Friday, August 22, 2008


A few months back, I received a review copy of ‘Unleash the Poem Within’ and I loved it. I wrote a short blog about it here in July. Then I wrote to the author, Wendy Nyemaster, with questions about her unique book concept as well as her personal journey as a writer/poet. Her answers are below.

As you read, you’ll learn that this was a very personal journey for Wendy as well as the other contributors to her book, the Poetry Posse.

During the last few months, I’ve been going through my own difficulties and I have to say, that Wendy’s book helped me, too. I wrote a few poems and seeing my feelings as words on a page, helped. So the idea came to me that maybe other women out there would like to try their hands at a little poetic self-help. How about you?

Would you describe yourself as a poet or a writer?
Writer because I write a lot of different things other than poetry.

Tell me about your journey as a writer. Where did it start? Where are you now?
It seems like I’ve always been drawn to writing, but I can specifically remember thinking “I want to be a writer” in the third grade. I read A Wrinkle in Time and thought, wow. I have found immense comfort, inspiration, and direction in writing—both my own and that of others—since I can remember thinking. And I’m not sure which one came first for me: reading, writing, or thinking. I’m not sure it was even a conscious choice. I have simply known that write is what I am supposed to do. I have never been as sure of anything else in my life. I’m still finding how I am best heard, but I’ve always known writing was my path to follow. But, for a long time, I tried to pretend I didn’t hear its whisper because I thought what if I fail? What if I’m no good at this thing I want so desperately? To never try was to pretend I still could. When my husband and I separated after ten years of marriage, I had to redefine myself. I had a shock of cold water that forced me to see if I could swim. I also was just mad enough to want to do something big to show him that I could. That’s when I got the idea for Unleash the Poem Within. I started writing it, got an agent, and here it is. After its publication, I didn’t feel relieved or accomplished—instead I was hit with a very heavy now what? feeling. I stopped actively writing on that project in March of 07; it was published in April 08, and I just now, here in August of 08 have an idea of what to work on next. It wasn’t exactly writer’s block, but I just didn’t know where to go. I’ve got another nonfiction idea with my agent now, and while he’s shopping that around, I am working on a novel. But, I still write poetry more often than any other thing. It not only helps me express myself, but it gets my creative juices flowing so that I can work on other things. Where I am now is never stop writing. That is the only way I feel like I am moving forward in my life, no matter how well things are going in different areas. I simply have to write. And most of the time that starts with a poem.

Some of us express ourselves with painting, sculpture, journal writing, or fiber art, would you say that poetry was your way to self-expression?
Absolutely poetry is my way to self-expression—as well as self-exploration. I’m not sure I know how I think about something or what I think of it until I try to write a poem about it. It also helps me be creative in all other writing areas. I find that writing poetry opens up the valves for all kinds of wonderful writing to rush out.

You say that you wrote sonnets before you knew what they were, what got you started writing poetry?
I honestly don’t know! My mom says she always remembers me adding little groups of words, little “poems” with every picture I drew from about six on. When I was in high school, I wrote the most ridiculous “sonnets,” meaning rhymed groups of stanzas. My friends and I would exchange them. Since then, it’s not even a conscious thing. Sometimes my words come out in verse. As I explore poetry more, especially since I was blessed enough to write the book, I experiment with different forms. And that to me is not only great fun but also amazingly revealing.

How did it help you?
Poetry specifically helped me get through my separation. Before that, it helped me get over a post-partum depression I didn’t have a name for. I believe in God. That’s my belief. And I believe that God gave me poetry to get me through the tough stuff. That’s why I say it’s not even conscious sometimes. I think its God’s gift to me. That’s not to say I claim to be terribly gifted at it, it is to say God has given me this outlet to see me to the other side. Now, additionally, poetry helps me keep writing. As I said, it clears the way for so much additional writing to come through.

Poetry as self-help is a unique approach, what gave you the idea to write a book about it?
Because it has helped me personally through some pretty big, tough stuff, as I mentioned—my separation after ten years of marriage, post-partum depression—as well as the everyday struggles that come up. I thought if it’s been this helpful to me, perhaps it might be helpful to others. I knew I couldn’t write a book, especially my first, about something I didn’t believe in. Poetry as self-help seemed the perfect subject.

