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1. Poetry Friday: A Terza Rima for the Poetry Seven

The assignment? A terza rima, the interlocking poetic form made famous by Dante's Inferno.

The theme? Gratitude.

For once, I knew instantly how this theme would inform my poem: There was no doubt its subject would be my poetry sisters, without whom I would not have explored poetry's "Here Be Dragons" waters. Without them, I'd still be stuck in my safe, shallow, shoals. (Or perhaps, if Dante were my guide, be marooned in poetry purgatory.) The only trick was putting all that into iambic pentameter in the rhyme scheme of a terza rima:

a
b
a

b
c
b

(repeat as necessary, and end with a couplet, if desired.)


In the end, my poem became a tribute to the poems The Poetry Seven tackled this year. Usually, I try to write to a wider audience, but this one is different. I know I'm a better writer when I write with friends---and I needed to say thank you, loud and clear.


(Links to my sister's Terza Rimas today can be found inside the poem.)


A Terza Rima for the Poetry Seven

Sisters do not let sisters ode alone
Nor do they, solo, rondeau redoublé
If raccontino calls, they hold the phone,

And bellow for some muse-y muscle; they
deep six, by stanza, surly sestinas
and dig a common grave for dross cliché.

Don’t bother asking for their subpoenas
To brashly bait expanding etheree
Nothing stops these pen-slinging tsarinas.

Once snagged, they let no villanelle go free;
Mouthy haiku in operating rooms
are re-lined and re-stitched, repeatedly;

So do not question who wears the pantoums
here; it’s seven sonnet-crowned, brave harpies:
Laura, Kel, Trish, Liz, Andi, T. : nom de plumes

who together with laptops (or Sharpies)
have danced the sedoka and triolet;
and ekprasticated art farandwee.

I’m grateful to wield words with this septet:
Friends, forever. Poetesses, well-met.

---Sara Lewis Holmes (all rights reserved)


Poetry Friday is hosted today by Laura at Writing the World for Kids.

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2. Won Ton: A Cat Tale Told in Haiku

Won Ton. Lee Wardlaw. Illustrated by Eugene Yelchin. 2011. 40 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: Nice place they got here. Bed. Bowl. Blankie. Just like home! Or so I've been told.

Premise/plot: Won-Ton (not his *real* name) is a shelter cat who's been adopted by a young boy. The book tells--in verse--what happens next. If you love cats, then this one is a real treat. For example:
Your tummy, soft as/ warm dough. I kneed and kneed, then/ bake it with a nap.
or
I explained it loud/ and clear. What part of "meow"/ don't you understand?
or
Sorry about the/ squish in your shoe. Must've/ been something I ate.
My thoughts: I do love cats. (Even though I'm allergic.) And this picture book alternates being cute and funny. I definitely enjoyed it.

Text: 4 out of 5
Illustrations: 4 out of 5
Total: 8 out of 10




© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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3. The Penny Poet of Portsmouth by Katherine Towler


     Dawn again,
and I switch off the light.
On the table a tattered moth
shrugs its wings.
     I agree.
Nothing is ever quite
what we expect it to be.

—Robert Dunn

Katherine Towler's deeply affecting and thoughtful portrait of Robert Dunn is subtitled "A Memoir of Place, Solitude, and Friendship". It's an accurate label, but one of the things that makes the book such a rewarding reading experience is that it's a memoir of struggles with place, solitude, and friendship — struggles that do not lead to a simple Hallmark card conclusion, but rather something far more complex. This is a story that could have been told superficially, sentimentally, and with cheap "messages" strewn like sugarcubes through its pages. Instead, it is a book that honors mysteries.

You are probably not familiar with the poetry of Robert Dunn, nor even his name, unless you happen to live or have lived in or around Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Even then, you may not have noticed him. He was Portsmouth's second poet laureate, and an important figure within the Portsmouth poetry scene from the late 1970s to his death in 2008. But he only published a handful of poems in literary journals, and his chapbooks were printed and distributed only locally — and when he sold them himself, he charged 1 cent. (Towler tells a story of trying to pay him more, which proved impossible.) He was insistently local, insistently uncommercial.

Robert Dunn

Dunn was also about as devoted to his writing as a person could be. When Towler met him in the early '90s, he lived in a single room in an old house, owned almost nothing, and made what little money he made from working part-time at the Portsmouth Athenaeum. He seemed to live on cigarettes and coffee. When Towler first saw him around town, she, like probably many other people, thought he was homeless.

If a person could start a conversation with Dunn, which wasn't always easy, they would discover that he was very well read and eloquent. He was not, though, effusive, and he was deeply private. It was only late in his life, wracked with lung disease, that he opened up to anyone, and the person he seems to have opened up most to is Towler, though even then, she was able to learn very little about his past.

Towler got to know him because she was a neighbor, because she was intrigued by him, and because she was a writer on a different career track, with different ambitions. Dunn certainly wanted his poems to be read — he wouldn't have made chapbooks and sold them (even if only for a penny) if not — but he didn't want to subject himself to the quest-for-fame machine, he didn't want to do what everybody now says you must do if you want to have a successful writing career: become a "brand". He didn't bother with any sort of copyright, and Towler quotes a disclaimer from one of his books: "1983 and no nonsense about copyright. When I wrote these things they belonged to me. When you read them they belong to you. And perhaps one other." In 1999, he told a reporter from the Boston Globe, "It just feels kind of silly posting no trespassing signs on my poems."

His motto, written on slips of paper he occasionally gave to people, was "Minor poets have more fun."

When Towler met him, she was struggling with writing a novel. She had lived peripatetically for a while, but had recently gotten married. She wanted to be published far and wide, and in her most honest moments she probably would have admitted that she would have liked to sell millions of copies of her books, get a great movie deal or two, get interviewed by Terry Gross and Charlie Rose, win a Pulitzer and a National Book Award and, heck, maybe even a Nobel. Success.

Once her first novel was published, Towler discovered what many people do in their first experiences with publication: It doesn't fill the hole. It is never enough. There are always other books selling better, getting more or better reviews, always other writers with more money and fame, and in American book culture these days, once a book is a month or two old, it's past its expiration date and rarely of much interest to booksellers, reviewers, or the public, because there's always something new, new, new to grab attention. You might as well sell your poems for a penny in Market Square.

By the time Towler's first novel is published, Portsmouth is deep in the process of gentrification. Not only have the local market, five-and-dime store, and hardware store been put out of business by rising rents and big box stores, but all seven of the downtown bookstores have disappeared. (Downtown is no longer bookstoreless. Bookstores, at least, can appeal to the gentrifiers, though it's still tough to be profitable with the cost of the rent what it is.) Towler gives a reading at a Barnes & Noble out at the mall, a perfect symbol of pretty much everything Robert Dunn had lived his life against: a mall, a chain bookstore. He attends the reading, though, and seems happy for Towler's success. He stands in line to get his book signed, and then says something that cuts Towler to the bone: "I'll let you get to your public."
As Robert turned away, leaving me to face a line of people waiting to have books signed, I felt that he had seen through me to the deep need for approval, the great strivings of ego, that lay at the heart of my desire to publish a book. Only by divorcing myself from the hunger for affirmation, his quip suggested, would I find what I truly desired. This is what he wanted for me, what he wanted for anyone who wrote.
The Penny Poet of Portsmouth continues to think through these ideas, and to work through the contrast between Dunn's fierce localism and solitude and Towler's own conflicting desires, hopes, dreams, and fears. She begins in great admiration of Dunn, who seems to have sacrificed absolutely everything to his writing and has somehow overcome any yearning for fame or reward. In that sense, he seems saintly.

But at what cost? This question is always in the background as Dunn becomes ill and more dependent on other people. If he wants to stay alive, the sort of solitude he cultivated and cherished is no longer possible, leading to some difficult confrontations and tensions.

Towler does her best not to impose her own values on Dunn's life, but she can't help wondering what it would be like to live as Dunn does. Though she sympathizes with him, and shares some of his ideals, she's no ascetic. She can't help but think of Dunn as lonely, since she would be, especially in illness. She cherishes her husband, she likes the house they buy together, she enjoys (at least sometimes) traveling to readings and leading writing workshops.

Dunn's life, as Towler presents it at least, shows the inadequacy of the question, "Are you happy?" In illness, Dunn was obviously not comfortable, and when he couldn't be at home, he was often not content. But happiness is a fleeting thing, not a state of being. Even if you believe that happiness is something that can be captured for more than a moment, there's no reason to think that, except for illness, Robert Dunn was unhappy. He sculpted a life for himself that was, it seems, quite close to whatever life he might have desired having. I doubt having a life partner of some sort would have led to more moments of happiness for him, as Towler wonders at one point. The accommodations and annoyances of having another person around a lot of the time are insufferable for someone inclined toward solitude. Was this the case for Dunn? It's difficult to know, because he was difficult to know. Towler is remarkably restrained, I think, in not trying to impose her own pleasures on Dunn — she doesn't ever record saying to him what the partnered often say to the unpartnered, "Wouldn't you be happy with someone else in your life?" (I often think partnered people work a bit too hard to justify their own life choices, as if the presence of other types of lives are somehow an indictment of their own.) But even still, it does seem to be one of the more unbridgeable gulfs between types of people: the contentedly partnered seem as terrified of being unpartnered as the contentedly unpartnered are of being partnered, and so one looks on the other's life as a nightmare.

What The Penny Poet of Portsmouth shows is the necessity of community. Robert Dunn was, for many reasons, lucky that he lived in Portsmouth when he did, because there was a real community of writers and people interested in writing and reading, and these people looked out for each other. Before the rents went whacko, it was possible to live in Portsmouth if you weren't rich. This is why the word place in Towler's subtitle is so important. The book is not only a portrait of Robert Dunn, but a chronicle of the city that allowed him to be Robert Dunn. Towler is careful to chronicle the details of the place and community, both its people and its institutions. She shows the frustrations of dealing with bureaucracies of illness, and without being heavy-handed she depicts the ways that poverty is perceived in a place as ruggedly individualistic as New Hampshire — once she gets to know Robert Dunn, she also gets to see, feel, and struggle against the assumptions people who don't know him make. (In some of what she described him experiencing from nurses, doctors, and pharmacists, I couldn't help but think of my father, who did not have health insurance and who died of congestive heart failure. After he had a heart attack, he felt patronized and dismissed by hospitals that knew he couldn't pay his bills. Whether the hospital employees themselves actually felt this way, I don't know, but he perceived it deeply, and it contributed to his determination never to see another doctor or hospital. I'll forever remember the way his voice sounded when he told me, briefly, of this: the shattered pride, the humiliation, the rage all fraying his words.)

