Monday, May 30, 2011

My First Time: Donna Marie Merritt

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today's guest is Donna Marie Merritt, author of the series Poetry for Tough Times: Cancer, a Caregiver's View and Job Loss, a Journey in Poetry.  A third book is due out in 2012.  She taught school for 14 years, from pre-Kindergarten to middle school and GED classes for adults. She has been a columnist for Teaching K-8 Magazine, penning both the "Life in the Middle" column for educators and the "Parent Connection" column for families. Her stories and poetry have been published in children's magazines such as Highlights High Five, Potluck, Discovery Trails, and Wee Ones. For teens and adults, her work has appeared in magazines like Book Links, Teaching K-8, Metro Parent, Partnership for Learning, Signs of the Times, NEA Today, Liguorian, Children's Writer, The Word Among Us, Catholic Transcript, The Catholic Leader, and the Wonder Years Development Guide.  Visit her website and her blog.

My First Poetry Reading

I am a children's author turned poet.

I have written 15 children's math and science books for the education market, 38 teachers' guides, columns for Teaching K–8 Magazine, and stories for school reading programs.  I was also a teacher for 14 years.  So, I am comfortable reading my books to children.

But stand in front of a bunch of adults and read my poetry?  Every time I thought about it, my stomach churned.  I am not by nature a public speaker.  Yet in today's world, you cannot just sit home and write, much as I would prefer that.  To develop a following, even a small one, you must do much of your own marketing to promote yourself and your work.

How did a children's writer find herself facing a group of expectant adults while she tried to keep down her breakfast?  I had held a day job as an editor to pay the bills since writing is not steady work for many of us. It was a grant-funded position for a large nonprofit organization.  One morning I was greeted by the HR person, asked to sign some papers, and given a box to pack my things.  The grant money had dried up and they were "sorry."  They were sorry?  We had a mortgage and three children and had just written college tuition checks for the two oldest.  Were they sorry they had given me no warning?  Were they sorry because they knew it would be almost impossible for me to land another job in this economy?

I was bitter, angry, depressed.  I had been writing poetry since I was eight, but mostly for myself.  Without thinking, I picked up a pencil and wrote poem after poem.  It was a way of venting, of coping.  Cathartic.

Not long after losing my job, my husband was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer.  I dealt with doctor's appointments, tests, keeping multiple medications straight, supporting him emotionally and physically…Again, I turned to poetry.  I read it.  I wrote it.  I let its imagery and language wash over me.

Poetry is a hard sell.  There is not much money in it, even with better-known, established poets.  In addition, my poems were not exactly about cheery subjects.  Would someone really want to read about unemployment or cancer?  Still, the words were from my heart and I found a publisher who believed in them as well.  Avalon Press picked up both books and called it "The Poetry for Tough Times" series.  The third book is due out in 2012.

And, we are back to my first poetry reading.  I had been to a few readings and also listened to poets on CD.  Some readings were dramatic.  (That’s not me.)  Some were giddy and playful.  (That’s not me, either.)  Some read as if they knew they were brilliant and the audience could not possibly understand their poetry fully.  (Definitely not me!)  Then there were some who simply gave a brief intro on the origin of the poem(s) and then read.  The tone was not monotonous, nor was it a big production.  These poets read in a clear, steady voice, letting the audience know when a particular word or phrase or stanza was especially meaningful with the rise and fall of the voice or a pause in the right place.  I opted for that route.

Easier said than done.  Before the bookstore staff introduced me, I thought about quietly backing out the door, which was conveniently close.  Instead, I looked at the audience, which consisted mostly of friends and family—in a way, much harder than speaking to strangers.  In my mind, I decided I would approach the podium as if this were a role I were playing:  I am a poet.  I am a famous poet and they have all gathered to hear me speak.  They are hanging on my every word.

Not true, of course, but by slipping into that role, I was able to overcome the nausea and read some of my poems.  The first poem contained a reference to a cartoon character, so I kind of sang it to the tune of the theme song.  Blank stares.  Note to self: Strike this poem from future readings unless you are speaking to people under 21.  I had neglected to take into account the age of my audience.  I cut myself some slack on that one, as I am used to speaking with elementary students.  The next poems, however, seemed to hit home.  I read about job loss, illness, menopause.  They cried in the right spots and laughed at the appropriate times.

In the end, I felt I had leapt a huge hurdle.  I had given my first poetry reading.  I learned it's okay to be nervous.  I learned it's okay to choke on a word (the audience teared up when I did so and identified with my emotions).  I learned it's okay to make a mistake (I had to explain the cartoon reference).

But what I learned above all else, is that I can step outside my comfort zone.  I am a poet who now gives poetry readings.

Photo credit: Images Studio (Watertown CT)

1 comment:

  1. David, your blog is wonderful and I'm honored to be part of it today. Thanks so much!