Monday, January 27, 2014

Democracy Democracy: Toilet Paper and Mud Wrestling

This is kind of a cool thing for a poet; the word “democracy” is trending on my blog stats.  I rarely look at these things, but last week with a little too much time on my hands, I clicked on “keyword activity” on my blog stats and up popped the the D word.  So on the day President Obama will make his annual State of the Union address, let me address the word democracy.

It wasn’t just my (relentless) absent-mindedness that lead me to title two of my poems Democracy.  It was like going shopping with a friend where you both fall in love with the same dress, both purchase it, and promise to never wear the matchy matchy frocks to the same party.  It helps to seal this bargain if you live in different cities, states or countries. 

I wrote the following two poems 10 years apart and honestly thought they would never wind up in the universe, let alone the same classrooms.  But this is the age of the Internet and geez-o-man, a poet can’t get away with anything these days.

First let me say, I am a big proponent of democracy.  Unlike the review of the following poem that I read on some online forum, I do NOT believe that democracy means stealing toilet paper.  (Oh how I hope that was just a discussion starter).  Rather, I think it means that, despite our differences, we have the ability to get together as a community and see how we can make toilet paper available to all instead of a small minority hoarding all the toilet paper for themselves.  Toilet paper is a double ply metaphor in the US with its two ruling parties.

Originally performed at the 1996 National Poetry Slam, this poem was first published in Chicks Up Front (Cleveland State University Press).  I wrote this poem reflecting on my time as the Public Information Officer at the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority.  Let me tell you, people in that organization deserve purple hearts for how they get beat up on a daily basis just trying to make democracy work.  Of course, as in any profession, a few of the executives, workers, and residents become crooks, stealing what they can for themselves, hang the needs of others.  But most are wearily trying to divide a miniature cupcake 57 different ways.

Democracy (1)

My office is government issue.
The basics, one metal desk, one chair,
a stack of folders,
four rubber stamps and loose paper in need of baling wire, or a match...
A gray office beside a multicolored room full of folks waiting on
government basics.

A large woman thumps, thumps. 
Thumps past my office.
Thump. Thump,
down the hall to the ladies room.
Sounds of water running followed by
the swing of the squeaky door,
it slaps against the wall
oozing toward a bumpy close.
Thump.  Thump.
I look up as she passes again.
Dark hallway.
Dark clothing.
Dark hands.
White toilet paper.
Thump. Thump.
I watch after her passing.
Thump. Thump.
She stole the toilet paper.
Also government issue,
two rolls per day.

Issued by
the same government that
murders mountains of forests for the
confusion of paper it takes to
purchase a pencil through
proper procurement procedures.
The same government that
offers tax abated housing to
for profit football teams and
levies income tax on where's-the-profit
unemployment compensation.
The same government that
issues food stamps for
koolaid, popsicles and tater tots
but not for toilet paper,
like it's some privilege
that poor folks don't need.
That same government issues us
two rolls per day,
93% of the days since our last 7% cut.
Two rolls.

I rub at the crow's feet which are deepening into my mother's face
and listen to her leaving.

She stole the toilet paper.
The clock silently mouths
that it's just 3:05.
I wait for a moment, reluctant to go
once more against the mountain,
knowing the thin air
makes me lightheaded.
Finally I move.

"Ma'am, did you take our toilet paper?"
She looks straight ahead,
the two rolls propped on knees flung wide.
She is slow to acknowledge my presence,
slow looking up at the self-conscious stand
I have taken beside her over-filled chair.
In a glance
she reminds me that I am too tall,
too thin, too well-dressed,
and too goddamned white.

"I need it," she replies.
And that need, I know,
is not entirely selfish,
that need embraces the needs
of her children,
her grandchildren,
maybe a neighbor.
But it does not embrace the needs
of her neighbors with whom
she shares this waiting room.
"I have to ask for it back," I say,
citing the needs of the others.
Reluctant herself,
she complies.

Practically speaking,
she is a republican.
I retreat to return the basics
to the necessary place,
dizzy with

©1995 Sara Holbrook, Chicks Up Front (Cleveland State University Press)

This next poem I wrote to introduce a chapter on writing poetry in social studies class in my first professional book for teachers.  It has since appeared in a couple of anthologies, and my newest book High Impact Writing Clinics (Corwin, 2013), which also contains, among its 600 power point slides, one devoted to this poem along with a recording of me reading it.

Democracy (2)                      

Not a flagpole, pointing heavenward
with shining surety.
any one set of colors
jerked cleanly up and down.
Not golden crusted apple pie.
a grey pin-striped uniform.
anybody’s mom.
If there is a metaphor
for democracy
it is a mud wrestling match,
grit in the eyes
feet a flying—
your ear in my teeth.
And the future?
The future belongs the muckers
still willing to get their hands
who roll up their sleeves
to show their colors.

©2005 Sara Holbrook, Practical Poetry (Heinemann)

So, what do I really think about democracy?

