Thursday, January 19, 2017

Observation makes a poem

Poets often think poetry writing requires a heightened imagination, but I don’t usually find that to be true. More likely, a well-written poem takes keen senses and heightened observation –- something we can appreciate and learn with practice.

To do this, simply notice – really notice – what’s going on around. Some call this being present in the moment then capturing what’s there –- something I find especially helpful in writing nature poems.

Yesterday, for example, we took our lunch to a lakeside park where we sat, soaking up the day’s beauty and unseasonably warm weather. However, the deciduous trees along the lake knew we’re still in winter months, and they behaved accordingly.

Looking at them, I remembered that cypress trees turn brown, which always surprises me as I think of them as being evergreen. Nevertheless, they’d turned to rust, and so the thought of their needles rusting came to me, along with the line “The rusty needles.”

To expand that image into something readers might recognize over a sewing kit, I needed the next line to explain that I’m talking about trees in winter, which made…

The rusty needles
of wintering cypress

Observing the present line lengths encouraged me to count syllables, and sure enough, haiku happened. With five syllables on the first line, I only needed another syllable on the second line to round out the traditional seven-syllable count.

5 The rusty needles
7 of wintering cypress trees….

…and then what? They weren’t doing anything but standing there. Or, were they?

Thinking about needles –- with or without rust –- added the thought of sewing, which brought the idea of stitching the lake and sky together. A little tweaking rendered the final five syllables needed for a 5/7/5 traditional haiku form.

The rusty needles
of wintering cypress trees
stitch the lake to sky.

by Mary Harwell Sayler, © 2017

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Take a poem to lunch

Have you read any delicious poems lately? You can recognize them by their crisp images and yummy words.

Similar to vitamins and minerals needed to replenish weary body cells, poems can replace junk-food thoughts with revitalizing nutrients for the body, mind, and soul.

A problem comes, however, in trying to find appealing poems to devour. Many of them go on and on with nothing new to give those of us who want more than empty calories or rehashed left-overs. Some poems make us turn up our noses at their saccharine sweetness while others seem gross enough to make us gag!

Poems need to be smooth, edible, and not stick in the throat.

Poems need texture, salt, spice, and a colorful garnish.

Poems need to be more melodic than a dinner bell.

As a lifelong lover of poetry, I’ve had the joy of sampling poems with enough variety for almost any taste. A couple of years ago, I wrote about some of those recommendations in “Favorite poets, poetry, and why.” Since then, new works have come to my attention as review copies arrived from poetry book publishers. I’ve undoubtedly missed many, but the following links can help to expand your versatile menu for a healthy, creative life of poetry:

Poetry by some of my favorite poets:

The Life and Death of Poetry: poems by Kelly Cherry

Idiot Psalms by Scott Cairns

Songs from a Wild Place and Estuaries by Jason Kirkey

Eyes Have I That See by priest-poet John Julian

Remembering Softly: a life in poems by Catherine Lawton

Anthologies with works by many poets:

St. Peter’s B-List, anthology

The Paraclete Poetry Anthology

The Seashell Anthology of Great Poetry

Reviews by poet-author Mary Harwell Sayler

Monday, January 2, 2017

Blog - Mary Harwell Sayler

As the New Year begins, expand your options and improve your writing and publishing success with these tips and helps. Blog - Mary Harwell Sayler

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Brain Case: In Forty-Eight Fluid Ounces

Facebook just reminded me of the poem, "Brain Case," initially published in the Chest medical journal and now included in my new poetry book, Faces in a Crowd. Brain Case: In Forty-Eight Fluid Ounces

Saturday, December 17, 2016

10 Tips on Titles for a poem or poetry book

Reading a poem or poetry book starts with the title, which can add interest and dimension to all that follows. For wonderful examples, study the titles of poems by the late Wallace Stevens – recipient of the Pulitzer, Bollingen, and National Book Award prizes in poetry.

Also, consider these tips:

• Use the title of a poem as the extra space of an added line, which doesn’t repeat any other line within the poem – unless you’re effectively using repetition for artistic effect.

