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

Friday, December 29, 2017

Finding a title poem for your book title

For some poets and writers, titles come easily, often bringing us our first clue about the lines of a new poem or contents of a new book. For others, thinking of titles adds stress, but that can be a good thing if you’re stressing a main point or theme.

As you collect your poems for a book or chapbook, begin by selecting a central theme or focus.

That job will be easier if you type each poem on a separate page with a key word at the top. You can then do a word search in your computer file to assist you in gathering poems relevant to a particular theme.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, “10 Tips on Titles for a poem or poetry book,” my first experience with this began by searching for “Nature” poems in my Word file, gathering poems with that emphasis, and entitling the book Living in the Nature Poem.

I’m very happy with that title, but since that book’s publication by the environmentally-minded Hiraeth Press in 2012, I’ve looked for poems with interesting titles or lines that speak for the whole book.

The title of a key poem can provide the ideal book title.

This works especially well if your choice summarizes or symbolizes the contents of your book and/or gives your readers an entrance into your theme, purpose, and poetry.

For example, my next book of poems published by Kelsay Books, Aldrich Press, in 2014, came about as I searched my files for poems with some reference to the “Bible.” That collection included “Lot’s Wife Visits Genesis 19,” “Having a Word with Judah,” “Manager Scene,” “Message to Mary,” “Re: Deemed,” and others based on recognizable Bible stories. However, none of those poems spoke for the whole book. So I turned back to the beginning of time and wrote "Outside Eden,” which became the book's title poem, starting with these lines:

“Away from the flaming torches,
everything grows dark.

Does God
want me near?”

Those words could express the dilemma we all have, living, as we do, outside Eden. Since it seems to me the entire Bible brings us God’s Word that, yes, God wants us near, the poem said what the entire book aims to show and, perhaps, build faith and relationship in the process.

The poem “Faces in a Crowd” provided the title for my next book, which I decided to self-publish in 2016. For years I’ve been drawing faces, portraying people in fiction, and observing people in poems – not to call anyone out, but to give a glimpse of those unlike ourselves while showing how much alike we are, despite our differences. With so much to divide us, I believe that merely taking time to find out where someone else is coming from can be enough to spark empathy for one another. For instance:

Faces in a Crowd

Why trouble yourself with tea leaves
or try to discern the lines in a palm
when you can read faces?

See how the dark centers
of her eyes light up only
as she looks at a child?
And watch her cornered
mouth turn down
even as she laughs.

Hard times cannot be hidden
beneath the cut of hair
nor foundations concealed
with makeup meant to attract
a man, but then
consider him:

Can you see
that forlorn little boy, alone,
waiting to be remembered
inside the grown man,
caught now
in clouds of anger?

After gathering poems I’d labeled over the years as “People,” “Social Comment,” or “Relationships” for the book Faces in a Crowd, I felt urged to do something foreign to me: praise! So, for the next year, each day began with a phrase or sentence that led into a praise poem, which I subsequently published on my blog by that name.

When that flow of poems suddenly ceased, I realized I had a book that Cladach Publishing might like, so I sent the manuscript to them, and in March 2017, editor-publisher Catherine Lawton released PRAISE! Each poem in the book reflects that title, but this poem summarizes:

Praise God our Praise –

Without Whom
there is none:

no cause for joy,
no source of love,
no hope of peace.

Praise God Who dwells
in us and around us –
enthroned on our praises –
uplifting our days

Since I began writing as a child, my Word file now gives me many hundreds of poems from which to choose. Yet those poems seem to gravitate toward my favorite subjects – i.e., Bible, prayer, people, and nature. If you’ve also been drawn to writing about your favs, the number of poems you have on a single theme or topic can help you decide whether to do a chapbook of about 20 to 24 poems or a book of about 75 pages.

I felt certain I’d have enough “Faith” poems for another book, and I did, but then I couldn’t find The poem that spoke for the whole collection. I wanted readers to know these would not be “greeting card” poems or fluff but would deal honestly with struggles between faith and doubt. And so, for this latest poetry book, Lost in Faith, I wrote the title poem after the fact in an effort to summarize and to give readers an idea of what to expect:

Lost in Faith

by You, Lord?

by me….

I throw myself
on your mercy.

That’s the last of the poetry books planned for now, but recently a writer friend encouraged me to reissue an inspirational romance novel set in Florida in 1895, which Zondervan published over three decades ago. Hopefully, time, writing experience, and the computer ease of revising a manuscript helped me to tweak the book, while retaining the original characters, story line, and title.

Although this latest release is fiction, rather than a book of poetry, the title comes from the closing lines of a song (aka poem) that the main character “writes” throughout the book, Hand Me Down the Dawn.

Whether you’re writing a book of fiction, nonfiction, or poetry, keep searching for a poetic title or a title poem that encompasses your contents, sets a mood, and invites readers to see for themselves that this book is for them.

Mary Harwell Sayler, ©2017

Hand Me Down the Dawn

Lost in Faith


Faces in a Crowd

Outside Eden