Monday, May 31, 2010

POETREES by Douglas Florian

Writing poems about trees is one tall order. So tall, in fact, that this book opens with the spine on top, and not to the left (in the same manner as Wabi Sabi by Mark Reibstein & Ed Young). The book contains 18 poems, and has all the bells and whistles that make me a happy girl: table of contents, glossary (entitled a "glossatree"), which provides facts about each of the poems in prose, along with a charming Author's Note ("Over the years those trees have grown taller and wider in girth, just as I have"). Best of all, it has page numbers. Page numbers (especially in conjunction with a table of contents) make me so happy, I can't even tell you.

There are poems about different species of trees - oak, coconut palm, baobab, sequoia and more - and poems about parts of the trees, like roots, bark, leaves and tree rings. The poems

The first poem, "The Seed" is a shape poem written in the form of an infinity symbol, accompanied by an illustration showing the inside of a seed.

"Inside this seed you'll find a stem and leaf that grow with rain
into a trunk and branch and leaf and seed that starts again."

The poems are a nice mix of rhymed couplets, doggerel, list poems, and cross-rhymed stanzas. They are playful and informative and, in some cases, lyrically lovely, and each of the poems is accompanied by a pice of Florian's artwork, which is a combination of painting and collage, as best I can tell.

To the left, you can see the two-page spread that is "Giant Sequoias". Here's the text (bolding from the original):

Giant Sequoias
by Douglas Florian

Ancient seers
Of three thousand years.
Heavenly high.
Friends to the sky.
Spongy thick bark.
Large as an ark.
Gargantuan girth.
Anchored in earth.
Grow by degrees
To world's tallest trees.
Never destroy a
Giant sequoia.
I bought my copy of this book at Children's Book World in Haverford. A must-buy for classrooms and libraries everywhere, and for people who have a thing for nature - especially trees.

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Saturday, May 29, 2010

TOUCH BLUE: Weekend reading and a bit of buzz

Having taken stock of how many Shakespeare plays I still need to read or re-read for next month, I have lots of reading to do this weekend: I am mid-way through Measure by Measure now, and enjoying it, although I cannot help but notice how very many of the puns and jokes the Folger Shakespeare editors let go by unacknowledged and unexplained. If you've read books like Filthy Shakespeare, which I mentioned last year, then at least some of them are obvious, but I'm gonna need to find a better commentary for this one. I have copies of The Taming of the Shrew, The Comedy of Errors, The Winter's Tale and Julius Caesar piled up and ready to go. And, of course, I've got non-Shakespeare and non-Austen books piled almost to my own height that I need to read.

That said, I did manage a bit of actual leisure reading earlier this week (extremely late one night/early one morning). I was lucky enough to have an ARC of Touch Blue, the forthcoming novel by my friend Cynthia Lord, and I really had to read it because I shared custody of it with Angela De Groot, and I know Angela has been chomping at the bit to read it.

The book officially comes out on August 1st, but I sure hope that it will sneak into stores early, because seriously, you want to read this one. And look at that lovely cover - you know you'd rather read it in the summer, right? Even more so when you realize that the book itself takes place in summer on one of the small islands off the coast of Maine, when Tess's family decides to take in a foster child in order to help "replace" the children who recently moved away from the island. You see, if there aren't enough kids to justify keeping the school open, more will happen than the school closing: the families with kids will all have to leave the island so the kids can attend school elsewhere (although in real life, I suppose home-schooling would be an option, albeit not one discussed in the book). And eleven-year old Tess sure doesn't want to leave the island she loves so much. But getting used to having a closed-off thirteen year-old foster brother may be too high a price to pay.

Cindy has again drafted a masterpiece. It's a book filled with superstitions ("Touch blue and your wish will come true") and suspicions and misconceptions and mis-starts. It is also full of love and hope and possibility, with humor and tears and just the right amount of luck, and with the sort of lyrical writing that makes the hearts of readers everywhere pitter-pat a bit more quickly. And Monopoly.

Absolutely not to be missed - and that's not something I say lightly. You'll thank me when awards season rolls around and you can say you've read it.

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Friday, May 28, 2010

It's almost June . . .

. . . and you know what that means. It's almost time for Brush Up Your Shakespeare Month. The icon and logo you see are the work of my friend Kevin Slattery, who is a genius of an artist. You can check out lots of his work at his website. (I'm the proud owner of prints featuring Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson and Virginia Wolfe, plus an original portrait of myself, along with coffee mugs and a tote bag . . . )

I am still fiddling with a schedule for the barrage of Bard-related posts in June, but I figured I'd give you fair warning what the first couple of days would look like. I'd post a full schedule for the month, but I regret to inform you that I don't have a complete clue how things will go. By Tuesday at the latest, I will have finalized the list of plays and the order in which they'll be covered. I'll post here about that as soon as I know it, but in the meantime, here's the list of plays I am for sure covering this month. There are eleven in all (that's right, this event goes to eleven!), and I've stuck them into categories below.

List of plays for Brush Up Your Shakespeare Month:
(N.B. - Plays with an asterisk were discussed last year as well)


Julius Caesar
Romeo & Juliet*


Henry IV, part I
Henry IV, part II


A Comedy of Errors
The Taming of the Shrew
A Midsummer Night's Dream*

Romances and/or "problem plays/mixed categories"

A Winter's Tale
Measure for Measure
The Tempest

I can promise that there will be contests! And special guests! And a dancing bear! (Okay, no dancing bear. But one of the plays has a stage direction involving a bear, so I'm not too far off.) And I can promise that we're easing into the month, if by "easing" one means "going over slightly familiar ground". Our first play, starting Tuesday, will be Hamlet, which we discussed last year. But since it's possibly the greatest piece of literature ever produced, I see no reason not talk about it again. And then, we'll move on to The Tempest, since I read it last month and am good to go on it. (Some of the other plays we're covering are re-reads for me, but The Tempest, Measure for Measure, A Comedy of Errors, and both parts of Henry IV are new material for me - and I haven't finished reading any of the other "new" plays yet. Guess what I'll be doing this weekend?)

So, a proposed schedule for the first (short) week of Brush Up Your Shakespeare Month looks like this:

Tuesday: An introduction and a complete list of plays to be covered will go up, along with the first post substantive post about the first play. I am figuring on opening with Hamlet. Yes. I know we covered it in last year's extravaganza. But I've seen two spectacular performances of the play in the interim, and it's on my mind, so that's where we'll be starting.

Wednesday: A bit of the Bard's poetry (as is pretty typical for a Wednesday here at Writing & Ruminating, plus additional Daneish posts

Thursday: Any Hamlet strings to be tied up, plus a summary of The Tempest

Friday: Still Tempestuous, hopefully with a guest appearance, and definitely with our first contest.

Yes, I've omitted the weekend. Because I remain uncertain what's next. I'll sort it out, however, before we get there. Meanwhile, should you be so inclined, you can grab a play or two for this month. And/or you can grab movie versions of some of the plays, or, if you're very lucky, catch your local theatre group's (or ballet's) production of one of the Bard's works.

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Process: a Poetry Friday post

About a month ago, I heard Billy Collins read some of his poetry at the Free Library in Philadelphia. It's the second time I've heard Collins read in person, although I've heard other of his poems online - he is on NPR, and all over YouTube, for example. I happen to like his poems, and I definitely like how he reads them. After his reading, Collins took some questions - and I took some notes. I thought today I'd share a couple of them with you as part of a discussion about process.

One person asked "How do you know when a poem is done?" Collins first replied with this quote: "In order to be a great painter, you need two people: one to paint the painting and another to cut that guy's hands off." He went on to say (I'm paraphrasing) that he always feels like his poems are moving: he starts somewhere and is moving toward somewhere else. But because he feels that sense of forward motion, he starts to feel a sense of arrival when he gets near the conclusion. "The more of a forward roll and a sense of direction you have, the more of a sense you'll get that it's reached its end." And then he said that he likes "to start in Kansas and end in Oz."

Another asked him about his work habits. Here are three quotes drawn from his answer:

"I have no work habits."

"I don't sit down unless I have a little something to write about."

