Friday, July 28, 2017

What Makes Good Poetry?

Hello and Happy Poetry Friday! Be sure to visit for lovely Linda at A Word Edgewise for Roundup.

Recently the question "What makes good poetry?" appeared from a friend in my in-box. And since it is something I think about pretty regularly, I thought perhaps I would share some thoughts here.

First, here is a graphic I created to share with students when I teach poetry workshops:


And here is my quick email response to my friend:

In general I would say I respond to something that moves me, and sometimes that's not particularly polished, but raw. The one element that I find myself really requiring in a poem is the element of surprise. This can be a surprising image, or a fresh metaphor, or even unexpected subject matter. Sometimes even language itself can be the surprise! When I look over my own work, I always evaluate it from that vantage point first. Does it contain a surprise? 


For the past few weeks I've been listening to an audiobook ROMANTIC OUTLAWS: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and her Daughter Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon. Fascinating women, fascinating book! And lo, I stumbled upon a section that sent me back to the library for the print version so I could accurately record it. Here's what Mary Wollstonecraft had to say on the topic:

"...in 1797, she [Mary Wollstonecraft] defended her aesthetic choices, in an essay she called "On Taste." A good piece of writing should be spontaneous and honest, she said. The mind and heart should appear on the page. Writers should not try to seduce their readers with a "mist of words." The point of a good book was to provoke both ideas and emotions in the reader, not to engage in a battle of wits with a straw opponent."

And THAT reminds me of son Eric's (stage name "ErBeeko") newly-released album TRUTH, about which he says, "My only hope is that at least one of these raps will make you rethink something in your life. 

Apparently Eric's work has succeeded, because he's had some heartfelt reactions to his songs -- songs that speak to our current social media culture, sex, drugs, relationships, and everything you'd expect from a 17-year-old, and more.  Give it a listen on your favorite music server.

And here is the latest video:


Finally, here are a few words from Eric in response to some controversy. They also speak to me about "what makes good poetry.":  Controversy. This is the struggle of an artist. It connects me to Ben Haggerty and Kendrick Lamar, and it allows me, if not the world, to grow and better understand the issues I speak for. Truth was made to start conversations, and I believe the talk it starts up is its biggest impact on the world, whether it's positive or negative... knowing or defensive... There may not be a difference after all. The truth is simple, but the world is complex. I hope people see that when they hear the album's contrasting muscles pumping and connecting, sometimes with success, sometimes without. It is meant to be the start of something, not the end. There is no way to capture the whole story in one album, and I believe this part of the story leads to many more. I intended the album not to show perfection, but to exemplify the beauty of a young man struggling to find the truth in his world... a life concerned with making the world a better place, not necessarily knowing how, but trying all the same. I look around and I see so much wrong that no one talks about, and I know that if I don't stand up, no one will. So I decided to be that guy. I sacrificed my comfort for this. I dedicated myself to the album like I do with everything else in my life, and I made all my crazy dreams about bravery and revenge and redemption come true. I did everything I wanted to do, and I still love my life. Can you say the same?

Poetry Friday friends: what do YOU think makes good poetry?

Monday, July 24, 2017

Movie Monday: THE BIG SICK

Funny thing: I'm writing this post while... sick. :( Summer colds are THE WORST.

Anyhow, we did get out with the young adult men in our life this past weekend to see THE BIG SICK. It's a love story, yes. And so much more! It gets into immigrant issues (if we came to America to leave behind the old life, why are we carrying so much with us?), "mixed" marriages/relationships (love may not care about cultural differences, but families do!), and second chances. Main character Kumail (who plays himself) gets a second chance with Emily when she gets hospitalized for a mysterious illness. Emily's parents get a second chance to improve their marriage. And all the while, there's little dashes of comedy and delight... kind of like real life! It seemed particularly relevant as both our sons have had relationships with people from other cultures. They could really relate to some of the challenges and rewards.

