I love J.S. Bach’s musical “inventions,” which are short compositions which Bach composed for his students to learn keyboard mastery. They’re logical… in the way that scales are, with each note coming properly after the next, and coming into a lovely, restful conclusion… and they’re also… complex. I ran across a poem about them, and it just… sings. Don’t we all wish our busy, complex, chaotic lives were made into something so orderly and wise?
by Jane Tyson Clement
If I could live as finished as this phrase,
no note too strong; each cadence purposed, clear,
the logic of the changing harmony
building and breaking to a major chord
strangely at home within a minor web
of music; if I could define my end,
from the beginning measures trace my course,
I might be old and prudent, shown by laws
how to devise a pattern for my days
and still be free, unhampered, yet refined.
He sat before the keys and turned the notes
into a fabric of design and peace;
here are the notes, the keys, my fingers free
to run them through their course, and here my mind
seeing his wisdom work within the chords,
finding his knowledge in the finished line.
I would be wise if such restraint were mine.
Smith College, Massachusetts
Poetry Friday today is hosted by Molly at Nix the Comfort Zone which is a most provocative blog name! Have a good weekend – rest and reorganize.
Last week, Cousin Mary invited responses to a brief haiku by Issa which seemed to describe the moment before something happens – or, at least that’s how it came across to me.
if it’s a bow
its string is pulled taut…
yumi [to] tsuru nara yumi wo hike natsu no hara
I loved archery as a kid/teen/collegiate person. My someday dream is to have enough property to safely shoot in my own backyard. I love the stillness required, the strength bound up in pulling back the weighted string, the skill in the aiming, waiting to be certain… and letting go.
from stinging tension to flight
all is potential
Poetry Friday is hosted this week by the very busy Laura Salas! May this final month of summer – both fraught with tension and rife with possibility – fly us swiftly where we’re meant to go. Happy Weekend.
A little over a month ago, author Linda Sue Park guest-posted at the School Library Journal blog A Fuse #8 Production about default identification in book reviewing. It’s a piece which caused me to interrogate, as a writer, my often overly careful attempts to indicate the race of a character. Many people felt squeamish and uncomfortable after Kirkus Reviews’ 2016 decision to identify the racial identity of all characters in their book reviews, arguing that race should only be mentioned if it was “important” to the story. But, what’s “important” mean, in that context? One of the odder – odder to me, anyway – comments I’ve heard repeatedly about books of mine is that the Black people aren’t as easily identifiable as Black as they “should” be.
Honestly, I’ve never known how to respond to that.
It’s a failure of imagination when one cannot ascribe characteristics of all kinds to Black and Brown people, a blind spot when one can only see people of any sort as inhabiting one narrow space in our society. The idea that there are “shoulds” attending any human being is problematic in itself, but what troubled me more was that maybe I wasn’t doing something right. Maybe the problem was… me.
In media which defaults to white as the norm for culture, behavior, and appearance, some people tend to be uneasy when race is brought up. Until recently, it wasn’t, much. Race itself, to that point of view, is obviously A Problem. If we simply don’t point out problems, everyone is happier, right? Except for the marginalized people who would, inevitably, disappear beneath the weight of the default, if we were not deliberate in making clear that they exist and they matter. So, here we are, making everyone uncomfortable, dragging in race, and making everything “too heavy-handed.”
…What brings these musings to mind, you ask? I received editorial notes today. I’m going to be sitting with them for a long time. Of course, I have to sit with my notes every single time, every single book, because that’s part of the work, but this time the sitting is troubling. For the first time, after reading Linda’s piece, I identified the ethnicity of all of the characters in the book, not with subtle descriptions but using the words white and Black. It took effort and attention because I’ve not done it before, and because I was raised in the same default as everyone else. It felt like constantly lifting a bedskirt to expose the dust bunnies beneath the bed – something one shouldn’t do, because what lies beneath clearly isn’t quite kosher. This hesitancy, this difficulty alone convinces me that naming and claiming clearly is something I need to do.