"I don't sit down to write – I walk around to write. The act of writing is always stimulated by an observation or a phrase."
Collins said that for a while, he got in the habit of jotting a word or a phrase at the top of a page, then writing a poem from there, just to keep in practice, which is how his poem "Hippos on Holiday", found in his latest collection, Ballistics, came about.

Which brings me to my own process

As most of my readers know by now, I'm extremely close to finishing my three-year opus, a biography of Jane Austen in verse using period forms. I do not, however, only write in forms that were popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries; I also write using more recent forms (say, the villanelle, which entered the English language during the Victorian era) and in free verse, which wasn't "invented" until nearly the 20th century. My other, non-Jane, poems are a mix - some for kids, some for adults, some in free verse, some in rhyme.

But I've found that in the past few years, many of my poems come from specific prompts. I don't usually scribble a word or phrase at the top of the page, à la Billy Collins, but I have written a significant number of poems as a result of topics pulled out of The Write-Brain Workbook: 366 Exercises to Liberate Your Writing by Bonnie Neubauer. (You can read "The Scar", "The Giraffe Pen on Thursday, at noon", and "Dear Dolores".) At a conference I attended, Bonnie handed out a pocket-sized "story generator" consisting of columns of words. The idea was to pull three at random, then write a story using all three - I chose to write a poem, of course. My three words were Alps, broccoli, and apology, and I wrote a poem that I now call "Stagnant", but which I once shared before it had a title. (If you're interested in Bonnie's stuff, check out Bonnie's website, where she has a "free sample" of her book, plus information on her Story Spinner (another idea-generating device), as well as an online Story Spinner and other freebies.)

Like Collins, for me, it's an idea or a phrase that gets me started. Specific prompts often work that way, but so do the occasional found notion or phrase. For instance, I recently wrote a free-verse poem entitled "These Notions of Pending Delight" after my friend Tiffany Trent () used that phrase in oe of her blog posts, because the phrase resonated with me. I won't be sharing it here today (although Tiffany has seen it), since it's out on submission. I've written poems based on visual images before, too - not always ekphrastic poems (poems based on an image that tell the story the image inspires), but sometimes - as with "La Belle Dame Sans Regrets". Laura Purdie Salas posts visual prompts nearly every Thursday at her blog, seeing poems of 15 words or less, but one can always write longer.

The point is, I suppose, that when it comes to poetry, it is always possible to find something to write about. You just have to pick a prompt and go with it. Sometimes it results in a crappy poem you don't care about, but many times, it turns into something you can use. Here - I'll share the prompt I'm working on for the "assignment" I have to share with Angela De Groot () next Thursday as part of our weekly writing exercise/creative stretch: Write a story/poem from the point of view of a character from a book or movie, who is writing a letter to their dead mother. That prompt came from another poet, by the way.

Yeah . . . I haven't picked my character yet, but I've been giving it lots of thought. If you decide to write along with us, I hope you'll let me know.

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Tiny Tyrant Volume Two: The Lucky Winner

Today, a short review of Tiny Tyrant (Volume Two: The Lucky Winner) by Lewis Trondheim, illustrated by Fabrice Parme, a copy of which was sent to me for review purposes by the good folks at First Second Books (who put out some of my very favorite graphic novels - I say it because it's true, not because they send me the occasional review copy).

I have to confess to not having read Volume One: The Ethelbertosaurus before reading Tiny Tyrant: Volume Two: The Lucky Winner. I do not believe I missed out on the premise – which involves a very young, and very spoiled, King Ethelbert lording it over his subjects with humorous consequences – but I am sure I missed more of a good time. But I digress.

Tiny Tyrant (Volume Two: The Lucky Winner) takes place in the kingdom of Portocristo, where the diminutive King Ethelbert tries to ensure he comes out on top in all occasions. He manages to woo Princess Hildegardina; declares himself the winner of all contests or competitions; undertakes an investigation into the unlawful use of his image; vies for his inheritance with his equally awful cousin, Sigismund; orders everything in the kingdom resized for his convenience; and pens his autobiography.

Of course, none of these things go smoothly. His chef, unhappy at wasting so much food, gets back at Ethelbert with the cunning use of a remote headset. He finds the luxury vacation he swiped from a "peasant" game-show contestant unsatisfactory. For instance, there's the issue of having to share things, like hotel pools and airplanes:

And of course, Ethelbert sees no problem with the criminals appropriating his image, since he likes the look of the toys they produce. The episode involving a possible inheritance from a not-quite-dead aunt is hilarious, and comes close to teaching Ethelbert and his cousin Sigismund a lesson, which might best be states as "relatives aren't always as good or bad as you'd think." He bends everything (and everyone) out of shape with his size-ray; and makes a complete hash of things in an attempt to perform feats worthy of writing about for his autobiography, which begins, as all good stories do, in the library:

Speaking of libraries, might I suggest that you add this one to your own library, or at least make sure your local public library has a copy? Because I guarantee you that kids love this one. Not just my two teens, either, both of whom thought this was hilarious - and neither of whom are huge fans of graphic novels as a whole (although S tends to like them more than M in general).

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare

A lovely sonnet, followed by a video offering two aural interpretations of the poem: one by Daniel Radcliffe, the other by the incomparable Alan Rickman. (I could listen to that man read the phone book. And even his recitation of the phone book would probably require a change of knickers.)

Sonnet 130
by William Shakespeare

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
  And yet, by heav'n, I think my love as rare
  As any she belied with false compare.

Form: Shakespearean sonnet, of course. You probably know the drill by now, but it's a sonnet written in iambic pentameter (five iambs per line, taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM), and using the following rhyme scheme: ABABCDCDEFEFGG. The "turn", or volta, in a Shakespearean sonnet typically occurs in line 9, with a slightly further turning in the closing couplet. In this particular poem, the only true turn is in the final couplet: "And yet, by heav'n, I think my love as rare/As any she belied with false compare."

Discussion: Shakespeare is making a mockery of the overly florid "courtly" sonnets popular in the 1590s. It was de rigeur at the time to compare beauty to flowers and goddesses and the like. The comparison of one's breath to perfume was quite common as well, which had to be a bold-faced lie in most instances, what with the (recent at that time) penchant for sugar and the complete lack of dental hygiene - so bad, in fact, that Queen Elizabeth's teeth were blackened by rot. "Fashionable" women then blackened their own teeth, even if they were healthy, in order to pay homage to the "fashion" set by the Queen (who, in the end, had all or nearly all of her teeth extracted, after which she padded the inside of her mouth with cotton when in public to avoid the sunken-in cheeks that followed her toothlessness). But I digress.

Here, Shakespeare notes what the conventions are: to say that eyes are like the sun, lips like coral, breath like perfume, skin as white as snow with cheeks red as roses, a voice like music, a manner of walking that was more like floating. He then slashes straight through them, saying that if those are the ideals, then by comparison, the woman he's writing about (the Dark Lady, called so in part because of her "black" hair) is a complete failure.

The true turn comes in that final couplet, in which he asserts that the woman he writes of is more rare than any woman he might write lies about.

This piece was probably one of the "sweet sonnets" referenced by Meres as being familiar in company. Knowing that the Bard was an actor, I rather expect that rather than any sort of sweet or serious delivery, this was a comedic performance piece. That does not, however, diminish its power over time. I thereby give you two earnest readings of this poem from two Harry Potter stars: Daniel Radcliffe and Alan Rickman.

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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Instructions by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Charles Vess

Today, a quickish review of Instructions, the latest picture book by Neil Gaiman, with illustrations done by Charles Vess, who did the wonderful work on Blueberry Girl. This book is decidedly something I would have read to my children when they were young - perhaps after reading one of their other favorites, Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe, which uses some of the fairy tale conventions found within this set of instructions. But it is entirely appropriate for adults, too - a picture book for all ages.

Longtime readers may recall that I posted an excerpt from this poem last August, along with video of Neil Gaiman reading the poem. (He is, as always, a most excellent reader.) What I may not have told you is that earlier this year, I began a new commonplace book, and the very first thing I copied into it was this poem, which I adore. Not just because I wish I'd written it - although that, of course, doesn't hurt - but because it is an inspired, inspirational piece of writing. On the surface, it is a poem containing just what it says: instructions. On its face, these instructions are there to help one navigate through a fairy tale sort of world, and it includes tips like "Trust the wolves, but do not tell them where you are going" and "If an eagle gives you a feather, keep it safe." It contains, of course, so much more, since so many of the instructions apply in the real world (or should). Such as:

if any creature tells you that it hungers,
feed it.

