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Archive for April, 2012

National Poetry Month winding down, and the twitku keep on coming! This week wasn’t as hard as last week, but I sense a diminishing quality overall. Less serious, more absurd, and the need for themes to keep rolling. You’ll see what I mean.

The following tweets were pre-recorded before a live audience.

April 20
I do not recall why I only managed to get two.

peanut butter toast / lands like a drunken frat boy / face down on the floor

foxes in vineyards / should know better than to want / what they cannot have

April 21
The first is about a test in New York, the second planted a seed for later, the third just happened

pineapple & hare / race through a standardized test / but nobody wins

three cans shaving cream / ten disposable razors / five o’clock teen wolf

sitting in traffic / broken AC, windows down / fully exhausted

April 22
Earth Day, and apparently I’ve grown cynical about it. At least in haiku.

oil covered birds / rainbow slick tides wash up tar / the price of cheap gas

circle of arrows / what comes around goes around / recycle and reap

1970 / cleaning beaches with trash bags / preserved in landfills

to preserve our air / close polluting factories / move them overseas

April 23
William Shakespeare’s birthday. And deathday. Some haiku revisions.

updating shakespeare / let all who die in hamlet / return as zombies

imagine how great / “midsummer night” would be if / puck was a werewolf

happy ending for / Romeo and Juliet? / they’re vampires now!

gender swap the shrew / for the next 400 years / “taming the bastard”

April 24
Another theme! American historical figure biographies, in haiku! (The last one almost ended “arbor-onanist.”)

benjamin franklin / prankmaster general and / closeted nudist

abraham lincoln / a stand-up comedian  / who hated to shave

johnny appleseed /planting his trees everywhere / masturarborist

April 25
One of these things is not like the others. In fact, it’s total nonsense, but it works.

sucking on a lemon / bright like the sun after a storm / but paper-cut tart

against the cobalt / cotton dabbed in mercury / bicycle weather

economic woes / jobs are haystacks of promise / in needle-free zones

chocolate choco / la te cho cola tech o /co late chocolate

April 26
Poem in your pocket day actually turned out to be the most poetic, traditionally speaking.

reach in your pocket / where you think you have money / only a receipt

constellation beach / pebbly stars recede as / their time becomes dust

you know that feeling / before you know you’re tired / clouds shrinking away

the tip of my tongue / where everything tastes so sweet / but the words won’t come

And that’s the way it is. Or was. And there’s still a few days to go!

When I first started tweeting daily haiku during NPM four years ago (not three like I originally thought) there were a lot of people tweeting poems. Then again, if my Twitter stats are correct, four years ago Twitter had fewer people – to the tune of 95% fewer. So the audience was smaller and the messages were more… personal? Intimate? Since then there have been Twitter novels, and collections of six-word biographies, and all matter of self-promotion that have changed the face of Twitter. Which is not to say I think any of that is bad, only that there has been a decided change in Twitter’s general “vibe” and my sense is that my fellow tweeps are more interested in broadcasting than they are sharing.

In fact, the only person who has shown up in my streams with any poetic regularity has been Elinor Lipman who has been tweeting a political couplet daily and will continue to do so through the 2012 election. The Daily Beast, the online arm of Newsweek, recently collected her tweets marking the rise and fall of Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign. Nearly a year’s worth of daily poem tweeting and counting! Can’t wait to see what happens as the actual mano-a-mano campaign begins in earnest.

So, the last Poetry Friday of National Poetry Month 2012. What is everyone else in the blogosphere up to? Tabatha over at The Opposite of Indifference has the roundup, so let’s mosey on over and see what’s what!

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I’m not jumping the bandwagon here, I’m building it. Print books are gonna be HUGE in 10 to 15 years. There’s gonna be a renaissance of the printed book that’ll make all our current hand-wringing look like the motion picture industry wailing over the pending death of movies at the dawn of television back in the 1950s. And the best part about this pending book boom: books are going to be awesomer than they are now.

Kids coming up with these new digital ereaders, soon this is all they will know of books. Oh, sure, the unused library in their school will have their shelves of “research” material that hasn’t made the transition, those titles that have yet to be digitized, just like back in the beginning of the compact disc transition where people still owned tape players and turntables for their “oldies.”

Then one day an author with a name and some clout is going to open shop and start printing fine editions of their books. They’ll pick up some other authors and do the same. Dave Eggers may be their model, but they may look back at the names behind the major publishers and see how they started, as small imprints with a unique viewpoint to share with the world. The hipster kids, annoying but ever-present, will tout the latest new first editions they found and swap publishers and authors to check out with other “booksters.” New stores will open catering to the “lost” art of the non-ebook, the codex, the physical artifact.

