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Archive for March, 2012

No, that’s not the title of a poem, it’s the truth. I had something I was going to post this week, an original found poem, but it’s out for submission to an online journal and can’t have been previously published, not even on the old blog. Good thing I caught that before I uploaded it!

But it does bring up an interesting question, which is whether to continue posting original work on the blog. Original unpublished new work I should say. Initially when I started putting up original work my wife (the lawyer) wondered about copyright and worried I could be easily plagiarised, but I didn’t think that was an issue. Well, not an issue for me at least, not at the time. Maybe down the road, I thought, it would be a good idea to make sure there’s a copyright notice somewhere. It’s just never been a pressing issue.

Recently though I’ve come back around to another way of thinking, one that has to do with the idea of valuing the work I do. Years ago — decades now — I was part of the burgeoning zine culture. I did some mini comics, some one-offs, and eventually put together a movie review zine that got picked up for distribution by Tower. The rule of the DIY zine community was to put a value on the work, charge people for it, even if only a quarter for a simple mini comic, because if you as the creator don’t put a value on it no one else will. It makes sense, a thing you get handed for free is that much easier to throw away than the thing you gave up some money for.

The internet has changed that esthetic and thinking. Forgetting that we pay for the computers and the internet access, we see content as something that is free without amortizing what each little bit and flit costs us. We add content freely because we don’t have to take the time it used to take compiling, cutting and pasting, photocopying, and mailing our missives to the world. We don’t physically pay for these digital jobs and so we don’t think about collecting on them. The poems and cartoon mash-up we would have spent time compiling and distributing we now throw onto blogs and websites with barely a second thought. What we’ve gained by distribution and a potentially wider audience we’ve traded our sense of creative worth like Jack trading a cow for a sack of beans. Maybe they will grow into a magical financial beanstalk down the road, and then again maybe they won’t.

For 15 months now, almost every week, I’ve been posting an original poem as part of Poetry Friday. I’ve done it to participate in the predominantly (though not exclusively) kidlit community of poetry. I’ve done it because I wanted to stretch my wings in an area I long considered to be outside my abilities. It’s a thing I picked up as a kid, this thinking that I wasn’t a poet, as if poets are born and not self-created. But as a pre-teen poetry grave me a love for language and the potential of words and storytelling that has stuck hard and fast all these years. I wanted to find my way back to that and its taken me all these months of sharing with the world to think that maybe I’m good enough to go a step further. Submitting a poem to a journal was that first step.

So on the even of April’s National Poetry Month I find myself in an odd space. Do I continue to post weekly poems to the blog while also looking to get published in more traditional venues? If I’m “saving” my better work for publication, does that mean I devalue the “free” work I post to the blog, or worse, am I devaluing the blog reader by sharing factory seconds? Or am I over-thinking the whole enterprise the way I do with practically everything.

April is when I have, for the last three years at least, tweeted upwards of three haiku daily and posted the collected week’s worth on the blog. I haven’t decided if twitter haiku isn’t overplayed or if I don’t want to try something different. I do think that The coming month may be the last month where I feature original poems here at fomagrams. At least for a while. Long enough for me to take stock, refocus my energy, and figure out what the hell I’m doing here.

You know, the usual.

For those looking for the usual Poetry Friday fare, head on over to my juicy little universe where Heidi is hosting the roundup this week.

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I got into a bit of an argument with a teen girl about The Hunger Games. I know, I’m a grown man and should know better than to step between a teen girl and her beloved heroine. Especially so since it was my older daughter.

Having seen the movie this past weekend (twice for her, first at midnight on Thursday, then a little less bleary-eyed on Sunday) our conversation eventually wended its way toward the differences between the book and the movie. I should also note that the book was fresh in my mind after having read it a few days earlier. For the first time.

Yes, yes, I know, what’s wrong with me?