If it tells you that it is dirty,
clean it.

If it cries to you that it hurts,
if you can,
ease its pain.
And in the middle is excellent advice for writers, whether that is precisely what Mr. Gaiman intended it to be or not:

Do not be jealous of your sister:
know that diamonds and roses
are as uncomfortable when they tumble from one's lips as toads and frogs:
colder, too, and sharper, and they cut.

Remember your name.

Do not lose hope--
What you seek will be found.

Trust ghosts.
Trust those that you have helped to help you in your turn.

Trust dreams.

Trust your heart,
and trust your story.
Long story short? You need this book. Or someone you know and love does. A writer, perhaps. Or a graduate.

Physically, this book is lovely. It is a small size, for a picture book, roughly 7-1/2" wide x 8" high in size, and it contains 40 pages, all of them covered with Vess's art. The illustrations capture the magic and adventure of a fairy tale world. And since I'd love for you to see and hear this book as soon as possible, I've added the book trailer for this book below - which features a complete reading of the text by Neil Gaiman, along with semi-animated images of the illustrations (including some that move from sketch to completed artwork before your eyes):

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Monday, May 24, 2010

The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy)

Today, a review of The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy) by Barbara Kerley, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham. I picked this one up at Children's Book World in Haverford, PA, when I met Jennifer Hubbard () for a play date. That's right, we meet up at an independent children's book store no where near our actual homes to shop, talk books, and grab a bite at the café across the parking lot. But I digress.

This book earned starred reviews at School Library Journal, Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, and I can tell you why: it rocks, plain and simple. Hmm, where to start.

I think I'll begin with the subtitle, and tell you that this book is based in large part on the observations of Susy Clemens, the daughter of Samuel (a.k.a. Mark Twain), who wrote her own biography of her father when she was 13 years old. Barbara Kerley found that information and followed it to its natural conclusion: a book about Susy writing the biography of her father. It's the perfect sort of biography, really, because it is a biography of a biographer and her subject all at the same time: a child's-eye view of Twain from a person who knew him best. And when Susy's father cottoned on to what she was up to, he made comments just to help her along with her biography. About Susy as a biographer, Clemens said: "This is a frank biographer and and honest one; she uses no sandpaper on me."

I'm going to skip next to one of the things reviewers don't often talk about explicitly (unless it's a pop-up book), and that's book design. Moreover, I'm going to start with dimensions, so that you'll understand what the weird little device is in this book that works so very well. The pages measure 8-1/2 x 12, which means that the book cover is slightly larger in each dimension. But every few pages, there's a two-page insert that measures only 4-1/2 x 5-1/2, which is an excerpt from Susy's Journal. The "cover" says "Journal", the inside two-page spread is an excerpt from Susy's actual journal using LinotypeZapfino One, a sort of semi-script printing that preserves Susy's exact words and spellings (even when they're a bit "off"). There are eleven journal inserts in all, which add so much information and character and charm to this book. Here's the text from the last one in the book:

The other day mamma went into the library and found papa sitting there reading a book, and roaring with laughter over it; she asked him what he was reading, he answered that he hadn't stopped to look at the title of the book . . . she glanced over his shoulder at the cover, and found it was one of his own books.
Susy told it like she saw it, and it adds so much dimension to the real Samuel Clemens - as does the way Kerley weaves additional quotes into the main text, relating details in a cogent, coherent way - that the book is a delight.

Further contributing to the delight are the marvelous illustrations by Edwin Fotheringham, whose work on last year's Mermaid Queen, by __, I raved about. Here's the first two-page spread from the text, which establishes the set-up of the book and what inspired Susy to write her father's biography in the first place.

Kersey notes that Susy documented both Twain's public life and Clemens's private life. She talked about his early years ("Papa was born in Misouri . . . And we know papa played "Hookey" all the time and how readily would papa have pretended to be dying so as not to have to go to school!"), his speaking engagements, his books - and her opinions on them ("She loved The Prince and the Pauper for its 'lovely, charming ideas' and beautiful language.") - and she wrote of their home life, and what Clemens was like in private. That included, of course, his writing habits:

I adore almost everything about this book: The text, the design, and the illustrations I've already discussed. But the book includes a phenomenal Author's Note at the end, which provides information on Twain and on Susy Clemens, who died of spinal meningitis at the age of 24. As the Author's Note says (grab a tissue - you've been warned):

For the rest of Twain's life, he treasured the biography, misspellings and all . . . The loss of Susy [] may have been the hardest for Twain to bear. After her death, he wrote to a friend, "I did not know that she could go away and take our lives with her, yet leave our dull bodies behind. . . . My fortune is gone, I am a pauper."
Kerley also provides a guide to "Writing an Extraordinary Biography", which offers tips to children who wish to write a biography. It's not only available in the book, but also on Kerley's website. The final page in the book (which would ordinarily have been an endpaper, but they used every inch of this book, so there's actual content printed inside the back cover!) contains "A Selected Time Line of Mark Twain's Life" and a family photograph (along with dedications, copyright info, etc.), and the inside of the back cover provides a bibliography of sorts - a list of "Sources" for every single quote contained in the book, including the author's note.

My one quibble with this book (and longtime readers won't be shocked to hear it) is that the book lacks page numbers - something that's particularly troubling when the "Source" list at the back of the book references the pages by number. It wouldn't have been hard to add them to the book, and it would help to sort that out more quickly. *shakes fist at editors and book designers over this picayune point*

You can see a few more spreads from inside this book at Edwin Fotheringham's website (select "Children's Books" from the left-side menu, then scroll through. You can embiggen any of the images by clicking on them after you select them.) And here's a link to the New York Times review of this book, if'n you're interested.

You can find other Nonfiction Monday reviews by clicking the box below:

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Friday, May 21, 2010

Everybody was a baby once: a Poetry Friday book review

Today, a quick review of Everybody was a baby once: and other poems by Allan Ahlberg and Bruce Ingman. My review copy was sent to me by the kind folks at Candlewick Press, who published it earlier this year.

Do not let the title fool you. This is not a collection of poems about babies; it is instead a collection of poems perfect for the preschool and elementary school set.

I am extremely fond of the poem that forms the Introduction to this collection, which precedes even the title pages:

I hear its whirring engine
Glimpse its dipping wing
Against the sun-filled cloudless sky
Of early evening

A little flying poem
That circles down to land
On the runway in my head
And the page beneath my hand.
This collection of rhyming poems in various forms contains mostly short poems – some as short as a couplet, some taking a handful of short stanzas. The illustrations help the text along, and in at least one case ("The Summer Snowmen"), a wordless two-page spread cleverly stands in for the last word of the poem.

Here's an inside spread, featuring a poem about people who are "Dangerous to Know":

Fans of soccer (or, if you live outside the U.S., of football) will enjoy the multiple references to soccer games, including "Soccer Sonnet", "Cinderella", "Elephants vs. Insects" and "The Ping-Pong Song".

I enjoyed the playfulness of the rhymes in this collection, which is roughly bookended by "Monday is Washday" and "Friday is Fishday", both of which follow the same playful structure and end with a rather loud chorus of "___DAY IS ___DAY IN OUR TOWN!"

While the back of the book indicates that the book is for "the very young" and says it's good for "ages 2 and up", I tend to think that some of the poems might not make sense to the younger toddlers in the room based on situations and some rather sophisticated wordplay. It's a reason NOT to read the book to the younger kids, who will, I'm certain, enjoy hearing them nevertheless, but I see this as for the preschool to early elementary set, if I'm being honest. (And really, you wouldn't want me lying about that, would you?)