College kids will sit in cafes obnoxiously reading from a book printed on environmentally friendly paper, showing off their dust jackets in defiance of all the anonymous backs of ereader screens like mini-monoliths in a tabletop Stonehenge. The movement won’t change the world overnight but will capture the people’s attentions as they realize what was traded-off in the name of convenience. As with the resurgence of vinyl recordings and film cameras with kids now, the book will return with a renewed desire to regain a certain hand-made spirit to the enterprise.

The glut of digital democracy will, ultimately, send people in search of quality “slow books.” When a publisher returns to an emphasis on the quality of the finished product they will be forced to reexamine how they allocate their resources. Digital has already made it too easy for everyone to be published, and the result is a din too noisy to know where to focus ones attention.

The print book renaissance will remind people that it isn’t just the words that matter, but that presentation counts.

The ramblings of a Luddite, a technophobe with a desire for things “the way they used to be?” Hardly. But as I made the switch with my music from vinyl to digital I have come to hear my music less. In fact, I don’t listen to it at all, I just play it as if it were part of the wallpaper. The ease with which I can call up a song and listen to it on demand, the way I can shuffle songs or make playlists on the fly, this ease has caused me to miss the greatest thing about music in the first place: the music itself. I’ve traded the fidelity of old technology for the compressed convenience of the new, and so have you. I traded away making a conscious effort to choose a particular album and make the deliberate effort to play it when it could be listened to, really listened to, consciously. That’s what I realize I’ve missed, I’ve traded listening to music for consuming it.

Ebooks and digital publishing, it’s that same ease of consuming over the conscious act of selecting and reading — truly reading, with absolute focus and deliberateness — that’s been whittled away.

But it’s coming back, to a future near you.

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First it came to me as a tweet, that a bizarre story with unanswerable context questions appeared on a New York State exam. The news story, which gave a summary of the story on the test, concerned a retelling of the fable of the Tortoise and the Hare, only with a Pineapple in the place of the tortoise. The Pineapple, who can talk but is immobile, naturally loses the race but is eaten by the other animals. The questions that followed, supplied by the news story made no sense. Even teachers administering the exam couldn’t decisively say which were the correct answers.

And as teachers were going to be assessed on the ability of their students to do well on this test it seemed a travesty.

Another tweet alerted me to the fact that the story was written by noted children’s author Daniel Pinkwater. A different story came into focus with just that information, because I’ve read enough Pinkwater to know that he prizes nonsense and zen equally in his stories. But I was still confused. How did a nonsense story end up on a test to measure reading comprehension? It sounded like another one of those areas where a test seemed more designed to promote failure than measure success. I poked around and found both an interview with Pinkwater along with a copy of the actual story as it appeared on the test.

Pinkwater himself finds the entire incident absurd and makes his pointed jabs at the testing industry clear. What struck me was the story of “The Hare and the Pineapple” (originally “The Hare and the Eggplant”) was taken out of context in such a way that, as a stand-alone piece, it seems practically designed to cause test taker anxiety. The fable in the book is told by an elderly man who is either going through early stages of dementia or at least pretending to be, so within that context the “meaning” of the story is, essentially, there is no meaning to the story. In reading the story as it appeared on the test, and looking at the questions, it becomes clear that the controversy as reported in the news was carefully written to highlight the absurdity of the test. There is one question I found that asks for a value or contextual judgment (“who was wisest”) but in the end it may simply have been that an absurd story in the middle of a “serious” test caused some eighth graders undue anxiety.

Still, the problem of context bothers me. When you take something with a very specific purpose in one text and remove it from its surrounding purpose, it opens up the possibility of misuse and misunderstanding.

In Paul Zindel’s YA novel The Pigman there is a story told by the old man as a “mystery” though he suggests that the story will reveal what kind of a person you are. If I’m not mistaken the story is an adaptation of a version playwright Edward Albee based on a Greek tale.

There is a river with a bridge over it, and a WIFE and her HUSBAND live in a house on one side. The WIFE has a LOVER who lives on the other side of the river, and the only way to get from one side of the river to the other is to walk across the bridge or to ask the BOATMAN to take you.

One day the HUSBAND tells his WIFE that he has to be gone all night to handle some business in a faraway town. The WIFE pleads with him to take her with him because she knows if she doesn’t, she will be unfaithful to him. The HUSBAND absolutely refuses to take her because she will only be in the way of his important business.

