Poems (and Books) Grow Up

photo by L.L. Barkat

photo by L.L. Barkat

“My poem off in the world meeting other people and learning about itself.”

This quote is from an email I received from Stuart Kestenbaum, whose poem “Prayer for Joy” appears in my book The Joy of Poetry. In the process of asking permission to use the poem, he wanted to see how it was used in the book, and this was his kind response.

He sent this message about a year before the book was published, shortly before I turned it in for editing. Now that TJOP has been out for eight months, I can say that Kestenbaum was so, so right, not only about poems but books too.

When you publish a book, it goes out into the world, much like a child leaving home. It meets people you will never meet. It learns about itself. It becomes its own thing, both connected to you and separate from you.

Over these last few months as I talk with people who have read the book, I find out what it meant to them, what parts they underlined, what poems resonated. Sometimes those conversations surprise me.

In the workshop on poetry and memoir I taught this fall through Tweetspeak Poetry, occasionally I shared what I was thinking when I wrote a particular poem. And although that information was mildly interesting, what was more important was when they shared what a poem meant to them. Not why did I write “Beauty Shop” but how did it hit you, dear reader?

There’s a concept batted about in literary criticism called “the death of the author,” and essentially, it argues the author’s life and intention don’t matter. I never gave this theory any credence until I became an author. Now I think it’s valid, up to a point.

My intention in writing The Joy of Poetry may be useful to readers familiar with cancer or those who have lost a parent. Responses from readers in those situations did not surprise me because I wrote the book with them in mind, people who have experienced tremendous loss. What has surprised me is how people who never cared two bits for poetry have found themselves opening to its possibilities by reading the book, like the chemical engineer who described himself as “growing a soul.”

As the book gets out and meets people, it drags me along and makes me learn about myself. The poetry and memoir class was the first thing I’ve taught since water aerobics, when my kids were little. I’ll teach another workshop at Tweetspeak that starts in February, on tea, Writing Our Leaves and our Lives. And next fall I’ll teach a class on poetry and spirituality with the Episcopalians.

I did not expect the book to go to these places and meet these people and do these things. But it all seems to be what TJOP wants. As I try to keep up, I find myself feeling—dare I say it?—joy.

#gifts #inspiration #poetry Solve your Christmas questions with Joy 🙂


Keep, Save, & Make, part 4

Artwork by Nancy Marie Davis

Artwork by Nancy Marie Davis

Make: 2015-2016+

(The first two parts of this series are Keep and Save, if you missed them.)

As I said in the beginning of this series, my publisher chose the tagline “how to keep, save, & make your life with poems.” If it had been up to me — thankfully, it was not — I would have put “save” at the end: keep, make, save. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve double-checked the cover of my book to confirm the order of verbs. Simply put, salvation is not the end. Afterward, you make a new life.

By 2015 I was making my life with poems. Reading them, keeping them, letting them save me were all part and parcel of my daily existence. During that year, as I rewrote The Joy of Poetry, I began to see that my poetry practice was its own story, maybe one others could benefit from as they worked poems into their lives.

Which poems that moved me began to change in 2016 after the book came out and I began to do some speaking events. Now I’m noticing poems I think will move people. Oh, that’s my host’s favorite poem — better us it when I do my tea&talk at her house. Or, oh, this one has great characterization — it’ll be good for the writers group I’m speaking to. Or, oh, this one if perfect for the book club I’m presenting at next month. I want to show others how to keep, save, & make. Depending on the group, I might emphasize one of those practices over another.

During these last two years we have moved from the initial crisis, not unlike the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, to a period of frequent mild to moderate tremors. It’s not unlike that scene in the movie L.A. Story, when everyone in the restaurant goes about their business as an earthquake hits and fruit falls from displays, glasses rattle and entire tables drift from right to left, and Steve Martin’s character looks around and says, “I give it a 4.” Four is fine for us. We don’t need to panic until, oh, about a 7.5 on the ol’ Richter scale.

When I share a poem or share about the book, I don’t know where the people in the audience might be. They might be genuinely rocked by a 4. They might have experienced an earthquake that’s larger than anything on my scale. I’m not a psychologist; I’m a journalist. I can interview you and tell your story, but bless my own heart, I have no idea what you should do in your situation.

Other than read a poem a day. Other than keep the ones you like. Other than be on the lookout for ones that might save you. Other than make poetry a cornerstone in your life.

Oh, and brew some more tea.

