Tuesday, April 30, 2013

I Think What the Poet Was Trying to Say . . . .

Every poet hates that line, the I-think-what-the-poet-was-trying-to-say is  . . .  It makes poets sound like fumbling nincompoops who can't articulate a thought but thank God there's some English teacher at Prince William Community College who can help us out.  When I write a poem I never know what I'm trying to say and probably all I want to do is -- like the student who petitioned Auden -- fool around with words.  I've been asked in Q&A what my message is.  Not a clue.   If I actually had a real message I'd print it on a card and hand it out.   I seriously doubt that poetry is a message-medium.  Vladimir Nabokov suggest, "Art is a game of intricate enchantment and deception."   Susan Sontag says, "Writing is a beautiful act.  It is making something that will give pleasure to others later."  Now we're talking!  Enchantment, beauty and pleasure.  Let's go with that.  I'm no good at monotony and there's nothing more monotonous than moralizing about the message.
And now if you'll excuse me I have to take my cat to the vet.  And he is not happy about it!


Sunday, April 28, 2013

Marsha's Wider World

     To tag for a second behind Marsha, a couple of weeks ago I received Hamline grad Tamera Will Wissinger's amazing "novel in verse" Gone Fishing. It truly is in verse -- in fact a variety of those poetic forms are also defined in "The Poet's Tackle Box" at the back of the book. There's a big surprise at the end of the story, too. Hooray for you, Tamera!
     She knows how much I love to read about fishing, so this book hits the spot.
     On to Marsha's interviews!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Wider World

Did you all see this guest blog post written by Lisa Jahn-Clough. ? Many of us remember hearing Lisa read from Nothing But Blue at Hamline when it was a WIP.
Another former faculty member is Marilyn Nelson. It has been a long time since I’ve done a school visit. Yesterday I was lucky to accompany Marilyn when she did elementary school visits here in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.  She spoke to fifth and fourth graders at two of our elementary schools.  It was clear that the students had read, studied, and discussed her books, and the questions were wonderful, ranging from questions on personification (uh huh), whether she consciously uses poetic devices (that’s right), and if she knew the song The Dream Keeper (“Langston Hughes,” another child prompted). If she had had time to lead a workshop on writing Golden Shovel poems, I think every one of those students would have been ready to get to work.
These are two examples of wonderful writers interacting with the world—Lisa by sharing her story and Marilyn spending time with young, curious readers.  It’s no easy thing to open up in either way, especially as many writers tend to be instinctively reclusive.  School visits and the internet are recent challenges to that tendency, but as Matthew Battles writes in this week’s Draft (NY Times), forging/fighting connection to the wider world is something writers with which writers have always struggled.

And beginning next week, I'll be forcing some of our own Hamline writers to connect with the larger world when the Inkpot introduces a new feature, The Inkpot Interview, that will shine a spotlight on some of the books our grads, alums, and faculty are getting published. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Details matter!

When I was in high school, I read this mystery novel where some evil man discovered Beethoven’s 10th Symphony, so he hired a bunch of symphonians to perform it. When the performance was over he was going to whack them all, then destroy the score so he could be the only person in history who’d ever heard the symphony performed. A totally believable premise, I know. But I was willing to play along because I was nuts about music, and hey! Beethoven!

But then I came across this scene where the conductor was in rehearsals with the orchestra and he said, “Bass clarinet, louder.”

And I – an insanely nerdy bass clarinet player – was like “FOOL! BASS CLARINETS DIDN’T EXIST UNTIL WAGNER’S TIME. Which also means your so-called 10th Symphony is totally fake!” Then I flung the book out the window and scared the cat.

I'll give you a Götterfunken right between the eyes, you terrible writer!

If the book had been any good, I might have put up with this little mistake. But there were a number of other details the author didn’t bother to think through – like this guy got murdered because someone jabbed a long needle into his lungs and he fell over and drowned in his own blood! And I was like, “How is that even possible? That’s like being murdered by paper cuts.”

Have you run across instances where the author fell off the turnip truck? In a writerly sense, of course.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Those Beloved Librarians!