So the HUSBAND goes alone. When he is gone, the WIFE goes over to the bridge and stays with her LOVER. The night passes, and dawn is almost up when the WIFE leaves because she must get back to her own home before her HUSBAND returns. She starts to cross the bridge but sees an ASSASSIN waiting for her on the other side, and she knows if she tries to cross, he will murder her. In terror, she runs up the side of the river and asks the BOATMAN to take her across the river, but he wants fifty cents. She has no money, so he refuses to take her.

The WIFE runs back to the LOVER’s house and explains to him what the predicament is and asks him for fifty cents to pay the BOATMAN. The LOVER refuses, telling her it’s her own fault for getting into the situation. As dawn comes up, the WIFE is nearly out of her mind and dashes across the bridge. When she comes face to face with the ASSASSIN, he takes a large knife and stabs her until she is dead.

Now, on a piece of paper (or in your head), list the names of the characters in the order in which you think they were most responsible for the WIFE’s death. Just list WIFE, HUSBAND, LOVER, BOATMAN, and ASSASSIN in the order you think they are the most guilty.

The order of your answer supposedly reveals how much you value LOVE, SEX, FUN, MONEY, and MAGIC with each corresponding to the characters in the story and their behavior. And within the story there is a reason for The Pigman to be telling it, but let’s take the story on its own and instead of making an ordered list of who we think is most guilty, lets instead ask some contextual inference questions.

Based on the story above, which person is most likely to have hired the ASSASSIN?
a. the BOATMAN
b. the LOVER
c. the HUSBAND
d. the WIFE

Who does the WIFE fear the most in story?
a. the ASSASSIN
b. the HUSBAND
c. herself
d. the BOATMAN

What could the WIFE have done differently to avoid being killed?
a. Swim across the river.
b. Offered the BOATMAN double his fee for helping her.
c. Kill the ASSASSIN before he could kill her.
d. Found another way across the river.

The first question underscores a crucial bit of information that isn’t expressly given in the story, because we all know that an Assassin never kills for free. In the second question the Wife has reason to fear all of the people named in the answers, but which does she fear the most based on her behavior? The third question merely asks that the test taker choose what to their thinking is the best solution. These questions are sometimes kept out of the scoring and sometimes used to gather some other particular metrics requested by the test administrators or the company that produced the tests themselves. But as you can see, it’s easy to ask the questions, but much harder defending definitive answers when the story itself has another purpose within the larger context.

Now comes the blame game. Judging from all the news and hoopla regarding “The Hare and the Pineapple,” who do you think is the most at fault?

a. The news media for reporting the story.
b. The schools who administer tests with questions even their own teachers cannot answer.
c. The test preparers who make millions off selling tests to school districts even though the tests themselves may not provide the quantitative information they claim to possess.
d. The public, who believe that standardized testing is the best way to measure everything from individual knowledge to the ability of a school and its educators to provide quality education.

When you are done, put down your pencils, wait quietly and do not turn the page until you are told to do so.

(By the way, if you want to provide your answers to The Pigman’s riddle below I will email you what the results mean.)

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You may be thinking that magic is an illusion, a slight of hand, a trick. That’s not the kind of magic I have in mind though.

I’m talking about a type of magic that you see when a face lights up. It’s a magic I used to live for as a teacher and one I continue to relish as a parent. It’s a magic of a moment when someone receives a gift that transcends the physical. It’s the Ah-ha!, the joy of surprise, the connection of finding something that speaks to you and let you know that you are not alone in the world.

I’m talking about the magic of a book.

And I’m asking you to consider becoming a magician, an agent of change that will get books to kids so they can experience that magic.

Each year the blog Guys Lit Wire, which I contribute to, puts together a book fair for a worthy cause, someplace in need of a little outside help. This year we are headed back to Ballou Sr High School in Washington DC because, as much as we were able to help them last year, they are still deep in need when it comes to books.

You can read the whole deal here at Guys Lit Wire. Read the background, click on the link of books, make a purchase. It’s pretty straightforward but here’s how I like to think about it:

Somewhere out there is a book. It was written by an author with the hopes of one day reaching a reader. One day that book finds its reader and the reader is astounded: it’s as if the author wrote the book specifically for them, is speaking directly to them. But in between there is a missing piece of magic, that midwifery that delivers the book to the reader. You will never know how you changed a reader’s life or even that you did, but never knowing, never being sure, that’s the territory shared by magic and faith.

Go.

Be a magician.

Spread the word, help others become magicians.

