Archive for October, 2010

On a private bulletin board from my old school there was a poetry challenge recently that prompted me to take on the feelings of an inanimate object.  I was slightly fogged in with a cold at the time, but that’s no excuse.  What came out was a mental mash-up of John Donne, Walt Whitman and a smattering of Victor Hugo as channeled by Carl Sandburg.


I am the butcher-block island
thoughts packed tight and condensed
end grain-up, butt-jointed

cut me all you want
I won’t flinch, I won’t talk
silent sentry, silent witness
to the appliance conspiracies

ten arms full of groceries, twenty
I can hold them all and more
no groaning from these boards
here, I am Jean Valjean!

do not blame me
for stubbed toes and bruised hips
I’ve been here all along
unmoving, unmoved

I am the butcher-block

Like I said. I wasn’t deliberately attempting “No man is an island” meets “I am the grass” when I started, and I actually said the words “here, I am Jean Valjean!” as I wrote them… while sitting at the butcher block island in my kitchen.

It’s a dangerous conclusion, but when I’m ill and my brain is fuzzy there seems to be less inhibitions and writing comes easier (provided I can sit up and focus). Sort of like the myth (or is it a canard?) that some writers did their best work while drunk. The last thing I want is a crutch that implies I need to be in a permanent state of illness to write!  I do believe there is something to the idea that for a lot of artists and writers there is a deliberate attempt to reconnect with the free-spirited spontaneity of childhood. Tapping into that, that’s mastery.

“It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”
~Pablo Picasso

Poetry Friday. It happens. This week the round-up is being hosted by Toby at The Writer’s Armchair.

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Last week I was bopping through my blog feeds and whatnot and opened some links to news stories and blog posts that interested me, that I’d hoped to get to later in the day.  Hours later, after I’d nearly forgotten them, I clicked through them to refresh my memory and see what was worth reading and what was a passing fancy.  The first story was about the drug cartels in Mexico who are fighting back on President Calderon’s war on drugs and seemingly winning.  Bodies are showing up hung from bridges and dumped in the streets, but it isn’t just political opponents who are dying, its journalists who dare to report on the country’s war, throwing the press into having to decide between self-censorship and protecting the lives of their reporters.  The next article I click on is about a newspaper editor in Alaska who went to cover a town hall meeting held in a public middle school who was detained and handcuffed by the candidate’s bodyguards and accused of trespassing.  Trespassing, at a public event held in a public place, by private security hired by a politician?  These two things together reminded me of the gubernatorial candidate in New York who threatened to “take out” a reporter who had (admittedly) badgered the candidate.  I’ll grant you, being a member of the press doesn’t give carte blanche to be belligerent, but threatening to kill a journalist (it was captured on video no less) doesn’t buy any sympathy.

This attack on the media in two neighboring democratic countries was troubling enough, but then I went one step further.  Clicking on something I didn’t consider to be too controversial I chanced on an article by author Alexander Chee about teaching the graphic novel to college students.  Everything was great until the second paragraph when he began examining why the graphic novel’s interest had boomed in the last ten years… and came up with an analogy to pre-Nazi Germany.  Now, I realize that mentioning Nazis or Hitler is a shortcut to hyperbolic demonization, but what Chee was talking about was something different.  He was taking a cultural look at what went on before, when the art was mirroring or criticizing the culture surrounding it, and in the 1930s there was a boom in the German Expressionist “picture novel” which was usually a collection of woodcuts that told a story.  We would recognize the form today as a wordless graphic novel.

Chee has this idea about an “Age of Euphemism” that connects then with now, but as an artists with an understanding of history I’m sure he also is aware that the movement of artists in the early part of 20th century – the actual, physical relocation from country to country – could serve as a sort of canary in a coal mine for the way things were (and are) headed.  Or perhaps they were more like rats leaving the sinking ship, as they always seemed a jump ahead of persecution.  Picasso and others left Spain before the Fascists took over, German Surrealists bolted to Paris as the Nazis decried “deviant” art.  They stayed around long enough to reflect and report on what they saw and knew when it was time to get out.

