Friday, December 26, 2008

To Earthward - a Poetry Friday post

I know that for many people, the holidays are "the most wonderful time of the year." For others, based on medical statistics, they are stressful and possibly depressing. For me, they are a wintry mix. (I know - I kill me.)

I really enjoy Chanukah and Christmas and knowing that once we've passed the solstice and it's officially Winter, the days are actually trending longer, even though they remain short for now. In recent years, I find myself using the time between the holidays of light and the new year to reflect a bit, take stock of life, and plan for the new year. A bit of looking back over this year, and over the course of my life as well; a bit of planning for the future. Things are in balance. Happy memories combine with bittersweet (and occasionally, painful) ones, and I push to remember to look at now, too, amongst all that looking back and forward.

And so it is that today, I'm sharing with you a somewhat melancholy but decidedly feeling poem by one of my favorite poets, Robert Frost. First the poem, and then the analysis and discussion.

To Earthward
by Robert Frost

Love at the lips was touch
As sweet as I could bear;
And once that seemed too much;
I lived on air

That crossed me from sweet things,
The flow of--was it musk
From hidden grapevine springs
Downhill at dusk?

I had the swirl and ache
From sprays of honeysuckle
That when they're gathered shake
Dew on the knuckle.

I craved strong sweets, but those
Seemed strong when I was young;
The petal of the rose
It was that stung.

Now no joy but lacks salt,
That is not dashed with pain
And weariness and fault;
I crave the stain

Of tears, the aftermark
Of almost too much love,
The sweet of bitter bark
And burning clove.

Read the last two stanzas here.

Before moving to anything else, I'd like to take this moment to sigh. *sigh* And to pause and really let that one sink in, with all its weight and strength. It's dead sexy, I think, even though it speaks of sorrow. And not just because he's talking about his length and being stiff, although I do not believe those words were chosen idly.

About the form
It is written using eight cross-rhymed stanzas: ABAB, CDCD, etc. The meter selected is iambic, which was pretty common for Frost. The first three lines of each stanza contain three iambic feet; the fourth contains only 2. Folks familiar with hymnal representations of metre will recognize that this one would be written as 6-6-6-4, although it's not a highly common metre.

The poem splits in the middle, temporally at least. The first four stanzas are about the past. Whether it's long past or lost youth is up to interpretation, but it's clear that the first four stanzas are all about what the speaker thought "then". The latter four stanzas are about the present, what the speaker feels and believes "now".

"Then" was all about things that were sweet: kisses, scents in the air (honeysuckle, musk and more), the feel of a rose petal. Then, those sweet things were too much for him. The rose's petal was enough to cause a stinging sensation - not the thorn, the silken petal. The touch of a lip was almost overpowering. He was able to live off the scents in the air. One gets the sense of a young romantic intoxicated by the pretty, pleasant things of life.

"Now" is all about things that are salty. References to taste opposites (sweet vs. salty) are entirely intentional, by the way, as the poet works to engage all of his senses. Not content with the one so many poets rely on exclusively (sight), he's including smell, taste, touch and sound as well. He's seeking more complex, less straightforwardly beautiful things. He seems not to mind the salt of tears, if the tears are the aftermath of having loved too much. The scents he seeks out are no longer the sweet scents of honeysuckle, but include scents like bark and burnt cloves.

Now, the speaker sits on the ground, his hand pressed flat to the earth, leaning heavily on his arm, wrist flexed. When he stands, the pain and soreness he feels is not enough for him; he wishes he could feel the roughness of the earth along the full length of his body. Now, pain does not diminish his pleasure - and, in fact, pain appears to contribute to his pleasure. I don't think he's a masochist; he's a realist who accepts the complexities of the world, including the negatives along with the positives. It includes sensual details now that were lacking when he was a younger man, caught up in the pretty superficialities.

Throughout the poem, the speaker is interacting with the physical world, and not with another person. He focuses on love as represented by the gifts of the earth-- simple pleasures like honeysuckle, grapevines and rose petals, and more complex (one might say complicated) pleasures like burnt cloves, bitter bark and feeling the roughness of the earth along his length. Whether those last few lines refer to sexual desire or a longing for the grave is open to interpretation, and I am nearly certain any duality is intentional, particularly given some of the terms that Frost uses leading up to the concluding lines, which are, to my way of thinking, anyhow, a bit reminiscent of Whitman, if I'm being honest ("I sing the Body electric" anyone?)

This poem is spectacular, in my opinion, for looking back and looking at the now, and maybe, maybe looking forward. It suits my mood in this time between the holidays. And it makes me think - and I do so love to think.

In closing, I think I'll thank Jennifer Knoblock at Ink for Lit for the lovely Christmas present she gave me: a butterfly award. Thanks, Jennifer, for your kind words, and for the lovely butterfly.

Today's Poetry Friday is hosted by my friend Tricia at The Miss Rumphius Effect. I just checked her post to be sure my little Poetry Friday button works properly and lo! She has posted something from Robert Frost as well. Great minds, etc.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

NEED by Carrie Jones

How to start this review? After all, it would indeed sound corny if I told you that you NEED to buy it, right away. Like, today, which is its official release date. But man, that is what I am so tempted to say, because my friend Carrie Jones? She has really done it this time. In a world where nothing is as it seems, you find the addition of things like glamours, so that things that actually are seem not to be. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

First, I should confess that I have been trying, somewhat unsuccessfully, to wean myself off what became a Twilight binge. After seeing the movie with M, I read the whole series in a few days. And then, I read it again. And I read Midnight Sun online (at least twice), and then compared it to Twilight. I was trying to figure out why I like the books so much even though I find many aspects of them completely maddening (my feminist principles are offended by much of the series, to say nothing of the creepy stalker factor and the controlling boyfriends factor and the whiny MC factor and my authorial principles are offended by the abuse of words beginning with "ch" such as "chuckle" and "chagrin", overuse of comparisons to gods and angels, to say nothing of the "why the hell did the author make everything morally easy for all her characters in that last book?" factor and more). I do not have an answer to my questions. But I digress.

Today, I'm talking about the book that has made me say "Stephenie who?" for the first time in weeks: NEED by Carrie Jones, which has a kick-ass cover, a kick-ass heroine, and the hottest (in many ways) hero/boyfriend I've read in a while. In fact, it's so awesome that I am going off tomorrow to score another two copies of it (one for me, one for S) so I can be sure to have first editions. And then, I'm going to re-read it. Like, tomorrow. And now, on to the actual review part of our program:

First, a few words about the cover. The on-screen image doesn't quite do it justice, because it just looks like the girl's mouth is wearing some shiny lipstick. On the actual book cover, it's obvious that she's got gold dust on her lips. And there's a trail of gold dust across her neck behind the gold letters of the title, too. It is, sadly, not actually sparkly glitter, but it is plainly and clearly gold pixie dust.

Yeah, I said it. Pixie. And in the cold, snowy world of Bedford, Maine, pixies are not small, fictional creatures a la Tinkerbell. They are tall. And real. And far more dangerous than you might imagine. And I'm not telling you anything more about them because, y'know, spoilers. But man, Carrie did a great job with them.

Second, our kickass heroine is Zara White. She is sent from Charleston, South Carolina, to the outer corner of Nowhere, Maine by her mother, who is concerned about Zara's emptiness after the death of the stepfather she loved - the only father she's ever known, in fact. Zara goes off to stay with her grandmother, who is named Betty White, but who has precious little in common with the actress of the same name, as best I can tell.

Now, I was certain that there were all sorts of fishy things going on in town early on in the book, because there were references to people not liking her for the way she smelled, for instance. Also? I developed a crush on Nick Colt immediately upon him assisting her into the school on her first day there. But I don't want to get ahead of myself. I want to talk about the kickass heroine for a bit. Because even though she's a damsel who ends up in distress, this is no princess waiting to be rescued. She is proactive all the way. Maybe flawed in being too brave, really, which is a nice change of pace. (At one point - or possibly more than one point - she openly threatens to kick some ass if any harm has come to a friend of hers, using the words "I'll kick your ass" - how much do I love her for that? Oh so very much.) She doesn't just kick ass, she takes names. She is smart and conscientious and clever. And resourceful. And proactive. I like her for that. Plus? I like her quirks, including her fondness for listing phobias.

Back to the hot guy, Nick Colt. I have to agree with M, who has told me more than once that Carrie writes the best boyfriends of any author she knows. (This does not mean, all my many author friends, that you do not write amazing boyfriends too. Honest.) In fact M, who also likes the Twilight books (but who thinks people will find her too geeky for having read them 8 times, so I'm no longer allowed to tell people that), has read Tips at least that many times, and likes Tom better than Edward. She also likes Paolo from Girl, Hero better than Edward, and would very much like a boyfriend who will watch John Wayne movies for her (or the M equivalent). I can't wait to get her reaction to Need, but it will have to wait at least another day, since the book isn't hers yet. *coughSantacough* Nick is charming and mysterious and adorable and hot (in many ways), and every single girl you know (including the adult ones) will have a massive crush on him, guaranteed.