While we both ticked off changes made in the movie, no doubt for the sake of economy — “spoilers” will not be mentioned here — I finally decided that what bothered me most was how bland Katniss’ personality was in the movie. My daughter’s explanation: because the book was in first person there was no way you could hear what she was thinking without voiceover, and that would have ruined it.

I agree and disagree.

Voiceover would have ruined the film, bogged down the action and made it feel, well, unoriginal. The argument I tried to make was that while the movie was faithful to the plot there was absolutely no emotional development for Katniss, not on the screen at least. What I wanted, my daughter insisted, was impossible to do, which is where we disagreed. The solution is one known to many a writer of both books and screenplays which is why it was odd it wasn’t evident in the movie.

Show, don’t tell.

In the first-person the character can tell us much about what they are thinking in the moment, and in The Hunger Games everything we learn we get from Katniss. She knows the games, how they work, and she knows the risk she takes by putting her name in so many times for the Reaping just to keep her family alive. She knows Gale as a hunting buddy, a close ally, someone with whom she has complete trust if not a budding romantic fondness for. She knows Haymitch as not the town hero but the town drunk. She knows Peeta as a simple, kind boy but grows to suspect that he might have more cunning than she imagined. And throughout she knows what will happen to her once she reaches the Capitol — not the details but the gist of what she’s seen on TV for the 16 years she’s been alive. She knows sponsors are important to her survival, she knows she will be assigned a stylist to make her presentable for the ceremonies, and she is constantly thinking about what she has to do to survive so she can return home. Constantly.

In the film, Katniss comes off as a bit of a dolt, an innocent who’s never seen the games before. Her relationship with Gale is cursory at best, and Peeta is as genial as his brain is empty. She is put through her paces according to the plot but who she feels about the game before, during, and after makes for a rather flat emotional arc — call it an emotional plateau if you will. Sure, she get’s a moment here and there — with Rue, with Cinna — but they are reactive moments and not enough of a peg to hang a complete thought on.

How can you do it, how do you show what a character is thinking without voiceover?
You show it.

You know who got it right?
Peter Jackson when he adapted The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Am I suggesting The Hunger Games should have been a 3-plus hour-long movie?
Yes, yes, I am.

Let me narrow in on Katniss and Peeta from the moment they get on the train to the moment Peeta makes his confession during his interview before the game. During that time in the book Katniss goes from thinking Peeta is a simpleton, to pitying him for the inevitability of dying in the games, to resenting him for wanting to get separate advice from Haymitch, to feeling both dumbstruck and betrayed at the TV interviews. These shifting feelings are important because, though Katniss doesn’t feel he is a threat to her, she does feel she owes him for a kindness he performed earlier shortly after he father died. This conflict of emotion becomes compounded during the game when Peeta makes an alliance and helps lead them to Katniss to kill her. In the movie little of this comes through. Peeta seems resigned to his fate and blander than his character in the book, which is hard to believe. The separate training, the confession, these come off in the movie less like Peeta is a master of calculation and more a puppet doing what he was told to do.

Katniss’ reactions to these shifts in his character don’t make sense because we haven’t “seen” what she’s been thinking. The plot pushes them through the train ride, though training, with only the most necessary of information. This “economy” of storytelling also removes every semblance of character from the other tributes, making them easily expendable when their time come. We should care about every. single. child. up on that screen, because they have been put into an arena to fight to the death! For our, er, Panem’s entertainment!

Impossible! my daughter screams as she storms away, not upset with me so much as she doesn’t believe it can be done. She hasn’t seen the movies I’ve seen. She hasn’t seen the masters of the German and French New Wave, or the films of Fellini or Kurosawa, films where characters are front-and-center even through action. She hasn’t tired of the faster-faster mentality of Hollywood films enough to recognize or appreciate how much better the tension is when action scenes burst like dams from the built-up pressure of emotional weight behind them. And given that The Hunger Games is so clearly centered on The World According to Katniss it’s too bad the movie couldn’t show us that.

