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Poetic Ponderings Interview with Mary Beth Bretzlauf

Updated: Apr 20

Photo by Neil Dahlmann.

This interview first appeared in my "Poetic Ponderings" column in Wilmette Living.

James Lowell Hall (JH): Today we have the pleasure of meeting poet Mary Beth Brezlauf. She is the author of That Path that Beckons: Poems About the Journey, and she is the current president of the Illinois State Poetry Society. Mary Beth is a member of Poets & Patrons, Highland Park Poetry’s Live Events Team, and is on the board of East on Central. Besides poetry, she writes fiction and is a member of Writers in Progress and Zion Writers Guild and is an honorary member of Highland Park/Highwood Rotary Club. She has lived on the North Shore all her life.


JH: What poets inspire you, and what inspired you to write poetry?


Mary Beth Bretzlauf (MB): I love Mary Oliver’s poems, but closer to home are ISPS members who inspire me like Mary Jo Ballersteri, Wilda Morris, Kate Hutchinson, Kathy Cotton, Curt Vevang, Lennart Lundh, and Dan Fitzgerald. When I read their work, I feel as though I am sitting next to them, seeing, and feeling what they do. It’s magical.


JH: When did you start writing poetry?


MB: I was inspired by my high school creative writing teacher, Jean MacCready. She was a published poet and upon my graduation invited me to be a part of her critique group. Poetry is so personal; I wasn’t emotionally mature enough at that time to listen to the criticism. Life soon got in the way. Once my son learned to drive himself to hockey practice, I discovered all this free time. I didn’t hesitate; I picked up a pen and started writing again. It was fiction at first, and soon nuggets of poems began to form.


JH: Your poem, “The Poet,” projects a positive message of hope and fulfilment that comes from writing poetry. What were your feelings in writing “The Poet”?


MB: I found myself wanting to write a poem on a gloomy Saturday morning, but the words weren’t coming. My mind wandered seeing a painting of Elizabeth Barrett Browning looking out a window by her desk, a pen at the ready. What was she looking at or thinking about? It came to me that whatever I see, feel, or hear, there is always a story or poem – or both.  I always have hope.


JH: How did you go about organizing your book of poetry, The Path that Beckons: Poems about the Journey?


MB: Well, I owe it to Jennifer Dotson, the founder of Highland Park Poetry for providing me with an opportunity to help put together one of her anthologies. I learned the art of selecting poems and sorting them into sections they will fit. I’ve often seen an opened gate or a path and felt an invitation to explore. That is how I came up with the title and theme. Next came reading through all my poems and selecting which ones fit the theme. Then I sorted them by where one might be on a path – off track, at the crossroads, or on track.


JH: As President of the Illinois State Poetry Society, you have shown a passion for bringing new members into the ISPS. What are you goals as president?


MB: There are so many goals, where do I start?


First, our immediate past president, Susan T. Moss, has done a great job of leading and supporting our members. I am thankful she’s here to help advise me as I learn all that the president does.


I am energized when I meet other members. It’s the connection, the thread that sews us together. I want that kind of connection for all our members. It is easy for so many of us here in the Chicago area, but what about the amazing poets in the other chapters? Champaign, Pontiac, and Carbondale are further out from the rest of the chapters, like Lisle, Darien, the Haiku, and the North Suburban. That is my primary goal – to take this family of poets and introduce them to each other – make us a closer family.


JH: Tell us about the Illinois State Poetry Society Student Contest for 2024.


MB: Ah, that’s my baby! When I became the North Chapter facilitator for ISPS, I also became a board member. My first "job" was to run the student poetry contest. Over the next several years, we had several students’ entries qualify for the national competition called the Manningham Trust Poetry Competition. Two years ago, one-fourth of the national winners were Illinois students! Each year I’ve been working on expanding how the word gets out to the schools and libraries.


This year, we offered our members the opportunity to sponsor a contest category by providing the prize money. They also have the chance to judge it as well. Winners will have their poems published in our new student publication “Fresh Ink” anthology.


JH: Will ISPS ever sponsor poetry slams for spoken word poetry?


MB: Sponsoring a slam is goal of mine – for many reasons. We would be supporting younger and more diverse members.


When I attended the National Federation of Poetry Societies convention this past summer, the theme was from "page to stage," and I was amazed by the spoken word competition they sponsored called Blackberry Peach. It’s a compilation of the names of the three founders of the competition. We did sponsor an Illinois poet, Wesley Frazier Keys, at the Blackberry Peach competition the year before last, and he won!


JH: The ISPS also sponsors writing workshops, poetry contests, and a monthly open mic with two featured poets at “Brewed Awakenings” in West Chicago. What is your vision and other opportunities you are planning for expanding the poetry family?


MB: The nuts and bolts of ISPS are the chapters. They meet monthly or bi-monthly, in-person, virtual, and hybrid. They are critique sessions which is most helpful when you might be stuck on the wording of a poem of the form of it. Time spent with poets is never wasted. You leave energized and inspired.


Another benefit of membership is our bi-annual anthology where members can have up to two poems published.


A year ago, we sent out a survey and found that many members would like to publish a book of their poems. So, this year, we are planning a series of workshops to help them get their manuscripts ready.


In April, which is poetry month, we will encourage members to write a poem a day, and local actress, Paddy Lynn, will be performing Emily Dickinson’s poems on Zoom.


We participated in Printers Row Lit Fest last summer. It was wonderful to meet so many poets and readers of poetry. I hope with summer’s return we can be present for other Lit Fests or Community Days so we can welcome more poets to our family. There is always room at our table!


The web site for Illinois State Poetry Society is People can reach out to me with questions about ISPS at

The Poet

By Mary Beth Bretzlauf


the poet looks out her window

this misty day lacks inspiration

she recalls an image—

a painting perhaps

of Elizabeth Barrett Browning

in the same circumstance,

perhaps even the same gloom


how to romance this gray day

she wonders,

words swirl in her head

like the mist outside

she tries to push back on

the shoulda, coulda, wouldas

that whisper their mantra


she thinks of rainy days

when she was young and in love

the promise of sunshine

just a cloud away

nights now are kinder.

twinkling signs of hope

bring sparks of inspiration,

words that tumble together

to form a coherent line

with a deep sigh and

Mona Lisa smile on her face

the poet picks up her pen

and begins to write.


First published in The Path that Beckons: Poems about the Journey, by Mary Beth Bretzlauf  © 2023.

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