Writing and Ruminating

Thoughts on writing, reading, and poetry. With the occasional diversion, bien sûr.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Writing Yoga by Bruce Black

Just in time for me to read before I begin taking my upcoming yoga and tai chi classes* came a copy of Writing Yoga: A Guide to Keeping a Practice Journal by Bruce Black. I first "met" Bruce through his wonderful blog, Wordswimmer, and have gotten to know him better over the past several years thanks to the CYBILS Awards. Bruce is a kind, generous, thoughtful person, as any one who has read his posts and his in-depth interviews can see, and he has written a book that reflects those qualities.

The book purports to be about how keeping a journal about yoga class can enhance one's experience and practice, but - intentionally or not - quite a bit of it can be read metaphorically as being about growth, flexibility, and practice as a writer - a sort of stretching and workout for your writing skills, and not just use of writing skills to talk about yoga.

A confession: I don't keep a journal. I tried keeping a diary for a week or so when I was 12, but it felt artificial and embarrassing and I quickly gave it up. I tried half-heartedly in high school, then again in college, and at least once after that, and I always, always felt self-conscious about it. And worried about what I'd think when I went back to read it later. And yet, I love the idea of a journal, and heaven knows I love reading passages from the journals of historical personages and whatnot, so I've often wished I could manage it.

Bruce's words about journaling have changed how I view a journal, and may just have given me permission to try a yoga/tai chi journal myself. Here's what he says early on:

The practice of journaling is all about process--the process of putting words on paper, the process of thinking and sifting through layers of memories and experiences to make discoveries and gain insights. It's not about what you produce. Like many writers, I rarely reread what I write in my journals. That's because it's in the process of writing--the actual physical act of writing--that you'll make discoveries. That's the point of keeping a journal--not the product, but the process.
Having permission to not read it, permission to work things out, and acknowledgement that the words on the page are not, in the end, what's important takes a lot of the pressure off, so I'm willing to give it a try.

In addition to chapters of instruction and thoughtful exploration on what a journal is, and what it can or should be, Bruce provides samples from his own journal, as well as writing exercises to help one get started journaling - and some of those work as excellent writing exercises, journals be damned.

I recommend this one for folks interested in journaling, whether they practice yoga or not, and for quite a few writers, even if they're not necessarily interested in journaling or yoga. A lovely book, filled with lovely words - just as readers of Bruce's blog would expect. My thanks to Bruce's publisher, Rodmell Press, for sending me a review copy.


*I have, in fact, taken yoga classes in the past, and do a half-assed job with DVDs at home, so I know I love yoga, but I've not yet tried tai chi.


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A guest post by Jennifer R. Hubbard

Today marks a first here at Writing & Ruminating: a post written by someone who is not me. Instead, today's content was written by my friend and sometime retreat-partner, Jenn Hubbard, author of The Secret Year and the forthcoming Try Not To Breathe, and it's one of my favorite kinds of posts - one about process. Many thanks to Jenn for doing this!

I’m Not a Poet, But I Played One in a Novel
Jennifer R. Hubbard

Kelly asked me to write about poetry, and especially what it was like to have a poetry-writing character in my first novel. I’ve written poetry for years, but mostly as an emotional outlet rather than as a serious attempt to make art that anyone else would want to read. While I’ve worked to bring my prose to a professional level, poetry is a creative stretch, particularly helpful in its focus on rhythm, strong imagery, and word choice. I try to bring those elements into my prose writing.

In The Secret Year, I had a character, Julia, who wrote both prose and poetry. We get to read some of her writing, viewing it always through the filter of her untimely death. When I had to show her poetry, I asked myself how I could do this, not being a strong poet myself. I didn’t want her work to be a joke, to be laughably bad.

On the other hand, it didn’t have to be expert either; Julia wasn’t a poetic prodigy. And her words—both prose and poetry—often had a self-consciousness, a bravado, a trying-on of attitudes, an attempt to portray her life as more dramatic than it actually was. I asked myself what her poetry did have to be. And I realized that the part of it that was relevant to the story would reflect her passionate attachment to the main character, Colt, as well as her fears about the strength of that passion. I also realized that I didn’t need entire poems to appear in the book, just a couple of lines that worked in the story.

So I wrote a “Julia poem,” in character. Then I pulled from it the most intense, cringingly intimate lines, because they reflected the depth of what Colt had lost and also the depth of his secrecy. The point was to show the exposed nerves of loss, and to emphasize how vulnerable Colt had been in his intimacy with Julia. She put into words the most raw needy part of him, what Colt would feel but never say himself.

Again, many thanks to Jenn for writing this!


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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

An evening with my doctor

Continuing with my "what I did today" theme . . .

Some of you know that I have rheumatoid arthritis; I am an extra-lucky (?) girl in that it came with a side order of fibromyalgia, which is (quite literally) a pain in the neck. And upper back. And various and sundry other places. Not all the time, mind, but sometimes. Mostly I just grit my teeth and keep on rolling in a mind-over-matter sort of way, because nobody likes a whiner. (I know I don't, anyhow - I should note that this doesn't mean that complaints aren't allowed; it's chronic, persistent complaints that grow tedious. But I digress.)

Turns out my rheumatologist came up with a Plan for the patients in his practice with fibromyalgia, and I got invited, and now I have gone and signed on for a 12-week Thing that will involve me taking yoga and tai chi (I have always wanted to do that!) and going to educational meetings and such. It is my (early) birthday present to me, and I am pleased to be doing it. Here's hoping it proves more successful than last year's attempt at fencing.


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A day with Jo Knowles

What could be better than a day spent with Jo Knowles? A day spent with Jo and her son, E.

After touring them about town and making them throw coins atop Benjamin Franklin's grave (what? it's a Philly tradition and the cemetery can use the revenue), the three of us spent several hours at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where we spent quite a bit of time in the armory (okay, it's not so much an armory as a collection of things that would be found in an armory - like, say, armor), quite a bit more in what I call "the rooms" - there are entire places that have been relocated inside the museum, like at 13th century French cloister (one of my favorite places in Philadelphia) and a Chinese reception room (ditto), and then time in the Modern Art section (Monet, Degas, Renoir, Cassat, Cezanne, Picasso, Warhol), and then time in the cafeteria, because hungry museum-goers gotta eat.

While there and then, later, back at their wicked cool B&B, we discussed things like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, giving me reason to use the icon you see flashing about up there. Two of my favorite fandoms combined. *grins* And we talked Tiffany Aching and writing and publishing and such as well. And! Jo and E gave me a copy of an Emma comic! *love*

Happy, happy day. Too bad that Vermont and New Jersey are so far apart that it can't be a more regular occurrence. (I've said that about Virginia and California and Scotland and Texas and Kansas and Wisconsin and more, too, based on the locations of various writer friends. It's lovely that internet goes 'most everywhere!)


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Monday, March 28, 2011

Squee!

Tomorrow

Here on the blog: A guest post by Jennifer Hubbard.

In real life: I am mailing a deposit to College of Charleston, where S has decided to enroll.

I am excited!

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On this week's to-do list

1. Remind folks that the Kidlit 4 Japan auctions are ongoing. Thus far, over $2,000 has been raised for UNICEF. Quite a few items over there are at ridiculously low bids, however, so I hope that some of you looking for things like signed books, critiques, Skype visits for school or library groups, etc., will, y'know, go shopping.

2. Pick a second poem to read at the journal launch for Up and Under. My poem, "San Francisco, Any Night", is in the journal, so I'll be reading that plus one more at The Daily Grind in Mount Holly this Friday evening. (The reading starts at 7, with readings by contributors to the journal and by the members of the group that publishes the journal, the Quick & Dirty Poets.)

3. Visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art on Wednesday (with Jo Knowles and her son, who are in town this week to keep Jo's husband company while he's at a conference). Hooray for my second museum/park/zoo sort of cultural outing this month! (It makes up for the absence of a cultural outing in this category in February). M and I visited the Leonardo da Vinci's workroom exhibit at the Franklin Institute earlier this month, where they have models (some scale, some life-sized) of various inventions found in da Vinci's notebooks. It was quite interesting, although not exactly what I'd expected.

4. Writing, of course. I'm finishing revisions on a new poem, plus working on my YA romance.

5. Finish and file income taxes. They should be in tomorrow's mail, so that is a good feeling.

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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Quoteskimming

From a blog post by romance novelist Meg Maguire entitled "EASY STREET CLOSED: Please Use the Long and Less Deluded Detour Through Realityville →"

The Call is wondrous, no matter what form it takes, and you should wallow in it when it arrives. Wallow and gloat and toast, just don't expect that feeling to last forever. It can't, and it won't, and even if it did, you'd be too high on it to appreciate the next bit of good news.

What I'm trying to say, I suppose, is that writers, no matter what stage they're at, are equal beings. Perhaps not so tidily, according to the numbers on their paychecks or their Amazon ranking, but no matter what stage we're each at, we have the struggle in common. We share the struggle, along with triumphs both small and large, hopes for new successes in the coming weeks or months or years, and thrilling news to share with those who care about us and have watched us struggle and get knocked to the mat only to stand up again and invite the next punch en route to victory.
From the always clever and thoughtful Jennifer Hubbard. I recommend you all read all of her posts, by the way, but in particular I'm quoting from her post, "Making Room for the Reader"

Sometimes we feel compelled to explain everything, tell everything, make sure the reader knows every nugget of backstory and every thought that is going through the character's head. But it's more fun to leave a little mystery, to allow readers put things together themselves. So I suppose my message today is: Leave room for the reader.
Another author whose blog you really might like - especially if you're a writer - is that of my friend Jo Knowles. Today, I'm quoting from Jo's latest writing-related post, "All I Really Need to Know I Learned From . . . "

"Sometimes I think it takes a little bit of being crazy to make a difference in this world."-Steven Tyler.

So true. Soooooo true.

And isn't it true about writing, too? I mean, my favorite books are the ones that, I bet at some point, either the author or the editor had that thought: Am I crazy? Can we really do this? And I'm so grateful to the people who've been brave enough to say YES.

It's how we push boundaries and raise the bar, I think. It's how we grow and discover what we're really capable of.

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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Good company

'My idea of good company, Mr Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.'
'You are mistaken,' said he gently, 'that is not good company, that is the best.'

An exchange between Anne Elliot and her cousin/suitor William Elliot from Persuasion, Chapter 16.

I spent the afternoon in the best sort of company - a roomful of clever, well-informed people, all of whom excel at conversation. That is what happens when you attend a meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA). Discussions at my table involved The King's Speech (Colin Firth having a special place in the hearts of nearly all Janeites), e-readers (with an impromptu Nook demo by my friend Renee), books and audiobooks (Soulless by Gail Carriger, The Help by Kathryn Stockett), iPods and iPhones, Dragoncon, CASTLE (the TV show) - with an emphasis on Nathan Fillion - the Carte Noire coffee breaks, which (sadly) appear to have disappeared from the interweb (*shakes fist at Carte Noire*), the poetry readings by Matthew MacFadyen, Damien Lewis and others available on YouTube, the Smart Bitches' blog, and more.

Our speaker, Iris Lutz, is the current president of JASNA, and she gave a presentation about the houses with which Austen was familiar in her lifetime, accompanied by a slideshow presentation relating to those homes. It was quite interesting, and Lutz's argument as to why she believes Chatsworth is not the model for Pemberley was compelling, and I am inclined to agree with her.

I always find myself wishing our meetings were more numerous, given what a spectacularly good time they are when they occur. And Nancy, the woman who sat to my left, assured me that the meetings of the Dickens Society (to which she also belongs) are similarly interesting.

It's exhilarating to spend the day in the company of intelligent people who enjoy reading. There's something to be said for sharing conversation with so many folks with similar interests - and with such divergent tastes!

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Friday, March 25, 2011

The First Violet by Karl Egon Ebert, trans. by Kelly Ramsdell Fineman

This morning is tentatively sunny, with evidence of spring appearing in the neighborhood. Buds on trees, birds singing and calling, daffodils and jonquils starting to bloom. For this particular Poetry Friday, I decided to share a poem I learned as a song (a lied) - "Das Erste Veilchen" - in its original German, which I've translated.

Before I get to the poem and the discussion, just a quick reminder that 3 p.m. ET is the deadline for the Kidlit 4 Japan auction for my items: Two winners will receive poetry critiques of up to 75 lines of poetry, plus a second-pass critique of their revision(s). All proceeds go to UNICEF to assist with relief in Japan. Full details and entry information here.


The First Violet
by Karl Egon Ebert, translated by Kelly Ramsdell Fineman

When I saw the first violet,
I was delighted with its color and scent!
I lustfully embraced Spring's messenger
To my swelling, hopeful breast.

The Spring time is over, the violet is dead;
Rings full of blue and red flowers surround me -
Standing within them, I barely see them.
The violet shines in my dream of Spring.


The original German text:

Das erste Veilchen
by Karl Egon Ebert

Als ich das erste Veilchen erblickt,
Wie war ich von Farben und Duft entzückt!
Die Botin des Lenzes drückt' ich voll Lust
An meine schwellende, hoffende Brust.

Der Lenz ist vorüber, das Veilchen ist tot;
Rings steh'n viel Blumen blau und rot,
Ich stehe inmitten, und sehe sie kaum,
Das Veilchen erscheint mir im Frühlingstraum.


A word on the form of the original, what's lost in translation, and a bit about the poet

The original German poem is written in two stanzas using rhymed couplets (AABB CCDD), with each line containing four stressed syllables. My translation was based on a desire to give you a decent translation of the meaning of the poem. Alas, the meter and rhyme did not carry over.

The poet, Karl Egon Ebert, was of Czech-German descent, and was born in Bohemia in 1801 (back when it was still an actual place, and not a sort of state of mind). He spent most of his life in service to the royal house of Fürstenberg, and evidently had a romance with one of the princesses (alas, their love was not allowed to flourish). He died in Prague at the age of 81, having written a number of poems and librettos for operas, as well as political tracts arguing for Czech-German cooperation.

As I mentioned at the start of this post, I'm aware of this poem because it was set to music; it was one of the lieder that I sang when I was a voice major in college. Here's a video of a talented young man named Stephen Richardson singing Ebert's words to music by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (note: some lines or parts of lines are repeated in the song setting):




I hope you find some violets today, even if only in your mind's eye. Mary Lee is hosting Poetry Friday today over at A Year of Reading - you can see all the entries by clicking the Poetry Friday box below.


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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Sarah Emma Edmonds Was a Great Pretender by Carrie Jones, illus by Mark Oldroyd

Guess what? I'm about to review a book I read on Net Galley. How cool is Net Galley? So. Cool. (As long as, y'know, the publishers give you permission to read the books you want to read so you can review them. But I digress.)

The full title of today's book is Sarah Emma Edmonds Was a Great Pretender: The True Story of a Civil War Spy, and it's by my good friend Carrie Jones. Yes, that Carrie Jones - the one who wrote Tips on Having a Gay (ex)Boyfriend, Love (and Other Uses for Duct Tape) and Girl, Hero and Need, Captivate, and Entice. And she is actually a friend, so you might expect me to be biased and I am, frankly, not going to tell you that you're wrong, because being biased under the circumstances is entirely logical. I am, however, going to tell you what I think about the book anyway, even with you knowing that I'm biased, and we'll go from there, okay? Okay.