And then there are the supporting cast. I really like the supporting cast, including Meghan the bitchy announcements girl, the obsequious tall guy Ian, the excellent Gram, the bunny-loving Issie, and the wheelchair-bound boy, Devyn. And the pixies, and what they're up to, is really, really creeptastic. And the backhanded paean to Maine's master of horror, Stephen King, is just extra frosting roses on an already excellent cake.

I would be proud to be Carrie's friend even if she wrote idiotic phrases in crayon that didn't make much sense, because she's such a good person. But I am awed to know her, based on her achievement here. And I'm not saying that because she is my friend, because I'd be awed were she a complete stranger.

You're not still here, reading this are you? GO BUY THIS BOOK! You NEED it!

Friday, December 05, 2008

An original poem for Poetry Friday

In April, I wrote a Ring/Drum/Blanket poem entitled "Inside the Fairy Ring" based on a challenge issued by Elaine Magliaro at Wild Rose Reader. Today's poem came from a similar exercise.

Back in June, I attended the Philadelphia Writer's Conference, and spent time in sessions with Bonnie Neubauer, author of The Write Brain Workbook: 366 Exercises to Liberate Your Writing. During one of the sessions, Bonnie passed out a wallet-sized slip of paper containing a bunch of words. She calls it an "emergency generator." While waiting for M in the mall one day, I pulled out my generator and selected three words at random. The words were Alps, broccoli and apology. I jotted a draft of the poem at a table in the food court. Here's the "finished" version after several more passes:

They'd met in Europe on one of those
"see the world" post-college tours.
He was attracted to her hardiness,
her Stoic ability to carry a heavy pack
unassisted up the Swiss Alps.

She was lightheaded in the thin air,
giddy at open horizons, endless opportunities.
They talked of travel plans – tours through Africa,
all the places in Asia they'd see,
plans to partake of more than seven wonders.

Years later, stabbing in silence at Chinese takeout
chicken and broccoli in their windowless dining room,
she wondered how she'd come to this place—
a life without adventure. Each day
an apology, endlessly unfolding on itself.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

John Green - the WBBT Interview

Today, I am nearly giddy with excitement. I've long been a fan of John Green's writing. For those who might not know, John won the Printz Award for his debut novel, Looking for Alaska, and followed it up with a Printz honor for An Abundance of Katherines. Based on reading his books, reading (and watching) his blog, and meeting him in LA where I heard him speak at the 2007 SCBWI Conference, I developed an author crush on John, who writes witty, well-crafted, downright smart stories about witty, flawed, downright smart protagonists, and who approaches his craft in a serious, thoughtful way. The kids he writes about are, in many respects, the kind of kid I was in high school: not completely unpopular, not part of the "in" crowd, smart, slightly nerdy. Kids who have a decent family, but who have issues with their peers. Kids with a few close friends; who do okay – even well – in school; kids who like to read, and who aren't afraid to discuss real issues. Back then there wasn't a word for that, but today, thanks to John and his brother Hank, there is: Nerdfighter. (A wee bit down on the left is a photo that M took of John reading from Paper Towns during the Tour de Nerdfighting.)

The term "nerdfighter" came up early in 2007 as part of Brotherhood2.0, a joint project of John's and Hank's based on their agreement to live an entire year without textual communication. And on February 15th of 2007, John posted a hilarious video in which he came up with the Nerdfighters' theme song, which (in the words of the helpful Colleen Cook) "frakkin' rocks!" In July of 2007, B2.0 went viral with Hank's vlog post containing his original song, "Accio Deathly Hallows." The rest, as they say, is history, and a community of Nerdfighters more than 15,000 strong is now in existence. With a committed fan base that size, it's no wonder that John's most recent novel, Paper Towns opened on the New York Times Bestseller List. You can watch a short video of John explaining what his newest book is about at the Penguin website.

In addition to his novels, John has published a number of short stories, and he continues to write book reviews, including his recent joint review of the novels The Dead and the Gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins in The New York Times. Without further ado, the interview:

1. Reading through some of your very own blog posts, including “Nine Girls I’ve Kissed and What I Learned About Them from Google”, which was your first piece featured on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” would you say that those early writings (blog posts, NPR and book reviews for Booklist) helped you develop your writing voice? Did reviewing books help you develop your writing?

I don’t know if they helped develop my voice, but all that writing certainly helped me tremendously, because it was being edited by exceptionally good editors. At Booklist I was working with Stephanie Zvirin and Ilene Cooper (who guided me through many rewrites of Alaska), and at WBEZ I was working with Cate Cahan. All three are brilliant editors who helped me to better understand how to write for an audience. It was also hugely helpful to read, as I did, hundreds of books as a reviewer—reading is the only apprenticeship that writers have, after all.

That said, I’m hesitant to look back upon that writing and see it as, like, practice for writing a novel. I worry that to imagine it in that way implies that writing reviews or radio pieces is practice for something else. Both formats are plenty interesting and fulfilling on their own, and I didn’t really think of them as a dry run for writing book-length prose.

2. Rather than talk about Looking for Alaska and An Abundance of Katherines, both of which won impressive awards, I thought we’d talk a bit about your short stories and then your most recent novel, Paper Towns.

Last year, you had a story in 21 Proms, a collection of short stories about prom (duh) edited by David Levithan and Daniel Ehrenhaft. I can’t decide whether “Every prom date has a story” is a subtitle or a tag line, but in either event, your story, “Queen of the Morp”, doesn’t quite fit that phrase, as the main character is a girl who not only refuses to attend the prom, but throws what proves to be an incredibly successful anti-prom party on the same night as the school event. A two-part question about “Queen of the Morp.” First, what’s your position on prom: are you pro- or anti-? Second, did you consider it an extra challenge to write the story from a female point of view, or was that fairly simple for you? Oh, and third (yeah, good counting, Kelly) – the phrase “jill off” cracked me the hell up, but it was one I haven’t heard before or since. Where did you come up with it?

When David and Dan asked me to participate in that anthology, I was really excited because I admire them both a great deal, and also because the proceeds from the anthology all benefit Advocates for Youth, a charity my mom has worked closely with for years. Also, it did seem like a good opportunity to write from a girl’s point of view, which I had been wanting to try. Honestly, the voice came as easily as any of the others (which is not to say that I pulled it off; that’s more for the reader to decide), and I had a lot of fun working on that story.

I am personally anti-Prom, but that’s a distinctly adult stance. As a teenager, I’m sure I would have wanted to go (my school did not have a Prom, but we did have an analogous banquet, which I attended). I definitely was not the first person to use the phrase “jill off,” but I might have thought it up independently. I really can’t remember whether it came from inside or outside (the membrane between the two is pretty porous).

3. In the collection Twice Told: Original Stories Inspired by Original Art (drawings by Scott Hunt), you have a story entitled “The Approximate Cost of Loving Caroline”, narrated in first person by a guy who is multi-racial: his mother is black and his father is Indian: "Convenience-store Indian, not Geronimo Indian." His girlfriend, Caroline, is Asian, and a jazz fan who loves John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie. Writing characters of other ethnic backgrounds seems to come naturally to you (I’m thinking of Hassan from Katherines and J.P. from Let it Snow, but there are others), and must be something you view as important, based on the percentage of significant characters in your work who are not white. Why is that?

Well, the primary reason it’s important to me is that a large percentage of teenagers living in contemporary America are not white. I don’t think of it as any particular statement about diversity, except insofar as I want to reflect the world as it is.

Also, all of my books are in one way or another concerned with how we (mis)understand the people around us, and how we grapple with the problem of imagining the other more complexly even though we can never fully understand anyone else’s inner existence. I like to have the characters in my novels confront this problem in lots of different ways, and I guess one of them—and obviously one of the central ways we’ve dehumanized the other in world history—is ethnicity. This is why Radar’s parents [in Paper Towns] collect Black Santas, for instance. They are trying to get us to imagine Santa more complexly.

4. Your story, “A Cheertastic Christmas Miracle”, in this fall’s release, Let it Snow: Three Holiday Romances, was written as part of what I might call an intertwined trilogy of stories. The book opens with “The Jubilee Express” by your secret sister, Maureen Johnson, and concludes with Lauren Myracle’s “The Patron Saint of Pigs.” While each of the stories can be read independently of the others, there is a decided time-arc to the book that makes the arrangement of the stories obvious, even though some of the characters appear in more than one story (and, in fact, nearly all of the characters we actually meet along the way end up “on-stage” at the end of Lauren’s story (and, therefore, at the end of the book)).

How much communal pre-planning went into the book? Or did Maureen kick things off with her story, and you simply grabbed the bits you wanted from her story to write yours? Were there particular challenges thrown down among the group, as, for example, the references to flying pigs that I found in both your and Lauren’s stories? (I’ll have to go back and re-read Maureen’s story, but I have a niggling hunch that there was a flying pig reference there as well.)