In its attention to the details of community — and a number of other ways — The Penny Poet of Portsmouth makes a perfect companion to Samuel Delany's Dark Reflections, another story of a poet, though in a very different environment. Arnold Hawley in Delany's novel is far less content than Robert Dunn in Towler's memoir, but their commitments are similar. Arnold is more seduced by the desire for fame and success than Dunn seems to have been, and so his personality is perhaps a bit more like Towler's, but without her relative success in everyday living. Having known Dunn, Towler is perhaps more capable of imagining Dunn as content in his life than Delany is quite able to imagine Arnold content — I've sometimes wondered whether Arnold is so tormented by his life because Delany himself would be tormented by that life, a life that is the opposite, in nearly every way, of his own. No matter. The books have much to say to (and with) each other.

There is much in Towler's memoir that is moving. She takes her time and doesn't rush the story. At first, I thought perhaps her pacing was unnecessarily slow, perhaps padding out what was a thin tale. I was wrong, though, because Towler is up to many things in the book, and needs her portrait of the place and person to be built carefully for her ideas and concerns to have resonance and real meaning. It's a tale of growing into knowledge and into something like intimacy, but also, at the same time, of coming to terms with unsolveable mysteries and uncrossable borders.

By the time I got to the fragmentary biography Towler offers as an appendix, those few pages were the most powerful of the book for me, because they show just how much we can't know. (I suppose the power was also one of some sort of personal recognition: Robert Dunn grew up only a dozen or so miles from where I grew up. The soil of his early years is as familiar to me as any other place on Earth. He was a graduate of the University of New Hampshire, where I finished my undergraduate degree and am now working on a Ph.D. I've only spent occasional time in Portsmouth, though enough over the decades to have seen some of the changes Towler writes about.) Primed by all the rest of Towler's story, it was this paragraph that most deeply affected me:
He went south in the summer of 1965 with the civil rights movement with a small group of Episcopalians from New Hampshire. Jonathan Daniels, who was shot and killed as he protected a young African-American woman attempting to enter a store in Hayneville, Alabama, had gone down ahead of the group. Robert would not talk about this experience, though others and I asked him about it directly. He did say once that he had known Daniels.
Had Towler rushed her story more, the resonances and mysteries in that paragraph wouldn't have been nearly as affecting. (It helps if you already know the story of Daniels, I suppose.)

The book ends with a delightful collection of what we might call "Robert Dunn's wit and wisdom", taken from various interviews and profiles in local papers that Dunn had stuck in a folder labeled "Vanity". Of the civil rights movement, he told Clare Kittredge of the Boston Globe in 1999: "We had our hearts thoroughly broken."

Let's end these musings with what mattered most to Robert Dunn, though: the poetry. His poems remind me of Frank O'Hara (whom he discusses with Towler) and Samuel Menashe. They're colloquial and compressed, full of surprises. Thanks to Towler's book, I expect, Dunn's selected poems have finally been collected in One of Us Is Lost, and a few are reprinted in The Penny Poet. Here's one that seems particularly appropriate:

Public Notice

      They've taken away the pigeon lady,
who used to scatter breadcrumbs from an old
brown hand and then do a little pigeon dance,
right there on the sidewalk, with a flashing
of purple socks. To the scandal of the
neighborhood. This is no world for pigeon
ladies.

     There's a certain wild gentleness in
this world that holds it all together. And
there's a certain tame brutality that just
naturally tends to ruin and scatteration and
nothing left over. Between them it's a very
near thing. This is no world without pigeon
ladies.

     Now world, I know you're almost
uglied out, but . . . just think! Try to
remember: What have you done with the
pigeon lady?

—Robert Dunn

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4. The Penny Poet of Portsmouth by Katherine Towler


     Dawn again,
and I switch off the light.
On the table a tattered moth
shrugs its wings.
     I agree.
Nothing is ever quite
what we expect it to be.

—Robert Dunn

Katherine Towler's deeply affecting and thoughtful portrait of Robert Dunn is subtitled "A Memoir of Place, Solitude, and Friendship". It's an accurate label, but one of the things that makes the book such a rewarding reading experience is that it's a memoir of struggles with place, solitude, and friendship — struggles that do not lead to a simple Hallmark card conclusion, but rather something far more complex. This is a story that could have been told superficially, sentimentally, and with cheap "messages" strewn like sugarcubes through its pages. Instead, it is a book that honors mysteries.

You are probably not familiar with the poetry of Robert Dunn, nor even his name, unless you happen to live or have lived in or around Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Even then, you may not have noticed him. He was Portsmouth's second poet laureate, and an important figure within the Portsmouth poetry scene from the late 1970s to his death in 2008. But he only published a handful of poems in literary journals, and his chapbooks were printed and distributed only locally — and when he sold them himself, he charged 1 cent. (Towler tells a story of trying to pay him more, which proved impossible.) He was insistently local, insistently uncommercial.

Robert Dunn

Dunn was also about as devoted to his writing as a person could be. When Towler met him in the early '90s, he lived in a single room in an old house, owned almost nothing, and made what little money he made from working part-time at the Portsmouth Athenaeum. He seemed to live on cigarettes and coffee. When Towler first saw him around town, she, like probably many other people, thought he was homeless.

If a person could start a conversation with Dunn, which wasn't always easy, they would discover that he was very well read and eloquent. He was not, though, effusive, and he was deeply private. It was only late in his life, wracked with lung disease, that he opened up to anyone, and the person he seems to have opened up most to is Towler, though even then, she was able to learn very little about his past.

Towler got to know him because she was a neighbor, because she was intrigued by him, and because she was a writer on a different career track, with different ambitions. Dunn certainly wanted his poems to be read — he wouldn't have made chapbooks and sold them (even if only for a penny) if not — but he didn't want to subject himself to the quest-for-fame machine, he didn't want to do what everybody now says you must do if you want to have a successful writing career: become a "brand". He didn't bother with any sort of copyright, and Towler quotes a disclaimer from one of his books: "1983 and no nonsense about copyright. When I wrote these things they belonged to me. When you read them they belong to you. And perhaps one other." In 1999, he told a reporter from the Boston Globe, "It just feels kind of silly posting no trespassing signs on my poems."

His motto, written on slips of paper he occasionally gave to people, was "Minor poets have more fun."

When Towler met him, she was struggling with writing a novel. She had lived peripatetically for a while, but had recently gotten married. She wanted to be published far and wide, and in her most honest moments she probably would have admitted that she would have liked to sell millions of copies of her books, get a great movie deal or two, get interviewed by Terry Gross and Charlie Rose, win a Pulitzer and a National Book Award and, heck, maybe even a Nobel. Success.

Once her first novel was published, Towler discovered what many people do in their first experiences with publication: It doesn't fill the hole. It is never enough. There are always other books selling better, getting more or better reviews, always other writers with more money and fame, and in American book culture these days, once a book is a month or two old, it's past its expiration date and rarely of much interest to booksellers, reviewers, or the public, because there's always something new, new, new to grab attention. You might as well sell your poems for a penny in Market Square.

By the time Towler's first novel is published, Portsmouth is deep in the process of gentrification. Not only have the local market, five-and-dime store, and hardware store been put out of business by rising rents and big box stores, but all seven of the downtown bookstores have disappeared. (Downtown is no longer bookstoreless. Bookstores, at least, can appeal to the gentrifiers, though it's still tough to be profitable with the cost of the rent what it is.) Towler gives a reading at a Barnes & Noble out at the mall, a perfect symbol of pretty much everything Robert Dunn had lived his life against: a mall, a chain bookstore. He attends the reading, though, and seems happy for Towler's success. He stands in line to get his book signed, and then says something that cuts Towler to the bone: "I'll let you get to your public."
As Robert turned away, leaving me to face a line of people waiting to have books signed, I felt that he had seen through me to the deep need for approval, the great strivings of ego, that lay at the heart of my desire to publish a book. Only by divorcing myself from the hunger for affirmation, his quip suggested, would I find what I truly desired. This is what he wanted for me, what he wanted for anyone who wrote.
The Penny Poet of Portsmouth continues to think through these ideas, and to work through the contrast between Dunn's fierce localism and solitude and Towler's own conflicting desires, hopes, dreams, and fears. She begins in great admiration of Dunn, who seems to have sacrificed absolutely everything to his writing and has somehow overcome any yearning for fame or reward. In that sense, he seems saintly.

But at what cost? This question is always in the background as Dunn becomes ill and more dependent on other people. If he wants to stay alive, the sort of solitude he cultivated and cherished is no longer possible, leading to some difficult confrontations and tensions.

Towler does her best not to impose her own values on Dunn's life, but she can't help wondering what it would be like to live as Dunn does. Though she sympathizes with him, and shares some of his ideals, she's no ascetic. She can't help but think of Dunn as lonely, since she would be, especially in illness. She cherishes her husband, she likes the house they buy together, she enjoys (at least sometimes) traveling to readings and leading writing workshops.

Dunn's life, as Towler presents it at least, shows the inadequacy of the question, "Are you happy?" In illness, Dunn was obviously not comfortable, and when he couldn't be at home, he was often not content. But happiness is a fleeting thing, not a state of being. Even if you believe that happiness is something that can be captured for more than a moment, there's no reason to think that, except for illness, Robert Dunn was unhappy. He sculpted a life for himself that was, it seems, quite close to whatever life he might have desired having. I doubt having a life partner of some sort would have led to more moments of happiness for him, as Towler wonders at one point. The accommodations and annoyances of having another person around a lot of the time are insufferable for someone inclined toward solitude. Was this the case for Dunn? It's difficult to know, because he was difficult to know. Towler is remarkably restrained, I think, in not trying to impose her own pleasures on Dunn — she doesn't ever record saying to him what the partnered often say to the unpartnered, "Wouldn't you be happy with someone else in your life?" (I often think partnered people work a bit too hard to justify their own life choices, as if the presence of other types of lives are somehow an indictment of their own.) But even still, it does seem to be one of the more unbridgeable gulfs between types of people: the contentedly partnered seem as terrified of being unpartnered as the contentedly unpartnered are of being partnered, and so one looks on the other's life as a nightmare.

What The Penny Poet of Portsmouth shows is the necessity of community. Robert Dunn was, for many reasons, lucky that he lived in Portsmouth when he did, because there was a real community of writers and people interested in writing and reading, and these people looked out for each other. Before the rents went whacko, it was possible to live in Portsmouth if you weren't rich. This is why the word place in Towler's subtitle is so important. The book is not only a portrait of Robert Dunn, but a chronicle of the city that allowed him to be Robert Dunn. Towler is careful to chronicle the details of the place and community, both its people and its institutions. She shows the frustrations of dealing with bureaucracies of illness, and without being heavy-handed she depicts the ways that poverty is perceived in a place as ruggedly individualistic as New Hampshire — once she gets to know Robert Dunn, she also gets to see, feel, and struggle against the assumptions people who don't know him make. (In some of what she described him experiencing from nurses, doctors, and pharmacists, I couldn't help but think of my father, who did not have health insurance and who died of congestive heart failure. After he had a heart attack, he felt patronized and dismissed by hospitals that knew he couldn't pay his bills. Whether the hospital employees themselves actually felt this way, I don't know, but he perceived it deeply, and it contributed to his determination never to see another doctor or hospital. I'll forever remember the way his voice sounded when he told me, briefly, of this: the shattered pride, the humiliation, the rage all fraying his words.)

