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Friday, April 25, 2014

The Post-Partum Poet: before and after the birth of a book

When I’m researching, writing, and revising novels or nonfiction books, I usually wrap up those babies in nine months! Not so with poetry where neither the synopsis needed for a novel or the outline needed for a nonfiction book will keep a collection of poems in line.

First, there’s the problem of not knowing when a poem will arrive. Then there’s the search for relevant markets with editors, journals, and readers who relate. And then there’s the slow process of submitting a batch of 3 to 5 poems to one editor after another, each of whom might take a year to accept a single poem – assuming they accept any and, if not, will even respond to let you know.

Such matters are commonly encountered by poets who aim to publish in traditional journals, anthologies, and e-zines. However, those of us who write poems with religious overtones or Bible-based themes have yet another process to endure and a stereotype to overcome:

Our poems must show editors and readers that Christian poets can ascend to a high literary level, leaving clichés and greeting card verse in the dust.


This happens by first learning about poetry forms and effective techniques then experimenting, playing with sounds and meanings, and giving each poem the time it needs to finish what it has to say.

This happens by “getting real” in each poem but metaphoric too, walking through dark alleys before bringing the poem and readers into a warm light that’s not blatantly rosy .

This happens one poem at a time.

So, say, you’ve done all this as I did. Then what?

You keep up with secular and religious publications open to poetry.

You send off each finished poems that has a fresh slant, unusual perspective, or laser insight.

You keep track of which poem went where and who published what and when. And then you wait.

As you continue repeating all of the above, publishing credits eventually build. Eventually you have enough poems for a book, but, most likely, they cover far too many interests to center around one theme.

So you wait some more.

You note the main theme or subject at the top of each poem in your computer file, and when you suspect you have at least 50 but no more than 100 poems on one topic or motif, you do a word search, then copy/ paste each poem into a file and arrange them in some kind of order.

After procrastinating and overwhelming myself for years, that simple method helped me to get together all of my poems labeled “Nature” to assemble for my book Living in the Nature Poem, published in 2012 by Hiraeth Press. They did a great job, and I’m thrilled with the book, but my aim for years and years – maybe since childhood – is to bring together my two favorite subjects: the Bible and poetry.

One problem with this impractical, unrealistic, long-term goal is that most Christian publishers do not publish poetry, and if they do, they typically consider book of poems offered only through an agent. That’s understandable as this practice weeds out amateurish poetry manuscripts, even though most of those are now being self-published on blogs or in e-books by anyone who so desires.

Finding an agent, however, brings us to the next problem. i.e., Most agents don’t want to bother with poetry, which is also understandable, as few people actually buy it, making a 15 to 20% commission on almost nothing not particularly enticing.

Except for Pulitzer and other highly prized poets, most of us earn only writer’s copies, which can be devoured but not eaten. Every poet in need of income faces this challenge, but those of us whose specialized interests narrow down the already thin market might also need a winning lottery ticket or a cranial exam.

So, armed with nothing but a love for poetry and the Bible and a supportive spouse, I began placing my “religious” poems in the 1980’s, mostly in Christian journals. Regular writing projects and life intervened, and when poems didn’t come to me, I read and reread the Bible and countless books of poetry. Every now and then, light lifted me into a poem, so I continued to place them in Christian and secular journals until the advent of the Internet eased me into e-zines too.

All of this took time, and since other books had my focus, that lengthened the wait even more. But I had time to get to know journals and to check Poets & Writers and other resources for poets to see who was looking for what. And I made time to read and review well-written poetry books by poets such as Pattiann Rogers, Kelly Cherry, Scott Cairns, Glynn Young, Wendell Berry, Dana Gioia, and other poets whose work I already knew I like.

As this work informed my own, I made more time to revise, so the poems didn’t button-hole people or get righteous or seem “religious,” even if they were. And I had time to build credits until many of the poems had already seen print before I even approached a “secular” publisher, whose guidelines welcomed almost any theme as long as the poems had something to say that hadn’t been said in quite the same way.

So, after all this time – all these years of waiting, working, honing, and placing poems – Kelsay Books accepted Outside Eden.

To say I was ecstatic is an understatement. It’s more like waiting 30 years for a child to get born, and when it finally happens, the buoyancy, the elation, the days of going around saying, “Thank You, God! Thank You, God!” become indescribable floatation devices! Joy, joy, joy and, oh, such levity!

And then the box of books arrived with a gorgeous cover and visually appealing layout, looking even lovelier than I’d ever dreamed – like a beautiful baby who brings awe and thanksgiving – but I sank like a dumbbell rolled onto water.

It was finished.

The long wait had ended, and I felt oddly blue.

What do you do when the waiting ends and the dream is fulfilled and all the planning abruptly ceases? What do you do to regain the joy and levity of the wait? Marketing is still needed, of course, but that’s about as buoyant as changing a baby’s diapers!

And then it came to me: Loving a child is not in the birth or the post-partum depression that often comes after. It’s in the joy of acceptance and the new growth to come and the process of learning and the hope of another poem after poem after poem as you wait for each new vision, each timeless word, and the next long-awaited but timely birth.

© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler

Outside Eden, paperback, Kelsay Books

Living in the Nature Poem, paperback, Hiraeth Press


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