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#poetry friday: tools

Growing up I was taught that what separated man from animals was that man developed tools, and that this proved a sophistication and intelligence above all other creatures. This naive arrogance continues to be disproved as we discover more and more animals using simple tools in ways that show a level of intelligence that I think scares some people. This past week I heard about how bears use barnacle-crusted stones to exfoliate the skin around their face and neck. Add this to the Crows that drop walnuts on the roads to be run over by cars, the elephants that use bark to build sponge-like canteens to store water, and the octopi that use coconut shells as armor and I think it’s pretty safe to say that man’s only advantage is that we may ultimately end up only being the first occupants of the planet to evolve, and not the only ones.

a stick is a tool for a raven
a stick is a tool for a man
a raven will use it to forage
a man will club another man

a stone is a tool for an otter
a stone is a tool for a man
an otter will bust open urchins
a man will stone his fellow man

a voice is a tool for microbats
a voice is a tool for a man
a bat will call out for location
a man insults all that he can

a brain has the power of reason
for thought and invention of tools
the animals adapt for survival
while man adapts tools to abuse

With great brains come great complications. You would think that as our brains evolved that our inclination to wipe each other decrease.

Greg over at Gotta Book is hosting the poetry roundup this week. Lots of good stuff, including a link to the Poetry March Madness thing that’s going on right now.

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A Hippie and an Anarchist walk into a Starbucks and ask the Barista…

Can you picture it? Birkenstocks and tie-dye, piercings and tattoos, a bored look and a smart phone. Counter-culture meets coffee-counter culture. The attitude and the edge, the anger and the disaffection. The sheer conflict of images.

Writers think about stereotypes more than any other people I know. In an effort to communicate with words it becomes necessary to show a reader who, what, and where these people are, and these descriptions require a writer to consider how many strokes of the brush it will take to render the image.

Factually, a reporter has no reason to point out details that have no bearing on a story — we may be told a fire victim’s age but not their weight or race, because these details tell us nothing about the scene. In news reporting we aren’t given extraneous details partially because we can see details that aren’t described and partially because the story itself must be believed because it is simply true, it actually happened. So if we are told a famous and wealthy business tycoon was found dead in an alley behind a homeless shelter we believe it, and begin to fill in unspoken details and questions that allow us to create a narrative in our mind about what we thought happened.

We do this because we have deeply embedded stereotypes that inform our ability to construct an image that is true to us.

That tycoon in the alley, he doesn’t belong there, because that’s not where tycoons should be found. We picture him in a suit, crumpled near a dumpster, face down maybe, pockets turned out where he has been robbed, shoes missing. The location, behind a homeless shelter, sets us thinking who might have done this to him.

Him? When did I decide our tycoon was male? Is male my stereotype default for a tycoon? Are my assumptions based on stereotypes or the preponderance of examples? Does placing a tycoon dead in an alley behind a homeless shelter automatically trip the default that assumes foul play is involved? These images that we construct are a function of our individual experience, but I doubt that from the short description above that a reader would draw the same conclusion further details would provide.

Sally Hemmings, noted real estate tycoon, was found in the alley behind the homeless shelter she founded, dead from a ruptured appendix.

Details, in this case, help us not only see the scene more clearly but also counter any stereotypes we otherwise would have affixed to the story without them. In short, in the absence of the concrete, our thinking would tend toward the stereotype.

In fiction the writer treads delicately between being “true” and giving the reader a chance to properly visualize the characters and settings. News images from South Central LA during the Rodney King Riots would have us imagine a rundown neighborhood full of poverty and crime, and yet one of the wealthiest universities, USC, was mere blocks away to the north. This contradiction in expectations actually provides an opportunity for context and comparison, just as it can with character stereotypes. The problem, in fact and fiction, is that we rely on the stereotypes to become rather than inform the reality.

