One of my favorite things that happened in 2014 was being a poetry buddy with Megan Willome.
She invited me that April, for National Poetry Month. We chose Book of Hours by Kevin Young. We read roughly a poem a day, and discussed it in letters. Well, it was email, but it took on the quality of letters. We explored the poems together, delighted in the nuances each of us noticed that the other didn’t, and discussed all manner of things. If we had known when we dived in that it would take four months to work through that book, we might not have committed to it. But I was so glad we did. It’s a rare and precious thing to cultivate both an immersion in poetry and a friendship through a four-month written conversation.
It also delights me to introduce you to Megan, if you don’t know her already, and to direct some attention to her new book, The Joy of Poetry: How to Keep, Save & Make Your Life With Poetry, just published by T.S. Poetry Press. This interview was conducted through email. (Alas, I was remiss in not asking her about the importance of tea in her life.)
LLB: Do you have a favorite poem? Favorite poet? (I understand these might change monthly, weekly, daily.)
MW: No. Today I love “Nothing Is Lost” by Dana Gioia (courtesy of Every Day Poems), “A Lobsterman Looks at the Sea” by Richard M. Berlin (courtesy of American Life in Poetry), and “Sonnet—Silence” by Edgar Allan Poe (courtesy of a collection gifted to me by my daughter on my birthday this year).
What three to five poetry books would you want with you on the proverbial desert island?
I don’t want three to five poetry books. I want three to five poetry subscription services. That means I need a desert island with Wi-Fi.
OK, three to five subscription services?
Say you’re a doctor of poetry. What poems would you prescribe and for what ailments, maladies, chronic conditions?
Wouldn’t it be great if you left the doctor’s office with a prescription and a poem? Because what you need varies, depending on what ails you and how you respond to ailments. Do you want to drown yourself in woe? There’s a poem for that! Do you want to distract yourself with something funny? There’s a poem for that too. Maybe it’s one of those times the medical news makes no sense, so a weird poem is called for.
What poems would you prescribe for those situations?
I’d need to know the person, at least a little, to get a feel. For me, it’s personal, not a one-poem-fits-all prescription.
Good doctor. Let’s say I’m suffering from a chronic sense of having let people down. Got something for that?
This one’s pretty potent: “Suicides” by Faith Shearin.
Wow. No kidding …
Why is it important to read a poem out loud, both in reading others’ and in composing your own?
Reading aloud is good for any writing. As an editor, I read aloud everything that is printed in the magazine. But for poetry, reading aloud helps me notice rhymes I missed or alliteration that I may have skipped over with just my eyes. Sometimes I misread a word unless I read aloud because I read too quickly.
Why is it important to copy poems by hand for your poetry journal? What do you learn about them that way? Is there a satisfying schoolchild aspect to it (both in the act and in the choice of notebook)?
I don’t think I had to copy poems in school. As to notebooks, I have a weakness for standard issue, back-to-school spirals on sale.
As to why is it important—and let me say I don’t do this often enough—again, I find things I didn’t find in just reading the poem. Maybe writing out the line break reveals something. Maybe I find a subtle repetition. It’s a closer way to see.
All of us who have lost parents continue to understand them anew when we age. What have you discovered about your mother and your relationship to her in the writing of this book?
What has been interesting is that since she died, when I’m at a large family gathering (on either side of the family), someone will inevitably call me Merry Nell. More and more, I feel like I’m stepping into her shoes.
You mention in the first chapter that you love Ruth Mowry’s poem “The earth’s economy” partly because it has both roadkill and kale in it. Is that part of the delight of poems for you, the odd combinations?
Yes, I love poems that surprise me, and that juxtaposition caught my eye. I live in an area where finding roadkill is a daily occurrence. How often is roadkill even in a poem?
In my own poems, I like to find connections between disparate things.
I can’t find it right now, but somewhere in the book you talk about poetry’s ability to come at a topic obliquely. To “tell it slant.” Could you talk about poetry writing as an outlet for writing about unutterable things?
Here’s an example. This poem was in an earlier version of the book, but didn’t fit anywhere into the rewrite.
Lord knows a storm’s gotta break
sometime. It knows when it’s needed when
sorrows can’t cloud up one moment more
without dropping their load
and you sit there on the porch and pray
you at least get some rain
’cause so far it’s just thunder & lightnin’
lightin’ up that fuzzy yellow oak pollen
looks like the trees are lyin’ to you
that new life and spring ain’t —
Hail, like someone’s hurlin’ baseballs
at the north side of your house. Or grapefruit
and oranges every size of round.
tree limbs in the streets
your home’s all broken and your car
but the yellow dust
it’s gone. Air’s clean.
C’mon out, y’all.
In May 2013 we had a major hailstorm. The next day there was debris in the streets—whole tree limbs and so many leaves the streets looked green. I was going through something that felt a lot like a hailstorm, something I wasn’t ready to talk about and still am not. But I could write about hail. Hail isn’t personal. Concurrently, two friends were going through hailstorms of a sort in their own lives. One was getting a divorce; the other was coming to terms with her husband’s alcoholism. Maybe sometimes we need to write the hail poem first.
Why did you decide to begin to post your poems about your mother online? What were some outcomes of that, both expected and unexpected?
I don’t remember.
The unexpected part of posting them was how many family members read them and reread them. My grandmother (my mom’s mom, who just passed away in August) kept rereading “Beauty Shop.” It haunted her.
And then the further unexpected part was posting them let me know which ones were good—people seemed to mention the same poems they liked. So when I sat down to rewrite the book to include my mom, one of the first things I did was make a list of the top poems. All of those ended up in the book.
A relative told you that he also saw your father in this book, too. How does that come through?
Of course my dad’s in there — he and my mom were married 43 1/2 years when she died. I wasn’t thinking about him as I wrote the book, but how could he not be there? And how could you not get to know him through reading it? I mean, he was one of the inspirations for the opening to Elizabeth Crook’s “Monday, Monday,” which I talk about in the book. He’s quite a guy.
What question would you like to answer that I haven’t asked?
I did not intend to write a memoir sprinkled with poetry. I was asked to write a book about the joy of poetry. But it turned out that poetry is very personal to me, and I couldn’t write the book without getting personal.
Book photo by L.L. Barkat
Learn more about Megan Willome at her website.
Buy The Joy of Poetry.
Subscribe to Every Day Poems.
Learn more about poetry buddying.
Read her innovative way of discussing my book (and her mother and her daughter) through the lens of the YA novels Dauntless and Divergent.