Friday, September 28, 2007

"We're a queer lot": Amy Lowell -- a Poetry Friday post

"Taking us by and large, we're a queer lot
We women who write poetry. And when you think
How few of us there've been, it's queerer still.
I wonder what it is that makes us do it.
Singles us out to scribble down, man-wise,
The fragments of ourselves."

Thus begins a fairly lengthy poem by today’s featured poet, Amy Lowell, called "The Sisters", which discusses three women poets in particular while examining the nature of women poets. The female poets she "calls out" in "The Sisters" are Sappho, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Emily Dickinson, imagining conversations with each, linking to their poetic traditions and, ultimately, rejecting those traditions for her own, new course.

The following poem is from a 1919 collection called Pictures of the Floating World:

Summer Rain
by Amy Lowell

All night our room was outer-walled with rain.
Drops fell and flattened on the tin roof,
And rang like little disks of metal.
Ping!–Ping!–and there was not a pinpoint of silence between them.
The rain rattled and clashed,
And the slats of the shutters danced and glittered.
But to me the darkness was red-gold and crocus-colored
With your brightness,
And the words you whispered to me
Sprang up and flamed–orange torches against the rain.
Torches against the wall of cool, silver rain!

Amy Lawrence Lowell was a member of the same Boston Lowell family that later spawned Robert Lowell, who was Poet Laureate of the United States for a while. But she’s not a direct ancestor, on account of family names don’t pass that way. Also, she was a lesbian. She had a long-time affair (then called a "Boston marriage") with an actress named Ada Dwyer Russell, star of stage and screen, for and about whom Lowell wrote "Summer Rain" and the poem a bit later in this post, "The Taxi".

Lowell was highly influenced early on by the poetry of John Keats, and she remained fascinated with him throughout her life; she eventually wrote a two-volume biography of his life. Lowell was an imagist (or, to use her word, an "imagiste"), along the lines of H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) and Ezra Pound, although Pound didn’t care for her or her poems, perhaps because he was annoyed when she published anthologies of imagist poems in the United States before he did. Lowell died in 1925. Her collection What’s O’Clock, which contains the full text of "The Sisters," won the Pulitzer Prize the following year. In addition to publishing the poems of poets including H.D. and T.S. Eliot, Lowell championed many other poets, including Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg. Lowell made enormous contributions to American poetry with her own writing (poetry and prose), and through her ardent support of other contemporary poets.

Lowell’s reputation suffered after her death, in part because she’d been ahead of her time, and in part due to prejudice: she was female, she was obese, and she was a lesbian. Those traits were seen as three strikes to a number of people in the literary "establishment", and she was marginalized as a result. One or more of these may be the reason why Harold Bloom omitted her from his collection, The Best Poems of the English Language from Chaucer to Frost. Lowell's birthdate certainly fit within the scope of the book, her poems seem worthy of consideration, but she's not one of the 11 women included in the book. And it can't be that Bloom didn't like her because Ezra Pound didn't like her, since Bloom states clearly that he has little esteem for Pound, "whether as a person or poet." But I digress. Lowell’s poetry is being "rediscovered" these days, and she is commonly recognized to be the first female American poet to consider herself part of a feminine (some say feminist) literary tradition.

The Taxi
by Amy Lowell

When I go away from you
The world beats dead
Like a slackened drum.
I call out for you against the jutted stars
And shout into the ridges of the wind.
Streets coming fast,
One after the other,
Wedge you away from me,
And the lamps of the city prick my eyes
So that I can no longer see your face.
Why should I leave you,
To wound myself upon the sharp edges of the night?

"The Taxi" is from a collection called Sword Blades and Poppy Seeds.

In an obituary he wrote about Amy Lowell, Heywood Broun wrote, "She was upon the surface of things a Lowell, a New Englander and a spinster. But inside everything was molten like the core of the earth... Given one more gram of emotion, Amy Lowell would have burst into flame and been consumed to cinders."

Friday, September 21, 2007

My Last Duchess -- a Poetry Friday post

Poetry first, discussion after.

My Last Duchess
by Robert Browning


That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf's hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will't please you sit and look at her? I said
"Frà Pandolf" by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, 'twas not
Her husband's presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess' cheek: perhaps
Frà Pandolf chanced to say 'Her mantle laps
Over my lady's wrist too much,' or 'Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat': such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate'er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, 'twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men,—good! but thanked
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody's gift. Who'd stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—(which I have not)—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, 'Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark'—and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
—E'en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will't please you rise? We'll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master's known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we'll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!