Looking at the graphic novel scene today I don’t necessarily see the same sort of commentary about society that the woodcut picture novels contained, but I do see a dangerous trend in the way the media is treated with scorn and disdain and how seemingly complacent society has become about it.  Ten years ago the discussion was about media bias, and the minute journalism went on the defensive it lost the battle.  Those who frame history get to define it, and those who defined the press as being part of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” hammered that message until it was believed, unquestioningly, as truth.  The natural evolution was to completely dismantle the press through co-option and counter-programming (propaganda and double-speak) and finally, threatening the press openly without fear of reprisal.  It’s ironic to me that the people worried most about our current president’s “socialist” agenda are themselves behaving like police-state fascists.

With daily newspaper circulations dwindling faster than the final sands in an hour glass, with journalists under threat and attack, and with the majority of citizens getting their “news” from commentators who mask opinionated rhetoric as fact, I’m afraid the canary in the coal mine right now has fallen off its perch, its breathing labored.  I’m looking around at the artists to see if they’re getting ready to scurry away.  In the early 1980s I remember how we were all afraid that the superpowers had their fingers on the nuclear button and we were a heartbeat away from annihilation.

This feels much worse.

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I wandered over the The Miss Rumphius Effect this week to check out the poetry stretch and… well, I was already stretching.  I’d been thinking about the moon, and how romanticized the moon ends up in poetry and literature… and I wondered what a more honest, unchecked response to the moon might be.  So I wrote the following.  It’s a bit rude.


There are those (Poets, mostly, all practicing monks
of auto-erotica) who would have us believe
In a gentle muse holding court in the night sky

They say she is soft, still, fair, a chin of gold
Or that she hangs heavy and pregnant
Waiting to birth filigree notions and tidal foxtrots

A balloon, a strawberry, a harvest, luminous paper
whole dictionaries full of symbols and similes dedicated
to her Mona Lisa mystery, her Sphinxtery madness


Moon is an indecent mistress parading her backside
rolling methodically from cheek to cheek, and laughing
while we gaze up from the darkness of the septic pit

Those poets, with their fancies and frillies and froufrou
Wax and wane in their candied affections
Yet it is the unpoet who truly sees Luna’s inner soul

Crossing the desert at night, her rounded rump
a rising loaf of silvery dough on the horizon
The weary traveler, enamored, off-guard exclaims:

“Look at that Big-Ass Moon!”

It is the compliment of a connoisseur.

Yeah. I almost titled it “Moon Shot.” As an unpoet I can be unsubtle.

It’s Poetry Friday, this week the round-up can be found at a wrung sponge. Anyway, get while the gettin’ is.

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We’re smack dab in the middle of National Poetry Month… in the United Kingdom.  October is also the month I’m still proposing there be either a second National Poetry Month in the US (because one month isn’t enough), or we co-opt Great Britain’s month and convert it to International Poetry Month (if you can’t beat them, join them; if you can’t join them, co-opt them).

As part of the future International Poetry Month I went looking this week for poetry sites that were more, er, international in flavor.  One that I found that was interesting was the GPS, Global Poetry System.  A project from London’s Southbank Centre, a complex of artist venues, the GPS allows people to upload photos, videos, and text of the things that inspire them poetically and mark them on a map with Global Positioning Satellite coordinates.  Much of what’s here are found poems – oddly translated or worded signage, although some are reflections and memories and meditations on poems themselves. Find it. Map it. Share it. That’s the motto.

You can then browse poems by looking at a map.  While the bulk of what’s been added has been from England and Northern France, there’s poetry uploaded and scattered all over the world.  Curiosity took me to a small island to the east of Madagascar where some clever poet decided to post a pair of their own poems, clearly understanding there would be people like me to explore the outer reaches of the map.  I’m not saying the poet wasn’t from the island but it did raise the question of what is home for a poem. Could a poem have a home different from the home of its creator?

Speaking of different homes, in poking around the GPS I came across a poem from my old stomping grounds in the SF Bay Area.  It’s an odd poem, I think I like the execution more than the actual poem itself – written on tape applied to a sidewalk.  I have to admit, it was hard to resist a post called “Sexy Pigeons.” The poem was part of a collection put up by a “guest curator” David Ogunmuyiwa on the site’s blog that collected some fine found urban poems.