The thing is, I was inclined to love this book before I read it, not because Carrie wrote it, but because of the following reasons:

1. I know a lot about the subject of the book. I did a shload of research on Sarah Emma Edmonds as part of a project I co-authored with J. Patrick Lewis (poems about spies and spying, still looking for a home).

2. I have a thing for girls in drag, as I believe I've mentioned before. And Sarah Emma Edmonds decidedly walked that walk.

3. I have a rather strong feminist bent, and nothing says feminist like Sarah Emma Edmonds (even if she died long before the actual word/movement exists). Grrl power!



Sarah Emma Edmonds was a fascinating individual. Born in Canada, she made her way to the United States alone, becoming so dedicated to the country that when the Civil War broke out, she decided to serve in the military. (What I didn't know until I read Carrie's book is that Edmonds had a history of dressing as a male that dated back to her childhood. Way interesting.) At that time in history, her being a woman should have made military service an impossibility, but Edmonds didn't let a little thing like gender hold her back: Dressed as a man named Frank Thompson, Edmonds enlisted as a private in the Union Army, where she was assigned to work as a nurse in field hospitals.

Looking for an opportunity to use her ability to wear disguises serve her country and hopefully decrease casualties, Edmonds volunteered to become a spy. She made several trips into Confederate territory to seek out military secrets, dressing first as a young African American male, then as a female Irish peddlar, and finally as an African American laundress. If Carrie's description sounds a little bit like something from the movie Victor/Victoria, it's understandable:

This time she pretended to be Bridget O'Shea, a chubby Irish peddlar. She was a woman (Sarah) pretending to be a man (Frank) pretending to be a woman (Bridget).

This would be confusing for most people, but not for Sarah.
As Edmonds herself said (and is quoted as saying in the book), "I am naturally fond of adventure, a little ambitious, and a good deal romantic—but patriotism was the true secret of my success."

The book is due out on April 1st, just a hair too late for Women's History Month. With its evocative artwork and clear narration, the book manages to be a tribute not only to Edmonds, but to the power of imagination.


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Tallulah's Tutu by Marilyn Singer, illus. by Alexandra Boiger

When I was four, I watched Peggy Fleming skate to gold in the Winter Olympics, and I wanted to be her. I didn't want to be like her, I wanted to be her, and my poor mother had a devil of a time explaining to me that I could only be myself, and that I could learn to skate, but I couldn't actually be Peggy Fleming. It was in the spring when I took a few ballet classes – probably at the YMCA, where my mother worked at the time. (I'm sure we couldn't have afforded ballet classes otherwise.)

I had a leotard and tights for sure. I'm not positive whether I had ballet shoes or not. I remember trying and trying to stand in first position properly, but my right leg never quite cooperated. Turns out my right hip isn't quite as flexible as it ought to be – it wasn't then, it isn't now, it never has been. And it turns out that I was not a graceful petal, and that ballet wasn't quite my cup of tea, and it wasn't all that long before I wasn't taking ballet classes anymore. I devoted my time to climbing trees and playing hide-and-seek and reading and such. And then, in second grade, I fell in love with the piano and begged and pleaded for lessons – I'd found my personal passion, and it was one I pursued through college. I still play, in fact, although some of my skills are a bit rusty.

I tell you all this by way of saying why I felt such a strong response to Tallulah's Tutu, the new picture book written by my friend Marilyn Singer, and resplendently illustrated by Alexandra Boiger. Tallulah, you see, wants to be a great ballerina. She is pretty certain that the only thing she needs in order to be a great ballerina is a tutu, although her mother wisely suggests that lessons might help.



Tallulah enjoys her ballet classes. She learns the positions and moves. She practices all the time at home. But in her mind, she really wants that tutu – and, of course, she wants it NOW. She's willing to allow for slight delays, but eventually, she gets fed up and decides that if she can't have her tutu, she won't bother to dance. She tries eschewing ballet with a firm hand, but because it really, truly is her passion, she can't help but see it everywhere. In fact, my favorite page in the book may be this one:

But everything kept reminding Tallulah of ballet. Her neighbor's basset hound always stood in second position. The kitchen clock constantly performed ronds de jambe. The serving spoon at dinner was forever doing tendus.
Eventually, Tallulah realizes that she likes ballet too much to stop doing it, whether she has a tutu or not. She is helped in her realization by meeting a little girl who has a tutu, but cannot yet dance. And, of course, Tallulah does get her tutu . . . eventually.

An adorable book about pursuing one's passion, about patience and practice and perseverance (although, thankfully, without that level of alliteration and without being overtly didactic). Recommended for little dancers everywhere – or for any little girl who has found her particular passion. (The extreme pinkness of this book makes it an unlikely choice for most boys, even though there is a boy in Tallulah's ballet class, and her baby brother is interested in ballet as well.)


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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Kidlit for Japan reminders

The Kidlit 4 Japan auctions continue apace. Today's new offerings include a collection of signed books and a Skype visit Kate Messner and a signed book and critique from Becky Levine, as well as a number of other items.

The first auction, my friend Anne Marie Pace's offering of a signed book plus a critique, closes at 9 a.m. ET tomorrow. The auction for signed first editions of Jo Knowles's books closes at 11 a.m. ET tomorrow. Debbi Michiko Florence is auctioning off two copies of her Japan book - though it might be hard to outbid her husband for one of the copies - he's in with $100. What a mensch Bob is! Her auction, like mine, closes on Friday. (I'm offering up poetry critiques, which may include picture book critiques - I am pleased to see three bids for the two critiques. Of course, it would be nice to see more - hint hint.)


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Georgette Heyer's Regency World by Jennifer Kloester

A few weeks ago, as I was browsing the Romance shelves at one of my local Barnes & Noble stores, I spied a few copies of Georgette Heyer's Regency World, which I immediately scooped up. I could have used it for some of my Jane Austen-related research, since it includes quite a lot of useful information about the customs, manners, fashions, and practices of the time period.

If you are a fan of (a) Georgette Heyer's books; (b) Jane Austen's novels; (c) Regency romances; (d) the Regency era for any reason; and/or (e) all of the above, this book is for you. If you are planning on writing a Regency novel, I daresay this is a resource you will be exceeding glad to have in your arsenal.

There are chapters about society; housing (town vs. country); how men lived and were expected to behave; what women were taught and what sort conduct was expected of them (including what constituted an auspicious marriage); information about the Seasons in London (Big and Little), including information on Almack's and a separate chapter about the "pleasure haunts" of London (scandalous!); the fashionable resorts; the modes of transportation of the time; clothing of the time period; shopping, with a focus on particular haberdashers of note; food (Good Lord, what they ate . . . ); "Sport" for men, which includes talk of boxing, racing, gambling and even (one hesitates to mention such an illegality) duelling; business and the military; and the royal family. There are useful appendices including common Regency terms, newspapers, books mentioned in Heyer's novels, plus three more appendices that provide a timeline, a list of further Regency resources and information on Heyer's novels.

The book contains absolutely charming pen and ink illustrations by Graeme Tavendale, many of which are his adaptations of the sketches of Regency artists such as George Cruikshank, John Nash, Hugh Thomson and more. While not all of them are absolutely necessary, they are all delightful additions to the package as a whole, and are in some cases indispensable to understanding the text (as with the illustrations of certain conveyances, such as a barouche, a phaeton, etc.).

Highly recommended for Regency fans of all ilks.


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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

David Levithan and Wesley Stace

Intrepid friend Lisa and I went to the Free Library this evening for readings by David Levithan and Wesley Stace, and we left feeling as if we'd been given a lovely present.