Oh, and the movie is based on real people! I loved getting a glimpse of the real Emily during the closing credits. Zoe Kazan (who played Emily) is one of my favorite actresses working today.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Movie Monday: I AM BIG BIRD

On the trans-Atlantic flight home from Barcelona, we had the opportunity to watch several movies. One of my picks was the delightful, touching I AM BIG BIRD: The Caroll Spinney Story. It's a documentary about Caroll -- how he came to meet Jim Henson and to inhabit two of the most famous puppets ever: Big Bird and the Grouch. But it's more than that. It's also the story of a man overcoming adversity, and a story about being a creative person in this world, about forgiveness (his relationship with is father... oh my!) and, at its heart, a love story. Caroll is STILL playing Big Bird, and he's still a creative person (at age +78), and he's still in love (with wife Debra, to whom he's been married since 1979).

I loved this movie. And I didn't even watch Sesame Street as a kid! Sure, my kids watched it -- a little. In fact, Daniel (our oldest) is the only one I really remember liking Big Bird. He's also the one who got a Tickle-me Elmo one year. (Interesting bit in the movie: how Elmo usurped Big Bird, and why.)

Maybe the fact that I was just finishing this really romantic relaxing adventure with my husband had something to do with it, but I was especially touched by the love story.  "I'll meet you at the raspberries." (watch it to find out what I'm talking about!)

But it wasn't just that. The movie also explored the ups and downs of the creative life, how hard (and inevitable!) it is to go after one's dreams, and more and more and more! Even though it's been a few weeks now since I saw the movie, I am still thinking about it every day. I remain incredibly inspired to write meaningful, rich characters for children. What better mentors for creating authentic child-voices could their be that Big Bird and Elmo and all those other residents of Sesame Street? And what a wonderful world this is, where one's "job" can include watching Sesame Street?! I love it!

Friday, July 14, 2017

A Mac-n-Cheesy Poem from a Bunch of Buttercups


Hello and Happy Poetry Friday! Be sure to visit Tabatha at The Opposite of Indifference, where we are celebrating National Macaroni & Cheese Day!

Here in Birmingham it's our 4th annual Camp Buttercup "for bold and creative girls" -- the homespun camp we created for me and some very special young girls in my life (including a precious adopted sister and a pair of sweet nieces).

Here is our mac-n-cheesy group poem:


CHEESY SUMMER DAYS

sunkissed waves
of mac-n-cheese

a beach
in your mouth

salti-licious!

- Anna, BrenLeigh, Irene & MadiLynn

....and... because we could not reach an agreement about what kind of macaroni and cheese is best (I like homemade, one likes Kraft, another Velveeta.... we decided to feast on all three!)

BrenLeigh, MadiLynn, Anna

Thank you, Tabatha, for this great idea... and to all of you Poetry Friday poets: we will be slurping your poems today!! xo

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Because Music

It's been a busy summer. So many good things! And some of the best moments for me have been marked by music.

so many beautiful sunsets at sea!
1. On Oceania's Riviera, during a Broadway revue, when the castmembers performed a medley from Les Miserables. "To love another person is to see the face of God." One of the best lines. Ever.


musical boats!
2. Near Palma de Mallorca at the Cueves del Drach (which translates to "Cave of Dragons). Our tour guide said their would be a concert, and after the concert we could go left to ride the boats across the cave lake, or right to walk across the bridge. I was expecting a cave show like I've seen here in the U.S.: recorded music with laser lights. But that's not what we got. What happened was this: after the announcements (in 3 different languages), and in the dark, we heard very faint strains of Pachelbel's Canon in D. The music got louder as a lighted boat floated toward us. And then another boat! The musicians - violin, cello, piano -- were on the boats! It was like being inside Phantom of the Opera! Completely magical. I will never forget it. (Meanwhile, caves, it seems, look pretty much the same whether in the U.S. or Spain.)

3. Listening to Neal Schon, the guitarist for Journey, play, on electric guitar, a rendition of Amazing Grace. This was so very unexpected and beautiful! It didn't hurt that it was a beautiful night, and I was at the concert with a couple of the fellas I love best.



4. Listening to the finished tracks from Eric's new album called Truth. It releases July 21, and it's raw and honest and pretty amazing. He and some friends have made videos to accompany several of the tracks -- amazing, amazingly talented kids!

5. The sound of the lake on an early morning boat trip. So, so peaceful! And beautiful to watch the fog lift off the water... ahhh!

Monday, July 10, 2017

Movie Monday: BABY DRIVER

This movie surprised me. I'd seen a commercial for BABY DRIVER -- where a young woman is talking about a young man's name "B-A-B-Y Baby" -- but I didn't really know anything else. And sometimes that's the best, isn't it? To be surprised?

