Poetry Judges Want to Get Fat on Words

I recently had the privilege of being one of eight judges for a poetry manuscript contest. The process involved the group of us, poets and poetry lovers, spending a day reading book-length manuscripts, discussing them, and finally winnowing a stack of about eighteen manuscripts down to a select few finalists.


We were given only the broadest of instructions. In short, we were asked to try to fall in love with each manuscript and to be prepared to articulate what about each one did and did not work for us.


One of my favorite parts of the day was sitting down with this poetry-loving group and discussing what it was we were looking for as we pored over all those poems. Here is a brief list of what people said they wanted in a collection of poems:

  • A distinctive voice
  • Emotions
  • An expansive way of looking at the world (a range of emotions … including humor, etc.)
  • A sense of discovery
  • To get fat on the words and be nourished
  • A journey of a human heart
  • A strong presence
  • An inner light shining through the work; a sense of transcendence


This is a worthy measuring stick in my view, and I’m sure it will help me the next time I venture to the other side of a contest and submit my work for consideration. I only hope every reader will have the loving, deep and strong sense of what they are looking for that this panel of judges did.

To the Poetry Lady … from Japan

The Poetry Lady received this query from a correspondent in Japan:

The poetry lady sure seems to know how to help in times of need.
So, here’s a question for her, from a fan in Japan.
My friends just don’t seem to share the poetic interests that I do. Lately I am finding myself lonely for more poetic friends. Any advice on how to go about finding them?

 Dear Fan in Japan,

Your question, which on the surface seemed easy enough to address, is complicated by the fact that you live in a culture where language … the very essence of poetry … is for you a barrier, rather than a means of connection.

You see, my standard advice to a question like yours is that to find poetic souls, go to places where poetic souls gather: Join a writers group, attend poetry readings, peruse the poetry shelves in bookstores and libraries and see who else is spending time there.

But the easy answers don’t hold in your case, because I imagine that no matter how fluent you have become in the language of your adopted country, having enough facility to understand poetry and converse about it is likely a whole different matter.

As is often the case, being forced away from the easy answer leads directly to the most honest one. That is, I believe that everyone has a poetic soul. In many of us it is covered up by our need to contend with the prose of daily life, and even by our fears of expressing and exploring the deeper emotions and existential questions that poetry brings to the surface.

So, my advice to you would be to go beyond looking for new friends who share your love of things poetic, and instead start by looking for the poetic in the friends you already have. Share a favorite line from a poem, speak of the poetic issues of the soul, carry your favorite poem in your pocket and show it to someone you care about. My prediction is that in doing so you will invite from them expressions from their poetic souls.

Let me know how your experiment turns out …

Poetically yours,

The Poetry Lady

photo by Aja Riggs

Quote Unquote

Poetry took a hit in politics yesterday. In response to Barack Obama’s flair for eloquent and passionate speeches, Hillary Clinton was quoted in the New York Times (Sunday, Jan. 20) as saying:

“You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose.”

I agree with Clinton on many issues. But I beg to differ with her here.

Instead, I choose to imagine a country in which politicians campaign in poetry and govern in poetry. 

Dear Poetry Lady Gets Help

Recently, Dear Poetry Lady, the advice column for the Lonely Hearts of the Literary World, received a cry for help. It went something like this:
Dear Poetry Lady,

Help! I have been reading more and more poems lately and now I want to write one of my own. The problem is: I’ve never written a line of verse in my life, and I don’t know where to begin. Can you tell me how to write a poem?


— Poetic Soul in Search of a Poem

Dear Poetic Soul, 

The Poetry Lady pondered your question and promptly found herself bogged down by the nuance and complexity of the problem. Then, today, one of her students zoomed in on the answer.

Monica wrote this poem and gave me permission to post it to you. I think it contains the instructions you are searching for:


A Poem
by Monica
When you write a poem just let it flow.
You don’t need to think
just grab a piece of paper
and a pen or pencil and just let
your hand do all the work.
It would be like going to the beach
to relax and not think about anything.
Just let your mind go.

 The Poetry Lady  couldn’t have said it better herself.

 — PL

 P.S. Like all of my students, Monica is a teen mom. She just started her own blog where she has posted some of her recent poems. Check it out to see for yourself whether she knows what she’s talking about.

Advice for Jamie Lynn & the Rest of Us

The theme in writing class this week has been “advice.” In this case we are writing letters to Jamie Lynn Spears, Britney Spears’ 16-year-old sister who recently announced she is pregnant.


We’re taking a break from poetry to write these letters, because a local newspaper editor has offered to publish my students’ (who are teen mothers themselves) responses to the younger Spears sister’s predicament.


In case like me, you aren’t up on the Spears saga here’s the Readers’ Digest version: Britney’s mother penned an advice book for parents, despite heading up one of the most publicly dysfunctional families in America. Britney herself is a living ‘don’t’ when it comes to maternal success — she lost custody of her two children after a series of painful incidents of serious neglect. And now, Jamie Lynn, whom her mother had dubbed the ‘conscientious’ Spears daughter, and who has been set up as a role model for teens thanks to her starring role on Nickelodeon’s “Zoey 101,” is pregnant and plans on keeping her baby.