We had a few discussions before we started writing, but most of the intertwining was done when the three of us revised our stories together. That process lasted a couple months—going back and forth about ways to braid the stories together while still making them stand-alones. I really enjoyed writing with Lauren and Maureen; they are both so clever and so good at creating characters I care about that it was really a privilege to be able to include their characters in my story.

5. Did you read a lot of romances in order to get the requirements of the genre down? If so, care to share a few titles?

I’ve read a lot of romances over the years (I even reviewed a few historical romances when I worked at Booklist), but I didn’t read any while I was working on the story in Let It Snow. I’m not very good at writing plots (and on some level I’m probably not adequately interested in them, but I’m trying harder), so I’m not sure I really did get the conventions of the genre right. [KRF: Having read the book, I'd have to say that John nailed it, but in an odd way: he writes his story from the perspective of the male love interest, and it decidedly relates a typical romance from that somewhat altered p.o.v. Were it told from the Duke's perspective (who is a girl, trust me), it would be told slightly differently, of course, but it would totally fit the standard romance formula.]

6. In this story, as in all three of your novels and in the other short stories I’ve tracked down, all your characters come from two-parent, functional, caring (if sometimes misguided) families, although there appears to be a paucity of siblings when it comes to your main characters. Is that a conscious choice in order to avoid opening another relationship “front” in the story, or just the way it’s worked out so far? Not that any fictional sibling could possibly reach the level of awesome or nuttiness of your real-life sib, Hank Green, ecologist, musician, web designer, internet sensation and all-around Renaissance man, but will we be seeing any siblings in any in-the-works future projects?

I like writing about peer relationships. Obviously, there is great richness in stories about families for teenagers (both functional and dysfunctional), but so far at least, my interest has been primarily in peer relationships. I’m always a little dubious about connecting my real life to my books, but it is true that I had (and have!) a good, high-functioning, loving family. It’s like Tolstoy said, right? "All happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." We were pretty happy, and maybe a good family is like a good font: It kind of disappears. So it’s possible that’s the reason, but it’s also possible that my books focus on peer relationships because the YA books I admire the most (from Catcher in the Rye to The Virgin Suicides to The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks) also focus on peer relationships, and I’m just trying to rip them off.

7. I’d like to talk about poetry for a minute. As a poet, I first have to commend you for the generous use of poetry in your work. "A Cheertastic Christmas Miracle" includes a wonderful homage to William Carlos Williams’s famous poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow”, in which the Duke rhapsodizes about hash browns: "So much depends upon the golden hash browns, glazed with oil, beside the scrambled eggs."

Throughout Paper Towns are references to Walt Whitman’s poem, "Song of Myself", which serve not only as literal clues for Quentin, but as subtext for Q’s experience as well. (Something I highlighted when blogged about this book over at Guys Lit Wire.) Based on some of last year’s vlogs for B2.0, I know Whitman’s one of your favorite poets. What others do you read on a return basis?

I love poetry, even though I have no talent whatsoever for writing it. (My musical tone deafness extends to meter, I think.) I like all the usual suspects: Emily Dickinson and T. S. Eliot and Yeats and Cummings and W. C. Williams and etc. I also read a lot of poetry from the Islamic world, and I read a lot of contemporary American poets. I am obsessed with a book by Katrina Vandenberg (who happens to be a nerdfighter) called Atlas, which I reread at least once a year.

8. Paper Towns. In some ways, this might be the alt-reality story of Looking for Alaska. Although it diverges from Alaska in many significant ways, both feature a male protagonist with a crush on a girl who is trying to find out what’s become of that girl (talk about your oversimplifications), and at least one theme is the same: people aren’t always who we think they are or, maybe, our conceptions of other people are projections, not really that other person at all. Gosh, I suck at stating themes. But I think I might be close, at least. Is that sort of question (i.e., about the nature of "the other") something that exists as a macro question for you at the start of the book, or something that shows itself during the writing?

The questions definitely exist in a macro way when I begin the book, yeah. But hopefully while writing (and most importantly, while revising), I’ll find enough focus and clarity to explore the questions with the nuance they deserve. So when I started writing Paper Towns, I thought it would only be about the treacherous lie of the manic pixie dream girl.* It is about that (at least I hope it is), but it is more broadly about the relationship between the world we draw and the world that is—when it comes to manic pixie dream girls and also when it comes to Santa and cartography and nerds and user-created encyclopedias and the dead and many other things. So hopefully the story becomes more interesting (and more true) in the writing.

* [KRF: The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a term coined by Nathan Rabin at The Onion in a review of the movie Elizabethtown, and he initially defined it as follows: "The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an all-or-nothing-proposition." You can read John's blog post "On the Destruction of Manic Pixie Dream Girls for a more in-depth analysis of this point.]

9. As a result of watching B2.0 from its inception (and having been a Nerdfighter long before there was a label for it), I know you did a lot of research for this book, including urban exploring (with M.T. Anderson, who is probably the inspiration for at least the name of your main character in "A Cheertastic Christmas Miracle") and visiting Florida subdivisions. Did you actually a) break into Sea World at night or b) wreck a minivan to be sure a hole could be gashed into the side in order to achieve verisimilitas?

I didn’t wreck a minivan, and I did not break into Sea World. I don’t think I’ll say anything more about the research I did do until the statute of limitations is up.

10. The initial hardcover release of Paper Towns came out with two different covers. Do you have a favorite cover of the two? Did you have a say in the cover?

I don’t have a favorite. I think they’re both misrepresentations of Margo. They’re both ways that she is wrongly or at least incompletely imagined by the characters in the book. (The cover could have just as easily been two photographs of Q, but of course then it wouldn’t have been as commercial.) I do have a seat at the table when it comes to cover design, and I’m very fortunate to be able to work closely with Christian Fuenfhausen, a designer I respect tremendously.

11. Nerdfighters the world over worked hard to buy copies of Paper Towns when (hell, before) it was released, and they’ve been flocking to see you (and Hank, when available) at your in-person appearances for the book tour supporting the title. What’s it feel like to be a New York Times best-selling author on a multi-state book tour who has, um, extraordinarily enthusiastic fans?

It has been wonderful to meet so many young people who are so smart and so engaged. And it has been so rewarding to talk about my books with teenagers who read with such thoughtfulness and depth. (Sample question from a nerdfighter gathering, asked by a sixteen-year-old: “Can you talk about why Quentin’s vessel survives the land whale when Ahab’s vessel doesn’t survive the sea whale?”) Plus, it has been great to spend so much time with Hank and his wife Katherine, both of whom I adore.

12. What’s next?

More books! I just want to keep doing this as long as they’ll let me.

Speed round:

Cheese or chocolate?

Coffee or tea? Coffee, although I’m not much on hot drinks.

Cats or dogs? Dogs! (I have a puppy named Willy.) [KRF: For whom Hank wrote "Willy's Song", with the help of a number of nerdfighters.]

Favorite color? Green, natch.

Favorite snack food? Reduced Fat Cheez Its. (Their Motto: “Still Pretty High in Fat, Actually.”)

Favorite ice cream? Something peanutbutterchoclatey

Water or soda? I prefer diet soda, but probably drink more water..

What's in your CD player/on iTunes right now? The Mountain Goats’ new album.

What's the last movie you memorized lines from? Probably Juno. (And no, I’m not just saying that because the producers of that movie have optioned Paper Towns.)

The remainder of today's tour stops are:
Martin Millar at Chasing Ray
Beth Kephart at Hip Writer Mama
Emily Ecton with Little Willow at Bildungsroman
John David Anderson at Finding Wonderland
Brandon Mull talks Fablehaven at The YA YA YAs
Lisa Papademetriou at Mother Reader

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Emily Jenkins - the WBBT Interview

I have had an author crush on Emily Jenkins ever since I first read Toys Go Out, which I reviewed in September of 2006, which is, in my opinion, a hugging book. More on that during the interview. So when I signed on for this year's WBBT, I sent an email off to Emily asking if she'd agree to be interviewed about her picture books and novels. And when she said yes, despite having a busy writing career and a brand-new baby, I did the dance of joy.

Emily is the author of two Toys Go Out chapter books (so far) and a bevy of picture books. As best I can tell, all of her books completely nail what it is to be a child, and each of them speaks to a child reader about fears or concerns that are universal among children, such as fear of displacement (That New Animal), fear of people who are unfamiliar (The Little Bit Scary People), a desire for friends (Skunkdog), and concern that misbehavior might make parents, er, reconsider keeping them around (Love You When You Whine). Toys Go Out and Toy Dance Party examine similar fears-- many of which boil down to "fear of the unknown,"-- by telling the story of interactions between a number of different toys (who are very much alive and have their own personalities, thank you), as well as the occasional towel or machine in the laundry room. I should note that the only toys that appear not to be alive are Barbie dolls.

