Mary Harwell Sayler: 10 Ways a Writer’s Work Has Changed

A writer’s life didn’t use to focus on marketing or building a platform but on writing well and finding the most likely editors.

Source: Mary Harwell Sayler: 10 Ways a Writer’s Work Has Changed


Women on Poetry: Writing, Revising, Publishing and Teaching

If you would love to be in a crowd of poets where each literary artist gives you a woman’s perspective on writing, revising, publishing, and teaching poetry, this is it!

This is the book I wish I’d had when I began sending my poems to potential publishers – the book I wish I’d had before leading my first writing workshop or teaching poetic forms to a class of third graders or doing poetry readings. This book might have eased my search for role models and lessened my remorse over having to learn to market myself. This is the book that might have given me a realistic view of publishing to offset the assumptions made when I earned $35 for a single poem the first time a publisher accepted my work for publication over 30 years ago! Since then I’ve received many writer’s copies but almost no cash, eventually learning the hard way many of the helpful experiences and information you’ll find in this book.

Published by McFarland, who kindly gave me a copy to review, Women on Poetry: Writing, Revising, Publishing and Teaching presents 59 essays from an eclectic group of poets offering diverse approaches to poetry related to one of these general categories:

Part I
Our Writing Life – A Collective Voice

Part II
We Who Pass It On – Tips on Teaching

Part III
The Next Step – Publishing Our Poetry

Part IV
Just for Us – Essential Wisdom

To begin at the beginning, renowned poet Molly Peacock gives a word of advice in the Foreword that took me years of looking back to see! She said: “Noticing – the act of simple observation – lies at the foundation of lyric poetry. It is the precision of noticing that leads to the leaps of metaphor that thrill the readers of the art.”

Or, to say it another way: Neither a heightened imagination nor a high I.Q. mark a poet who writes with precision and freshness. However, the work of a poet who simply notices everything is apt to be brilliant!

For centuries though, the shine of a poet has typically spotlighted men who write, and so, as Editors Carol Smallwood, Collen S. Harris and Cynthia Brackett-Vincent explain in the Introduction, “It follows, then, that women poets may have a more difficult time thinking of themselves as ‘serious poets’ and have a more difficult time feeling comfortable promoting themselves as poets.”

That’s certainly been true for me. And yet, with the exception of my first-store-bought-book of poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay, the work of women poets often discouraged me in my early years of writing more than poetry by men! With too few female artists being anthologized or discussed in literature classes, I saw women poet-peers as wordy workers of words apt to go on and on in confessionals, suicidal thoughts, or exploration of their own body parts. Since none of that interested me, I filled my bookshelves with poetry from Auden to Yates with a little Zen thrown in until I gleefully discovered Mary Oliver, Jane Kenyon, Pattianne Rogers, Jorie Graham, Anna Akhmatova, and Denise Levertov as other-centered poets with whom I enjoyed keeping company and learning about the world at large.

I pray our peer base of female poets addressing universal subjects will widen as we read this highly recommended book and consider such topics as “The Fine Art of Revision,” “In Praise of the Chapbook,” “Writing Prompts,” and “Give ‘Em the Beat: Tips on Teaching Meter,” which also shows you how to revise a rhythmic poem to fit a metered form.

Also in the first two sections, one of my favorite chapters, “Fishing Lines, Dream Hieroglyphics: How to Begin a Poem,” provides “Twelve Ways to Jump Start a Poem,” with suggestions ranging from browsing a dictionary (which Billy Collins has reportedly done) to listening to music (which T.S. Eliot was known to do.) For me, observing nature (which Mary Oliver does) jumpstarted at least two book of poems and intense Bible study another.

To keep learning and improving our poetry, the works of other poets can continue to inform and inspire us, hopefully, throughout our long poetic lives. I also want to support poetry in the arts, but after buying hundreds of poetry books, chapbooks, and anthologies, I decided to support my habit by requesting review copies from traditional publishers whose work I already know I like. Studying those books and seeing what works and what does not cannot help but help my own poetry, and I like the idea of helping other poets as you’ll be encouraged to do in the essay on “How – and Why – to Write Book Reviews.”

