Archive for September, 2011

You know how it is, you have an idea, you can see it in your head, but somewhere along the way it sort of evaporates. You try to reconstruct it, approximate it, dance around it, but no matter. The words scamper away like mischievous children deliberately hiding when you call them in for bath time. So then you fall back on the old stand-by, the idea about the idea that got away, the story about the story.

Hey, at least it isn’t one of those “And then I woke up” numbers.

i’m at a loss for words today
or what I mean to say
is that the words i’d hope to use
have simply run away!

i put up signs all over town
and offered a reward
of every punctuation mark
if all my words are found

i’m really feeling quite distraught
I know it’s all my fault
so busy laying tracks of verse
I lost my train of thought

they shouldn’t be too hard to find
they don’t blend in so well
selected to stand out in crowds
exceptionally combined

a few of them inspire awe
and none of them made up
I even had a rhyme for orange
so simple you’d guffaw

clearly from this poem you see
none of those words are here
so if you find my words then please
return my words to me

We’ll see if I can pull those elusive words together by next week. Poetry Friday, it’s a thing. Check out what others are up to over at Read Write Believe hosted by Sara Lewis Holmes who, I’m glad to see, is returning to the blog after a peripatetic summer. Go there, check out the other poems, see the world.

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I always feel like nerdy Navin Johnson from The Jerk anytime I get picked for something, so just imagine Steve Martin jumping up and down and shouting the title of this post for the full effect.

This year I am again on the Graphic Novel panel, although I wavered quite a bit over whether to make it my first or second choice after poetry. I still feel very much like a sham when it comes to poetry, and probably always will. Even if I were to publish shelf-loads of chapbooks (or even one) I would feel this way. I don’t know why poetry makes me feel this way though I suspect that somewhere in my educational past I was told something that put me in my place.

No matter, I think I’m better suited for judging graphic novels this year. Better informed, I should say. I think there’s going to be quite a strong showing of titles and it may be difficult to choose one over the other.

One of the things that judging graphic novels reminds me of are the back-to-school nights when I was teaching Art in middle schools. The question foremost on parent’s minds (as well as with students) was how I could consistently grade something as individual, idiosyncratic, and subjective as creative output. To their minds, creativity was something mystical that seemed outside the realm of quantitative judgment, going hand-in-hand with the idea that a talent was given at birth and not learned. Similarly I find, many feel a graphic novel is a form of storytelling that doesn’t follow the same rules as traditional narratives and so there must be some different, mystical set of rules for determining quality.

While it’s true that there is a different vocabulary for the mechanics of graphic storytelling, in the end the story needs to satisfy the reader on the same level as traditional narratives. Characters have to be complex and well-developed, there has to be a sense of narrative arc that flows from a central conflict or theme, and there needs to be a satisfying resolution. There is an added visual element to the decision to be sure, but the most lavishly illustrated and colored graphic novel is nothing more than a collection of pretty pictures if there’s no story to back them up.

In the past I have seen some interesting finalists for the Cybils Graphic Novel category that, to me, were clearly chosen for their graphics and not their storytelling. I cannot say whether or not the panelists felt the lack of story was compensated by the strength of the art or if they simply couldn’t see the narrative flaws but it does make for some interesting discussions when it comes time to select a winner.

As I said, I think this is a strong year for the Graphic Novel category and I’m looking forward to having to make some tough decisions down the road.

At this point almost all the judges have been posted over at the Cybils blog, and there are some mighty impressive people involved all over the place.

What are the Cybils? Oh, no, you did not just ask me that!

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Once there was a robber who grew tired of the life he had chosen. He tired of living in the forests and hiding in ravines and working in horrible weather merely to rob passing noblemen in order to avoid working. Indeed, the robber had come to realize that in all his years he had worked harder as a robber to amass his fortune than if he’d settled down and raised pigs. So one day he emerged from the forest, declared to the people of the village that he had changed his ways, and was taken in as the good and reformed man he became.

In time the robber married and had three sons. The sons grew up hearing the stories of their father and had seen that he turned out alright, so much so that when the robber asked them what they intended to do with their lives they announced their intention to go into the family business as robbers.

“My sons, a fair bit of warning before you head out into the world. There is much I haven’t told you about my days as a robber. I hold scars and old wounds that I have never fully or completely explained. You will find the life is not as easy as you think it and the ends hardly justify the means.”

The boys looked to their father, his home for which he never worked to build or maintain, the fact that he continued not to work, that he was able to find a true love, marry and have three sons, and they decided they could withstand anything that would bring them such a life. And so, without blessing or curse, the father let his sons out into the world.