That New Animal tells the story of two dogs adjusting to the arrival of a new baby in their home. As a fan of Beverly Cleary’s book, Socks, I found I responded to the focus on the needs of the four-legged family members, and took it as a cautionary tale for parents, reminding them to pay attention to their pets (and, I suppose, to their older children) after a baby comes home. My friend Linda Urban (who is a huge fan of yours, btw, and wants to bring you coffee) reads it as a tale designed to help older siblings adjust to the changes that come with a baby. I don’t want to ask which one of us is right, exactly, but, um, what was your intention when you wrote the book?

I am always writing for the child reader first. But I think a good picture book has something for the parents as well – some humor, or word play, or something thought-provoking. In That New Animal the adult figures are insensitive to the needs of the child figures, as they are in a number of my other books (Daffodil, Daffodil Crocodile, Toy Dance Party, Skunkdog), but my primary concern is not a lesson for the grown-ups; it is the emotional experience of the child. Or dog. Or stuffed animal. Or rubber ball. (Note from me to Linda: You were right. As usual.)

Five Creatures is a wonderful exercise in sorting, and in employing the advice from the movie version of Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach to “try looking at it another way.” For example, one two-page spread about mealtimes explains who likes what: "Four who like to eat fish.... Two who like to eat mice. Only one who likes to eat beets." The aforementioned Linda tells me that the book was inspired by Venn diagrams, which I totally understand. My question has to do with the manuscript itself: how copious were the illustration notes? I am, of course, assuming some were necessary if only to spell out hair colors and those sorts of things. Or did you simply send in Venn diagrams?

Thank you. Sadly, Venn diagrams don't actually work with five creatures. So it's not the most mathematically accurate inspiration. I didn't give Tomek any illustration notes at all. He interpreted the text himself. I love what he did.

What or who was the inspiration for Skunkdog, your recent picture book release about Dumpling, a dog with no sense of smell who is only too happy to meet a skunk?

My aunt and uncle had a Labrador named Domino who ate poo and rolled in garbage and generally loved whatever was the stinkiest thing she could get involved with. She was a fantastic dog. She used to chase the skunks at my grandmother's summer house, and continually got sprayed. So I started with Domino and the story developed from there.

One day I told a story about a dog and a skunk to my daughter to entertain her in the car. My 'on the fly' stories are just as haphazard and ill-constructed as anyone's, probably more so – but my kid liked the story and asked for it to be told over and over, so bit by bit I refined it orally, until I realized that maybe I should write it down. But that's rare. Usually the stories I tell off the cuff are pretty crap and remain that way.

When Toys Go Out: Being the Adventures of a Knowledgeable Stingray, a Toughy Little Buffalo, and Someone Called Plastic first hit stores, I picked up a copy and started to read it in the store. I consider it a “hugging book,” because I quite literally hugged the book to my chest and simply had to bring it home with me. You have said elsewhere that Toys Go Out started as a single story about toys based on a toy you lost as a child and your cats’ reaction to being inside a cat carrier, so I’m guessing that what is now the first chapter of Toys Go Out was the original story. How did you go about choosing the other episodes in the book? Or, more particularly, did you identify particular themes you wanted to address in the book (e.g., “fear of the unknown”, evident in the first story, “In the Backpack, Where it is Very Dark”, and in the story of Lumphy’s adventure with Frank the washing machine, “The Terrifying Bigness of the Washing Machine”), then write the stories, or did you simply write the stories as they came to you, with the themes that I’m seeing being a more intrinsic or organic thing?

Thank you so much!

Yes, the first chapter is pretty much the picture book manuscript I wrote originally. The chapter about the washing machine started as just wanting to write about avoiding a bath. Why do kids avoid their baths when once they're actually in the bath, they love it? It is a mystery of parenting that I certainly didn't solve in writing that chapter. But yes, I do think about themes or issues of concern to young children in the Toys Go Out books, because I think without those, you'd end up with a coy, cutesy story that has no heart.

Did your toys have secret lives when you were a kid?

Of course. They still do.

I was thrilled this fall when Toy Dance Party: Being the Further Adventures of a Bossyboots Stingray, a Courageous Buffalo, & a Hopeful Round Someone Called Plastic hit stores. It was wonderful to read more stories about my toy friends, and to meet some new friends as well, including “The Garbage-Eating Shark (Which is Not the Same as the Possible Shark)”. Before I ask anything further about the book, however, I must jump to the obvious question: What do you have against Barbies?

Besides their portrayal of ideal womanhood as the possession of completely unrealistic physical attributes combined with extreme materialism? Oh, nothing.

Being a major Jane Austen fan (as a result of my work-in-progress, a biography of Austen in verse using period forms), I simply had to ask whether Austen has influenced your writing, based on this exchange in Toy Dance Party between Lumphy the Buffalo and Frank the Washer from the chapter entitled “In Which There is a Sleepover and Somebody Needs Repair”:

Frank overhears and interrupts “Love Train” to boom, “Shall I sing something for the little lady?”
“Yes, please,” says Lumphy. “Because she is my particular towel friend.”

I have read all of Austen's novels probably six times, so I am sure I am indeed influenced by her. But I don't catch the reference you're catching! It is probably an echo I heard but couldn't place, if that makes any sense. The phrase "particular friend" is rather Austenian, now that I think of it.

While the characters remain themselves in the second book, the tone of Toy Dance Party is quite different from that of Toys Go Out. Was that a conscious choice or the result of “growing” the characters over time?

The stakes needed to be higher in the second book, in order for there to be a reason for it to exist. But I think these things out before I start writing, and then when I write it just kind of happens and I am rather surprised at the end of the day what has turned up on the computer screen.

You write picture books, chapter books, works for adults and (under a different name), novels for teens. How many projects do you work on at any one time? Do you find it difficult to compartmentalize the projects and their voices?

I work on one long project at a time. Sometimes I have to do copy edits for an older project in the middle of a new, but basically I keep them separate. When I am stuck on a long book, sometimes I work on a picture book. I have a lot of picture book manuscripts that are half-finished or in some state of gestation. I think writing in different forms keeps me alert, keeps me from getting complacent and thinking I know how to do my job.

What’s next?

I have a picture book that just came out: The Little Bit Scary People with illustrations by Alexandra Boiger. After that comes Sugar Would Not Eat It, which is about a cat who refuses to eat birthday cake, with pictures by Giselle Potter. Further down the line I’m doing a book with artist Barbara McClintock, which I'm thrilled about – and a third Toys Go Out book, a prequel. (Squee!)

Speed round:

Cheese or chocolate? Stinky runny French cheese.

Coffee or tea? Decaf skim latte, ideally.

Cats or dogs? Cats. I have two ancient and vomity cats. I love them unconditionally.

Favorite color? Dusty blue.

Favorite snack food? Guacamole.

Favorite ice cream? Dulce de leche.

Water or soda? Diet ginger ale.

What's in your CD player/on iTunes right now? The audio of Jasper Fforde's Lost in a Good Book.

What's the last movie you memorized lines from? Does TV count? "I have this little sister Lola. She is small. And very funny." We say that a lot in my house, apropos of nothing, in bad British accents (except for my husband. He is actually British so his accent is good). It is from the TV show Charlie and Lola, based on Lauren Child's books.

A major thank you to Emily for turning up here, and good thoughts for her alter ego, E. Lockhart, who is nominated for a National Book Award for The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks.

Ellen Klages at Fuse #8, talking about her new book, White Sands, Red Menace, the sequel to The Green Glass Sea
Ally Carter, author of the Gallagher Girl spy books, at Miss Erin
Mark Peter Hughes at Hip Writer Mama
Sarah Darer Littman at Bildungsroman
MT Anderson at Finding Wonderland
Mitali Perkins at Mother Reader

Friday, November 14, 2008

If you were coming in the fall-- a Poetry Friday post

What has been lost, forgotten, or hidden about Emily Dickinson must be a lot. She's often depicted as a virginal poetess in white, but in the few photos of her, she's not in white. And I have reason to wonder about the virginal part. One has only to read the following poem to know that she was no complete recluse, and that she most certainly knew and understood passion, love and longing.

If you were coming in the Fall
by Emily Dickinson

If you were coming in the Fall,
I'd brush the Summer by
With half a smile, and half a spurn,
As Housewives do a Fly.

If I could see you in a year,
I'd wind the months in balls—
And put them each in separate Drawers,
For fear the numbers fuse—

If only Centuries, delayed,
I'd count them on my Hand,
Subtracting, till my fingers dropped
Into Van Diemen's Land*.

If certain, when this life was out—
That your's and mine, should be—
I'd toss it yonder, like a Rind,
And take Eternity—

But now, uncertain of the length
Of this, that is between,
It goads me, like the Goblin Bee**—
That will not state—its sting.