This poem is set up as a dramatic monologue, spoken by Duke Ferrara. It starts out sounding like a guy bragging about a piece of artwork — here, a fresco — but quickly skews toward the dark side, as he moves on to describe his wife, and thence to discussing his suspicions (reasonable or not) that she was indiscriminate with her attentions. He "gave commands;/Then all smiles stopped together." And now, he's talking to the envoy of the Count, whose young daughter he hopes to marry.

So, your thoughts on the story here? I ask because although this poem was written in 1842, it is quite psychological. And although Browning conceived it as a dramatic monologue, which he intended to be "objective," it remains a lyrical, subjective piece, with a sort of Gothic (and therefore "Romantic") sensibility about it. As the reader/listener, you must piece together more of the story than you are actually given. I don't know about you, but I find this poem to contain elements of both mystery and horror writing, and it certainly succeeds in engaging me on a psychological level. Am I correct in suspecting the Duke caused his wife's death? If so, how can he seem somewhat rational, and how can he so easily contemplate the business arrangements in taking a second wife, or discuss a sculpture of Neptune? If I'm mistaken, what does it say about my mind that I would suspect him of such a heinous act? And yet, I can't be mistaken — his jealousy and rage are clearly expressed through his words; he also describes his pride in his social position, and even in his actions, which he considers proper.

"My Last Duchess" was written early in the Victorian era. English Society had become fairly repressive, particularly where issues of female sexuality were concerned. A question one might ask is where Browning's thoughts lay on the matter of sexual repression in general, and fear of feminine sexuality in particular. I don't know the answer, but it's pretty clear that this intensely psychological poem depicts the Duke's efforts to control and his wife and what can be viewed as her sexual conduct (or, if the Duke is to be believed — and it seems as if he is not — her sexual misconduct), even if only smiles and blushes are mentioned.

Indeed, to me the poem suggests that the Duke despised his wife and considered her a lesser being, as when he says that to school her on the many ways in which her behaviour fell short would have required him to stoop to (her?) lower level: "'Just this/Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,/Or there exceed the mark' . . . I choose/Never to stoop." Did Browning intend to delve into the politics of marriage? If so, what did he want the take-home message to be?

He is obviously pleased with his current control over his Last Duchess. He has had her life-like image affixed to the wall, where she may never misbehave. He can keep her behind the curtain, and see her smile only for him. As an object of art, he can own and control her in a way that he could not do with the living person. The reference to the sculpture being one of Neptune using a trident to tame a sea horse is there to fill the dual purpose of showing the Duke's return to less weighty matters, while again emphasizing the need for dominance and control.

I find this poem endlessly fascinating to contemplate, but will stop positing now. There are, however, a few more things to consider.

First, does it change your reading if you learn that "My Last Duchess" is based on the true story of Alfonso II d'Este, fifth Duke of Ferrara, who lived in Italy in the 16th century? He married a very young De Medici girl(for 14 is very young, no?), who lived only three years, and died under suspicious circumstances — poison was suspected. That's her portrait at the top of the post. And while the De Medici family is now considered an old and venerable Italian family, Alfonso II was from an older and more highly ranked lineage. Alfonso was descended from royalty, as was his second wife.

Second. About the form of the poem. You may not have noticed, but it is written entirely in rhymed couplets, using iambic pentameter. If you didn't notice, or at least not immediately, it's because Browning didn't write using end-stopped couplets (where the natural break falls at the end of every line). Rather, he used enjambment, a word taken from the French (meaning "stepping over"). It is the opposite of an end-stop, and is sometimes called a "run on" line, because to get the sense or meaning of the particular line, you must move on to the next bit of punctuation.

Finally, if you want to see an even more twisted dramatic monologue by Browning, do check out "Porphyria's Lover", in which the speaker ultimately proves to be insane. "Porphyria's Lover" is dated six years earlier than "My Last Duchess," and is therefore just before the start of Queen Victoria's reign, at a time when societal standards were shifting towards repressiveness, but not in the heydey of Victorian principles, which didn't occur until much later in the century. Porphyria is the disease which is believed to have caused the madness of King George III and of Vincent Van Gogh — symptoms include hallucination, paranoia, depression and more — and yet, Browning would have known none of that when he crafted his poem about a man in love with with a woman named Porphyria, which manages to equate love and madness.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Genesis of Writing

Last night, I went to see Genesis in concert. They sounded phenomenal. They looked great (particularly Tony, but Phil and Mike looked good as well, I thought). Hubby said Phil looked like a Nosferatu. I didn't agree until he bent down and hollered "ha ha HAH" into the light of a camera during "Mama", and his visage appeared on the ginormous screen. From that particular angle, he looked a lot like Grandpa Munster. Who was, after all, one of the Nosferatu. So.