Anyhow, Baby reminded me of my son Eric. The movie had me at the beginning scenes... oh the power of music! A little star power including Kevin Spacey and Jon Hamm also doesn't hurt. But really, here, it's the story that matters -- more specifically the characters. You can't help but root for Baby. He's a good kid caught in a mess. Haven't we all been that kid at one point or another? Well, maybe not with all the violence and gunslinging and car chases, but you know what I mean. The viewer totally wants Baby to find (drive!) his way to happiness. And I appreciate how in the end one of the bad guys isn't all bad...

Give it a whirl! Maybe you will be surprised, too.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Keep a Pocket in Your Poem by J. Patrick Lewis

Hello and Happy Poetry Friday! Be sure to visit new grandmother Carol at Beyond Literacy Link for Roundup. I am delighted to be in my regular writing spot this week after a month of adventures, including a Mediterranean cruise and setting up a lake house and writing and cello and and and...  reading!

Today I am happy to share with you selections from KEEP A POCKET IN YOUR POEM: Classic Poems and Playful Parodies written and selected by J. Patrick Lewis, illustrations by Johanna Wright. It's the third title I can think of this year that mixes classic poems with new... ONE LAST
WORD by Nikki Grimes and OUT OF WONDER by Kwame Alexander. A publishing trend, perhaps? Or just a coincidence?

KEEP A POCKET IN YOUR POEM, from WordSong, contains thirteen classics, and then Pat riffs on them in some way -- sometimes funny like "Stopping by Fridge on a Hungry Evening" after "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" by Robert Frost, and sometimes inventive like "Winter Warmth" after "Winter Sweetness" by Langston Hughes. Fun!

Also, it's like a peek inside Pat's curio-cabinet mind, because we get to see what imaginative leaps he takes... for instance, how did Pat get from "The Eagle" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, to "The Firefly"? From "hope is a thing with feathers" by Emily Dickinson to "grief is a thing with tissues" ? This would make for excellent conversation when sharing these poems as pairs with young readers. And of course it begs the question: what would YOU write about?

To give you a taste, I'd like to share two short pairs with you from the book -- and my own response-poem:

Fog
by Carl Sandburg

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

Hail
by J. Patrick Lewis

The hail flies
on furious hooves.

It batters cars
and rooftops,
slamming anger,
an then melts away.

---------

Frost
by Irene Latham

The frost hangs
by silken threads.

It spins
its shimmering web
to catch an early sun
and then swallows
it whole.

--------------------------------------------
The lightning
The toad! It looks like
 it could belch
a cloud.

by Issa

The tiger! It looks like
the sun has been put
behind bars.

by J. Patrick Lewis
--------
(and here is my effort, after BOTH poems!)

The Monarch! It looks like
it's been belched
by a tiger.

by Irene Latham

Read this book! You'll smile, and you'll be inspired. And of course, you are welcome to share your own response poems in comments!

And coming next week: Tabatha is hosting Poetry Friday, and she's suggesting a mac-n-cheese theme in honor of National Macaroni and Cheese Day, which is July 14. Bring on the CHEESE! xo

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Getting Out of My Comfort Zone with Illustrator Eric Rohmann

Hello and Happy Spiritual Journey Thursday, July 2017 edition! Today we're all talking about getting out of our comfort zones. You can find the Pat's roundup of posts over at Writer on a Horse.

A few months ago I subscribed to a new-to-me magazine called The Artist's Magazine. While I am not an artist who uses pencil, paint, etc. (yet!), I love artists and art.  I thought it would be fun to learn about art through the magazine -- which I guess is one way to get out of one's comfort zone: subscribe to a magazine you wouldn't normally read. (Also: take an art class. In an unexpected turn of events, Paul and I took our very first art class together on a cruise ship this past month! More on this soon!)

Anyhow, imagine my delight when I received my very first copy of the magazine, and it featured an interview with children's book illustrator Eric Rohmann, whom I so admire! (Have you seen THE CINDER-EYED CATS? One of my most favorite wordless picture books.) You may also recognize some of these award-winning titles: MY FRIEND RABBIT (winner of 2002 Caldecott), TIME FLIES (1994 Caldecott Honor), and most recently GIANT SQUID, written by his wife Candace Fleming (how did I not know these two were married?!)