Immediately the boys set their sights on the horse belonging to the queen. The horse itself would fetch a good price but it was the saddle trimmed with bells of solid gold they knew would make them a fortune quick. Already they had a plan in place, where the smallest of the brothers would lie in a trough covered by the finest grass from the forest. When the queen came to town the boys would lead the queen’s horsemen to the trough to be tied up, and when night fell the youngest boy would emerge, silence the bells with wax, and then ride to the agreed-upon rendezvous point with his brothers.

And their plan might have worked, had they not chosen the queen’s horse, for the horse had been trained to be met by the queen each morning and given a small apple to eat. So come the dawn as the three boys mounted the horse they were surprised to find themselves unable to control the beast who, like a homing pigeon, returned to where he had been tied up to be met by the queen and her horsemen who captured the boys and threw them in the dungeon.

When the queen inquired as to why three strong, smart, good-looking young boys should want to take up as robbers they protested that it wasn’t their fault. They begged the queen’s mercy and promised they were only doing what they’d been taught, that they had been raised the sons of a well-to-do robber and knew no other skills than the family trade. This piqued the queen’s curiosity and she sent for the boy’s father immediately.

“You sons tell me they are in the family business of taking things from people,” the queen said.

“My sons are mistaken, I have not robbed since before they were born, though I suspect I deserve some of the blame for the stories I told of my own youth. Had I not kept from them some of the darker, more fantastical tales of my robbing days, perhaps all of this could have been avoided.”

“I was yo have them beheaded for their theft, but I would be willing t let them go if you were to tell me the most fantastic of your adventures.”

The robber considered this a moment, then agreed.

“When I started out there were nine of us, a band of robbers, working the countryside. We spent our days taking the purses of the rich and noble who could afford it and let pass those who worked hard for what little they possessed. At night we would make camp in the forest and divide our gold and feast on whatever nature provided. Though we were close and bound by honor we nonetheless took to hiding our gold in secret away from the others.

“One day one of my brother robbers went to hide his gold and never returned. A few days later another disappeared. ‘Perhaps they have given up life here in the woods’ I said, but I was beginning to worry. Every few days another of our band disappeared until there were only two of us left. I decided that the forest was haunted and intended to gather my gold and leave before I was taken next.

“On my way to my hiding place I took a different path than normal, afraid something might be waiting for me along the way.  That was when I discovered a cave that practically glowed with heat from all the treasure stored within. Something told me there was a connection so I sat watch and waited for days until I saw an Ogre return with two sacks over his back. One sack was full of gold that he added to his spoils while from the other he removed my remaining fellow robber! As he strung my friend from a tree like cured meat I realized what had happened to the rest of my band and where the cave full of gold came from.

“Afraid to move for fear of being spied by the Ogre I fell asleep in hiding but woke to find the Ogre tying up my arms and legs. He took me back to his cave where he set me on a pole propped over a cooking spit. I knew that if I didn’t think fast I would end up eaten just like my brothers…”

The robber paused. He could see the queen and her court caught in thrall of his story.

“Surely what I have told you so far will be enough to release one of my sons, your highness?”

“Yes, yes! Continue and free the other two!”

“Very well. In watching the Ogre prepare me for cooking I could see that he had difficulty with his eyesight. I offered to help him with his eyesight if he would permit me, and if I failed he could continue to eat me, but if I succeeded he would have to let me go. The Ogre agreed but only if I could do it while remaining tied up. So I instructed him to place a large cooking pot on the fire and proceeded to instruct him in the making of a potion that would cure ailments. In it I had him place sulfurs and acids, toxic mushrooms and poisonous animals. The Ogre did as I said but was wary the entire time, as if he were expecting it to be a trick. I had originally intended for him to drink the deadly potion but when I announced it was completed the Ogre insisted I try the potion myself first. I knew that if I didn’t think fast I would end up poisoned by the potion myself…”

The robber paused. The entire court sat on the edges of their seat waiting to hear what would happen next.

“I believe by this point that I have at least secured the release of two of my sons, your highness.”

“Certainly!” said the queen. “Continue and free your last son!”

