Friday, August 29, 2008

Poetry Friday

I am not a poet, nor even much of a reader of poetry, but my research for Women of the Bay State has led me back into the works of Louisa May Alcott. Alcott is not, of course, known for her poetry. Her bread and butter was always her stories for children.From a very young age, however, she wrote poetry. In the poems of her youngest days we see the germ of the great writer she would be come - the eye for detail, the evocation of emotion, the turn of a phrase, along with the inclination to draw a lesson from daily life and then apply it. Obviously we also see conventions of an earlier time -- bear with the author, born and raised in a time so very different from our own!

Consider this cheery bit of philosophy, written when Louisa was about 14:

A Song from the Suds

Queen of my tub, I merrily sing,
While the white foam rises high,
And sturdily wash, and rinse, and wring,
And fasten out the clothes to dry;
Then out in the free fresh air they swing,
Under the sunny sky.

I wish we could wash from our hearts and our souls
The stains of the week away,
And let water and air by their magic make
Ourselves as pure as they;
Then on the earth there would be indeed
A glorious washing day!

Along the path of a useful life
Will heart's-ease ever bloom;
The busy mind has no time to think
Of sorrow, or care, or gloom;
And anxious thoughts may be swept away
As we busily wield a broom.

I am glad a task to me is given
To labor at day by day;
For it brings me health, and strength, and hope,
And I cheerfully learn to say--
"Head, you may think; heart, you may feel;
But hand, you shall work alway!"

Throughout her life Louisa wrote poems in times of powerful emotion. One of her first works published over her own name was a poem she wrote for the John Brown Association commemorating the abolitionist's death. I haven't been able to find a complete text, sadly - it was published in the Liberator in 1860.

I conclude then with a much more sober poem, written in October 1886, when Louisa, already suffering from the long-term effects of mercury poisoning, mourning the loss of her youngest sister May in far-off France. No bright details or perky rhythm here, but still the connection of earthly detail with her philosophical bent, and still the theme of lessons learned:

My Prayer

Courage and Patience, these I ask,
Dear Lord, in this my latest strait;
For hard I find my ten years' task,
Learning to suffer and to wait.

Life seems so rich and grand a thing,
So full of work for heart and brain,
It is a cross that I can bring
No help, no offering, but pain.

The hard-earned harvest of these years
I long to generously share;
The lessons learned with bitter tears
To teach again with tender care;

To smooth the rough and thorny way
Where other feet begin to tread;
To feed some hungry soul each day
With sympathy's sustaining bread.

So beautiful such pleasures show,
I long to make them mine;
To love and labor and to know
The joy such living makes divine.

But if I may not, I will only ask
Courage and patience for my fate,
And learn, dear Lord, thy latest task--
To suffer patiently and wait.

Note: This week's Poetry Friday Round-Up is at Charlotte's Library.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Words, Words, Words

I’m exhausted. I’m generally an early-to-bed-early-to-rise kind of person but this week, I’ve been staying up to watch The Democratic National Convention. Lest you think this is going to be a blog entry about politics, never fear. I’ll be just as tired when the Republicans have their turn. I’d stay up late if the Independents had a convention.

No, I’m a speech junkie. (“Hi, my name is Muriel, and I’m a speechaholic…”)

I love a good turn of phrase probably because I grew up listening to some mighty good lines:

“I have a dream…”

“Ask not, what your country can do for you…”

“That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”

I studied great speeches:

“Four score and seven years ago…”

“…a day that will live in infamy.”

I even played records by groups named after speeches:

The motto of my publishing business is “Words are Magic”. I really believe that.

Words can do so much. They put us down:

“You’re fat.”

“Are you kidding?”

“No, thanks.”

They lift us up:
“Nice job!”

“Love your hair.”

And, one of my personal favorites: “We’d like to offer you a contract for your book.”

They make us cry:
“Pay this amount:[of taxes]” “We regret to inform you...”