Keep, Save, & Make, part 3


photo by L.L. Barkat

photo by L.L. Barkat

Save: 2011-2014

After my mom died I started keeping a journal, just a Word document where I could write through what was going on in my life on a semi-daily basis. I titled the document “Weather Report.” It could just as easily have been called the same name as a geology class my husband took in college, “Earthquakes and Other Natural Disasters.” 2011-2014 were years of what I like to politely call “personal natural disasters. “The tectonic plates that formed my stable little Pangea shifted, tearing apart my happy island.

It would take years to understand this destruction was not caused by some bogeyman. It was climate change, with destruction at the poles, the equtaor, and underground.

Writing through my problems had always been my go-to way to cope. Now that practice betrayed me. It entrenched ideas that were just plain wrong. I’d feel more angry after writing, not less. And there were continued aftershocks. It wasn’t exactly to safe to leave my deepest thoughts laying around, unsecured.

But some of what I was writing could be read by anyone. I was beginning to use my journal in a new way, to write about things that were less explosive: a bike ride on Willow City Loop, a friend’s blog post that moved me. I wrote about articles, movies, books, podcasts. Musings about wheat berries became a post at Tweetspeak.

Sometimes my writing amounted to nothing more than noticing the life in my own backyard. I wrote about the dogs, the birds, the crepe myrtle, the guy driving a riding lawnmower at 6:30 on a Sunday morning in a yard that didn’t deserve it. Writing in the moment was centering.

And I journaled about poems. The combination of reading a poem a day for a decade and the daily earthquakes in my life meant poems were slipping into the cracks in my soul. I could not not write about them. The poems were stronger than I was.

Somehow they became even stronger when I stopped journaling on my computer and migrated to pencil and paper, right after walking the dogs early in the morning, while the moon was still out.

These were pages I could leave open anywhere. How revealing was it to journal about Emily Dickinson’s “I Had No Time To Hate, Because”? Well, on one hand, if you knew the backstory, it said everything. And if not, it’s just my thoughts on Dickinson, marveling at how unconventional she still is. That particular poem pointed the way forward in a situation involving a couple I can only describe as the Dursleys, Harry Potter’s suppremely annoying aunt and uncle.

One thing is certain. I believe journaling about poems for those four years saved my life. It allowed me to explore terrain without triggering more subterranean rumblings. If I died tomorrow, anyone could read these journals I’ve left behind. They might not be able to figure out when they were written without some sleuthing, but here’s a hint: If you save your selections from Every Day Poems, The Writer’s Almanac, and American Life in Poetry, you can pretty well trace the dates.

Keep, Save, & Make, part 2

photo by L.L. Barkat

photo by L.L. Barkat

Keep: 2002-2010

By the time I started a poetry scrapbook in late 2002, I’d been reading a poem a day for three years, from the time NPR came to Waco and broadcast The Writer’s Almanac at noon. It was my first daily exposure to poetry. For our anniversary that year John gave me a copy of Good Poems, a collection curated by Garrison Keillor. I had gotten to the point that not only did I like poems, but I picked favorites. I wanted to remember my favorites. Never a gal for scrapbooks, I collected words.

Keeping became a discipline I looked forward to. Each November as Thanksgiving neared (my personal New Year’s),  I’d look forward to my trip to the store to pick out a new three-ring notebook in which to save poems. What color would I choose this year? I even enjoyed the limitation of late-season offerings on the shelf.

But as my kids grew into middle and high school, three-ring binders were something I purchased in bulk. When it came time for the handoff I’d just grab a leftover notebook from a drawer. In 2016 those two practices converged — the only unused binder just happened to be yellow.

If you’ve read The Joy of Poetry and you’re paying attention to dates, you’ll notice that this Keep section corresponds to the recurrence of my mother’s cancer and continues through her death. The year she died my poetry scrapbook was mauve. The first poem was a haiku I wrote and printed to use as a Christmas card. I printed it on sheets from a notepad illustrated by a child at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. In that year’s notebook, along with my mom’s obituary and euology, are the obituary and euology for my grandfather, who died about six weeks before Mom. I have two sweet notes from my kids. There’s also poems from Mary Oliver, Rumi, Lucille Clifton, a fishing poem by Robert Traver, and a selection from Romeo and Juliet printed on a dark chocolate wrapper.

Yes, I was grieving, but I was okay. I didn’t need saving yet.

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.

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.


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.

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.

Creating Joy: just another assignment


photo by L.L. Barkat

photo by L.L. Barkat

Hello, fellow writers! All of you who are process nerds, this series is for you. I’m going to talk about my writing process for The Joy of Poetry.