Randomly checking out some poems found in Manhattan I came across a pair of visual poems that may or may not have been deliberately staged but were no less fun.  One of the two was part of a project where a disposable camera was sent out into the world and passed along from person to person after each shot.  I tried this once myself and never saw the final results (the camera never came home) so it was nice to see it work for someone else.

Finally, just for kicks, I clicked on a post about funny poems in the GPS archives and saw that someone, somewhere else in the world, had posted a version of my “aint wet” header picture.  I never imagined that when I came across it that it was the first time someone had “appropriated” a “wet paint” sign in public bit it got me to thinking that there is a universality to this idea of public poetry, of found poetry in unexpected places, and our desire to record it when we find it.

Just last night, as I walked into the halls of my daughter’s high school for Back-to-School night I couldn’t resist taking a hurried picture (thus the blur) of a bit of high school humor.  This sign, next to a handrail seemingly placed at random on the wall, is exactly like something I would have done, and pokes fun at the sort of public language we surround ourselves with but rarely question unless pulled out of context.

Think globally, act locally. It may (eventually) be International Poetry Month, but right now it’s Poetry Friday.  Liz over at Liz in Ink is hosting the roundup this week.

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last chance #cybils

Nominations for the Cybils Awards close tomorrow at 11:59 PM.  This is the last call for everyone to look over the list of titles already nominated and suggest new ones (because a book can only be nominated once – it isn’t a popularity contest) before thing move on to the panelists and judges.

And speaking of, I am once again judging, back to the Graphic Novel category.  Unlike past years I’m not in grad school and can actually spend a fair amount of time reading many of the nominated titles before the shortlist is made.  I’m actually kind of excited about this because I prefer to make my second-guess shortlist before the actual shortlist comes out, sort of like a game.  I used to do this with the Oscars back in my film review days and I have to say it’s a lot of fun to try to guess what will get nominated.  Of course, once the shortlist arrives, it’s down to work, reading up on things I’ve missed and trying to sort through a matrix for deciding which is the better title.

What’s a Cybil?  “The Cybils awards are given each year by bloggers for the year’s best children’s and young adult titles.” That’s the long and sort of it. Nominations for books in nine different categories are open to the public, with two rounds of judging handled by bloggers with some connection to children’s literature, literacy, or blogging.  It’s a sort of hybrid between a People’s Choice award and Critic’s award, and in the process a lot of very interesting and unexpected titles bubble to the surface.

Opening the nominating process to anyone allows for a variety of titles that might have slipped through the cracks to have a shot.  Unlike national awards where publishers pay to have their titles considered, or where judges can be swayed with junkets (because how do you throw a junket for a group of bloggers scattered around the world?), each nomination represents a reader’s love of a book as its primary criteria.

As a judge, I’ve always been surprised by at least one title that made it to the final round, surprised to discover a title or author I hadn’t heard of previously.  I’m not saying I’m so tapped into the world of children’s literature that I border on omniscient, just that there is so much out there to discover all the time. It’s a pleasant surprise.

As for nominating, I generally either like to get something out the minute nominations open, or wait until the end to see if something I liked somehow missed attention.  Right now, pretty much anything I could have nominated in every category has been covered.  But what about you? Was there something you read this year that absolutely blew you away?  A poetry collection, or a non-fiction picture book? Some choice under-rated YA title, or a middle grade book that didn’t get the attention it deserved?

Time’s running out.  Head on over to Cybils Central and get that nomination in there.  Oh, and be sure to read the rules for nominations.  And then don’t forget to make a note in your calendar to check back on New Year’s Day 2011 to see what made the shortlists!

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Nothing, as far as I can tell.

Unless you are a beginning writer, or so I’m told.  The logic is that you can’t build a reputation or a sales platform if you jump formats and genres.  If your first book is a middle grade piece of realistic fiction and your second book is a period YA comedy that also deals with environmentalism you might be able to sell the second book to the reader’s who read the first and have grown into YA books, but it doesn’t work the other way, you can’t sell the teen on the YA.  Worse, if you’re also noodling around with a pair of picture book biographies and an early reader, none of those audiences cross over or help you build a platform for developing your brand as a writer.