*Van Diemen's Land: Tasmania.
** Goblin Bee: a term created by Dickinson

The five stanzas use Dickinson's familiar hymn metre, and are chock full of metaphor and simile. She is writing either to or about a loved one (and, most likely, a lover). It appears that she is not certain when they shall see one another again, a notion which goads (or pains) her "like the Goblin Bee—/That will not state—its sting." Some poets, including Robert Pinsky, read those last two lines as indicating not only the uncertainty of not knowing when the bee will sting (i.e., when the lover will be seen), but also as a sexual pun (where a sting is some form of penetration). Frankly, I think they go too far. I think that there's longing, and sexual longing, implicit in the poem, but that the bee is simply a representation of uncertainty: knowing something will happen, waiting for it to happen, but not knowing precisely when it will occur. Or, feeling the sting of pain, but not seeing the bee (if the term "goblin bee" represents a phantom bee, rather than an actual bee).

But I'll start at the beginning and work back through. In the first stanza, a single season is contemplated. It's summer (or, at earliest, spring), and Dickinson says that if she knew the loved one was coming in the fall, she'd swat summer aside like a fly.

In the second stanza, she contemplates what she'd do if she knew for certain the loved one would come in a year, using a metaphor based on balls of yarn: she'd "wind the months in balls", and then she'd put each ball into its own storage place to keep them from fusing together (or possibly, from tangling). She's not only indicating that she'd be occupying herself, but that she'd be counting the months, as well as trying to dispense with them quickly.

In the third stanza, where centuries are involved (real or representing lengthier amounts of time), Dickinson says she'd count them backwards in a form of finger play. I envision her holding her hands before her, one above the other, fingers extended, bending fingers one at a time from the top down, until the pinky on her left (or right) hand is last to bend, there, at the bottom. Were you to visualize a globe, "Van Diemen's Land" or Tasmania would be on the underside of the globe from where Emily lived, so when that last finger moves, it would be on the underside. Miss Emily was punny, I think.

In the fourth stanza, she indicates that if their souls were guaranteed to meet in the afterlife, she'd "toss it yonder, like a Rind". The "it" to which she refers is her life, which she says she'd readily forfeit if she were guaranteed to meet her loved one. Pretty heady, heavy stuff, no?

The final stanza gets us to the real crux of the matter. Because she doesn't know how much time will pass until she sees her loved one - as little as a season, as long as centuries - and because she isn't positive they'll meet in the afterlife, she is left to wait and fret: how long will it be? Knowing that they are to meet again but not knowing when goads her (causes her pain, as if by pricking). She feels the stinging pain of absence, and doesn't know when it will cease. Her sense of longing and agitation is nearly palpable, just like that Goblin Bee.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Veterans Day

Tomorrow is Veterans Day here in the U.S. And yes, that's the proper way to spell it, per the U.S. government, although Veterans' and Veteran's are frequently used.

On tonight's NBC news, Brian Williams reported on the Highway of Heroes in Canada. Every time a Canadian soldier's remains are returned home from Afghanistan, thousands of citizens turn out to line the highway from the airport to the morgue. Family members riding in the caravan of vehicles accompanying the body, which is received with state honors, can look out the windows and see thousands of their citizens saluting as they go by, and/or waving Canadian flags.

In the lead-up to the story, Williams noted that here in the U.S., we pretty much never see the caskets come home. What Williams didn't go all that far into is that the reason we don't see the caskets is because the government has been suppressing press coverage of the more than 4000 caskets that have returned to the U.S. from Iraq and the more than 600 that have returned from Afghanistan, to say nothing of the many thousands more with life-altering injuries. Apparently, seeing all those dead and wounded returning home might decrease support for the war. (Ya think?) But I digress.

The point of this post, however, is not to become overly political (although I recognize I came perilously close with that last paragraph), but to draw attention to Veterans Day, a day in which we should all honor the men and women who have served our countries in times of war.

Here, a pointer to two posts I've done about war poems, which are, I believe, a good way to memorialize the day. Also, poems by men who have experienced war tend to convey some of the realities of war (harsh, sad, noble, and otherwise) to readers in a way that simple news coverage cannot. So I point you first to a prior National Poetry Month post that includes three of my all-time favorite war poems, "Dulce et decorum est" by Wilfred Owen, "The Soldier" by Rupert Brooke, and "In Flanders Fields" by John McCrae.

And I point you next to my Veterans Day post for Guys Lit Wire, which goes live shortly after midnight in some other time zone, in which I discuss the poetry collection Here, Bullet by Iraq War veteran Brian Turner. The collection came out in 2005 and has been winning awards ever since. If you've read the post in the previous paragraph, you've seen that Owen's poem was actually a condemnation of war and its atrocities, whereas Brooke's poem is about the noble calling of what it is to be a soldier, full of idealism, and McCrae's poem is about the dead soldiers, and their passing of the torch to those that follow. Turner's work in Here, Bullet covers all of this ground in a way; his poems discuss the sometimes brutal reality of what it is to be an American soldier in Iraq, but they share also the beauty (and harsh conditions) of that country, as well as some of its history. And war is not ennobled in poems such as "Body Bags", "AB Negative (The Surgeon's Poem)", and "16 Iraqi Policemen", which include grim physical descriptions of deaths.

Here, one called "Sadiq", the Arabic word for friend. The epigraph comes from The Gulistan of Sa'di, Chapter Eight.

by Brian Turner

It is a condition of wisdom in the archer to be patient because when the arrow leaves the bow, it returns no more.

It should make you shake and sweat,
nightmare you, strand you in a desert
of irrevocable desolation, the consequences
seared into the vein, no matter what adrenaline
feeds the muscle its courage, no matter
what crackling pain and anger
you carry in your fists, my friend,
it should break your heart to kill.

Friday, September 19, 2008

I'll put a trinket on - a Poetry Friday post

Since I'm still jousting with the gnomes, my Poetry Friday post is up quite late. The following poem sprang to mind as I was sucking wind taking my morning walk and checking out the bustle in the hedgerow, of which I was not alarmed. The morning shadows are longer now, and some of the trees here are just starting to turn. Although you can't tell that from a distance, if you are actually walking under the trees, you can see spots starting to form as the trees begin to prepare for their long winter's nap.

Today's poem is a reprise of a poem I posted one Saturday almost a year ago. It is untitled, and it's by Emily Dickinson:

The morns are meeker than they were —
The nuts are getting brown —
The berry's cheek is plumper —
The Rose is out of town.

The Maple wears a gayer scarf —
The field a scarlet gown —
Lest I should be old fashioned
I'll put a trinket on.

Bonus points to anyone spotting allusions to other pop culture references in the lead paragraph. Hint: there are two.

This week's short post should help to compensate for last week's very long post about Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind".

In other poetry news: the poetry panels for the CYBILS were announced this morning. I'm delighted to be working with such a fine group of folks!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Ode to the West Wind - a Poetry Friday post

All is grey skies here in New Jersey. It was like that for much of yesterday, too, and will be so, they say, for the weekend as well. I would complain about the clouds, but it wouldn't wish them away. Besides, my friends in the path of Hurricane Ike have far more to worry about than I.

Along with the clouds, we have a nice breeze here. Enough to be noticed, but not enough to become a bluster. Because it is starting to feel like Autumn, even if it is still warm enough to do without a jacket, I thought a fall poem might be a good choice. So I went looking for one, and instead, I found Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind". Sure, it looks like an autumn poem, but if you read this whole post, you'll see that things are not always precisely as they appear. I hope you'll read the full poem, for it is a thing of rare beauty, and I hope you'll stick around for the full post because it is one of my better ones (albeit long), if I do say so myself.

Ode to the West Wind
by Percy Bysshe Shelley

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The wingèd seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

Her clarion* o'er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill:

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh hear!

Thou on whose stream, 'mid the steep sky's commotion,
Loose clouds like earth's decaying leaves are shed,
Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,

Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread
On the blue surface of thine airy surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head

Of some fierce Mænad**, even from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith's height,
The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge

Of the dying year, to which this closing night
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre,
Vaulted with all thy congregated might

Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: oh hear!

Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lull'd by the coil of his crystàlline streams,

Beside a pumice isle in Baiæ's*** bay,
And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
Quivering within the wave's intenser day,

All overgrown with azure moss and flowers
So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou
For whose path the Atlantic's level powers

Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below
The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
The sapless foliage of the ocean, know

Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: oh hear!

If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share

The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O uncontrollable! If even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be

The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey**** speed
Scarce seem'd a vision; I would ne'er have striven

As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

A heavy weight of hours has chain'd and bow'd
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither'd leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguish'd hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken'd earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

*clarion: trumpet
**Mænad: literally, "The raving ones"; in Greek mythology, a female worshipper of Dionysus (aka "Bacchus" in Roman myth)
***Baiæ: a resort in southwest Italy containing hot sulfur springs, the area has a history of volcanic activity (hence the pumice)
****skiey: also, "skyey". Were I to write it, I might even go with "sky-ey". It's a way of turning the noun "sky" into an adjective.

