Tuesday, May 31, 2005

a poet on the edge

Saudi poet and novelist Ali al-Dimeeni, who has already been in jail for
a year, was sentenced on May 15 to nine years in prison for sowing
dissent, disobeying his rulers and sedition. He had written a letter to
the kingdom's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah, calling for
political, economic and social reforms - including parliamentary elections.

One poem fragment:
"In Eilesha, I tamed my loneliness, and on its walls I wrote my verses," he wrote.

"My fellows and I have only called for justice/

Not for violence/

We only want to set up a rule of constitution/

Where men and women are treated equally/

From the dimness of the prison's cell/

My verses will spring like a garden."

I wonder what would have to happen for this to happen in this country? First, poets would have to start writing about subjects other than their own neuroses. Could it be that government oppression actually helps art? That by driving art underground, its edge grows sharper?

I'm not advocating the suppression of free expression, just wondering.

Brian is in the Secret Service, part of the Presidential Detail Emergency Response Team Posted by Hello


I have told many students and teachers about my son-in-law Brian and how he has to write as part of his job. Often kids (teachers too) dismiss poetry writing as superfulous, and I always remind them of Brian and others who never thought they would grow up to be writers, but then find themselves in jobs where they are required to write reports that say, "I saw what I saw and it looked like this." This kind of writing, capturing images and putting them down on paper is part of what poetry is all about.

Enough students has asked me follow-up questions and emails, I thought you might like to see a picture.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Rolling Thunder

Once a year outlaws gather in the capital -- black leather on harleys, V8s on two wheels roaring down Constitution Avenue to commemorate those whose lives were changed, ended (stolen?) by the Vietnam War. This year there were a reported 300,000 bikes, thunderous to say the least. Some of these bikers carry more than logos and chrome, they carry scars from those days, now more than a generation past. A truck full of white haired nurses from the days before women carried weapons into combat joined in the parade. Men with white hair, touching the wall, tough men whose broad shoulders and chests have slipped to a swelling above the belt, teary. How did they get to be so old?

All of us who lived through those days bear scars from those days – the country, the vets, those of us who experienced the war as an unreal warm up act to Laugh In and Disney. No one came away from it without their trust in government impaired. Some scars naturally ruminate deeper than others. When I told my 30 something hairdresser about my trip to Ho Chi Minh City, she told me about her father. He came home from the war (when she was a toddler) covered in Agent Orange sores on his arms. Those and other less visible sores never healed. Sores that caused him to abuse drugs, his family. Caused a divorce. He died of cancer in his forties. Logic (but not Dupont, of course) would blame his early death on those sores, too. His name, along with so many others, never made it up on the wall – but it should have.

How did they get so old???? Those white-haired men, my peers. Michael’s son Max is studying the Vietnam war in history class. The war of my school years – all of them – is now a history lesson taught in late May. We look at the telephone thick book of 55,000 names of the dead and missing. The deaths span 19 years. If the Iraq war were to go on that long, Benny, Danny and Scottie, my toddler grandsons, two of them playing chase under the trees aside the memorial wall could be drafted to serve. Chilling thought. What we should have learned is that it is a whole lot easier to get into these conflicts than it is to end them.

DC is so crowded with war memorials, we’re running out of room to carve the names and numbers of the dead into granite. Arlington Cemetery is overflowing, too. When there is no more room, will that be the end of it? Would that were so.

Max and me at the Vietnam War memorial wall. Posted by Hello

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Listen to the Mocking Bird

“Listen to the Mockingbird” is a song I remember singing in grade school forty years ago growing up in Michigan, not a mockingbird travel destination. Arriving at Kelly’s outside of Leesburg, VA on Friday night around 11:30 PM, I heard mockingbirds for the first time. They are loud – singing their brains out at midnight. Something between a song and a shriek – the punk version of birdsong, they sounded absolutely nothing like the little tune from Mrs. Gustaphson’s class.

Kelly and I took a 2 mile walk, some of it through new areas of construction near their home. Once all this farmland is converted into foundations, walkways, driveways and swimming pools, I wonder what the mockingbirds will have to say about that?

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

flowers are for picking Posted by Hello

Getting back to basics

Like a weekend at home with Stephanie and Scottie. Katie, their mom lent them to me for Friday night. We went swimming (indoors, it's still in the 40s in OH), poked around in the garden and rode bikes. And did a little science experiment with leather and static electricity (see pic).