In its attention to the details of community — and a number of other ways — The Penny Poet of Portsmouth makes a perfect companion to Samuel Delany's Dark Reflections, another story of a poet, though in a very different environment. Arnold Hawley in Delany's novel is far less content than Robert Dunn in Towler's memoir, but their commitments are similar. Arnold is more seduced by the desire for fame and success than Dunn seems to have been, and so his personality is perhaps a bit more like Towler's, but without her relative success in everyday living. Having known Dunn, Towler is perhaps more capable of imagining Dunn as content in his life than Delany is quite able to imagine Arnold content — I've sometimes wondered whether Arnold is so tormented by his life because Delany himself would be tormented by that life, a life that is the opposite, in nearly every way, of his own. No matter. The books have much to say to (and with) each other.

There is much in Towler's memoir that is moving. She takes her time and doesn't rush the story. At first, I thought perhaps her pacing was unnecessarily slow, perhaps padding out what was a thin tale. I was wrong, though, because Towler is up to many things in the book, and needs her portrait of the place and person to be built carefully for her ideas and concerns to have resonance and real meaning. It's a tale of growing into knowledge and into something like intimacy, but also, at the same time, of coming to terms with unsolveable mysteries and uncrossable borders.

By the time I got to the fragmentary biography Towler offers as an appendix, those few pages were the most powerful of the book for me, because they show just how much we can't know. (I suppose the power was also one of some sort of personal recognition: Robert Dunn grew up only a dozen or so miles from where I grew up. The soil of his early years is as familiar to me as any other place on Earth. He was a graduate of the University of New Hampshire, where I finished my undergraduate degree and am now working on a Ph.D. I've only spent occasional time in Portsmouth, though enough over the decades to have seen some of the changes Towler writes about.) Primed by all the rest of Towler's story, it was this paragraph that most deeply affected me:
He went south in the summer of 1965 with the civil rights movement with a small group of Episcopalians from New Hampshire. Jonathan Daniels, who was shot and killed as he protected a young African-American woman attempting to enter a store in Hayneville, Alabama, had gone down ahead of the group. Robert would not talk about this experience, though others and I asked him about it directly. He did say once that he had known Daniels.
Had Towler rushed her story more, the resonances and mysteries in that paragraph wouldn't have been nearly as affecting. (It helps if you already know the story of Daniels, I suppose.)

The book ends with a delightful collection of what we might call "Robert Dunn's wit and wisdom", taken from various interviews and profiles in local papers that Dunn had stuck in a folder labeled "Vanity". Of the civil rights movement, he told Clare Kittredge of the Boston Globe in 1999: "We had our hearts thoroughly broken."

Let's end these musings with what mattered most to Robert Dunn, though: the poetry. His poems remind me of Frank O'Hara (whom he discusses with Towler) and Samuel Menashe. They're colloquial and compressed, full of surprises. Thanks to Towler's book, I expect, Dunn's selected poems have finally been collected in One of Us Is Lost, and a few are reprinted in The Penny Poet. Here's one that seems particularly appropriate:

Public Notice

      They've taken away the pigeon lady,
who used to scatter breadcrumbs from an old
brown hand and then do a little pigeon dance,
right there on the sidewalk, with a flashing
of purple socks. To the scandal of the
neighborhood. This is no world for pigeon
ladies.

     There's a certain wild gentleness in
this world that holds it all together. And
there's a certain tame brutality that just
naturally tends to ruin and scatteration and
nothing left over. Between them it's a very
near thing. This is no world without pigeon
ladies.

     Now world, I know you're almost
uglied out, but . . . just think! Try to
remember: What have you done with the
pigeon lady?

—Robert Dunn

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5. What's An Apple?

What's An Apple? Marilyn Singer. Illustrated by Greg Pizzoli. 2016. Abrams. 24 pages. [Source: Review copy]

First sentence: What's an Apple? You can pick it. You can kick it. You can throw away the core. You can toss it. You can sauce it. You can roll it on the floor. You can wash it, try to squash it, or pretend that it's a ball. You can drink it. You can sink it. Give your teacher one this fall!

Premise/plot: Marilyn Singer has crafted a poem answering the question, "What's An Apple?" The text is simple and rhythmic. Plenty of rhymes to be found. It reads pretty effortlessly.

My thoughts: I do like this one more than What's A Banana? Perhaps in part because I LOVE apples and don't really like bananas. But also because I think some of the rhymes are just better in this one. I really like the 'You can smell it, caramel it' line. The books do complement one another.

Text: 4 out of 5
Illustrations: 3 out of 5
Total: 7 out of 10

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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6. What's A Banana?

What's A Banana? Marilyn Singer. Illustrated by Greg Pizzoli. 2016. Abrams. 24 pages. [Source: Review copy]

First sentence: What's a banana? You can grip it and unzip it. Smash and mash it with a spoon. You can trace it. Outer-space it--make believe that it's the moon.

Premise/plot: The whole book is a poem answering the question 'What's a Banana?'

My thoughts: Marilyn Singer writes poetry for children. Usually her books are collections of her poems. Not one poem stretched to cover an entire book. I have really enjoyed her work in the past, so I wanted to really like this one. I didn't quite. It was okay for me. I don't want my three minutes back or anything. I just wasn't wowed.

Text: 3 out of 5
Illustrations: 3 out of 5
Total: 6 out of 10

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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7. Poetry Friday: Arlequin


Arlequin by by René de Saint-Marceaux
 photographed at the Musée des Beaux Arts in Lyon, France,
by Kelly Ramsdell


Who is that masked man? I thought I knew. I'd seen him before. Replicas of this statue are all over Amazon, ebay, and auction sites. A version even appeared on The Antique Roadshow.

If you get a chance to watch that video, it gives some background on the original marble sculpture---which I cannot find images of online-- as well as info about the various bronze and plaster casts (in various sizes) that have been made from it, such as the one Kelly snapped a photo of in Lyon.

What I didn't know was how complicated the history of the Arlequin (Harlequin) character was. For one thing, he began as a dark-faced devil character in French passion plays--yes, sadly, as another portrayal of a black man as a demon. His clothes were a slave's rags and patches before they evolved into a more orderly diamond pattern, and he was part of the tradition of blackface clowning in minstrel theater. I think his half mask may be the last remnant of that.

Much of that history is obscured, however, because the Harlequin also became a popular member of the zanni or comic servant characters in the Italian Commedia dell’Arte. There, his trope became one of a clever servant who thwarts his master...and courts his lady love with wit and panache. We might recognize bits of him today in our modern romantic hero.

So. That's a lot of stuff packed into one stock character. More than I could handle in one poem. In the end, I wrote what I saw reflected back in his eyes --- but I'm curious: how would you describe what YOU see in him?



Arlequin

A stock character 
takes stock of his life:
always tasked

by the master 
always masked
from his true love

always asked
to repeat
the same lines.

—-and yet—
We never master
our taste for sharp

laughter; 
we are unmasked 
by it, we ask

with applause
for Love in tricked
out plaster, cast

marble to actor;
same lines;
new disaster.

       ----Sara Lewis Holmes (all rights reserved)

My poetry sisters all wrote about what they saw in our masked man. Find their poems here:

Tricia
Andi (sitting this one out. See you next time, Andi!)

Poetry Friday is hosted today by Violet


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8. Review of the Day: Are You an Echo? by David Jacobson

areyouechoAre You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko
Narrative and Translation by David Jacobson, Sally Ito, and Michiko Tsuboi
Illustrated by Toshikado Hajiri
Chin Music Press
$19.50
ISBN: 9781634059626
Ages 5 and up
On shelves now

Recently I was at a conference celebrating the creators of different kinds of children’s books. During one of the panel discussions an author of a picture book biography of Fannie Lou Hamer said that part of the mission of children’s book authors is to break down “the canonical boundaries of biography”. I knew what she meant. A cursory glance at any school library or public library’s children’s room will show that most biographies go to pretty familiar names. It’s easy to forget how much we need biographies of interesting, obscure people who have done great things. Fortunately, at this conference, I had an ace up my sleeve. I knew perfectly well that one such book has just been published here in the States and it’s a game changer. Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko isn’t your typical dry as dust retelling of a life. It crackles with energy, mystery, tragedy, and, ultimately, redemption. This book doesn’t just break down the boundaries of biography. It breaks down the boundaries placed on children’s poetry, art, and translation too. Smarter and more beautiful than it has any right to be, this book challenges a variety of different biography/poetry conventions. The fact that it’s fun to read as well is just gravy.

Part biography, part poetry collection, and part history, Are You an Echo? introduces readers to the life and work of celebrated Japanese poet Misuzu Kaneko. One day a man by the name of Setsuo Yazaki stumbled upon a poem called “Big Catch”. The poet’s seemingly effortless ability to empathize with the plight of fish inspired him to look into her other works. The problem? The only known book of her poems out there was caught in the conflagration following the firebombing of Tokyo during World War II. Still, Setsuo was determined and after sixteen years he located the poet’s younger brother who had her diaries, containing 512 of Misuzu’s poems. From this, Setsuo was able to piece together her life. Born in 1902, Misuzu Kaneko grew up in Senzaki in western Japan. She stayed in school at her mother’s insistence and worked in her mother’s bookstore. For fun she submitted some of her poems to a monthly magazine and shockingly every magazine she submitted them to accepted them. Yet all was not well for Misuzu. She had married poorly, contracted a disease from her unfaithful husband that caused her pain, and he had forced her to stop writing as well. Worst of all, when she threatened to leave he told her that their daughter’s custody would fall to him. Unable to see a way out of her problem, she ended her life at twenty-six, leaving her child in the care of her mother. Years passed, and the tsunami of 2011 took place. Misuzu’s poem “Are You an Echo?” was aired alongside public service announcements and it touched millions of people. Suddenly, Misuzu was the most famous children’s poet of Japan, giving people hope when they needed it. She will never be forgotten again. The book is spotted with ten poems throughout Misuzu’s story, and fifteen additional poems at the end.

areyouecho2There’s been a lot of talk in the children’s literature sphere about the role of picture book biographies. More specifically, what’s their purpose? Are they there simply to inform and delight or do they need to actually attempt to encapsulate the great moments in a person’s life, warts and all? If a picture book bio only selects a single moment out of someone’s life as a kind of example, can you still call it a biography? If you make up dialogue and imagine what might have happened in one scene or another, do those fictional elements keep it from the “Biography” section of your library or bookstore, or is there a place out there for fictionalized bios? These questions are new ones, just as the very existence of picture book biographies, in as great a quantity as we’re seeing them, is also new. One of the takeaways I’ve gotten from these conversations is that it is possible to tackle difficult subjects in a picture book bio, but it must be done naturally and for a good reason. So a story like Gary Golio’s Spirit Seeker can discuss John Coltrane’s drug abuse, as long as it serves the story and the character’s growth. On the flip side, Javaka Steptoe’s Radiant Child, a biography of Basquiat, makes the choice of discussing the artist’s mother’s fight with depression and mental illness, but eschews any mention of his own suicide.

