Friday, March 16, 2018

7 Steps to Becoming an Awesome Poet

Serious poets want to improve their level of writing, but how do you go about that? These steps will help:

Read a lot of poetry. Focus on the works of classical and contemporary poets, especially Pulitzer or Nobel prize-winning collections.

Study poetry forms and techniques. Poetry dictionaries, how-to articles, and my e-book on poetry writing will help you to expand your “tool box.” The more you know about poetry, the more you have to draw on as you write and revise your poems.

Revise. Let your own poems sit until you’ve forgotten what they say. Then read aloud and correct anything that seems off. Cut unnecessary words to compress the language and tighten the beat. If something has been said in the same way, change it up. Give it time. Make it new.

Use your good senses. Rather than relying on imagination to freshen up a poem, use your senses to note what you see, sense, smell, taste, feel, touch, and remember. Be specific. Notice details. Compare this to that in an unusual way.

Identify your strong suit. Then do something different! If imagery fills your poems, fine tune your poetic ear toward musicality. (You’ll hear this best by reading each poem and revision aloud.) If you’re inclined to write rhythmic poems with end-line rhymes, break into free verse - and vice versa. If your poems take up a full page, practice writing haiku. Long poems often have more than one focal point, which means you might have two or more poems in one.

Study poetry journals and anthologies to increase your publishing options. Look on the Internet for samples of poetry journals to discover ones you relate to and enjoy. If you like their work, they’ll be more apt to like yours. Study individual websites to become familiar with the favorite themes, style, tone, length, poetic forms, and other preferences of the publications you favor.

Get professional feedback from a poet and/or poetry instructor. That would be me! Start by selecting up to 5 pages of poems that best show your writing style and interests. Then send $25 by Paypal and email a Word or .doc file attachment of your poems to marysayler(at)bellsouth(dot)net. After we’ve discussed your poems and I’ve sent feedback, keep my suggestions in mind as you re-read and revise, not only this batch of poems, but also others you have written.

For a poetry book or chapbook you intend to self-publish, visit the Contacts & Critiques page of my website for fees and mailing information.

Mary Harwell Sayler, ©2018, poet-writer

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Enter your poems before midnight

This year marks the 35th writing competition sponsored by the Writers-Editors Network - a professional organization with tips, perks, and job posts for writers in all genres.

For about half of those years, I’ve been judging the poetry entries of this “blind” contest, which means I have no idea who won what until winners have been determined. If, however, I see any poems I’ve previously critiqued, they’re automatically disqualified. (The same goes for judges of other categories, which assures you of no favoritism!)

Well-written poems have a good chance of placing, especially if they employ brevity, fresh imagery, unusual comparisons, musicality, and/or something that’s never been said in quite the same way until now.

However, every poet and writer who visits the annual “winner’s list” will “win” helpful insights by seeing, not just who or what won, but why! The more we discover what works in poems and writings by other poets and writers, the more effective our own work becomes.

Mary Harwell Sayler
, ©2018, poet-writer

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Painting poems with light and shadow

Where would a painting be without light, shadow, color? An artist must study, practice, and experiment to develop a unique and effective use of those elements of art.

Not surprisingly, a unique, effectively written poem requires something similar. The words of an overly introspective poet, for example, might come across as dark enough to lead readers down a black hole. A socially-sensitive poet aggravated by political debates or moral dilemmas might come across as too heavy-handed for readers to escape the wrath.

Let there be light!

Levity in poetry appeals to most readers, but with or without humor, a light touch often engages people more than a lengthy monologue.

Let there be shadow.

Glare brings discomfort, and too much light can blind. Various degrees of shading will tone down the light whether in a personal confession or a realistic suggestion of the dark surrounding us. Such tones of “we’re all in this together” will enable readers to relate and integrate the poem into their lives.

Let there be color.

A fresh image or exquisite use of language adds color to a poem - something readers can sense and see. Similes comparing this to that or metaphors saying “this IS that” help readers to experience what we’re trying to convey.

Let there be brevity.

As the old adage says, a picture is worth a thousand words, so the more you focus on helping your readers picture your poem, the less words you’ll need. Poems with active verbs and easy-to-picture nouns need fewer words too.

Mary Harwell Sayler, ©2018, poet-writer and poetry judge for the annual writing contest sponsored by

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Valentines, Lent, and Love Poems

Today, Valentine’s falls on Ash Wednesday - the beginning of Lent and, in many churches, the annual 40-day season of introspection and self-examination that leads to confession, repentance, and the spiritual freedom needed to receive the joy of Easter.

At first, though, it seems ironic that a Valentine’s Day of flowers and candy coincides with a time typically thought of as giving up something - such as flowers and candy! But then, the colliding and coinciding can help us to see what they have in common with each other and this blog – love.

Praise God our Father!
Blessings on our Mother Earth.
We are their love child.

Mary Harwell Sayler, ©2017 from PRAISE! published by Cladach Publishing

Love of the beloved needs expression! The highest examples of these come in the Bible, the trek toward Easter, and the love expressed in poetry.

You’re undoubtedly read love poems – from greeting card verse on a Valentine to the 23rd Psalm to the poetic lines of a romantic sonnet. As a poet or student of poetry, you’ve probably tried your hand at writing a love poem too, but “love” has many faces.

