Friday, October 31, 2008

Poetry Friday - The Love of Stationery Goods

If you want a Halloween poem, click here for a Google Books look at an early edition of Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti (especially that horrible moment when the goblins are all over Lizzie, trying to mash ripe fruit into her mouth - yikes!) The painting to the right is from the edition illustrated by Arthur Rackham.

Meanwhile, here's a poem from me to all you stationery supply addicts:


I put four bits on the counter
and the box was mine.
Six yellow pencils fit there
side by side, I was perfectly addled,
I was a goner – even before I knew
the alphabet, I knew its cedar perfume –
I flew over the high-humped bridge
painted on the top, over the willow,
the m-stroke for a bird, everything
was suggestion then, before
the putting on of too fine a point.
People expected me to come
to my senses, save the change
in my burning pockets, after all
the box was wooden, cheap

Chinatown, but half a dollar
went a long way toward heaven
when heaven was closer.


It's always been my theory that you could predict who was going to be a writer by the way he or she behaved in stationary stores when young. An early love of pencils, pens, erasers, rulers, graph paper, tracing paper, architectural supplies, index cards, blank books, ledgers.....a love of those is a good predictor, for some reason, of a later love of words.

The poem was first published in The Threepenny Review. If you subscribe to just one literary journal, that's the one you should subscribe to - the editor is Wendy Lesser (who wrote the fascinating Pictures at an Execution and edited The Genius of Language: Fifteen Writers Reflect on Their Mother Tongue) and she fills every issue to the brim with wonderful essays, poems, stories, reviews and art (often photography). TTR is stimulating and intelligent, and it never disappoints. Think about giving a subscription to someone (even yourself!) as a gift.

To see the round-up this week for Poetry Friday, go to Sylvia Vardell's wonderful blog, Poetry for Children.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

M.T. Anderson's Scariest Line???


Don't miss the prize to be won over at Through the Tollbooth. Tami Brown posted it as part of a great interview of M.T. Anderson (and all you have to do to enter is pick the scariest line from one of his books!)

Friday, October 24, 2008

Poetry Friday: Giving Metal a Tongue

Here's a "small poem" by Valerie Worth (1933-1994) from her collection, All the Small Poems and 14 More. Some of those small poems I like - short meditations - some not as much (that's true for any collection, from Basho to Auden) - but this one particular poem - titled simply bell - is nearly perfect, in terms of the way it falls on the ear first, then comes in through the heart and mind, and the way it serves as a metaphor for what we do as writers - giving metal a tongue.


By flat tink
Of tin, or thin
Copper tong
Brass clang
Bronze bong
The bell gives
Metal a tongue
To sing
In one sound
Its whole song.

Poetry Friday this week is hosted by Kelly Herold at Big A little a.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Poetry Friday: Les Murray, Playful Genius

In honor of Poetry Friday, I'm posting a poem by the Australian poet, Les Murray. I don't think there's anyone who surpasses him right now for rigorous play with sound. He uses form but makes it feel natural and smooth as silk. And the following poem simply has to be heard to be believed (and appreciated) so it's lucky that there is an audio link (click on the symbol at the end of the poem) at Les Murry's home page.

One of the things I try to teach my students is that you can't get very far with a poem if the subject has been done to death - fresh and new is a better place to start. Well, what bats say in "Bat English" is what I would call Fresh and New.

By the way: It's Les Murray's birthday today. Here's wishing him many happy returns of the day.

Bat's Ultrasound

Sleeping-bagged in a duplex wing
with fleas, in rock-cleft or building
radar bats are darkness in miniature,
their whole face one tufty crinkled ear
with weak eyes, fine teeth bared to sing.

Few are vampires. None flit through the mirror.
Where they flutter at evening's a queer
tonal hunting zone above highest C.
Insect prey at the peak of our hearing
drone re to their detailing tee:

ah, eyrie-ire; aero hour, eh?
O'er our ur-area (our era aye
ere your raw row) we air our array
err, yaw, row wry—aura our orrery,
our eerie ΓΌ our ray, our arrow.

A rare ear, our aery Yahweh.