I’ve merely highlighted a few of my Favs here, but in Women on Poetry, you can expect to find a wealth of preferences and practices by over 40 poets whose ideas on writing, revising, publishing, and teaching will guide you and your poetic writing life.

© 2014, Mary Sayler is poet-author of Outside Eden, Beach Songs & Wood Chimes, and Living in the Nature Poem in print and in an e-book on Kindle. Mary also works with other poets through the Contact & Critiques page on her website.

Women on Poetry: Writing, Revising, Publishing and Teaching, paperback


Or call the order line for McFarland – 800-253-2187.

Dancing on the Head of a Pen: book review

The enticing title, Dancing on the Head of a Pen: The Practice of a Writing Life by Robert Benson, drew me to request a review copy from Blogging for Books – a site that provides review copies of a variety of books in exchange for an honest assessment. Fortunately, that’s what I aim to provide, whether I’m discussing a new edition of the Bible or reviewing a traditionally published poetry book or a book about the writing life in general, as happens here.

Published by Waterbrook Press, this particular book also appealed to me because the author knows how to write! That might seem to be an obvious prerequisite, but I’ve discovered a new world of newbie writers who blog about writing and sometimes pass along assumptions, rather than reliable information. Conversely, Robert Benson has written many books and knows the in’s and out’s of writing and publishing. So, believe him when he says: “Most of the time, writing a book more closely resembles digging a ditch than participating in some transcendent creative experience.”

How we go about “digging” depends on what we dig. As Benson says, “Any of us – writer, designer, potter, painter, sculptor, architect, and on and on – wisely studies the habits practiced by the artists who inspire us in the first place. Those habits can guide us as we try to learn to do the work ourselves.”

For each of us, the work and surrounding habits will differ, not only from one another but also our own earlier selves as we experiment, pick up ideas, and find workable ways to write and continually improve our work. Most of us, though, will do well to heed Benson’s call to be quiet.

As he explains, “Solitude is likely necessary to be in touch with the things deep inside you. Silence may be required for you to hear what those things are saying to you. Do not be afraid to be quiet. Never be afraid to be alone./ Wandering around in wide-open spaces, especially spaces offered by a blank page, may be the key to making some art of those things found in the silence and the solitude.”

By now, you may be wondering if this book provides a devotional guide or tips on writing or suggestions for establishing your own routine or more than the sum of those parts, and to all, the answer is: Yes!

Once we’ve heard ourselves think enough to know what we’re to write next, we have to decide what type of writer we want to be. Like Benson, “I want to write. I may even need to write. But I want to be read as well.”

Knowing this about ourselves helps us to know whether we want to write for publication. If so, we need to have some type of reader in mind and some idea of whether anyone else might be interested in our chosen topic.

The author says, “When I begin to write a book, I ask myself some questions. Who do I think might read the writing I am about to do? Who do I expect to be interested in the stories I am trying to tell? Who do I hope will discover and enjoy and be moved by them?” And always, “Write for those you love.”

As Benson also says, “A writer has three jobs. Write the work. Make the work as good as possible. Find the work a home and a crowd of folks to love it.”

More than this, however, Robert Benson tells us, “I spend most of my time, metaphorically speaking, as a kind of explorer, out wandering around in the philosophical dark, lost in the spiritual words, searching for a deep something I often cannot even name, following trails leading to dead ends and darkness as often as not.” But then, “The spiritual life is not so much about answers as it is about better questions. Writing can be the same.”

©2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer, authored 26 books in all genres, primarily for Christian and educational markets, before writing the Christian Writer’s Guide e-book on Kindle.

Dancing on the Head of a Pen, hardcover


Resolutions for sober poets in the New Year

The word sober means clear-headed, so as you approach the New Year clearly ahead, consider what you hope 2012 will bring for your poetry and your life as a poet. For example, do you want:

A book of poems published by a traditional poetry publisher?