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Summer Blog Blast Tour with Lisa Mantchev

Today, I'm lucky to be chatting with Lisa Mantchev, the author of Eyes Like Stars and the forthcoming novel, Perchance to Dream, both set in the world of the Théâtre Illuminata, a magical theatre inside which dwell all the characters of all the plays ever written. I am madly in love with the characters in these novels, as you can tell from last year's review of Eyes Like Stars and my recent review of Perchance to Dream, on which I jumped the gun a wee bit, since the actual release date of Perchance to Dream is Tuesday, May 25th. Those of you who like contests or cupcakes (or contests involving cupcakes - and you know who you are!) will want to head over to Lisa's blog, where she is running "The Great Cupcakeathon", a fun contest involving fabulous prizes to celebrate the upcoming release of Perchance to Dream.

1. Which came first, the Théâtre Illuminata or Beatrice Shakespeare Smith?

Bertie traipsed in first... it all started with her full name, and the line about the fairies flying around her on wires. I think I was somewhere in the vicinity of my dining room table at the time, working on a (different) short story project.

2. Your first novel, Eyes Like Stars, is one of those that seems a bit difficult to assign to a particular box. Do you consider it fantasy? steampunk? a mystery? adventure? romance? Does it matter that it can't be easily labeled? Was your mixture of all those things and more (including theatre references in general and Shakespeare in particular) a goal when you started, or something that evolved as you went along?

Looking back at my short fiction, I think ELS continues with my signature mixture of fantasy, magic realism, whimsy and--always--elaborate costuming. Certainly there are elements of a mystery (the identity of Bertie's mother) and romance (the love triangle between Bertie and the boys) but I never set out to make conscious decisions about such things. Maybe I should... it might save me some rewriting later on.

As for the theater and Shakespeare angle, I think when I sat down to write My First Novel, I knew in the back of my mind that the adage about writing what you know would hold particularly true when jumping from short to long fiction. An incredible amount of research goes into any novel... the more I knew without resorting to Google on that first book, the better!

3. So, as a follow-up to that answer, tell me a bit about your own theatre background.

I started doing community theater when I was seven... we got a call from one of the other parents at my school, who directed the local musicals, asking my mom if she'd bring me down to the theater to audition for South Pacific. She left a half-crimped pie crust on the kitchen counter to take me (hence the acknowledgment in ELS!)

After that, I did shows like Peter Pan and Beauty & The Beast, performed in The Nutcracker with my ballet class, and started auditioning for non-musicals with the local playhouse. I started writing scripts for school plays in the fourth grade, directed and produced one of my full-length scripts when I was sixteen, then got a scholarship to study Drama at the University of CA, Irvine.

During college, I spent a lot of time focused on the technical aspects of the productions (which is what happens when nerves get the best of you and you don't get cast in shows!) and my senior year I started writing plays again. I did one more community theater production after we moved to Washington state, then transitioned completely to fiction writing.

4. The second book, Perchance to Dream, remains equally difficult to label. It follows the adventures of Bertie, Ariel, and the four fairies from A Midsummer Night's Dream on their quest to rescue Nate from the Sea Goddess. Just as the Théâtre seems to collect characters from all the plays ever written, your stories seem to collect characters from many cultures. My meager knowledge of German tells me that the character Waschbär is named after the German word for "raccoon". The Sea Queen, Sedna, comes from a Native American legend (specifically, from the Inuit people). The Scrimshander is a character whose name comes from the term for people who make scrimshaw (particularly meaningful, given what Bertie wears around her neck); but his characteristics are those of a birdman, which could be drawn from any number of culture's myths and legends.

Was the inclusion of characters from so many different ethnic or cultural backgrounds an intentional choice from the start, or something that evolved as you wrote?

A little of both. With ELS, I wanted to strengthen and deepen the character of the Sea Witch (from The Little Mermaid) by also making her Sedna, the Sea Goddess of Inuit legend. Various incarnations of her story are told throughout the Arctic circle, but I chose to focus on the version in which she—as a young princess—fell in love with and ran away to be with a fulmar, a bird. Then the medallion that Nate gave Bertie (previously drafted as a gold disk) became a piece of scrimshaw... so appropriate, as they were often carved by sailors during their months at sea, and also an art form I'd read online that Native Americans such as the Inuits were carving as early as 100 to 200 AD.

Waschbär is indeed my raccoon-man character and this came about when I was researching the various totem animals in Native American legends. Raccoons are wily and mischievous, and their masks conceal many secrets. I went hunting through various languages for a name that meant "raccoon" because I adore giving characters names that have a particular meaning and ended up in Germany... fitting because I'd studied the playwrights Brecht and Goethe extensively in college.

There's also the Innamorati circus troupe to consider, if we're speaking about international influences... they are most certainly an amalgam of the Italian commedia dell'arte tradition and the French-Canadian Cirque du Soleil.

I guess the short answer is: the more cultures, the merrier.

5. The leading men in the books are interesting choices: Why Ariel from The Tempest? And why Nate from The Little Mermaid? Did your choice of men representing the elements of air and water have anything to do with Bertie's own elemental composition or parentage (about which I will say no more just now)?

Ariel was most certainly a deliberate choice, due to the character's innate desire for freedom. It was intriguing also because the character doesn't have a identified gender in the original manuscript (Shakespeare only calls Ariel "an airy spirit" in the text) and it gave me quite a lot of leeway to turn him into who/what I wanted him to be... little did I realize I would find him nearly as exasperating as Bertie, because his voice is incredibly difficult for me to write.

As for making Nate a pirate... He showed up with that accent and his earring and his boots, and I was also having far too much fun typing him up to rewrite him as someone else!

Their elemental representations were not deliberate; by the second book, I spent a lot of time boggling how many puzzle pieces fit together by luck and happenstance (or my brilliant hindbrain. :P)

6. Beatrice Shakespeare Smith is quite an interesting character. I particularly admire how both books have been (in different ways) about Beatrice's struggle to learn her identity, which continues to evolve. In Eyes Like Stars, she learns the identity of her birth mother; in Perchance to Dream, the identity of her birth father, but it's clear that neither of those things completely define Beatrice. In Eyes Like Stars, Bertie comes to realize that she has her own magical power, which she attempts to define and control in Perchance to Dream with somewhat mixed results. In the second book in particular, there's a third level of personal exploration, however, involving Bertie struggling to find out who she is on her own, leading men be damned. (Boy, do I love that, by the by! It's a refreshing change from those YA fantasy books in which a female main character struggles to define herself only in reference to a particular boy – and yes, I'm talking about the Twilight series here, although it's not alone in doing that.)

Um, I know I have a question here – I started to run afield into fangirlness, didn't I? Ah – the question: Is your decision to establish Bertie as her own person, separate and apart from anyone else, in any way a reaction to those books where the heroine seems to "lose" herself in a relationship? Why or why not? (Man, Lis, this is kind of a crap question – I really want to figure out, though, whether feminism is in play here, and to what extent. Can you save me from my own inept question with a terrific answer?)

[[I totally get the question here... maybe you want to just start with "Is feminism in play with your novels" or somesuch and then explain a little about how it's mostly Bertie's story?]]

I think I did have a gut reaction to a few other books (and movies, and magazines, and TV shows, and commercials!) on the market, as a writer and as a woman and as a mother of a young girl. About mid-way through writing the first book, it became more important to me that Bertie make her own decisions--even if they have unexpected or negative outcomes--and that her definition of self did not entirely rely on her relationships with others. She's in a unique position to do that, actually, with the utter lack of blood family about her and a rebellious streak that means she's willing and able to test those around her on a near-constant basis.

Upon reflection, I thought about myself at that age, and what my daughter might be like at that age, and handed Bertie as much courage and stubbornness and sense-of-self as I could, then expressed it through Mrs. Edith's line about naming Bertie after Much Ado About Nothing's Beatrice:

"...of all Shakespeare's heroines, she best speaks her mind and is put upon by no one. Perhaps the name will gift that strength of spirit upon you."
7. Thus far, what I know about the final book in the trilogy is that we will again see Bertie, the fairies, Ariel and Nate, and that there is a turtle somewhere in the book. What, if anything, else can you tell us about the third book in the Théâtre Illuminata series?

A turtle?! *wonders what I've said on LiveJournal or Twitter to allude to such a thing* I do have a random turtle, but he's currently wandering through my steampunk novel, trying to decide if he's going to stay put or not.

Let's see... I'm currently revising the third book, which is tentatively titled So Silver Bright. It's the first title of the series not pulled from Hamlet. This one is from King John.

