To Review or Not to Review?

“A book report is an essay discussing the contents of a book, written as part of a class assignment issued to students in schools, particularly in the United States at the elementary school level.” So says Google. I dreaded that forced march through long prose to prove that I had read the whole book. I coughed up the plot, the conflicts and the characters. Stated the theme of the book. Convinced my classmates and the adult with the red pen why I liked or disliked the book. Seemed to me there were only two choices, neither one comfortable. What did I learn from these assignments? I learned to hate book reports, and some kids learned to hate books.

Therein lies my angst over writing book reviews, the grown-up version of a book report, minus the spoilers. Yesterday I chatted with an editor seeking a review for a poetry book he has in hand. I once knew the poet well. What if I don’t like the work? What if I cannot gush and praise and send readers rushing to their bookseller for it? What if I feel merely tepid about it?

Must I warn a vulnerable public to keep away from dull, clumsy books? With so much new poetry, fiction, and memoir to choose from–probably half a million books published annually just in the US–I can do readers a favor if I warn them about the flaccid, florid, horrid books that usurp valuable shelf space in libraries and bookstores. Or I could wax wise and inflate my ego by elevating my taste to the measure of all things literary. Well, my grandma told me that if I couldn’t say something nice to shut up. Granny was sometimes right, so I deflected yesterday’s editor toward a new book of poems that I am excited about, that I can honestly recommend and not sound like a snob, a paid hack, or a crank.

Have You Heard?

Editor Susan Greene of The Colorado Independent has recently called for a fresh approach to Colorado news. She has created a section called News Poetry. On Saturday seven Colorado poets met with Susan and Poetry Editor Jacqueline St. Joan to explore at the possibility of adding poems to the discussion about current issues. The contributors will include more than the seven poets present on Saturday.

As poet Edward Hirsch says, “Poetry is a mode of associative thinking that takes a different route to knowledge.” (Best American Poetry 2016, xx) We expect to take this different route to understanding the complex issues that face Coloradans. Make no mistake, the poems and editors involved in the News Poetry project will not be preaching or ranting. Our charge is to be fair and accurate as journalists, but creative and nuanced as poets. This is a challenge that will take us beyond the frequently published lyric poems that engage personal experience. News poetry harks back to the beginnings of poetry, to poets as witnesses to the world, to poetry that chronicles the life of a community, in this case the state of Colorado.

FMI: Colorado independent.com/news poetry

Not Your Grandmother’s Poetry Reading

How to build an audience for poetry: combine words with song, with percussion, with a delivery that goes beyond the traditional solitary poet at the mic reading original work. Stir in familiar and fresh music. Read interpretively, dare to be political, personal, confrontational and/or confessional. Last night a performance group called The Readers’ Lab did just that. The troupe performs with and under the direction of SETH, a well-known Denver performer, poet and novelist. Included are Cathy Casper, Cyndeth Allison, Dave Greenwald, James (the man of) Steele, Kathleen Cain, Pandora Wilson, and Rob Taylor.

Much of the performance was created by the performers, who, according to the program notes, “help and guide each other in exploring and experimenting with expanding their vocal delivery and enhancing spoken word by adding music, theatrics and interweaving multiple poems and voices.”

This is not a poetry reading in which one performer is the feature, not a sales pitch for a new book. It’s not about individual ego or advancement. This in itself is refreshing. There were selections from writers whom you might recognize: Donovan, Stanley Kunitz, Carl Jung, Terry Tempest Williams. (Because there was no cost of admission, no one’s copyright was violated.) The cover art on the program was by Kit Hedman of Hedman Photography, another collaboration. And it’s exactly that inclusive reach that makes this group unusual.

Now, instead of the familiar academic or coffee house venue, choose a setting like the Denver Puppet Theater where hundreds of marionettes hang on the walls, plush hand puppets are available for fondling, and huge, gorgeous Chinese dragons over arch the performance area. The entrance to the theater is through Zook’s Coffee and Ice Cream serving good food and drink. Believe it or not, there is ample on-street parking.