Far too often in fiction for middle grade and young adults I find that stereotypes, or behavior that has become stereotypical, is nothing more than a cynical way to either deliver on a reader’s expectations or a guarantee to fulfill a marketing category. A middle grade mystery, with a well-intentioned boy detective and a hiding-her-light-under-a-bushel girl sidekick, always reads flat to me. It trades on the stereotypes of a boy with grandiose ideas and the smart girl who helps the boy achieve those goals with a wink to the reader that the boy would be nowhere without her aid. One could argue this being the flip side to the helpless girl who requires a boy savior but neither is revolutionary. Is it possible to have the boy and girl be equal partners? And without an undertone of romance? And for them both to be true to their nature, a boyish boy and a girly girl?

No.

Because our expectations about the characters requires that they correspond to something we recognize in real life, or at the very least within our experiences. And beyond that, the characters themselves must have stereotypical expectations in order for there to be resonance. There is nothing more unrealistic in American fiction (with few exceptions) than a story with 100% caucasian characters, just as there is nothing realistic about a collection of mixed race characters where those differences aren’t noted by the characters themselves. Kids especially are keen on making these distinctions as they are still forming their own thoughts about what behaviors are of a particular character and which are stereotypical.

Every writer who doesn’t feel that writing for children and teens should include a political or social agenda is missing the truth: all writing includes the writer’s agenda. They either rely on and perpetrate stereotypes, for better or worse, or they fight stereotypes in an attempt to get readers to think beyond their own prejudices and expectations. Every detail about character and setting becomes a deliberate choice to either expose or support a stereotype.

What, exactly, is a stereotype is a question for another time.

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I don’t even know how to articulate the sickly stew of emotions this story stirs up.

Author Francesca Lia Block is currently trapped in a hell of financial runaround with Bank of America. The creator of Weetzie Bat and author of over two dozen books is in danger of losing her home because she, like hundreds of thousands of others in this country, got screwed over when the housing finance bubble burst. Now with one of those “underwater” mortgages, where she owes more than the property is worth, Block can’t get Bank of America to even answer her calls or give her honest answers. She’s posted her story on her facebook page and on her blog in the hope that getting the word out far and wide can help. I’m not sure what can be done or how spreading the word will help, but it’s the least I feel I can do.

If anyone has any suggestions what else can be done, besides spreading the word, please let me know.

*****

The mixed emotions come from a number of points of connection. I met Francesca Lia Block in 1990. July 27, 1990, to be exact, at Dark Carnival Books in Berkeley. I know the date because she wrote it in my copy of Weetzie Bat when she signed it, but I remember other details not on the titles page of the book. I remember it was an afternoon signing, a warm late July day, and that I got there early enough to kill time scouting out books on writing query letters and checking out the store’s privately-made collection of Clive Barker rubber stamps (one of which I bought). I remember being afraid of saying something stupid when I got my book signed (I still feel this way, always, even when the authors are friends), and wondered if I should mention that after reading Weetzie Bat that I was inspired to tell my own Los Angeles stories. Never mind that I was still thinking in terms of screenplays and not fiction, and that I was thinking of YA as an aside to my “real” writing. I was young(er) and didn’t really understand what life was telling me to do in those days.

It was on that day in July of 1990 that seeds of my writing for children and young adults were planted. Less seeds really and more like bulbs waiting out the cold winter of the 1990s for the spring of my late-blooming consciousness. I did, indeed, tell Francesca that I was thinking about writing my own teen LA stories, and she smiled and said “You should! Do it!” I don’t know what it is about a total stranger enthusiastically embracing ones buried and latent dreams, but in that brief exchange it was as if she’d cut through a fog of doubt in a way that allowed me to find my way out. Eventually.