Are You An Echo? is an interesting book to mention alongside these two other biographies because the story is partly about Misuzu Kaneko’s life, partly about how she was discovered as a poet, and partly a highlight of her poetry. But what author David Jacobson has opted to do here is tell the full story of her life. As such, this is one of the rare picture book bios I’ve seen to talk about suicide, and probably the only book of its kind I’ve ever seen to make even a passing reference to STDs. Both issues informed Kaneko’s life, depression, feelings of helplessness, and they contribute to her story. The STD is presented obliquely so that parents can choose or not choose to explain it to kids if they like. The suicide is less avoidable, so it’s told in a matter-of-fact manner that I really appreciated. Euphemisms, for the most part, are avoided. The text reads, “She was weak from illness and determined not to let her husband take their child. So she decided to end her life. She was only twenty-six years old.” That’s bleak but it tells you what you need to know and is honest to its subject.

areyouecho3But let’s just back up a second and acknowledge that this isn’t actually a picture book biography in the strictest sense of the term. Truthfully, this book is rife, RIFE, with poetry. As it turns out, it was the editorial decision to couple moments in Misuzu’s life with pertinent poems that gave the book its original feel. I’ve been wracking my brain, trying to come up with a picture book biography of a poet that has done anything similar. I know one must exist out there, but I was hard pressed to think of it. Maybe it’s done so rarely because the publishers are afraid of where the book might end up. Do you catalog this book as poetry or as biography? Heck, you could catalog it in the Japanese history section and still be right on in your assessment. It’s possible that a book that melds so many genres together could only have been published in the 21st century, when the influx of graphic inspired children’s literature has promulgated. Whatever the case, reading this book you’re struck with the strong conviction that the book is as good as it is precisely because of this melding of genres. To give up this aspect of the book would be to weaken it.

Right off the bat I was impressed by the choice of poems. The first one you encounter is called “Big Catch” and it tells about a village that has caught a great number of fish. The poem ends by saying, “On the beach, it’s like a festival / but in the sea they will hold funerals / for the tens of thousands dead.” The researcher Setsuo Yazaki was impressed by the poet’s empathy for the fish, and that empathy is repeated again and again in her poems. “Big Catch” is actually one of her bleaker works. Generally speaking, the poems look at the world through childlike eyes. “Wonder” contemplates small mysteries, in “Beautiful Town” the subject realizes that a memory isn’t from life but from a picture in a borrowed book, and “Snow Pile” contemplates how the snow on the bottom, the snow on the top, and the snow in the middle of a pile must feel when they’re all pressed together. The temptation would be to call Kaneko the Japanese Emily Dickenson, owing to the nature of the discovery of her poems posthumously, but that’s unfair to both Kaneko and Dickenson. Kenko’s poems are remarkable not just because of their original empathy, but also because they are singularly childlike. A kid would get a kick out of reading these poems. That’s no mean feat.

areyouecho4Mind you, we’re dealing with a translation here. And considering how beautifully these poems read, you might want a note from the translators talking about their process. You can imagine, then, how thrilled I was to find a half-page’s worth of a “Translators’ Note” explaining aspects of the work here that never would have occurred to me in a million years. The most interesting problem came down to culture. As Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi write, “In Japanese, girls have a particular way of speaking that is affectionate and endearing . . . However, English is limited in its capacity to convey Misuzu’s subtle feminine sensibility and the elegant nuances of her classical allusions. We therefore had to skillfully work our way through both languages, often producing several versions of a poem by discussing them on Skype and through extensive emails – Michiko from Japan, Sally from China – to arrive at the best possible translations in English.” It makes a reader really sit back and admire the sheer levels of dedication and hard work that go into a book of this sort. If you read this book and find that the poems strike you as singularly interesting and unique, you may now have to credit these dedicated translators as greatly as you do the original subject herself. We owe them a lot.

In the back of the book there is a note from the translators and a note from David Jacobson who wrote the text of the book that didn’t include the poetry. What’s conspicuously missing here is a note from the illustrator. That’s a real pity too since biographical information about artist Toshikado Hajiri is missing. Turns out, Toshikado is originally from Kyoto and now lives in Anan, Tokushima. Just a cursory glance at his art shows a mild manga influence. You can see it in the eyes of the characters and the ways in which Toshikado chooses to draw emotions. That said, this artist is capable of also conveying great and powerful moments of beauty in nature. The sunrise behind a beloved island, the crush of chaos following the tsunami, and a peach/coral/red sunset, with a grandmother and granddaughter silhouetted against its beauty. What Toshikado does here is match Misuzu’s poetry, note for note. The joyous moments she found in the world are conveyed visually, matching, if never exceeding or distracting from, her prowess. The end result is more moving than you might expect, particularly when he includes little human moments like Misuzu reading to her daughter on her lap or bathing her one last time.

Here is what I hope happens. I hope that someday soon, the name “Misuzu Kaneko” will become better known in the United States. I hope that we’ll start seeing collections of her poems here, illustrated by some of our top picture book artists. I hope that the fame that came to Kaneko after the 2011 tsunami will take place in America, without the aid of a national disaster. And I hope that every child that reads, or is read, one of her poems feels that little sense of empathy she conveyed so effortlessly in her life. I hope all of this, and I hope that people find this book. In many ways, this book is an example of what children’s poetry should strive to be. It tells the truth, but not the truth of adults attempting to impart wisdom upon their offspring. This is the truth that the children find on their own, but often do not bother to convey to the adults in their lives. Considering how much of this book concerns itself with being truthful about Misuzu’s own life and struggles, this conceit matches its subject matter to a tee. Beautiful, mesmerizing, necessary reading for one and all.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Misc: An article in PW about the translation.

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9. Making Connections with Poetry

I am on a technology roll lately! First Evernote and now Padlet. Check out the start of a new tool to inspire my students.

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10. Celebrating 25 Books from 25 Years: Chess Rumble

LEE & LOW BOOKS celebrates its 25th anniversary this year! To recognize how far the company has come, we are featuring one title a week to see how it is being used in classrooms today and hear from the authors and illustrators.

Today, we are celebrating Chess Rumble, which explores the ways this strategic game empowers young people with the skills they need to anticipate and calculate their moves through life.

Featured title: Chess Rumble

 Author: G. Neri

 Illustrator: Jesse Joshua WatsonChess Rumble cover image

Synopsis: In Marcus’s world, battles are fought everyday—on the street, at home, and in school. Angered by his sister’s death and his father’s absence, and pushed to the brink by a bullying classmate, Marcus fights back with his fists.

One punch away from being kicked out of school and his home, Marcus encounters CM, an unlikely chess master who challenges him to fight his battles on the chess board. Guarded and distrusting, Marcus must endure more hard lessons before he can accept CM’s help to regain control of his life.

Awards and Honors:

  • Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, American Library Association (ALA)
  • Notable Books in the Language Arts, National Council of Teachers of English
  • Lee Bennett Hopkins Promising Poet Award, International Reading Association (IRA)
  • Top Picks for Reluctant Readers, BoysRead.org

G. Neri, an award-winning filmmaker whose work has earned him several honors. Inspired by his editor, Jennifer Fox, who had wanted to do an urban chess story for years and finally saw the possibility of making it come to life through him, Neri dove into the project with unbridled enthusiasm. “I loved the idea of using chess strategy as a way to approach life. I had dealt with a few teens who had come from troubled pasts and had difficulty finding an outlet for their inner struggle. So the idea of pairing a kid like this with a chess mentor who did not back down came naturally. It was a very organic process, and I let the characters tell me their stories.”

Neri hopes that readers will come away from Chess Rumble “think[ing] about their lives and the choices they make before they make them.” Pressed to continue, Neri says, “I hope they are intrigued to play chess, and maybe start thinking about acting on, instead of reacting to, negative situations. Acting considers what can happen if you make one choice versus another. Reacting just responds impulsively to the problem instead of thinking ahead three steps and maybe making a better choice.

Resources for teaching with Chess Rumble: 

Watch the trailer:

You can purchase a copy of Chess Rumble here.

For more titles about different experiences with bullying and peer pressure, check out our Bullying/Anti-Bullying Collection here.

Bullying Collection Cover Images

Have you used Chess Rumble? Let us know!

Celebrate with us! Check out our 25 Years Anniversary Collection.

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11. Harts Pass No. 316


My annual ode to fall :)

0 Comments on Harts Pass No. 316 as of 9/22/2016 11:10:00 AM
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12. Cynsational Summer Awards Roundup

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Boston Globe-Hornbook Awards for Excellence in Children's Literature: "Winners are selected in three categories: Picture Book, Fiction and Poetry, and Nonfiction. Two Honor Books may be named in each category."



The National Book Awards Longlist: Young People's Literature from The New Yorker. Peek: "...a novel in verse about a twelve-year-old soccer nut, an illustrated adventure story that draws on Chinese folklore, a work of nonfiction about a woman who survived the atomic bomb dropped by the U.S. on Nagasaki, a surreal love story involving rumored witches, and a graphic novel about the civil-rights movement co-written by a sitting U.S. congressman."

Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award: "This year’s winner is Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir written by Margarita Engle, published by Atheneum...."

Intellectual Freedom Award from the National Council of Teachers of English. Peek: "NCTE honors Matt de la Peña for his courage in standing up for intellectual freedom with the NCTE National Intellectual Freedom Award, given for de la Peña’s efforts to fight censorship not only through his words but also through his actions."

Willa Award Finalist
Willa Award Winner and Finalists from Women Writing the West. Peek: "Chosen by professional librarians, historians and university affiliated educators, the winning authors and their books will be honored at the 22st Annual WWW Conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico on Oct. to Oct. 16..."

Carter G. Woodson Book Award and Honor Winners: "NCSS established the Carter G. Woodson Book Awards for the most distinguished books appropriate for young readers that depict ethnicity in the United States."

Lammy Award from Lambda Literary. Peek: "Exciting news for Alex Gino and all of us who want this beautiful and important story of a transgender child in 4th grade to get into the hands of everyone who needs it."

NCTE Charlotte Huck Award for Outstanding Fiction for Children: "...established in 2014 to promote and recognize excellence in the writing of fiction for children. This award recognizes fiction that has the potential to transform children’s lives by inviting compassion, imagination, and wonder."