First came the poem, and now the discussion. The poem is composed in five sections. Although it is called an ode, it is a collection of five sonnet-length stanzas written in terza rima, used to tell a single story. Terza rima has the following rhyme pattern: ABA BCB CDC DED EE. Some of Shelley's rhymes are slant rhymes now; whether they were perfect rhymes at his time I cannot say for certain, although I suspect not. Some look like rhymes "wear, fear, hear" (stanza 3) or "mankind, Wind, behind" (stanza 5), but that using words that look like rhymes but weren't was pretty standard practice in his day (and, indeed, through Victorian times as well).

Speaking of cheating: In order to keep his verse in iambic pentameter, Shelley found that he had to explicitly torture the pronunciation of the word "crystalline" in section 3, where the emPHASis is on the wrong syllAble: "crystàlline". (The occasional accent symbol in early poetry is used to show that a usually unstressed syllable is stressed, or that a syllable is articulated, as in stanza one's "wingèd". To be truthful, I added that accent in to make it clearer for today's readers, most of whom would never think to say "wing-ed" instead of "wing'd". But Shelley uses contractions throughout to show where not to pronounce the "-ed" because in his time, they were always "-eds" unless shown to be otherwise. Got it?)

This poem is a poem of address. The writer speaks to the West Wind. The capitalization of West Wind is not a random thing, but a deliberate choice. The poet is referring to Zephyrus or Zephyr, the ancient Greek god of the west wind, something that Shelley, schooled in the classics, would have well known. Zephyr is usually associated with summer breezes, which makes some of Shelley's attributions a departure.

The basic structure of the poem is three paragraphs of set up, or, if you like, of sucking up, in which the poet talks to the Wind and enumerates its power over the elements (earth, wind, fire and water), followed by a turn in the fourth stanza to a more personal relationship with the wind (with the injection of the word "I" into the poem), and in five, a payoff that takes the relationship deeper, a sort of "make me thine instrument" appeal, urging the wind to spread the poet's word and/or fame across the earth. If you've still got a few minutes, we'll look at it more closely. Again, I'll put the discussion of the poem behind a cut. Trust me, if you have time, you want to keep reading.

Discussion of stanza I
The focus in this stanza is on the West Wind's effect on the earth, knocking dead leaves off trees and blowing them around to decay above the seeds that will sprout in spring. Notice that alliteration in the first line? All those lovely Ws, including the one implied at the end of the first word? "O wild West Wind" makes 4 Ws to the ear, even if only three are on the page. Do me a favor. Start to read the first line, but stop right after the "O" and really focus on what your mouth is doing. I'll bet you look something like the image to the left, only maybe less fluffy.

The final couplet calls the West Wind "destroyer and preserver", summing up the dual nature of its actions in the fall: it pulls dead leaves from trees and blows them around, where the pile up and decay, but in so doing, it preserves the nascent life below it.

Discussion of stanza II
This stanza talks about the West Wind's effect in the air, namely, that he blows the clouds around. Much of the poem is a description of clouds, including the scientific formation of them (hence the reference to Heaven and Ocean) and their appearance (wispy, like strands of hair billowing out from a Bacchanalian reveller). The West Wind makes noise, as well, hence the reference to a dirge. Darkness of night time is compared to a domed sepulchre (tomb), in which the earth is sealed, and the stanza closes with references to the weather that is to come: rain, lightning and hail. But he doesn't say lightning, he says fire. To be honest, I think he was at a loss how to address a full stanza to the West Wind's effect on the fourth primal element, fire, so he mixed fire and air in the same stanza. (The four elements being, of course, earth, water, air, and fire. Can you guess what's next?)

Discussion of stanza III
The West Wind's effect on water is what he's talking about here. He claims that the West Wind is what woke the Mediterranean, and that the Wind has seen old cities, buried under the sea. In fact, some sources say that Roman ruins are visible beneath the waters at Baiae, so it may be those ruins and not Atlantis to which the poem refers. Then again, perhaps the Wind only sees the reflection of actual old cities on the surface of the water, as some interpretations say. But I think not. The stanza closes with a reference to the West Wind's effects on the Atlantic Ocean, most likely in the form of massive storms, given the closing lines.

Discussion of stanza IV
If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power . . .

Note the dramatic turn here. From three straight stanzas addressed to the West Wind and enumerating its power, the poem shifts its focus completely to the speaker, but in what I would argue is a wheedling sort of way. The poet says, in essence, "if only I could move around as the objects you move do," all the while asserting the greater, uncontrollable power of the West Wind. The speaker wishes he could be lighter (in the sense that he had fewer cares, as when he was a child), and then whinges a bit about how downtrodden he feels, noting that his address to the West Wind is, in fact, a prayer, and setting us up for the final stanza. (Bring it all home, now, Percy!)

Discussion of stanza V
Make me thy lyre sounds an awful lot like the opening of the famous prayer by St. Francis of Assisi, which reads, "Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace," does it not? It's interesting to note that now the speaker is really coming to the point after all that buttering up and scraping and bowing. The speaker is making a demand. On the one hand, he's asking the West Wind to use him as an instrument, but at the end of the day, what the speaker is really seeking is clear channel broadcasting, because he paints himself as a prophet with a message that he really wants everyone to hear, thereby giving hope to the masses.

I have to say that on first read, I thought the lines "Drive my dead thoughts over the universe/Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!" were a request to clear his muddled thoughts to make room for new ideas, but repeat readings have made me realize that's not it at all. He's saying "spread my written words (aka "dead thoughts") over the universe the same way you do withered leaves, so that the people who read them will benefit from them." Cocky much? You betcha. He wants everyone everywhere to hear his words, believing that they hold prophecy. But he doesn't want everyone to hear just any of his words. He is specifically referring to this poem, as he makes clear in the final line of the third tercet: "by the incantation of this verse".

Okay, Percy, tell us: what's the prophecy? What's so important that you had to suck up to the West Wind in order to get broadcasting rights? What can you, writing this poem in 1819, have to share? And there it is, his message to the world, in the final line:

O Wind, If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

What a lovely, resonant line, even if you don't know what was going on in 1819 and in the life of the poet at the time. And if you do, then you are free to speculate what he meant.

1. In June, 1819, Shelley's three-year old son William died of malaria in June of 1819 in Rome, throwing Mary Shelley into a deep depression.

2. In August, 1819, the Peterloo massacre occurred in Manchester, England. A cavalry brigade charged into a cloud made up of the "yeomenry", who had assembled peaceably in protest of the fact that Lancashire had only two MPs for over a million people, and seeking parliamentary reform. The crowd was extremely large, and is estimated to have been in excess of 60,000 people, including a large number of women who were active in reform groups. About a dozen or so people were killed, with several hundred injured (the exact number is unknown, since some of the injured hid their injuries for fear of further retribution from the authorities). Of 654 people known to be injured, 168 of them were women, some of whom later died from their injuries. The action was considered an outrage by the majority of the population, including those out of the country, as the Shelleys were. The government initially responded by imposing still further restrictions (the "Six Acts"), but eventually this event prompted many of the changes of its age.

Given that Shelley wrote verse specifically addressing his dismay over his son's death and over his wife's depression, and given that Shelley wrote politically oriented verses about his dismay over the Peterloo massacre, I am inclined to believe that this poem addresses, in fact, both events, and provides a beacon of hope to the speaker on a personal level, which he found so hopeful that he wanted to share it with the masses back in England, suffering in the aftermath of the massacre and under the additional impositions. His use of depressive imagery (like dead leaves) resonates in either case, and his choice of terms such as corpse, clarion, surge, comrade, cleave and trumpet as well as "the dying year, to which this closing night/Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre,/Vaulted with all thy congregated might" and the plants in stanza three that "grow grey with fear,/And tremble and despoil themselves" all point to Peterloo, in my opinion, although the double meaning of the phrase "the dying year" could cut both ways. (In that "the dying year" could be a label for this year, in which people died, as well as a description of the coming of the year's end.)

Here endeth the lesson. (Egad, but I went on and on, did I not?)

In the end, this poem is an ode to the West Wind, bringer of spring breezes, after all. Clever, clever Percy.

Today's round up is hosted by Jennie, "Beltway Bandit, Counterfeit Librarian, and Femme Fatale Extraordinaire". Click the button to get to the full list:

Friday, August 29, 2008

America - a Poetry Friday post

Today, I'm particularly proud to be an American. Watching Senator Barack Obama accept the Democratic party's nomination to be their candidate for President of the United States was a moving, historic moment. His speech was pitch-perfect, in my opinion. One of the 29 items (if Keith Oberman is to be believed) that he set forth was "equal pay for equal work" because "I want my daughters to have the same opportunities as your sons." The emphasis on personal responsibility and mutual responsibility, on rebuilding the United States' image and reclaiming its integrity at home and abroad, was truly inspiring, even as it was bolstered with practical and pragmatic expectations. I hope he succeeds in making this into a meaningful election, and not "a big election about small things." (Quotes here are from memory, having listened to the speech last night and again this morning, and may not be verbatim.)

