I have been shockingly neglectful of Poetry Monday this last month, but health scares in my family and needless deaths in my community have sent me to poetry, as trouble always does. Mary Oliver is a favorite and this poem is a good one. Have a soulful Monday.
Walking to Oak-Head Pond, and Thinking of the Ponds I Will Visit in the Next Days and Weeks
What is so utterly invisible
not the wind,
not the inside of stone.
And yet, how often I’m fooled-
I’m wading along
in the sunlight-
and I’m sure I can see the fields and the ponds shining
I can see the light spilling
like a shower of meteors
into next week’s trees,
and I plan to be there soon-
and, so far, I am
just that lucky,
my legs splashing
over the edge of darkness,
my heart on fire.
I don’t know where
such certainty comes from-
the brave flesh
or the theater of the mind-
but if I had to guess
I would say that only
what the soul is supposed to be
could send us forth
with such cheer
as even the leaf must wear
as it unfurls
its fragrant body, and shines
against the hard possibility of stoppage-
which, day after day,
before such brisk, corpuscular belief,
shudders, and gives way.
from What Do We Know, Volume V, Number 3, Summer 2001
Perseus Books Group
Yesterday was the 75th anniversary of the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge and today is Memorial Day. I was home with my sisters at our mother’s house when this incredible fireworks display took place. We might have tried to hike up the hill and try for a glimpse but we never once thought of it, partly because our mom was in hospital (home now and cleared of worrisome complications) and partly because we lost a sister off the bridge many years ago. We’ve got those mixed feelings.
I am fond of the bridge. The summer after my freshman year in college I took a walk onto the bridge with a friend who had just been treated for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He talked about how it seemed like the hospital made him sick – he’d felt fine when he went in. It was cold and windy on the bridge and we didn’t walk out too far, but we looked back at Berkeley while he told his story. A gifted photographer, he would go on to become a doctor. I loved this boy and never told him, and I was so scared and grateful all at once about the cancer and his getting through his treatment. Standing on the windy deck with the cars racing by I felt so close to him. There was no internet then; you went off and left people behind unless they were the sort to write letters. It turned out we weren’t.
Here is a beautiful post about the head of the bridge painting crew that is always working on the Gate. I felt that sense of its being alive that day with Daniel.
Several years ago I was visiting my best pal Laura at her family’s lake place in Wisconsin over the 4th of July. Her dad, who flew over 35 missions as a navigator on B29′s in the Pacific, gathered the kids and conducted a solemn flag ceremony. It was so lovely and simple and really passed along his sense of country and duty to his grandchildren’s generation. Later during that visit, he told us a story over dinner that Laura had not heard before, about the end of the war.
Doug was on his way home when the war ended and so was stuck for a time in the Pacific theater as the armed forces worked to move all the returning soldiers at once. Mail from home reached him on the boat to the west coast via plane, including the front page news of the GI Bill. When they arrived in San Francisco they steamed under the Golden Gate, which was draped with a welcoming banner and were greeted jubilantly on the docks. Kissing. Food. Home.
All the trains had been commandeered for the return of servicemen, and the train to Chicago stopped in every little town. The stations had been set up with field telephones and Doug called his mom all along the way. At every station they were greeted with food and love and welcomed home. A remarkable way to return and the only place I’ve heard that story told. Of course as he told it there were tears in his eyes. All the friends lost, an old man in his early 20′s. But he started a life, went to college on the GI bill, and had a family.
So I think of him when I see the bridge, and the surprise of seeing the welcome waiting for them.
A tip of the cap to all those who have served and lived. They carry the memories forward of those who never got to make it home and of the war. It’s a great burden and an honor too. Here is a video of Doug talking about his time in the war.
I’m still trying to get my mind around my experience at The Evergreen State College over the weekend. Celebrating the 40th anniversary of the founding of the college, The Return was organized not so much around the chicken dinners and salad lunches and tearful embraces of old friends and colleagues – though these were all in the mix – but the seminars, lectures, panels and far-ranging inquiry that are the hallmarks of learning at Evergreen. Panels and keynotes studded the days but the seminars were at the heart of our time and all of them ran full. The experience was deep, it was funny (Matt Groening was the anchor draw to the comics and animation panel on Saturday afternoon but everyone else on the stage more than held their own), and it was provocative. The ongoing conversations were about the founding generation of students; the ethic of venturing forth, doing one’s work and making a difference; the changes in our lives and in education that technology has brought, and how to preserve the crucial mix of individual initiative, collaborative and interdisciplinary inquiry, and diversity in the student body – all while saving the world.