Democracy is constantly evolving.  Stay tuned.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Finding Voice in Writing: A Dialogue

“If you come to my country, you got to understand my language if you want to communicate.” By his own estimation, the man spoke three languages: the projects,housing authority executive, and Citibank.

Ronnie Davis was my boss at the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA), he the Chief Operating Officer and me the Public Information Officer. He had grown up one of eight children mothered by a single female head of household in the projects in New Orleans and gone on to get an advanced degree in urban planning from Harvard.  Not sure what the odds are against an African American kid doing this, but I think he might have had a better chance becoming a quarterback in the NFL. The phrase “long shot,” doesn't go the distance to describe his life’s trajectory.

I was getting schooled in his office, sitting there in my little navy blue suit and gold button earrings, hands folded on my leather planner having just moved from doing PR at a prestigious international law firm to CMHA.  He explained that the reason my co-workers didn't like me (they didn't) was that I only had one language.  I communicated just fine to the media and the outside world, and he appreciated that, but I wasn't able to communicate with people in the hallway.  My worst offense was that I flinched when I heard what I had always understood to be “bad” language.

Writing lessons don’t always come via a seminar or a workshop. They come from reading and listening to people talk. As Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird, (paraphrase alert) most of life is like static on the radio, you have to stop and adjust the dial to get the message. Luckily that day I was tuned in because Ronnie was giving me a valuable lesson in voice. Ronnie was a good communicator.  He never sounded like he was putting on an affect or an accent. Call it code-switching or linguistic gymnastics; Ronnie had developed a flexibility in speech that was both effective and genuine.

He taught me that finding an authentic voice is output from a centrifuge of author and audience.  When I hear teachers lament that their students struggle with finding authentic voice in writing, I often flash back to me in that navy blue suit, sitting obediently in a chair, trying so hard to do the right thing.  My problem was, due to the lack of diversity in my upbringing, an unrequited desire to be teacher’s pet, and my dear mother, captain of the grammar police, I had grown to believe I had only one right voice. I knew how to speak (in my mind) properly.  But was my idea of “proper” always effective; did it fit the venue?  Worse, was it blocking my ability to listen?

At the time, none of my poetry had been published, but I had been spending evenings and weekends secretly playing around with different voices in my poems.  Here writing as a second grader, there as an adolescent, I was scrolling back the years and finding the voices I had mostly stuffed as a child, the voices that had been strangled by my self-conscious fear of saying the wrong thing.  Most recently, I had spent eight years writing for lawyers whose narrow-eyed stares had beaten even the contractions out of me.  I was in a sad state.

Turns out that poetry is the best place to practice this voice thing since poems are naturally first person narratives. And you get to choose your own point of view. And, they are short! Which means you can practice the same text or writing on the same topic in different voices without attempting Moby Dick.

The following two poems are about love (yeah, yeah, poets always write about love), but they are in different voices.  In order to write the poems, I had to assume the age of the speaker of the poem, sure.  Try it on.  But also, in the case of both poems, I had a particular audience in mind, and I did my best to speak in their language.


Alison got kissed by Fred.
He caught her squarely on the lips,
puckered up and let 'er rip.

Then, Fred‑the‑Lip?
He strut and bragged.
And Alison?
She spat and gagged.

Fred's a rookie,
didn't ask for permission.
Should have known that in kissing,
you play your position.

If he tries it again,
he may get a new twist
from the school's brand new nickname . . .
©1996 sara holbrook, The Dog Ate My Homework, Boyds Mills Press


Like a feather lifts, floating on a breeze,
a pillow rolled behind my neck just right.
Window cracked, a rustling of trees,
I spread my wings to dream of you tonight.

A barely moon set in a starless sky
where we can drift together, then apart.
Imagining the dance, I close my eyes
and tuck beneath your shoulder, ear to heart.

Although I know you’re really blocks away,
inhaling, I can smell you next to me.
I dream about your smile, then press replay,
what was, what is, and what is yet to be.
Our story takes so long to comprehend,
I fall asleep before I reach the end.

©2010 sara holbrook, More Than Friends, Boyds Mills Press

Developing voice in our writing isn't something we do once.  It isn't even something we do over and over with the goal of finding that ideal voice.  It is being able to find the right voice for a specific occasion, a particular audience.  In a way, all writing is dialog. 

So, how did Ronnie’s language lesson go?  Well, first he made me put my ego in an empty Ball jar he kept on his desk.  (Note: this lesson has been modified to fit the potential audience for this blog).

Ronnie: Say mother-socker.
Sara: Blush.
Ronnie: Say mother-socker.
Sara whispers back: Mother-socker.
Ronnie: Louder, slower.  Mou-ther-sock-er.  Mou-ther-sock-er.

He made me say mother-socker about 26 times until I could say it without flinching, not even an eyebrow twitch.  He told me, if I wanted to work in the projects, I had to be able to hear what people were saying even if they were speaking a language different than the one I was used to. 

He was teaching me how to listen. 