Parents Choice Book Awards: "Parents' Choice Foundation, established in 1978 as a 501c3, is the nation’s oldest nonprofit guide to quality children’s media and toys."

Finalists Announced for the 2016 Canadian Children's Book Centre Awards"The winners of the English-language awards will be announced at an invitation-only gala event at The Carlu in Toronto on November 17, 2016. The winners of the Prix TD de littérature canadienne pour l’enfance et la jeunesse will be announced at an invitation-only gala event at Le Windsor in Montreal on November 1, 2016. Overall, $135,000 in prize monies will be awarded."

International Latino Award (Chap Book)
2016 International Latino Book Awards: "...now the largest Latino cultural Awards in the USA and with the 257 finalists this year, it has honored the greatness of 2,171 authors and publishers over the past two decades. These books are a great reflection that books by and about Latinos are in high demand. In 2016 Latinos will purchase over $675 million in books in English and Spanish."

Writers' League of Texas Book Award Winners, Finalists and Discovery Prize Winners: "With over 1,200 members statewide and growing, the Writers’ League of Texas is a vibrant community that serves to educate and uplift Texas writers, whatever stage they may be at in their writing careers. In addition, the WLT offers valuable service to communities across the state with free programming in libraries and local schools."

Cynsational Notes

Submissions Guidelines Walter Dean Myers Book Award for YA Lit from We Need Diverse Books. Peek: "A submission must be written by a diverse author and the submission must be a diverse work. If a work has co-authors, at least one of the authors must be diverse..." Deadline: Nov. 1.

Lee & Low New Visions Award: "Manuscripts should address the needs of children and teens of color by providing stories with which they can identify and relate, and which promote a greater understanding of one another. Themes relating to LGBTQ+ topics or disabilities may also be included." Deadline: Oct. 31.

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13. Why I Am Not a Poet


I have a brief new essay up at The Story Prize Blog, "Why I Am Not a Poet". Here's a taste:
I care about words, structures, rhythms, resonances, patterns, allusions, borrowings, sentences, images, emotions, voices, dreams, realities, fears, anxieties, failures, yearnings, and much more, but I don't really care about telling stories. The story is a kind of vehicle, or maybe an excuse, or maybe an alibi. The conventions of the story can be followed and forsaken in ways that get me to the other things, the things I care about.

All of those things I care about are things common to poetry — some more common to poetry than to prose, I'd bet — and that is why I read poetry, but even though I read poetry, I write prose because I just don't know how to do those things unless I'm writing prose.

(I think I would rather be a poet, but I am not.)

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14. Poetry Friday: Cake and Clogyrnach

We got married in August, 1984. The heat it was hot, even for a ceremony at 8 PM. But we didn't melt, and neither did the cake:

Carrot cake, my husband's favorite


I'm sure there was a toast given, too. Which brings me to this month's poetry challenge: the clogyrnach, a traditional Welsh ode with a decreasing syllable count and a simple rhyme scheme:

8 syllables - x x x x x x x a
8 syllables - x x x x x x x a
5 syllables - x x x x b
5 syllables - x x x x b
3 syllables - x x b 
3 syllables - x x a 
(you may combine last two lines into one line)

When I did a light Googling of the form, I learned it's used at weddings and funerals (I haven't confirmed this beyond the Internets, however.) I also gleaned that you may repeat the rhyme scheme for as many stanzas as you like, creating a longer story--or perhaps, an ornate toast to a happy couple. Something sweetly humorous, perhaps dolloped with archaic language---and yet filled with well-wishes. Something a Bard (or Bardess) might compose to earn his/her supper--or a slice of cake.



A Clogyrnach to be recited before Cake

Dearly beloved, gathered here,
witness this cake, built tier by tier:
may layers of sponge
shallacked with mauve gunge
flaws expunge, and endear

bride to bridegroom; bridegroom to bride;
grant stomachs for swallowing pride
and spleens to filter
rivals’ false philter;
Ne’er jilt her—but abide;

ne’er salt his cutting grief, but fold
each into each; thus love raids old
age of bitter rhyme;
cake dissolves in time;
naught left fine; but behold:

Dearly beloved, gathered here,
witness these lives, built tear by tear:
pray layers of sponge
give strength for the plunge;
fear expunge; knots tie dear.

                       ---Sara Lewis Holmes (all rights reserved, but hey, yeah, sure---I'll let you recite it at a wedding, no charge. Just email me a picture of your cake.)


My Poetry Sisters attempted the clogyrnach, too, both in short and long forms. As usual with this brave crowd, after a tad of griping and floundering, some fine poems stepped onto the page.  Here's a toast to that!
Liz
Tanita
Kelly
Laura
Andi
Tricia

Poetry Friday is hosted today by Penny at Penny and her Jots.

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15. The Poetry of Summer

Every week, poets, book bloggers, librarians, and other bookworms share their original or favorite poems as part of Poetry Friday. (Learn more at Poetry Foundation.) I participate at my blog, Bildungsroman. I tend to select poems based on my mood or recent events. This month, I shared four Mary Oliver poems, including her aptly-titled piece August:

When the blackberries hang
swollen in the woods, in the brambles
nobody owns, I spend

all day among the high
branches, reaching
my ripped arms, thinking

of nothing, cramming
the black honey of summer
into my mouth; all day my body

accepts what it is. In the dark
creeks that run by there is
this thick paw of my life darting among

the black bells, the leaves; there is
this happy tongue.


What poems or poets make you think of summer? Leave a comment below and let us know!

Special thanks to my friend and fellow writer Courtney Sheinmel for introducing me to Mary Oliver's poetry a few years ago!


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16. Poetry Friday: WONDER

It was an Instagram darling during its run. People couldn't stop posting pictures of themselves with the re-constructed trees, walls of bugs, glass marble-encrusted waterways, index card mountains, and hobbit-ish nests that had been installed inside the newly-renovated Renwick Gallery in DC.


Me, wondering


Each artist had a whole room to work with. No other art was displayed. It was a playground for both creators and viewers alike.





No wonder the exhibit was called WONDER.  I was lucky enough to catch it before it closed in June, and shared a few photos with my Poetry Sisters to inspire our poems this month.

For my poem, I chose to be look closer at In the Midnight Garden, created by installation artist Jennifer Angus. She works entirely with bugs.



Yes, bugs. (Her fascinating website is here.)

The Renwick Gallery puts it this way: "By altering the context in which we encounter such species, Angus startles us into recognition of what has always been a part of our world."

And that is exactly what I'm interested in: that moment of being startled by art.
Because as much as I love art, I love watching people interact with art even more. I love eavesdropping on their comments and watching them tilt their heads and contort their limbs as the art invades their head space.

I mean, look at this guy...he really, really wants to take it all in, but the room is too small, and soon, he'll figure this out and walk through that next door and look back, but at the moment, he's doing what we do when we're trying to take art home in our pocket.



Okay. After I took that photo of him taking a photo, I slipped through the archway and and took these two photos, trying to take some piece of the experience home in my pocket, too.


Viewing In the Midnight Garden
by Jennifer Angus







Then I wrote a poem about them. To extend the wonder, of course.



Wonder

Are they real? a child
asks. In answer, a woman looks
through the eyes of her cell phone.


Above her, a hot but bloodless red
backs death, the pixilated-eyed
watcher over her shoulder.


What do we capture of art, to port
tidily home in our pockets? Do mandalas
like t-shirt designs, fit into our hive


of possibilities? Look! A compass
rose points the way, as bugs flock
over other bugs, posed for family portraits—


or are they circled in therapy, masticating
unhealed hurts? In an aerial photo, I’ve seen
twenty-five thousand human bodies form


a blurry-edged Liberty Bell, but these flat-backed
bugs, so perfectly symmetrical, so aptly suited
for display, with their fine-wire legs and boldly


faceted bodies, could be fastidiously sewn
to a contessa’s dress. Snap. Snap. Snap.
The woman takes pictures. The child asks


again: Are they real? Yes. They are real—-
and clean, and desiccated, repulsion
removed so we can wonder


at wonder, at a museum within
a museum, at a body of bodies,
wing to wing, our mandibles open.

----Sara Lewis Holmes (all rights reserved)



NOTE:

If you're curious about that fantastic magenta color of the walls, according to the Renwick website, "The pink wash is derived from the cochineal insect living on cacti in Mexico, where it has long been prized as the best source of the color red."

And that Liberty Bell made by 25,000 human bodies? Here.


See how my Poetry Sisters wondered and wandered through the exhibit with their poems:

Liz
Tanita
Laura
Andi
Kelly
Tricia

Poetry Friday is hosted today by Tara at A Teaching Life.


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17. How A. K. Ramanujan mirrored Aldous Huxley

In the 1950s and 60s a cross-section of psychologists, writers and artists in America, partly inspired by Aldous Huxley’s essay The Doors of Perception published in 1954, experimented with hallucinogenics like LSD, mescaline, mushrooms, and hashish to venture into new realms of experience, seeking the “hidden” reality of the self and the world and probing into the meaning of art to locate their inner vision.

The post How A. K. Ramanujan mirrored Aldous Huxley appeared first on OUPblog.

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18. How A. K. Ramanujan mirrored Aldous Huxley

In the 1950s and 60s a cross-section of psychologists, writers and artists in America, partly inspired by Aldous Huxley’s essay The Doors of Perception published in 1954, experimented with hallucinogenics like LSD, mescaline, mushrooms, and hashish to venture into new realms of experience, seeking the “hidden” reality of the self and the world and probing into the meaning of art to locate their inner vision.

The post How A. K. Ramanujan mirrored Aldous Huxley appeared first on OUPblog.

0 Comments on How A. K. Ramanujan mirrored Aldous Huxley as of 1/1/1900
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19. 25 Books From 25 Years: Confetti: Poems For Children

Lee_Low_25th_Anniversary_Poster_2_LEE & LOW BOOKS celebrates its 25th anniversary this year! To recognize how far the company has come, we are featuring one title a week to see how it is being used in classrooms today and hear from the authors and illustrators.

Today, we’re celebrating one of our favorite poetry titles: Confetti: Poems for Children. This book celebrates the vivid Southwestern landscape of the United States through poems about the natural world. Featuring words from award-winning author Pat Mora and fine artist Enrique O. Sanchez, Confetti is an anthem to the power of a child’s imagination and pride.

confettiFeatured title: Confetti: Poems for Children

Author: Pat Mora

Illustrator:Enrique O. Sanchez

Synopsis: In this joyful and spirited collection, award-winning poet Pat Mora and fine artist Enrique O. Sanchez celebrate the vivid landscape of the Southwest and the delightful rapport that children share with the natural world.

Awards and honors:

  • Children’s Books Mean Business, Children’s Book Council (CBC)
  • Choices, Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC)

Other Editions: Did you know that Confetti: Poems for Children also comes in a Spanish edition?