Selected Poems, 1986
Poetry Friday this week is being hosted by Becky over at Becky's Book Reviews

Thursday, October 16, 2008

M. T. Anderson, Under Armed Guard

One of the best author photos EVER, bar none. This is M.T. Anderson on the Boston Common with two Revolutionary War re-enacters. Obviously. I think. Or maybe that's friend John Green on one side and friend Tim Wynne-Jones on the other? I wouldn't put it past them. But it's the serious look on Tobin's face that makes it perfect.

The photo appeared in this week's Publisher's Weekly, alongside an interview in which Tobin talks about many things, including those adults who said that Octavian Nothing used vocabulary above a teenager's ability level. Tobin talks about sci-fi where there is a lot of language-building going on next to world-building, and he concludes, "I think kids are excited by language, and they’re not always given credit for that."

Hooray! Well-said. And as far as I'm concerned, I wish some of our leaders would be as honest as Tobin is when he says, about the lessons learned in his research for Octavian, "I think there was also a slow, grinding realization for me of what it is that human beings are willing to do to each other to secure their own luxuries. That was a very sad tutorial I went through, working on this book. There was suffering on an unimaginable scale. I know this is a bit dismal for an interview, but I honestly feel like a full recognition of the capacity of mankind to ignore each other’s suffering is one of the saddest lessons I learned."

I'm all for Hope, I'm all for Change, but first, let's learn the lessons we need to learn, and let's tell the truth about our history, instead of just waving a flag and calling ourselves great. Then , once we've done that, we can turn to optimism and The Dream, if it calls us.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Preaching to the Choir

Yes, preaching to the choir, but I just want to say for the record that I'm proud of all of us who signed the petition. Watch the video at this link:
Authors and Illustrators for Children

Friday, October 10, 2008

Rhythms of the Playground

I read not too long ago about several family members of the Medici family in medieval Florence being exhumed for forensic tests to determine how they died. Not a happy bunch of people - intrigue and mayhem abounded. In honor of Poetry Friday, I'm posting an original poem titled Jump Rope Rhymes in Medieval Florence. I love combining the rhythms of the playground with the darker side of human nature - actually, the darker side of human nature is no stranger to the playground. And as the conversation continues about the current financial crisis, greed, the poor getting poorer, etc., I thought I'd go back to Florence to take a look at lifestyles of the rich and famous.


“We want to see what did they eat, what kind of diseases they had. Did they suffer? I mean, you think of people as wealthy. But maybe they weren't having such good lives.”
Bob Brier, Long Island University, on the exhumation of the Medici

Eight grand dukes
exhumed on a table,
Wealth and a wedding cake.
plague and sable.

Intrigue, vertebra,
x-ray, CAT scan,
who was the daddy,
who was the also-ran?

Welcome, SIDS.
Welcome, pneumonia.
dead Ippolito,
dead Isabella.

Ferdinand says
to Federico:
Grazie. Prego.

Don Giovanni
dead with fever.
Mother, did he
stab his brother?

Cosimo, Cosimo,
strong and able.
Hell of a skeleton
there on the table.

Ducats, beetles,
DNA, femurs,
bleached-out calcium,
secret lovers.

Rotten molars,
gout, tuberculosis,
perfect host,
perfect hostess.

Murder in the morning,
lunch at the Uffizi.
How’s it going, Wealth?
Bloody shi-shi.

Poetry Friday is being hosted this week by Anastasia Suen at Picture Book of the Day.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Friday, October 3, 2008

Things to Consider Before You Sit Down to Write a Poem

How can it be Poetry Friday again? Well, in honor of PF, and because I am currently in Vermont with a lot of other faculty and Board members, trying to help out Vermont College of Fine Arts with some strategic planning sessions (we're asking ourselves to brainstorm the future now VCFA is finally INDEPENDENT - three huge cheers HOORAY!!) I am going to post a few quotations about poetry which I always hand out to my students during our VCFA residencies.I title this hand-out "Things to Think About Before You Sit Down to Write a Poem." This is longer than usual, but I offer it up in case any of these resonate with you. And at the end is a link to Vermont College of Fine Arts, and our wonderful MFA Writing for Children program. The website is being re-designed, so look for a much-improved version by the end of the year.)

Things to Think About Before You Sit Down to Write a Poem

1. “God is in the details.”