A published chapbook?

The top award in a reputable poetry contest?

A self-published poetry book?

Each of those goals requires some clear-headed thinking. For instance, a book will be more likely to be accepted by an editor if you have 50 to 120 pages of your best poems ready to go to a publisher who publishes that very type of poetry. Similarly, a chapbook will be more likely to place if you have 18 to 24 poems centered on a single theme that interests your potential publisher.

Manuscripts of poems can also be submitted to a contest for books or chapbooks, either of which you can locate in Poets & Writers’ online classifieds. For individual poems prepared to compete, consider entering the international contest sponsored each year by Since I’m one of the judges in that competition though, be sure you do not submit poems I have previously edited or critiqued.

You have more control over the outcome of your goals as a poet if you self-publish, but please, please do not do this until you have gotten a critique or poetry edit.

Regardless of your personal goal as a poet, a New Year’s resolution can re-solve or revisit solutions you believe to be most needed for you and your poetry. So keep on writing. Keep on reading your poems and each revision aloud. Then be soberly honest with yourself as you clearly see where you want you and your poems to head during the coming year.


For additional suggestions from previous months, see these helpful posts:

Sending your poems to poetry journals

Start your New Year with new tools for writing and revising your poems

Line breaks can make or break your poem

Scan a poem. Catch the beat. Change the rhythm as you revise.

Righting haiku and writing syllabic verse

Revising your poetry can be a smooth move.

Three techniques for revising your poems

© 2011, Mary Harwell Sayler, all rights reserved. God bless you and your New Year!

Three techniques for revising your poems

Poetry revisions sometimes occur with a new vision or “Aha!” moment, which can lead a poet to rewrite a poem, rather than revise. If, however, the poem just needs a little tweaking, these techniques can help you to revise: connection, compression, precision.


Does the “I” of the poem present an exclusive incident that readers won’t relate to or recognize as their experience too? If so, find a way to connect the poem with common concerns, interests, and encounters that most people have.

Also, see what happens if you change the viewpoint from the first person to the second person account to make the poem more personal to each “you” whom you address. Or, try switching the perspective to third person, so “they” will become what you the poet and I the reader can witness together.


Does the poem go on too long? Traditionally, print publications only have space for X number of lines on the page, and readers seem to prefer this too. By decreasing the word count, you often increase editorial interest and generate more interest from busy readers, but quite likely, you will also increase the rhythmic flow and literary quality of the poem.


As you read your poem aloud, listen for the sound and sense. Ask yourself:

Does each word and sentence speak with clarity?

Is there another phrase or word choice that would be more precise?

Is there a synonym that repeats the sound of nearby consonants or echoes vowels, thereby increasing musicality?

Would another word add connotations and deepen the meaning of the poem?

© 2011, Mary Harwell Sayler
All rights reserved.


Poetry Revision: Less can bring more to a poem

One of my favorite poems came about as a poet re-envisioned a scene he had originally tried to capture in 30 lines. Since those lines did not begin to show what he saw, he tore up the poem and, six months later, tried again. Instead of using more words, however, the poet wrote a poem of half the original length, but that version still did not show readers what he wanted them to see. Another six months went by as he looked, not for more words, but for the essence of the scene – the color, the beauty, the movement, the energy, and so, one year after he had first noticed a bouquet of lovely faces at the train station in 1911 Paris, Ezra Pound completed this poem in two exquisite lines:

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals, on a wet, black bough.

Pound talks about his initial vision and his re-vision process in an essay posted on the Internet by Modern American Poetry. That webpage, which is well worth reading, also includes essays, literary criticism, and commentaries by various poets and poetry critics on the poem and the poet’s brilliant choice of words.

