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Writer Wednesday – My first time, and why I gave up poetry

April 10, 2013

The first check I ever received for writing happened in high school. I got a check for $10. That was a lot of money in those days, as old people say. I was used to getting paid a penny a flat for gathering eggs. I was hooked.

It was the late 60s and our denominational magazine for Mennonite youth, WITH, had a writing contest and I submitted a poem and it was published. Here it is (the creative layout was the designer’s idea, not mine).


(Blow up the photo to read the text)

The editor of WITH at that time was Richard Kauffman, who went on to edit a series of Mennonite magazines and ended up as book review and senior editor at Christian Century. So I “knew” him back when. He keeps a very active Facebook feed which I enjoy and where we occasionally interact.

And my husband and I still have cats as you can see by my collection of cat photos. In fact, the “editor on my shoulder” is my boy Riley (all white Himalayan), who loves to watch me compose blogs and respond to manuscripts sitting on top of the printer in my home office.


Cats still cause me to ponder life, and their ways and our ways. I wonder if any magazine editor today would give my cat poem a second look. As an editor myself, we keep a blanket policy of never publishing poetry, to save ourselves from looking at “drivel,” as my creative writing teacher, Omar Eby, used to sniff about bad poetry.

That policy is kind of snobbish, I admit, but after trying unsuccessfully to market a collection of poetry (from other writers) called Heart to Heart Poetry Album II (because Mennonite Broadcasts, Inc., the name of my employer then, had first published Heart To Heart Poetry Album which sold tens of thousands of copies), we eventually dropped the project deciding that there was no longer a market for that kind of poetry. I sometimes think that too many readers have been put off too many times by hard-to-understand poetry, or turned off by overly sentimental and poorly rhyming stuff that is real in emotion but not polished in verse.

My own attempts at writing poetry came to a halt when I realized the same sentiments expressed in poetry could often be turned into prose and more people would read it (and buy it). I once illustrated this at a reading I gave to a poetry/writing group (with a lot of wanna be authors) in which I emphasized, perhaps not too astutely, that they may be able to find a market for their poetry by rewriting it as prose. I illustrated this by reading from my first book, On Troublesome Creek, which was built on journal entries written during a year of Voluntary Service in Kentucky; many of my journal entries were written in the typical style of a 19-year-old wanna be writer: quasi-poetry.


A page from my original Kentucky journal of “quasi” poetry, side by side with a comparable page in my first book, published by Herald Press.

This of course was heresy to a true poet, and there were a few really good writers/poets in that group. Juanita informed me it was a good thing I’d forsaken poetry because my “poetry” was better as prose.

Stung but not demoralized, I have not made a serious attempt at poetry since. And I forgave her when Juanita became a member of my church and I learned she was always outspoken about things.


If you are a fellow writer, what was your first time (being published)? Do you enjoy poetry? Do you buy it?


From → Writing Life

  1. I would agree that it’s well-nigh impossible to sell good poetry in today’s saturated market. It’s even harder to write it. And I also agree that the same ideas can often be expressed in prose … sometimes more memorably, more accessibly and more naturally.

    That said, to me the value in writing poetry–particularly when I discipline myself to choose a specific metrical pattern and rhyme scheme, then adhere strictly to those guidelines while avoiding stilted word choices or oddly inverted syntax–is that it informs my prose in ways that simply writing prose all the time does not. Even with free verse, and certainly with very short forms such as haiku, there’s an economy of words, a certain cadence you’re striving for, and the sheer abundance of the English vocabulary that challenges the writer to choose that one right word that is perfect for that line. With prose, there is more wiggle room for those choices, which can be both a blessing and a curse.

    Over the years, my readers have frequently commented that much of my prose reads like poetry. The reason, I think, is because I continue to write poetry for my own pleasure, for sharing with other writers, and because sometimes a poem really is the only way to express an idea or emotion.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post. I’ve thought about this subject a lot over the years; I appreciate the opportunity to hear your ideas and weigh in with my own.

  2. Ann, I’m glad you commented–I know you work very hard on your poetry and I truly admire that. You make excellent points! I’m sure the discipline improves any writing. It is certainly worth studying. I enjoyed many poems and writers studied in college and high school.

  3. I wanted to do a post-script or follow up announcing the release of an album of poetry from one of my EMU Literature professors, J. B. Landis. They are doing a book launch today! Congratulations to J.B. and for over 50 years of teaching at EMHS/EMC/EMU!!

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