I love to listen to a speaker move an audience. Hence my addiction. Generally, when the big guns speak at political conventions, you’re going to get some good stuff. Why? Because they work at it. Last night, for example, it was reported that Hillary Clinton was tweaking her speech until about 20 minutes before she was due to give it. Her party gave her a big job: bring unity out of division. No matter what our political leanings, we all understood what kind of pressure this woman was under. The people who make a living at reviewing this stuff seem to feel she did the job.

I wasn’t just curious about whether the former first lady would pull it off, however. I was looking for other stuff and I got it. I like memorable phrases that make me laugh and make me think:

“We don’t want 4 more years of the last 8 years.”

“…and to my fellow members of the sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits…”

“My mother was born before women had the right to vote and my daughter got to vote for her mother for president.”

So, what, you wonder, does this all have to do with being a writer for children? Notice that every memorable speech is succinct. We not only remember ideas. We remember actual phrases. Listening to good speakers reminds us what takes to be good writers: a willingness to edit and a working delete button. Imagine if John F. Kennedy had said, in his inaugural address: “My fellow Americans, don’t bother to ask the federal government to take care of all of your problems because that’s not going to happen. Instead, we should all think about the ways we can help the federal government accomplish its goals.”

Not quite as snappy, is it? That's the point. Great writing is snappy. Now, go cut a bunch of words out of your manuscript.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Journaling: Another Option

In 1999, when I began my first term in Vermont College’s MFA in Writing for Children program, the graduating class was preparing to receive their diplomas. I’m not sure if it was the Class of ‘99 or classes before them that began the tradition of presenting incoming students with journals during the graduation ceremony.

The books the outgoing class gave us are huge, magazine-sized--not the typical diary one easily can throw in a purse or backpack. The dark gray cover is decorated with a pen-and-ink drawing of a woodpecker. The bird had special meaning for the Class of ’99 and there was a story that went with the choice—though I don’t recall what it was. (Probably something about tenacity? Digging deep for the “meat” of a story?)

I remember being frightened by the prospect of filling that book. In the past, I’ve done a bit of diary writing, but it was mostly when I was in a bad mood and needed to vent privately. Some of my fellow grad students kept journals of story ideas. I didn’t want to do that. If I had an idea, I didn’t want to detour it into a journal and lose my momentum. I’d rather start a new manuscript. Other writers kept journals of writing exercises, character explorations, visual descriptions to use in future stories.

All nice, but not for me.

I finally found a way to keep the journal that would be useful for me. One of the requirements for the MFA program is to read professional articles and write a commentary on them. I found I liked the dissecting of ideas. I decided to keep up this study of other writers in my journal. Over the years, as I read articles in professional magazines or books about writing, I find certain sentences or paragraphs that I want to remember. I copy them into my journal:

“Writing is not psychology. We do not talk “about” feelings. Instead the writer feels and through her words awakens those feelings in the reader.”
Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones, p. 68

“I’ve learned to base my characters as much as possible on real people. There are ‘characters’ all around us, and there is really no need to embellish…The most interesting characters I’ve ever read about are ordinary people place in extraordinary situations and forced to react.”
David De Batto, “Breakthrough” The Writer, Feb. 2007

Sometimes, I keep the quotes simply for re-reading. Other times, I comment on them. When I’m finished, I don’t need to hang on to magazines full of ads or articles that don’t apply to me.

The process of writing down the words we read is a form of kinesthetic learning. Educators deal with this topic every day as they try to present lessons to children in a multitude of forms so that students who learn best visually, orally, or kinetically can process new information. We as writers can do the same for ourselves.

Try it. It sure beats having a mess of old magazines hanging around.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Poetry Friday--Poems Turned Picture Books

Four or five years ago, the Write Sisters gathered in Kathy's kitchen to critique one Friday night. Janet brought an adult poem to run by us. She was thinking she might send it to Yankee Magazine, and wondered if we thought it was a good fit. She read Sail Away, Little Boat, and the decision was unanimous. Ditch Yankee Magazine. With just a little tweaking, she could turn that old poem into a picture book. (That's my nod to Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, who turned many an old barn into a theater.)

Being open-minded, Janet gave it a whirl. She tweaked and toned her poem, and sent it off to Ellen Stein at Carolrhoda. Ellen loved it, and signed up Janet's poem-turned-picture-book for Carolrhoda's Spring 2006 catalog. Just like that. No rejections. No hand-wringing. No self-doubt.