If you go on to read the biography of Pound located on the website, too, you might wonder why this free-spirited, free-willed, visually-oriented man became such good friends with the anxious, cerebral, musically-oriented poet T.S. Eliot. Perhaps being unlike each other drew them into an unlikely friendship as they became the ideal poet-peers for offering each other feedback on their poems.

For example, Eliot counted on Pound to say what he really thought about The Waste Land even though he pounded home the importance of being fresh and not competing with couplets that, a couple of centuries earlier, Alexander Pope had handled with greater skill!

Again, the Modern American Poetry site posts an essay discussing the revision of Eliot’s famous book-length poem The Waste Land, and larger bookstores often stock an edition of the poem that includes annotations by Ezra Pound. Studying the comments and suggestions that one brilliant poet made to another provides an excellent mini-course in revision.

© 2011, Mary Harwell Sayler
All rights reserved.


Revising your poetry can be a smooth move

Occasionally a poem presents itself in full, so the poet does not need to change a thing. Usually, though, revising a poem can coax out something hidden or work out rough spots, making the revision – literally – a smooth move.

Unless a poem calls too much attention to its shiny self, a well-polished poem may be more likely to gain a positive response from editors of poetry journals, anthologies, and e-zines.

To help your poems find their full potential:

First, make and keep a copy of the original. Refer back to this as needed.

Let each poem sit and rest. Later, when you return to the work, treat the poem as if someone else had written every line.

Clarify meaning. As you put aside a poem, you might forget the exact wording or initial train of thought, but both should be clear when you go back to re-read. If not, recast lines or change any words that cause confusion.

Keep an eye out for errors. If you have trouble proofreading your poems for errors in grammar, syntax, spelling, or punctuation, you might consider such word processing software as Microsoft Word, which includes those editorial features. Or, for a reasonable fee, The Poetry Editor will edit your final revision of your poems and offer feedback too.

Keep an ear out for musicality. Read each version of the poem aloud and listen to its rhythm. Sometimes, just switching a word or line can change the rhythmic flow or smooth out a bumpy beat.

Play with line-breaks in free verse. For suggestions about where and when to break a line, see previous articles on this blog such as, “Breaking line with free verse” and “Line breaks can make or break your poem.”

Avoid overworking a poem. Too much revision can douse that spark of spontaneity that began the poem. If you suspect this has happened, set aside both the revised version and the original poem, then resume your revision when you no longer recall every aspect of the poem.

Read aloud each version. If something seems “off,” diagnose what and where as accurately as possible, so you can correct the problem. If that does not work, put the revision aside, focus on another poem, and, if need be, find another perspective.

Get professional feedback on your poetry. Another poet whose work you respect – and whom you can trust to respect yours – can often pinpoint flaws and also recognize and encourage your poetic strengths, which helps you to improve your poems in general.

Use reliable resources for poets.

For more suggestions about revising, look for previous articles on The Poetry Editor blog such as, “Getting A New Vision For Your Re-Vision” and
Editing, Revising, and Otherwise Improving Your Poems.”

If you have found something workable that helps you to revise, add your tip, suggestion, or other encouraging word to poets in the Comments space below. Thanks – and have fun playing with words and lines and fresh visions in each re-vision.

(c) 2011, Mary Sayler

Righting haiku and writing syllabic verse

Writing poems usually means letting the lines flow onto a page or into a computer then going back later to revise. At that point, it usually helps to read your work aloud, listen to the poem, hear the form that seems to suit it best, then recast the words or lines until you have lively line breaks in a free verse poem or the formal form found in a heavily structured pattern such as a traditional sonnet, limerick, or villanelle.

You can revise or rework a poem to get haiku and other types of syllabic poetry too. More likely though, a poem that’s based on the number of syllables per line will start, not as you tap your foot or count feet into lines of regular meter, but as you count each syllable on your fingertips.

Take haiku, for example. To write those three lines of traditional Asian verse, you need 5 syllables on the first line, 7 on the second, and 5 on the third. Traditionally, you need to refer to some season of the year, too, touching your pen lightly to the scene you sketch, quickly and exquisitely, with your words.