By now, you're probably wondering what's up with the title of the post. Well, here's the thing. Being at the concert was good and all (more on that to come), but thinking about the concert has brought me to recognize something in a different way.

Abraham Lincoln was correct. Or rather, my bastardization of his quote is correct. You can please some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not please all of the people all of the time.

Now, the two drunken idiots to the left of us and their slutty spouses were very pleased all night; they moshed and air-drummed and hooted and seemed to think it incumbent on them to stand up the entire time because, evidently, it was a tribute to the band. Or Phil would've stopped singing if they sat down. Or something. Although this did not stop them from many trips for beer. Still, they were some of the people that were pleased all of the time. (Really, this is going somewhere -- hang in there.)

And ALL of the people in the auditorium were pleased when they did mega-hits like "Invisible Touch" and "Throwing it All Away" (one of my personal favorites). Even the rather blasé looking couple at the end of the row to my right stood and swayed and smiled and cheered. So, one can in fact please all of the people some of the time.

But. And this is the real truth -- you cannot please all of the people all of the time. This was glaringly evident during "In the Cage," when the majority of the audience sat down, and an extraordinary percentage left for food, beverages or the restrooms. (I met a woman in the latter destination, and she said that the name of the song should be "gotta take a piss", so clearly not all fans were pleased all the time.)

This inability to please everyone was evident during songs such as "Home by the Sea", which started as you'd imagine to great approbation, and then seemed like it was going to end as it should (again, to some applause . . . only it didn't actually end, so the applause sort of smattered out and folks slowly sank into their seats and began to chat with their neighbors). Turns out that it morphed into a ten-minute EP-version jam session that became tedious to all but the some-who-were-pleased-all-the-time. It's not that Genesis was playing badly -- they were, in fact, playing extremely well. It's not that the crowd didn't like Genesis: if anything, most of the folks appeared to be fairly big fans, judging from depth of knowledge, levels of enthusiasm and numbers of $45 T-shirts. The crowd loved the band, the band was playing well, but this particular musical segment (like much of "In the Cage") was met with ennui.

I believe this is a valuable lesson to writers and other creative types. Because there are some folks who "get" you and your style, and will love everything you do -- this includes some percentage of editors out there in the world, and critics, and whatnot too. And there are some times when one thing you've created wins acclaim from nearly all sources -- maybe it's a major book award or contest win, maybe it's a unanimous "send that out!" from your critique group; but it happens, and we all know it. But by and large, one shouldn't expect that everyone will always like a particular creation. Opinions are, in fact, like belly buttons -- everyone has one. Consequently, there will be parts of what you've written that folks take issue with. It does not mean, however, that you suck -- your writing could be brilliant, your story just fine, your character development better than adequate, etc. Some people will still find that a particular work is not their cup of tea.

Take, for example, my mother-in-law, who is a huge Neil Gaiman fan. She loves Neverwhere, Stardust, American Gods (oh how she loves American Gods!) and Anansi Boys. She was only "meh" about the short story collection, Fragile Things. Most of them weren't her cuppa. And don't even get her started on Coraline -- she thinks it's too scary for kids, and didn't finish it herself. (I disagree, but again, tea and bellybuttons, right?)

To recap: Not every reader, whether it's your spouse or another relative, a friend, a critique group, an editor, end readers or critics, may like your work. Let me repeat this bit -- it doesn't mean you've done anything wrong or that you suck. Bellybuttons.

Speaking of which, stop gazing at your bellybutton and get to work. Because there are at least some who are waiting to read it, and you don't want to leave them where they are right now, air-drumming with their drunken buddy and wishing for something better to do.

Monday, September 17, 2007

In Memoriam WCW

Were he still alive, today would be William Carlos Williams's birthday. The "Carlos" came from his mother, who hailed from Puerto Rico. Williams attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he befriended Ezra Pound and Hilda Dolittle (usually known by her initials, H.D.) He became a pediatrician, but he always wrote -- not just poetry, but prose as well.

His poetry was strongly influenced by his love of the classics and of Keats, and his poems seem to be a more modern take on Keats -- sort of a fusion of Walt Whitman and Keats, really.

Here's one from his early work called "Willow Poem", which is in the public domain. It seems to me the right sort of a poem for a day in mid-September when the morning air was cool enough to see a bit of a breath cloud. Willows usually have a lachrymose sort of symbolism in poetry, but this poem seems to be about the strength of the tree itself, rather than about an emotional state.