While the rest of the world mocks Jamie Lynn, and seems almost gleeful to witness the fall of the second Spears sister, my students have been remarkably compassionate. As I walked around the classroom checking on their progress as they crafted their letters of advice to Jamie, I was struck by the fact that most of them started their missives with the word: “Congratulations.” Being a mother, they were quick to tell Jamie Lynn, is one of the most wonderful experiences life has to offer. Yes, it may be harder for teens, but with some support they assured her, she too could enjoy the loving moments motherhood promises.


Even as they have been treated harshly by the world at large, these young women, ages 16-21, who became pregnant in middle or high school, respond to Jaime Spears with love and hope. They use their experience of being sneered at by strangers when they take their babies to the mall or on a public bus, and translate it into empathy when they imagine Jamie Lynn facing down judgmental headlines in the tabloids, and being made the butt of jokes by late night comedians.


“Don’t listen to all the negativity,” they wrote in their letters to Jamie Lynn. “Stay positive.” “Get support,” they advised. And “Be the best mother you can be.”


I hope Jamie Lynn takes their advice, and that the rest of us learn from their example to be a little kinder — and to turn our personal pain into empathy for others.   

Poem for the Missing Student

For KV

She is blackness

smooth silence

can sit opposite you

and sink farther and deeper

into her own blank

stare. When at last she speaks,

she says, “When I lived

in that foster home

they made me eat foods

I’d never eaten before. Broccoli –

I’d never seen broccoli. Wouldn’t eat it.

So they hit me.” A small slap

in a short history of neglect. Now

eighteen. In a shelter.With her son.

“Why would anyone hit a child

like that?” She asks.You, her teacher,

are silenced by the simplest, unanswerable



Alicia of the blank page.

Alicia of the blank stare.

Alicia of the empty seat.

Alicia of the stealthy, sudden, seldom seen

scintillating smile. 


Alicia leaves school.

Alicia leaves.

Has left

many places.

Many times.

Been left

by her mother,whose picture

she carries, by her grandmother,

by school, by the world

that sticks to some people like skin,

but that slips from her like rain. 


Alicia left this room. Left behind the desk in the last row

back corner.Left behind a pink backpack, sloughed

off, forgotten on the floor, like a cliché

Teddy bear, used as a prop

in a PSA about neglect or drugs.

Inside the bag: A matchbox car

a superball and a lighter. 


Those who knew you

stoop over those three objects

trying to read the ball’s swirled surface.

Read the car’s toy-happy shine.

Read the towering lighter

torch of adult independence,

if that is, it weren’t bubble-gum pink.

Speak! we urge the ball that stands for resilience.

Speak! we beg the lighter that symbolizes

sparks of hope, danger, decadence.

Speak, we demand of the car: Speed. Freedom.

Lighter. Smoke. Superball planet. World of possibility.

Car. Progress, direction.

Lighter. Disposable. Cheap echo of flint, friction,

real fire. And what of the backpack?

What of the broccoli?

What of the luminous black hair?

What of the eyes? The smile? The empty seat?

If only you would speak.  

The Scent of a Poem

Vacation week meant no poetry classes, but it did not mean (thankfully) that poetry went on vacation.

One evening during my holiday week, M visited. She mentioned a poem she had seen displayed recently, and which she wanted to get a copy of. The poem, she told me, was “A Wood” by Richard Wilbur. “Let’s see if we can find it,” I suggested.

M is not a poet herself. Most days she’d choose to walk in nature rather than write a poem about it. When she plans an activity for us to do together, we usually take a walk in the woods and look for signs of porcupine or bobcat, or we observe vernal pools or turn over rocks  in search of snakes. M loves tracking.

Now here we were in my house, following the scent of a poem. We went upstairs to my writing room where I have a bookcase devoted to poetry. We sat on the chaise and began pulling down books. M scoured the collections of Wilbur’s poems and I hit the anthologies. 

I came across “The Pardon,” about a boy, the death of his dog, and guilt. Then I found  “Mayflies,” a beautiful little poem about even littler insects that live and die all in one day, and who carry with them a song of mortality and eternity. I read it for Molly, and then she read one she found and loved.

Meanwhile, we still hadn’t found the poem she was looking for. We did however find “The Writer,” one of my all time favorites, in which the poet describes his thoughts as he stands outside the room where his daughter is banging out a story on the typewriter. It’s a poem that has the power to make me cry no matter how many times I re-read it. And so M and I continued, swapping poems, finding words, lines and stanzas that we loved, and still not finding what we were searching for.

When she takes me tracking in the woods, I’m always impressed by what a skillful guide M is. So I started feeling a little disappointed that I wasn’t able to be a more competent guide in our poetic quest. After all, it didn’t occur to me until we’d been reading aloud together for thirty minutes or so, that M was holdling Wilbur’s Collected, and that meant the piece we were seeking must be there. I swapped books with her, went more slowly over the table of contents, and quickly found it. I flipped to the page, handed the book back to M, and listened closely as she read the poem aloud. At last, our mission was accomplished.

 I’m not sure it works the same with tracking animals in the wild, but it was certainly true for me in stalking a poem: the finding was not nearly as satisfying as the search itself. On second thought, I’m sure it is.