And now Janet has joined the ranks of picture book poets, among them Clement L. Moore with The Night Before Christmas, Robert Frost with Runaway, Arnold L. Shapiro with Mice Squeak, We Speak, and our own Kathy Deady with All Year Long. I'd say Janet's in pretty good company, but you can judge for yourself.

"Let's launch our boat through the wild, roving brook
And watch as it slides and swirls through the nooks
Of a root-tangled bank where deer like to eat
The tasty green moss growing thick at their feet."

"Sail Away, Little Boat to search for new friends.
Just follow the brook, till it reaches its end."

"Past the slicky-back otter and his slippery friends
Who rollick and roll through the brook as it bends
Over smooth rocks and cool rocks, a wild water ride
As lickety-split the sleek otters slide."

"Past the bullfrogs that hide in a thick cattail forest
And croak out the notes of their splish-splashy chorus."


This week's Poetry Friday Roundup is at Read. Imagine. Talk.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

'Nough Said

Many thanks to Rebecca Rule for her wonderful review of Women of Granite: 25 NH Women You Should Know.

Look for it in the Nashua Telegraph, The Concord Monitor, and other newspapers or right here on-line:

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Portsmouth WOG Sighting!

Three of the Write Sisters managed to connect with another WOG subject. Yesterday, Muriel, my "civilian" pals Lynne Barret and Kathy Winn, and I headed into Portsmouth to hear Doris "Granny D." Haddock speak at the South Church. We hooked up with Diane on State Street at Re-Enhabit, my cousin Jodie Curtis's store. Jodie is a sales genius and shared tons of great tips for getting Women of Granite: 25 New Hampshire Women You Should Know (WOG) and the other books in Mur’s Apprentice Shop Books' catalog into stores. She pointed out that these are exactly the kinds of books (well-written, interesting subjects, relevant to the area) that do extremely well in touristy towns such as Portsmouth. We talked with her for about an hour (actually Jodie gave us a crash course in the fine art of sales), and then went to Popovers in Market Square for an outdoor dinner.

Dinner on the sidewalk in Portsmouth is a people-watching extravaganza. The Leftist Marching Band just happened to be playing at a peace rally on the corner right next to Popovers. The band was a colorful mix of old and young hippies attired appropriately and adorned with some of the best body art this side of Seattle. We arrived just in time for the don’t-shop-at Walmart sing-along. Regardless of your feelings about Walmart or your political leanings, they were fantastic. Democracy in action is a beautiful thing. Dinner was mighty tasty, too.

After the band finished, who should appear from the dispersing crowd but Doris “Granny D.” Haddock! She wore her trademark feathered hat, and the only concession to her 98 years was a pair of escorts, one on either side. Lynne snapped a couple of great pictures, and we told Granny we were looking forward to her speech that evening.

We spent the rest of our time in Market Square talking about the literary world's designated next big thing, Brunonia Barry's first novel The Lace Reader (William Morrow, 2008). This originally self-published book ended up going for better than 2 million dollars at auction. At that price, it better be the literary world’s next big thing. Anyway, both Lynne and Kathy live in Salem, Massachusetts, where The Lace Reader is set. They said that the buzz surrounding this book is phenomenal. Salem, a huge tourist town, has even added a Lace Reader Tour to the tourist trolley schedule.

After dinner we headed to the South Church, passing Granny D. and her escorts on our way. (Not much of a feat, really. The woman is 98-years old, after all.) Granny D.'s speech was absolutely inspiring! There aren’t many folks left who remember first-hand women winning the right to vote. She was 10-years old at the time, and recounted how excited and proud her mother was at the prospect of casting her first vote. She made the crowd laugh when she told how her mother turned to her father and asked, “Who should I vote for?” She was quick to point out that was the one and only election for which she sought his advice.

Granny D. remembered trying to bring her father into the Democratic Party. He was a Lincoln Republican (as in personally remembers Lincoln!) and a hard sell. Can you imagine in the year 2008 being able to say that your father was a contemporary of Abraham Lincoln? It’s stunning, really.