Willow Poem
by William Carlos Williams

It is a willow when summer is over,
a willow by the river
from which no leaf has fallen nor
bitten by the sun
turned orange or crimson.
The leaves cling and grow paler,
swing and grow paler
over the swirling waters of the river
as if loth to let go,
they are so cool, so drunk with
the swirl of the wind and of the river --
oblivious to winter,
the last to let go and fall
into the water and on the ground.

Williams died in 1963 (his 80th year); as a result, many of his poems are still protected by copyright. But here's a wee bit from Asphodel, That Greeny Flower, an extremely long work from late in Williams's life. It was begun in the early 1950's, after a heart attack and several strokes, and at the start of a depression that required hospitalization for a time. (The depression was exacerbated by his own experience with McCarthyism -- he was offered an honor by the Library of Congress, which was rescinded pending a "loyalty investigation." The position had evaporated by the time the investigation was completed.)

Asphodel is a love poem to his wife of 40 years, Florence (called "Flossie"), written after he'd confessed a number of past infidelities. Written when it was, it also encompassed the idea of possible nuclear annhilation, in the age of "the bomb." It is written using a stepped triadic line (that is, a long line separated into three segments, usually (but not always) echoing the natural pause that might occur during speech).

Here are two brief excerpts from Asphodel, That Greeny Flower:

From Book I, Journey to Love, 1955

I cannot say

&emsp &emsp &emsp that I have gone to hell

&emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp for your love

but often

&emsp &emsp &emsp found myself there

&emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp in your pursuit.

I do not like it

&emsp &emsp &emsp and wanted to be

&emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp in heaven. Hear me out.

Do not turn away.

I have learned much in my life

&emsp &emsp &emsp from books

&emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp and out of them

about love.

&emsp &emsp &emsp Death

&emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp is not the end of it.

And from later in Book I, Journey to Love, 1955:

If a man die

&emsp &emsp &emsp it is because death

&emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp has first

possessed his imagination.

&emsp &emsp &emsp But if he refuse death--

&emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp no greater evil

can befall him

&emsp &emsp &emsp unless it be the death of love

&emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp meet him

in full career.

&emsp &emsp &emsp Then indeed

&emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp for him

the light has gone out.

But love and the imagination

&emsp &emsp &emsp are of a piece,

&emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp swift as the light

to avoid destruction.

&emsp &emsp &emsp So we come to watch time's flight

&emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp as we might watch

summer lightning

&emsp &emsp &emsp or fireflies, secure,

&emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp by grace of the imagination,

safe in its care.

&emsp &emsp &emsp For if

&emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp the light itself

has escaped,

&emsp &emsp &emsp the whole edifice opposed to it

&emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp goes down.

Light, the imagination

&emsp &emsp &emsp and love,

&emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp in our age,

by natural law,

&emsp &emsp &emsp which we worship,

&emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp maintain

all of a piece

&emsp &emsp &emsp their dominance.

Did I give you really long quotes? Yes. But this is one really long poem (it runs over 40 pages in length), and to have stopped the second quote shorter would have diminished it unfairly in meaning. I hope that wherever William Carlos Williams is now, he is filled with light and imagination. And I believe he is correct, that death is not the end of love.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Baseball Haiku -- a Poetry Friday post

Today, I'm talking about Baseball Haiku: The Best Haiku Ever Written About the Game edited by Cor van den Heuvel and Nanae Tamura.

This is a book of poetry for adults, but there’s no reason that baseball-lovers of all ages wouldn’t enjoy it (apart from a lack of pictures for the very young, that is). I decided to review this book because the season is drawing to a close, and I’ve been enjoying dips into this book since it came out in April of this year. And Doc, this one’s for you. Okay, and for any other baseball fans out there. For the record, I found this shelved with the Sports books at the local Borders, and not with the Poetry books. I’m not sure if that will hold true from store to store.

The book contains a complete history of baseball haiku in both Japan and America, followed by sections of baseball haiku. Since we learn that the Japanese wrote baseball haiku first, I’m starting with them. Within the sections, the poets are listed chronologically by birth year, and are each given a full-page bio including both their poetic and baseball experiences. For the Japanese poems, the poems are presented in English, Japanese and transliterated Japanese (which allows us wacky Westerners who don't actually read or speak Japanese to try to pronounce the poems in their native tongue). I have to say, I thought that presenting the Japanese poems both (all three?) ways was pretty awesome.

