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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Poetry Smackdown: Frost vs. Dylan

Well, fellow worms, I suppose I shouldn’t let the month of April slip away from me (as more and more months do with alarming rapidity of late) without acknowledging that it is National Poetry Month. 
I must admit that I haven’t read much in the way of poetry since my college days.  That is unless you count Anna Dewdney’s llama llama red pajama (which is my three-year-old’s absolute favorite book ever) or her equally masterful follow-up llama llama mad at momma.  Dewdney’s rhyming story lines about a loveable llama expressing his emotions over every toddler’s worst life experiences—bedtime and grocery shopping—are about as close as I’ve come to reading any poetry since the required Frost, Poe and Dickinson of Freshman English…or so I thought.
 I’ve spent the last few days considering poetry as an art form, trying to answer for myself the not so simple question:  What is poetry exactly?  Having never met a question I don’t want to immediately google, I turned to the internet.  On a side note, I’m following a blog by a woman known simply as Megan B. called Bangable Dudes in History, and have decided to comment to Ms. B. that she should strongly consider Google inventors Larry Page and Sergey Brin while cooking up her next pie chart of bangability.  The guys are Stanford grads that built their first server network out of cheap, used and borrowed PC’s and called the program (which would eventually become Google and secure $1,000,000.00 in funding) Backrub.  Hello?  Bangable on sooooo many levels.  But I digress.
Anyway, thanks to Larry and Sergey, I learned that Aristotle’s early attempt to define poetry focused on the use of speech in rhetoric, drama, song and comedy, while later attempts by others concentrated on the aesthetics that distinguish poetry from other forms of writing:  repetition, verse form and rhyme.  This led me to consider the musicality of poetry.  Aren’t songs and poems virtually the same thing?  Turns out, that all depends on who you ask.  Some argue that song lyrics are not meant to stand on their own.  While I cannot think of too many “poems” I would like to hear with instrumental accompaniment, (certainly no music could improve the lines “baby llama what a tizzy, sometimes momma’s very busy, no more of this llama drama, you must be patient for your momma”—they are beyond perfection) I do believe there are some songwriters whose lyrics are most definitely capable of "flying solo”.  Take Aoife O’Donovan’s song Lay My Burden Down which can be found on Alison Krauss and Union Station’s newest album Paper Airplane.
               Gonna lay my burden down
               Lay my body in the ground
               Cold clay against my skin
               But I don’t care at all

               Can’t seem to find my piece of mind
               So with the earth I’ll lay entwined
               Six feet underground
               My feet are warm and dry            

Or just about any of Bob Dylan’s songs.  These lines are from Farewell Angelina:

               Farewell Angelina
               The bells on the crown
               Are being stolen by bandits
               I must follow the sound
               The triangle tingles
               And the music plays slow
               But farewell Angelina
               The night is on fire
               And I must go

               There is no use in talking
               And there’s no need for blame
               There is nothing to prove
               Everything still the same
               A table stands empty
               By the edge of the stream
               But farewell Angelina
               The sky is changing colors
               And I must leave

Both examples stand alone as poetry, whether so intended, in my opinion.  If I’m able to count the many song lyrics I’ve committed to memory over my lifetime as poetry, then I intended to hold my head a little higher for the rest of the month of April.  I may only be able to recite a few lines of Robert Frost’s The Road Less Traveled, but I can recall whole LP’s worth of the likes of Jimmy Buffet and Sting.

Who are your favorite poets/songwriters?  Any memorable lines you’d like to share?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Story Worth Telling

This week I am reading Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, and Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay.  They are vastly different stories—the first being an adaptation of the Jane Austen classic regency romance suffused with bone-crunching zombie action, the second a middle-grade crime novel set in 1950’s England described in one review as “Harriet the Spy meets Agatha Christie”, and the third the conclusion of the YA Hunger Games trilogy about a future where politics, war and entertainment have become virtually indistinguishable and the kick-butt teenage heroine that rages against it.
I’m having a fabulous time with these books—each of them a little excursion to a time and place inaccessible to me in the real world—but as the heading of my blog suggests, they are cutting into my writing time.  Even this blog, which I am hugely enjoying thinking about, planning and composing, is preventing me from finishing the eleven thousandth edit of my manuscript.
Last night I revisited my little novel.  It’s been weeks since I stopped editing at page 127 of 167.  I guess I’ve been feeling a bit burned out after completely reworking the story three times over the past year and doing cover to cover edits after almost every rejection letter that I’ve received from the ten or so literary agents I’ve queried so far.  I suppose it hasn’t helped much that some of the incredible books I’ve read of late have tempted me to throw my keyboard out the nearest window, sure that I’ll never be able to compete; but, last night after rereading a few sections of my manuscript, The Genie Chronicles:  Book One, Heir to the Lamp, I came away with renewed hope about its publication potential and determination to finish the latest edit.  I guess that’s the thing about being a writer—you always believe your stories are worth telling.  If you didn’t, you wouldn’t keep at it.
So, I’ve resolved to do the following:  to take only inspiration from what I’m reading—no more thoughts of doubt that I’ll ever measure-up; to continue to see every rejection as a push to work harder, an opportunity to refine my craft; and finally, to make time every day to work on my manuscript.
I know that some visitors to this blog are fellow writers.  I’d love to hear how you stay motivated.  Any tips or advice?

Monday, April 11, 2011

It's Alive!