     It’s National Library Week!
     In my humble opinion, librarians and media specialists are still a writer’s best friend. They defend our books from the Banned Books Brigade. They place our books, audio tapes, films, e-books, and CDs into the hands of children and adults who might not otherwise have access, and on shelves, in book mobiles, in reviews, magazines and journals, web sites, columns and blogs,  and more.
     Librarians and media specialists are storytellers, scholars, researchers, nurturers, writers, teachers, and friends. They’re workers in the vineyards of reading, writing, and literacy. Thank you. 
    Who are some of the librarians and media specialists who’ve impacted your writing life?    
     The first librarian to influence me was a short, plump, gray haired lady named Miss Mary.  I never knew her last name. With only her stamp pad, stamper, pencil, telephone and her voice, she commanded  our tiny public library in the 1950s  in Canton, MO from her desk. I don’t think I ever saw her get up from it.  
     Miss Mary let me roam the shelves where even the books for adults were stacked and allowed my sassy self to check out a few. She gave me a set of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, which I dearly cherished.
     In Des Moines, Iowa I met my first African American librarian -- Elaine Estes -- the director of the Des Moines Public Library. Among other things she spearheaded the campaign to premiere the film version of my children’s book Just an Overnight Guest at the Des Moines Public Library. We still correspond.
     African American librarians were pivotal in U.S. library history. They fought for branches and books in Black communities. They promoted African American authors long before their work was noticed by others and they encouraged Black children to read and dream. White librarians, too, carried the torch of literacy and access to books for all. The American Library Association and its Black Caucus of the American Library Association continue to connect libraries and communities.
     Storyteller Augusta Baker (1911-1998) was first a librarian at the New York Public Library's 135th Street Branch in Harlem in 1937. There she established the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of children's books -- those that “accurately” portrayed Black children.  As NYPL coordinator of children's services she continued to unapologically promote quality, unbiased and culturally accurate children’s books throughout her life, including mine, praise the Lord.  
     I was blessed to meet and commune with her after she became “Storyteller in Residence” at the University of South Carolina, Columbia. Go to http://library.sc.edu/spcoll/kidlit/baker.html
     Librarian Dr. Pauletta Brown Bracy of Durham, NC has made the study of picture books and  multiculturalism part of her life’s work. A "national treasure," she’s mentored countless writers, including me, and illustrators around the country. At North Carolina Central University’s School of Library and Information Sciences she’s given thousands of teachers and rising librarians superior critical thinking tools for understanding children’s books. She’s established NCCU children’s literature courses and even let me teach one.
     Her support of my books  and my sanity these past 20 plus years is invaluable.
     Mary Carter Smith (1919-2007) was a librarian (and a teacher) in the Maryland schools, a prominent storyteller, author, poet, and with Linda Goss co-founded the National Association of Black Storytellers, Inc. (NABS).   An emphatic advocate of Afrocentric life (she abhorred “culture vultures”) and children’s books, she introduced me to NABS, promoted my books on her radio show, and let me “coach” her in the writing and editing of her last book My Autobiography: A Tale That Is Told. Go to http://www.nabsinc.org
     Gwen Russell Green, a media specialist in Lithonia, GA, introduced my books and me to her students at Stephenson Middle School and other schools, and made it possible for me to be a participating author in the National Black Arts Festival. She’s brought me back to Georgia numerous times and loyally reads my books. A widely recognized, published poet and photographer, Gwen truly believes in the written word and young people.
     Wanda Cox Bailey, director of the Richard B. Harrison Library in Raleigh, NC, has been a friend and a locator of books that I’ve searched for to make my books authentic, especially African American Musicians. She’s organized readings and book signings for me, always with a smile, and really gone beyond the personal call of duty in recent years.
     Shirley Boone of Chapin Library in Myrtle Beach, SC, Catherine Lewis of the Horry County Library in Conway, SC, and Etrulia Dozier, a (Conway, SC) middle school librarian, all influenced me as they opened doors to historical information that others tried to conceal as I wrote The Secret of Gumbo Grove and Thank You, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.!
     I haven’t even begun to list more media specialists! But now it’s your turn. Share!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

April Is Poetry Month

I wonder   --  Is Prose jealous?  

But already I digress.  I've been hearing about "The Best of the Best American Poetry," and this morning in the L.A. Times was a review.  It sounds terrific.  David Ulin mentioned only a few people (out of dozens who are in the book) but he singled out Tony Hoagland and Denise Duhamel, two poets I regularly recommend.  Take a look next time you're in a real bookstore.  Or even at Amazon.

In the spirit of the month here's a new poem of mine.  Remember 'Write about what you know'?

The Little Girl Card

We’re at our usual table in the Turf Club when this guy
comes up.  “Who’s gonna win this next one?  C’mon.
You guys are here every day.  Please.”

He’s not a stooper exactly, but I’ve seen him eat 
the last half of a sandwich somebody left.

Ignoring him doesn’t cut it.  So I tell him,
”Nobody knows.   It’s a bunch of maidens.”

“Look at the board!”  he tells me.  “They’re
betting the three-horse like crazy.”

“So bet the three-horse.”

“At even money?  I need better than even money.
It’s not for me.  It’s for my little girl.”

Now everybody hates him.  He’s played the little
girl card.  It’s mortifying. 

Charles threatens him and he leaves.  Pretty soon
something comes in at thirty-five to one.

“I got it!  I got it!”   It’s him running around in little
circles, showing anybody and everybody.

“That guy undoes me,” Charles says and I love
him for it.  Undoes.  A word I haven’t heard
in years.

Saturday, April 6, 2013


Last summer at the Hamline residency we were lucky to have both Ron Koertge and Marilyn Nelson lecture on different poetry forms. Marilyn discussed the Golden Shovel*** and Ron the pantoum.

One thing I enjoyed about both sessions was that they made concrete an idea that has sustained my writing life through doubts and rejections: to keep going it’s important to enjoy the puzzle-solving aspect of the work. How can I make this work? What if I tried something this way? What happens when I do this?

I was reminded of all this recently when reading Marion Dane Bauer’s blog. Marion is a Newbery Honor author, a veteran teacher, a prolific writer, and wise woman. She blogs about the writing life, and if you allow, I’d like to direct you from here to her tonight. Enjoy.

***The Golden Shovel Poetic Form
This poetic form combines a borrowed line from an existing poem with an author's own unique work.  Borrow an important or memorable line from a poem and create your own poem with each word of the borrowed line ending each line of your new creation.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Celebrate Libraries!

     April brings a cornucopia of celebrations that pay homage to The Word, among them being the American Library Association's National Library Week  observances Apr. 14-20. The theme for this year's festivities is "Communities Matter @ Your Library."
     Need I say more?
     Hug a librarian, media specialist, devotees to books and media. Buy a book, audiotape, audio book (including mine), maybe even an e-book. Write! Read! Do what you can. We need libraries!
     Here are some links:

National Library Week events

Feel free to share some activities that you plan to participate in this month in honor of these institutions and their valuable "workers" in the library vineyards.