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:

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.

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.