Harding High was my last school this year, and whether the weather has caught up with the calendar or not, I'm ready for summer. Way ready. Past ready. It is good to be back home. I worked a little in the garden where I planted some pansies (my mother's favorite flower) next to the rock (too big to swallow, small enough to hold in my stomach) that I brought home from my father's gravesite in Arlington. As I sit here typing, I'm smiling imagining them squabbling out there to one another. Of course their bickering never seemed so amusing when they both were alive.

Home and all its definitions -- could fill books. Has. I thought about writing about working in the garden but have decided to declare a personal moratorium on that subject. A seed is supposed to be the original metaphor and writers/poets have about done it to death.

So no writing from the garden.
Well, until something springs from the fertile soil of my mind. An insignificant sprout, new shoots, blossoms to be plucked for closer examination.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Truism: Leather sofas make your hair stand up. Posted by Hello

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Warren G. Harding High School

This is a big, old school in Warren, OH scheduled for rennovation. It will be cool for the kids to get a new building, but the antique lover in me feels sad that it is going down. It is the kind of building that would withstand centuries. Even the concrete floors in the restrooms are polished like a glossy dinner plate. It has a theater style auditorium and a vast wood and metal shop. Built in the early part of the last century, it is not equipped for the electrical needs of this generation. It was heartening to hear that alums have mobilized to save the facade of the grand ol' building that will somehow be attached to the new design. I met with classes in the library where we talked about how poetry could be significant in their lives.

Driving to the school down back roads I passed through Amish Country, at one point turning off the radio and opening the windows to smell the country air. It is a proven fact that you can smell better when the radio is off. Wonder why that is.

Warren G. Harding High School Posted by Hello

Friday, May 13, 2005

Bloomsburg University Reading Conference

This is a healthy, well-planned conference on the green, rolling campus of Bloomsburg State University. Lots of selections for teachers of kids of all ages.

Separate from my two presentations, I had three extensive conversations with teachers -- all on the topic of assessment and guided writing. (is there such a thing? I know there is guided reading. . .).

1. How do you guide a student into finding the poetry in what is really a three page story? The "story" the teacher was talking about sounded to me like what can most simply be called a "rant." Lots of words used to trash lots of things, the only commonality being the words have been spewed onto the same sheet of paper and for whatever reason, have put the writer in an uproar.

The written rant is a fabulous outlet. No one strikes back or has to do any major time, it lets off steam and sometimes (sometimes) helps to lead the writer to what is really bothering her. Often these rants are intensely personal and not hardly what anyone would call good writing. However, some people do call them poetry.

My advice to the teacher was to read the rant and see if there were one or more images in the mix of spew that might be the basis of a "companion" poem. Not to mark up the original rant (or even label it as such) but to use that as a basis to unearth a poem or two embedded in the blast.

2. My daughter wrote a poem that is so dark, my husband asked if I thought she needed professional help. Hey, Picasso had a blue period. Many kids will tell you that they can only write when they are upset. When they are cruising, the sun's out, surf's up, who needs poetry? I think the thing to remember is that poems are snapshots, moments caught in time, and lord knows, we all have our moments. What I thought was so cool about this story was that a teenager was writing poetry, snapshots of bumps and valleys and SHARING THE POEMS WITH HER PARENTS. This is the absolute best. Is it "good" poetry? Who cares! The poem is a springboard for discussion. Is all of the writer's life in the dumper? Probably not. But at the moment she wrote the poem it was and now that she has shared it, the parent gets to talk to the kid about the bigger picture. Teens get confined by tunnel vision, friends and school can be the entire world to them and part of our jobs as parents is to widen the vision. Poems can be great discussion starters.

3. My students are writing "victim" poetry. How do I get them out of it? Country western song writers have made entire careers out of the world done me wrong rhymes -- it's a tradition. But maybe not a tradition anyone wants to perpetuate, however, especially within a prison population, which was this teacher's classroom. My suggestion was to start the writers out with an image, maybe a poster of a lone wolf or tiger (in the wild or in captivity) and have the students begin to write about that. Writers will wind up projecting themselves into the picture. It might be a start at getting them outside of themselves.

Might be. Who knows? We are all just trying to find our ways. Students, teachers, writers alike.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Big smiles at Sunbeam School, Cleveland, OH Posted by Hello

Sunbeam School, Cleveland, OH

The first thing you notice about Sunbeam is how friendly everyone is. Not that other schools are unfriendly, it's just that EVERYONE makes an effort to shake hands and say "hi." With 2 of the four classes I talked to we wrote poems, What's So Big About Sunbeam School, where I found out the inside scoop...swimming, parties, reading, nice teachers (pretty, too), and a great library were among the assests the kids wanted to put in their poems.