Another intersection is that  Francesca settled in my old home town of Culver City. If I’m correct, she now lives approximately six blocks away from where I grew up. When she talks about her kids being able to walk to school, playing at the local park, I know those places. The main library not far away is where I discovered Little Nemo in Slumberland, where I worked on a report on William Saroyan for 7th grade English, where I curled up and delved into Vonnegut. These neighborhoods are full of good, simple single family homes that were part of the mid-20th century housing boom. These are not extravagant palaces, not the So Cal homes of excess where the rich and famous loll and lounge. These are middle class neighborhoods whose “value” was assessed and inflated during a time of greed. It makes me sad to think that my modest, simple home town has become a place where an author of books for teens is scrambling to hold on.

I don’t know what else to say. These times we’re living in are far too full of these stories, far too full.

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In 1975 Morris Albert had a number one hit with a song in the United States he originally recorded as a chart topper in his native Brazil the year before. The song, schmaltz of the highest order, was so damn popular it was covered almost immediately by a whole host of performers including Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Caetano Veloso, Frank Sinatra, Engelbert Humperdinck, Shirley Bassey, Glen Campbell, The O’Jays, Sarah Vaughan, and Johnny Mathis. Despite its success it is also considered one of the worst songs ever, probably because it seems so fraught with empathy and yet can’t manage to articulate that emotion.

But a funny thing happened on the road to creating a cento poem when I decided to strip away the nonsense in this melancholy love song: turns out the poem isn’t about lost love at all, its defiant, angry rebuff.

nothing more

trying to forget
love
for all my life

I wish
I never met you

never come again
never

again in my heart
again in my life
again in my arms

I may never hear the song Feelings again (please!) without this newfound respect for the kernel of truth hidden within. What I had assumed all these years was some poor simp whining over being dumped is actually a firm stance against them-what-done-em-wrong.

Bonus Cento Time!

I was curious to know if, in the original Spanish, the song was somehow less banal. I found the lyrics to Sentimientos, ran them through Babelfish, corrected for some obvious grammatical issues and… nope, just as sappy. But! There were different words to play with, and once I removed all those meddlesome “feelings,” discovered a more down-to-earth narration of love-gone-south.

tell me
how to forget

tears
suffering

tell me
because now I know
the idiot that I am

tell me
already

it’s not right
because, idiot that I am
I know

you will never tell me

Ah, the delicate torture that is the silent treatment once you’ve been spurned. You know you’re in the wrong, but you need to hear it! Okay, great. Now I can quietly go about forgetting all about the original (and the original original) for another good, long stretch.

Right, on to other Poetry Friday pursuits. Or, Right On! to other Poetry Friday pursuits! It’s all in the inflection. This week Gathering Books isn’t just the Poetry Friday host, it’s Myra’s birthday so its a poetic birthday party!

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Missed a week, but I had my reasons. I was busy writing and talking about writing and generally doing writerly things.

Okay, I forgot all about Poetry Friday last week.

In the meantime, I’d stumbled upon a sort of “test” that was given by an ad agency to prospective copywriters, designed to see how they think on their feet, word-wise. A number of the questions make for good writing prompts (“Describe toast to a Martian in 50 words or less”) but I was surprised that my instinct for answering the first question, “Give a short, persuasive argument on letting Pluto remain a planet,” wanted to come out in verse form.

the abandoned egg
nursed from a chick
to a full-grown sparrow

imprinted on our hearts
following us around
feeding from our merest crumbs

cannot be returned to the wild
any more than our dogs and cats
they are no less than family

which is why pluto should remain
part of our adopted solar tribe
our orbiting pet rock

What is a planet anyway? The dictionary says the word comes from the Greek and that it differentiates objects that orbit a sun from stationary stars in the sky. So what if Pluto is really nothing more than an orbiting asteroid following us ring-around-the-rosy like a happy Saint Bernard puppy? We couldn’t see it for millenia, and when we did we claimed it as one of our own. Let it stay, it’s doing us no harm.

Let Pluto be Pluto.

If you’re gonna fall down the rabbit hole on the internet, might as well do it with poetry. Dori has the Poetry Friday roundup this week at her site, Dori Reads, including a nifty interview with Laura Purdie Salas.

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