This morning, Senator John McCain, presumptive nominee for the Republican party, selected Alaska's governor, Sarah Palin, as his vice-presidential nominee. She is not the first woman to be selected as a potential vice-president. Walter Mondale had Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate, after all. But come November, this country is going to see a major first regardless of which party wins the election.

I selected today's poem out of a renewed sense of patriotism, and hope that our country will eventually be truly a "centre of equal daughters, equal sons".

by Walt Whitman

Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear'd, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,
A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair'd in the adamant of Time.

You can listen to what is believed to be Walt Whitman's voice reading the first four lines of this poem at the Academy of American Poets.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

PIRATES - a book review

Today, I'm talking about pirates. Not talking like a pirate, although those of you who are so inclined will want to mark your calendars now because annual "Talk Like a Pirate" day is coming soon: it's September 19th, just like every other year. But I digress.

Pirates by David L. Harrison, illustrated by Dan Burr, is an interesting and pretty wonderful sort of poetry collection, and a really fabulous book to look at and hold. First off, the book is square (okay, it's within .4 inches of being square, which is close enough for me), which somehow makes this book feel far more "right" than it would have been as a rectangle (in either direction). The back cover of the book jacket features a skull and crossbones, the front features the lovely art you see here (which looks almost photographic, and very glamorously pirate-y), and the flaps include images of coins (pieces of eight, perhaps?) and pearls. The one thing missing from the front of this book and flap copy is any mention of this being a poetry collection, which I have to assume was a deliberate choice. (The flap copy at one point says "this collection", but it doesn't say it's a collection of poems. Even the "short title page" only reads "Pirates". The long title page says "Poems by David L. Harrison". I think the publishers were/are hoping to sell the book based on the subject and excellent package. I think that they were worried that if they said it was poems about pirates up front, folks might not open the book and be seduced by the artwork and actual poems, is what I think.)

Take a second to go to Dan Burr's website and look at some of the pirate art that's in the book. There are four spreads you can see by hovering over thumbnails, although I should note that the third one (with the title info) appears differently in the book. First, it lacks the author and illustrator info., and second, it's on a yellow background, and third, the font and coloring of the word "Pirates" is different. Here, however, is the artwork for the first poem in the book, "Pirate Nest". The Text is in white lettering over the smoke to the left on the painting.

The poem, "Pirate Nest" is in free verse, in four stanzas. Here are the first and last stanzas, so you get a feel for the tone of the book:

Times were hard for some men.
They slept in place
roaches would snub,
ate when they were able,
drank what they could.

  .   .   .

Men like that nursed
their bruises with their beer,
brooded, plotted revenge on life,
decided that dying as a pirate
was better than living

The poems begin and end on land. proceeding from "Pirate Nest" through "Signing on a Crew" and "Making Ready" to setting sail and everyday ship life with "Ship's Rules", "Another Day at Sea", "Table Talk" (bemoaning the lack of a cook), "Cat-O'-Nine-Tails" (with a chorus of "Unh!") to the actual act of pirating with "Sail in Sight!", "Through the Glass", "Coming for Your Gold", "Fog Attack". Then the book includes a poem about a particularly famous (and infamous) pirate, which kind of breaks the narrative arc that the poem flow had set up because it's about Blackbeard. The poem, "Blackbeard", works well as a poem, but up until now, you could have been following one particular pirate ship, and it seems odd to wait until you're 12 poems in to mention that he was the captain of the ship. Plus, Blackbeard isn't in any of the other poems or pictures in the book. So in a way, having "Blackbeard" the poem in the middle of the book kind of took me momentarily out of the "story" of the collection (what it was like to be a pirate or to be in the company of pirates) to focus on a particular individual (who Blackbeard was). And yet, if you were going to include a poem about Blackbeard (or any other pirate chief) in the book, this was the logical place to do so.

With the next poem, we're back to what pirates did with a rhyming poem in four stanzas entitled "What'll the King Say, Cap'n?" It's a poem in which a pirate addresses the captain of captured ship. Here are the first and third stanzas, so you get an idea of the poem (and how much fun it would be to read aloud in a menacing, taunting tone):

Excerpt from "What'll the King Say, Cap'n?"
by David L. Harrison

Nice and easy, Cap'n.
Do nothing ye'll regret.
We're helping ourselves to all your gold
and we're not finisihed yet.

  .   .   .

What'll the king say, Cap'n?
Seems ye lost his loot!
Seems ye lost your pistol, sir,
your knife and rings to boot.

Having claimed their loot, the pirates set ashore for a bit. The first thumbnail over at Dan Burr's page will show you the illustration that accompanies the next poem, "Trouble". I particularly like the farmer's pirate's tan on the guy in the foreground with the limes, who is wondering where the guys in the distance are off to with that chest. "Trouble" is followed by "Gentlemen on the Beach", in which a squabble has broken out. The art looks a bit like this, only with a completely different setting (trees instead of sky, flat horizon instead of the cool mountains):

If I'm completely honest, I like the image on Dan Burr's site better than the one in the book, because I like that vivid blue sky and the rocky islands or mountains in the backdrop, and I like that the guy on the left has his shirt untucked and that the captain has a pale vest. In the book, the guy on the left has a red sash around his waist and the captain's vest is red, too, plus it's a bit less photorealistic, if that's a word. But hey, I am certain the editors and book designers had their reasons for wanting the change. Moving on.

The next few poems include "Marooned" (a single man left alone), "On the Run" and "Last Battle" (about chase and battle with a British Navy ship), "Captured", and "Farewell" (one pirate's last words).

The book includes a prefatory page entitled "Warning! Pirates Ahead!" that clearly establishes that pirates were bad guys: "Real pirates robbed people. They looted and burned waterfront cities. They plundered ships, and people often died. Many books, movies, and plays make pirates seem like heroes. Real pirates were never heroes." The book also has a two-page spread following the final poem ("Farewell") entitled "Here's How it Was", written in first person plural and addressed to the reader. It provides additional information about pirate life and about the "glory days of pirates", which ended in the early 1700s, and about particular pirates, including Mary Read and Anne Bonny, Captain Kidd, Bartholomew Roberts and Captain Henry Every (the only major pirate captain to retire with his wealth and disappear).

The book includes a bibliography which consists entirely of adult titles, several of which are from university presses (including Harvard, Cambridge and Yale), which shows how seriously David Harrison took his research. It also has "A Note on the Making of the Book", which came about in a rather unusual manner. Dan Burr had long wanted to illustrate a book on pirates, and so it came to pass that the editor at Wordsong made the introduction and a collaboration began. Some poems started with a sketch from Dan, others with a poem by David in a back-and-forth exchange of ideas.

I was quite excited to see this title in the latest Boyds Mills Press catalogue when it arrived, particularly because I spotted it just after returning from the Real Pirates! exhibit at the Franklin Institute, which includes a lot of stuff salvaged from an actual pirate ship wreck. Based on what I learned at the museum, this book got most everything right (although the exhibit led me to believe that pirate fights over booty were not particularly common, even though it makes a great poem and spread for the book). And after receiving a copy of the book from BMP and reading it, I am more excited still because it is good. The poems are solid, the illustrations are phenomenal, the entire "package" looks and feels wonderful in one's hands. In fact, apart from my nitpicky comment about the fact that the good poem about Blackbeard kind of jolted me out of the overarching "life as a pirate" arc (which is, I admit, quite a nitpicky comment!), I've got nothing at all negative to say about this title.

Who needs this book:
1. Anyone interested in pirates, naturally.
2. Anyone who wants a poetry collection that will appeal to boys.
3. Libraries interested in nonfiction books about piracy, rather than more Captain Jack Sparrow books for the fiction shelves. And yeah, it's a poetry collection, so it probably gets an 811 number in most libraries, but its contents could just as easily go in 972 with the other books on pirates if it weren't a poetry book.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Human Seasons - a Poetry Friday post

Here in New Jersey, where I live, it is still summer. But lately, in the evenings or the early mornings, I can catch a whiff of Autumn in the air. Nights have been cooler lately, and the trees have been filling with their various fruits - maple helicopters and seed pods, crabapples and apples, ripening nuts. I got to thinking about the change of seasons, and how my preferences have changed. It used to be that Spring was my favorite, but for the past decade or so, it's been Autumn - I think it's for the "certain slant of light" that comes with the fall (with a nod to Miss Emily Dickinson for use of her term).