The very first baseball haikus were written in 1890 by one of the four great haiku masters, Shiki. He’d learned baseball while at school, and was already writing haiku on other topics. Shiki wrote four baseball haiku in 1890, and wrote still more in later years. Here’s one from a later date:

the baseball rolled
through them

In the original Japanese, this followed the 5-7-5 syllable count, but the translation does not.

Same goes for this one by Mizuhara Shuoshi, from a set of poems called "Scenes at Jingu Baseball Stadium":

the player takes
his position in the outfield
a cricket’s cry

Here’s a bit of shocking news for you – the first known American baseball haiku was written by noted beat poet Jack Kerouac. The editors of the book explaint that one of Kerouac’s earliest baseball haikus was not printed, but was recited by Kerouac on an album called Blues and Haikus, with intermittent jazz riffs by Zoot Sims and Al Cohn:

Empty baseball field
— A robin,
Hops along the bench

As it turns out, Cor van den Heuvel not only edited the collection, but also has written quite a number of baseball haiku. Although his name is Dutch, Cor is a New England poet who originally hails from Maine. Here’s one that’s seasonally appropriate, but does not follow the 5-7-5 format:

autumn leaves
scatter across the infield
the pitcher blows on his fingers.

Baseball poems aren’t just the province of men. There are three American female poets included as well (but no Japanese women). Some of the sauciest entries in the book are by Brenda Gannam. I confess to liking all of hers, many of which adhere to the short-long-short format, but eschew the strictness of 5-7-5. Here’s one of Ms. Gannam’s poems:

the pitcher slyly adjusts
his equipment

As it’s almost the end of the season – and the start of the playoffs draws nigh – here’s one last selection from the book, a haiku by Jim Kacian:

October revival
all hands lift
to the foul ball

After the selected haiku comes "Extra Innings", which provides the history of "American and Japanese Baseball," adds a "Baseball & Haiku Book List," and includes an "Index of Poets" as well.

Well, don’t just sit there on the bench – PLAY BALL!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Linda Urban: A Crooked Kind of Interview

Linda Urban is the author of A Crooked Kind of Perfect, a novel for middle grade readers. There is buzz about this novel, people. BUZZ, I tell you.

I first met Linda () at the New England SCBWI Conference in 2006, where she was presenting a workshop on setting up successful book events. Linda was the marketing director at Vroman's Bookstore, a large independent bookseller in California, so she knows whereof she spoke. We hit it off when we sat together at a workshop about comedy writing, and I opined (sotto voce) that a joke for children involving a planet (Saturn, I believe) would've been funnier if it involved Uranus.

I was privileged to read A Crooked Kind of Perfect in manuscript form, and to offer minor bits of assistance here and there, for which Linda has given me more credit than I merit in the "Acknowledgments" section at the end. When I reached the end of the manuscript, I found that for the first time in the book, the tears in my eyes weren't tears of laughter, but of — what? Recognition of the perfect, simple beauty of this book, perhaps, or appreciation for way that so many things, so many apparently slight things, came together in the ending to form the perfect chord. I later found that the song, "Forever in Blue Jeans", would never be the same for me; what I'd considered a rather frothy song is now precious, and can make me cry. But I digress — this is about Linda, after all, or is meant to be. So, without further ado, on to the interview:

1. A Crooked Kind of Perfect is your first book in print, but I know you sold a picture book manuscript first (Mouse was Mad, coming in Spring of 2009). Was it surprising to you that a novel moved into print so much faster than a picture book?

Picture books are amazing things, works of art really. They need time. Time for an illustrator to take the words on a manuscript page and make them his or her own. And time to then get that new story on the page. And more time to make sure that all the mechanical stuff of paper selection and printing and binding and whatnot follows through on that story. (Mouse was Mad is currently being illustrated by Henry Cole.)

A novel is mostly about the words. Book design is important, but mostly it is about the words, and so often the bulk of that happens before a book is even sold. It’s no surprise that a novel comes to press more quickly.

In a related question, which is harder to revise — a picture book or a novel, and why?

I think it depends on the project. I will say that I have a tiny, scattered brain and keeping a whole novel in my head is harder to do than spreading out the three pages of a picture book and making sense of them. Still, you can fudge a little bit in a novel in a way that you just can’t in a picture book where every single word has to be exactly right.

2. A Crooked Kind of Perfect tells the story of young Zoe Elias, who really wanted to be a piano prodigy, but was forced to learn to play on an electric organ from a mall in the Detroit area. The author bio in the back of the book leads me to believe that part of the set-up was biographical, what with you wanting to play piano, having an organ instead and living in the Detroit area as a kid. Was that a conscious choice on your part? If so, was it hard to separate yourself and your memories from the new character you created? Did Zoe end up with a lot of your personality characteristics or your personal experiences in addition to having an organ?