Sunbeam is also a school with special facilities for students who have physical and other challenges. It is hopping with life and activities, a beautiful place to live and learn. Many thanks to media specialist Charlie Reed-Mundell for her efforts in putting together a stellar day and creating many spectacular smiles, each one a poetic image in itself.

Normandy Primary School Bay Village, OH

What's so big about Bay Village? Looks like it's the ice cream shop, the lake, the city pool, soccer and Normandy School and dozens of other places. Students at Normandy made individual pictures of what they think is big about their own town after reading What's So Big About Cleveland. Their illustrations lined the bulletin boards of the school. Since Bay Village is my town too (where I lived for over 20 years, raised my kids and wrote many of my kid poems) so it was extra special for me to visit there and see their artwork.

In the department of small worlds department, the daughter of the teacher (Mrs. Woodburn) my daughter had when our dog Molly did in fact eat the report card and then the spelling book thereby inspiring the poem and then the book The Dog Ate My Homework is now teaching at Normanday. AND, Mrs. Woodburn's grandaughter was in the audience.

It was a special pleasure to visit the same multipurpose room where we used to go for ice cream socials. Very special. And the kids were great, acting out poems for my introduction at the assemblies. Big thanks to Normandy!

What's so Big About Bay Village? Posted by Hello

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Biking in Painesville

Biking this morning around 9AM, we passed a young boy, maybe 9 years old, walking down the street presumably on his way to school. Late. No other students in sight. Trying to scratch in his open workbook flapping in the wind as he walked. Crying.

Yesterday I heard a report on CNN that high school kids do an average of 3 hours homework per week. This was joked about by the newscasters and (who else?) blamed on the teachers. Right. Like kids have time to do homework. Not when they watch 4 or 5 hours of TV every night and play an average of 20 hours a week of video games. Can anyone in their right minds blame that on teachers?

Like that miserable little boy this morning. Did the adults in his life make a quiet spot in his life or his home to complete his homework last night? Did an adult get him up in good time for school? Did he have breakfast? His day was obviously off on the wrong foot, was it his fault? Is he not performing up to potential or is it the grown-ups in his life? If he had a bad day at school today, was that the fault of his teacher? Did Painesville public schools fail this boy? Did they buy the wrong workbooks?

I hope he was greeted with some love when he got to school this morning. Having signed in at enough counters in enough school offices and seen the reception of enough kids who arrive late, I can say the chances of that are pretty slim.

But then, it's just one day out of the kid's life. Right?

Monday, May 09, 2005

Michael, Sandina and me in the "round room" at Manchester Jr./Sr. High School. Posted by Hello

Manchester Schools

That would be ALL the Manchester schools – the elementary and middle schools in the morning and the high school in the afternoon. According to my sources (the third grade) I was the first author/poet sighting at Manchester Elementary since, well, since forever, which when you are only eight isn’t that long.

While I was at the elementary, Michael was writing with kids at the high school. I sat in on one of his sessions. What impressed me the most was how tuned in the kids were. Seniors are known to tune out to school oh, about January of their last year. Kids in general start to tune into summer and out on school in May. The kids at Manchester were very tuned in. One image created in the writing workshop sticks in my mind – a girl was writing from the perspective of a humble toilet and no, it wasn’t filled with the smelly obvious. Instead, the toilet spoke with envy of the bathroom mirror, which the writer observed, gets all the attention.

Thanks to Sandina and the kids at Manchester for making us feel so welcome and for changing my prejudice against upper school visits in May.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

fishing hole, Scioto County, OH  Posted by Hello

Mother’s Day.

When your daughters become mothers, Mother’s Day takes on a whole new meaning. I am so proud of Katie and Kelly and their beautiful families I don’t even think of mother’s day in terms of myself anymore. Truly. Today is a day to celebrate family and love.

Down here in Portsmouth, away from most of our families, Michael and I spent a quiet day. A little fishing, a little exploring and one genuine bald eagle sighting.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Off road in Scioto County

Michael and I both have been ON the road so much this spring, it was a relief to go OFF road for the weekend. Since we will be visiting Manchester students on Monday, we just nestled into the country for a couple days of R&R. Sandina booked us into the Shawnee State Lodge, a beautiful place high atop a hill overlooking two lakes and (after the morning fog lifts) the mighty river. We rented canoes for some morning floating and fishing. At some point the wind kicked up, Michael headed for the dock but I was unable to maneuver my canoe in the headwind. Imagine 360s on a choppy lake, fishermen solidly anchored watching with polite amusement, ducks laughing aloud (they have no tact at all). Finally I got the canoe to the side by a trail, Michael climbed in and it took both of us paddling at maximum stroke capacity to get my canoe back to the dock as the wind kept increasing.