Knowing the background of any type of poetry can help you to write or revise well. For instance, haiku comes from ancient cultures that developed the form as a means of entertainment at social events, so a traditionally written haiku often has the levity found in party talk.

Assuming you do not readily read Japanese or Chinese poems in their original languages, your introduction to haiku will probably come through one of the excellent translations found, many centuries later, in most bookstores today. This means, however, that poems translated from one language to another will vary in the original syllabic count. So an English version of an ancient poem, say, by Basho might have 2/4/2 syllables on their respective lines, rather than the 5/7/5 syllables the poet initially used.

Over the years, poets who write in English have varied the count of syllables and the number of lines, omitted seasonal references, handled hot and heavy subjects, and called it haiku, when they really have their own innovative verse set as a short syllabic poem. What you do is up to you, of course, and also the editors of journals or e-zines where you plan to send your haiku in hopes of getting published. Personally, though, I prefer the original 5/7/5 form because of the appealing pattern but also because, when I write haiku regularly, the words and thoughts just seem to fall into that mathematic formula or sound.

Actually, the same can be said for writing in traditional English forms that rely on, say, iambic pentameter. After a while, the lines seem to slip into your thoughts, already shaped into your chosen meter.

You can find out more about formal and informal poetic possibilities in the e-book version of the poetry home study course I wrote and used for years in working with other poets but also in the poetry dictionary e-book shown on this page too.

(c) 2011, Mary Harwell Sayler

Poetry Critique of “Pretentious” with notes on metaphor, simile, and compression

Every poem differs, of course, so each offers us an opportunity to look at one of the many choices we have in revising before submitting our work to a traditional print journal or e-zine.

This poem, for example, shows signs of simile ready to ripen with each “as” or “like.”

by Celestine McMullen Allen

Pretend is the game we play
When we want to hide within ourselves
The games are fantasy
A world not visible to all
Play like, fooling the self
Actions of life are like playing tag
We envision the world as a tea cup
Porcelain dolls and rugby brutes

Most people will identify with this poem and the pretend games people play, which gives the poem strong reader identification. The poem then deepens that observation with an insight, “When we want to hide within ourselves” – a line that establishes the poet’s credibility and, again, connects with readers.

Making a connection and being credible will draw readers to your work in any genre. In addition to those desirable traits, comparing this to that with “like” or “as” is an effective poetic device poets have practiced for centuries. Here, for example, the line, “We envision the world as a tea cup,” evokes all sorts of thoughts and visual possibilities aside from the tea party that the context brings to mind. Besides that, I love the line so much, I wonder if it might become the first line of a separate poem in order to develop the thought fully.

My unease with the poem concerns the use of capital letters at the beginning of each line. Since line breaks already separate the lines, there’s no need to mark those line breaks with a capital letter, which, usually, marks the beginning of each sentence, while a period (.) clearly marks the end. So unless a particular reason exists to change the norm, normal punctuation will normally clarify meaning and guide readers in their reading.

My other concern has to do with flat statements – a problem that can be overcome in a couple of ways. For example, metaphor and simile could be developed, so each verb, noun, or modifier connects with the overall picture. This would also lessen the need for passive verbs in various forms of “to be” (i.e., is, was, were.)

Here, though, the whole poem can be considered a metaphor for life as a game, whether “pretend” games or active ones of playing tag. Therefore, I’d be more apt to find another way to overcome the feel of flat statements. For example, compression can help a sentence to sound more poetic.

Since compression removes the small words needed to be clear, a problem arises with clarity, but that can be solved by tabbing some of the lines over to the right (which Blogspot will not let me do!) Or we can use capital letters and line spacing to separate the thoughts, which also removes the need for punctuation.

Other solutions exist, so don’t lock your poems in too soon. For now, however, here’s what compressions does:


the game we play

hiding within ourselves


invisible world

fooling the self

Actions of life

play tag

play rugby

play with porcelain dolls

the world as a tea cup

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