Something I believe wholeheartedly – often attributed to the architect Mies Van Der Rohe, though also attributed to Gustave Flaubert, who is also credited with saying “The Devil is in the details,” just to muck us up.

2. “Carving is easy. You just go down to the skin and stop.” (Michelangelo)

This reminds me that artists need to know when to stop. It also reminds me that only geniuses seem to think that knowing where to stop (determining where the skin begins and the marble stops) is easy. It also makes me think about how even a [poem has a skin, an outer edge, beyond which the writer need not go. Let the reader interpret what lies beneath. Give your reader the skin. Then let go.

3. “Increasingly I have felt that the art of writing is itself translating, or more like translating than it is like anything else. What is the other text, the original? I have no answer. I suppose it is the source, the deep sea where ideas swim, and one catches them in nets of words and swings them shining into the boat ... where in this metaphor they die and get canned and eaten in sandwiches.” (Ursula Le Guin)

Though I love the first half of this thought, in terms of all language being a kind of translation (I agree), I’m most fond of the turn at the end, where Le Guin finds herself caught by her own shimmering metaphor and chooses to come back to the world of tuna fish sandwiches. Let’s not get too high-minded and poetic about all of this.

4. “…the main concern of the fiction writer is with mystery as it is incarnated in human life.” (Flannery O’Connor – who practiced what she preached.)

Though O'Connor speaks to fiction writers, I think it means even more to poets. If we could just keep in our minds, while we write - the idea of mysteries made flesh, we would stop trying to over explain. (see #2, above.)

5. “Poetry is the most direct and simple means of expressing oneself in words: the most primitive nations have poetry, but only quite well developed civilizations can produce good prose. So don’t think of poetry as a perverse and unnatural way of distorting ordinary prose statements: prose is a much less natural way of speaking than poetry is. If you listen to small children, and to the amount of chanting and singsong in their speech, you’ll see what I mean.” (Northrop Frye)

I’ve always believed people who want to write poetry (whether for children or adults) should simply go eavesdrop on a playground. But I like this quotation because it says something else as well. Many writers believe that poetry is language that has been artificially torqued and manipulated, and that prose is the most natural (thus, easiest?) of forms for our thoughts, but the effort to state what we think in an articulate and organized manner (witness the effort involved in writing a good essay) is extremely difficult. My advice to many writers is to read The Best American Essays each year and study the strategies of people who handle prose with precision and beauty. (I also advise writers to read Northrop Frye.)

6. “But the Devil whoops, as he whooped of old: ‘It’s clever, but is it Art?’ ” (Rudyard Kipling)

This one reminds me that there’s a point beyond which being witty just doesn’t fly. I don’t follow this advice as often as I should. But I wish I did - being clever is never enough. Messing around with rhythm, sound and form is fun, but the most essential thing to remember is that I should have something authentic to say.

7. “The miracle is not to fly in the air, or to walk on the water, but to walk on the earth.”
(Chinese proverb)

We are accustomed to the Marvelous Unreal. But the Marvelous Real? How do we do that? How do we walk on the earth and make it magic?

8. “What I like in a good author is not what he says, but what he whispers.” (Logan Pearsall Smith)

Remember: Be subtle. Trust your reader to understand – to hear the subtext, the whisper.

9. “But mark, madam, we live amongst riddles and mysteries—the most obvious things, which come in our way, have dark sides, which the quickest sight cannot penetrate into; and even the clearest and most exalted understandings amongst us find ourselves puzzled and at a loss in almost every cranny of nature’s works.” (Lawrence Sterne)

A continuation of Numbers 4 and 7, I think – and my obsession: mystery.

10. “Both poet and painter want to reach the silence behind the language, the silence within the language. Both painter and poet want their work to shine not only in daylight but (by whatever illusionist magic) from within.” (Howard Nemerov)

You don’t really think of silence as a writer’s goal. But it’s there.

11. “When it came to poetry, my father was not an absolutist. Pie was his favorite subject for a couplet, but every three or four weeks he would write about something else….” (Calvin Trillin)

This quotation I keep on my computer. It reminds me to laugh. Reminds me poetry means different things to different people. Reminds me not to get in a Pie rut.

Vermont College of Fine Arts
(We're in the process of redesigning our website - a better site soon!)

And the Poetry Roundup this week is being hosted over at Two Writing Teachers.