Note to self: must step up weight training at the gym MAJORLY if I want to assault another headwind in canoe solo. Oh, my aching biceps.

After canoeing (did I mention the bi-ceps?) we took our bikes into Portsmouth to tool around and look at The Wall. Running along the river is a concrete flood wall maybe 15 feet high, running along the length of downtown Portsmouth. Painted along its substantial length is a multi-paneled mural detailing the town’s history from its founding in the late 1700s, through its stone and marble, agricultural and industrial ages. The artist’s middle name is Holbrook. Something to research on the internet when I get home.

As we pedaled up town to the park, we kept noticing more bicyclers. More and more. Serious bikers, arms low, rears raised. By mid afternoon the whole downtown was flowing with people in spandex black shorts, walking and on wheels. Turns out that every year there is a bike hike from Columbus to Portsmouth (about 105 miles) this weekend after which the bikers eat, drink beer and turn around to head back north early Sunday. As a reported 5000 bikers descended on Portsmouth, we blew town to look for a fishing hole with a shady spot where I could sit and write and M could fish. Oh, yeah. We found the perfect spot. M pulled out 5 fish in an hour, including one (maybe) baby muskie (all promptly admired and released) and I pulled out a story possibility. Science fiction.

Not the fishing hole. That was real. The story. We’ll see. Reconfirms what I know to be true, the essential component in any writing venture is leisure time.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Down the River Road

Thursday was a travel day, from San Antonio to Atlanta, Atlanta to Akron, where Michael picked me up and we hit the road for Manchester, OH just west of Portsmouth down Rt. 52 which runs elbow to elbow with the Ohio River. Friday was a teacher workshop with the entire K-12 Manchester staff (only 66 teachers). Manchester MS/HS is but 8 years old and a beautiful building that makes you feel as if you’ve just stepped into a community college. Our hostess, Sandina Alexander is an OCTELA friend and poet full of creativity, colorful local stories and insider information about this part of the state. The area used to be teeming with industry – textile mills, steel, clothing and shoe factories, they even had a professional NFL football team at one time in Portsmouth (now the Detroit Lions). Sandina, like the area itself, bears the scars of that industry. In her case a steam burn from work on a pressing machine at a pants factory where she worked to put herself through college. The last 30 years has seen industry slowly decline around these parts and today the region lives in the shadow of its former glory. One industry that has not booked passage to another country is its winery where Sandina took us to dinner. Overlooking the river, it was a picturesque spot to eat and play catch up. My recommendation: the raspberry wine. Yum.

Before dinner Sandina took us “up home” to meet her cat, her dogs and her husband (though I’m certain there was no underlying meaning in the order of those introductions). Manchester is only 8 streets wide, each street one block on higher ground above the river. Locals measure the great floods against these streets like some measure children against notches in the kitchen doorway. The flood of ‘37 went to fifth street, the flood of ‘97 (that’s 1897) to this point, etc. All indications are that the river has been behaving itself this spring, but the legacy of its strength and power is part of the biography of every person, town and industry along here. In constant motion, it remains the area’s most prominent permanent fixture.

Down the River Road is the title of my first grade reading book. Alice and Jerry and Jip. I don't remember the plot of the book, if there was one. But I remember the pictures. I remember being excited about the concept of reading, but bored to death by Jip & Co. I'm still stuck on that stop watch concept.

Thursday, May 05, 2005



This year’s meeting of the International Reading Association had to have exceeded enrollment expectations – teachers from all over the country (and many other countries) invaded San Antonio to see Julie Andrews, Dave Berry and hundreds of other not so famous but probably more relevant presenters. I arrived on Saturday and joined Neal Shusterman, Adrianne Fogelin and Gordon Korman for a pre-conference session on YA lit. The session ran all day, from 9-4 and I can honestly say, the time just flew by. Wound around the author talks were teacher presentations detailing ways to put literature to work in the classroom. That day was a stark contrast to some of the retailers displaying their wares in the convention exhibit area – programs from worksheets to Dibles that have very little to do with putting kids in touch with books. Dibles proposes that a teacher can time first grade readers with a stop watch and predict their reading potential. A stop watch! I would have had a nervous breakdown on the spot if Mrs. Ellis had tried that on me. I’m insecure enough as it is, thankfully no one ever tried to introduce stop watches into my learning curve.