Confeti: Poemas para niños

 

 

 

 

 

Confeti: Poemas para niños

Purchase a copy of Confetti: Poems for Children here.

Resources for teaching with Confetti: Poems for Children:

Other Recommended Picture Books for Teaching About Poetry:

water rolls water rises

 

 

 

 

 

Water Rolls, Water Rises/El agua rueda, el agua subeby Pat Mora, illus. by Meilo So

Lend a Hand

Lend a Hand: Poems About Giving by John Frank, illus. by London Ladd

the palm of my heart

 

 

 

 

 

The Palm of My Heart: Poetry by African American Children, by Davida Adedjoua, illus. by R. Gregory Christie

in daddy's arms i am tall

 

 

 

 

In Daddy’s Arms I Am Tall: African Americans Celebrating Fathers, by various poets, illus. by Javaka Steptoe

Have you used Confetti: Poems for Children? Let us know!

Celebrate with us! Check out our 25 Years Anniversary Collection.

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20. Review of the Day: Freedom Over Me by Ashley Bryan

FreedomOverMeFreedom Over Me: Eleven slaves, their lives and dreams brought to life
By Ashley Bryan
Atheneum (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
$17.99
ISBN: 978-1481456906
Ages 9 and up
On shelves September 13th

Who gives voice to the voiceless? What are your credentials when you do so? When I was a teen I used to go into antique stores and buy old family photographs from the turn of the century. It still seems odd to me that this is allowed. I’d find the people who looked the most interesting, like they had a story to tell, and I’d take them home with me. Then I’d write something about their story, though mostly I just liked to look at them. There is a strange comfort in looking at the faces of the fashionable dead. A little twinge of momento mori mixed with the knowledge that you yourself are young (possibly) and alive (probably). It’s easy to hypothesize about a life when you can see that person’s face and watch them in their middle class Sunday best. It is far more difficult when you have no face, a hint of a name, and/or maybe just an age. Add to this the idea that the people in question lived through a man made hell-on-earth. When author/illustrator/artist Ashley Bryan acquired a collection of slave-related documents from the 1820s to the 1860s he had in his hands a wealth of untold stories. And when he chose to give these people, swallowed by history, lives and dignity and peace, he did so as only he could. With the light and laughter and beauty that only he could find in the depths of uncommon pain. Freedom Over Me is a work of bravery and sense. A way of dealing with the unimaginable, allowing kids an understanding that there is a brain, heart, and soul behind every body, alive or dead, in human history.

The date on the Fairchilds Appraisement is July 5, 1828. On it you will find a list of goods to be sold. Cows, hogs, cotton . . . and people. Eleven people, if we’re going to be precise (and we are). Most have names. One does not. Just names on a piece of paper almost 200-years-old. So Ashley Bryan, he takes those names and those people, and for the first time in centuries we get to meet them. Here is Athelia, a laundress who once carried the name Adero. On one page we hear about her life. On the next, her dreams. She remembers the village she grew up in, the stories, and the songs. And she is not alone in this. As we meet each person and learn what they do, we get a glimpse into their dreams. We hear their hopes. We wonder about their lives. We see them draw strength from one another. And in the end? The sale page sits there. The final words: “Administered to the best of our Judgment.”

FreedomOverMe1I have often said, and I say it to this day, that if there were ever a Church of Ashley Bryan, every last person who has ever met him or heard him speak would be a member. There are only a few people on this great green Earth that radiant actual uncut goodness right through their very pores. Mr. Bryan is one of those few, so when I asked at the beginning of this review what the credentials are for giving voice to the voiceless, check off that box. There are other reasons to trust him, though. A project of this sort requires a certain level of respect for the deceased. To attain that, and this may seem obvious, the author has to care. Read enough books written for kids and you get a very clear sense of those books written by folks who do not care vs. folks that do. Even then, caring’s not really enough. The writing needs to be up to speed and the art needs to be on board. And for this particular project, Ashley Bryan had a stiffer task at hand. Okay. You’ve given them full names and backgrounds and histories. What else do they need? Bryan gives these people something intangible. He gives them dreams. It’s right there in the subtitle, actually: “Eleven slaves, their lives and dreams brought to life.”

And so the book is a work of fiction. There is no amount of research that could discover Bacus or Peggy or Dora’s true tales. So when we say that Bryan is giving these people their lives back, we acknowledge that the lives he’s giving them aren’t the exact lives they led. And so we know that each person is a representative above and beyond the names on that page. Hence the occupations. Betty is every gardener. Stephen every architect. Dora every child that was born to a state of slavery and labored under it, perhaps their whole lives. And there is very little backmatter included in this book. Bryan shows the primary documents alongside a transcription of the sales. There is also an Author’s Note. Beyond that, you bring to the book what you already know about slavery, making this a title for a slightly older child readership. Bryan isn’t going to spend these pages telling you every daily injustice of slavery. Kids walk in with that knowledge already in place. What they need now is some humanity.

FreedomOverMe3Has Mr. Bryan ever done anything with slavery before? I was curious. I’ve watched Mr. Bryan’s books over the years and they are always interesting. He’s done spirituals as cut paper masterpieces. He’s originated folktales as lively and quick as their inspirational forbears. He makes puppets out of found objects that carry with them a feeling not just of dignity, but pride. But has he ever directly done a book that references slavery? So I examined his entire repertoire, from the moment he illustrated Black Boy by Richard Wright to Susan Cooper’s Jethro and the Jumbie to Ashley Bryan’s African Folktales, Uh-Huh and beyond. His interest in Africa and song and poetry knows no bounds, but never has he engaged so directly with slavery itself.

Could this have been done as anything but poetry? Or would you even call each written section poetry? I would, but I’ll be interested to see where libraries decide to shelve the book. Do you classify it as poetry or in the history section under slavery? Maybe, for all that it seems to be the size and shape of a picture book, you’d put it in your fiction collection. Wherever you put it, I am reminded, as I read this book, of Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! where every lord and peasant gets a monologue from their point of view. Freedom Over Me bears more than a passing similarity to Good Masters. In both cases we have short monologues any kid could read aloud in class or on their own. They are informed by research, and their scant number of words speak to a time we’ll never really know or understand fully. And how easy it would be to turn this book into a stage play. I can see it so easily. Imagine if you turned the Author’s Note into the first monologue and Ashley Bryan his own character (behold the 10-year-old dressed up as him, mustache and all). Since the title of the book comes from the spiritual “Oh, Freedom!” you could either have the kids sing it or play it in the background. And for the ending? A kid playing the lawyer or possibly Mrs. Fairchilds or even Ashley comes out and reads the statement at the end with each person and their price and the kids step forward holding some object that defines them (clothing sewn, books read, paintings, etc.). It’s almost too easy.

FreedomOverMe2The style of the art was also interesting to me. Pen, ink, and watercolors are all Mr. Bryan (who is ninety-two years of age, as of this review) needs to render his people alive. I’ve see him indulge in a range of artistic mediums over the years. In this book, he begins with an image of the estate, an image of the slaves on that estate, and then portraits and renderings of each person, at rest or active in some way. “Peggy” is one of the first women featured, and for her portrait Ashley gives her face whorls and lines, not dissimilar to those you’d find in wood. This technique is repeated, to varying degrees, with the rest of the people in the book. First the portrait. Then an image of what they do in their daily lives or dreams. The degree of detail in each of these portraits changes a bit. Peggy, for example, is one of the most striking. The colors of her skin, and the care and attention with which each line in her face is painted, make it clear why she was selected to be first. I would have loved the other portraits to contain this level of detail, but the artist is not as consistent in this regard. Charlotte and Dora, for example, are practically line-less, a conscious choice, but a kind of pity since Peggy’s portrait sets you up to think that they’ll all look as richly detailed and textured as she.

Those old photographs I once collected may well be the only record those people left of themselves on this earth, aside from a name in a family tree and perhaps on a headstone somewhere. So much time has passed since July 5, 1828 that it is impossible to say whether or not the names on Ashley’s acquired Appraisement are remembered by their descendants. Do families still talk about Jane or Qush? Is this piece of paper the only part of them that remains in the world? It may not have been the lives they led, but Ashley Bryan does everything within his own personal capacity to keep these names and these people alive, if just for a little longer. Along the way he makes it clear to kids that slaves weren’t simply an unfortunate mass of bodies. They were architects and artists and musicians. They were good and bad and human just like the rest of us. Terry Pratchett once wrote that sin is when people treat other people as objects. Ashley treats people as people. And times being what they are, here in the 21st century I’d say that’s a pretty valuable lesson to be teaching our kids today.

On shelves September 13th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Professional Reviews: A star from Kirkus

Misc: Interested in the other books Mr. Bryan has written or illustrated over the course of his illustrious career?  See the full list on his website here.

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21. Poetry Friday: In the style of Kay Ryan

     Our last "in the style of" challenge was e.e. cummings, a poet of invented words and experimental forms, a writer who easily charms me, and often transports me. This time, our poet model is Kay Ryan, U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner, who says in this Paris Review interview:

     "Prose is practical language. Conversation is practical language. Let them handle the usefulness jobs. But of course, poetry has its balms. It makes us less lonely by one. It makes us have more room inside ourselves. But it’s paralyzing to think of usefulness and poetry in the same breath."

     And yet, I find it amusing that when I read Kay Ryan's poetry, she seems to be playing with this idea of usefulness. Her poems are often skirmishes with well-worn phrases---she calls herself "a rehabilitator of clichés"---and she deploys flatly-voiced "advice" so wryly you have to read her poems over to see where the joke is. It's like she's saying: why, here's a good (useful) idea---whatever the haha hell that is. 

In the same interview, in fact, she says:


 "what interests me is so remote and fine that I have to blow it way up cartoonishly just to get it up to visible range."

Yes. I see that. And I found reading the entire Paris Review interview a pleasure and a learning experience and very welcoming. Climbing inside a poem of hers, in order to "echo" it, however, was damn hard. 


The first fear
being drowning, the
ship’s first shape
was a raft, which
was hard to unflatten
after that didn’t
happen.

There is slant, internal rhyme there---unflatten and happen---and repetition of words---first fear, first shape---and of course, that arresting phrase "the first fear being drowning."  Okay, I could work with that. Or so I thought.

To begin, I tried to riff off that opening phrase, and immediately foundered on the rocks of "drowning." Every kind of "-ing" that meant death seemed to already be a form of drowning---asphyxiating, choking, strangling---because breathing is the foundation of life, and anything that stops it is death. So...drowning seemed the plainest, most Ryan-like word to use, and death, obviously was the "first fear" and I had no interest in writing about second or third ones, and yet---I couldn't use her opening exactly, could I? She had laid her planks so precisely that if I did, I didn't know where I would stop copying and start riffing, and I might just end up with the same poem, word for word. Upon reading---and re-reading---her poem, it just didn't seem like it could be written any other way. (Read it here, now, and see if you agree.)

