It is my pleasure to introduce today poet par excellence Wilda Morris, who contributed two superb poems to the Sisters Born, Sisters Found anthology. Much of the advice she offers herein applies to any type of writing, not just poetry. After reading this Q&A, you just might want to visit Illinois to attend one of her workshops.
What piqued your interest in poetry, and when did you start writing your own poems?
When I was a child, my grandmother recited a lot of poetry. Her recitations could be very dramatic (especially when she recited “Lasca” by Frank Desprez) and very moving (“The Blue and the Gray” by Francis Miles Finch or “Abou Ben Adhem” by James Leigh Hunt). Mother also loved poetry. She sometimes recited poems and often read them aloud.
You majored in political science in college. What is it that pulled you to that area instead of poetry at that time?
Until I was in Junior High, we lived with my grandparents. My grandfather was hard of hearing, and spent a lot of time listening to news on the radio (with the sound turned up). When the Jewel Tea man delivered coffee cake mixes and other goodies to our home, he and Grandfather sat for a long time discussing politics. Also, I had excellent social studies teachers at Iowa City High School. Maybe, too, the fact that the recent presidential election was so close that we all went to bed thinking Dewey had won and woke up to the news that Harry Truman had been elected. I found politics fascinating.
At what point in your life did poetry become a major passion?
I wrote and published some poems in the early years of our marriage, but two things converged to push me more deeply into the poetry world. In 1992, my oldest granddaughter died just before her seventh birthday. I needed some way to deal with and express my feelings. A couple of years later, I began volunteering at the Green Lake Conference Center in Wisconsin, and attending the writers’ conference there. At that time, they had workshops specifically devoted to poetry. Leaders such as Gerri McCormick, Lenore Coberly and Ellen Kort provided instruction and encouragement. By sometime in the 1990s, I found the Illinois State Poetry Society and became seriously involved with the poetry community
What made you decide to submit your poetry to the Sisters Born, Sisters Found anthology?
I love my biological sisters, the sisters I gained through marriage, and a number of women with whom I have developed a sister-relationship. It seemed like a good fit
You’ve been published extensively in anthologies, journals, newspapers and websites. Is it important for poets to be published in such venues as opposed to only being published in collections of their own work? Why or why not?
Book publication is difficult. Chapbooks and larger collections of poems tend to be centered on specific themes. I write a lot of poems that don’t fit neatly into such collections. They may fit into the theme of an anthology or be suitable for another venue. Also, these publications bring me into community with other poets across the U.S. and around the world.
How would you describe your body of work?
I’m a rather eclectic poet. I write on many topics—nature, social issues, travel, my favorite uncle and other family subjects, memories, etc. I write serious and humorous poems. Mostly I write free verse, but I also enjoy the challenge of trying out such forms as sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, Lil Anns and pantoums. Recently I wrote my first nonet and my first rictameter.
You are secretary and past president of the Illinois State Poetry Society, as well as workshop chair and past president of Poets & Patrons of Chicago. What motivates you to contribute to these organizations? Why are they important? What benefits do they provide to poets and to the public?
ISPS and P&P have both helped me hone my craft. They provide instruction and critique, as well as networking opportunity, contests, and publication possibilities. I think poets who benefit from organizations should, if they can, give back to the poetry community.
What can a poet gain from attending workshops, classes and conferences?
Some workshops, such as those I’ve attended with Robin Chapman and Marilyn Taylor, focus on producing new material or working toward completion of ongoing projects. Others, such as the San Miguel Poetry Week in Mexico, focus more on critique, helping participants improve the poems they bring. I find both approaches helpful. It is important for participants to remember, though, that the poems they write are their own work and should retain their voice. Listen to the critique that is offered, without being defensive or taking it personally. You don’t have to decide immediately. Think it over and come back to the poem a few days later. If the suggestions seem to improve the poem, make the appropriate changes. If not, shrug them off (or file them away to look at after the poem has been rejected by a dozen publishers).