NOBODY – least of all me – IS A RACE EXPERT (except if you have a PhD or something, and that’s your life’s work, in which case, I bow to that expertise). I don’t have expertise in having hard conversations about race with people – I tend to avoid unkind people and situations rather than confronting them. And, I know wholly that if something doesn’t come through in a text, it is almost always on the writer, not the reader, to repair and revise and communicate and do better. And yet, I wonder if merely mentioning race causes some readers to don a pair of brown-colored glasses and see everything through its lenses, and thus ruin the whole story. Certainly the misunderstandings of the characters, their motivations, and their concerns that I’ve read smacks me right between the eyes and tells me that I have a lot of work to do.
I… admit that I’m struggling, and the struggle is painful. Everyone hates to be misunderstood – so, so much, but… How much of an “explanatory comma,” as Code Switch puts it, does a writer owe their readers? How much do we explain, and how much do we let go? How often can we say, “No, that doesn’t mean…” before we’re shifting the whole story so it doesn’t make anyone unhappy?
Check in: Welcome, Poetry Peeps! It’s nearly August, and a lot has happened this last month! Laura has requested that with this post we update each other, so I’m pleased to share that I’ve just gotten to vote on my favorite voice-over artist for SERENA SAYS, my middle grade book coming out in November, and I’ve just turned in the first draft of my 2021 WIP, and I am attempting to write wildly improbable fantasy as a palette cleanser. Who knows if anything will come of it; the purpose is to have fun and try to be funny – to relax into just ridiculous. I’m still gardening (badly) but my salvia is blooming and my carrots are many. Success is what you make of it.
Peeps, how are you???
Etheree Taylor Armstrong arrived February 13, 1918 and departed this mortal coil on March 14, 1994. She was a poet from Arkansas, and what little else we know of her is derived from the poetic style that she invented – she was deliberate and organized, and good with numbers. That is, in my opinion, what one needs to work with the etheree.
The etheree’s simplicity is deceptive – anyone can compose ten lines with syllables matching the numbered line. But, making the poem thematically meaningful whilst counting syllables is more of a challenge.
Jump in the Wayback Machine with me and check out Sara’s, John’s, and Kelly’s from 2015, when we made our first etheree attempts. (Sara’s on the move, and Kelly’s seeing to hubby’s knees, and John’s waving from afar – all with us in spirit.) Our theme this time around was purposefully vague – summer or foresight – and I think we did it justice: Here’s Laura’s, and Tricia’s; Liz’s etheree is here. Michelle’s is here. Don’t forget to let us know where you posted yours!
A glance at the paper this week mentioned the possibility of a California running-mate on the election ticket this November. Whatever one’s political leanings, the heavy sigh in response to the reminder, “California is a code-word,” was probably loud and sustained throughout the state, knowing just how tiresome it’s all going to be. We expect the resurrection of the slew of slanderous comments about our “values;” our queer folk, our Latinx neighbors, our many vegetarians and vegans, our commitment to environmental justice, our film industry, and our tech folk. I have acquaintances who call themselves my friends yet are faintly hostile at the mention of California. I recall strangers following us singing “California girls” (the ugliest most objectifying sexist rubbish ever) when my sisters and I walked the streets of the one stoplight Louisiana town where we visited my grandparents. Eventually, one gets a thicker skin, but I cannot say I’m looking forward to more. This poem unpacked how I see myself in reference to my state – its reputation writ large against the small and varied lives which busily thrive here. My affection for my state is real, but it’s not “my State right or wrong” but more “my State, and maybe yours is a lot like it.” Wherever you’re from is home.
“the golden state,”
“land of fruits and nuts”
punch-drunk on sunshine, our
poppies even seem to glow.
few States polarize the nation:
bring Beach Boy dreams or fury, spitting
from strangers who have never breathed its air…
we, nightmare or California dreaming?
blue bowls of sky above the suburbs
blunt hills a thousand shades of gold
hazy blacktop mirages
fog-wreathed redwood forests.
stretching to the past
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
I enjoyed playing with the placement of the poem – I imagine it as a the swoops of the Golden Gate, reflected on the Bay on a still summer morning. This poem is kind of a thematic fail; this is meant to have been about SUMMER, and it’s a bit State heavy, but California – in its public narrative, at least – is rumored to be an endless summer. It’s wholly a tissue of lies, but still, it counts right? Right. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
Poetry Friday is hosted today at Reading at the Core. We hope you embrace what’s left of summer with all your might – and may all roads lead you to wherever you call home.
