Weird Poetry-Writing Kid Gets Published

Sue 6719HLet’s talk about poetry. Wait! Don’t click away. And for God’s sake, don’t start reciting “Roses are red, violets are blue . . .” That’s the response I get from my brother. When I gave my father a homemade collection of my poems for Christmas a few years ago, he smiled at the dog picture on the cover and set it aside. I suspect the other copies met the same fate. (I have a few more, if you want one).

I do not come from poetry-reading people. Except one. My Grandma Rachel Fagalde, technically my step-grandmother, set me on the poetry path. She wrote poetry herself and fed me books of poetry, inscribed to “my dear little Susie” from “Gramma” Rachel. I read Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Marianne Moore, Shakespeare, and obscure poets whose chapbooks she found at rummage sales. Someday my chapbooks may meet the same fate. I hope somebody else’s grandmother will buy a copy.

I was thrilled to receive those poetry books. I sat around reading them out loud, and I started writing my own poetry. The other kids thought I was weird.

I wrote my first poem, a ditty about Thanksgiving, at 7, got published in various school publications, and got paid for a poem that appeared in something called Valley Views when I was in high school. Poetry was my thing, but you can’t make a living writing poetry, so I majored in journalism at San Jose State and went into the newspaper biz, keeping my poetry on the side. When I finally made it through grad school at age 51, I earned a degree in creative nonfiction, not poetry. Now I write both.

Although my early efforts resembled the nursery rhymes I grew up with, all sing-songy and rhyming, today’s poems are much more conversational. I avoid twisted sentences and words like “ere,” “thou” and “o’er.” I rarely rhyme. So what makes it a poem instead of a short essay cut into lines? First, poems are compact. You can tell a whole story in a three-line haiku.

First autumn morning
the mirror I stare into
shows my father’s face.

– Murakami Kijo

Second, they use imagery. Read “My Mother’s Colander” by Dorianne Laux. See what I mean? I have a colander just like that, by the way. But it’s not just about the colander, is it?

I was a poetry-writing kid who became a poetry-writing grownup who is now a poetry-writing senior citizen. In recent years, I have published quite a few poems in literary magazines [see www.suelick.com for samples]. I love to read my poems to live audiences.

I am excited to report that my first poetry book will be coming out later this year from Finishing Line Press. Called Gravel Road Ahead, it is a chapbook, meaning a little book about 30 pages long, that follows the journey my late husband and I took through Alzheimer’s disease. I have published quite a few books of prose, but this is different. I am very excited. And nervous.

To my amazement, since I drafted this post, another publisher accepted another chapbook. Currently titled The Widow at the Piano: Confessions of a Distracted Catholic, that one will be coming out next year.

Right now I’m focusing on Gravel Road Ahead because the pre-publication sales begin next Monday. I hope to show you the cover then and provide info on how to pre-order a copy.

In addition to the book, my poem, “Mustering out,” channeling my father’s voice, was published at www.rattle.com last month. They even paid me. Another poem, “They’ll Have to Order the Parts,” appeared in the Atticus Review on May 29.

Grandma Rachel used to send me copies of her own poems with her illegible letters. I collected some of them after she died. I suspect the people cleaning out the house threw some poems away, not realizing the precious gifts they were. She didn’t publish much. Instead she trained me to start my career with my first copies of Writer’s Digest and all those poetry books. Well, it took a few years, but I’ve done it.

Will I make money at this? No. Real poets have day jobs.

It’s sad when only poets read poetry. Believe me, it’s not all like the stuff your teachers might have made you read in high school. Give it a try.

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Why mess with poetry when it doesn’t pay?

In her book Poetry Will Save Your Life, Jill Bialosky takes an unusual approach to memoir. She pairs short passages about her life with poems that she connects with those times. She begins with nursery rhymes and Robert Frost poems and moves through the poetic cannon to the more challenging poems of Sylvia Plath, W.H. Auden, Adrienne Rich, Denis Johnson, and others. After each poem, she offers information and interpretation of the poet and the poem. In many cases, these are poets to which I never paid much attention, but the poems take on new meaning here. The snippets of Bialosky’s life are intense. She has gone through some hard stuff, but she doesn’t wallow in it. Instead, she reaches for a poem. As she writes on the last page, “[poetry] gives shape to those empty spaces within us that we have no words for until we find them in a poem.”

For Bialosky, life and poetry have always been intertwined. She reads it, she writes it, and she layers it into her memoir to enhance the memories and sometimes to say what she could not say in ordinary prose.