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If memory serves, the third week of National Poetry Month is always a bit like hitting the wall. So this week’s twitku are a mixed lot.

April 13
All sort of animals today, mostly birds.

to last forever / our lives witnessed, recorded / and sung by the birds

urban savanna / lumbering teen hippo boys / stork-legged teen girls

missing bird flyer / the cat acts suspiciously / the dog looks away

April 14
There’s a rather weak attempt at a pun buried in here.

kentucky burgoo / is it porridge, soup or stew? / I haven’t a clue

peripatetic / when wandering patetics / fall madly in love

first sunburn of spring / no comfort to be found from / neglected aloe

April 15
Only two today, grass-stains and deep thoughts about place.

down by the water / the ground plays practical jokes / soggy grass-stained butts

this place I call home / who else called it home before / how many more will?

April 16
Another short day, a trip to the airport and the Boston Marathon.

romance of travel / standing in security / overpay for food

marathon monday / closed streets shut down the city / sirens fill the air

April 17
Just to be clear, the old guys are yelling at each other’s empty houses. Surreal and entertaining.

some say we are dust / but we are water transformed / liquid, solid, gas

elderly neighbors / yelling at empty houses / harmony of hate

echoes in my head / me: but, mom! i looked everywhere! / mom: did you LIFT things?

April 18
The first one is a Limick, sort of. It’s missing a line but it still works. Sort of.

the old man from kent / never knew about what grew / from the AC vent

repeating bird song / caught in an infinite groove / making time stand still

midnight is a crow / that drifts across the night sky / the moon in his eye

April 19
The cat reappears, and yes skateboards used to have clay wheels.

to shower in clothes / to prepare for the monsoons / or walk about nude?

dead vole at the door / a warning from the cat or / a peace offering

1969 / the mighty pebble could stop / clay skateboard wheels

truth bent like willows / faces betray memory / high school reunion

humor’s conundrum / he who laughs last laughs best or / he who laughs best lasts?

military jets / overhead at fenway park / national treasures

A couple of decent ones cropped up, some I don’t even remember what frame of mind I was in when I wrote them. The usual. I’d pick out some faves but I’d rather hear what struck a chord with y’all.

Poetry Friday, it’s a thing. I probably don’t have to tell you. Looking for the roundup? Diane over at Random Noodling is hosting this week, so head on over and see what else the rest of the internet is up to.

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The price of gasoline. It goes up. It goes down.

Over time though it inches incrementally higher. We hear about it in the news, where there is a war, or when there is some problem with the supply. We hear soundbites of the average consumer complaining about how it gets harder and harder to pay for the gas they need to get to jobs, how corners will have to be cut someplace, how people turn to cars with better fuel efficiency.

This isn’t the problem. All this focus on gas makes for an easy story in the news, something we can grasp easily, but only because the news media has never really bothered to give the true story its due.

The problems isn’t gas, it’s wages.

The amount paid at the pump only hurts because it affects people’s personal budgets. If the average salary increased with inflation the cost of gas at $4 and $5 a gallon would seem cheap. If the news media instead looked at how the inflationary costs of goods and services outpaced the earnings of the workers then maybe we would have a better understanding of the problem. And some real outrage.

News media, and especially media that focuses on business, tend to focus on the economics of business. We know the box office grosses of the latest movies, how much Apple’s stock has increased, the value of the facebook IPO but there’s never a story about how much the price of peanut butter has increased in the past year versus the average salary of a family that relies on cheap protein sources to keep kids fed. We don’t see these stories because… why? They don’t make businesses and their bottom lines looking good? Because we fear that if a business fails so does the rest of the country? Is it that important to save an auto industry that uses gasoline (two business stories that we use as gauges for understanding these economically uncertain times) that we completely ignore that we have totally lost the entire middle-income section of the economic chart?

It has always struck me that no one finds its odd there’s a Business section of the news but not a Labor section, or at the very least and Personal Economics section. I would think any media that presented itself as offering a balanced view of news would want to counter every corporate leader profile with one from the rank and file, a running tally of jobs lost against business gains, hourly versus salary.

What I think captures the attention and imagination is that gas prices fluctuate down as well as up. If there was ever better evidence of the value and pricing of a commodity within American society, gas prices would be it. But it’s subterfuge symbolism, this marker by which we are made to feel that things are either getting better or worse when, in fact, the question that should automatically come to mind when the news media talks gas prices should be:

Compared to what?

 

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Or maybe I should have said “weak, too” because it really does feel like the week’s worth of ‘ku have been on the sorta lame side. I have reasons, excuses, what-have-you, but the bottom line is, sometimes, life is hard and you can’t always do everything.