I enlisted my best pal from Evergreen, Laura Millin, who ran the gallery her senior year, went on to found On The Boards, COCA, Art In Form (a business selling artist books and an early outlet for ‘zines and comics), and ended up at the Missoula Art Museum where she oversaw the expansion of the museum, created a dedicated gallery for First Nations artists and has established the art museum as central to the life of the community. Laura is typical of ‘Greeners we met and saw again after many years. The accomplishment factor is awesome, but the quieter stories are impressive as well, the college professors, librarians, entrepreneurs, writers, artists, doctors and scientists, dancers, and those who have explored a number of fields, continuing in the interdisciplinary tradition of their time at Evergreen.
At an evening of wine and conversation with our mentor in the arts, Maralyn Frasca, Laura was recounting her undertakings after graduation and I said that I thought I’d been flipping pancakes that whole time, but truthfully I was writing and making artwork, working away at the 10,000 hours that hopefully lead to mastery, still a task I work at every day.
The notion of passion married to responsibility and underpinned by service was evident in all conversation. Having been a student in the first ten years of the college, when the founding faculty, newly minted PHD’s all, were still refining and inventing the mode of learning that would serve us all so well in our lives, I realized how lucky and how unique was the experience of my education. Lynda Weinman of Lynda.com, the online learning site with over a million subscribers, gave the final keynote we saw during our stay, on education of course, and the challenge going forward of integrating our digital lives with the intense, in-person learning that has served us Greeners so well in life. This subject, along with a lunch time conversation with professor emeritus and environmentalist Oscar Soule about the future of the planet, have been occupying all of the free space in my thinking ever since.
I’ll pretty much read anything about Carl Sagan, so when my weekly omnibus of goodness from Brain Pickings arrived with a quote from him on books I followed its lure to the Brain Pickings website (if you haven’t discovered Brain Pickings and the curation of Maria Popova, do your self a favor and subscribe to the weekly newsletter). This led me to watch a remarkable short film by Penny Lane, created for her husband as a wedding gift and based on Carl Sagan, the space program and the story of how he and his wife fell in love. It’s inspiring – take the time to watch it, and read the post on Brain Pickings if you like.
I watched this valentine to the imagination and the possible on Mother’s Day, after spending Saturday with our two grandchildren at our place. I felt so grateful for the chance to be there when Marcelaine had a moment to lie in the hammock and really see for the first time the trees surrounding our house. Hearing the awe in her voice when she said, “That’s a really tall tree” was the best thing about the afternoon. I had time with her brother Sebastien too, off his game from having woken too early from a nap. We watched the birds and saw a butterfly, enjoyed the sun and mostly just sat together. I’m so glad I was raised close to nature, spending a lot of time in the woods, hiking, by the trout stream and camping with my family. It was a great gift my parents gave me, and it’s an honor to pass along a little of that experience. It’s so fantastic to see my daughter with her children, patient and funny and kind and to see them as they grow from babies – a little bit of her too, since she was nearly twelve when I came into the family. Somehow all of this coalesced for me in the vastness of space and the lucky accident of us within that vastness. Lucky, lucky human that I am to be here.
I must have read this book to my little sisters about a million times when I was growing up. Of the books illustrated by Maurice Sendak that I read as a child, this was the favorite. Else Holmelund Minarik’s “A Kiss For Little Bear” had all the components of her other books in this series: simple, clear language, an adventurous child and loving adults, all brought to life as bears, the adults dressed up in the clothes of long ago. I adored the illustrations of this series. Maurice Sendak was a beacon for me as a child – I loved everything about the way he drew, his meticulousness as well as his freedom. He made some really great books. Here is his obituary in today’s New York Time. And here is a link to President Obama reading Where The Wild Things Are aloud to a bunch of kids on the White House lawn. Have a wild rumpus of a day.
Washed up on the shores of May. At the beginning of April I pledged to myself to try and post every day in the month. I had been struggling to post even once a week and thought this would decide the matter. To blog or to bag? I discovered that I can post (nearly) every day without too much fuss, but that this often represented the time I had to write, so that my other writing suffered. In these times, when having a presence online is key to broadcasting one’s creative content (this sounds so much more dispassionate than it is – it’s allowing people to find and support you as an individual in the marketplace of ideas and objects and services and friendship), the notion of a blog or a Facebook page or a Twitter account cannot be ignored. The most important thing is to do the work and to have a life that is shared – so this is the balance to aim for. Do the work and sustain the outward reach.