Then, thank goodness, I recalled the part of the interview in which Ryan talks about her time working with prisoners at San Quentin.  She says:

"I’m rather shocked to look back at the way I thought of the prisoners at that time—as people with a lot of experience. Just because they’re killers and robbers and whatnot doesn’t mean they’ve had a lot of experience. It doesn’t take very long to kill somebody."

Well, I thought, the same could be true of my foundering effort: it doesn't take very long to kill a draft, either. Especially when the well-experienced Ryan has drowned every word you could possibly use. Haha. 

That did it. I decided to go another way to echo this poem: fear of emotional death, or to put it plainly, shame, or fear of failing. 

This is a very long lead up to a very short poem. But echoing Kay Ryan will do that to you. No wonder she chooses to only write poetry. It is usefully sharp and murderous. 


"It doesn't take very long to kill somebody"

The first fear
being shaming, 
the poet’s first line
was a circle, which 
was hard to deflate
after that didn’t 
take. It’s cumbersome 
to have to scrub one’s blood
from words, so hard to
hide later, 
drubbing one’s thumb
into a nose—
making things
more lovable.

---Sara Lewis Holmes, all rights reserved

My Poetry Sisters each chose other Kay Ryan poems to "echo"---and pulled the challenge off much better than I did. Go see:




Poetry Friday is hosted today by Tabatha Yeatts




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22. Poems in the Attic

Poems in the Attic. Nikki Grimes. Illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon. 2015. Lee & Low. 48 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: Grandma's attic is stacked with secrets.

Premise/plot: Poems in the Attic is a picture book about a seven year old girl who discovers a box of her mother's poems in her grandmother's attic. Her mother started writing poems when she was just seven. Our heroine, the little girl, decides to start writing poems of her own. Readers see these poems--mother and daughter--side by side. The mother's poems are about growing up a 'military brat' moving from place to place every year or so. The daughter's poems are doubly reflective.

My thoughts: I liked this one. I liked the premise of it especially. A girl coming to appreciate her mother in a new light. A girl learning to express herself through poetry. The book celebrates family, poetry, and a sense of life as one big adventure.

That being said, poetry tends to be hit or miss with me. I sometimes enjoy poetry. Sometimes not so much. I didn't love the short poems in this one as much as I wanted. I liked them okay. I just wasn't WOWED by them. I do like the celebration of family. And the illustrations were great. Eleven places were captured in the mother's poems. And the author's note was interesting. So this one is worth your time.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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23. Celebrating 25 Books Over 25 Years: Cool Melons–Turn to Frogs! The Life and Poems of Issa

Lee_Low_25th_Anniversary_Poster_2_LEE & LOW BOOKS celebrates its 25th anniversary this year and to recognize how far the company has come, we are featuring one title a week to see how it is being used in classrooms today as well, as hear from the authors and illustrators.

 

Featured title: Cool Melons–Turn to Frogs! The Life and Poems of Issa

Author: Matthew Gollub

Illustrator: Kazuko G. Stone

Synopsis: This award-winning book is an introduction to haiku poetry and the life of Issa (b. 1763), Japan’s premier haiku poet, told through narrative, art, and translation of Issa’s most beloved poems for children.

Author Matthew Gollub’s poignant rendering of Issa’s life and over thirty of his best-loved poems, along with illustrator Kazuko Stone’s sensitive and humorous watercolor paintings, make Cool Melons—Turn to Frogs! a classic introduction to Issa’s work for readers of all ages. With authentic Japanese calligraphy, a detailed Afterword, and exhaustive research by both author and illustrator, this is also an inspirational book about haiku, writing, nature, and life.

Awards and honors:

  • Notable Books for a Global Society, International Literacy Association (ILA)
  • Notable Children’s Books in the Language Arts, National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)
  • Notable Children’s Trade Books in the Field of Social Studies, Children’s Book Council (CBC) and National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)
  • Children’s Books Mean Business, Children’s Book Council (CBC)
  • Not Just for Children Anymore selection, Children’s Book Council (CBC)
  • Outstanding Merit, Children’s Book of the Year, Bank Street College of Education
  • Best Children’s Books of the Year, Bank Street College of Education
  • Books to Read Aloud with Children of All Ages, Bank Street College of Education
  • “Editor’s Choice,” San Francisco Chronicle
  • Bay Area Book Reviewers Association Award finalist
  • Children’s and Young Adult Honorable Mention for Illustration, Asian Pacific American Award for Literature (APAAL)
  • “Choices,” Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC)
  • ALA Notable Children’s Book, American Library Association (ALA)
  • A Horn Book Fanfare Best Book of the Year, The Horn Book Magazine
  • California Collections, California Readers
  • Utah Children’s Book Award Masterlist
  • Children’s Book of Distinction, Poetry Finalist, Riverbank Review
  • Read-Alouds Too Good to Miss, Indiana Department of Education
  • Starred Review, Publishers Weekly
  • Starred Review, The Horn Book Magazine

From the author: “A haiku, because of its brevity, resembles a quick line sketch. It’s up to the reader to imagine the details and to make the picture complete. In a sense, we can think of a haiku as a telegraph; for example: “Should arrive Tuesday, supper time.” From this short message, we can infer that, weather permitting, the sender will arrive early on Tuesday evening, and that after the long, tiresome journey she would appreciate a good meal.

Often, haiku describe two events side by side, such as: “Plum tree in bloom—/ a cat’s silhouette/ upon the paper screen.” Does the silhouette of the plum tree also appear on the paper screen? Does the plum tree in bloom suggest the warmth of a spring day? Again, it’s up to the reader to imagine how or if the two things are related.

Haiku tend to be simple and understated, so there’s never one “correct” way to interpret them. The idea is to ponder each poem’s imagery and to discover and enjoy how the poem makes you feel.”

–Matthew Gollub, from “What is a Haiku?

Resources for teaching with Cool Melons–Turn to Frogs! The Life and Poems of Issa:

Book activity:

Expand students’ experience with haiku by having them read and discuss works by other seventeenth century and eighteenth century poets such as Basho, Jöso, Ryota, Buson, or Sanpu. Students may also enjoy reading more contemporary haiku and comparing the contemporary poetry with the more traditional.

cool melonsHow have you used Cool Melons–Turn to Frogs! The Life and Poems of Issa? Let us know!

Celebrate with us! Check out our 25 Years Anniversary Collection.

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24. Jazz Day

Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph by Roxanne Orgill illustrated by Francis Vallejo Candlewick, 2016 Grades 2-6 In 1958, fifty-seven jazz musicians gathered on a street in Harlem to pose for a photo for Esquire. The photo entitled "A Great Day in Harlem" became an iconic image from the 20th century, and the story behind the photograph is amazing. In this extended picture book, Roxanne

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25. Reality Affects


Bonnie Nadzam's recent essay at Literary Hub, "What Should Fiction Do?", is well worth reading, despite the title. (The only accurate answer to the question in the title [which may not be Nadzam's] is: "Lots of stuff, including what it hasn't done yet...") What resonates for me in the essay is Nadzam's attention to the ways reality effects intersect with questions of identity — indeed, with the ways that fictional texts produce ideas about identity and reality. I especially loved Nadzam's discussion of how she teaches writing with such ideas in mind.

Nadzam starts right off with a bang:
An artistic practice that perpetually reinforces my sense of self is not, in my mind, an artistic practice. I’m not talking about rejecting memoir or characters “based on me.” What I mean is I don’t have the stomach for art that purports to “hold up a mirror to nature,” or for what this implies, philosophically, about selfhood and the world in which we live.
This is a statement that avant-gardes have been making since at least the beginning of the 20th century — it is the anti-mimetic school of art, a school at which I have long been a happy pupil. Ronald Sukenick, whose purposes are somewhat different to Nadzam's, wrote in Narralogues that "fiction is a matter of argument rather than of dramatic representation" and "it is the mutability of consciousness through time rather than representation that is the essential element of fiction." Sukenick proposes that all fiction, whether opaquely innovative or blockbuster entertainment, "raises issues, examines situations, meditates solutions, reflects on outcomes" and so is a sort of reasoning and reflection. "The question," he writes, "is only whether a story reflects thoughtfully, or robotically reflects the status quo with no illuminating angle of vision of its own."

Magritte, "The Human Condition", 1933

Sukenick, too, disparages the "mirror to reality" or "mirror to nature" idea: "Once the 'mirror of reality' argument for fiction crumbles, possibilities long submerged in our tradition open up, and in fact a new rationale for fiction becomes necessary."

Nadzam's essay provides some possibilities for remembering what has been submerged in the tradition of fiction and for creating new rationales for fiction's necessity:
I want fiction to bend, for its structure not to mirror the reality I think I see, but for its form and structure to help me peel back and question the way reality seems. The way I seem. I love working with the English language precisely because it fails. Even the most perfect word or phrase or narrative can at best shadow and haunt the phenomena of the world. Words and stories offer a way of experiencing being that is in their most perfect articulation a beat removed from direct experience. And so have I long mistrusted those works in which representation and words function without a hiccup, creating a story that is meant to be utterly believed.
Again, not at all new, but necessary because these ideas so push against dominant assumptions about fiction (and reality) today.

An example of one strain of dominant assumptions: Some readers struggle to separate characters from writers. On Twitter recently, my friend Andrew Mitchell, a writer and editor, expressed frustration with this tendency, saying: "EVERYTHING a character says/does in a story reflects EXACTLY what the writer believes, right? Based on the comments I just read: YES!" As I said to Andrew in reply, this way of thinking results from certain popular types of literary analysis and pedagogy, ones that seek Message from art, ones that want literature to be a paragon of Self Expression, with the Self either a fragile, wounded bird or an allegorical representative of All Such Selfs. It's "write what you know" taken to its logical conclusion: write only what you know about what and who you are. (Good luck writing a story about a serial killer if you're not one.) Such assumptions are anti-imagination and, ultimately, anti-art.

These dominant assumptions aren't limited to classrooms and naive readers. Consider this, from Achy Obejas's foreword to The Art of Friction (ed. Charles Blackstone & Jill Talbot):
When my first book, We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress Like  This?, was released in 1994, my publishers were ecstatic at the starred review it received in Publishers Weekly.

But though I appreciated the applause, I was a bit dismayed.  The review referred to the seven pieces that comprise the book as “autobiographical essays.” I found this particularly alarming, since six of the seven stories were first-person narrations, mostly Puerto Rican and Mexican voices, while I am Cuban, and one was from the point of view of a white gay man named Tommy who is dying of AIDS.

