Poetry's Many Gifts

Like most folks, when I was in grade school, I had to memorize poetry. I can still recite the beginning of Joyce Kilmers’ poem “Trees”: “I think that I shall never see, a poem lovely as a tree.” But not much else. Sadly.

Still, as a college student I learned to appreciate poetry, and I started writing poetry seriously about seven years ago. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, but my heart was in it, and so I poured out free verses like water. Then I went back to school to get my master’s degree in creative writing. Though I was studying creative nonfiction as an emphasis, I indulged myself by “genre-hopping” into poetry for one semester. And discovered a beautiful world of words and imagery, rhythm and rhyme, and the power of poetics.

April is National Poetry Month, and I wish I knew how to make more people come to appreciate poetry’s potential to impact lives, change hearts, move souls. The other day Santa Barbara announced its new city poet laureate, Chryss Yost. She’ll be a wonderful poet laureate, and will ably carry on the work of her predecessors. What I found disheartening, though, were some of the responses to the announcement – anonymous, of course – on a local website. The two-year poet laureate position is an honorary one; it comes with a nominal honorarium of $1,000 per year. Yet many of those who commented seemed incensed that the city would spend any amount of money on something as “frivolous” as poetry. Those people, it seems to me, are most in need of it.

It doesn’t have to be the poetry of our childhoods, stiff and opaque, drilled into our heads by well-meaning teachers. There are many wonderful contemporary poets whose work is both ethereal and down-to-earth, thought-provoking and accessible, lyrical and deeply moving. Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, Philip Levine and Ted Kooser are just a few who have been able to widen poetry’s reach with poems that meet us where we live and breathe. There are many others, lesser-known, whose work enlightens and deepens my own appreciation every day. Poets like Dorianne Laux, Cornelius Eady, and our current national poet laureate, Natasha Tretheway.

Writing poetry has enriched my writing. Deep imagery and metaphor and other poetic constructs add immeasurably to my nonfiction and fiction alike. Poetry requires one to think differently about creation, about bringing something into being through creative effort. Poetry is both intangible and essential. Intangible in that the gifts are sometimes oblique and difficult to parse out, and essential because without poetry, society struggles to be something beyond a label for a group of people living in proximity to one another. Poetry helps us define what it means to be human, helps us understand the human condition, which is to say the reason for living.

Here, one of my favorite poets, Edna St. Vincent Millay captures the pain of lost love, and how much more human can that be?

Poets.org has gathered a list of 30 things to do to celebrate National Poetry Month, one of which is to memorize a poem. And if you’re in Santa Barbara, here is a list of Poetry Month happenings.

Help celebrate. Read a poem, write a poem, memorize a poem. Discover the gifts of poetry today.

Catching Up

Happy April and National Poetry Month!
I've been immersed in writing for my master's program the past couple of months, and so haven't had a chance to blog. But I did want you to know about some exciting happenings.
First, The Writer magazine is excerpting the first chapter of my 2010 book on publishing industry changes in its May issue, which should be on newsstands soon. I am delighted! Many of the trends I saw emerging two years ago have come true in spades, particularly the explosion in self-publishing. Pick up a copy if you have a chance. And thanks to Elfrieda Abbe and Writer mag senior editor Ron Kovach for publishing it.
My authorlink.com column for April is up (see it here), dealing with how to improve your writing platform by speaking and becoming an expert in your field.
Tomorrow, tune into WTBQ in New York (9 a.m. Pacific, noon Eastern), when I'll be a guest on Dr. Stephen Frueh's radio show, "The Marriage Conversation." We'll be talking about how writing can be a powerful tool for strengthening a marriage - or any relationship. You can listen to it live online. Just click on the "listen now" button.
I'll be reading my poetry with my Sunday Poetry Group here in Santa Barbara on Sunday, April 15, from noon to 2 p.m., at Karpeles Manuscript Museum. Come by if you're in town. This month there are dozens of poetry events in Santa Barbara. You can see the schedule here.
Let me offer a plug for my friend Christopher Moore's new book, Sacre Bleu, out this week. If you haven't discovered Chris' wonderful, wacky and fun books, you are missing out. I can't wait to read his latest.
Wishing you continued success in all your writing endeavors! As always, would love to hear your news.

Sending Out Ships

It’s National Poetry Month, and one of my goals is to submit my poems to at least two literary magazines every week throughout the month.

Poetry has been a passion for me, especially over the past five years when I turned to it to deal with very difficult events that were happening in my life. But I have always been a nonfiction writer – a journalist first, and now a nonfiction freelancer and book author. I also write short stories and novels, but since nonfiction is what supports me, all the other forms have necessarily taken a back seat.

So I was excited when an anthology containing one of my poems arrived in the mail a few days ago, just in time for the national celebration of poems. My poem is entitled “When the Snow Geese Fly,” and it was published in a beautiful anthology called Knocking at the Door, Poems about Approaching the Other, edited by Lisa Sisler and Lea C. Deschenes and published by Birch Bench Press.

Then I spent the weekend submitting my work to a number of magazines I had been collecting from the Creative Writers Opportunities (CRWROPPs) list. It’s a free listing sent daily by email with submission calls from magazines and contests. (Sign up at Google groups: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/CRWROPPS-B).

If you’ve been following my blog you know I went back to school last December to get my master’s in creative writing through Antioch University, Los Angeles’ low-residency program. I am a creative nonfiction student, since I’m writing a memoir, but one of the cool features of this program is one can “genre jump” for one of the six-month project periods to another genre. So, in June, I will hop to poetry, where I intend to focus on revising the poems I’ve written over the past five years with an eye toward getting a chapbook published.

I will continue to work on my memoir throughout that time, but I welcome a chance to revel in a form that has often felt like a bit of a luxury.

A woman named Chellie Campbell spoke at our local Association for Women in Communications meeting a month or so ago. She offers workshops on building wealth, and something that stuck with me was her story about sending out ships. She explained that in the 1400s, when Columbus was preparing to sail off to the East Indies (by way of the New World), merchants often sent ships out to gather goods. They would go down to the docks and wait for the ships to come back, hence the saying, “waiting for your ship to come in.” Now I view sending out my poems to magazines (and pitching story ideas and sending out short stories and accepting speaking engagements) as sending out my ships.

Believe it or not, they do come in.

What are you doing to send out your ships?