April 6
Bunnies, kittens, and balls. What could be sweeter? Maybe in someone else’s poems…

chocolate bunnies / their happy faces taunt me / to ruin easter

hey ball-throwing boy! / those balls you lost on the roof? / they stay there by choice

to locate a cat / walk to the nearest kitchen / and open a can

April 7
Only the one today.

the optimist sees / half- full ice cream bowls and thinks / “now there’s room for more!”

April 8
Sad day: no ‘ku.

April 9
I was actually quite pleased with the Star Wars tongue twister. Too obscure?

man thinks he’s so smart / peeling bananas stem-first / monkeys know better

the bullied robot / yanked out his batteries when / the called him human

see the sickly sith / the sixth swift sea-sick sith to / sail sith-thick seas

April 10
Tuesday was a fairly dark day if I recall correctly.

gainful employment / letting others put a price / on your existence

still you seduce me / your broken spine, your dog ears / your skin foxed with age

the sun and the moon / my body begging for sleep / my brain waking up

April 11
Cats again! Youth versus old age! Creepy spiders!

persistence appears / each morning in the shape of / cats howling for food

springtime renewal / for the young; for us old folks / it’s refurbishment

spiders are watching / from invisible outposts / in darkened corners

April 12
Any day I can combine haiku with a pun is a good day.

with the facts of life / people talk of birds and bees / which gender is which?

the fallen squirrel / used the power line highways / death came as a shock

when the rains come down / the dream whisperers appear / like headstone rubbings

All over the place again, right? Looks like I’m down four haiku if I still want to reach my month-end goal of 99, provided I can stay on top of things the rest of the month.

I got a few retweets this week, but I also got my first replyku from Sarah Rettger to my April 10th poem about employment.

gainful employment / totally necessary / for paying my bills

Indeed!

Alright, enough of this kufoolery. It’s Poetry Friday and Anastasia has this week’s roundup over at Booktalking. And if you want to catch the twitku as they fall during the week, or care to engage in a conversation entirely in 5-7-5, the Twitter handle is @delzey.

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There’s a new biography about Kurt Vonnegut out. I’ve caught the fact of it out of the corner of my eye here and there but the subhead on this Guardian review of the book pretty much underscores why I’m not interested in the book.

Kurt Vonnegut, the author of Slaughterhouse-Five, does not come out well as a person in a new biography by Charles J Shields.

See, I don’t really want to read that. Not because I regard Vonnegut so highly that I don’t want to know the truth about him (or at least some biographer’s truth), it’s because there isn’t any point. I don’t want to get into the quibbles about an author’s moral stance, or how his or her personal life squares against their public persona. I’m sure there are a great many writers who are nothing like we imagine them to be, which is why there is a caution often given about meetings one’s heroes.

But here’s the thing, Vonnegut was pretty good about talking about his own life. Sure, any autobiographic information given by any author is going to be somewhat unreliable, it’s an occupational hazard. I wish I could find the quote, but Stephen King was once asked about his story “The Body” which became the film Stand By Me, specifically how much of it was based on his life. He mused about how when writing a writer starts from something true and then gets to a fork where they know what happened next but “wouldn’t if be great if this happened instead?” I think writers might have a predisposition toward revising the truth of their own lives a bit.

But Vonnegut didn’t exactly shy away from the darker stuff. He made his opinions known in essays and lectures and if there was a fiction to them it doesn’t negate the message, just as his real life doesn’t negate the narrative of his fiction simply because they may be contradictory. From reading Vonnegut’s own words I know that he served in World War II, that he survived the fire bombing of Dresden, that his mother committed suicide, that his son had his own bout of mental health issues, that when his sister and her husband died that he adopted their children as well as raising his own, that in his youth he worked writing propaganda for GE, that he didn’t hold much love for George W. Bush, that he tried to commit suicide himself, that he later decided that death by cigarettes was a “classier way to die,” and that in the end what killed him was a fall down the stairs in his home where the trauma to his brain let him slip into the big sleep. A tragi-comic observer of humanity’s foibles, Vonnegut’s own death was as common and unexpected as one of his characters, he couldn’t have written a more fitting ending.

So it goes.