"When I am reading a book, whether wise or silly, it seems to be alive and talking to me."                
-Jonathan Swift

The first memory I have of a book being read to me is The Boxcar Children when I was about five.  I'm sure there were others when I was younger than that, but during my mother's nightly ritual of snuggling into bed with my younger sister Stacey and me the summer I was five and reading aloud to us the adventures of orphans Henry, Jessie, Violet and Benny, their story came alive for me in a way no other had before.  I can still see clearly in my mind's eye the four siblings sleeping in haystacks and traveling by night, the abandoned boxcar they would make a home, Jessie scouring scavenged dishes in the stream of a creek.

As I grew up and became a proficient reader myself, I must have naturally concluded that my days of being read to were over, because I didn't give it much thought until my last couple of years in high school.  I had a close friend with a brilliant mind for mathmatics (she did her best to help me pass Algebra II as a junior, but I was hopeless) and a reading learning disability.  One of the techniques Miss Math Wiz used to overcome her disablility involved her saint of a mother reading aloud FOUR YEARS worth of Honors English reading assignments into a cassette recorder that her baby girl could replay while she followed along in the actual book.  Wiz let me listen to a few of them once and I just couldn't believe what her precious Momma had so painstakingly done for her.  Books on tape.  Wow!  Visions of never cracking open another reading assignment danced in my head, but when I went to my own Momma with a stack of books and a recorder she reminded me that English was my best subject and offered to read aloud only from my Algebra book.

It wasn't until my early 20's that I rediscovered that wonderful invention of books on tape (now referred to as Audio Books as they are also produced in disk and digital format) during long commutes to and from the many and far-flung county courthouses I trekked to every weekday as part of my job as a real estate title abstractor.  It hadn't taken long for me to tire of the monotonous music and talk shows on the radio during the three to six hours a day I spent in my car, so after a suggestion from a friend and fellow abstractor, I checked out my local library's selection of audio books.  I've been hooked ever since.

Listening to an audio book is like listening to a friend tell a story.  Many friends in some cases.  My favorite audio books are performed by a cast of characters, but some narrators are so good that you don't even realize it's only one person reading all the characters' parts.  Take Jim Dale, narrator of the Harry Potter series, for example.  Mr. Dale is a Tony Award winning actor and winner of multiple Audie Awards (the audio book industry's equivalent to the Grammy Awards).  When listening to his narration of HP, one quickly forgets that the same individual is reading both Harry and Hermione's parts.  Many narrators are similarly gifted.

Adults and children alike can appreciate audio books as a way to pass time on the go.  It's a medium that's easily accessible at low cost.  Free in many cases.  They also provide educational opportunites.

Whatever your listening needs, there's a library, company or website that specializes in your preferences.  Most public libraries have an audio section.  Many have digital catalogs where selections can be downloaded to your PC, ipod or mp3 player.  I am currently listening to Seth Grahme-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, an adaptation of the Jane Austen classic that I've checked-out from my local library on my PC.  There are websites such as and that offer some free downloads as well as downloads for rent or purchase.

So, the next time you're itching to start that novel you're dying to read but can't stop what your're doing, consider an audio book.  Leave the kiddo's portable DVD player at home the next time you take a road trip and let Jim Dale transport you all to Hogwarts.  Go back to that summer when you were five and someone read aloud to you, even if it's just for the 30 minutes it takes to drive to the office.  You won't regret it.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Grow up already? Never!

Lately, I've been considering just why I gravitate to Children's Fiction so strongly.  It's certainly not like I've got anything against other genres.  I'm a huge fan of humorist Jill Conner Browne's Sweet Potato Queen's collection and Phillipa Gregory's Historical Fiction, and many others across a wide spectrum of fantasy, science fiction, crime and mainstream.

I guess it all goes back to the fact that I became an avid reader as a teen thanks to Tolkien's Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.  My tastes have been influenced by my attitudes, fears and dreams of my youth.  Above all, I'm a fan of stories told from the perspective of a child.  In recent years, when the Middle-Grade and Young Adult genres began to teem with new series, I've found myself increasingly drawn to those kind of stories.  I consumed Lemony Snickett's A Series of Unfortunate Events and J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books faster than my children and their friends could keep up.

I regularly read "adult" books, too--I just finished The Help by Kathryn Stockett and Bloodroot by Amy Greene, both of which I adored and was sorry to put down at their conclusions--but it's Children's Literature that I always return to.  Children's Fantasy in particular, where characters in new and unknown worlds make great discoveries, wield magic, fight monsters, battle dragons, face their deepest fears and emerge victorious!  It's a break from the drudgery that can be a grown-up's life.

Because I have so many children--five, for those of you who don't know me--some might not understand why I would immerse myself in children's stories with the scant little free time I have.  You may be asking yourself what pleasure a full grown woman could truly derive from Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians, D. M. Cornish's Foundling Trilogy or Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games?  In response I'd have to ask, what's not to love?  Who doesn't enjoy seeing someone grow into the kind of person they themselves might once have hoped to be as a child?

The coming of age of the main character(s) is one of the things I love most about Middle-Grade and Young Adult literature.  The way the world changes for them as they discover who they are makes the world change for me in some small way, too.  These stories also give me a bit of perspective in another way.  Clues about what I'm doing right and doing wrong as a parent preparing to send my own young people out into an ever-changing world full of its own kind of monsters and dragons.

So, how about you?  Do you suffer from a little Peter Pan Syndrome too?  If not, what's your favorite genre and why?