• Play with symbols, phrases, and yes, clichés that relate to your poem. For example, the cliché “s/he’s a brain case” became the jumping off point for a poem I wrote to describe physical, mental, and mysterious aspects of the brain. The resulting poem, “Brain Case: In Forty-Eight Fluid Ounces,” first appeared in the medical journal Chest with “origami-folded wedges of memory” (physical description) and “forty-eight oz. of wizards” (mystery shown in word-play of ounces to play on wizard of Oz) and (mental) in the lines “She won’t open the case by herself,/ so you might as well give her the truth.”

• Use titles to catch a reader’s attention while staying true to the content. The recent fad of making shocking statements in titles for manuscripts that say just the opposite are misleading, not to mention annoying! For instance, my title “The Middle-Aged Mother Goes Up, Up, Up in Iambic Pentameter with Champagne After” sets the stage for a rhythmic (yeah, iambic pentameter) poem about my totally terrifying then uplifting (pun intended) experience of riding in a hot air balloon.

• Let each title give your readers something to hold onto as they enter a poem. To show you what I mean, the title of this poem readily identifies the “who.” Otherwise, readers must guess and will feel smart, dumb, or ____. Want to play?

The music breaks
strike the page
with spikes and slivers.

Vermont maples
red and gold
with no syrup
to make the fragments stick.

A dark stare
from a paper-white face
at that bruise beneath
your left rib.

by Mary Harwell Sayler, © 2016, from book Faces in a Crowd

If you've read the works of classical American poets, you’ve already guessed what the title makes plain “Emily Dickinson Dips Ink.”

• One mundane reason that titles are important is that they help you keep track of each poem's whereabouts. For example, I have a Word file called “Poetry Submission List" with titles in alphabetical order. When I submit a poem (usually 3 to 5 in a batch) to a potential publisher of a journal or e-zine, I note the place and date that piece was sent off for consideration. Since the file is now many pages long (I’ve been doing this a while), I needed a way to find which poems are still available, so I type an * before titles that have placed and + in front of those presently being considered. The remaining titles are ready to revise or try elsewhere.

• When poems have placed, I list the titles (again, alphabetically) in my “Bio” file with the name of the publisher and the date of publication. The titles also help me to find the actual poems by searching my “Poetry” Word file, so I can copy/ paste the poems in a new book grouped around a particular theme. Since I note the topic – “faith,” “Bible,” “nature,” “children’s poem,” etc. – at the top of each poem in the “Poetry” file, I can search for those key subjects to see if I have enough poems for a book. For instance, my “nature” poems went in my book, Living in the Nature Poem, published by Hiraeth Press, and my “Bible” poems went in Outside Eden, published by Kelsey Books. “Nature” and “children’s poems” came together in Beach Songs & Wood Chimes, also published by Kelsey Books. My newest book, Faces in a Crowd, resulted from a search of “people” and poems on “relationships.”

• In writing for children, I like titles to hint at humor or the light-heartedness kids enjoy such as “Jelly Fishing” (about a jelly fish), “Questions for a Spider,” and “Conversation with a Sand Crab.” The book title included “Wood Chimes” to let potential readers know the poems would help children to experience beach scenes and woodsy surroundings of interest.

• A single word or tag can provide a workable title too. For instance, “Bugged” is not only about being annoyed but that the cockroach I’d reluctantly killed wouldn’t stay dead! A totally different tone occurred with the poem “Wait!” which invites readers to wait for God to respond, so the Lord “holds you closely/ and teaches you to speak/ to pray.”

• Titles can also hint at a scene or story without giving away the full situation or plot. For instance, the title poem for my book Outside Eden lets us know we all live outside the Garden, and many of us keep trying to find our way back inside. The title Living in the Nature Poem hopefully lets readers know to expect poems in a natural setting, written by a nature-lover who’s had to get used to some aspects of the natural world. And, hopefully, the title Faces in a Crowd helps readers decide if they want to read my take on people. In case you do, I’ll enclose an ad to click.

• If any of the above tips interest you, but you don’t quite know how to go about it, here’s my biggest tip: Give your poems the time they deserve. They might have to sit awhile, but with enough time and attention, something fresh and unique will eventually come to you.

by Mary Harwell Sayler, © 2016

Faces in a Crowd, paperback

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Yearning Life: Poems

When Paraclete Press kindly sent me a copy of The Yearning Life by Regina Walton to review, a golden logo on the front cover announced the first recipient of the Phyllis Tickle Prize in Poetry, alerting me to pay special attention. As a poet and poetry reader, I welcome prize-winning poetry for all that can be extracted but also experienced, and this highly recommended book did not disappoint.