I chose April for my experiment, Poetry Month, and this made my daily duty easier because I love poetry. But April was also the SCBWI WWA conference, so busy and overwhelmed was the operating mode. Lots of rich content coming in for consideration. Since the conference I’ve been meditating on the dynamic relationship between the writer and the reader in a novel; looking ahead to the coming year and thinking about events for kidlit folk in our area; returning my focus to my job, which has been busy every day; and contemplating picture books. I have the great pleasure of reading picture books with my family’s three year old, so can see when a book and its visuals captivate her, what about the experience demands a repeat reading and how important the physical experience of handling the book, turning the pages, touching the illustrations and having ownership of a story are. We Planted a Tree by Diane Muldrow, illustrated by Bob Staake is a current favorite. Our girl loves to count the trees by color as she points to the endpapers, her favorite place in the book.
Two conference presentations on picture books combined to bring home some useful truths about how narrative and visual images combine in the craft of picture book design. I’ve written about Melissa Sweet’s keynote, with its glimpses of her studio, the flow of her work in developing illustrations, the rigor she brings to her practice and the passion she holds for the medium of picture books. I think it was her insistence on the drama of the page turn that allowed me to really focus on that issue when Andrea Welch from Beach Lane Books gave her session on creating successful picture books. She used a book she worked on, LMNO peas, to illustrate how she works with an author to bring a successful book to publication.
Andrea pointed out that a picture book has to speak to an essential emotional or developmental need for a child and have a compelling narrative arc – as well as being creatively unique and written in language that sings or captivates. She makes a dummy for every picture book she works on, replicating the page turn that the child will experience in order to see if the story is working well. This also brings the physical action of reading the book to its editor, placing the story in the context of the body as it will be for young readers (my observation). For me, the drama of the page turn has dominated my thinking since the conference, a metaphor for pacing, for moments of change, for movement forward, for telling story. Not just a metaphor. I must have finally been ready to hear it, but the poetics of a picture book, its mechanisms and the litmus test of developmental relevancy have come together in a much clearer way for me than ever before. I’ve always navigated words+pictures by intuition. Now that these touchstones are unavoidable when thinking of this kind of story, it’s all I can think about. Picture books – another thing I carry with me out of Poetry Month.
Thursday is Poem in Your Pocket Day. Part of Poetry Month, this is a day when you are meant to choose a poem, stick it in your pocket and bring it out to share with the people around you. I thought about what poem would be good for this purpose – short, yet powerful was what I thought. So I chose a poem I found some years ago and set in letterpress to print for my annual Christmas card. Pablo Neruda has had a special place in literature for me since I was a child. Reciting his poetry bought me peace and belonging, and the music of his language, which at the time I couldn’t fully translate, taught me that language should have cadence and beauty in order to fully express its meaning.
The year I was nine, turning ten, I lived in Santiago, Chile. My dad was on sabbatical from the University of California at Berkeley, and some Chilean friends had arranged for a position at the University of Chile where he was helping to set up a computing center. We went in January, the end of summer for the school year. The girls of school age in the family started at Santiago College, at that time a Catholic all-girl’s school. Everything was different from any school we had known. Uniforms. English, but with most students speaking Spanish when not in class. We weren’t rich and weren’t Embassy either; we lived in the wrong part of town – not poor but not wealthy. No access to the PX but no privilege to make up for it. I was shy but resolute. I saw around me a Catholic country where everyone was religious and the churches were lined in gold, the sumptuous interiors smelling of incense and must, with the doors locked at night. Children my age came to the gate, begging for food. I thought that this country’s God was not doing his job. And so after awhile, when we all stood behind our desks to begin the day with the Lord’s prayer, I stopped saying it. I thought: how can I pray in good faith when what I see makes of this prayer a mockery?
My teacher noticed. It became a war of wills and, naturally, I lost the battle. I was made to wait outside the classroom door until everyone entered, the roll was taken, the prayer said. Only then could I cross in front of the class to take my seat. Things did not go well for me in class. I had relief in two places only, chorus, where a beautiful widow taught us voice, and Spanish. Because I had no Spanish I was tutored twice a week.
I don’t remember the teacher’s name, only that she was kind and had red hair that I thought was probably dyed. Usually we had our sessions in a small study room a few doors down from my classroom, but on nice days we went through black iron gates to the courtyard in the upper school, where there was a fountain and trees and shade and where, if I was clever, I could work in a reference to Pablo Neruda and we would abandon our lesson and talk about poetry.
Pablo Neruda was, and is, a national hero. In my own country there was no idea of a writer or a poet or an artist having the respect of the nation. This was a huge idea to me, and aside from the release from the classroom and its pressures that our discussions meant, this concept captivated me. My tutor would recite, and have me recite, the poems in Spanish and tell me about Neruda’s life in exile and his return, and how much his poems meant to the people. I could take off my shoes and socks and my wool blazer with its embroidered insignia, and sit on the lip of the fountain with my feet in the cool water, goldfish tickling my skin with their mouths and their fins. When I returned to the States I would read aloud in Spanish from the grammar books with their writing samples and conversations, letting go the meaning of the words and thinking of the music of Pablo Neruda and the shelter his poetry had given me during that long, curious year.
