Feyen says that love stories are inherently adventure stories. This book and this series are full of adventures, some chosen and some thrust upon the characters. There have been moments that broke my heart, moments that terrified me, moments that thrilled me. A kiss can be as momentous as a gold medal. I would gladly have read 16 books about this family, but I think Glynn wrapped it up at exactly the right spot:

… and then he opened the door.”