Okay, so the article is by illustrator Will Hillenbrand, who is quite accomplished himself, with over 50 titles to his credit. The two talk about story and structure and technique and publishing and meeting the reader halfway.

One thing I learned about Eric is that he often uses other books as inspiration when deciding what technique to use on a project. And he likes to do something completely new for each book -- that way his work doesn't get "stale." Which means every book is a discovery, and he makes lots of mistakes, experiences anxiety, and eventually, if he keeps at it, finds the way to tell the story.

Eric went on to say that this, which I find hugely inspiring:

"If I do a book that has 18 paintings, I'd describe it this way: in six, I nailed it; in six, I wish I had two more months; for the other six, I have no clue."

Art (life!) is not about perfection! It's about learning and trying and discovering -- all of which requires getting out of one's comfort zone. This is true for a Caldecott-winning artist, and it's true for me and for you.

Want to read the article for yourself? Get out of your comfort zone and subscribe to The Artist's Magazine.


Sunday, July 2, 2017

Nothing Says Summer Like QUILTS

Wow, what a busy summer! I have so much to share with all of you. Since it's a holiday week, and I've got my sewing machine plugged up and ready to stitch, I will start with quilts.

Every other June the Birmingham Quilters Guild has its show. This year featured more than 300 quilts! Thank you, quilters, for your amazing work! Talk about inspiring.... here are some of my favorites:

Self-portrait Quilts


Instead of a picture, my friend Ann made her
self-portrait in WORDS... which makes me wonder....
how would I do my self-portrait quilt?! Hmmm....


3-D Quilts



What a great way to use those
old heirloom doilies!


Farm-related Quilts

This is so gorgeous! Right away I had to send a pic
to my cow-loving mom.

reminds me of Ludelphia!

(not pictured: a slew of chicken quilts!)



Fun Quilts

How can you not smile at this?!

reminds me of my cyclist brother and nephew...

isn't the quilting gorgeous on that flower??

Mermaids always make me think of my sweet sister!




Under-the-Sea Quilts

This one reminds me of Agnes,
the heroine in my forthcoming picture book
THE OCTOPUS POSTCARDS!


another mermaid! Yay!


Eye-Popping Geometric Design Quilts










Quilts Featuring the Color BLACK


When I won a fat quarter in a drawing,
I picked a black print fabric. I totally want
to make a quilt with black in it now!

 Wishing everyone a lovely 4th... and happy summer stitching! xo







Wednesday, June 14, 2017

An Abundance of Elephants

My 2017 One Little Word is ABUNDANCE.

As a way to celebrate this word, I've posted here and here about objects I have an abundance of.

Today it's ELEPHANTS! It occurred to me yesterday when I was writing about another strand in my writer's DNA. I think elephants, too, are in my DNA. They keep coming up in my work, that's for sure! There was Millie in DON'T FEED THE BOY...
art by Stephanie Graegin


....and Miss Fancy, the real-life elephant in my forthcoming historical picture book FRANK AND MISS FANCY, set in 1913, about a black boy's quest to meet the elephant during Jim Crow Birmingham, Alabama. Wait till you see John Holyfield's art for this book... gorgeous!

Miss Fancy!


Around the house I found an elephant parade:



BOOKS about elephants...

an old one!

one I just finished!

elephant blankets (and not 
the Roll Tide variety, either... WAR EAGLE!)


... and elephant art. (This piece was a gift
from a friend who picked it up in India!)


Want to see some rescued elephants living the sweet life? Check out the elecam at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee!

Monday, June 12, 2017

Another Strand in My Writing DNA

This past weekend we saw a wonderful production of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF here in Birmingham, put on by Red Mountain Theatre Company.

I laughed. I cried. I hummed along. And I realized this is one of those DNA pieces for me -- right up there with LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE and THE BLACK STALLION. It's got so many of the elements I love, so many of the layers I want to include in my own stories and poems.