I know all that and more because Vonnegut told his readers as much as he wanted them to know. As a public figure he decided how much of his private life he wanted to share, and that’s good enough for me. And it should be good enough for any of us that what we know of public figures is what they want us to know. This endless fascination with celebrity, this outgrown sense of entitlement that public figures somehow owe us unfettered access to their lives, is bushwah of the highest order. I don’t want to know everything about all these celebrity, but we’ve become so accustomed to this constant stream of access that now we get updates instantaneously via Twitter when someone in the public eye dies, gets arrested, or if we’re getting it directly from them as a source, utters some inane comment that gets them in a heap of trouble.

With the advent of our constantly internet-available culture there has been some question as to what the future holds for historians and biographers. Will some famous person’s tweets one day be compiled from the Library of Congress in a single bound volume, grouped by subject and annotated with parallel and supporting links? Will there one day be an online depository of web pages of celebrities collected by discipline or topic, a thematic archive grouped by decade or influence? Or will we come simply to accept the ever-annotated entries on Wikipedia as our primary source of information?

It doesn’t matter. And it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t matter.

We’ve come to that point where we need to know less, not more. We need to curb our diet for knowing everything about everything, to not give in to this false expectation that we are entitled to something from people just because their lives have become public. The argument that celebrities put themselves in the public eye, as a justification for such constant scrutiny, is no different and no better than blaming a rape victim for dressing provocatively. And the level of information we get, especially from tabloids, suggests the only good celebrity is a dead or, or near-dead one, or at the very least, one whose physical failings deserve to be highlighted as some sort of proof that they aren’t as perfect as they might seem. News flash: none of us “regular” people would come off any better under the microscope.

But if we are to judge a man by his words or his deeds, in the case of authors like Vonnegut, I’ll take their words over an account of their deeds from a third party.

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So I’ve been blogging kidlit book reviews for well over five years now over at the excelsior file. I started out wanting to sort of self-educate, er, myself about the world of children’s literature in preparation for becoming a writer of books for children and young adults. I decided I would review anything that caught my fancy, from picture books to young adult, and with a few excursions into general industry news, I’ve hewed fairly close to being reviews-only.

Sometimes I get a little ranty, sometimes my big ol’ brain gets in the way. Once I had a graduate student who wanted me to essentially grant permission to let them use one particular post as their own graduate thesis. Another time I got a little cranky and really laid into a book that stirred the ire of a certain subset of the kidlit community; I still occasionally get defensive emails sent directly to me from that community, people who clearly should understand the difference between an opinion and a fact. Nonetheless.

As the years progressed I’ve found myself discovering older, out-of-print titles that have stood the test of time. I have reveled the childhood joys of gross humor despite with many a wary librarian might want to hear. And I’ve defended graphic novels as “legitimate” reading though reviews of both good and bad reviews. In fact, one of the things that I came to realize was that by writing both good and bad reviews I’ve walked into a minefield that has divided the kidlit community, but I stand my ground. Without knowing the full range of what I think how can you tell whether or not I have any discernible taste, how can you tell if I’m being fair or even-handed?

Occasionally I make a bad call on a book. As I like to say, I could be wrong. I believe that when it comes to reviews people should read everything and judge for themselves.

While I accept review copies from publishers and their publicists, and occasionally from authors themselves, I am not paid for all this blogging and don’t feel beholden to any outside interest.

So is it so wrong that after five-plus years that I might want a little external recognition?

I want to go to BEA.

I want to win the Independent Book Blogger Award, or IBBY, contest currently being hosted on Goodreads. The winner in each of the four categories will get to go to NYC and attend this year’s Book Expo America

I want your vote.

I want the vote of everyone you can convince to vote for me.

Unless you happen to be in the contest, in which case I’m sorry for bothering you.

So here’s the deal. You go to the Goodreads page where they’re holding the contest and you get four votes, one for each category. I guess that means you have to sign in, which means I guess you also have to have a Goodreads account (pretty crafty of them), but if you do and are so inclined and would be so kind…

I’m the excelsior file, in the Young Adult and Children’s category. Unless the order comes up randomly each time you check in, I’m toward the bottom of the page.

Feel free to tell your friends. Feel free to alert your followers on the facebook and the Twitter, I won’t mind. If I win, and there’s some way I can verify that any one person’s effort helped put me in the finalists category I’d be more than happy to bring back some swag from BEA for them. I haven’t the slightest clue how to do that, so I think I’d take the best, most sincere claim around.

I’m not on my knees, I swear. But if you would be so kind…

Thank you.

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I don’t generally review books in this space, preferring to keep my editorializing and rambling separate from the analysis of the books. I don’t really know why the firewall between the two spaces makes me more comfortable but I’m not sure it matters. Nonetheless, I found myself having read a book that (a) isn’t entirely meant for kids and (b) doesn’t merit review so much as an observation about why the project never found any takers in Hollywood when it was written.