Take, for example, from my book Faces in a Crowd this prose poem I’ll explain once you’ve had a chance to experience it.

after reading Attila Jozsef

Attila the Hungarian poet, I really love you. Please
believe me before you throw yourself beneath that
train. The fright of flying freight crushes my reading
of your prose poems – poems poised with insight
and odd juxtaposition. I try to rescue the paragraphs
you pose from extermination, reeling as I read. What
can I do but pet The Dog you left behind, ragged and
muddy, ready to avenge your wounds and scavenge
the pieces of God you hid in my upper berth on this
looming train?

Ever since childhood, I’ve “loved” poetry, which led to my reading the best works of classical and contemporary poets as evidenced in the above poem and also in the photo on the top right side of this page. Once my tastes in poetry became more eclectic than rhyming quatrains, I discovered poets from all over the world, each of whom brought experiences beyond my own.

Attila Jozsef of Hungary was one such poet. After I’d run across one of his wonderful poems in an anthology of poetry from all over the world, I researched him on the Internet, hoping to find more of his work. I did, indeed, find many thought-provoking, deliciously worded, introspective poems (suitable for Lent) such as “The Dog,” but I also learned he’d committed suicide by throwing himself in front of a train. That sad news stunned me into a poem pleading for life and poetry and, perhaps, for his forgiveness of those of us who have led easier lives.

Contemplation of our ease versus dis-ease, our lives versus death, our love versus bigotry, bias, boredom, and indifference gives us the stuff of which poetry and Lent are made. But the greatest of these is God’s Word of love.

Child, Child,

If God didn’t love you, no eyes, no ears
would weave into your gut, no
heart would arch into the inner soles
of your shoes, showing you where to go.

If God didn’t trust you, there would be
no joy to oil your neighbors, no love to
cover the sins of your enemies, no Good
News to paper the walls of your head.

by Mary Harwell Sayler from poetry book, Outside Eden, published by Kelsay Books

Friday, February 9, 2018

What draws you to write poems?

As a kid, I used to draw faces. The similarities and dissimilarities between us make a fascinating mix we could observe forever and still find something unique. Now, as a poet-writer in all genres, I seldom draw anything, but I continue to be drawn to people and the human and spiritual natures that connect us and yet differ too.

Take, for example, the general, skeletal outline we share. Some bones seem shortened, some elongated, some sturdy, some rather frail. Regardless, we each have a skeleton wrapped in us.

Or take our eyes. Some seem as open to fresh air as windows on an afternoon in Spring, while others seem unfathomable or (shudder) unlit. Nevertheless, we're each meant to have eyes.

And what about our poetic interests? Children like to experiment, play, and discover, but people who lose those qualities of wonder may be less apt to investigate new territories or develop creativity.

To be honest, I didn’t think about any of those things before writing “Adult Coloring Book.” Instead, the poem rose to the surface for me to write down and, only later, invite me to explore my ongoing interest in “you,” “them,” and (my favorite) “us.”

Adult Coloring Book

The people in these poems are void
of pigment – transparent but for bones
of chalk, Swiss cheese, or granite.

Sometimes they look at us with eyes
cat-colored by the sun but never sky
or tree bark or lumps of unlit coal.

Their hands weave lace from sea foam
and sew dandelions around our souls.

They stitch together words in folds
of scripture, ready to read us, ready
to color us whole.

By Mary Harwell Sayler, ©2017, from poetry book Lost in Faith

Lost in Faith

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Almost Entirely: a book review

In this age of cynicism and, often, fury, Jennifer Wallace lifts us from doubt and despair into spiritual insight and buoyancy in her new book of poems Almost Entirely published by Paraclete Press, who kindly sent me a copy to review.

Take, for example, the poem “When The Wing Gives Way,” in which the poet, like most of us, is getting too accustomed to death:

“I want to be more ready than I am today.
Ready to let what is left lift me, draw me into meanings
that will shatter me more than this.”

And consider her response to doubt in the poem by that name, which opens with these lines:

“I look at it this way: either you exist or you don’t. I don’t think –
in your case – there’s an in-between a ‘sort of’ God….”

And ends with the light touch of humor found in some of the poems:

“the same one who invented oxygen invented doubt and I guess
that sort of variety keeps things moving, which you are a fan of.
No doubt about that.”

In “Day of Faith,” the poet reminds us:

“Most of us believe in something:
the garden, a star, the scrape
of the stone rolling back….

Then asks:

“What is death but the truth of incompleteness?
An unpicked pear mottles in the grass.
The well fills and unfills.
One early sparrow can’t help but sing.”

As I read through the book, I marked it up – underlining exquisite phrases and putting an asterisk beside favorite poems such as “Atonement,” which begins with the “I” of the poem, starting a small fire and placing:

“On top of the stones, a small pile of messages
written on rice paper and folded into thumb-sized
packets, each with its own label: Fear, Guilt, Anger.”

In this act of confession:

“Righteousness was the first to go, its message
curled and crumpled, the dark ink dissolved to smoke
then drifted a little in the biting breeze.

My disappearing sins warmed me first
before reuniting with everything.”

And that’s what this book does well: reunites us - with God, each other, and our amusing selves.

Mary Harwell Sayler, ©2018, reviewer and poet-author

Almost Entirely, paperback