You’ve taught poetry workshops in Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa. What motivates you to teach other poets?
I teach poetry workshops for several reasons. It is a way to give back, to help others nurture their poetry skills as others have helped me. I love—and believe I have a gift for—teaching. Combine that with a passion for poetry, and it seems an appropriate activity. I learn from the participants in my workshops and have developed some wonderful sister-relationships through them.
On your blog, http://wildamorris.blogspot.com, you offer a poetry challenge for other poets each month. Why do you do this, and what is rewarding about it?
I have seen evidence of growth in poetic craft from some people who submit poems to my blog periodically over the years. Some of the winners published on my blog have already published numerous poems. For others, their winning poem was their first or second publication. It gave them encouragement to continue honing their craft. I feel I know some of the poets who have submitted frequently—one woman even sent me some of her home-made jam. I feel a sense of sisterhood with her.
What advice do you have for fledgling poets, young and old, today? What are some good places for them to submit work?
First, find a few books of poetry that you like, and begin reading some poetry every day. If you read poetry regularly, the cadences, the verbal musicality of good poetry begins to infiltrate your mind and heart. If you want to write sonnets, get an edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets and some modern sonnets, such as those by Marilyn Taylor, Debra Bruce and Annie Finch. Read, read, read sonnets until you almost think in sonnets. If you want to write free verse, spend a day at the library or bookstore perusing books of free verse, and check out or purchase some you like. Good free verse, too, has musicality.
Second, find or start a writing group. I belong to some groups where we get together to write. In one group, we all bring our own ideas and projects, but we sit together and drink coffee or tea at an establishment that has WiFi. When we finish drafts of poems, we email them to each other for feedback. In another small group, we take turns bringing a prompt and each try to draft a poem from the prompt. ISPS chapters take another approach: each person brings copies of two or three poems on which they are working. The poems are discussed, and suggestions are made for possible improvements or experiments. Most poets, fledgling or more advanced, can benefit from belonging to one or more small groups. You will want to find a group that is congenial to you personally, and that takes an approach that works for you.
Third, for the fledgling poet, I recommend The Poetry Home Repair Manuel by former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser. It helps to learn poetic tools, but also to remember that there are no fixed rules that everyone must follow. Poets like Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson are noted in the history of poetry because they didn’t follow all the accepted rules, and thus changed poetry.
Fourth, consider attending a poetry workshop.
What if a person just doesn’t like poetry?
Many people today say that they don’t like poetry. I suspect that is often because of the way it was taught in school. Sometimes students are pushed to analyze the heart out of a poem. Or they may be assigned to write in a certain form, or given heartless and negative feedback. Personally I don’t think that students’ early attempts at any of the arts should receive grades. It is better if the teacher points out something positive about their effort and encourages them to keep writing (or painting, or whatever). The other problem is that much “modern” poetry is not particularly accessible. A person may try to read some poems and give up. If they had found the work of Billy Collins, Lisel Mueller, or Jane Kenyon, they might have been more enthusiastic. My husband always said he really didn’t like poetry, but he purchased a book by Stanley Kunitz after hearing him read some of his work on television. I suspect most people would like at least some poetry; it is a matter of whose work they are introduced to, read or hear.
Thank you, Wilda, for taking time to do this interview with me.
Wilda Morris has three sisters by birth and two by marriage, and several found sisters. Workshop Chair for Poets & Patrons of Chicago and Past President of the Illinois State Poetry Society, Wilda has led poetry workshops for children and for adults in three states. She chairs the Stevens Poetry Manuscript Competition for the National Federation of State Poetry Societies. Wilda’s book, Szechwan Shrimp and Fortune Cookies: Poems from a Chinese Restaurant, was published by Rockford Writers’ Guild Press. Wilda Morris’s Poetry Challenge, at http://wildamorris.blogspot.com/, provides monthly contests for poets.