David Levithan read from The Lover's Dictionary, his marvelous book about "post-teenagers" in a relationship, written as an alphabetical series of dictionary entries. David took marvelous words - words like kerfuffle and yearning - and wrote entries for them, which, when read together, tell the story of a relationship. It is a wonderful, funny, poignant, moving book, and David's reading was all that and more. The audience laughed and mmmmed in all the right places as David's comments - some comical, some poetic, some profound - hit home.

And then David sat down in the front row of the auditorium, and Wesley Stace (sometimes known as singer/songwriter John Wesley Harding) took the stage to read from his latest novel, Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer. He has a marvelous reading voice (I am a sucker for an English accent - or perhaps any accent, but Wesley Stace has a rich, melodious voice made of YUM!), but in addition to that, he has Serious Writing Chops. Lovely turns of phrase. Evocative writing. Truly good stuff.

The passage that Wesley read was about a classical musician out looking for English folk music in the early 1900s. And he meets a shepherd, who sings a gorgeous rendition of a ballad. And then, after reading the passage, Wesley turned into John Wesley Harding, and pulled out his guitar and played and sang the ballad he'd just read about, all about "Little Mossgrave". It was fabulous and, as Lisa said, felt just as if we'd been given a marvelous gift.

Both authors took the stage for a Q&A, which yielded some interesting information. Like that the gender of the parties in The Lover's Dictionary is deliberately unspecified, so you don't know if it's a homo- or heterosexual couple. David said, in essence, that with this particular story, being set as it is in New York City now, and featuring a 20-something couple, it didn't matter if they were gay or straight, because they'd behave pretty much the same way. Boy did that do my heart good to hear - I remember too well the sort of prejudices that friends faced out of college back in the mid-80s, and it's wonderful to think how far we've come since then, even if there is still a way to go! The last question (to both authors) was from the realm of the bizarre - in essence, how do you know when to end a chapter and start a new one - but it yielded up thoughtful responses nonetheless. What lovely authors*, and what a lovely evening!

Truly, if there are free author events in your area, I hope you'll take advantage and go. Sometimes the evenings are only so-so, but sometimes, when you get lucky as Lisa and I did tonight, they are magical.

Oh - and speaking of lovely authors (were we not?), I have to thank Jo Knowles and Carrie Jones, both of whom are friends and truly lovely ladies as well as being lovely authors, for pimping my auction items on Facebook and Twitter. It appears that at least there have been opening bids on my items for the Kidlit 4 Japan auction, and that makes me happy. Thank you, lovely friends! Oh - and both of them have items in the auction, too. Jo's auction closes on Thursday at 11 a.m. (Carrie's items will go up next week, I believe.)


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On the block

It's natural, I believe, to feel sadness and anguish over the devastation that has been wrought in Japan. First an earthquake strong enough to shift the Earth on its axis, then a tsunami, and now a potentially devastating radioactive event: how can one hear the news and not be horrified?

It's easy, I think, to imagine that all of those things are so Big and so Bad that mere mortals cannot do anything to ameliorate them. It is also wrong.

There are engineers who work at the nuclear power plant who have stayed there, working to do whatever they can to keep the reactor from blowing. They have said (in so many words) that they are willing to sacrifice their lives to try to prevent a nuclear accident, and it looks as though they are going to succeed in avoiding core meltdowns.

There are people on the ground in Japan, doing what they can to help the living and bury the dead. There are relief workers present trying to establish shelters and distribute food and medical assistance.

And there are people here in the United States and elsewhere around the globe who are doing what they can to try to supply the aid that's needed, whether it's collecting up goods and shipping them directly, sending their own money (I've donated to ShelterBox and to the Red Cross), or doing something to help raise money (like Ryan, that guy I told you about last week, who has already sent $2625 of his own money to the Red Cross, and is on his way to another $600 (or more) if he hits 4 million views on YouTube).

In addition to money, I've decided to donate time and energy. I'm taking part in the Kidlit 4 Japan effort, and my item goes on the block starting at 3 p.m. this afternoon (EDT) and closing on Friday at the same time. I'm offering two poetry critiques of one or more poems totalling as many as 75 lines, free or metred verse, rhyme or not - machs nichts to me. (I ask that if you are intending to use a single poem as a picture book text, that you let me know that, since it involves an additional layer of critique, but otherwise that's a-okay as well.) But wait! There's more! Not only will I critique your poem(s) once, but I will happily give them a second look if you'd like.

I sure hope this item is of interest (and use) to you or someone you know.

Meanwhile, I leave you with this article from The Times of India about haiku related to the disasters in Japan. One of the haiku quoted in the article is from a poet named Kenji, who writes:

Great Wave with bared teeth

Seahorse pinned to barbed wire

May time be greener
I hope you'll check out the items available at the auction. Bids can be placed by leaving a comment to the auction post for the item in which you're interested. Proceeds will be sent to UNICEF to assist with relief efforts in Japan.


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Monday, March 21, 2011

Press Here by Hervé Tullet

A dot is such a simple thing. A simple thing that turns into something magically fun in this marvelous new book by Hervé Tullet.

Tullet combines simple, colorful dots with simple, clear directions for a book bound to lead to interactive fun. You can get a sense of what happens inside this book by watching its book trailer, since my telling you what it involves (a) might be unclear and (b) at any rate can't be clearer than an actual demo (accompanied by jazz music and featuring adorable kids):





Things to love about this book: (not all of which are the usual sorts of things I talk about in reviews)

1. Its size. It is square (8-3/4" x 8-3/4").

2. Its cover. Its cover is made of good stiff cardboard of the sort used to make board books.

3. Its pages. They are not board-book pages, but they are a thick, heavy, glossy paper that feels sturdy enough to stand up to toddlers - the target market for this book.

4. Its text. It's not poetic or in any way convoluted; it's a series of simple instructions, with a bit of commentary. E.g., "READY?" (and on the next page) "PRESS HERE AND TURN THE PAGE."

5. Its suitableness for its target age range. This is a book that is targeted for kids who are learning how to follow directions. They are learning their manners and how to put their clothes on and how to line up for things at nursery school and such, and this book is (pardon the pun) spot on for them.

6. Its whimsy. The directions on one page "tilt the page to the left . . . just to see what happens"; the image on the next page shows the dots have bunched themselves up along the left edge of the page. Tullet never claims that there's anything magical going on, yet through the playfulness of the text (and the interaction of the reader), it feels like there's a little something magical happening.

I was pressing, rubbing, shaking and clapping along as I read the book, which I finished with a huge smile on my face - and I'm almost 47, yo, so just imagine how much more fun this book is for an actual child. Highly recommended for anyone with someone in the 2-7 age range around who wants to have some fun.

My thanks to the good folks at Chronicle Books for sending a review copy my way.


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And the silicone chip inside her head gets switched to "overload"

So much to do this rainy Monday, it's not funny. On the plus side, I've accomplished quite a bit of it. On the minus side, I've still got Things to Do.

But before I jet off to do them, a reminder that the Kidlit 4 Japan auction is underway. It includes auctions for critiques and signed first editions and more.