April is National Poetry Month, a time when poets become more vocal about reading and writing these nuggets of thought crafted into lines with metaphors and juxtapositions that infuse them with meaning. We also compete in numerous poem-a-day challenges. I’ve got two new poems so far.

I credit my Grandma Rachel Fagalde for hooking me on poems. She showered me with books of famous poetry from the time I was a little girl. She wrote poems herself and read them aloud when we visited. It drove my parents nuts; they were not poetry people. They did not understand why I was always scribbling in my little notebooks.

But I was a poetry person. I wrote my first poem at 7, something about the joys of Thanksgiving. I often turned in poems for my homework at school. The teachers weren’t thrilled. They weren’t poetry people either. A wooden plaque with Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Trees” sat on my desk throughout my childhood. Written in rhyme with a sing-song rhythm, it sticks to me even now. “I know that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree . . .” A good poem, like a good song, stays with you.

Most of the people I know are not poetry people. Few have read a poem since they were forced to do it in school. They can’t imagine voluntarily reading poetry. And writing it? Anything beyond “roses are red, violets are blue” seems impossible and pointless. But look at the Bible. Look at the book of Psalms. Those are poems, too, and we revere them.

The statistics about poetry reading are staggering. We who cling to it seem like a small community of weirdos. But we keep at it.

Because so few people read poetry, poets don’t make much money writing and publishing it. Agents won’t represent poetry books. Mainline publishers won’t publish your poetry books unless you’re Bob Dylan or Maya Angelou. Or Bono. You publish it yourself or get published by small independent publishers that do it for the love of poetry. You send your poems to literary magazines edited by college students or volunteers who edit on nights and weekends, supporting their work by grants, donations, and contest submission fees.

Yet there are thousands of us poets writing and sending out our work in the hope of getting it published. I’ve been doing it off and on, mostly on, since I was in high school. Rejections still outnumber acceptances. In fact, I’m participating in an online group that strives to get 100 rejections in a year. The theory is that if you submit enough to get 100 rejections, you will also get some acceptances. And I have. So far, three poems have been published this year. You can read “An Ordinary Afternoon” in the Winter 2018 issue of The MacGuffin. Read “Widow’s Rags” and “Smoke Signals” in the spring 2018 issue of the online journal Willawa. 

But still, why bother? The chances for acceptance and profit in poetry are so slim they make the music business look like a sure thing. I can make more money standing on a street corner singing for tips. At least someone will hear me and toss a dollar or two into my guitar case. And yet, because poems are freed from commercial considerations, I feel freer with poetry than with any other type of writing. I can focus on writing the poem instead of wondering who will buy it.

Why poetry? It’s magic. In a few lines, you can say so much. You can paint a picture, share an idea, express a feeling that you can’t express any other way. You can say things you wouldn’t dare tell anybody in plain English.

Poetry today is not the poetry of nursery rhymes or Shakespeare. It doesn’t need to be silly or incomprehensible—although it can. It definitely does not have to rhyme. It just has to say something.

I just drove all the way to Tucson for a poetry master workshop. Why would anybody spend the time and money to do that? Shouldn’t I be studying something useful? Ah, but to me poetry is useful. It keeps me sane. Besides, I turned 66 March 9. I’m not retired. I’m always writing, and I’m still doing the music thing at Sacred Heart, but I have enough retirement-type income to go write poetry in the desert if I want to.

Looking at the poets in Bialosky’s book, I find myself compulsively checking their birth and death dates. So many died before they got to my age. John Keats, Percy Shelley, Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath didn’t live to age 40. I see the young faces featured in Poets & Writers magazine. Just kids. I worry that I might be too old. But it’s also encouraging to see a new generation embracing poetry.

We older folks keep going. It’s never too late. Billy Collins is 76, Donald Hall is in his late 80s, Mary Oliver is 82. Robert Frost was 88, Carl Sandburg was 89, Maya Angelou was 86,and Lucille Clifton was 74.

These days, you can read poetry online any time you want. Check out The Poetry Foundation,  Famous Poetry Online, or Poetry Daily. If you lean toward politics, especially in the era of Trump, try New Verse News. Or try one of the sites listed here: http://coloradoreview.colostate.edu/10-places-for-daily-poetry/

It’s like guacamole or quinoa. Just try a little. Maybe you’ll like it.

If you’re a poet looking for prompts, there are plenty online. Here are a few:

Megan Falley’s “Dirty Thirty” Writing prompts

NapoWriMo.net

Robert Lee Brewer’s poem-a-day challenge

Take a chance. Read a poem or write one. I welcome your comments.