Thursday, October 29, 2015

Of Book Clubs and Poetry

Rather than spend time analyzing all the reasons members of book clubs might not select poetry for their common reading choices, I’d rather share an example or two of poems that dovetail nicely with reading group choices.
When my book club selected Debra Dean’s novel The Madonnas of Leningrad, I thought at once of one of my favorite poems by the late Miller Williams “The Curator.” Both the poem and the novel present fictional accounts set against a historical background. As the Germans neared Leningrad, the priceless works of art were removed and hidden for safekeeping, but their empty frames were left on the walls marking their places.
Dean’s novel deals with the hunger and desperation of the local citizens, many of whom moved into the Hermitage Museum during the days of conflict. Miller’s poem also covers many of these same days, but his poem is peopled by soldiers and then other curious visitors who come to see where the painting once hung. They come to hear the curator’s description of these works of art, more vivid that his usual spiel when the actual canvases remained in place.  The most powerful lines, in my opinion: Slowly, blind people began to come.Slowly, blind people began to come. “Here. Here is the story I want to tell you. / Slowly, blind people began to come.”
Not only would this moving poem pair well with The Madonnas of Leningrad, I realize, but with Monuments Men, the novel by Robert M. Edsel and Brett Witter about the attempts to safeguard monuments and art or to relocate art stolen by the Nazis. Even the recent Pulitzer Prize-winning novel With All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, with its blind young protagonist, might be enriched by a discussion of this poem. Then Barbara Kingsolver’s Lacuna also takes a turn in the end, when her protagonist is charged with safeguarding the collections from the National Gallery during WWII.
I dare say that the story Williams tells in him poem will stay with readers as long as, perhaps longer than, the narrative in these books. With its theme of “confluence,” the odd way that things often come together, it would be a perfect choice.

Sunday, October 25, 2015


Thank you for the responses we’ve had so far. Every submission provides us with a moment of joy, celebration, and, um, awareness.  Nevertheless, I feel compelled to point out a few important issues for each writer that submits, not just to our anthology, but ANYWHERE, EVER.  Please understand that Nancy and I are both English teachers. Good ones.  Award-winning, top-of-our-game, intentional and interested ones.  When a teacher sits up nights getting guidelines for an assignment so crystal clear no one could fail to understand them, only to learn that some students haven’t bothered to read them, sending in assignments however they please, the message seems to be that they believe they are above all that instruction, just too good to take directions. 

That’s the message a submission sends that doesn’t follow the guidelines.  Let me say here that Nancy and I spent two weeks of discussion, tweaking the Call for Submissions, finally getting guidelines down to five, the number of fingers on one hand, so they would not be overly cryptic or repetitious.  READ THE CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS BEFORE YOU SUBMIT YOUR POEMS. 

Before you hit send, ask yourself: 
(1)   Did I follow the suggested formatting for the poems?  Is my name beneath my title, for instance?
(2)   Is my poem under 110 lines?  Have I sent no more than 3 poems in one document?  Have I honored the request NOT to send pictures and art?
(3)   Is my poem narrative?  Do this easy exercise: What is the story your poem tells?  Is there a character and a conflict present to create plot?  Will this story engage readers enough for a discussion to ensue after its reading that will delight and enlighten the reader and stimulate discussion?  If you had to write one sentence stating what your poem is “about”, what would you say?  Consider these questions.
(4)   Did I send a short third-person bio?
(5)   Did I send a sentence about the poem and its origins?

And there you have it.  Five fingers again.  Whether your writing is considered for this or any publication is in your hand, for in following directions, you are telling the editors who read you that
(1) you were willing to read and respect the guidelines
(2) you believe in a level playing field in which all poets are considered equally,  
(3) you are not entitled to special treatment, even if your poetry is spectacular, and
(4) you are a good citizen.  (I threw that one in for the fun of it, but even creative people are called upon to follow laws that govern us all). 

This said, we’re enjoying connecting with so many poets from so many different parts of the country and world.  We appreciate that you wish to be a part of a collection that will encourage book clubs to embrace poetry as they currently do prose writings.  Let’s start a poetry movement within our book clubs!  

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Well-Versed Reader, Call for Submissions

The Well-Versed Reader, Call for Submissions
We are seeking submissions of strong narrative poetry to be included in an anthology entitled The Well-Versed Reader to be edited by Jane Shlensky and Nancy Posey.  The poems may be on any topic and in any format, but should inspire reading and group discussion.  Send up to three poems to by February 20. For further information and questions, go to

The Well-Versed Reader, Call for Submissions
Deadline: February 20, 2016

1. Poems must be no longer than 110 lines, in any form that effectively serves the narrative.  Poems must be typed, single-spaced, title first, poet’s name beneath. Online submissions should be attached as a single document in .doc or .docx format.
2.  On the first page of your submission document, include your name, address, phone, and email.  Include a short bio in third person, title of poem(s), and a brief statement about each poem.
3. While we favor original poems, we will consider poems previously published in magazines, anthologies, or chapbooks, if the poet retains rights to the publication. Include previous publication information in your submission.
4. Poets may send up to three poems for consideration. No illustrations, photographs, or images should be included.
5. Poets will be notified via email of acceptance to the anthology.