We presented Doris with a copy of WOG, and ended up creating a little WOG buzz within the crowd. We are finding that once people learn about WOG, they always want to hear more.

Oh, and guess who else was spotted on State Street yesterday. Jeanne Shaheen, another of our WOG subjects! Diane saw the Governor and her husband strolling past Re-Enhabit shortly before Mur and I arrived.

It was a veritable WOG festival in Portsmouth yesterday!

Friday, August 15, 2008

Poetry Friday--Prompts

I'm enjoying a lovely vacation in Maine, but sadly, I'm unable to break the tie with my computer! Luckily I have a new teeny-tiny laptop. It's an ASUS Eee, and, it's pink! But I digress...

I'm going to give you a few places to go to for poetry prompts. I'm in a gorgeous environment, so this week I'm not necessarily in need of a prompt, but for those of you who are stuck at home/work, you may want to try something new! Have fun!

The Journal has many prompts for both poetry and prose.

Robert Lee Brewer has a blog, "Poetic Asides," associated with Writer's Digest that challenges the poet with weekly prompts.

There are many other bloggers who provide poetry prompts on a regular basis, so go to your favorite blogging site and try a search on "poetry prompts."

The teacher resource, Scholastic Magazine, has prompts on this page (scroll down to the bottom). Try them out yourself, then use them the next time you get an opportunity to work with kids.

Here's a prompt for you. I just overheard it in the lobby (wireless access in the lobby surrounds you with lots of conversation).
Prompt: "You know what I've noticed since I've been up here?"

How about this one: "She's just a daughter-in-law."

Or this, "I've been losing a lot of..."
Go at it poets!


This week's Poetry Friday round-up is at Big A little a.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Crossroads

The Crossroads
By Chris Grabenstein
Random House 2008
Middle Grade Ghost Story

I picked up The Crossroads, by Chris Grabenstein, because of the title. Years ago, criminals were often buried at a crossroads in the belief that their ghosts wouldn't be able to find their way back to town, so the title indicated it might be a paranormal story. I picked it up and read the back cover. It read:

Have you ever seen a face hidden in the bark of a tree and known the man trapped inside wanted to hurt you?
Oooh. Cool, I thought. I flipped to the front jacket blurb. It read:

Meet Zach Jennings.
Awesome kid.
He has a hardworking father.
A new stepmother.
A new house.
Even a new dog, Zipper.
Things are looking up for Jack.
Except that there is this ghost.
This really nasty ghost.
A ghost who kills people.
And Zach is on his list.

Now how can you not pick this book up? I bought it, ($16.99) took it home, and started to read.

The Crossroads is about eleven year old Zach Jennings who moves to his Dad's old home town, right on the intersection of County Road 13 and State Highway 31. Neither he, his dad, or his new stepmom knows a terrible car accident happened there fifty years ago where a busload of people, a police officer, and the driver of another car were all killed. Nor do they know the ghosts of all those people still wander about town, and the ghost of the man who caused the accident - a particularly nasty man - just happens to be trapped inside the tree in their back yard. During a storm, lightning hits the tree and the ghost escapes, intent on getting revenge on all the people who ruined his life while he was alive.

The novel is written very much like a Stephen King novel - a lot of short chapters involving a lot of people who all come together in one way or another for the story's climax. The opening was slow and hard to get through, and the writing was passive more often than not. I was never sucked into the book. But once the ghost arrived on the scene (page 80) things started to pick up.

Eleven year old Zach Jennings is supposed to be the main character. He's hardly in the story, and when he is, he's practically a secondary character. He doesn't make decisions on his own, he just follows along blindly with whoever else is in his chapter. He doesn't realize anything bad is happening, or that there even is a ghost, let alone a ghost who wants to kill him, until almost the very end. And though the ghost does want to kill him, it's not his main objective. He passes up a chance to kill Zack for the possibility of having a burger, fries and chocolate shake. Killing Zach doesn't become important to him until almost the end of the book.