“Very well. I had been correct in my assessment of the Ogre’s eyesight and asked that he free my hands so that I might drink better. Once freed, and the Ogre placed the ladle in my hands I pretended to drink, letting the liquid pour out onto the ground in front of me. And it was one deadly potion! It hissed and steamed and scorched the earth at my feet. Satisfied that it was not poison the Ogre snatched the ladle and greedily bent over to drink directly from the cooking pot. As he did, I hopped onto his back and then onto his head until it was submerged in the potion. I jumped away as the potion melted off my boots and burned the ropes off my legs but was stunned to see the Ogre lift his head from the potion. Instead of killing him outright the potion merely burned and disfigured his face, blinding him in the process. You would think I would have made my  escape at this point but the Ogre fell to his knees and began crying and I found myself filled with remorse.

“‘You win,’ said the Ogre, ‘Take what you will from me, You have beat me fair and square and I cannot stop you.’ And then he removed a ring from one of his fingers and handed it to me. ‘With this you will never be lost. Wear it in good health.” I put on the ring and had intended to make my escape when all of a sudden I found myself shouting ‘Here I am!’ over and over again uncontrollably. With this the Ogre jumped up, groped around for his club, and came after me. It was clear to me that the ring was bewitched, forcing me to announce myself to the Ogre so that he may strike me through sounding. I tried to remove the ring but it was attached to my finger in such a way that the only way I could remove it was by removing my finger along with it…”

The robber paused. The queen and all in her court looked at the robber’s hands and noticed one of his hands was gloved as if to hide something. The robber noticed them looking his hand but seemed lost in thought until the queen spoke.

“Show me your hand,” said the queen.

“Ah, yes. You will wanting proof. If I show you my hand will you grant me a request? Regardless of what you see?”

“You have told a good story, and that alone merits reward. I have already made my promise about your sons freedom, so, yes, I will grant you a wish.”

The robber removed the glove from his hand and revealed that he was, indeed, missing a finger.

“I could just as easily have lost this finger in a trap, or had it eaten off by a hungry fox or a bear in heated battle,” said the robber. “Instead, I was forced to remove my knife and slice it off so that I could escape the curse of the Ogre’s ring. As you can guess, I was able to escape from the Ogre long enough to make plans to slay him and claim his fortune for my own.”

“I hope you’ll forgive my doubting you,” the queen said. “And now, you have a request?”

The robber looked at his missing finger then put the glove back on. He thought of all he had done, all he had lived, all he had survived.

“Though I am not proud of my former life as a thief I came by my fortunes through much hard work. I did not wait for my father to come save me from an Ogre and I wasn’t fool-hearted enough to believe I knew everything when I went out into the world. Tell me, you highness, what would you have done if my boys had no father to gain their release?”

“Normally, thieves left in the dungeons to spend the remainder of their lives.”

“Then that is my request, that they be sent to the dungeons.”

“But you more than earned their release.”

“Yes, but they haven’t earned their release. I faced down an Ogre to secure my freedom. If they are to be free they shall have to earn it themselves. Promise me that you will do nothing to aid them, or take pity on them and give them any unearned freedoms.”

“You have my word,” said the queen.

And the robber’s sons were never heard from again.

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It doesn’t take a Nostradamus or a Jean Dixon (is anyone alive making a living doing predictions these day?) to figure out what the big sellers in children’s books are going to be this holiday season. Unless a child is a fanatical follower of Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss, or Shel Silverstein the chances are they didn’t get these books the day they were released recently, and more importantly they won’t own these books until the holidays roll around. They may have a chance to see them in the library before then, but given the way these authors are constantly checked out they may not see them anywhere but while hanging around with their parents on those rare occasions they step into a book store.

Not to suggest that these brand-name, marquee-worthy authors don’t deserve the sales, but my prediction has more to do with what I know about bookselling and the behaviors of those who shop for children. There is nothing more frustrating than standing in a store full of nothing but books for children, being solicited for an opinion or recommendation on a title for a child as a gift, only to have the parent (or just as often a grandparent) say “Yes, well, what about (insert well-known children’s book title here)? Do you have that?” When it comes to books, adult shoppers, more than children, fear what they don’t know.

This actually gets trickier as readers get older. When parents are still reading to their children they at least have a sense of the quality and range for what’s available. With voracious appetites for another story, parents will grab stacks full of picture books from the library to read to their lap-sitters, but once those readers become independent and move into newer realms parents have less say and less knowledge about what their kids are reading. I suppose it’s understandable that adults don’t want to have to read middle grade titles to determine their appropriateness or quality, and maybe they shouldn’t read young adult novels so that teens still have their own private club that excludes their parents, but this creates a difficult divide for the book-buying adult to breach. How do they purchase books and encourage reading for the minors in their charge while at the same time retain their distance from actually having to read them?

As with anything, buy what you know.