And then he told me I should lose the leather notebook, get a yellow pad, and get out of his office.  He didn't have anything to say about the navy blue suit.

The fact is, most of us come to writing wrapped in a suit of our upbringing and along the route we begin to shed those restraints, experimenting with diversity of expression. I have never really adopted that particular compound word as part of my regular vocabulary (well, that one time, with the airlines), but I no longer let it keep me from listening. Listening leads to understanding and feeds my writing, enriching it with quirks and intonation.

When we write, we want to be understood. Learning how to listen helps me as a writer to find a voice, a language that my intended audience will not only understand, but truly believe.

Do I succeed all the time?  No way.  I am still learning.  And some voices I would never even attempt.  For instance, I have never composed a rap.  Middle-aged, white lady rap.  Think about it.  We all have our limitations.  And I am still searching for the right voice to make myself heard to airline representatives. Swearing (see above) does not help one bit in making myself understood. 

Lessons learned.
Finding voice.  It’s a life-long pursuit. 
First, find yourself an empty Ball jar.
Or, git you a Ball jar.
Or, Hey you! Ball jar. Ego. There.
Your choice.


Wednesday, January 08, 2014


There is not much to say about this poem... except it is a good poem to try on.
Cross your arms, stick out your boo-boo lip and go for it.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

I Used to Be, But Now I Am: Repurposed

Did you used to wear diapers?  Was there a time when examining your feet was more fascinating than watching the NFL? Are you a former stair surfer and who had the carpet burns on your chin to prove it? 

Then grab a pencil or personal device, you have the research in you and you are poised to write. In High Impact Writing Clinics (HIWC), Michael Salinger and I decided to resurrect and repurpose “I used to be, but now I am,” a famous writing exercise that (to the best of my knowledge) was first put forward by Kenneth Koch in his seminal book on writing, Wishes, Lies, and Dreams, originally published in 1970.

Kids love doing these quick writes.  You can call them poetry, story starters, or just plain fun – fun to write, share and illustrate. This writing exercise has been a staple in writing classrooms for over 50 years.

One of the saddest outcomes (one of many) of the No Child Left Behind Act along with their accompanying curriculum driving tests, is that for many kids, particularly those labeled as lagging in literacy and math skills, they never or rarely got/get lessons in social studies and civics.  How is it that history dropped to the cutting room floor?  Easy.  What wasn't on the test wasn't in the curriculum.  

I remember one time heading out to a portable classroom in Florida to do a writing workshop with (I think) fifth graders.  "What are they studying in science and social studies?" I asked, thinking since it was a self-contained classroom, we would use their common studies as something to write poetry about.  "Oh, these kids don't get science or social studies," I was told. (insert look of stunned disbelief) "Well, they can't pass the tests in reading and math, so they get reading in the morning and math in the afternoon." It was shocking the first time, but it just became discouragingly familiar as I realized it was a national trend. Arugh.

Trend-buckers that we are, Michael and I are all about writing across kids' lives and their learning. What we like to do with this writing exercise is to first have kids write about their own personal experience.  Sometimes the writing is poignant, often hilarious.  I used to sleep on airplanes, now I throw up in the aisles.  I used to have no teeth, then I had teeth, now I have no teeth again. We have fun looking at ourselves and how we have evolved.

But then we like to grow this exercise, add a little research, and expand our horizons focusing on a changing world.  What was life like for workers before there were unions? How was life for women before they could vote or own property? What was travel like before the steam engine was invented?  Through independent research, students can use their personal reflections as mentor text to build their own comparisons and a deeper understanding of history.

The gun manufacturers have done a bang up job (sorry, couldn't resist) of making sure everyone knows what the second amendment is all about, but what was life like for folks when they didn't have the protection of the 8th amendment?  Fuzzy on that one yourself?  No cruel and unusual punishment, kids, which btw does not mean being grounded from your Xbox for a weekend nor does child labor mean when the parent says, “hey, grab a dishtowel and pitch in.”

This exercise also provides an opportunity for the writer to assume another’s point of view.  In HIWC, we take the point of view of the American Bison, using one citation for the first draft and multiple sources for subsequent versions.  Writing from another’s perspective helps to build not only understanding in the writer, but also empathy as we look at our changing world. 

“The consequences of an ignorant population who have no concept of history, the Constitution, social studies, and hard fought battles for basic human rights, are rearing their ugly heads in a myriad of ways in legislatures across the country. The decimation of history and social studies in schools, resulting from what isn't tested isn't taught, means Americans have no clue who or what they are voting for, if they even bother to vote at all.” In a recent blog, an anonymous teacher who calls herself “free to teach,” writes about the long term realities of test driven curricula that limit rather than expand student’s historical visions. The fact that this teacher seemingly feels the need to write anonymously itself is a bit frightening. But her observations go a long way to explain how the public can be so easily persuaded that "ignorance is strength," to quote George Orwell.

We are hoping that teachers use this writing clinic (one of 20) not only to help kids appreciate their own growth, but to look closely at the changes in the world around them.