Here's a list of the auctions starting today:

Auction #1
From Monday 3/21 @ 9:00AM EDT to Thursday 3/24 @ 9:00AM EDT
Anne Marie Pace (): One picture book critique and a signed paperback book
Value: $35

Auction #2
From Monday 3/21 @ 10:00AM EDT to Thursday 3/24 @ 10:00AM EDT
Tommy Greenwald: Signed Book or ARC
Value: $15

Auction #3
From Monday 3/21 @ 11:00AM EDT to Thursday 3/24 @ 11:00AM EDT
Jo Knowles (): Signed first editions
Value: $17.50 times 2 winners

Auction #4
From Monday 3/21 @ 12:00PM EDT to Thursday 3/24 @ 12:00PM EDT
Michaela MacColl: Signed first edition of Prisoners in the Palace
Value: $20

Auction #5
From Monday 3/21 @ 1:00PM EDT to Thursday 3/24 @ 1:00PM EDT
Karen Sandler: Query Letter Critique
Value: $50 times 2 winners

Auction #6
From Monday 3/21 @ 2:00PM EDT to Thursday 3/24 @ 2:00PM EDT
David A. Kelly: Signed hardbound copies of Ballpark Mysteries books 1 & 2!
Value: $26

Auction #7a
From Monday 3/21 @ 3:00PM EDT to Thursday 3/24 @ 3:00PM EDT
Marlo Garnsworthy: Signed Books
Value: $30

Auction #7b
From Monday 3/21 @ 3:30PM EDT to Thursday 3/24 @ 3:30PM EDT
Marlo Garnsworthy: MS Critique
Value: $300

Auction #8a
From Monday 3/21 @ 4:00PM EDT to Thursday 3/24 @ 4:00PM EDT
Mike Mullin: Critique
Value: $30

Auction #8b
From Monday 3/21 @ 4:30PM EDT to Thursday 3/24 @ 4:30PM EDT
Mike Mullin: Autographed ARC and tuckerization* in my next novel
Value: $100

*to tuckerize is to use someone's real name as a joke in an original story - this means the winner's name will be included in Mike's next novel


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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Kidlit for Japan Auction starts tomorrow

The news has been horrifying lately, what with massive earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan (and a potential nuclear disaster in the offing) and now military operations over Libya, but there is still plenty of good news in the world - including an upcoming auction (spanning at least two weeks' time) to raise money for relief for Japan.

You can read all about it over at Children's Authors and Illustrators for Japan (abbreviated as "kidlit4japan"), an effort helmed by Greg R. Fishbone to benefit the victims of the Sendai quake and tsunami.

The auction opens tomorrow at 9 a.m. I've seen the daily schedule for this week (because I donated something), and there are going to be some fabulous items and opportunities available during the coming days. My something (a poetry critique) goes up on the block on Tuesday afternoon.

All monies collected will go to the U.S. Fund for UNICEF to help with relief in Japan.

I hope you'll bookmark the Kidlit4Japan site and check often over the next two weeks to see what items are available!


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Quoteskimming

Today, a bit of a potpourri of quotes. First up, the one in my icon: "The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." The quote is by Jane Austen, and is spoken by Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey; it seemed appropriate after posting the Henry Tilney Old Spice parody the other day.

On the viability of books

This is from Lise Lunge-Larsen at Snipp Snapp Snute:

Call me an optimist, but I don’t think books as we know them will die. Radio didn’t die when TV came along. Theater didn’t go away when film was invented. They just had to become better. And so do books.

On perseverance and reaching for goals

I jotted this down after watching Tiffany Derry be eliminated from Top Chef this week - it's what she said in her closing remarks: "Sometimes you don't get where you want to go, but I know you get further than you were before."


And for those of you who keep plugging along, wondering when your day will come (for some, that means publication, for some that means winning an award or having a best-seller), here's a little something from Randy Newman's Oscar acceptance speech. He's someone who is decidedly successful at his craft, and I think his remarks help to put things in perspective:

I’m very grateful for this and surprised. My percentages aren’t great. I’ve been nominated 20 times and this is the 2nd time I won.
On writing

First up, some excellent advice from Jo Knowles's blog post, "Write Like There's No One in the Room":

I know when we put our hearts into our work, when we put the blinders on and focus on the story that needs to be told, no matter how challenging... that's when the best stuff comes out. I really believe that.

Write for yourself first.

Write like there's no one in the room.

Finally, some tidbits from a Slate article, "How to Write a (Good) Sentence: Adam Haslitt on Stanley Fish", which my friend David sent me to read a while back. I finally got around to it this morning, and have skimmed three different quotes from it (four actually, but through the clever use of an ellipse, it doesn't look that way). Haslitt was writing about Fish's book, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, which, based on this article, I need to obtain and read. Eventually. *thinks about still-towering TBR piles*

[T]oo often the instruction to "omit needless words" (Rule 17) leads young writers to be cautious and dull; minimalist style becomes minimalist thought, and that is a problem.

* * *

[T]he form and rhythm of sentences communicate as much meaning as their factual content, whether we're conscious of it or not. . . . The rhythm of the sentence is perfectly matched to its positive content. Indeed, from a writer's point of view the two aren't separate. If we could separate meaning from sound, we'd read plot summaries rather than novels.

* * *

That ability—to graft theme into syntax—is what makes great writing a pleasure to listen to.

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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Out of the Beardspace

Last night found me at the Markheim Art Center in Haddonfield, New Jersey, for the evening's entertainment. I was there to see and hear Out of the Beardspace, a local band that is related to Sexoffice, which I've mentioned before. I know the drummer for both bands, Ethan Feinstien, who has mad skillz. I do not say this lightly, by the by - I base that assessment on lots of personal experience.*

Now, I'm not sure I'm that into their music - it's a sort of jazz fusion/electronica/alt rock that's heavy on long tracks and short on classical song structure - but all of the guys in the band are crazy talented musicians, and I'm especially fond of one of their tracks that always puts me in mind of Spyro Gyra from back in the late 80s. There is absolutely nothing simple about any of their songs - complex rhythms, crazy-complicated bass lines, gobs of syncopation, ballsy use of dissonance - and I admire their musicianship tremendously.

Of course, the reason I was there was for research for my WIP; specifically, I was there to take notes on What People Were Wearing. Especially the shoes on the guys present (in the band and in the audience, since Out of the Beardspace pulled in a rather large following for such a small venue on an open mic night - especially when one considers that 3/4 of the senior class at the high school that Ethan and another band member attends is currently in The Happiest Place on Earth for their senior trip).

Got good notes, heard talented musicians, saw my Intrepid Friend Lisa - I consider it a triumph.

*Little-known fact: I played percussion throughout high school, including 1 year on cymbals, 2 on snare and 1 on bells in marching band, 4 years of percussion in stage band - all instruments, including triangle, clavés, Vibroslap, xylophone, bells, chimes, bass, snare, bongos and timpani (on which I made it as far as Regionals) and four years on piano in jazz band. I never played trap, though I know lots of folks who did, including a couple drummers involved in the rock band I sang with after college. Oh - and I was a music major in college. So I guess I'm saying this is something close to a "professional opinion" when assessing musical skill levels, etc.


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Friday, March 18, 2011

On sloppy first drafts

My thoughts, let me show you them.

I've read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. And I understand her point about first drafts. Here's what she writes to introduce the second chapter of her book:

Now, practically even better news than that of short assignments is the idea of shitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.
And I know lots of people who interpret this statement as meaning that one should simply push ahead, writing down any old thing during the first draft, then fixing it later. Heck, I know several writers who do just that - pedal to the metal, full speed ahead, damn the torpedos (sort of NaNoWriMo-style, now that I think of it).

But.

I find it's just not how I work, even if it's how I plan to work. My intention when writing my current work-in-progress (contemp. YA romance based on an Austen novel) was to forge through fast and fix it later, but I find that doesn't always work. For the scenes that do basically what they're supposed to do, it's just fine. There have been a few scenes, however, where what I wrote fit the "chubby outline" I created, but just wasn't right. I don't mean "close to perfect"-right, either. I mean the tone or content or expression was just off.

And each time that has happened, while I'm busy trying to forge ahead, I find that moving forward feels like I'm dragging someone along with me. Whoever he or she is, they're big, and they've got their hands around my ankles, and it's damned hard to move at all. And I struggle and flail, trying to trudge along, expending tons of energy but not really getting anywhere.