You describe different kinds of poems in your book as being helpful with different types of personal situations…can you give me a few examples?
The sonnet has a natural affinity for helping with emotional situations. This tradition goes back as far as the sonnet goes back. It helped both myself and another Posse member with marital difficulties. My world was obliterated when my marriage was unraveling, it felt like I couldn’t grab a string connected to anything. Sitting down and going through all my emotions—anger, betrayal, loss, etc—and finding the ones that fit my poem meant I felt like I fit. I simply didn’t feel so overwhelmed and lost. I felt like I had more control since I could identify and sort though what I was feeling. And when I knew what I was feeling, I knew better what I wanted to see happen. I felt like when I could write it in a poem, I could name it and wrap that string around it. The other Posse member who wrote her poem anonymously, the only way she could be true to what she needed to say, too was experiencing difficulties in her marriage. It helped her to give words to a vague, looming heaviness. When she had the words, the heaviness lifted. So, the sonnet, in my experience, is great for emotional situations.

Lori, one of the Posse, was having some issues with money—too much debt to be specific. When she chose that as her subject for the list poem, she was challenging herself to delve into it. The list poem is a form that is very unrestrictive as far as “rules” go, but is still a poem, so there’s a process to it. Dissecting the issue into lines helped Lori grasp some of the emotions behind the problem. This was really inspiring to me, to choose something we don’t really like to talk about, something that admits personal weakness. She knew it was a problem and was really courageous to put it out there. The list poem is easy to write and great for these everyday, not-very-poetic issues that can hold us back.

The letter poem is a great way to let something go that might be holding you down—like guilt. Nikki dealt with the guilt she felt at her Aunt Arla’s passing. You can choose a form to help with your letter, or use free verse. This process is incredibly cathartic. When I was writing the book, I would divide the Posse up into groups, working on two chapters at a time. So, half of the Posse didn’t see half of the book. When Lori read it in its entirety, she came across Nikki’s poem, one she hadn’t seen or read before. As it turns out, the exact same thing happened to her! Lori and Nikki come from two totally different backgrounds and are at completely different places in their lives, yet share this common experience. Lori’s aunt died of ovarian cancer, caught too late, just like Nikki’s Aunt Arla. She had the same overwhelming guilt as Nikki. Lori said she was very emotional reading Nikki’s poem. And even though it wasn’t her own, she could let some of her own guilt go through Nikki. She said it was like reading her own poem.

In each chapter, you include a different form of poetry, examples from famous poets, your ‘poetry posse’ as well as music suggestions, why the music tracks?
As I say in the book, to me music and poetry are so similar. Perhaps music is poetry with instruments, and perhaps poetry is music without instruments. Music inspires me all the time to write a poem. So again, it’s a mode of inspiration that works for me, and I thought it might for others as well.

Tell me about your ‘poetry posse’.
The Posse is a group of ordinary women, some who had dabbled in poetry here and there and some who had never written a poem—ever. But it was important to me to get my point across to show that poetry really can help. And to do that, I had to gather a group of women to prove it. I could have pulled examples from famous poets, but this was different. This was a way to use poetry in every day life with every day problems. So I needed every day women. Some of the Posse are my friends (one going back to middle school!), some my family, and some I have never even met, as they came into the group through my friends or family. I made the conscious decision to make it as diverse a group as I could. They are all so brave for taking this journey with me. Can you imagine asking someone to write a poem, who has never written poetry before, and oh, by the way, it’s going to be published? But gamely, each and every one of them put themselves out there and learned a lot as a result.

I’d love to have you work with me and a few other women to discover more about ourselves and our lives through poetry. How about it?
Yes! I would absolutely adore the opportunity to do that.

1 comment:

Janet Grace Riehl said...

Susan, thanks for inviting me to read and comment on this post. I've read WEndy Nyemater's "Unleash the Poem Within" and do like it a lot. It's very well organized and presents the feeling that poetry is for the populace--poetry for all, not just an elite few.

Since poetry is often linked directly with emotions and expressions, writing poetry during personal hard times makes tons of sense.

Janet Riehl