1. It's historical

2. It gives a glimpse of a culture different than my own

3. It's about family

4. And change

5. About quiet defiance

6. About overcoming hardship

7. Holding fast to what we believe in ("Tradition!")

8. About choosing love

9. And letting go

I'm not sure how old I was when I first saw FIDDLER. It feels like one of those that's always been with me. I looked it up, and the movie came out in 1971, after the musical's 1964 debut. So, yes, it really has been with me my whole life!

If you haven't seen it lately, give it a whirl. It stands the test of time for sure. And if you're in Birmingham, wow, go see it! Excellent production.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Five for Poetry Friday

Part of my travels included Rogersville
Public Library, where I presented
FRESH DELICIOUS, and readers
made veggie art (using asparagus
 paintbrushes and bell pepper stamps).
Hello and Happy Poetry Friday! Be sure to visit marvelous Mary Lee at A Year of Reading for Roundup. I've been traveling and thrifting and reading and writing and traveling and thrifting and reading and writing... not much time at my desk, which is lovely, but also has me a bit scattered! That's okay, right? I know Poetry Friday folks might even appreciate a little scatteredness! :) Therefore, I'm in with a hodgepodge of poetry today. Enjoy!

1. Earlier this spring I heard R.L. Stine talk about how he came to write the Goosebumps series, and all the spin-offs. He opened his talk with this poem:

HAUNTED
by Shel Silverstein

I dare you all to go into
The Haunted House on Howlin’ Hill,
Where squiggly things with yellow eyes
Peek past the wormy window sill.
We’ll creep into the moonlit yard,
Where weeds reach out like fingers,
And through the rotted old front door
A-squeakin’ on it hinges,
Down the dark and whisperin’ hall,
Past the musty study,
Up the windin’ staircase--
Don’t step on the step that’s bloody--
Through the secret panel
To the bedroom where we’ll slide in
To the ragged cobweb dusty bed
Ten people must have died in.
And the bats will screech,
And the spirits will scream,
And the thunder will crash
Like a horrible dream,
And we’ll sing with the zombies
And dance with the dead.
And howl at the ghost
With the axe in his head,
And--come to think of it what do you say
We go get some ice cream instead?
--------------
Now isn't that exactly what you 'd expect from R.L. Stine?!

2. Also this spring I got to meet Watt Key, author of ALABAMA MOON and a number of other books. We got to talking, and I asked him what he would read at a "My Favorite Poem" event. Right away he cited this poem:

THE ROAD NOT TAKEN
by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
--------------------
This poem has been read at nearly every My Favorite Poem event I have attended!


3. After I'd given a library presentation -- including poems from FRESH DELICIOUS, WHEN THE SUN SHINES ON ANTARCTICA and DEAR WANDERING WILDEBEEST, a little girl gave me this little stuffed giraffe:



She said it was because she loved how courageous the giraffe is in this poem:


Triptych for a Thirsty Giraffe

  1. Craving

Leaves turn
to dust,
mouth cottons,

tongue
becomes
swollen log.

Must find water.



  1. Caution

Water hole, at last.

Rhinos, elephants,
warthogs, impalas.

Watch out for lions!

Security-camera eyes
scan water's edge.

Must be safe.



  1. Courage

Long legs contort,
widen into triangles.

Step by step by step
until, yes!

Tongue whirlpools water
into mouth.

Must not stop.
-------------------

4. Another gift I received recently was from a friend Ann, who shared with me a handmade ornament with words we both consider to be a poem:

BE KIND
TO EACH
OTHER



Ann shared that she'd spotted the words on a sign at a march she was participating in, and she knew she needed to share them.
----------------------

5. Finally, I'd like to share a poem I clipped recently from THE THREEPENNY REVIEW:

The Capacity of Speech
It is easy to be decent to speechless things.
To hang houses for the purple martins
To nest in. To bed down the horses under
The great white wing of the year's first snow.
To ensure the dog and cat are comfortable.
To set out suet for the backyard birds.
To put the poorly-shot, wounded deer down.
To nurse its orphaned fawn until its spots
Are gone. To sweep the spider into the glass
And tap it out into the grass. To blow out
The candle and save the moth from flame.
To trap the black bear and set it free.
To throw the thrashing brook trout back.
How easy it is to be decent
To things that lack the capacity of speech,
To feed and shelter whatever will never
Beg us or thank us or make us ashamed.
----------------------
Poetry is everywhere, isn't it? Thanks for reading!