I have learned to pay better attention, and to respond to that feeling by doubling back to find out where those hands grabbed my ankles. And then, I figure out how to fix it. Sometimes I write myself a big note in the "Document Notes" section on Scrivener to tell myself what I need to work on during the next draft (when I know that I left a little something out, but it's not entirely essential) and most of the time I add, subtract or revise what's there. The point is, I figure out what went wrong, and what needs to be done to fix it.

In every case where I've doubled back, I've ended up with something so much better than what I wrote the first time - and something that allows the next scene (or three) to trip merrily along.

And then I realized that this is my process for writing a shitty draft. Because even shitty first drafts require work. More power to those of you who can boldly go where no writer has gone before without looping back to rework things on your first draft - it would be nice, I think, to be able to do that. In the meantime, I'll keep prying those fingers loose from my ankle so I can get back to skipping.


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I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud by William Wordsworth

On my way home from this morning's writing session with Angela De Groot (, who, by the way, just won an award from Writer's Digest for a poem she wrote), I spied daffodils in bloom on a hill. No further explanation is needed for today's poem choice - the rest of my post is a reprise from last April.

Some of you may know this poem as "Daffodils", though that's not its actual name; its real name is "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud", and it's an extremely popular, much-anthologized poem.

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud
by William Wordsworth

I wandered lonely as a cloud
  That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
  A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
  And twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretched in never-ending line
  Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
  Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
  In such a jocund company:
I gazed— and gazed— but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
  In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
  Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.


Form: Each stanza has 6 lines, is written in iambic tetrameter (four iambic feet per line: taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM), and has a rhyme scheme of ABABCC; this form, essentially an open form in "sixain" (six lines to a stanza), was first developed by Shakespeare in "Venus and Adonis", and was used by Wordsworth in this poem, written in 1804.

Discussion: If you read this one aloud, it is easy to fall into a "pause-at-the-end-of-each-line" mentality, as a means of emphasizing the rhyme scheme, but this is something you SHOULD NOT DO, because you will be lulled into a false sense of complacency by the rhythm and sing-song rhyme effect you achieve, and you will not truly hear the poem.

Here's the first stanza written out with pauses only where they naturally occur:

I wandered lonely as a cloud that floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host,
of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake,
beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.


If you go back and read the poem aloud, following the punctuation, you will be able to better hear what Wordsworth is saying. And while references to nature and use of metaphor are common devices in modern poetry, they are used in part because Wordsworth came along and wrote in the way that he did, with a reverence for and appreciation of nature, and with a focus on emotional response to nature and other stimuli. As a result, Wordsworth is widely credited as being one of the first poets in the Romantic era, along with his friend Coleridge, whose poems were included in the 1798 publication Lyrical Ballads, which I referenced in a now-old quoteskimming post.

Today's poem is one of the best-loved and most well-known in the English language, and that is with good reason: its imagery is lovely, its rhyme and metre make it easy to memorize, and the story it tells (of seeing something beautiful and unexpected in nature and reliving it in memory) is one that resonates with a lot of people. Wordsworth also looks at psychological aspects of memory here - he relates the actual story of his walk with his sister, Dorothy, and their happenining upon a large swath of daffodils by a lake. But the point isn't that he took a walk and saw daffodils; it's the emotional journey he took (from loneliness to happiness), and the effect of the memory of the daffodils on his present mood. At the time he wrote the poem, he was breaking new ground, although it may seem tame to some now. But I rather think that those who take the time to read the poem aloud will not think it tame, but will instead take the journey along with Wordsworth from lonely wandering to a happy view of blinding yellow daffodils to an appreciation of the joy the memory must hold.

Speaking of Dorothy Wordsworth, she accompanied her brother most everywhere he went, and she was a poet as well as a diligent diarist. Wordsworth is believed to have relied on her diaries when calling up details to write some of his poems. Here, for instance, is Dorothy's journal entry from the excursion with her brother when they saw daffodils by the lake:


The entry is from her Grasmere Journals, and is dated April 15, 1802:

Thursday 15th. It was a threatening misty morning—but mild. We set off after dinner from Eusemere. Mrs Clarkson went a short way with us but turned back. The wind was furious and we thought we must have returned. We first rested in the large Boat-house, then under a furze Bush opposite Mr Clarkson's. Saw the plough going in the field. The wind seized our breath the Lake was rough. There was a Boat by itself floating in the middle of the Bay below Water Millock. We rested again in the Water Millock Lane. The hawthorns are black and green, the birches here and there greenish but there is yet more of purple to be seen on the Twigs. We got over into a field to avoid some cows—people working, a few primroses by the roadside, woodsorrel flower, the anemone, scentless violets, strawberries, and that starry yellow flower which Mrs C. calls pile wort. When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side. We fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore and that the little colony had so sprung up. But as we went along there were more and yet more and at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about and about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness and the rest tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing. This wind blew directly over the lake to them. There was here and there a little knot and a few stragglers a few yards higher up but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity and unity and life of that one busy highway. We rested again and again. The Bays were stormy, and we heard the waves at different distances and in the middle of the water like the sea. Rain came on—we were wet when we reached Luffs but we called in. Luckily all was chearless and gloomy so we faced the storm—we must have been wet if we had waited—put on dry clothes at Dobson's. I was very kindly treated by a young woman, the Landlady looked sour but it is her way. She gave us a goodish supper. Excellent ham and potatoes. We paid 7/ when we came away. William was sitting by a bright fire when I came downstairs. He soon made his way to the Library piled up in a corner of the window. He brought out a volume of Enfield's Speaker, another miscellany, and an odd volume of Congreve's plays. We had a glass of warm rum and water. We enjoyed ourselves and wished for Mary. It rained and blew when we went to bed. N.B. Deer in Gowbarrow park like skeletons.


It's pretty obvious that Wordsworth and his sister observed the same field of flowers, not just because we know that they were together when they came upon the lake and its flowers, but also because their writings share some other commonalities, such as the description of the daffodils dancing in the wind. Perhaps it's a coincidence, but I rather think not.

I hope you enjoyed your day, and I hope you found daffodils or some other bit of loveliness to hold in your mind's eye. My friend Andi is hosting Poetry Friday today over at A Wrung Sponge - you can see all the entries by clicking the Poetry Friday box below.


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Thursday, March 17, 2011

An interesting sort of research trip

Tomorrow evening, I'm undertaking Serious Research.

No. Really.

I get that it looks like I'm going to a concert. Specifically, I'm going to see local band Out of the Beardspace at their gig in Haddonfield, New Jersey tomorrow evening.

Those of you familiar with my monthly goals this year might assume it's a cultural event - like attending Swan Lake or Beastly - but truly, it's research for my work in progress - a contemporary YA romance based on a Jane Austen novel. There's a rock band in the book, see, and I need additional research.

But first, some more Serious Writing.

Of course, it occurs to me that I have to keep moving ahead with the text. I just moved to a new chapter earlier this week. And I have write another song for my WIP, too - it's almost to the point in the book where the song will debut, so I'd better pull my guitar out and get going.


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Team Tilney for the win!

Hey guys - you all know what a huge fan I am of Jane Austen and her novels, yes? Remember when we spent "August at the Abbey" back in 2009 and read through Northanger Abbey? Remember how charming Mr. Henry Tilney is? Remember how the Old Spice guy made a video for me? (*imagines the sound of a needle skidding off an LP in your minds just now*)

Behold this video from the good Janeites who are on Team Tilney:





"I HAVE A PUPPY." LOL!

As Austen wrote in Volume II, Chapter 8 of Emma (the novel we'll be starting on May 1st), "silly things do cease to be silly if they are done by sensible people in an impudent way."


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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Honk if you love Japan!

For every 1 million views of this video, the reallyreally good-looking guy in the video will donate an additional $600 to relief efforts for Japan. That's on top of the money he pledged as a result of his "honk if you love Japan" day on a street corner in L.A.





