I met Lois Barr and Debra Winegarten as my students at the Highlights Foundation workshops on Writing Jewish-themed Children’s Books in Boyds Mills, Pennsylvania. Turned out, as you can read below, they’re also poets—and now award-winning poets at that. Both won the Poetica chapbook contest: Debra in 2011 and Lois in 2013.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): Why did you offer your work to the Poetica chapbook contest?
Devorah Weingarten (DW): A friend of mine saw the contest, emailed me and said, “Hey, you write contemporary Jewish poetry, you should enter.” So I did.
Lois Barr (LB): For a long time my poems all seemed like adopted children. They all looked so different. Then I began to see a pattern, and I had a group of poems I liked about Jewish themes, so Poetica seemed like a natural choice for the contest.
TWM: Was the chapbook already assembled or did you have to do that specifically for the contest?
Poetica Chapbook Contest Winner 2011
DW: I assembled the chapbook specifically for the contest. But I was having trouble figuring out the title of the collection. So I looked to see where the contest judge lived and if there was anything I could do to help make the chapbook appeal to the judge.
Because what’s the point of entering unless you’re going to win? I saw the judge lived in Norfolk, Virginia.
As I feel asleep that night, I thought, “Norfolk, Virginia. I got nothing to connect myself with that…Virginia…” and as I drifted off to sleep, I thought, “Do they know there’s Jews in Texas?” And the light bulb went on in my head, I leapt out of bed, ran through the house to my study to type the title into my computer.
LB: No, I had a lot of Jewish-themed poems, but I had to winnow them out with severity and a total lack of sentimentality.
TWM: What is your background in poetry?
DW: My first poem was published in my shul monthly newsletter when I was in third grade. It was called, “God is Everywhere.” Other than that, I took a poetry course in college and have dabbled on and off with poetry and song lyrics over the years.
LB: Pretty bleak. Long ago I studied contemporary poetry in Madrid with one of Spain’s foremost poets and hated every minute of it. I thought he was pompous and didn’t like his work. I did always like Machado, Lorca and Neruda. But I mainly read fiction and wrote my dissertation about a 19th century realist novelist, Benito Pérez Galdós. I’ve also written a book about Latin American Jewish novelists. About ten years ago I began writing short stories, and then somehow I joined a group of people who met at our public library to read and critique our poems. Fortunately, a few members of the group (especially Herb Berman our leader) have a strong background in classic and contemporary poets and are very helpful in sharing great poetry.
TWM: What is it about poetry that speaks to you as a writer?
DW: When I get an idea for a poem, the idea won’t leave me alone until I write the poem. I often get “snippets,” maybe a line, and if I don’t have time to sit down right then, I’ll write down the line in my smart phone and get back to it when I do have the time.
LB: Poems can lead you to discovery. I like the surprise of reading a good poem and the surprise of writing one. The process of writing is always engrossing. As a language teacher, I’ve always been in love with the sound of words, and so sometimes things I hear just stick with me and seem to need to be in a poem.
TWM: What was the inspiration for your collection?
DW: I started writing what I call “therapy” poetry after my mother killed herself. My grief was so palpable that I couldn’t write anything for over a year. And I’m a writer. I started writing “bad poetry” as a way to get me to write anything at all. I culled through all those poems and others I wrote during that seven-year period, and took the best ones and put them in this book.
Poetica Chapbook Contest Winner 2013
LB: Biopoesis? Hmm. I think a writing group that I am in (four women poets) was working on the story of Genesis and a poem emerged about creation. Then I fell in love with the word Biopoesis. It may have even inspired the poem, which was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
TWM: What does it take to produce a winning manuscript?
DW: I once took a workshop called, “How to Win a Chapbook Contest.” Here’s what I remember from the workshop:
- Put your best poem first, because that’s what the judge(s) will look at first.
- Put your best poem last, because that’s what the judge(s) will be left with at the end of your book.
- Right in the middle, put your best poem, that way, if the book accidentally falls open, your best poem will show up in the middle.
- Then, fill in all the other pages with your best poem.
My takeaway was, only put my very best poems in the book. Which is why my collection is only, I think, 17 poems, I left out the dead wood and only put in ones that really sang or spoke a message.
LB: Luck. Persistence. The poems must belong together. Since a chapbook is so short, anything that isn’t your best work and doesn’t fit your theme, has to go. Also, many of the poems in my collection had already been published, and so I felt that they were ready to be out in the world as a book. That is to say, they had been looked at and liked by a lot of eyes before I even thought of submitting them to a contest.
TWM: What advice would you have to The Whole Megillah audience about chapbooks and chapbook contests?
DW: After I won the contest, I wrote the judge to thank him and ask him why my book won. He wrote back and said he got a ton of entries, and that Jews were noted for their humor. But the books he got were filled with horror, and Holocaust stories, and guilt, and mine was the only one that made him laugh out loud, even when I was dealing with difficult subjects. So, surprise your reader.
And, the major complaint about There’s Jews in Texas? (which I’m selling on Amazon as an e-book right now for .99) is that it’s too short. So, you can buy the sequel, Where Jewish Grandmothers Come From on my website. And I’m working on the third in the trilogy, Have Torah, Will Travel, copyright Debra L. Winegarten 2014.
LB: When you have had some success getting your work out in journals, and you feel you have a group of poems that someone will want to sit down and read cover to cover, look around for places that publish poems like yours. Try regional or special interest contests. Don’t worry too much about rejection. It means you had enough gumption and energy to put your best work out there and try. Don’t expect to get any feedback other than thanks but no thanks or we love your work and want to publish it.
Finally, I very much enjoyed the process of working with Michal Magerefteh at Poetica. She found a beautiful painting for the cover, and the copy editor took great care with the manuscript.
About Debra L. Winegarten
Debra L. Winegarten
A native Dallasite, Debra now makes her home in Austin, Texas. By day, she teaches sociology at South University and works in the Astronomy Department at The University of Texas at Austin. By night, she writes award-winning poetry and biographies of Texas women for middle-school students. Her latest books are Where Jewish Grandmothers Come From and Oveta Culp Hobby: Colonel, Cabinet Member, Philanthropist, released in April from The University of Texas Press. Find out more about her: www.sociosights.com.
About Lois Barr
Photo credit: Ed Levin
Lois Baer Barr is a professor of Spanish at Lake Forest College. Her poems and stories have been published in Persimmon Tree, The Examined Life, Journal of Modern Poetry, Flashquake, Poetica, Phat’itude, East on Central, Ekakshara, The DuPage Review, The New Vilna Review, The Jewish Literary Journal and Mochila. Five anthologies have included her work. She has received Pushcart nominations for poetry and fiction. Her books, articles and reviews on Spanish and Latin American literature, with a special focus on Latin American Jewish Literature, have appeared here and abroad. Her chapbook Biopoesis won Poetica Magazine’s 2013 contest.