The real hero of the story is Jack's stepmother, a children's book author. She's the one who discovers the mystery. She's the one who digs up all the clues. Well, she doesn't really dig them up. The local librarian hands her everything she needs to know, then she puts the pieces together. And she gets rid of the ghost. Zach does have a hand in it, but he's just doing what he's told.

Chris Grabenstein normally writes for adults and that may explain why the book is about adults and why the problems are solved by adults. Zach is the one who destroys the tree, but he has no idea why he's doing it, again, not until almost the end. Until then, he's just doing what his friend asks him to do.

And there were a lot of incidents where things just "coincidentally" happened. We never see Zach play a video game, but when he suddenly uses a wrestling move on the ghost, it's one he learned from playing video games. And when his step mom finds a key to a safe deposit box, the librarian's husband just happens to be the man in charge of them at the bank.

And yet, while I did feel like the book fell way short of the promise of the jacket flap, it did keep me interested. Not riveted, but interested. I just wonder if it will keep a kid interested. I'd say pick it up at the library or wait for the paperback.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

We Bit the Bullet...

and booked flights to and from Washington, D.C. for the National Book Festival being held on September 27. We're staying for two nights and hoping to sneak in a little touristy stuff before and after the festival.

Come to find out, not all the Sisters have visited D.C. before! So, it would be a mistake for us to run down to the Festival, and not spend a little time introducing our D.C. "virgin" to the wonderful results of our paying income taxes all these years. We're sure to stop at the Smithsonian. And perhaps the Library of Congress? (They have awesome bathrooms!) The National Archives is another place to hit. And how could we miss the National Gallery of Art? And then, there's the World of Beer for the after hours! I can hardly wait!

So many places, so little time! If you have any places to recommend visiting, let us know! (I'm going to suggest we steer clear of the more emotionally charged places like The Wall, or the Holocaust Museum. Too much sadness to process in a limited amount of time.)

Before we go, maybe I'll visit the children's room at my local public library to look for some of these:

Capital!: Washington D.C. from A to Z by Laura Krauss Melmed (HarperCollins, 2002).

The Lincoln Memorial by Kathleen W. Deady Capstone, 2002).

My Senator and Me: A Dog's Eye View Of Washington, D.C. by Edward Kennedy (Scholastic, 2006).

The U.S. House of Representatives and The U.S. Senate, both by Muriel L. Dubois (Capstone, 2003).

The Washington Monument also by Muriel L. Dubois (Capstone, 2002).


Thursday, August 7, 2008

Mr. Untermeyer & His Golden Treasury of Poetry

The Golden Treasury of Poetry (Selected and with Commentary by Louis Untermeyer and illustrated, beautifully, by Joan Walsh Anglund) was a gift for my birthday. It was a book I dipped into again and again as a child, and still do as an adult.

Louis Untermeyer was always a mystery to me, but I like the poems he chose. Now through the miracle of Google, I know who he was. Editor, anthologist, humorist, subversive, game-show panelist, poetry guy, Louis Untermeyer's name was bandied about by the House on Un-American Activities committee in the early 1950s.

Once he was blacklisted, Louis lost his job on What's My Line. He'd held the post for only a year or so. Bad news for Louis was ultimately good news for Bennett Cerf. Cerf's gig lasted more than fifteen years. According to Louis's friend, the playwright Arthur Miller, Louis stayed in his house for a year after being blacklisted.

Luckily McCarthy didn't stop Louis. In his fifty years in the writing field, he wrote, edited, anthologized, and translated over one hundred books, including his own poetry.

Including the book that is still one of my all-time favorites. Even as a kid, I got a kick out of the comments that accompany many of the poems in The Treasury.

“In the beginning, there must have been elves. The young world seems to have been full of pixies and fairies, goblins and wizards.”

I didn't know then I was reading poems that had been written for adults. Years later I encountered some of them, realizing with pride that Untermeyer trusted me with not only children's poetry, but 'adult' poetry as well.

Among my favorites: I Meant To Do My Work Today by Richard LaGalienne; Catalog by Rosalie Moore (Cats sleep fat and walk thin); The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes, An Introduction to Dogs by Ogden Nash, and Elizabeth Bishop's The Fish.