I love to hear how other writers work and am hoping you enjoy the same kind of thing. What I’m sharing in this series is not How to Do It but rather How I Did It This Time. If I were to get a new book contract tomorrow, my process might be different.

The first thing I want to share, especially after reading a recent post from Ann Kroeker about writer moms, is that I do not have young children. One chick has already flown the coop, and the other attends a boarding school, so I am living in a pseudo empty nest.

When people ask why I wrote The Joy of Poetry, they are usually shocked when I answer, “I was asked to.” The publisher contacted me on January 1, 2014, and asked if I’d like to write a book. She already had the title picked out. I signed the contract that day. How did such an amazing opportunity happen? It was a blessing, pure and simple (Ronald Wallace: “Blessings / occur.“)

However, I did other writerly things besides my job. I participated in online writing communities, especially Tweetspeak Poetry. I occasionally submitted poems to contests or journals. I’ve been in a writing group for a decade, and I sometimes visit others. Scribbling quietly has its place, and believe me, most of what I scribble will stay quiet. But there’s also a place for getting your words and yourself out there.

That’s the only part of this story that was easy breezy. The rest? Let’s just say it didn’t go as planned.

I am grateful this book was essentially an assignment and that I write by assignment for a living. This book simply would not have been written otherwise. I had no idea I was so passionate about the joy of poetry until someone asked me to write about it. And I had no plans to write about my mom, other than the poems I’d already posted online, until I was given the opportunity to rewrite the book. If it had all been my idea, I think I would have given up.

After my mom died, many people approached me and asked me to write a book about her. I declined, knowing the publishing industry was not clamoring for the tale of another woman (without a platform) who faced cancer bravely. Although my mom was proud of my poems, even way back in second grade when it was all by assignment, poetry wasn’t her jam. The idea that I might use poems to tell her story would have made no sense to her. It didn’t make sense to me at first either. It was my publisher’s idea.


Joy Roundup

Hi, Everyone.

I’ve been overwhelmed with the support and kind words surrounding the release of The Joy of Poetry.

photo by L.L. Barkat

photo by L.L. Barkat

Here’s a roundup of the online love:

The last shall be first. LW Lindquist announced that The Joy of Poetry will be the selection for Tweetspeak’s May’s book club. The fun starts Wednesday, May 4, and continues May 11 and 18.

It all began with Laura Lynn Brown, my second poetry buddy and author of Everything That Makes You Mom. She interviewed me via email at MakesYouMom.com.

Then Charity Singleton Craig, co-author of On Being a Writer, invited me to guest post on her blog. I wrote about the video game “That Dragon Cancer” and Pete Docter’s acceptance speech for the Pixar film “Inside Out.”

Maureen Doallas, author of the collection of poems Neruda’s Memoirs did a review at her blog, “Writing Without Paper.”

And Glynn Young, author of Poetry at Work and the novels Dancing Priest and its sequel, A Light Shining, wrote a review for Tweetspeak.

Michelle DeRusha, author of Spiritual Misfit and 50 Women Every Christian Should Know and a forthcoming book about Martin Luther and his wife, Katharina, invited me to guest post on her blog. That piece, titled “Why Poetry?” is about incorporating a poem into your life if you only have 5 minutes to spare.

Diana Trautwein, who has been busy writing several series on her blog and recovering from her days of sermon-writing, wrote a review as well. Diana reviews a lot of books, so I was honored to be included.

Donna Falcone did a lovely piece titled “Poems on a String” on her blog, and guess what? She included poems!

Laura Boggess mentioned the book on her blog and did a giveaway.

Jody Collins wrote a thorough review titled “Why Poetry?” complete with reasons and illustrations. Bonus: two poems, including one of hers.

Amy Hinkleman shared a poem and some thoughts about losing her own mother at her blog, “Pilgrim Journey Through Life.”

My publisher, L.L. Barkat (just visit her Amazon page to see everything she’s written) included the book, along with several other TS Poetry Press titles, in an article at The Huffington Post about bringing poetry to life—not just during April/National Poetry Month.

Thanks also to Jennifer Dukes Lee, who played “Blue Moon” for me on piano and Nancy Marie Davis, who snapped a photo of my book beside one of her paintings. (Both jewels are on Facebook, not on the blog links above.) What awesome, creative friends!

I will add more links as they come online, and there are a couple more in the hopper.

Thanks so much, y’all!