The book in question is a graphic novel adaptation of a screenplay by Jim Henson called A Tale of Sand. It is beautifully presented in full, rich color with an elastic band to hold the hardcover closed. Illustrator Ramon Perez has managed to find a sweet spot in the illustrations that feel very much of the era in which the script was written (the 1960s) without feeling stodgy or old. Set in the American Southwest, there are many surreal elements that echo the campy TV show Wild, Wild West while at the same time hinting at the absurdity and tension of Vietnam era.

The story, essentially, has a man – Mac in the script – stumble into a western town that’s in full on celebration mode. The Sheriff finds Mac and gives him refuge in his office only moments before Mac is to leave. Leave where, and to do what, Mac isn’t told, but he’s given a backpack and a ten minute head start. At the gun Mac goes running, though without understanding why, until he is caught up by a party who is hunting him down. Primary to the party are Patch, a cruel rogue with an eyepatch, and a woman simply known as The Blonde. It becomes clear to Mac that if he is to survive he must stay ahead of and outwit Patch, and the odd assortment of items in the backpack are there to help.

With that as the lead-in, everything that follows is a collection of absurd escapes until the final scene where Mac stumbles to a conclusion most readers will have figured out long before Mac does. Questions along the way: is Patch really Mac’s alter ego, his desire hunting him down, pushing him to succeed? Is The Blonde an ideal of the unobtainable, a fickle femme fatal, or merely eye candy? And given the cyclical nature of the story does Henson suggest that we are always running away from the same things we run toward, or was he merely tacking on a cute “gotcha” at the end?

Henson was only a few years away from the wild success that would grow from Sesame Street. He’d begin experimenting with film, away from anything Muppet-related, and picked up an Oscar nomination in 1966 for his short Time Piece. Stretching out with the long-form feature film, Tale of Sand was the sort of film that would have predated but fit in nicely among the late-60s countercultre films to come, like Psych-Out, The Ruling Class, O’ Lucky Man, Putney Swope, or even Easy Rider. Which is to say that it would have been of its time and probably not very successful.

Because it has no plot.

Its got a great starting gimmick, sure. The “ticking clock” is a time-honored classic. But if you’re going to put someone on the run, so that they’re running for their life, eventually we have to learn what it is they are really running from and we have to care about whether they’re going to succeed. It’s generally accepted that an audience with go with a film for the first 20 to 30 minutes without question, but by the time that first plot point is supposed to kick in things better start tying together. We don’t need a huge backstory or a complicated scene where the character spells it all out for us, but we have to be engaged by more than action.

And even as I’m saying this I’m trying to fight it. Who says? Why do our stories need these structures and emotional attachments? Can’t we tell a story of escalating circumstances that culminates in a moment of enlightenment, for the reader/viewer if not for the main character? Well, let’s see.

At the end of a story, what do we expect? We expect to be rewarded. Every storytelling requires a tacit contract between the teller and the listener, essentially a promise is made to deliver something in exchange for the time taken. When a book or movie fails on that promise we feel cheated of our time and energy. You can put a price on it if you want but there’s more than money involved and we make these transactions all the time. When someone is relating what happened during the day, when someone tells a joke, a blog post, a tweet, all of these social contracts have something to offer in exchange for their time.

Over time, storytelling has conditioned us to expect certain things from the narrative. We expect a sympathetic hero, one who has a goal or desire that must be fulfilled. That heroine must go through a seemingly rigorous set of trials by which we are concerned when they do not succeed and rejoice when they do. In the end, the heroes must obtain their goal or desire (or the replacement desire discovered along the way) in order for us to feel satisfied by the story. Storytelling has conditioned us to “know” the correct ending in a way that masks the truth: everything in between was a contrivance to reach the obvious conclusion. Without these conventions we would become disoriented, confused, and perhaps even hostile to the finished narrative’s failure to deliver on the expectation we created in out minds, whether explicit or implied at the beginning of the story.

So lets go back to Tale of Sand. Mac enters town and we, like he, are confused and disoriented. Very quickly, i the same dizzying manner in which we enter a new job, Mac is literally sent packing and on the run. We care and are concerned and it seems the contract is in place, because we want to know why Mac is doing this and we really want him to succeed. But along the way there are absurdities – the backpack contains a record player and sound effects record of a bomb that, on impact, has the same deadly effect as the real thing. We stop seeing Mac’s world as real and begin looking for clues, something to latch on to. Our hope is that there is an emotional through-line, something Mac needs to solve internally or through interaction with others that will clue us in.

