The Politics and Poetics of Political Poetry

A poet friend and I recently discussed the integrity of writing poems with a political purpose. He said he’d never done this right before Donald Trump became president. Shortly after Trump took office, my friend wrote an anti-Trump poem. I’ve never written such an overtly political poem myself, finding it difficult to find much poetic in the specifics of politics. However, I’ve written poems that were covertly political. I wasn’t trying to be covert. That’s how the poems came out. 

Most of those poems were written for a series of Peace Poetry readings that have taken place in Wichita for three or four years. Sponsored by the People of Faith for Peace., the readings feature poets in the community who have written poems centered on the idea of peace. For example, one of my poems, “First, the Reflection,” relates my response to the Vietnam Memorial Wall on the National Mall. I’ve seen this memorial, with its 50,000+ names etched onto it, and every time I am moved to tears. One of my friends refuses to see it. She’s afraid it would devastate her. She and I were both young women during the Vietnam War and we both opposed it at the time. One of my brothers was stationed in Vietnam and I could hardly bear it until he came home safely.  

At the beginning of 2017, Caryn Merriam-Goldberg, a former Poet Laureate of Kansas, put up a new edition of her Heartland Poetry website, which she titled “Poems of Love, Resistance, and Solidarity.” It can be found here: If you scroll through the pages, you will find poems from poets from all over Kansas.  

When Caryn put out the call for submissions, I was surprised to find I had at least five poems that met the requirements of the web site. I sent five to her and so far the judges have selected four of them, four that were written for the Peace Poetry readings. I was surprised when one of the judges chose a poem I wrote one for a pro-choice rally held a couple of summers ago when Operation Rescue threatened Wichita with its destructive tactics. The threat never materialized in any meaningful way. The pro-choice rally was a success. However, I was sure no one would touch that poem with a ten-foot pole.  

Someone did touch it and put it up on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. An added benefit is that I’m now acquainted with the judge who chose my poem, Prof. Laura Lee Washburn, I will meet her face to face when the Heartland Poets gather for a reading at Pittsburg State University, Pittsburg, Kansas, in April.

 I suppose I do write political poetry. I don’t set out to do that, but sometimes a picture or an encounter with another person will motivate me to think about an unjust situation. The poem about the Vietnam War Memorial came to me when one of our Vietnamese neighbors brought egg rolls to us on a day when his family was celebrating a grandchild’s birthday. The aroma of the egg rolls opened up an idea for the poem. He is old now, but he was a young man when he came here to escape the chaos in his country. I saw something in his face that trigged the poem.

 If the political contains poetic elements, I’ll write about it. Otherwise, I’ll move on to something else.




The Joy of Ice

Many parts of Kansas, including Wichita, have been under a cover of ice for a week or so. It’s not unusual for this to happen in the winter, leaving the outside world unsafe for driving or walking. Given that, several events, meetings, and lunches were canceled. This gave me a week to get caught up on my writing life.

During the week, I managed to start several poems. I also put the final touches on a manuscript and sent it off Friday to a friend who runs his indepedent press. He asked me to send him the manuscript, so I have hopes he will accept it. I was able to wrap up several other things that I had put off because I didn’t have time to get to them.

I belong to several poetry critique groups. I enjoy these groups and I find the comments on my poetry helpful. However, making time for these groups does take time away from my writing.  

I’m also the president of District 5 of Kansas Authors Club. This, the second year, will be my last year. Even though the board members are helpful, it does take time and effort to keep things organized. D5 will host the state KAC meeting next year, and work on that has started. I’ve organized a great group of volunteers, and my hope is that they will carry the load of getting the convention off the ground.  

One thing being iced in has made me realize is that writing takes unstructured time. It takes time staring out the window. It takes time sitting a quiet house or a busy coffeehouse. It takes time being alone. My husband leaves every day to take long walks around the city. One day he asked me if I minded his being gone so much. I got a chuckle out of that. He’s a talker. When he’s out walking, I can have the time to concentrate on what I’m doing. I told him it was okay that he left me alone for hours at a time as long as he got home for dinner.  

This is the last day for a few days that I’ll have time alone. I need to use this day to good advantage. Three poems are waiting in the wings for birthing. The laundry is waiting downstairs for sorting. I need to get busy.


