Monday, August 1, 2011

August 2011 Poetry Challenge

Most of us have heroes. Not movie stars or ball players who make a living from the sport, but real heroes. People whom we admire and respect and would like, in someway to emulate. People who have given large parts of their lives to help others. Some are heroes from the past, people we studied about in school, church, synagogue, temple or mosque. Some are more contemporary heroes.

One of my heroes is my own mother, Woodye Kessler. When my grandmother was a patient in Mercy Hospital, nearing death, Sister Rosemary McManus began regular visits to converse and pray with my grandmother, and with Mother who kept vigil in my grandmother's hospital room. Sister Rosemary was getting ready to begin a new jail ministry, and asked Mother (a Baptist) to consider joining her in that endeavor. Mother was very reluctant. Sister Rosemary kept asking, even after my grandmother’s death. Mother finally agreed to give it a try, because she felt indebted to the persistent nun. The picture above shows Mother outside the jail on the day the sheriff and jail staff honored her for her years of service. Here is the poem I wrote about my mother and her ministry. It is pretty close to the actual facts, as Mother told them.

Woodye Kessler at the County Jail

She tried to hold fear
in her hands but it spread
like melted butter
from her white hair
to the soles of her arthritic feet.
Even the Bible she carried
trembled as the sheriff
locked her in with Sister Rosemary
and a dozen inmates.

She shuddered when Eddie
opened his vile mouth,
cursing her, Sister Rosemary,
God and his cellmate.
But she came again each week,
studying scripture with the men,
sitting as close as she could
to the locked door,
as if it might provide escape,

till the day Eddie asked,
Why do you come here?
Without thinking, she replied,
Because I love you.
At that moment her fear
took flight and she knew
she did love him, knew
he was a child of God

and Eddie began a long journey
back toward the self
he’d abandoned in the pain
of abuse, disrespect,

~ Wilda Morris

First published in Rockford Review, XXVII:2 (Summer-Fall 2008).

Woodye Kessler continued in this jail ministry for at least 27 years. When Sister Rosemary retired and returned to Chicago, she turned the ministry over to Woodye. As long as her health allowed, Woodye also corresponded with persons incarcerated in several states. An inmate from the county jail would be convicted and sent to prison. He and Mother (Woodye) would correspond. Then one day, he would write, "my cellmate (or someone down the way) never gets any mail. He would appreciate it if you would write to him." So she would begin a new correspondence. For a long time, she wrote as many as 100 letters a month to lonely men and women who had lost their way in life and needed a friend. She also visited inmates in penitentiaries in several states.

Woodye Kessler is my hero because she was willing to undertake a challenge which frightened her, but through which she felt she could do good for others. She touched many lives and helped many people (mostly men, since there were not many women in the county jail while she volunteered there). The sheriffs under whose supervision she worked, as well as the chaplain of the state penitentiary, testified that she helped many of these men turn their lives around. (I should say, too, that Sister Rosemary McManus, a gentle, loving woman with a great sense of humor, is also one of my heroes.)

Three Other Heroes

Two of my poems about heroes whose lifetimes overlapped with mine, are included in the current issue of Voices on the Wind. The poem at honors Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Rabbi Abraham Heschel. Bonhoeffer was a protestant pastor in Germany who opposed the Nazi regime, and ultimately lost his life as a result. Heschel was a rabbi known as a great teacher and as a deeply spiritual man. Yet he stepped out of his classroom and his comfort zone to participate with Martin Luther King, Jr., in the march to Selma, because he felt called to act for racial justice.

Also on the same website, at, is my poem, “Years, Miles,” about another of my heroes, one who is still living. Aung San Suu Kyi is the leader of the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar (formerly called Burma). Her husband, who was of British background, was in London. He was diagnosed with cancer and given a limited time to live. The government of Myanmar would not allow him to go see his wife one last time. She might have been able to join him in Great Britain, but would not have been allowed to return to her own country. Thus, they had to suffer though the weeks of his physical decline and death half a world apart.

August, 2011, Poetry Challenge

The poetry challenge for August is to write a poem about a hero of yours—a hero whose lifetime overlaps (or overlapped) your own lifetime. Think about what, for you, constitute the characteristics of a hero. Your poem may be free or formal verse (if formal, please designate the form).

Due to formatting restrictions on the blog, all poems should be left justified. Unfortunately I am unable to publish indentations,shaped poems or even extra spaces between words or phrases.

Poems published in books or on the Internet (including Facebook and other on-line social networks) are not eligible. If your poem has been published in a periodical, please include publication data. Poems submitted after the August 15 deadline will not be considered.

How to Submit Your Poem:

Send your poem to wildamorris[at]ameritech[dot]net (substitute the @ sign for “at” and a . for [dot]. Be sure provide your e-mail address. Submission of a poem gives permission for the poem to be posted on the blog if it is a winner, so be sure that you put your name, exactly as you would like it to appear if you do win, at the end of the poem.

The deadline is August 15. Copyright on poems is retained by their authors.

NOTE: An elementary school teacher submitted poems written in class for the July Poetry Challenge. The elementary school winner or winners will be posted soon. Teachers: This month’s challenge would be an excellent one for children or youth. If you wish your class to participate, give your students the challenge to write poems about their heroes. Send their poems to me by August 15. Be sure to include the name of the school, your name and the grade level and ages of the poets. Also, send only the first names of the children or youth, unless you send evidence that the parents have given permission for their last names to be published.

© 2011 Wilda Morris