The story, like everything I write, has roots in my experience. But our lives aren’t stories. They don’t usually have beginnings, middles, and satisfying endings the way stories do. There’s lots of extra stuff in them, too, like folding the laundry and watching Monkees reruns and waiting for your sister to get out of the bathroom. You cut things out that are boring and you add things that are not (hopefully) and you make things follow a path that has some logic.

As for Zoe: she’s very different from me. Smarter. More patient. Funnier. The events of our lives sometimes echoed one another, but her interpretations of those events and her reactions to them were very different.

3. I must ask about Wheeler Diggs, the "bad boy" in Zoe's grade who seems never to take his denim jacket off. How did you manage to create such a hot fifth-grader? (Grin.) Or, if you prefer, why did he show up in this book — was he initially a character that fit at Zoe's house or at her school, and how did he move into the other universe (assuming he ever belonged only in one sphere)?

I’m so glad you like Wheeler. I like Wheeler. I wish I had a Wheeler in my fifth grade life.

Wheeler showed up in that first scene – the Career Day scene – and I never expected him to do anything more than illustrate how Zoe’s family challenges made her feel isolated at school. And then he just kept popping up. When he followed Zoe home, I was as surprised as she was.

4. Madame Person (it's Per-saaahn) was probably my favorite adult character in the book. In the hands of another writer, she could easily have become a bit of a caricature (if only because of her name and her extremely funny exclamations, such as "Holy Mother of Mozart!"), but you managed to keep her very real. What advice do you have for readers who are trying to write eccentric characters, but who don't want them to move into the area of "camp"?

As for eccentricities, I don’t know anybody who doesn’t have them. Part of writing is picking details. If I were writing a very serious novel about a child with true talent and a drive to get to Carnegie Hall, I might also have a Ms. Person, but instead of letting you see the Mozart’s Postman side of her, I’d have shown you the row of childhood trophies in her own small apartment, all lined up by the fireplace, not a one of them first place. That’s too sad for a funny novel, so you leave it out and focus on the silly stuff — but you don’t forget about those old trophies. They are what keep her human.

Also, one of the things I most admired about all the adult characters in the book — whether it's Ms. Person, Mr. and Mrs. Elias, Hugh the UPS guy, or even Zoe's friend's mother — is that none of them are "bad guys," even if some of them make Zoe's life more difficult than it has to be. Was that a conscious choice on your part? Can you talk about that a bit?

Do you know any bad guys? I don’t. There are people I don’t know personally who I think of as bad guys, but I’ve been lucky enough in my life that even the crummy people I’ve gotten to know have redeeming qualities. Zoe’s not the kind of kid to see bad guys anyway. She’s a “just my luck” kind of kid.

5. I know from your website that you used to be a bookseller at Vroman's, one of the oldest and largest independent bookstores in southern California, and that you used to plan events for them. Did working as a bookseller (who was trying to plan events and hand-sell books) influence the way that you read books? Did it alter your ideas of what it is you look for in a book?

I used to think of the books I loved as my own private treasures. Being a bookseller changed that. I became an evangelist.

It also gave me the opportunity to read more. Small presses. First novels. Unique voices.

I hope I don’t lose all credibility here, but I have to admit that I’ve not yet read a Harry Potter book. By the time I caught on to them, they were already wildly popular and customers sure didn’t need me to recommend them. Instead, I told people about brilliant but not-quite bestseller books like Sue Stauffacher’s Donuthead or Tony Johnston’s Any Small Goodness or Marla Frazee’s Walk On. It’s a pretty rewarding thing to match a great book to its ideal reader. And it is also important to know that not every book is going to appeal to every reader. That lesson is a good one for writers to remember, too.

Speed round:

Cheese or chocolate?
Cheese. Lazy Lady Pyramid, to be specific. It’s artisanal cheese made locally. It tastes like France.

Coffee or tea? P&G Tips “England’s No 1 Tea” it says on the box.

Cats or dogs? Dogs.

Favorite color? Barn red.

Favorite snack food? Manghi’s Almond Granola – also made right here in Montpelier.

Favorite ice cream? Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough. Though I’d actually prefer a frozen banana dipped in chocolate.

Water or soda? Diet Coke, I’m afraid.

What's in your CD player/on iTunes right now? Neil Diamond, of course.

What's the last movie you memorized lines from? Since the kids were born I haven’t seen many movies. My favorite movie line of all time, though, is from Singin' in the Rain, spoken by Lena Lamont: "If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, it makes us feel as though our hard work ain't been in vain for nothin'."