King John? Does anyone actually read that play?

I sure as heck didn't. I used an online search function to find a three-word Shakespearean quote with "silver" in it. (Other search words for Book 3 included "mirror" and "glass"...)

Their armours, that march'd hence so silver-bright,
Hither return all gilt with Frenchmen's blood.
Sounds really ominous, no? There's more Bertie needs to cope with, as far as her parents go, a recurring theme of masks, revisiting some of the Alice in Wonderland imagery, and a punch-you-in-the-guts ending, if I do it correctly.

8. In addition to the Théâtre Illuminata series, you've written quite a lot of published short stories for the grown-up market. Do you have a favorite among them? What advice do you have for aspiring short story writers? Do you foresee writing short stories for the YA market?

I think one of my absolute favorites is called "The Girl With Blueberry Eyes", which was published some time ago in Fantasy Magazine, and which I would dearly love to turn into a picture book. And I would love to write some short fiction for the YA market, although most of what I see published in that format is in invitation-only anthologies.

My best advice for ANY kind of writer is that you need to treat it like a job... put in the hours, behave professionally online and at conferences and conventions, try to learn a new bit of craft or technique with every new project you undertake. Read everything that's out there, in your genre and out.

9. What's next?

I have my contract for the three theater books, and I'm currently percolating a Tiny Doom (baby) who is due in August, which seems like more than enough on my plate at the moment. I also have a YA alt-history Retrofuturist NeoVictorian novel beckoning to me from the wings!

Speed Round:

Cheese or chocolate?
I'm pregnant, I get both! You can't force me to choose!

Coffee or tea (if you weren't carrying a Tiny Doom just now)? Nine times out of ten, coffee, although I just got a lovely tin of Mango Ceylon for Mother's Day.

Cats or dogs? We have inside dogs and outside cats. Also an inside rabbit and an inside fish. [KRF: Whimsy, Lisa's Very Fuzzy Bunny is pictured to the right]

Favorite color? To wear: black. To decorate with: blue or brown. Hair dye: burgundy!

Favorite snack food? Crunchy nibbles like popcorn or crackers, unless you're offering me a personal chef, then I want hot canapés that ooze cheese and raspberry compote, or somesuch.

Favorite ice cream? Homemade vanilla (cranked out on the porch at my Grandma's house, preferably.)

Water or soda? I'm supposed to say water, aren't I???

What's in your CD player/on iTunes right now? Absolutely nothing... I've needed a lot of quiet lately.

What's the last movie you memorized lines from? I was actually repeating quotable bits from the new season of Doctor Who. "You're not scared of anything! Box falls out of the sky, man falls out of a box, man eats fish custard, and look at you!" and "You're Scottish, fry something!" and "Beans are evil. Bad, bad beans."

Other stops on the SBBT:

Matthew Reinhart, pop-up architect extraordinaire, at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast

Jenny Boylan, author of Falcon Quinn and the Black Mirror at Fuse #8

Tara Kelly, author of Harmonic Feedback, at Shaken & Stirred

Donna Freitas, author of This Gorgeous Game, at Bildungsroman

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Summer Blog Blast Tour 2010 Day 3

I hope you all got a chance to read my interview with Jennifer Hubbard (aka ), which I posted yesterday as part of the SBBT (Summer Blog Blast Tour), in which we talked about her debut novel, The Secret Year, short stories and Music and Lyrics. Tomorrow I'm excited to run my interview with Lisa Mantchev, author of Eyes Like Stars and the forthcoming (next week!) Perchance to Dream. Meanwhile, I suppose we ought to live in the moment, which is why I'm giving you the links to today's stops on the SBBT:

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

My poetry reading last night

As promised, a bit about my reading last night.

The reading took place at the Barnes & Noble in Marlton, New Jersey. I'd been invited by the host of the monthly "Poetry in the Round" series to read for a half an hour, following which there was an open reading, which means (for those unfamiliar with poetry readings, which is most people I know) that people can sign up to read their own poems in front of the assembled group. The number and length of poems is usually specified by the host, and is based on an idea of how many readers there are and how much time they have available. Anyhow, when I visited the store yesterday morning, in addition to the Big Sign at the front of the store, there was a small sign in the area where they set up for the readings. Can you see it on that far wall, past the auspiciously placed Jane Austen table? No?

How about now?

The empty space you see in the above photo actually was filled in with 21 folding chairs set up by the store - four rows of 5, plus one chair pulled to the side up front by the loudspeaker where Barney, our fearless leader, presides. When I got arrived with the kids at 7:10, who were guilted into attending were thrilled to attend, nobody else was there. By the time the reading started, however, there were 13 people in the rows of chairs - and I knew every single one of them. In addition to the kids, my husband and mother-in-law were there, along with several good friends: Heather, who was in a critique group with me a few years back and is writing a sci-fi novel; three friends I've made through the Jane Austen Society of North America - one of whom drove an hour from southern PA to be there; friends Lisa and Barb; local poet friends B.J. (whom I hadn't seen out in a few months) and Bruce Niedt, whom I've posted about before; and, to my delighted surprise, Dan Maguire, who drove all the way from Baltimore for my reading (a two-hour drive if you're speeding). Dan is an exceptional poet, about whom I've posted twice before, including a post with his spectacular poem, "The Lateness of the Day". The poets in the group were impressed with the turnout of pure audience members (as opposed to folks who were there to read their own work).

Barney kindly introduced me, and I started the reading. S was kind enough to take some pictures for me. Of course, she preferred to take them when I wasn't looking, which means that I'm looking at my page in this one, but hey, them's the breaks sometimes. I opened with the five-line poem that won third place in the Writer's Digest Poetry Contest, "Inside the New Mall", then read a few more of my regular adult poems before reading five of the poems from my biography of Jane Austen in verse using period forms, since I knew for a fact that the women from JASNA were hoping to hear some of them. I started with the first poem in the collection - a poem in blank verse based on a letter that amounts to Jane's birth announcement, which I've shared before. The Jane poems went down well across the board (I could tell by the happy-making yet indescribable murmur/hum that greeted the endings on two of them that they had made an impact, which was sososo fulfilling). I was happy that the Jane project went over well, only I have a wee confession to make. In error during last night's introduction, I said I had 172 of the Jane poems done, which meant that when I wrote a new poem today and added it to my Tables of Contents (one to print in Word, one that has lots more info in Excel), I found myself thinking there must be a mistake, since it was, in fact, only 162 poems done (now 163). But I digress.

I read several more poems, including "After" and "The Wild November Sea", a sort of T.S. Eliot homage which I wrote when on my penultimate writing retreat with Angela De Groot in Brigantine during that huge Nor'easter last November. I was pleased to hear a few laughs at the funny lines, and a few more of those indescribable murmuring hums, and an occasional "wow", which was truly a thrill for me. The open followed my reading, and we were treated to some great selections from Bruce, Dan, B.J. and Barney. Barney asked me to do a two-poem "encore" at the end, one of which was "Stagnant" (the new name for a previously nameless poem I posted here a few years back based on a writing exercise - it seemed like a better name than "Alps broccoli apology", which was what I first called it).

It was so wonderful to see so many people come out on a rainy Monday night just to hear me blather. And the best part of the night, besides seeing all those folks, was seeing how proud my kids looked - especially since they had both said they thought it might be embarrassing. I got huge hugs from both of them, and S murmured that she thought I was the best poet there, something that both girls repeated when we were in the car. Say it with me: Awwww! Better still? They started to talk about some of my poems, and which ones they especially liked - turns out that they were paying attention the whole time, although from where I was standing, it wasn't obvious that was the case!

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A Summer Blog Blast Tour with Jennifer Hubbard

Today I have the privilege of interviewing debut novelist, Jennifer Hubbard, author of The Secret Year, a YA novel that is about secrets and loss, although it's about so much more than that. I've known Jenn personally for at least 7 years. We first met at the Philadelphia Writer's Conference in 2003, and ran into one another at the Fall Philly Conference run by the always terrific Eastern PA SCBWI as well. At the time, I knew that Jenn was working on a novel for teens and that she is the author of a number of short stories for grown-ups as well as some poetry.