He's already past 1 million views - do your part to get him to 2 million, please.

Also: If you are a writer, illustrator, agent or editor, please consider joining me and others in the world of children's literature and donate something for the upcoming auction. Details and a donation form are available at Kidlit4Japan.


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Two words

Well, one word and a proper named that is joined by an ampersand, so I'm not sure it's a word.

Coconut. M&Ms.

NOM!!




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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Second Coming by W.B. Yeats

One of the best things I ever did in life was to minor in English literature. Only being rather clueless, I took a bunch of lit courses as electives because they appealed to me, and then found myself one course shy of a minor - however, I hadn't taken the lit courses that one would take to get the usual minor in English at Susquehanna University, where I went to college. See, instead of taking the usual survey route, I had taken a course in English Romantic poets (surprise!), one in early 20th century American literature, another in early 20th century British literature, and one other course that eludes me. I had started after the early folks (like Chaucer and Shakespeare), and skipped the Victorians and so forth. Luckily, the professor who was the head of the English department sat down with me and we sorted out an independent English minor (does that not sound exactly like what you'd expect to hear about me? Because in a moment of absolutely shocking self-reflection, I have to admit that it does. *sighs at own waywardness*) And so it was that I ended up taking a course on the Realists (that I absolutely hated - DO YOU HEAR ME, JUDE THE OBSCURE?) and wound up with a minor in (wait for it) "Late 19th- and early 20th-century British and American literature". I kid you not.

Anyhoo . . . one of the poets I spent time learning about in my early 20th-century British lit class was William Butler Yeats, who I grew to love. We read quite a number of his selections from my Norton Anthology, and I rather suspect that he was one of the professor's favorites as well. And my professor was big on explaining Yeats's cyclical theory of history, etc., which is why you'll be hearing about it in my explication as well . . . see, I have at this moment forgotten my professor's name, but I've remembered all he taught me about Yeats's inverted spirals and such, including what they looked like on the chalk board, so I am going to share some of that with you. Because this is one of my favorite poems in all the world, and making sense of it is worthwhile, I think.

The rest of this post is a reprise from April 3rd, 2009, as part of my National Poetry Month series.

Which reminds me: Anyone have any requests for the sort of thing(s) they'd like to see next month, when National Poetry Month starts? Because I'm open to ideas. I've been thinking perhaps a series on poetic terms or poetic devices or poetic forms. Or else perhaps a series on the work of a single poet - Frost, Dickinson, Shakespeare, or Wordsworth come to mind, but I'm open to suggestions. Anyone have any preferences? Anyone? Bueller?

The Second Coming
by William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?



Many people assume, based on the title, that this poem is about the second coming of Christ, as foretold in Revelations or the Gospels. That assumption is incorrect. Yeats's poem depicts a male sphinx, awakened from 2000 years of sleep, stalking through the desert toward Bethlehem, where the next "pure soul" will be born, thereby starting the spiraling cycle (in which Yeats believed) anew.

To make sense of the poem, it pays to know a bit about Yeats's life and world view. First and foremost, Yeats was Irish, and kept company with Irish revolutionaries including the great love of his life, Maude Gonne. Yeats was also an occultist, and a member of the Golden Dawn. Yeats and his wife, who was purportedly a medium, believed in a System in which life is patterned after the Great Wheel of time, a wheel with 28 spokes (derived from the moon cycle). Each soul moves through all 28 phases of the wheel; each complete rotation of the wheel takes 2000 years.

Yeats was a believer in opposites -- not just that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, but for every being there is a "mask" -- equal and opposite. He conceived of interlocking (and opposite) spirals -- one is at its widest point when the other is at its base, and vice-versa. These correspond to roughly 2100 year cycles, with something resembling equipoise every 1050 years. For a complete understanding of his theory, read A Vision by Yeats; various summaries can be found on the internet, with a decent representation of the Cycles of History to be found at yeatsvision.com. The gyre of which Keats speaks in the first line of the poem is the outward spiral; if a falcon were to follow the spiral, it would eventually travel so far from the falconer as to be unable to hear commands anymore, and would therefore lose the centerpoint of its gyre and destabilize its path.

Discussion

This can be classified in part as a war poem, first written in 1919, shortly after the end of World War I, when everyone was trying to make sense of a world gone mad. Revolution was still sweeping Europe, including the Russian revolution and, more personal to Yeats, the struggle for Irish independence. In the earlier draft of this poem, Yeats complained "And there's no Burke to cry aloud, no Pitt", referring to two denouncers of the French Revolution. He also made reference to Germany invading Russia; both references were removed, thereby making the poem less specifically about a particular world situation, and rendering it more prophetic in tone.

The first stanza

The first four lines describe the state of the world -- the falcon, a bird typically associated with royalty (or aristocracy) has flown ever higher and wider and farther from its source, until it reaches a point where it has lost contact with its source, the falconer. Oh, how I love the next line: "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold". I picture a pot on a potter's wheel, flaring out nicely but suddenly wobbling and losing its form. These lines are a refences to the political situation in much of the world at the time -- the old kingdoms were no longer able to hold their shapes, and were blown apart, frequently in violence and bloodshed. The folks who should be there to denounce it lack conviction; only the worst elements in society have "passionate intensity."

The second stanza

After setting the stage, Yeats tries to make some sense of it. He grasps for reasons, as the first three lines reflect with their repetition: "Surely some revelation is at hand;/Surely the Second Coming is at hand./The Second Coming!"

Here the poem turns to a vision, which Yeats attributes to Spiritus Mundi (or "the world spirit"), a Zeitgeist type of phrase. He describes his vision of the male-headed sphinx (in Golden Dawn parlance for the mystics in my readership, a representation of Sandalphon, with various connections to Elijah and Enoch, who is historically the entity charged with determining whether a child will be male or female). In the vision, the sphinx "is moving its slow thighs," a sexual turn of phrase, as it moves in the desert.

"The darkness drops again" puts an end to the vision, and Yeats shares its meaning. Twenty centuries of sleep in the desert have ended. A rocking cradle -- here, a sign of instability and not an item of comfort -- has put the sphinx on the move. I can't help but wonder whether the cradle reference is a reference to civilization, which was at the time reeling from so much strife. In any case, Yeats indicates that it was a sign that something big was coming, and that things were about to change (and a new pure soul would be brought into existence, to start the turning of the wheel again).

It bears mention that Yeats paid homage to his two favorite poets, William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley in this poem, first with a nod to Shelley's "Prometheus Unbound," and then with a phrase ("stony sleep") borrowed from Blake's "The Book of Urizen." Yeats held both poets in high esteem, and believed that "Prometheus Unbound" should be understood as one of the world's sacred texts.

The final phrase of the poem, "what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?" is one of Yeats's best-known lines, and one that sticks in the brain, years after reading it for the first time in college, where I also learned about the spirals and cycles and read "Leda and the Swan" and more Yeats. And more Yeats.

Related references

Some of the lines of this poem are popular references for poets and other writers. Things Fall Apart is a popular English-language text by Chinua Achebe used in African schools. The Center Cannot Hold is a memoir of madness by Elyn Saks. Charles Bukowski referenced it in the title of his collection, Slouching Toward Nirvana. Billy Collins in the title of his poem Dancing Toward Bethlehem. Joan Didion in her collection of essays entitled Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Robert Bork in his conservative political treatise, Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline.

And for HBO fans, Wikipedia tells me that the poem has been often-quoted in The Sopranos, now at an end. "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold". Bits of the poem have been used to describe the war in Iraq, with >The New York Times weighing in on the poem's applicability (or lack thereof) to Iraq.

Despite its doom and gloom, I really like this poem. It sticks to your ribs (or in your brain, more likely). And perhaps it helps to know that Yeats didn't see the beast he describes as a bad thing -- in fact, he was to Yeats a most satisfying companion, and a harbinger of good things to come.