Given the joy Linda's brought to so many with her wonderful first novel, I'd say her hard work is decidedly not in vain.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Sound check -- is this thing on?

Check Check
Cybilants Cybilants

That's right folks. It's almost time for the CYBILS process to begin. This year, expect it to bigger, badder, and frenzier (?) than ever, since more folks will have heard of the Awards and therefore will be nominating books. More nominations = more books for the panelists to read. More opportunities for books to win. Etc.

You can read a bit about it over at the current CYBILS page. Daily posts will begin there on September 17th, and the nominating process is probably going to be opened up by October 1st.

And I promise to have updates here as well (at least about big stuff). Because, well -- I'm the shepherd for the Poetry category this year.

Friday, September 07, 2007

processional by Anne Compton -- a Poetry Friday post

Today I want to talk a bit about processional by Anne Compton. (And yes, the title has a lower-case "p", which I will ask Anne about in her interview. She does not, as a rule, use only lower case letters, a la ee cummings.) Her first collection, Opening the Island won the Atlantic Poetry Prize. This book, processional won both the Atlantic Poetry Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry in 2005. The GG is one of Canada’s top literary prizes. That gives you some idea of how remarkable the quality of Anne Compton’s poems are.

The poems in processional are organized into five sections. The section titles are:
The Mind in Winter
The House, One Field Away
And Now to Play
Too Late in the Wrong Rain
We Have Had Our Summer Evenings

If you’re guessing they’re seasonally organized, then you’re partially correct – but there are some overlaps, and the sections are grounded in place and experience as much as in time.

Today, I share with you by permission of the author two poems from processional.

The first poem I’d like to share is "From Vernal Equinox to Solstice," one of the poems in the first part of the book. One I love for it’s sly humor at the start, and it’s wisdom and dark humor at the end (no pun intended).

From Vernal Equinox to Solstice
by Anne Compton

Day before yesterday, Spring comes down the road, cheeky
bugger. Unpacking promises: peddler to the housebound.

Opens his carpetbag: sunlight columns floor to ceiling,
That’s nothing, he says. By solstice, I can keep it up for hours.

Spills his goods over the cold ground and a great fog rises.

Out of it comes an old woman with bad breath, muttering.

Fools. Stops at your house to steal words, the bright ones
you’ve kept in a button box all winter. Saved up for a boy
whose good looks, you’ve heard, gain with every passing day.

Fingers the mid-Lent cake. Simnel. Bites off sentences:
The most of light’s the beginning of darkness. You’ll see.

Rendered tallow, the look of her. A croaky laugh, Of course
you won’t. You’re besotted. More’s the pity when it comes to light.

How much do I love the possible double meaning of that last sentence? Do you really have to ask?? For those wondering, "simnel" is a light fruitcake, covered in marzipan, and eaten on Mothering Day (the fourth Sunday in Lent, when people traditionally returned to their "mother church" for the day, thereby reuniting with family as well). In some Church of England churches, Mothering Sunday is the only day during Lent on which marriages may be performed.

The second poem I’d like to share is from the fourth section of the book, "Too Late in the Wrong Rain." The section gets its name from a line from a poem by Dylan Thomas called "On a Wedding Anniversary." It’s called "If I Lived with You," and there’s a wistfulness and a warmth to it that pulls me in. I’m anxious to hear what all of you think of it, and of the other poem as well. Ordinarily, I’d add the poet’s name between the title and the body of the poem here, but in this particular case, it gets in the way.

If I Lived with You

You’d fix up everything broken in my house.
And I’d fix up your spelling. With my best scissors
I’d trim your beard, not even noticing the grey bits.
I wouldn’t have a problem
&emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp with squirrels in the walls
&emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp &emsp mould in the cellar.
And I’d find your glasses by evening. Promise.
We’d have mealy pudding on Robbie Burns Day.
Fish through Lent. Keep house by the Julian calendar.
And I’d tell you, once a day at least, the sound
Of your voice in my head when you’re absent.
Oblate as two breaths. That’d be the difference.
You’re way late is something I’d never say.
Wouldn’t have to. We’d both know time’s long at the last.
Friday would not evaporate as soon as we’re through with it.

As for all the other stuff,
In a small room we’d call sonnet, I’d make up a bed as usual.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Robot Dreams by Sara Varon

Robot Dreams by Sara Varon is a textless graphic novel. (Okay, textless save for the names of months on certain pages, and some text on boxes and calendars and the like.)