Since then, Jenn has completed her novel, landed an agent, gotten a book deal and seen her first novel released. In the words of the Grateful Dead, "what a long, strange trip it's been."

1. Your debut novel, The Secret Year, came out a few months ago. What has surprised you most about being a published author?

That strangers really do read and talk about one’s book. I know that sounds incredibly naive, but I published short stories for years, and it’s a very different experience. I’ve only ever seen one review of a short story of mine. But novels generate much more conversation, for whatever reason—which is wonderful and strange at the same time!

2. The Secret Year features a teen male narrator. Did you always conceive the book as being written from Colten's point of view?

Yes, always. His voice came to me rather insistently, and provided the engine to move this story forward.

3. The voice sounds like an authentic teen male voice. Given that you are not now, nor have ever been (to my knowledge) a teen boy, how did you go about putting yourself into his shoes?

Whatever I know about male voices comes from living with guys, working with them, being friends with them, overhearing their conversations in school halls and on trains and in restaurants, and from reading their work. And still, I always think of my characters as people first.

4. As anyone who has read your blog knows, you put a great deal of thought into your writing. How conscious are you of theme when you write? Is that something that you start with, or something that evolves throughout the writing and revision process?

At first, I just write. As I go, I have an idea or two that I’m trying to develop: in this case, “secrecy” was uppermost. Why do people choose secrecy, when they do? What do they get from it? Why is it so appealing? What are the consequences of keeping secrets? Of revealing them?

After the first draft, I figure out what the theme is and sculpt the later revisions to emphasize that theme. In later drafts, I also consciously choose language or symbolism that reflects that theme. Although secrecy stayed a central focus of The Secret Year, loss and grief were important topics also, as well as the issue of class differences, and the fact that people often become emotionally involved with one another even when they’re trying not to.

5. You've written (and sold) short stories for the adult market, but your longer fiction is for the young adult market. Have you (or would you) write short stories for the YA market, or, alternatively, novels for the adult market? Why or why not?

To me, the main difference between the forms is that a short story revolves around one incident or idea or concept, while a novel requires subplots and a wider scope. I have written YA short stories, although there hasn’t been a huge market. However, there’s Hunger Mountain now, and there are always anthologies. I would love to do more short fiction. I think it’s fascinating that short stories haven’t been more commercially successful in this era. We keep hearing how people have short attention spans now, how we live in a sound-byte society. And yet, short stories haven’t found as big a market as novels have, just like short films haven’t found as big an audience as longer feature films have. It seems counter-intuitive!

The YA genre is rich in material, and I’m very happy working here. I have no shortage of YA ideas. But once in a while, I want to write about a different time of life, and then I’ll write a short story for adults.

6. From conversation and having attended several conferences with you over the years, I know that you are a proponent of what you call the "creative stretch", by attending seminars or conference sessions that focus on areas other than those in which you typically write. What are the benefits of attending sessions in areas in which you don't typically write?

It keeps me fresh, from getting bored or stale. I also think that cross-genre and cross-form pollination is very good for the arts.

For instance: Working with short fiction and poetry teaches me about economy of language, richness of imagery, and making every word count. Mysteries and thrillers show me how to build suspense, and how to pace discoveries and revelations. Essays are great examples of developing a narrative voice and shaping an idea, picking and choosing which details are most important to make a point.

7. How often do you go about singing "Pop! Goes My Heart"?

Two writers who shall remain nameless (cough*Kelly Fineman and Angela De Groot*cough) exposed me to this snappy pseudo-‘80s-pop-hit from the movie Music and Lyrics during a break on one of our writing retreats. Retreats are a great way to focus exclusively on writing for a period of time, to get away from all other responsibilities. Most of us have to put writing on the back burner, or at least the side, while we deal with day jobs and family obligations and the chores of daily life. A retreat puts writing squarely on the front burner, and for me it’s also an opportunity to unplug from the internet for a while. As an added bonus, retreat evenings with my writer buddies have exposed me to movies my husband would never watch!

KRF: I notice that Jenn hasn't actually answered the singing question. I shall assume, therefore, that she sings the song at least once a day, but since she was not suffering from the Pop! hip last time I saw her, she must be keeping it under control.

8. What's next?

I’m working on another contemporary, realistic YA novel.

Speed Round:

Cheese or chocolate? Both, but not at the same time.

Coffee or tea? Tea.

Cats or dogs? I’ve owned both, but currently have a cat who is a legend in his own mind.

Favorite color? Blue.

Favorite snack food? Smartfood.

Favorite ice cream? There was a place near my house that used to sell Almond Joy ice cream: coconut ice cream with fudge and almonds. But now that it’s gone, I stick with my old favorite, mint chocolate chip.

Water or soda? Water.

What's in your CD player/on iTunes right now? I pressed shuffle 5X to bring you this selection: Vivaldi, Kelly Joe Phelps (a blues musician), the Beatles, REM, and David Bowie.

What's the last movie you memorized lines from? It’s not necessarily the last, but my all-time favorite is from It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Spencer Tracy plays a police chief whose life is falling apart. He’s overseeing a big investigation, and when he reaches his breaking point, the police are all looking to him for a decision about the next phase of the investigation. That’s when he says, “You know what I believe I’d like? A chocolate fudge sundae, with whipped cream and a cherry on top.” A co-worker and I got into the habit of saying that line to each other whenever things got too hectic.

Other stops on the SBBT today:

Mary Jane Beaufrand at The Ya, Ya, Yas

Rita Williams-Garcia at Fuse Number 8

Charise Mericle Harper at Shelf Elf

Holly Schindler at Bildungsroman

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Monday, May 17, 2010

The Summer Blog Blast Tour - Day One

First post of the daytime hours: this short post with links to today's stops on the Summer Blog Blast Tour. I hope you'll check out these interesting interviews/conversations taking place in the kidlitosphere. Tomorrow I'll be posting the links after my interview with debut novelist Jennifer Hubbard. I sure hope you'll all come back to see what Jenn has to say!

Later, a quick post about my upcoming poetry reading - with photos! Later-later, a post with quotes from the NESCBWI Conference! With exclamation points, apparently!

But for now, today's Tour stops, which are pretty exclamation-worthy on their own:

Kate Milford, author of The Boneshaker, at Chasing Ray

Mac Barnett, author of The Brixton Brothers mysteries, at Fuse #8

The Hazardous Players (represented by William) at Finding Wonderland

Malinda Lo, author of Ash, at Shelf Elf

Barbara Dee, author of This is Me From Now On and other books, at Bildungsroman

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Tomorrow, my interview with Jenn Hubbard and then a post about tonight's poetry reading. But before too much time elapses, here's my wrap-up about this year's NESCBWI conference in Fitchburg, Mass.

Friday: Angela De Groot and I visited my Aunt Martha (patroness of the arts extraordinaire) on our way from Waterville Valley to Fitchburg. She served us a lovely lunch: asparagus spears wrapped in herb cheese, prosciutto & puff pastry; brie; crackers; grapes & strawberries; pastries; and, of course, tea. You can always count on Aunt Martha (or Angela, or me, for that matter) for tea.

Then we drove about an hour to Fitchburg, where we checked in for the conference and into our hotel room. (The rooms at the Courtyard Marriott are gorgeous, by the way.) We had a nice visit with Linda Urban and Kristy Dempsey in our room until it was time for dinner. Angela went off with Linda & Kristy and I went to the "faculty dinner", which was proceeded (perplexingly) by a completely beverageless cocktail hour. The conversation was, however, spectactular, and I was thrilled to meet so many friends (old and new). Following a dinner during which, I am sorry to say, Jo Knowles and I may have gotten a bit too raucous for some of our table mates, including Valarie Giogas, Kate Messner and Jennifer Laughran - hey Jo - "Pardon My French!" - it was mixer time. I had a great time meeting up with still more friends at the mixer - including Marjorie Light and Loree Griffin Burns hanging out in the swank lobby/lounge area, including lots of new friends, then trundled off to bed on the early side of late.

Saturday: Morning keynote by Cynthia Leitich Smith, who posed the following wonderful question about staying current with changes in the industry, which I think applies to writing in general and writing in particular genres specifically: "How can anyone keep up without paying attention?" Her speech and accompanying slide presentation were wonderful, as was her reminder to "celebrate every success, no matter how small."