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Monday, March 14, 2011

Inspiration from songs

I know people who have found story ideas and book titles and such from songs. I've not gotten story ideas from music, but I have gotten some ideas for poems from song lyrics.

Sometimes it's an epigraph - as with a couple of lines from Linkin Park's song, "Waiting for the End".

Sometimes it's the idea of writing a certain type of poem, as with Taylor Swift's "Story of Us" - it's a poem I haven't written yet, but the idea of writing a poem that tells the story of a particular relationship is on my radar.

Sometimes it's the idea for a type of poem - like perhaps one based on "Body Parts," one of my favorite songs from The Wonders of the Younger, the latest CD from Plain White T's. Now, it sounds like a song about Dexter or something, but it's actually an achingly beautiful song about lost love. (Lead guitarist Tim G. Lopez wrote it about his divorce, and sings leads on it in this album.) And I am quite serious in saying that the lyrics work for me as a poem, which is not always the case when it comes to songs. Seriously, this is one gorgeous song - give it a listen:





Here's the first verse and chorus:

Body Parts
by Tim G. Lopez

My heart was talking to my head,
said I've loved once, I'll never love again.
And my head to this replied,
I miss her too, she was easy on the eyes.
Now all they do is look around for you
And every night, with their lids closed tight,
They're lost in dreams that they'll awake and see
You lying next to me.

I love the structure of this verse (first four lines) and chorus (second four), and the slant rhyme (head/again, replied/eyes - in the second verse you have soles/home, same/away), and, most of all, I love the idea of body parts having a conversation among themselves. All of these are things I intend to play with in the near future. (Right after I stop playing this song on "replay" - it's my latest song obsession.)

What about you? Have you been inspired by a song?


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Sunday, March 13, 2011

A bit of culture in March

1. I went to see Swan Lake with on March 4th - the first time I've ever seen the ballet, although I've heard the Tchaikovsky score many times. The Pennsylvania Ballet's new production was designed to resemble a Degas painting, and the colors and costumes were wonderful - plus they added another layer to the narrative - telling the story of a ballet company that is getting ready to put on Swan Lake and showing scenes involving the principal dancer (also the Siegfried character). Some of the dancing was spectacular - especially the guys leaping about and doing double revolutions in the air, or the linked-up dancing (I'm sure there's a technical term for it) done by four ballerinas.

I was shocked when I found myself in tears as Odette flies off, stuck being a swan. And really happy to see the lead ballerina and a few more swans re-enter the ballet studio just as the curtain dropped.

2. Tonight, the girls and I went to see the movie Beastly, about which I have mixed thoughts.

On the one hand, I really love the story of Beauty and the Beast, and I really thought that Alex Pettyfer was pretty hot - not just in general, but also in beastly form. In fact, I thought he might actually have been hotter as the Beast. This is, however, not new for me. I also like the Disney Beast better than the transformed prince, so it might just be a thing for me.

I LOVED Neil Patrick Harris as the blind tutor, who had hilarious lines and who got to make fun of some of the more sappy lines of dialogue spoken by the leads. "WASSUP!"

I also laughed at quite a number of lines where (I must report) I was the only person in the theatre to do so. But I believe they were intended as funny lines, and that the other 10 or so people in the theatre either didn't see the humor or didn't laugh aloud.

I thought that the movie could have been far better if they'd made Pettyfer a more realistic jerk at the start and not quite so cartoonishly over-the-top. And instead of having them read a single poem for the duration of, say, four or five months while flowers sprouted around them, they should have shown them interacting in other ways and growing closer over time. Although the single poem in the greenhouse scene allowed them to imply a growth in intimacy, it nevertheless felt slightly pointless.

Also? The product placement in the film was almost laughably intrusive. Biggest offenders: Bulgari, Ducati, and Vitamin Water, although there were others. (I'm calling out Coca Cola for the ending credits, for instance.) In fact, it was only slightly less intrusive than the product placement in the Ethan Hawke version of Hamlet (Blockbuster! Diet Pepsi!) or the extremely (intentionally) funny product placement in Wayne's World.

All three of us agreed that the soundtrack was really good, and we'll probably be acquiring it around these parts sometime soon. I especially like the tracks by Tim Myers ("Today's the Day"),Mat Kearney ("Breathe In, Breathe Out") and Gersey ("Crashing").


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Friday, March 11, 2011

Color me confused

I spied this book on the New Releases table at my local B&N this morning, and was much taken by the cover, so I picked it up to see what it was about. (I thought it had been misplaced on the MG table, since it looked like a YA cover to me.)

And it sounds like an intriguing mystery with a dash of first romantic stirrings, involving an 11-year old girl named Felicity.

And I read the first two chapters in the store, as I am wont to do when making decisions.

But it's set during World War II. Correct me if I'm wrong, but little girls - especially little British girls - did not wear jeans then, nor did these sorts of sneakers exist AT ALL for anyone, let alone in these colors. Edited to add: It appears that the Jack Purcell model of Converse sneakers, which is what these appear to be, may have existed at that time. Colors were not introduced until the 1960s, and even then, I'm not sure about these colors.

To sum up:

Love the cover
Love the premise
Like the chapters I read

But the cynical part of me (and it's a relatively large percentage, by the way) cannot help but think that a modern cover has been wrapped around a historical novel in an attempt to disguise the fact that this book is actually historical fiction. And part of me resents that this cover was so very successful in catching my attention, given that it's false advertising.

Still, I'll probably buy it - if not now, then soon - because I very much want to read it.

Further edited to add: Roger Sutton flagged this issue over at his blog, Read Roger, and Betsy Bird called this book out in a round-up post about historicals dressed in modern-looking covers over at Fuse #8.



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Five Things on a Friday

1. I'm thinking about Japan today, and very glad that I contributed to Shelter Box, an organization that I learned of via Maureen Johnson's Twitter feed. Shelter Box provides temporary shelters as well as basic necessities to victims of disaster.

2. This afternoon, I'm off to meet Jennifer Hubbard for lunch and a visit to Children's Book World, my semi-local independent children's book store. I'm very much looking forward to it!

3. I'm still in a bit of a tizzy over the artwork for my picture book, At the Boardwalk, which is (as I said the other day), gorgeous.

4. I am thinking of getting tickets to see the Lantern Theatre's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

5. I've made plans for my birthday - I'll be spending the evening of April 1st at the launch party for Up & Under, the journal published annually by The Quick and Dirty Poets, at The Daily Grind Coffee Shop in Mount Holly, New Jersey. My poem, "San Francisco, Any Night", is in the journal, so I'll be reading poetry and celebrating another publication on my birthday. Sounds good to me!


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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Guess what I'm watching?

If you guessed "the 1995 BBC/A&E production of Pride & Prejudice - AGAIN!" then award yourself a gold star.

See, S is reading P&P for 12th-grade English class, and her teacher has exhorted the class to find and watch this production to assist them with their understanding of the novel. And poor S spent the 12-hours between 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. today in earnest worship of the porcelain god, so she asked to spend the evening with me, and watching P&P, since she determined it wouldn't make her nauseated through crazy camera work or flashing lights or any such other sort of thing.

To borrow from Caroline Bingley, "I am all astonishment" that S is voluntarily watching an Austen film with me.


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If April showers bring May flowers,

. . . what exactly is it that March showers do? Because the rain rain rain is coming down down down in rushing, rising riv'lets.

And it has me alternating between singing the song I just mentioned from Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day and singing Don't Let the Rain Come Down by the Serendipity Singers (I believe I may have the original album on vinyl at home, having inherited many of my parents' records - although my brother cherry-picked some titles, including the Civil War Songs collection I kinda wanted, so I'm not certain).

You may have your pick of songs:










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