Dog gets a robot kit and puts together not just a robot, but a dear friend. They do everything together and have fun. And then, at the end of the summer, they go to the beach and splash in the waves, then lay on their towels. And poor Robot can't get up, so Dog goes home without him.

Dog remembers Robot and goes back to get him, but the beach is closed. From here on out, we follow two different tales -- three, in a way. There's Dog, at home, looking for other friends, but even though he meets others to have fun with, none of them stay the way Robot did. There's Robot -- his body and what happens to it (including some selfish rabbits who steal one of his legs, and someone collecting scrap metal) -- and Robot's dreams. In his dreams, Robot searches and finds Dog in a variety of settings. Sometimes Dog is happy to see him, other times Dog has moved on. Always, Robot has both of his legs in his dreams. And there's a raccoon who's building a radio, but it only gives out distortion, until he goes to the scrapyard for parts.

This is a charming story, about friendship and loss, about memory and moving on. It demonstrates how some people (or Robots) are always constant, loyal friends, and how friends can adapt and move on if a friend dies or moves away. It speaks to the universality of the need and longing for friendship.

You can "read" an excerpt at the First Second website. But by all means, look for this at your local bookstore and read the whole thing.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Wall by Peter Sís

Yesterday, I purchased The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sís.

It is on the picture book wall at Barnes and Noble. Inside the children's department, next to books for 4 year olds.

This book is not for 4 year olds, notwithstanding it's size and shape and pictures. This book is more appropriate for teens and adults, who are able to process the story it holds, which is black and white and red all over.

Peter Sís tells the story of a child's life being born and raised in Czechoslovakia when it was under the control of the Soviet Union. It's not entirely his life, as the biographical information at the end makes clear –— or rather, it's not the entirety of his life. His life had what sounds like a little more freedom than what is depicted in the book, but only a very little.

After an introduction composed of a full page of text explaining the fall of Tsarist Russia, the independence of Czechoslovakia following WWI and the invasion of Czechoslovakia during World War II, the end of the war and the division of Europe into East and West and the creation of the Iron Curtain and Cold War, Sís begins what looks at first like a picture book.

The first page shows a baby holding a red pencil and a piece of paper, and bears the text "As long as he could remember, he had loved to draw." Sounds simple, yes? One illustration, one line of simple text in third person. But around the edges of the picture, framing it above, left, and right are technical definitions of the words and phrases "Iron Curtain," "Cold War," and "Communism." On the next two-page spread are the main text "At first he drew shapes. Then he drew people." But there are six panels on the first page in the spread, and 5 on the second, to the sides of which are additional text explaining the historical facts that are depicted there.

This is no picture book. It's not really a graphic novel, either, since the text isn't integrated into the pictures, and the pictures in and of themselves don't exactly tell a story -- they illustrate the points made in the sidebars, as tied to the simple text at the bottom of the pages. It is, perhaps, a graphic picture book. And it is for older children and for grown ups, as a way of explaining the history of the Cold War.

Sís editorializes throughout. The military police and other officials are drawn with the faces of pigs. The phrasing makes clear that the communist regime was bad, and the West was good. Considering that the target market for this book is truly older children (tweens and teens, say) and adults, the oversimplification is unfortunate. I'd have preferred him to tell me about the prohibitions and compulsory actions and not tell me what I should think about it -- I'd have drawn the same conclusion, without feeling I'd been a wee bit preached to. But truly, that's a minor criticism, because this book does something for younger readers (and some grown ups) that hasn't been done before: it gives a concise history of the creation of the Iron Curtain and the Cold War, and gives a clear impression of what it was like to live inside Czechoslovakia during that period of history. It explains what brainwashing is, and how easy it is to accomplish with children. It depicts and explains how it feels to live in a community governed by fear.

The book does this not only through its simple text and illustrations, but also through six pages of journal entries. I'd say they were from his actual journals, but since the first entry was from 1954, when Sís would have been five, I'm unconvinced that's the case. Still, the text is surrounded by photographs of Sís and his family, and by reproductions of posters and artwork, which I presume was his art product as a child. (It evolves as he ages within the journal entries.)

I suspect that this book will get attention from not only the Caldecott folks, but also from the Newbery panel as well. It's a terrific book, despite the whiff of didactism it emits, and I'd highly encourage folks who are interested in history to check it out. Not that my saying so means anything, but I'd like to see the bookstores shelving this someplace other than the picture book wall inside the children's department. It would do the book and the readers a service.

*Edited to add: This would probably pair well with the new graphic novel, Notes for a War Story by Gipi, which describes one young man's experience during war in the Balkans, and how war changes people and messes with their perceptions of right and wrong, etc.