This poem is from The Sea and the Bells
Si cada día, cae
Si cada día, cae
dentro de cada noche
hay un pozo
donde la claridad está encerrada.
Hay que sentarse a la orilla
del pozo de la sombra y
pescar luz caída con paciencia.
If each day falls
If each day falls
Inside each night,
There exists a well
Where clarity is imprisoned.
We need to sit on the rim
Of the well of darkness
And fish for fallen light
Photo by Peter Haupt
Bruce Hale stepped up in his fedora, suit and spectators to give the first keynote of the conference. During the opening Editor/Agent/Art Director panel, Eddie Gamarra spoke to how public speaking skills and a comfortable relationship to public appearances make all the difference in supporting your work once it’s published. He could have been talking about Bruce, whose ease and sense of humor infused his talk, Writer’s Mind, Warrior’s Mind: Toughing it Out and Getting Published. He used the metaphor of the writer being a warrior, stepping up the game if you’re not being published – or if you’re not being published in the way you’d like. Distractions like email and errands and food can eat away at the writing time, and often our limitations are of our own making. He closed by singing Des’Ree’s You Gotta Be with the chorus a sing along.
Matt de la Peña was a highlight of the conference for me, as I was able to attend his fiction workshop on Friday, focusing on dialogue, hear his keynote, and then host his Sunday session on the role of the narrator in fiction. de la Peña is a powerful combination of writer from a working class background at the front end of his career (with 4 books published), questing intellect, gifted teacher (NYU and The Vermont College of Fine Arts) and disarming storyteller. His notions of patience, allowing space within the narrative by stepping back so the reader can collaborate with the author on story, and getting in, getting your beats and getting out, resonated with me. His keynote was funny, self deprecating and described his journey from reluctant boy reader chiefly motivated by girls to a college discovery of fiction, through his MFA program (mentors secretly applied for him – he had a few programs to choose from) to publication. Who wasn’t in love with the guy by the time he sailed copies of his novels into the crowd as if they were frisbees?
The closing keynote was by Rachel Vail, whose funny, heartfelt novels have been embraced by middle grade and YA readers, and whose picture books are as vivid and fun as she is. She gave us insights into her writing process, how her work with drama and acting informs her character development, and the methods she uses to access emotional touch-points in her own life to breathe life into her characters. She closed with asking us to be the kind of person who listens to kids, takes them seriously as people and brings that sensibility to their own work.
Next: Picture Books
I came home from the conference exhausted but full in the best way. The richness of the faculty, their personalities and presentations, and the great gift of being in the room with friends and strangers, each a creative force, always overwhelms me at some point during the weekend. Sitting on the patio with my husband at the end of Sunday I tried to recount my experience, the keynotes that resonated, the workshop sessions that brought new tools and food for thought, the many conversations and personal connections sprinkled throughout the conference. I know I’ll have to sit with the weekend in order to absorb it in full, but some things are vivid for me – already percolating in the work and in me.
This year I did a fair amount of reading and internet trawling before the conference, trying to learn about the work of the faculty, and I was glad I did. When illustrator Melissa Sweet gave her keynote about her work, using Balloons Over Broadway to show us how she develops a project and creates a book, I already knew and loved it so that the 5-year journey she described had deeper meaning for me. It was fabulous to see her source material, her research and development, her thumbnails and dummies, and most especially her passion for the work. Melissa is an artist who could do nothing else but what she does, and one who sets an exceptionally high bar for the rest of us.
Bonnie Becker’s Bear and Mouse books are beloved by kids and a sure thing for adults when a picture book is needed. She chose to accept her Crystal Kite Award, voted on by regional SCBWI membership, before her keynote. I loved how Bonnie always wants to have written what she loves as a reader – she quoted from Anna Karenina – but how she has come to realize that her best books come from the very heart of who she is. Something too scary or embarrassing to write about? Chances are that’s your personal gold as a writer. Again and again during the conference the intellectual curiosity, wide reading, idiosyncratic approach and personal mission of the writer and illustrator came forward in conversation and presentation alike. Bonnie’s personal, direct and honest story captivated me and has stayed with me as I sit with the conference, trying to absorb the experience and all of its useful goodness.
Tomorrow: Bruce Hale, Rachel Vail and Matt de la Peña
I’ve been so busy typing up my notes from the weekend’s SCBWI WWA conference that I nearly forgot Poetry Monday. Who else but Shel Silverstein will do, since I’ve been living and breathing children’s literature for three days?
Where the Sidewalk Ends
There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind.
Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.
Yes we’ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the children, they mark, and the children, they know
The place where the sidewalk ends.