For example, in the first poem “Exemplum,” the landing of a fly on a book not only observed and honored a common experience, but elevated that fly to a metaphor, evoking this insight:

“Thank you, little black-robed fly,
For showing me
How to be an ascetic.

You see everything,
But own nothing.”

The next poem “The Miraculous Catch of Fish” written about in Luke 5:1-11 offers no black robe but “arrowhead bodies/ In startled unison,” themselves making a “shimmering net of a mind” as they mysteriously head for the fishermen’s net to be caught.

As shown in the title poem, “The Yearning Life” resides between the active and contemplative lives, making a place:

“Where you rest in constant restlessness
Having made a decent start, but not yet
Streaming from abandoned self
Into the heart of light.”

In the poem “My Education,” the “I” of the poem confesses:

“I think I am somewhere between
Set free and ruined.”

then admits:

“I cannot tell anymore
What I expect to find.
But I will know it when I see it –
I will trade all that I have.”

If you’ve ever felt such a deep longing, you, too, know what this yearning life means.

Mary Harwell Sayler, poet-writer, seeker, © 2016

The Yearning Life: Poems, paperback

Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Paraclete Poetry Anthology

Paraclete Press kindly sent me a complimentary copy of The Paraclete Poetry Anthology to review, and what a treasure it is! As the Foreword by former editor-publisher Jon M. Sweeney reminds us:

“Poems help us to quell doubts as well as raise questions. Poems help us explore our emotions and spark our imaginations. And they slow us down. To read a poem well is to go slowly, and every good poems resists what’s easy.”

An “easy” poem often tells us what a poet wants to say, instead of showing us. Often, too, the poet gets locked into a rhyme pattern that makes the easy poem a medley of sounds at the expense of sense, insight, or visual accompaniment.

By contrast, Mark S. Burrows, the editor of the anthology, discusses “A Sense of Presence” in his Introduction to “Poetry and the Education of the Soul.” He calls on poems to “animate our soul, that part of the self beyond the reach of worldly ambition and outward achievement. They hold before us the dimension of spiritual experience…..” and “initiate us into mystery.”

As the Introduction goes on to say: Poems “offer us language lifted into song, even if we must often learn to listen patiently for this music in the startlements of metaphor and unexpected syntax. In such ways poems turn aside from the didactic and speak primarily through innuendo and allurement, preferring indirection to more frontal modes of speech and leading us through and beyond the facts along often meandering paths of the imagination.”

Poetry helps us to notice, ponder, and pay attention. “For what matters is not that we grasp the poem, but it grasps us.”

If you’re a poet, the Introduction alone provides remarkable tutelage in writing. Then both poetry writers and readers can go on to enjoy the collection of poems that poet, professor, and editor Burrows chose according to his highly informed standards.

Take, for example, the first lines of the first poem in the book:

“On the threshold of the poem shake off the dust
the powder of hate from your soul
set aside passion
so as not to defile words.”

In the poem “Heavenly City,” Scott Cairns writes:

“…The world remains a puzzle,

no matter how many weeks one stands
apart from it, no matter how one tries

to see its troubled surfaces, or hopes
to dip beneath them for a glimpse of what it is

that makes this all appear to tremble so.”

In “Morning Lament” by the late Phyllis Tickle, to whom this anthology is dedicated, we catch another glimpse of poetry:

“In their awakened morning life,
They limply lie – my lilting lines –
Too labored now to fly,
And loosely hold in languid grasp
The half-remembered chants
Of lyrics lost in melody.”

Fr. John-Julian takes us on an insightful journey in “Long Wanderings” where:

“One chooses
and the other roads are gone,
into foothills which
will always be horizon now
and never home –“

Thankfully editor-poet Mark S. Burrows translated a few poems by the Iranian poet SAID with lines such as these:

“look o lord
I don’t sing your praises
but I seek you
with my limbs
which I’ve tamed just for you
for I want to keep watch over your word
so that love may be found anew
and we win back our wildness.”

Toward the end of this highly recommended anthology, Editor Burrows also translates poems by Rilke, but in between his skilled translations you’ll find contemporary poets whose work you won’t want to miss.

Mary Harwell Sayler, poet-writer reviewer, ©2016

The Paraclete Poetry Anthology, paperback