One of my favorite poems about Autumn is "To Autumn" by Keats (I am tempted to quote Hugh Grant's character from Bridget Jones's Diary, but I am resisting - only barely), but I shared it last October, so rather than repeating it, I took a look at some more of Keats's poems and decided to share "The Human Seasons", a Shakespearian sonnet which, I believe, hearkens directly to Shakespeare, and in particular to Jaques soliloquy in As You Like It, which I shared two weeks ago. Not that I can prove that Keats was writing his own version of the stages of life because he'd read Shakespeare, but the man definitely knew his plays (as evidenced by his sonnet, "On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again).

The Human Seasons
by John Keats

Four Seasons fill the measure of the year;
  There are four seasons in the mind of man:
He has his lusty Spring, when fancy clear
  Takes in all beauty with an easy span:
He has his Summer, when luxuriously
  Spring's honey'd cud of youthful thought he loves
To ruminate, and by such dreaming high
  Is nearest unto heaven: quiet coves
His soul has in its Autumn, when his wings
  He furleth close; contented so to look
On mists in idleness—to let fair things
  Pass by unheeded as a threshold brook.
He has his Winter too of pale misfeature,
Or else he would forego his mortal nature.

So, as it turns out, it's more about man and less about nature, and yet I find that suits my mood. This time of year always makes me more mindful of the connectedness between the two. Maybe it's because of the harvests coming in, or the way nature draws attention to itself as it prepares to change its clothes. Or maybe it's because the coming of the new school year (which does not arrive here until September) reminds me of the passage of time. Who can say?

Friday, August 15, 2008

The pantoum - a Poetry Friday post

Today, I want to talk about a particular form of poetry called the pantoum. The pantoum is an evocative form that originates in Malaysia. It involves a lot of repetition, since each line will repeat once in the poem. A pantoum can have as many stanzas as one likes. Each stanza holds four lines. Lines two and four of stanza one become lines one and three of stanza two, lines two and four of stanza two become lines one and three of stanza three, and so on, until the final stanza, in which line three of the first stanza of the poem is line two of that final stanza, and line one of the poem is the fourth line, and therefore the final line of the poem.

It can sound a bit complicated, but it's exceedingly simple when seen in practice. And today, I'm bringing you a marvelous pantoum by a poet named Peter Oresick (pronounced o-RES-ick), who kindly granted me permission to share his poem with you. The poem comes from a collection by Oresick published earlier this month by Carnegie Mellon University Press called Warhol-o-rama.

Andy Warhol for Familiar Quotations

by Peter Oresick

Andy Warhol said, Always leave them wanting less.
Being born, Warhol said, is like being kidnapped.
Everyone will be famous, Andy said, for 15 minutes.
I thought everyone was just kidding,
said Andy.

Being born, Andy Warhol said, is like being kidnapped.
Think rich,
said Warhol, look poor.
I thought everyone was just kidding,
said Andy.
Dying, Andy said, is the most embarrassing thing.

Think rich,
said Andy Warhol, look poor.
I am a deeply superficial man,
said Warhol.
Dying, Andy said, is the most embarrassing thing.
Andy said, I'd like my tombstone to be blank.

I am a deeply superficial man,
said Andy Warhol.
Fashions fade, Warhol said, but style is eternal.
Andy said, I'd like my tombstone to be blank.
Isn't life,
said Andy, a series of images that repeat?

Fashions fade,
Andy Warhol said, but style is eternal.
Everyone will be famous,
Warhol said, for 15 minutes.
Isn't life,
said Andy, a series of images that repeat?
Andy said, Always leave them wanting less.

Isn't life,
said Andy, a series of images that repeat?
Isn't life,
said Andy, a series of images that repeat?

Now, those last two lines don't actually fall within the pantoum, but are there for closure and effect. But if you look at all the four-line stanzas, you'll see how the form works, and, I think be amused and prompted to think along the way. Oresick did a brilliant job of assembling some of Warhol's quotes in a way that not only showcases them, but also forms a sort of narrative. I was impressed when I read this one in the August 6th "issue" of The Writer's Almanac, and the more I read it, the more I love it.

I myself have written a killer pantoum (in that it is both good and involves vampires), but I'm afraid I'm not ready to share it with you still. Hope springs eternal that I will eventually find a market and sell it. In the meantime, you'll have to take my word for it.

Those of you looking for a new form to try might want to give the pantoum a go. It works well for meditative sorts of poems and, like the villanelle, it also works well for obsessive topics.

The Round Up is over at Kelly H's place, Big A little a.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Mystery of the Fool & the Vanisher

One of the perks of this here blog is that sometimes, publishers send me advance copies of books. And today, I'm talking about one of them there ARCs that you simply must see and read to believe. And when I say that "you simply must see and read" it, I don't mean that you'd only believe it if you read it. I mean GO READ THE BOOK.

But really, first I ought to tell you why, and before telling you why, I should probably tell you a bit of the what. Also, I have to divulge my particular bias, which is in favor of the notion of fairies/pixies living in the barrows on the English Downs (a la Tolkien and Pratchett).

The what

The Mystery of the Fool & the Vanisher is a graphic novel, in which the graphics are composed of photographs by David Ellwand (some of people, some of objects, some of sketches). These aren't just any photographs. Some of them are from highly modern equipment, but a number of them are from very old processes involving glass. Some are even daguerrotypes, positive images made using silver and mercury. The front matter, located in the back of the book, bears this notation about the photos: "The photographs were created with magic and necromancy." Having seen the book, I believe it.

On the inner title page, the book bears this subtitle/legend: "Being an investigation into the life and disappearance of Isaac Wilde, artist and fairy seeker". The written text is split into three parts: the first is from "David Ellwand's personal journal with additional notes from his photographic notebook"; Part Two bears this subtitle -- "Being a complete transcript of the phonograph recordings of Isaac Wilde documented here alongside photographs of the contents of the wooden box"; and Part Three is the remainder of David Ellwand's personal journal.

Image of two-page spread from part I of the book

David Ellwand spins a story about a mysterious happening on the Downs of England, a land of flint and chalk and barrows, referenced by J.R.R. Tolkien as the Barrow Downs, and spoken of with humor and affection by Terry Pratchett in The Wee Free Men and its two sequels. While walking one day, Ellwand found a "devil's eye", a round piece of flint with a hole worn in the center, through which (as anyone who has read The Spiderwick Chronicles or seen the movie can attest) one can see fairies. Come to think of it, Gaiman borrowed that device in Coraline, but I digress. Returning to the area, Ellwand eventually found himself drawn to an old house, eventually finding a heavy wooden box, once the property of Isaac Wilde.

Ellwand documents the contents of the box, which include old wax phonograph recordings. With help, the phonograph recordings were salvaged and recorded to CD, then transcribed for inclusion in the book. Because of the use of photographic evidence and journalistic reporting techniques in the first part of the book, it is easy to allow oneself to believe that the contents of the book are true, which makes it particularly intriguing, in my opinion. The middle part of the book is a transcript of the recordings, accompanied by materials which are alleged to have been the finds and creations of the fictional Isaac Wilde, a photographer hired by a fictional Victorian-era archaeologist named Gibson Gayle to document an archaeological dig on the Downs. Wilde includes stories learned from some of the locals, who believe that pixies inhabit the mounds on the Downs (as the Nac Mac Feegle do in the Pratchett books). The pixies photographed by Wilde, however, dress more like Victorian gentlemen and less like the Celtic warriors in Pratchett's books.

It turns out the Gayle is a ne'er-do-well who belittles Wilde, and Wilde is a good guy who, through the use of his own devil's eyes, has seen the fairies inside the dig, and tries to get Gayle to leave the place (and the fae) alone. Rumor has it it's a bad idea to piss off the fairies. You'll have to read the book to see what can happen if one does.

Two-page spread from Part Two, with text and photographs by "Wilde"

The Why

The photographs in this book are genius, pure and simple. Not just the photos, but their carefully crafted subject matter as well. Want to see a photograph of a 7-inch suit of armor made of mussel and oyster shells? A splinter-sized sword made of fossils? A helmet made of a snail shell and some bird feet? How about a wooden mask with real teeth and devil's eyes? And I can't tell you what the final photograph in the body of the book is, but underneath the flap is something magical. You know you want to see it.

Plus, the history/mystery that is the core of the book is built up cleverly, with credibility carefully crafted from the nested narrative and the photographs. This one sucks you in, and doesn't let go. (It also doesn't take particularly long to read, if I'm being truthful, but that's neither here nor there, and it will take your average ten year old about an hour or so (I'm guessing) to get through it the first time. Whereupon I predict that your average ten year old will go back to an earlier point in the book for a second look and/or read.) References to ten-year olds are based on the publisher's recommendation on the back of the ARC. It's really designed for middle schoolers, although I'm pretty sure that some savvy younger-aged folks will be all over this one. (Jo Knowles's son, E, comes to mind.)

The Mystery of the Fool & the Vanisher will be on bookstores later this month, or in September at the latest. I hope you won't let it sit there for long.