My first break-out session was with the always fabulous J.L. Bell. John was speaking about what it means to write within genre, and he drew excellent (if at first astonishing) parallels between the classifications of taxonomic ranks in biography and the sorting of fiction into genres. Seriously, the man is brilliant. I took (*counts pages*) eight pages of notes during the presentation. Linda Urban has opined that she thinks he breaks information down in ways similar to the way I do it, which probably explains in part why I like his presentations so very much. (Especially since he focuses on different information than I usually do, and I am a magpie when it comes to shiny new information!) As John pointed out, "Genre fiction often sells better than literary fiction, even if it gets less literary respect." He gave great tips for writing within genre - any genre - and reminded us all to be mindful of the conversations that already exist within a given genre.

I confess to leaving my second presentation early so as to avoid getting a migraine based on certain environmental issues in the room, and so can't say much about it. This had the unexpected benefit of allowing me to steal Carrie Jones's suitcase spend time with Carrie Jones, who had just arrived and couldn't check in for a few hours, so we stowed her luggage in mine and Angela's room. It was absolutely wonderful to see her and spend time with her, as well as with Laura Hamor and Robin MacCready, before lunch, where I got to hear all about Angela's critique, and to chat with J.L. Bell and Jamie Michalak while in (the long) buffet line.

After lunch, a wonderful presentation by Allyn Johnston and Marla Frazee, in which Allyn described the final turn in a picture book as "the mother of all page turns" and Marla called it "the mother of all revisions." For Allyn, the ending of a picture book is the most powerful moment, and the place where a picture book text is most likely to fall apart. Suffice it to say it was an "Aha!" moment for me (and, I suspect, for others as well).

I confess to missing the afternoon breakout session because I had a critique right at the start of it; I used the rest of the time to run through my presentation before dinner. Dinner was at Il Forno, a tasty Italian restaurant. Our table split pizzas, and Grover may or may not have been in his cups. For sure I had a blast with my tablemates and enjoyed our time there, apart from a nagging worry about my two front tires - both of which were low, and at least one of which was low enough to have triggered the "tire pressure out of wack" indicator light. We stopped for air on the way back to the hotel, and Angela & I spotted what appeared to be a nail in the right front tire. (Long story short - that nail didn't puncture the tire, but a HUGE one had punctured the left front tire. Repairs were made the following day and all's well that ends well.)

Due to tire worry, I retired to the room when we got back to the hotel, did some online tire-related research, a bit of email checking, then ran through my entire presentation before bed.

Sunday: Up early, where a barely tepid shower meant that I was in and out quickly. Had a hot breakfast at the buffet with Angela, then skipped the interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith so I could set up and prep for my workshop, which took place during the first break-out session. My LiveJournal friend Robin asked for quotes, and I promised her some. I can't actually be certain what I said when it was my words, although I know the gist of them - and I'm positive that at one point, I warned the group not to start writing similes and metaphors yet because I didn't want them to hurt themselves (my internal critic started kicking the inside of my skull pretty hard at that point!) and I for sure said "Life is like a box of chocolates" (to show how a simile can compare something abstract to something concrete) and "Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives" (to demonstrate how "like sands through the hourglass" isn't really a "fresh" idea, but has become hackneyed/clichéd, and is therefore something to avoid unless, of course, you want people to think soap opera thoughts).

Here, however, are some of the quotes by other people that I read:

W.H. Auden opined, "The poet who writes 'free verse' is like Robinson Crusoe on his island: he must do all his cooking, laundry, darning, etc. In a few exceptional cases, this manly independence produces something original and impressive, but more often the result is squalor: empty bottles on the unswept floor, dirty sheets on the unmade bed."

Robert Frost said that writing free verse is "like playing tennis with the net down."

Samuel Taylor Coleridge defined poetry as "the best words in the best order."

Frances Mayes has described poetic lines as being "as important to the poem as rungs are to a ladder. Each line moves the poem along at a certain speed. A line is a unit of time; a line break is a punctuation, a slight halt in the flow."
I hightailed it to Fitchburg Tires - where they fix your tires while you watch MUSIC & LYRICS and generally relax - thereby missing out on the panel I'd wanted to attend and missing most of lunch. I managed to scavenge a bit of salad before the staff finished clearing all of it, and people found me iced tea and a cookie, and I was happy as a clam - whatever that means. In my still-frazzled state, I ended up not going to an after-lunch session, but I did get my act together so I could pay attention to Erin Dionne's workshop on writing humor. Talking about humor is usually not funny, by the way, and I am okay with that - when you pull things that are funny apart to see how they're assembled, they tend not to be funny. Erin, however, managed to keep the humor in her presentation as well as providing really thoughtful analysis of how humor can work to create a dramatic turning point. She likes to think of epiphanies in humorous terms, as "an insight, revelation or change precipitated by a funny event." Genius, if you ask me.

Then it was conversation and hugs and goodbyes and time to hit the road, Jack. It was a really great conference, and I'm not doing it justice, but man, do I love the NESCBWI conference and all my lovely New England friends.

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Tonight, tonight!

Guess where I'll be tonight?*

*And yes, I totally sang my subject line and that first line to the tune of "Tonight" from West Side Story. What? It's how I roll!

Barnes & Noble
200 West Route 70
Marlton, NJ 08053

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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Sonnet 2 by William Shakespeare

Since I am on retreat (run away! run away!), I won't belabor this post with the usual level of analysis. I simply give you William Shakespeare's sonnet, "When forty winters shall besiege thy brow", a "hold onto your knickers" reading of the same by David Tennant, and a few brief remarks.

Sonnet 2
by William Shakespeare

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty's field,
Thy youth's proud livery, so gazed on now,
Will be a tatter'd weed, of small worth held:
Then being ask'd where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days,
To say, within thine own deep-sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserved thy beauty's use,
If thou couldst answer 'This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count and make my old excuse,'
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
  This were to be new made when thou art old,
  And see thy blood warm when thou feel'st it cold.

Form: A Shakespearean sonnet, iambic pentameter, ABABCDCDEFEFGG.

Analysis: Being one of the earliest sonnets, this is of the "go beget a son already, don't die childless" bent. As someone who is now on the other side of 40 (how did that happen anyway?), I don't like his characterization of tattered weeds and sunken eyes and used-up beauty. But recall - forty was quite a sum of years for most people in Elizabethan times.

And now, ladies and gents, hang on to your knickers:

You can't say I didn't warn you. What a voice! *swoons*

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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

There was no Bill Bryson to keep us company, but Angela De Groot and I didn't mind as we set off yesterday on our after-lunch jaunt, which proved to be an exceedingly long one indeed, despite that not being our intention.

You see, we came to a fork in the path, and took the way we'd never gone before. (Cue Frost and his poem, "The Road Not Taken".) And then we came to another place where "two roads diverged in a (not-so) yellow wood", and we headed off down the woodland path you see here. I should also note that we were not sorry we could not travel both paths at this point, since the other one appeared to lead into the wastewater facility.

As we walked down the path, we had the Mad River to the right of us, and a lovely bit of woods on our left. It rather looked as if someone had been playing pick-up sticks in there and had forgotten to tidy up. See?

When what to our wondering eyes should appear set back into the forest than, well, this:

I said: "That looks just like a . . . "
"Hobbit hole", said Angela, proving yet again that we think just alike.

Speaking of Angela, here she is, after singing the start of "The Lumberjack Song". She is managing not to look chilly, which is quite an accomplishment, since we could still see our breath in the air for the duration of the walk, even though it was mid-afternoon.

As we continued our walk, we found that Frost was correct, and that way leads on to way. But since we had been lucky enough to see a hobbit hole, I preferred to think of it in Tolkien's terms (in the version of "The Road goes ever on and on" found in "The Fellowship of the Ring" portion of The Lord of the Rings:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

We shall see what adventures today may bring.

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Monday, May 10, 2010

Hoya saxa!

Georgetown alums will recognize the title of the post as being the source of the team name "hoyas". The phrase is Greek and Latin, traditionally rendered hoia saxa, and literally means "What rocks!" (Of all the Latin phrases I picked up at Georgetown Law, this nonlegal one really stuck.)

