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?
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.

Sadiq
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.