The truth is, it’s difficult to top Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss, or Shel Silverstein. Any fan of these authors is hard pressed when looking for “something else like them,” as they often ask librarians and store clerks. And if it is difficult for younger readers its near impossible for adults to second guess what authors and titles are in the same realm as these authors. There are plenty of humorous poets who write for children, but when a child wants more Shel Silverstein they cannot easily be convinced that Jack Prelutsky is a worthy substitute.

So come the holiday season – which is just a polite way of saying, come the time of year we voluntarily agree to our tithing to the church of capitalism in the form of holiday-based purchases – as frantic adults go in search of gift books for their children and grandchildren, the familiar will win out over the new.

I could be wrong, I often am. We’ll see.

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In my neighborhood growing up families came and went. The long block of apartments was where families came to save enough to buy a home, or as a place to stay before jobs whisked them away. The block was one long weigh station, some came and went so fast we never learned their names, others never left and the less said about it the better.

David C. was my first best friend. He came during the middle of the year and moved away before the start of the next school year. He is like a ghost because he was there, people remembered him, but he missed photo day and so no physical memory of him exists. Almost.

On the day he was to move away our moms pulled us together to take a few pictures, photos that stayed in the camera for months and eventually appeared out of the blue. We couldn’t be bothered to take the moment seriously because we lived in the moment and never imagined a future different from the present. We were, what, ten years old? What did we know?

we were going to
build a three-wheeled bike
from a shopping cart, miscellaneous parts
and a giant egg from a pantyhose display

we were going to
build a treehouse on a wall
so that our parents wouldn’t see us
sneak out the back side and go to the store
for candy

we were going to
race our bike so fast down the street
that when we hit the driveways we would fly
across the mostly-dead lawn
and skid a cloud of dust

and we’d call it “bosso”
and “bosso-keeno”
and “coolomatic”

we were going to
dig up treasure we were sure was buried
under the bushes in the park
because we kept finding loose change in the dirt
where invisible-to-us teen lovers
made out at night

we were going to
become champion four-square players
because we had secret moves
for getting other kids “out”
before they realized it

we were going to
make enough money helping old ladies
load their groceries into their cars
that at the end of the day we could buy
a remote-controlled helicopter

and we’d slap each other five
and slap each other ten
and say “right on!”

we were going to
spend the rest of our lives
telling each other the funniest jokes
that we could make up
whether or not the made any sense

we were going to
never get married and have kids
because then we’d have to work
and wouldn’t have time to spend
afternoons at the library

we were always going to
be those two boys in white jeans and striped shirts
smiling and flashing peace signs
and hanging all over each other
when our moms wanted serious photos

and we’d say good-bye
and we’d promise to write
and we didn’t understand anything

but our crying mothers understood

Poetry Friday. You know you want to. Check out the roundup this week at Picture Book of the Day.

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King Leir lay dying.

“Water! Fair daughters, the first to bring me the healing water from the well shall inherit my fortune when I pass!”

The King’s eldest daughter, Goneril, went to the well and when she fetched the water it came up all brackish and brown. Out of the water popped a frog, who startled Goneril as he croaked out to her.

Let me call you “Sweetheart,” I’m in love with you.
Let me hear you whisper that you love me too.
Keep the love-light glowing in your eyes so true.
Let me call you “Sweetheart,” I’m in love with you.

Goneril was almost as repulsed by the frog’s choice of song as she was with the water. The frog knew this.

“If you would concede to letting me call you my sweetheart I will give you clean water for your father to drink.”

Goneril would have none of the frog’s proposal and instead went to fetch a bucket of bleach to pour down into the well. She made sure to throw the frog back down into the well before dumping the bleach on his head.

“Perhaps a bit of chlorine will clear your brain as well as the water, frog,” she said.

Having failed at her task, Goneril sent her middle sister, Regan, to try her hand at getting the water. When Regan retrieved the water from the well she was nearly flattened by the chemical smell of the bleach and then got the surprise of her life when a mangy frog gurgled and croaked:

Meet me tonight in dreamland,
under the silvery moon;
Meet me tonight in dreamland,
where love’s sweet roses bloom.

“Really?” said Regan. “Tin Pan Alley? Frog, you aren’t going to get anywhere singing corny songs like that.”

“A kiss, dear darling, to send me off to dreamland, and I shall bring you healing water for your father.”

“A kiss?’ said Regan. “A mere kiss? I shall give you a bucketful of kisses!”