Please share and check here at the Well-Versed Reader blog site for more information. 

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Welcome from the Other Half

Hello, Friends!  Welcome to The Well-Versed Reader!

I’m Jane Shlensky, and I am a poem nerd.  I'm also Nancy Posey's partner in crime and rhyme on this project to design an anthology of poetry especially for book clubs. As Nancy has told you, we've been friends in teaching, doing sessions at conferences, reading, writing, making music, and making fun wherever we can.  Perhaps these activities have honed our abilities in the classroom and on the empty page.  I do know that everything we are and do comes into play in our artistic endeavors, as well as in our careers.  As an avid reader and book club member, I also know that reading and discussing a work—any work—creates special kinds of friendships and wonderful creases in the brain, just as writing or playing an instrument does. 

Tell me: did you grow up with Mother Goose rhymes? Dr. Seuss? Shel Silverstein?
Nursery rhymes set to music that was snappy and memorable? Then you are grounded in formed poetry, my friends.  Perhaps later, you graduated from “Casey at the Bat” to Walt Whitman or Theodore Roethke and then let it drop. However, if you’re still singing along with your favorite performers, you’re engaging with one kind of poetry, lyrics. If you are a closet poetry reader and writer, come out! We need not shun poetry.

I asked some of my book club friends to answer Kay Byers’ question as to why book clubs don’t read poetry, and found their responses edifying but not unlike those of my students for nearly forty years.  Poetry is hard; I’m not sure I understand the symbols and allusions; we need someone to read it to us who understands it; it’s too bouncy (think formed); it’s too free; it’s too abstract; (and my personal favorite), I’m not smart enough to read poetry.  Where did we ever get these ideas? I’m guessing an over-zealous teacher in love with iambs and anapests spent more time on the form of a poem than on its meaning and enjoyment. I confess to telling students that poetry was like a bouillon cube of meaning and narrative.  Add water and stir, and presto, you have a flavorful short story or novella. That’s why all those teachers could joyfully discuss a single poem for an hour and a half while their students wondered how there could be so much packed into so few words.

Consider our proposed anthology, The Well-Versed Reader, a gateway drug to other poems and another viable choice of reading material for book clubs.  Nancy and I, with this narrative anthology project, hope to undo negative stereotypes of poetry by selecting poems that will engage every kind of reader and lead to rewarding discussions—with the outside hope that once a reader digests good narrative poetry, he or she will consider sampling other flavors of poetry, or even writing it.  If you are a poet, keep an eye out for our Call for Submissions for this project.  If you are a reader in your own book club, keep us on your speed dial.  We’d love to use your club for feedback once the book is in your hands. 

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Welcome to the Well-Versed Reader Blog!

Coming Soon:  Call for Submissions!

For quite awhile now, Jane Shlensky and I have been plotting and planning a project that makes sense to both of us. First, I'll give a little background for those of you who don't know us--or our connections.  Jane and I have been friends since we met when serving on the board of the North Carolina English Teachers Association. For several years, the conference was held on our birthday weekend (Oct 4-5), so we celebrated together.

In addition to sharing career interests as teachers of English, we realized that we both loved to read and aspired to write. The first time we presented a conference session together, "How Can You Teach What You Don't Do:  Teachers as Writers," we had to confess that we were hypocrites.  Wanting to write and planning to write are not the same as writing. We started to motivate each other.

In the meantime, we regularly attended the National Council of Teachers of English convention together (even after she retired), often bringing our musical instruments and playing in our hotel room.

I discovered Poetic Asides about eight years ago, and I kept encouraging Jane until she finally joined that community. Since then, we've found plenty of opportunities to collaborate.

The project we are planning, for which we plan to solicit submissions, ties together two of our passions:  reading and poetry. Several years ago, when I was posting on my regular blog, The Discriminating Reader, Kathryn Stripling Byer asked why book clubs didn't read poetry. The question stuck with me.

After I published my chapbook Let the Lady Speak, I had a few invitations to speak to book clubs, whose member had read my book before the meeting.  I found that most of them had always felt uncertain about poetry, but found they enjoyed talking about it when they knew what to discuss.

Jane and I plan to create an anthology of poems with a strong narrative focus, aimed at readers who usually prefer novels--or nonfiction with a narrative structure.  We're thinking of those kinds of poems that we read and then send to non-poetry friends we know would appreciate them.

Cathy  Smith Bowers' poems "Syntax" and "The Napkin" fit those parameters. Miller Williams' "The Curator" is another I share regularly. "Tin Ear" by Peter Schmitt, which appeared on Writers Almanac a few years ago is another I immediately forwarded to a friend who had once confessed that his elementary music teacher had suggested he keep his voice low.

These may not be the poems one would find in The New Yorker. They are the ones you might find in that folder of poems you kept simply because you liked them.

If you're a poet with folders or notebooks of poems in search of a home, sort through and see which might (1. tell a good story and (2. inspire a good discussion.

We will post the specific submission guidelines soon.