Poetry That Speaks to the Heart

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, former poet laureate of Kansas, has continued her 150 Kansas Poets web site as Heartland! Poetry of Love, Resistance, and Solidarity. She put the new web site up right after the 2016 election. As she has done in the past, she called on Kansas poets to judge the work submitted by other Kansas poets or poets with Kansas ties. I have two poems on the web site, which can be found here: It might be worthwhile to investigate the work of some the other poets. All the poems are strong, heartfelt pieces. Some take you breath away.
Mirriam-Goldberg, who came to Kansas from New Jersey when she was a young woman, has been a great gift to the world of poetry. She encourages, guides, and elevates those of us who write our words in the shadows. Many people say they don’t understand poetry, they hated it when they had to study it in school, and they hope never to meet up with it again. On the other hand, every time Mirriam-Goldberg has produced an anthology of poems from each her editions of 150 Kansas Poets, the poets go around the state to read and they are greeted with good-sized, enthusiastic audiences. I have read my work in my home town of Wichita, at Watermark Books and Cafe, and in Lawrence, where some of my family lives, and in Hutchinson and found it heartening to see so many people turn out.
Through these readings, I’ve come to know many of the poets around the state. One of them is a good friend. I don’t see her often as she lives in Lawrence, but when we get together we have so much fun it could be criminal. We read together at The Feast, a monthly gathering of poets at CityArts, last spring, an interesting experience, as our poetic styles and subject matter are quite different.
Poetry does have a place in a world that so often seems chaotic. Poetry brings clarity and heart to what otherwise is maddeningly out of control. Poetry opens the curtain on hidden sorry and joy. It deals with the complexities of life, and sheds light in the dark places.
Take a moment to look at Poetry of Love, Resistance, and Solidarity. Every poem is accessible. Every poem relates to the human condition and brings peace and understanding.

Being the Leader of a Poetry Workshop: Fine in Theory; Awful in Practice

Some poets like to lead poetry workshops. In fact, I know many poets who do a fine of it. However, I’ve not had much success in leading these workshops myself.

In my quest to figure out why I’m so dismal at such at task, I’ve come up with a few reasons.

When I was getting an MFA in creative writing in the mid-‘80s, I was in poetry critique workshops. As a middle-aged student in among many younger students, I felt somewhat out of place. This feeling was exacerbated by the method of workshopping the professors employed. I almost dropped right after the second workshop and would have if the professor, poet Robert Dana, hadn’t urged to stay with it. He said I would do well because I was smart and capable. Thanks to him, I stayed, suffered through every tortuous workshop, and came out winning a hefty prize for one of my poems.

The method for each workshop was for us to submit copies of our poems, enough for each class member and the professor, several days before class each week. This gave everyone a chance to look at the work and critique before class started. During class, we went around the room, each student reading his or her poem, then sitting silently while the other students savaged the work.

This was extremely difficult for me. I had been teaching high school journalism for nine years, I had a BA and an MA in English, and, by golly, I knew it all. Well, not all, but I did know what good poetry was, and I wanted to say to the young people, mostly male, who were voicing wild hair critiques, “You don’t have a clue. You don’t understand anything.” I didn’t do that, of course, and I later realized the workshop trial by fire helped me considerably.

During my last year in the program, I started getting published and I was asked to do a few readings. Over the years, I’ve managed to get poems published and I’ve won a few contests. I think I know my craft. What happens, though, when I’m asked to conduct a poetry writing workshop, is that in my introduction, I talk about how I write poetry. When I was in the MFA program, I stumbled upon William Stafford’s book, Writing the Australian Crawl. While he doesn’t say writing poetry is easy, he also doesn’t get all tangled up in the technical side of it. That’s always been my approach.

Yes, I know about rhyme, rhythm, iambic pentameter, sonnets, haiku, cinquains—well, you get the idea. I can write a structured poem if I have to, but I usually let the poem structure itself, then when I get the feel of it, I see what the structure is and what needs to be done to make the poem conform more closely to a structure.

However, people in a writing workshop want to know about the techniques for writing a poem, the recipe, if you will. If they only knew how I cook, they would know I’m the last person who would be able to give them a recipe. My technique for poetry is to get into a quiet place and start writing. Sometimes, I don’t need a quiet place. I’ve come up with an idea for a poem when I was doing water aerobics at the Y. I would have to keep the lines in my head until I could get a paper towel out of the towel dispenser, get my pen out of my case where I keep my gear, and write enough to remind me of where I was going when I’m in a place to finish the poem.

I often get ideas for poems when I’m driving. When I come to a traffic light, I will write the poem on a scrap of paper to save for later. Lately, I’ve been keeping a daily journal, thanks to a friend who told me he found this technique in a book he’s reading by Julia Cameron. Unfortunately, I often don’t have time to keep the journal every day. Even so, writing in the journal on occasion has opened the floodgates for me. I had not been able to write for several weeks. Now I can’t keep up with the poetry. It’s not always the greatest poetry in the world, but it’s poetry. 