Looking out at the sunny day today here in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, I cannot help but think of Elizabeth Bennet's delight in Chapter 27 of Pride and Prejudice at being invited to accompany her aunt and uncle on a tour of England that might take them as far as the Lake District.

No scheme could have been more agreeable to Elizabeth, and her acceptance of the invitation was most ready and grateful. "My dear, dear aunt," she rapturously cried, "what delight! what felicity! You give me fresh life and vigour. Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of any thing. We will know where we have gone -- we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor, when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarrelling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travellers."
And yes, I rather expect that Elizabeth's raptures about nature in conjunction with a mention of the Lake District are a nod to William Wordsworth, whose poem Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, and in particular this effusively meditative (yes, probably an oxymoron) passage pulled from its fifth stanza, were well-known and appear to have been loved by Austen, given that she references this poem in other novels as well, including Mansfield Park:

The picture of the mind revives again:
While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years. And so I dare to hope,
Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first
I came among these hills; when like a roe
I bounded o'er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
Wherever nature led -more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads than one
Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then
(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days,
And their glad animal movements all gone by)
To me was all in all. -I cannot paint
What then I was. The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion; the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colours and their forms, were then to me
An appetite; a feeling and a love,
That had no need of a remoter charm,
By thought supplied, nor any interest
Unborrowed from the eye. -That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more,
And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this
Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur; other gifts
Have followed; for such loss, I would believe,
Abundant recompense. For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear -both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.
Note to self: Consider writing an article about this. Also, GET OUTSIDE AFTER LUNCH!

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Sunday, May 09, 2010

Today's research topics

I arrived safely in New Hampshire yesterday with my good friend, Angela De Groot, for our now-annual writing retreat. Today I've been doing some organizing and research and prewriting for the Jane Project.

Organizing: I have at least 25 poems left to write (that's a conservative estimate based on what I know for certain needs to be added - most likely the actual number will be in the 30-35 range). That will put the finished total of poems about where I always thought it would be, or between 175 & 190 poems. Yeah, you read that right. I've got 151 completed poems, at least one of which may need to be stricken. I have a list of specific poems and general topics that still need to be addressed, and I'm hoping to work may way through them.

Research: For the poems on which I'm about to embark, I've researched:

1. The proper units of measure for length during Austen's lifetime to be certain I wouldn't err in talking inches, feet or yards. I am now certain that inch, foot, and yard are correct. And that they were pretty much the same units we in the U.S. continue to use now, although the length of a foot had, historically, varied in England in the past, from about 9-1/2 inches to as many as 13 inches. It was, however, standardized in 1066. So.

2. The identity and contents of various Psalms.

3. What years Austen took piano lessons.

4. Something about the personality of Austen's piano teacher.

5. The reputation and work of the artist John Claude Nattes.

6. An interesting article by Janine Barchas on Austen's use of maps and actual people within Northanger Abbey.

7. Letters from Austen to family members, as well as items found in the Family History.

8. An email to the British Library about eyeglasses.

And more.

Today has also involved: Me reading the first scene of Measure for Measure, a lunch of grilled ham & cheese sandwiches and cream of tomato soup (I say toMAYto, Angela says toMAHto), a walk in the wind and cold, a fire in the fireplace, a nap, and additional edits to my NESCBWI presentation, along with Mother's Day phone calls, lovely emails from wonderful author-friends and more. Now, time for dinner: baked potatoes with toppings, broccoli (hear that Jenn?) and salad, then an evening writing session, and then the second half of the recent production of Emma.

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Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Sonnet 20 by William Shakespeare

National Poetry Month being over and my "Building a Poetry Collection" posts being done, I'm returning to Wednesdays with the Bard. Today, one of Shakespeare's bawdier, yet in some ways more tragic, sonnets, Sonnet 20 ("A woman's face, with nature's own hand painted"). This is one of the many sonnets written to the Fair Youth, who is described as an exceedingly beautiful - and perhaps somewhat androgynous - man. That Shakespeare appears to have felt something far more intense than mere affection for the Fair Youth is readily apparent in this poem, despite Shakespeare punning with all his might.

Sonnet 20
by William Shakespeare

A woman’s face, with nature’s own hand painted,
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue, all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created,
Till nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
   But since she pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,
   Mine be thy love, and thy love’s use their treasure.

Form: Shakespearean sonnet, meaning that it's written in iambic pentameter and with the rhyme scheme ABABCDCDEFEFGG.

Discussion: The first eight lines are all a tribute to the youth's beauty and gentle spirit (more on that in a moment), in which Shakespeare says that the Fair Youth is so very attractive that he attracts men and women alike. The turn (also known as a volta) comes in the ninth line, when the poet bemoans the fact that the Fair Youth is a man, saying that Nature started to create the Fair Youth as a woman, but at the last moment, bestowed him with male genitalia. In the final couplet, the poem turns a bit farther still, as is common with Shakespeare's sonnets, saying that since the Fair Youth is a man, they can love one another emotionally, but not physically.

This poem can be read quite comically and in bawdy fashion. In line one, the phrase "with nature's own hand painted" is a reference to natural beauty; the term "painted" was frequently used to indicate the wearing of thick cosmetics (think of Queen Elizabeth and all that white lead-laced makeup) by women and men of that era, in an effort to cover over scars left by smallpox or other skin issues. Here, the implication is that the Fair Youth is a natural beauty.

The first two lines say that the Fair Youth is pretty, with a feminine face.

The second two lines say that the Fair Youth is tender-hearted (like a woman), but not inconstant or fickle - Shakespeare thereby takes a bit of a slap at womankind, while praising the Fair Youth.

The fifth & sixth lines say that the Fair Youth's eyes are prettier than a woman's eyes, less apt to stray, and that finding favor in his eyes adds worth to the person he admires.

The seventh & eighth lines note that the Fair Youth is, in fact, a man, but one who attracts the admiration of men and women alike.

The ninth through twelfth lines say that nature first intended to create the Fair Youth as a woman, but she became so enamored of this particular creation that at the last moment, she added "a thing" to the Fair Youth that is "nothing" to the speaker. The use of the word "thing" means precisely what you think it might; the use of the word "nothing" has a double meaning: on the one hand, it means that it's of no use to the speaker; on the other hand, the word nothing sometimes meant "no thing" (thereby meaning vagina) back in Shakespeare's time. Which does he mean? Does he mean he can't have a physical relationship with a man, or that he will simply regard it as "no thing"? I suppose it might be all in the delivery.

The final couplet again uses sexual puns: "But since she pricked thee out for women's pleasure" means, on the one hand "since she chose you to please women" and, on the other, "since she gave you a prick so that you could please women". "Mine be thy love, and thy love's use their treasure" is a bit tricky to parse. "Mine be thy love" means both "I'll keep your love" and "I want your love", but the word "mine" might also refer to the speaker's own penis, given the construction of the sentence and the earlier reference to a man being "pricked out". "And thy love's use their treasure" also has multiple meanings. "Love" here might be a euphemism for penis, so that women are using the Fair Youth for sex, or if the speaker is considered to be the Fair Youth's love, then use of the speaker for sex is being discussed. The typical understanding of this last couplet is that Nature gave the Fair Youth a penis, which means he can physically satisfy women while remaining emotionally faithful to the speaker, but given the potential ambiguities, I think Shakespeare is saying that both the Fair Youth and the speaker (probably Shakespeare) will have to satisfy their carnal urges elsewhere, despite their immense affection. That's sad, don't you think, despite all the puns and humor used in the poem?

I'm not the only one who sees the pathos here. Rufus Wainwright obviously saw it as well. He set 10 of Shakespeare's sonnets to music for a stage production by the Berliner Ensemble, and this was one of them. He has said in interviews that he believes this to be the "greatest sonnet ever written". (I can understand why he might think so, based on his own life and circumstances, although I'd probably pick Sonnet 116 ("Let me not to the marriage of true minds"), but that's just me - and on a different day, I might choose a different one.)

Here's video of Rufus Wainwright performing Sonnet 20 at what appears to be an after-party for the Berliner Ensemble's performance. The song is on his latest album, All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu:

Heart-rending, isn't it?

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