HOORAY for another completed project! Somehow, though I had published two small press books before Knopf, and four books with Knopf, I’d never before sold a book I hadn’t written. That in itself was a new and stress-laden experience. Try writing a book that a.) touches on microaggression and racial misunderstanding as social unrest regarding racism erupts nationwide, and b.) feeling like everything you say is being observed and judged by both Black and white readers, during this time, and c.) needing to quickly move up the deadline for it. Nope, it was not stress-free, and even up until early the morning I was meant to turn it in, I was sitting there, wrapped in a blanket, fussing with one scene which hadn’t quite hit the note I wanted until – ding! – suddenly, it settled exactly into its proper level. At last, I could shower in peace. Whew.
Harper-Collins/Katherine Tegen Books continues to be an utter treat to work with. Here’s a pro-tip, writing people: you’re supposed to be asked your opinion on things like cover styles, cover artists, and voice over talents for audio books. I say again: until this book with this house, (with the caveat that I DID comment on other projects without being asked) I HAVE NEVER BEEN. And it thrills me – and saddens me – every single time it happens that I’m so excited about being asked/included/considered/acknowledged as a person of intelligence who can make meaningful contribution to the publication of HER OWN DARNED BOOK. It infuriates me to know that other authors – certainly white authors I’ve spoken with – considered that de rigueur, sometimes even with their first book. I mean… you suspect that you’ve been treated differently based on race, and then you see how clearly differently you’ve been treated, and it’s like… okay, then. Maybe it was the publishing house policy. But, maybe it wasn’t…? It’s hard to know, and hard to trust your work to someone when you’re not sure about them.
Publishing remains a tricky field, friends. But, at its best, there’s a lot there to love.
Americans love humor, and children are huge fans of the silliest things, but actually producing humor, actually writing funny? It’s SO hard.
My writing group, led by the humorous ones among us, have pushed for a long while to discuss humor from a craft perspective, and I was… reluctant. Because funny, to me, is not the same as funny to them. We didn’t have a common understanding, I thought, so it was better to skip it. I wasn’t the only one who felt that way – some of us have decided to pass on this discussion, and I don’t blame them.
But… humor. It’s subjective, and yet, necessary to explore in order to understand it.
We’re making our way through an older book, THE COMIC TOOLBOX by John Vorhaus, and dissecting what we agree and disagree with in regards to actually eliciting humor from ourselves and properly setting up our work to support it. We’re pulling humorous bits from our favorite books and films. And we’re making laughably bad attempts at writing humorous dialogue, sports team names, and TV pilots. ‘Laughably bad’ is, at least, funny.
I suspect we could think of worst ways to pass the time during the plague.
Shhh. Listen to the crunch of leaves underfoot. Listen to the susurrus of leaves dancing with the wind. Hear the shrieking cries of… is that a jay? or some other kind of corvid? It’s cool in here – and despite the fact that dragonfly was the size of a small VW – it’s safe. Here is a place where a person can think. Look up at trees taller than you’ll ever be, and breathe… deep.
Welcome to Poetry Friday, which today is hosted at Karen’s Got A Blog! Today we’re pretending we’re in a deep, cool wood, and not in sunny downtown suburbia. Our woods are closed just now, but I’m imagining them because I have enjoyed discovering what lies beneath their cool branches. Muir Woods, which are the woods closest to my house, is wonderful. I’ve never felt unwelcome there, or awkward, or that I was not in the right space. I’ve been left alone to enjoy it, to give side-eye to the HUGE banana slugs and to wonder if it was the same ground squirrel following me for a half mile (probably not. Maybe?). I was left to myself to be ungainly, awkward, sticky, out of breath, and deep into brush. Unfortunately, not every green space is safe and welcoming to everyone, as has been adequately and dispiritingly displayed in weeks past. It’s an odd thing, that some places seem to belong inherently to some people, and not others…
But, today this imaginary wood belongs to everyone, and as you were invited to join our poetry-ing this month, you know the prompt was using the imagery of thick woods and the word “susurrus.” Was that word helpful to you? It wasn’t to me, even though it’s one of my favorites (AND I MADE UP THE PROMPT), but after a lot of revision, I decided to go with what I had – these poetry exercises are meant to encourage us to write, not perfect us as writers.