Wednesday was definitely the highlight of the week for me. Dr. Bonnie Campbell Hill put together a stunning session with three teachers from Seattle who, for the purposes of this presentation, agreed to use poetry in their classrooms for the entire year instead of just at the end of the year, as is the custom in many schools. Joining this amazing bunch was Georgia Heard, Ralph Fletcher and me. Teacher attendees came as much as three hours in advance to claim their seats and we began the session 30 minutes early since everyone was seated and the fire marshall was blocking the doorway. Georgia talked elegantly (as always) about imaginative thinking and revision, Ralph about metaphor and I spoke on using poetry as a vehicle for learning and performance. What a wonderful blend of talent and learning. But the best part for me was seeing the poems produced in the Seattle classrooms in response to literature and lessons by the three teachers on our panel.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

What's your favorite color?

“What’s your favorite color?”

Do kids really expect me to have a single answer to this question? Today I’m wearing a pink jacket, so I guess it is pink, the color that suits me today. Not red, too forceful. Not maroon, like wool, too heavy, too velvet. Not orange, too October. Pink. Yes, that’s it.

But yesterday it was lime green. Definitely lime green. A color yearning for spring to crawl out of the ground like cicadas. Needing a break from this malingering winter, choosing its favorite, most pervasive color – new green, I hoped Spring would find that color attractive and come to me. Lime green.

But last week, it was most decidedly yellow. A rebellious statement, a refusal to accept the dreary gray perpetuated by the sky, the drab, salt bleached roads, the overslept trees. Yellow was my statement, my I’ll-show-you. Of all the colors – Yellow.

Still, of all the questions in the rainbow, why do kids almost always ask me this? Other questions may be more obscure (where’s your doorknob?) More direct (are you married? Why not?) More personal (how old are you?). But this question is the most ubiquitous. What’s my favorite color, as if I should have an answer to this. As if.

I used to make up answers based on my whim d’jour. For a while I tried to be consistent for the sake of . . . well, consistency. But doesn’t that somehow fall under the “because I said so,” heading I’ve spent a lifetime rebelling against? For a while I would just answer with whatever color felt right that day. Recently, I’ve been skipping over it, “next question,” risking hurt feelings and embarrassment. I even get asked this question by student journalists from their lists of pencil smeared prepared questions copied carefully, spaced out on the page with room for written answers. Don’t they want to know my take on first amendment rights and poets? Don’t they want to continue the discussion of the peaceful art of exchanging images in an effort to find mutual understanding that we began (er...I began) in the assembly presentation? How journal and poetry writing can help us form a personal philosophy for living, words dropped like bread crumbs to help us find our way home?

Instead, I feel myself floundering in response. I want to ask (scream?) Why are you asking me this question? Not that I think any one of them would have any clearer answer than I do or that the kids who ask really want to know. Its probably no more than an excuse to raise a hand and speak aloud after they have been admonished to be respectful and polite and (by implication) QUIET. A stand out moment. A question that reveals nothing personal about the questioner like it would be if the kid asked, “did it hurt to write that poem about your mom’s drinking?” But still a question, a way to connect for a moment with the stranger in their midst. Like reaching out to touch a strange dog, it’s perilous, daring, foolhardy to ask a question at all. Often questioners get pelted by punches, woo-hooed and slapped around so much upon their asking that it is impossible for them to even hear or digest my response, assuming I have one (the color question notwithstanding) and that they wanted to know the answer to begin with.

Do you have any pets? Do you like Michigan or Ohio State? Are you a Browns fan? An Indians fan? Have you ever met Drew Carey? These are kids asking me if the person who put the words in the book that their teacher made them read is a real person. I respond to them with the same sincerity as when kids ask me to name my favorite poet, how do I know when a poem is finished, where do I get my ideas, do I revise, do I ever feel insecure? I want them to know I am real, hoping that if I wade through enough of the nonsense questions someone will also become real and venture one real question that will help us connect as writers and world community members, not just tight-lipped watchers on the sidelines, but as seers and participants. Maybe that question would spark a discussion giving us all a free souvenir thought to take home and press in our journals at the end of the day. I know these questions are asked by the risk takers, the kids who aren’t afraid to reveal that there might be something they really want to know about a grown-up, who by definition is supposed to be irrelevant to any given teen.

But, this color question has me stumped, I have to say. I want it to treat it with the respect the students deserve.

I sure wish I had a consistent, honest, clearly articulated response.

I just don’t. I can’t. And I won’t be backed into a corner on this one. The world is a carnival of color and I’m working my way through its blurs and tilts and banners one favorite at a time.
I don’t want to choose.

You can’t make me.