Like the old real estate slogan goes: location, location, location. Only with writing it’s apparently: specialize, specialize, specialize.

But I’m not buying it.

First, I think a writer needs to write the stories they need to write.  If their passion is to write is materialistic YA social fantasies or fluffy bunny picture books, so be it.  But the minute a writer starts thinking about how they’ll market or brand themselves over concerns of jumping formats and genres is the minute the little voice of self-censorship creeps in.

It’s not practical for a working writer to deliberately hinder their marketability.  They need a solid business plan, they must take their job of writing seriously.

I wonder if anyone told Mozart he had to choose between operas, symphonies, choral works, or chamber pieces?

Granted, there are professions were we prefer people to specialize – surgeons, for example, because we feel more comfortable that they are the most knowledgable person for the task at hand; It’s a matter of life or death.  But when we speak of creative types we’re talking about a different mindset.  We’re talking about people engaged in the craft of wordsmithery, people who are synthesizing their knowledge and experience into narrative form, inculcators of ideas and emotions.  No two people will experience or translate the same story the same way – just as no two people experience a book the same way – and we admire that facility that allows what they do to be individual.

So while it is true, from a purely business perspective it might not seem prudent to write across formats, from a purely artistic viewpoint I am weary of the specialists.  I don’t want to generalize any more than I already have, but to my thinking the specialist can become a formula writer, a niche writer, shifting too comfortably from craft to production.

There should be something at stake when the writer sits down to write a story.  In Zen and the Art of Writing Ray Bradbury said about the act of writing “First you jump off the cliff and you build your wings on the way down.”  I sometimes wish more very good writers jumped off the cliffs of their comfortable genres and formats. Neil Gaiman seems to have done okay writing sci-fi, comics, and middle grade books.

I offer this suggestion to those who haven’t considered writing across formats: Why not use the upcoming National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) as an opportunity to work in an area you never have before?  Or, for those interested in picture books, Picture Book Idea Month (BiBoIdMo) might be the way to go.  I’m tempted to do the latter this year to see if I can generate some more ideas and to give me something to do when I stall out while writing that period YA novel I started earlier this year.  I’ve never seen myself as a picture book writer but I’ve also never excluded writing picture books so I’m going to take a dive off that cliff.

“The world is full of people who have never, since childhood, met an open doorway with an open mind,” according to E.B. White.

Here’s to the open doorways of writing across formats and genres.

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#poetryfriday: buke

Earlier this week I was thinking about the first book of poetry I ever purchased with the first money I earned working a real minimum wage job (as opposed to mowing lawns and whatnot).  After it was posted I remembered an incident that happened one day when I was on my way home from a Cross Country meet in high school.  With Bukowski on my mind, and this rekindled memory of a chance meeting…


at the intersection of seventeen years old
and the Alhambra in San Pedro
the boy idles his Chevy Nomad wagon.

a man with a face like a warty scrotum
escapes the happy hour crowd
a cat on fire.

“I was wondering if you could help me,”
says the boy.

scrotum face
studies the rusted bumper,
the Bondoed fender.

“I’ve seen worse.
least it’s a V-8.”

“I’m trying to get back to Culver City.”

“what the hell for?”

scrotum face laughs.
a grease-stained Mexican wedding shirt
holds his guts in place.

“okay, it’s easy.
turn around,
ten blocks,
make a right,
you’ll hit the 405.”

the boy checks his rearview mirror.
doubling back sounds wrong
looks wrong.
feels wrong.

“you got a dollar?”

the boy plays a hunch,
hands the wino a Lincoln.

“how the hell you end up here anyway?’
says scrotum face.

“thought I was headed north.
what’s your excuse?”

“fair enough!
turn left here,
left again at Harbor,
pick up the 110 to the 405.”

the boy waits.

“no shit this time,”
says the wino,
“and thanks for dinner.”

fifteen minutes later on the 110
the boy chides himself for leaving his Thomas Guide
at home.

scrotum face walks home
with two bottles of rotgut red
and a block of cheese
already working out his next poem.

What’s that saying, flattery is the sincerest form of imitation? Anyway. Poetry Friday is hanging out on Carol’s Corner today.

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