And Regan gathered the coal bucket and began hurling lumps of coal at the frog, knocking him back into the well where she continued to pelt him until she had run out of coal.

That night after dinner the three girls tended to their dying father, Goneril and Regan promising that they did all they could to fetch him healing water from the well. Later Goneril and Regan explained to their younger sister in private all that had happened with the well and the frog and together they wept. After all were asleep for the night Cordelia stole away to try her hand at the well. She drew up the bucket and there, in the moonlight, she found a bucket of the clearest water. And though she couldn’t tell where it was coming from at first, a broken and poisoned frog sang weakly from the rim of the bucket.

I’m Henery the Eighth, I am,
Henery the Eighth I am, I am!
I got married to the widow next door,
She’d been married seven times before.
And every one was an Henery
It wouldn’t be a Willie or a Sam
I’m her eighth old man named Henery
Henery the Eighth, I am!

“What a queer little frog you are,” said Cordelia. “But stranger still, this water is perfectly clear and pure.”

“Indeed,” said the frog. “Though your sisters hardly meant well, the bleach killed off the bacteria and the coal absorbed the chemicals, clearing the water.”

“It doesn’t seem to have helped you at all,” she said.

“Ah, me. I’m just a lonely frog. But perhaps you could do me one favor, one last bit of kindness before I go. Would you hold me in your hand and call me your sweetheart? Would you do that much, and then dream of me tonight?”

How could Cordelia refuse? He may have only been a frog but he deserved to leave this world beloved and beheld.

“Dear frog, my sweetheart, rest well and seek out your great reward.”

And the frog smiled and closed his eyes and died.

Returning to her father with the water Cordelia was shocked to see King Leir sitting up for her, fit and hearty.

“I have brought the water, father, but it appears you no longer need it.”

“Indeed, child, I never needed it. What I needed was to see the true nature of my daughters. While each of you went to fetch me water I followed in secret and watched to see what you did at the well. I heard the frog and your conversations, and I must say I’m glad at least one of my daughters has the compassion and courtesy to treat living things with respect.

While Goneril and Regan slept soundly, caring little enough about their father to sit vigil in the night, King Leir and Cordelia left immediately with orders to have the older girls sealed in their rooms until the palace could be relocated to a secret location with them left behind.

And later, when she slept, Cordelia dreamt of a frog sailing across the sky swallowing the moon as it passed. When she woke there was a song in her head.

Fly, Rana, fly.
Sing, Rana, sing.
My sisters set your spirit free,
But you’re forever here with me,
So sing, Rana, sing.
Fly, Rana, fly.

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Who can truly ever explain how the brain works.

You’re standing in the kitchen making yourself a snack and there’s something in the movement, the rhythm to your actions, that suggest a certain cadence. You hum it, and then the words come, words to a song you haven’t heard or really sung in over 30 years, maybe closer to 40. The song is solid in the memory, firmly planted, and when you get to the end you remember something else about it, something that has attached itself like a footnote all these years.

“I don’t like that song. That’s not the way you’re supposed to speak.”

That would be my mother, complaining about the technically bad grammar tagged onto the end of a counting song from Sesame Street. That the song and my mother’s comment could be so firmly rooted and interconnected after all these years, that’s the mystery of the mind. But did I remember it correctly, was my mother right to have been alarmed?

Thankfully we have the modern Internet to help us remember what we remember.

Yup, it’s still there, just as I remembered it: “You can’t do like Roosevelt do!” And while I can see what bothered my mother about it, I also recall that it sounded right to me. It sounded right because I heard people talk like that. It might have been grammatically incorrect, but kids and adults talk wrong all the time. I also remember thinking that to say it any other way wouldn’t fit the beat of the song (I have always had an inner ear for lyrical beat) and that sometimes you have bend the words or drop words to make them fit. This is no less true of poetry, and in fact it’s all over Shakespeare’s (and other lyrical poet’s) artificial contractions to force-fit them into their meter. O’er ramparts we watch, when it’s Over we’re meaning. That sort of thing.

What my mother may have actually been offended by was the mimicry of urban slang, a borderline wariness that I might not know or understand the difference between proper speech and the patois of the ghetto. What she should have been concerned about was a two-year old puppet boy with a voice so deep that he might have easily replaced the bass position in a doo wop band. Or maybe it was that voice, deep and rich with authority, that she was afraid would sway me into thinking it was okay to talk the way Roosevelt talk.

In the end, those fears were unwarranted. I grew up speaking and writing just fine.  Eventually.

Because I’m Roosevelt Franklin. Yeah, yeah. yeah.

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