New Year’s Day is a time typically reserved for watching football, looking ahead, eating black-eyed peas and, for some, recovering from the debauchery of the previous night.
On that day in 2014, however, Wacoan Managing Editor Megan Willome was conducting business. She received an email at 7 a.m. from L.L. Barkat, the founder and managing editor of T.S. Poetry Press, a small publishing house that emphasizes “poetry for life.” That early-morning email was a contract for a book. By 10 a.m., Willome had signed the contract and sent it back.
“L.L. Barkat contacted me on New Year’s Day 2014 and asked if I would write this book,” Willome said. “When you’re a small publisher, you eat, sleep and dream it. She had the title and cover, and woke up at 4 in the morning, thinking who should write the book.”
And Willome’s book, “The Joy of Poetry: How to Keep, Save & Make Your Life with Poems,” was published in April. This April marked the 20th anniversary of National Poetry Month, and the publisher wanted the book’s debut to coincide with this year’s celebration of all things poetry.
The book is dedicated to Willome’s mother, Merry Nell Drummond, who died on March 3, 2010. The book weaves parts of her life, illness and death with Willome’s reflections and poems, along with poems by others. It’s “a memoir with a bunch of poems in it,” she said.
“After [my mother] died, a lot of people, a lot of her friends, wanted me to write a book about her,” Willome said. “I kept saying no. I know enough about the publishing industry to know a basic cancer biography is not going to be very interesting, unless you’re a celebrity or you’re a fantastic writer. But they wanted to honor her, so when I got this opportunity to write this book, that’s when I realized, ‘Hmm, this is a way to put these together.’”
Willome began working on the book shortly after that New Year’s Day.
“I started looking at different things I had written about on the Tweetspeak poetry blog, looking at my love of poetry and how that might be translated to people who are writers but don’t like poetry,” she said.
And Willome definitely remembers the day she submitted the first draft of her book.
“I worked on it through the iconic Baylor-TCU, 61-58 game,” she said. “I turned it in that weekend.”
This was the game the Bears won with a 28-yard field goal in the fourth quarter. About a month later, Willome received her first feedback from the publisher: “Nope. This just does not work at all.”
“At that point, the stuff about my mom was not in the book at all,” Willome said. “The feedback was, and now I agree with it, it read like a series of disconnected blog posts … I obviously missed the boat.”
Willome and Barkat discussed the book over the phone. The editor told Willome she was welcome to write about her mother. Willome said she could do that all day.
“I started rewriting and I rewrote last year, basically during the seasons of Lent and Easter,” Willome said. “I turned it in on Ascension Day.”
According to the Christian calendar, Ascension Day — 39 days after Easter — is the day the church commemorates the ascension of Jesus into heaven.
On the Tweetspeak poetry blog, Willome had posted 72 poems during the three years prior to her mother’s death.
“A lot of people had read them. Family, friends, poetry people,” Willome said. “I had a pretty good idea which ones people liked and I had gotten good feedback on. All of those are the ones that are in the book.”
She resubmitted her manuscript; the publisher loved it and asked for three additional chapters. Those were ready by the end of June.
Willome said her best writing occurred early in the mornings, after she walked her dogs Clover and Polo, who are both terrier mixes. Willome would move her adjustable desk outside if the weather was nice, and then write for an hour and five minutes.
“That’s one of my weirdnesses,” she said, laughing. “When I go for bike rides, my timer is set for an hour and five. And anything good I’ve ever written has come out after walking the dogs in the morning.”
Willome said she has two people to “blame” for her love of poetry: Baylor professor Robert Darden and radio host Garrison Keillor.
“I was one of Darden’s early students in professional writing, when he was in the [Baylor] English department,” Willome said. “I remember [Darden] doing a class one day about writing rituals and sharing what a bunch of writers’ rituals were. But I didn’t get serious about writing until after college and after I had kids.”
That occurred in 2000, when KWBU-FM in Waco became an affiliate of National Public Radio. Each day at noon, the station would air a five-minute program called “The Writer’s Almanac.” Keillor, who is also the longtime host of “Prairie Home Companion,” would talk about writers who celebrated a birthday on that particular date. Then he would read a short poem.
“I started reading a poem a day in 2000, and it kind of grew from there,” Willome said.
Drummond had first been diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 35. It returned three years later, but this time in her cervical vertebra. After treatment, she had “a lovely pause,” as Willome calls it in her book, of 23 years. In 2010 doctors discovered cancer in Drummond’s liver.
“I listened to a podcast by Brené Brown, and she said she never writes about anything personal in a book until she’s dealt with it,” Willome said. “It had been five years since [my mother] died. I had worked through it by writing the poems. I got to tell stories about my mom.”
While there are several of Willome’s original poems in the book, she also includes works by numerous other authors. It was a painstaking process to obtain permission to include poems that were not in the public domain.
“Oh, my gosh. It was a beast,” Willome said of the process. “I had no idea what I was getting into. There were a lot of poems I wanted to use that I couldn’t afford.”
There was one children’s poem, “Write About a Radish …” by Karla Kuskin, Willome was willing to pay almost any amount to use.
“I cannot live without that,” Willome said of the poem.
Many poets happily granted rights to their writings. John Lucas, the English publisher of Helena Nelson’s poem “With My Mother, Missing the Train,” even replied with a polite handwritten note:
“Yes, of course, you may have my permission to use Nell’s poem. Hope the book goes well.”
“There were many great moments like that,” Willome said.
On page 142 of “The Joy of Poetry,” Willome writes:
Why poetry? For nothing.
Here’s a secret: Poetry is useless. So are a lot
Things – “wet sand,” “half-bald tennis
balls,” “green turbulence.”
We don’t need poetry. Which is exactly why
we need it.
Willome describes poetry: “I’m getting a chance to read something where every word has been picked with care. And every line break has a reason. To me, that’s what you’re getting from poetry. Small but really, really good. Some of those images or maybe just a line, sometimes it’s just what I need, something I want to hold on to.”
Read more about Willome and “The Joy of Poetry” at meganwillome.com.