Interview – Martin Willitts Jr. – How to Be Silent

Book Name and Description: How To Be Silent


This is a collection of meditative spiritual poems. Martin Willitts, Jr. lives by the simple Quaker principle of “God is everywhere, in everyone,” seeing both the good and bad, but also the awe of waking every day. He turns inwards with silent meditation and outward with his own version of psalms. He knows the small objects are just as important as the large for our own survival. This book will be appreciated by people who like poets such as Rumi, Hafez, Thomas Merton, Emily Dickinson, Lalla, Rilke, Dogen, Yeats, Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Blake, Kabir, Mirabai, St. Augustine, William Stafford, George Herbert, Meister Eckhart, Li Po, St. Teresa of Avila, Simone Weil, St. Francis of Assisi, Kahlil Gibran, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Thomas Aquinas, Julian of Norwich, and D. H. Lawrence.

Psalm by Martin Willitts, from his book, How to Be Silent

All day, inside me, your voice was saying,
wake up. But I was not sleeping.

Wake up, you insisted. But I continued
to nibble at life.

At night, your voice would not let me sleep.
Someday, I will rest, but not today.

I am stirring. Your voice is gnawing inside me.
I have been rowing in circles and did not know it.

Can you tell us about your books? 

I had several books that came out within a year of each other. Each one was different. “How to Be Silent” (FutureCycle Press, 2016) was spiritual poetry like Rainer Rilke or Denise Levertov. “Dylan Thomas and the Writer’s Shed” (FutureCycle Press, 2017) was about my trip to Swansea, Wales after winning the 2004 International Dylan Thomas Poetry Award, where I was able to see Dylan Thomas’ birthplace. “Three Ages of Women” (Deerbrook Editions, 2017) is poetry based on paintings about women or paintings by women, arranged by youth, middle age, and elderly, interrupted by sections about Georgia O’Keeffe and her desert paintings, and Andrew Wythe’s paintings of his nude neighbor. By the way, it is the 100th anniversary of Andrew Wythe’s birth, and his model, Helga Testorf is still alive in her 80’s.

You’ve won several awards. Can you tell us about them?

The first award was the 2013 Bill Holm Witness Poetry Contest. It was a contest to write a series of five ecology poems, and I was judged on all the poems, not  just on a single poem from five submitted like most contests. This was an unusual contest.

When I won the 2014 International Poetry Dylan Thomas Award, it was a one year contest for

Dylan Thomas’s 100th birthday. The prize included tickets to his birthplace in Swansea, Wales, plus $3,000 and a large engraved bowl (the college judging the contest is famous for teaching glassmaking), and a poetry reading.

I won a Central New York Individual Artist Award and provided “Poetry On The Bus” which had 48 poems by children and 20 adult English As Second Language students writing in 7 different languages. The poems appear inside local transit buses. It began as a one year grant, but it is so popular that it has been approved for its third year.

My full-length collection, “Searching for What You Cannot See” (Hiraeth Press, 2013), won a National Ecological Award. I recently won the Turtle Island Editor’s Choice Award for my chapbook, “The Wire Fence Holding Back the World” (Flowstone Press, 2016). Both poems are about nature.

During our earlier conversation, I discovered you have a very interesting background. Could you share some of the highlights?

As a child, I lived in a city, and every summer I worked on my Mennonite/Amish grandparent’s farm until I was 17 years. I know old-time work like blacksmithing, what it is like to be without electricity or working a hand plow or slaughtering animals. When I was 10 or 11, I went with my father in the 1960’s to register Blacks to vote during Civil Right. The bus was firebombed while we were in it. I still have teeth missing from being hit with brass knuckles. I played classical piano for a local orchestra when I was a child. I was a Conscientious Objector who went to Vietnam as a Field Medic. I was a Children’s Librarian for about 40 years.

What attracted you to writing?

I never took a course in poetry writing, but I write poetry  anyway. I published a lot from 1974-1982 and walked away from writing when my son was born. I was encouraged to write some poems for a 9/11 anthology, but the editor also asked me if I was still alive. That comment stuck with me as ironic and also as a wake-up call that I needed to start writing again.  I am extremely prolific, so I really do not seem to have a choice: either I write and submit, or I go stir crazy.

What advice would you give aspiring authors?

The best I can suggest is follow the submission rules. If they say a limit of 3 and you send 4, that could be an automatic rejection. If the rule says a line limit of 40 lines, do not send a two page poem. Some magazines do not accept multiple submissions. Read each rule carefully.

There are thousands of magazine and there are thousands of poets, but each magazine has a limit how many poems they accept and how often they are published. Each magazine can see about a thousand poems a year.

I am a poetry editor for Comstock Review. We only publish twice. One is an open submission, and the other is a national contest; plus we have a national chapbook contest. Since there is more than one person reading the poems, a poet has to impress the majority of the editors. Other magazines operate differently. If a poet gets rejected by a magazine, the poet has three choices: keep sending to another magazine; edit the poem; or reconsider getting rid of the poem.


Martin Willitts Jr is a retired Librarian living in Syracuse, NY.  He has been a professional musician, oral storyteller, field medic in Vietnam, worked on over one hundred Habitat For Humanity houses. He is the winner of 2013 Bill Holm Witness Poetry Contest; 2014 Broadsided award; 2014 Dylan Thomas International Poetry Award; and, Rattle Ekphrastic Challenge, June). 2015, Editor’s Choice. Rattle Ekphrastic Challenge, Artist’s Choice, November 2016. He won a Central New York Individual Artist Award and provided “Poetry On The Bus” which had 48 poems in local buses including 20 bi-lingual poems from 7 different languages. He has over 20 chapbooks including the winner of the Turtle Island Quarterly Editor’s Choice Award, “The Wire Fence Holding Back the World” (Flowstone Press, 2017), plus 11 full-length collections including National Ecological Award winner for “Searching for What You Cannot See” (Hiraeth Press, 2013), and recently “How to Be Silent” (FutureCycle Press, 2016), “Dylan Thomas and the Writing Shed” (FutureCycle Press, 2017), “Three Ages of Women” (Deerbrook Editions, 2017). His forthcoming full-length collection is “The Uncertain Lover” (Dos Madres Press).


How to Be Silent on Amazon:


© The Literary Librarian 2018



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