The last time I conducted a poetry workshop, and it will be my last time, I found myself speaking into an abyss filled with people who either were bored or thought they knew more about writing poetry than I did. Many of those people are interested only in producing a best-selling novel. There’s nothing wrong with that, but why should I waste a couple of hours of my life trying to make them understand my way of writing poetry?  

I taught a creative class at Butler Community College for a couple of semesters. Most students wrote fiction or poetry that was interesting and a pleasure to read. When I suggested to some of the students ways they could improve what they wrote, I was told this was creative writing and they didn’t have to pay any attention to me. It didn’t take me long to ask to have my English Composition classes back. It seems while students think anyone can write good poetry, most students are terrified of writing essays. I could do something with those students and I helped many of them become better writers over the course of a semester.  

So, I will stick to my method of writing poetry, taking any advice that I deem helpful and politely ignoring the rest. My next challenge is to get a manuscript accepted and published. After two rejections, I should feel depressed about the whole thing, but I don’t. I know one of these days I’ll find the right publisher. I just have to keep working at it. Discouragement should be a word banned from a writer’s cache of words.


During the Down Time I Turn to the End Table

Unable to write a poem for several weeks, I find myself without any idea of how to write a poem. This isn’t the first time I’ve had this experience. I think writers of every stripe have suffered such a dry spell. I know this is a period of germination, that I’ll come out of it with more poems and maybe even better ones.

As for the blog, I’ve neglected it, putting on low priority. I’ve been preoccupied with other things. I belong to several writing groups and I hold an office and a state board position in one of them. These groups take time.


In a nutshell, I understand why some writers shut themselves away from any human contact when they’re writing. I find that difficult to do. I have too much going on in my life when I do that. 

Just recently, I wrote three new poems and I’ve started on another. I hope this is a sign that the dry time is over. Maybe the huge rains we’ve had recently has helped release the muse. It helps, as well, to read other poets. Often, reading poetry will generate a poem. How that works I don’t know, but I do know it works. I need to get my hands on the many poetry books I have on the end table next the table where I sit and start reading.

 Reading poets that I would never be able to emulate seems to trigger poems. Poets such as Alan Ginsberg and the poets in the City Lights anthology have set me off with a poem or two of my own. Of course, I don’t always understand what I read in a logical sense. What I do understand is that there is voice in these poems and words that intrigue a reader. I am left with an understanding that I don’t understand. Nothing logical, but something I know internally.

Now all I have to do is find the time and space to read those poets. I’ve had several days at home, but I had much catching up to do that didn’t involve poetry. Those days are ending. I may have to do what the late William Stafford said he did, get up at 4 a.m. and write in a quiet house with a cup of coffee heavily weighted down with Splenda and Half and Half at my elbow. I used to include a cigarette in the mix, but I quite smoking thirty-plus years ago, so I have to write cold turkey.


Inspiration: Where to Find It? What to Do with It?

I seem to go through certain periods when I have an abundance of inspiration for poems, but that inspiration doesn’t translate into poetry that’s worth doing anything with. Right now, I have several poems started, based on experiences I’ve had in the last few days. Yet, I can’t find a way to go forward. One poem idea came to me when I was leaving a Barnes and Noble Bookstore and saw a man pick up a book, Juggling for Dummies, that was on a shelf in the entrance to the store. A man in a suit on a weekday afternoon, he was leaving the store. However, he took some time to look at the book. It was an odd scene, somewhat like the man I saw in the produce section of the grocery store. That man was holding a perfect, round red tomato and gazing at it as if he’d never seen a tomato before. I stopped and looked at him, then walked by without him giving me a second’s notice. I did write a poem about that scene.

A couple of nights ago, I had insomnia. I used to spend many nights unable to sleep. Nowadays, that happens only rarely. However, when it does, it’s nightmarish. I have begun a poem called, “Sleepless,” a poem that so far has not taken off into poetic wonderfulness.

Some of my poems have come from odd sources of inspiration. Listening to my husband declaim about the trains or banks versus credit unions, looking at the back yard that he’s turned into a wonderland, reading a news article about a retired CIA agent who spoke at Wichita State University and who was the model for George Smiley in the John LeCarre novels. The last poem, “Somebody Is Always Watching,” won me $200. It was one of the first poems I wrote, so I was shocked that it was so successful. Another early poem that was published was inspired by a trip to Mexico I made in the 1960s.

Most of my poems have been written in one quick moment, after the moment of inspiration. This is true of almost everything I write—blog posts, letters to the editor, poetry. I often formulate what I’m going to write in my head, then type it onto a document in my computer. I think that has made me lazy.

It could be I need to change my approach. Maybe once I try another approach and stop depending so much on inspiration, my inspiration will bear fruit.