Louis nails his commentary on Bishop's writing just as Bishop nailed that fish with her short lines, “startling us by their precision”.

I tip my hat to Louis Untermeyer today, and leave you with a few lines from The Fish.

He hung a grunting weight
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wall-paper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
--the frightening gills
fresh and crisp with blood
that can cut so badly --

Go here to read and marvel at Bishop's beautiful fish story.

Note from Diane: Today's Poetry Round-Up is at Becky's Book Reviews.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

You Might Think I'm Strange...

but, I like to visit graveyards, especially old ones. I find them neither creepy, nor scary.

It's a little sad sometimes, when I see the tiny stones marking the graves of infants. Or, come upon family stones and I surmise that disease must have visited the household since several members passed within days or weeks of each other.

Now that I'm older and know a little more history, the gravestones offer up clues to the lives of the deceased. I look for the connections between their deaths and the times in which they lived.

I marvel at the longevity of some of the early settlers--some who lived into their eighties and nineties at a time when life expectancy was probably less than 40 years.

Gravestone art is a whole other fascinating aspect of visiting graveyards. Every time period had its favored symbols--weeping willow trees, or fingers pointing heavenward. There are many websites you can visit to learn more about gravestone art and symbolism, click here for one.

I have no known relatives in this region, so my graveyard visits are simply ways to spend a pleasant afternoon. While doing research for Women of Granite, though, I went looking for the grave of one of the women I profiled, Mary Bradish Titcomb.

Mary was born in Windham, NH, and despite leaving the town for the adventure of living in the city-- Boston--she came back to Windham for her final resting place. I checked the cemetery records at the local library and noted where her grave was supposed to be, then a friend and I headed to the graveyard one sunny afternoon. It turned out to be easy to locate her grave, but grass and weeds had grown up around the original headstone, and the additional tribute stone that had been added some 40 years later. What else could I do but get down on my hands and knees and start pulling the weeds. After that I brushed away the dirt so that I could read the inscriptions and then, I took a picture.

I've located, maybe not by visiting, but in other ways, the gravesites of several of my profiled women. It has rounded out my research, and given me a feeling of connection to my subjects.

If you're looking for the grave of someone, here's a good place to start,

Visit a graveyard--I won't think you're strange!

Friday, August 1, 2008

Poetry Friday

We are very fortunate here in New Hampshire. Besides our production of maple syrup, apples, and granite, we also seem to be able to nurture something else: great poets. Four of the U.S. Poets Laureates have lived in our little state:

Robert Frost (1958-1959)

Maxine Kumin (1981-1982)

These two served when the job was still called "Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress."

The following men served under its new title: "Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry."

Donald Hall (2006- 2007)

Charles Simic (2007-2008)

While it is a source of pride for our state to claim some ownership of any of these wordsmiths, I must confess a personal bias towards Donald Hall. He, too, writes for children. His charming The Ox Cart Man is the most basic and colorful explanation of the annual circle that is all our lives.

"In October he backed his ox into his cart
and he and his family filled it up
with everything they made or grew all year long
that was left over."

While set in a long ago period dominated by home-grown foods and home-made products, the book reminds us to look for systematic repetitions that mark our own seasons. It may not be harvesting, going to market, inside chores, and planting as is the case for Hall's oxcart man, but we, too, mark time in our own ways: buying school supplies, holiday preparations, spring yard clean-ups, summer vacations. Life, no matter what the century, is lived in a circular fashion.

Like many others I have used The Oxcart Man in classrooms, for inspiration, and for the simple pleasure of reading the succinctness of the words. But, it is not my favorite book by Hall. My favorite opens with this sentence: "I've never worked a day in my life."

In Life Work Hall reveals the contentment, ease, and joy of earning a living with words. How many of us wish to be able to do so?

"Almost twenty years ago," Hall writes, "I quit teaching--giving up tenure, health insurance, and annual raises... I worked like crazy to pay tuitions and mortgages--but because I loved my work it was as if I did not work at all."

May we all feel as if we do "not work at all."

Note from Diane: This Friday's Poetry Round-Up is at the Well-Read Child. Stop by!