I’d have thought that the reviewer might have noticed that nationality, race, and gender seemed to shift from story to story—and that is what they were, stories, not essays; fiction, not memoir—but perhaps that reviewer, like many others who followed, felt more comforted in believing that the stories were not products of the imagination but lived experiences.
Imagination is incomprehensible and terrifying. In the classroom, I see this all the time when students read anything even slightly weird — at least one will insist the writer must have been on drugs. When a person reads a work of fiction and their first impulse is to either seek out the autobiographical elements or declare the writer to be a drug addict, then we know that that reader has no experience with or understanding of imagination. For such readers, based on a true story are the five most comforting words to read.

I come back again and again to a brief passage from one of my favorites of Gayatri Spivak's books, Readings:
I am insisting that all teachers, including literary criticism teachers, are activists of the imagination. It is not a question of just producing correct descriptions, which should of course be produced, but which can always be disproved; otherwise nobody can write dissertations. There must be, at the same time, the sense of how to train the imagination, so that it can become something other than Narcissus waiting to see his own powerful image in the eyes of the other. (54)
There must be the sense of how to train the imagination so that it can become something other than Narcissus waiting to see his own powerful image in the eyes of the other.

To return to Bonnie Nadzam's essay: Another dominant force that keeps fiction from becoming too interesting, keeps readers from reading carefully, and prevents the education of literary imagination is mass media (which these days basically means visual/cinematic media). I love mass media and visual media for all sorts of reasons, but if we ignore pernicious effects then we can't adjust for them. Nadzam writes:
...I’ve noticed that with much contemporary fiction, when we read, we’re often not asked to imagine we’re reading a history, biography, diary or anything at all. Often the text doesn’t even ask the reader to be aware of the text as text. With much fiction, we seem to pretend we are watching a movie. And it is supposed to be a good thing if a novel is “cinematic.”
Much fiction today, especially fiction that achieves any level of popularity, seems to me to draw not just structurally but emotionally from television. At its best, it's The Wire (perhaps the great melodrama of our era -- and I mean that as high praise); more commonly, it's a Lifetime movie-of-the-week. TV, like pop songs, knows the emotional moves it needs to pull off to make its audience feel what the audience desires to feel -- make your audience feel something they don't desire to feel, and most of them will turn on you with hate and scorn.

The giveaway, I think, is the narrowness of the prose aesthetic in all fiction that pulls its effects from common wells of emotion, because a complex, unfamiliar prose structure will get in the way of readers drinking up the emotions they desire. Such writing may not itself be inherently rich with emotion; all it needs to do is transmit signs that signal feelings already within the reader's repertoire. Keep the prose structure and style familiar, keep the emotions within the expected range, and the writer only needs to point toward those emotions for the reader to feel them. The reader becomes Pavlov's dog, salivating not over real food, but over the expectation of it. If an identity group exists, then that identity group can train its members toward particular structures of feeling. If the structures are even minimally in place, then members in good standing of an identity group will receive the emotional payoff they desire. Fiction then becomes a confirmation of identity and emotion, not a challenge to it.

(Tangentially: The radical potential of melodrama is to trick audiences into feeling emotions they would not otherwise feel and to complicate expected emotions. This was, for instance, the great achievement of Uncle Tom's Cabin, a book that is terribly written in all sorts of ways, but which mobilized -- even weaponized -- sentiment to an extraordinary degree. The same could be said for The Wire, though with significantly less social effect [Linda Williams has some thoughts on this, if I'm remembering her book correctly].)

Anyone who's taught creative writing will tell you that lots of students don't aspire to write for the sake of writing so much as they aspire to write movies on paper. Which is fine, in and of itself, but if students want to write movies, they should take screenwriting and film production courses. And if I want to watch a movie, I'll watch a movie, not read a book.

Movies, TV, and video games are the dominant narrative forms of our time, so it should be no surprise that fiction often resembles those dominant forms. Even the most blockbustery of bestselling novels can't compete for dominance (and almost every bestselling novel these days is a movie-in-a-book, anyway, so they're just contributing to the dominance). Look how excited people get when they find out their favorite book will be turned into a movie. It's like Pinocchio being turned into a real boy!

What gets lost is the literary. Not in some high-falutin' sense of the Great Books, but in the technical sense of what written texts can do that other media either can't or don't do as well. Conversely, other media have things they do that written texts don't do as well, or at all — this is what bugs me when people write about films as if they're novels, for instance, because it loses all sense of what is distinctly cinematic. But that's a topic for another time...

Nadzam discusses how she teaches fiction, and I hope at some point she writes a longer essay about this:
When I do “teach” creative writing, I point out that a work of formal realism (which I neither condemn nor condone) usually adheres to a particular formula: Exposition informs a person’s Psychology, from which arises their Character, out of which certain Motives emerge, based upon which the character takes Action, from which Plot results (EPiC MAP). And what formal realism achieved thereby was answering some of the metaphysical questions raised by Enlightenment thinkers about what the self, or character, might be—a person is a noun. A changing noun, perhaps, but a noun nonetheless—somehow separate from the flux of the world they inhabit. The students I’ve had who want to “be writers” hear about EPiC MAP and diligently set to work. The artists in the class, however—the kindred spirits with the mortal wound—they look at me skeptically. Something about that doesn’t feel right, they say. I don’t want to do it that way, they say. Can we break those rules? And each of their “stories” is a terrible, fascinating mess. Are the stories messes because these writers are breaking with habit, forcing readers to break with expectation, or is the EPiC MAP really an effective mirror? I grant that this is an impossible question to answer, but an essential question to raise. By my lights these students are trying, literally, to re-make the world.
This reminded me of Mac Wellman's longstanding practice of encouraging his playwrighting students to write "bad" plays. The New York Times describes this amusingly:
He asks students to write bad plays, to write plays with their nondominant hands, to write a play that takes five hours to perform and covers a period of seven years. Ms. Satter recalled an exercise in which she had to write a play in a language she barely knew.

“I wrote mine in extremely limited Russian,” she wrote in an email. “Then we translated them back into English and read them aloud. The results were these oddly clarified, quiveringly bizarre mini-gems.”

Mr. Wellman explained: “I’m not trying to teach them how to write a play. I’m trying to teach them to think about what kind of play they want to write.”
Further, from a 1992 interview:
Inevitably, if you start mismatching pronouns, getting your tenses wrong, writing sentences that are too long or too short, you will begin to say things that suggest a subversive political reality.
One of the most effective exercises I do with students (of all levels) is to have them make a list of "writing rules" — the things they have been told or believe to be key to "good writing". I present this to them seriously. I want them to write down what they really believe, which is often what teachers past have taught them. Then, for the next assignment, I tell them to write something in which they break all those rules. Every single one. Some students are thrilled (breaking rules is fun!), some are terrified (we're not supposed to break rules!), but again and again it leads to some fascinating insights for them. It can be liberating, because they discover the freedom of choice in writing, and do things with words that they would never have given themselves permission to do on their own. It's also educative, because they discover that some of the rules, at least for some situations, make sense to them. Then, though, they don't apply those rules ignorantly and unreflectively: when they follow those rules in the future, they do so because the rules make sense to them.

(I make them read Gertrude Stein, too. I make them try to write like Gertrude Stein, especially at her most abstract. [Tender Buttons works well.] It's harder than it looks. They scoff at Stein at first, but once they try to imitate her, they struggle, usually, and discover how wedded their minds are to a particular way of writing and particular assumptions about sense and purpose.)

(I show them Carole Maso's book Break Every Rule. I tell them it's a good motto for a writer.)

To learn new ways to write, to educate our imaginations, we need not only to think about new possibilities but to look at old models, especially the strange and somewhat forgotten ones. Writers who only read what is near at hand are starving themselves, starving their imaginations.

Nadzam returns to 18th century writers, a trove of possibilities:
Fielding thought a crucial and often overlooked aspect of the theatrum mundi metaphor was the emphasis the metaphor puts on the role of the audience, and the audience’s tendency to hastily judge the character of his fellow men. We are not supposed to assume, Fielding’s narrator tells us in Tom Jones, that just because the brilliant 18th-century actor David Garrick plays the fool, Garrick himself is a fool. Nor should we assume that the fool we meet in life is actually—or always—a fool. How then is Fielding’s audience to determine the character of Fielding’s contemporary who plays the part of an actor playing the part of a ghost puppet who represents a real-life individual whose eccentric and condemnable behavior Fielding satirizes? For Fielding, there is no such thing as an un-interpreted experience; an instance of mimetic simulation cannot be considered “truth” (a clear image in a well-polished mirror) because truth itself is the very act of mimetic simulation.
Seeking out writers from before fiction's conventions were conventional helps us see new possibilities. (This is one of the values of Steven Moore's two-volume "alternative history" of the novel, which upends so many received ideas about what novels are and aren't, and when they were what they are or aren't. Also Margaret Anne Doody's The True Story of the Novel. Also so much else.)

Finally, one of the central concerns of Nadzam's essay is the way that assumptions about fiction reproduce and reify assumptions about identity:
...what is now generally accepted as “fiction” emerged out of an essentialism that is oddly consoling in its reduction of each individual to a particular set of characteristics, and the reality they inhabit a background distinct from this self. At worst, behind this form are assumptions about identity and reality that may prevent us from really knowing or loving ourselves or each other, and certainly shield us from mystery.
So much fiction seems to see people as little more than roleplaying game character sheets written in stone. Great mysteries of motivation, great changes in conviction or belief, all these too often get relegated to the realms of the "unrealistic" — and yet the true realism is the one that knows our movement from one day to the next is mostly luck and magic.

Relevant here also is a marvelous essay by Stephen Burt for Los Angeles Review of Books, partly a review of poetry by Andrew Maxwell and Kay Ryan, partly a meditation on how lyric poetry works. More fiction writers ought to learn from poetry. (More fiction reviewers ought to learn from the specificity and attention to language and form in Burt's essay, and in many essays on poetry.) Consider:
A clever resistance to semantic function, an insistence that we just don’t know, that words can turn opaque, pops up every few lines and yet never takes over a reader’s experience: that’s what you get when you try to merge aphorism (general truth) and lyric (personal truth) and Maxwell’s particular line of the North American and European avant-garde (what is truth?). It haunts, it teases, it invites me to return. By the end of the first chapbook, “Quotation or Paternity,” Maxwell has asked whether lyric identification is also escapism: “Trying to identify, it means / Trying to be mistaken / About something else.” Poetic language is, perhaps, the record of a mistake: in somebody else’s terms, we misrecognize ourselves.
And:
We can never be certain how much of our experience resembles other people’s, just as we can’t know if they see our “blue”.... Nor can we know how much of what we believe will fall apart on us next year. ... His poems understand how tough understanding yourself, or understanding anyone else, or predicting their behavior, or putting reflection into words can be, and then forgive us for doing it anyway...
We need more fiction like Stephen Burt's description of Andrew Maxwell's poems: More fiction that understands how tough understanding yourself, or understanding anyone else, or predicting their behavior, or putting reflection into words can be, and then forgives us for doing it anyway.

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