But there is nothing.

Then, as we get closer to the end, we begin to suspect something we really, truly hope doesn’t happen. But it does, and it is the cinematic equivalent of “…and then I woke up.” We’re hoping against this because there is a cheat involved in the dream story, a swindle of both our time and the investment we placed in the telling, because had we known in advance we would have approached the story differently. We wouldn’t have been as forgiving of the deus ex machina involved at every turn (despite the fact that ALL fiction has the hand of its creator directing everything) and we might not have put up with the story for as long as we did.

In short, it’s easy to see why so many studios passed on Tale of Sand. As a story it’s got a great “What If?’ but only manages to deliver a solid “So What?” But you know what the weirdest thing is?

I still like it.

I like it because Henson and his writing partner Jerry Juhl tried to do something different. They set out to deliver something visually unique and, had they filmed it anything like the way it’s portrayed in the adaptation, they would have delivered. I like it because I can see so much potential within the story frame. True, its plotlessness allows everyone to read into it whatever they wish, but I see the most elaborate storyboard for a TV series never produced here. If each absurd section had its own segment, allowing for characters to articulate what they’re thinking and demonstrating motives, I think by the end you’d have something akin to Lost, or perhaps going back to its era, The Prisoner.

I am grateful that the Henson Company has decided to share some of Jim Henson’s woodsheddings. It’s a fun peek into a fertile mind, one that is sorely missed.

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For a third year (third, right? Not fourth?) I’m tweeting haiku thrice daily on Twitter. There appears to be less twitter poetry this year, perhaps the idea of 140 character poetry and stories has played itself out. But as much as I do it in celebration of National Poetry Month I find that taking a few moments during the day to think in such a highly structured format sharpens me up. When I need to take a break, sure, I could go snack, or take a nap, or read some blogs… or I could set the metronome to five-seven-five and see what sort of tunes develop.

I’m free-form this year, no grand theme or design to guide me. The results have been pretty funky.

Sunday, 1 April
despite my claims of not having a theme, food was clearly on my mind

like rolling thunder / my stomach calls for waffles / but they don’t answer

oh, frickadellen! / savory love child of / burger and hot dog!

double leftovers / when laziness trumps hunger / leftovers again

Monday, 2 April
okay, now we’re getting somewhere! nature triumphant!

burning, stinging eyes / itchy, inflamed sinuses / many joys of spring

the umbrella dies / a gust of wind, worn out seams / instant skeleton

tendrils of sunlight / gently caressing eyelids / late afternoon nap

Tuesday, 3 April
eh, not so focused today, with an ominous foreshadowing of a dental appointment later in the week

bear in a campground / scavenges through garbage cans / a potluck gourmand

in the roots of leeks / smell the damp, sandy soil / smell the birth of spring

like a sword in stone / hard kernels of popped corn trapped / between my molars

Wednesday, 4 April
garbage day, joggers, and the lottery. timeless themes of poetry

the sentries lined up / to be relieved of duty / curbside on trash day

laugh, but you don’t see / animals in mylar suits / trying to lose weight

to number the stars / is like counting grains of sand / or lottery odds

Thursday, 5 April
and now we get to it, the mundane couching the horror of the week

though called “rush hour” / a dog chasing his tail / would get to work first

eyes shut, aching jaw / hands and arms uselessly clenched / endless root canal

a biting rip saw? / a tiger’s labored chuffing? / no, a snoring spouse

Bonus-ku!
over at Laura Purdie Salas’s place, for this week’s 15 words or less poem (based on a photo of a horse in a landscape) I contributed the following:

in your haunting eyes / do we look as majestic / as you do in ours?

maybe it doesn’t work without the picture, but then again, maybe it’s a haiku of awe told by a child to an alien.

There are a couple in there I don’t mind. I have some favorites. Early in the week someone on twitter retweeted one of my twitku with a qualified “um…” suggesting that perhaps it wasn’t legitimate haiku because, I don’t know, it didn’t reveal some great truth of nature? Hey, this is the Modern World, people, and garbage cans deserve poetry as much as dead umbrellas and the lottery. Does a root canal deserve to be a haiku? That’s a tough call, but sometimes you don’t know what works until you do it.

So there it is, this week’s contribution to Poetry Friday. There’s probably tons of stuff happening this month, and a decent chunk of it is being rounded up by Robyn at Read, Write, Howl this week. Go on, take a peek. The poetry won’t bite. I can’t speak for the poets…

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