And, so we carry on.
If you want to hear a “murmur or whisper” – or something about trees – from more from our Poetry Peeps, check out Sara’s post, and Laura’s here. Cousin Mary Lee’s post is here. Liz’s post is here. Don’t miss Tricia post. New poetry peeps include Michelle, and Janice. (As we’re tagged, we’ll point out other folks’ poems along the way – and thanks for joining in, folks!) Remember to visit the blog of Karen Eastlund for more Poetry Friday fun.
stopping by the woods on a summer evening
Up narrow tracks hemmed in with trees
Far from suburban greens
A wilder place is beckoning
Towards places clandestine.
A hushed and restless murmuring –
Mere susurrus of sound –
An invitation from within
To become lost – and Found.
Space here reserved for breathing in
Amidst the buds and leaves,
Expands the soul, Lightens the heart,
And never fails to ease.
Come one and all, to fragrant woods,
Or wander by the sea.
We share these spaces to rejoice
In Earth’s tranquility
Come all – and come courageously.
Take up this space. This prize
To all belongs; the Earth is shared
Your welcome recognize.
I hope you find a green place that welcomes you. It might not be possible right now, but the joy of green spaces is that they remain, as my friend Elle reminded me recently, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, it all goes on, as long as the Earth remains. Never mind what’s going on with us; the woods will be there.
Want to join us again?
UGH, is it still 2020? It’s been six years!
This morning, Nikki Grimes wondered on Twitter if anyone else needed a reminder of something beautiful in this world, and oh, holy heaven, yes. As she shared a picture of her roses in bloom, so I will share my blooms – and some thoughts on the reasons I stare at my plants when my mind is full.
Despite the fact that I garden, I’m… actually kind of terrible at it. So far this year, the Evil Gopher has eaten two whole plants (although today I saw it ate A WEED. I’m not mad about it), and three have simply failed to thrive. I have no clue what’s up with the leeks and beets, or why they’re not doing anything. There are so many things i should put them on a list and make note that they don’t do well here, so as not to try them again – but I’m more bewildered and sad that they didn’t like me. ☺ Gardening is sometimes a lot about failure – and learning how to face it, breathe through it, and walk on.
Between a box of seeds I collected from a house we rented fifteen years ago (!) and seeds from my friend Elle’s crop last year, we planted LOADS of morning glories in at least four colors around the entire yard. Morning glories… are stubborn sometimes. They CAN grow in poor soil and with tons of neglect, but even when you give them tons of fresh, rich soil, sometimes they just… won’t. Right now, while I have morning glories which are just now stretching up trees and staked on sticks and trying to run up the fence, I have discovered myriad tiny new seedlings which are just now germinating.
We planted them in FEBRUARY.
How is it that seeds I planted months ago in the winter are JUST NOW deciding to germinate? Did their older siblings somehow signal that it was safe? Hanging with my plants reminds me I cannot make anything happen except in its own time. Gardening means relinquishing the idea that you’re in your control. It’s enough to make you scream. It’s also …life. Things happen when they do – and all of our stressing rarely moves the dial. Sometimes what’s needed is patience. Other times, a clipper or a trowel and a new location, or even just fertilizer. You don’t know ’til you get in there.
Sometimes, there’s nothing you can do. (There’s that failure thing again…)
So, you take a breath, and do what you can. You enjoy the blooms that you have.
Right now, what with the additional plague of “you can’t tell me what to do”-ers infecting the nation, it feels like we might never stop dying of this disease, or gain social closeness again. It feels like authoritarianism continues to invent reasons to eradicate black and brown individuals. It feels like nothing is working, that nothing is worth working for, and that we’ve lived through the winter of our discontent, which is dragging on into an endless summer. It feels – every day, for some – like the end of everything.
It’s a good thing we have this reminder: there are beautiful things in this world. There is rest – even a moment’s surcease from pain. There is hopefulness. Look for it. See.