If you don’t have access to appearances by The Readers’ Lab, get busy and create a similar group. It’s important, although not easy, because this requires some risk-taking and regular collaboration and rehearsal. (FMI visit www.wagingart.com)

 

Earth Day & Trees

It’s Earth Day and I am thinking about trees. One of my first childhood friends was a giant sugar maple from which hung my rope swing with its blue wooden seat. I did not name the tree–it needed no name. It was always there. It did not scold when I nicked the bark with the swing seat. It seemed not to mind the bare spot in the grass over its roots where I pumped my feet to fly up toward its branches. I saw that tree a few years ago—it was a tall broken stump full of ticks, and I felt that I had lost a family member. In truth, I had. In the largest sense, we are family, humans and trees. Then there was the wind-fallen oak behind the house where we lived when I was in high school. That long, horizontal trunk was what in a more adventuresome girl would have been a balance beam, but the idea of gymnastics was unknown to me. I knew how to walk that tree.

Having grown up mostly in Maine, “The Pine Tree State,” trees still feel like a necessity and I welcome the thick greenery of the place on my annual visits back. I go in high summer when the foliage is almost ominous in its thickness. Let the “leaf peeping” tourists admire the flaming fall colors. I’m content to bask in the deep shade of hardwoods and mixed evergreens.

As I write I’m wearing my tree of life earrings, Yggdrasil, a mythic green ash done in silver. The branches and the roots, both visible in the jewelry, remind me that trees feed the imagination. Words are the fruit of the forest, which is our library. On my current reading list are The Tree by John Fowles and three others recommended by a favorite librarian: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, and The Song of Trees by David George Haskell.

Here then is my modest Earth Day celebration of the tree:

WHERE AM I GOING?

     I’m going off to find

            a tree I can lean on,

                        watch the grass grow.

In another life

             I might be a tree

                                   oak or maple, pine or ash.

           Ah, sapling, I will be

                           your shade and your soil

                   until you are tall

                    and well rooted.

 

Poems for Poetry Month

I tell other people to write, write, write, even if it’s practice rather than product. And here’s what happens when I tell myself that. Probably these are more dabbles than haiku, but they are of that family. I’m flummoxed with the spacing, so pretend they are single spaced.

Totally modern

woman with a phone, no calls

Smartest phone of all

 

It’s hair dye or else

new brand of agent orange

That hair could kill us

 

Cold bottled water

thirst quenching throw away

Plastic assassin

 

Dying of boredom

killing time again today

Guilty as charged

 

Reader gasping hard

near me in the coffee shop

takes my breath away

Beginners/Middlers/Enders

This week, emptying the box in which I had stashed a year’s worth of journals,  I found that all too many had blank pages at the back because I rushed to start a new one before I finished the old. I love a new journal, a new pen, a new car. (Though in truth I have kept a few cars for a decade, but that’s finance riding herd on my impulses.)

My writing plans sprout like radishes. I start stories, poems, essays, reading lists, but too soon, I fade. I’m a sprinter, not a marathoner. My tendency to quit before I’m done might have started in childhood. (Always fair game, eh?) From the age of six months I was moved from state to state, house to house, a chess pawn in adult hands, not much staying put. Then as a military wife, I fell under the spell of the DOD. As a nurse I was so employable that I changed jobs easily, never got the gold pin for longevity.

As a writer, this impulse to move on like Alice at the Mad Hatter’s tea party means that I draft a story, maybe revise it a time or two while it’s new and full of exciting potential, but then I’m apt to stuff it into a file and not finish it. I wrote my novel Providence in scenes, small chunks that I then had to wrestle into a more or less logical structure. That challenged me.

Poetry comes more easily, the bright-light beginnings seduce me and, given the brevity of my poems, I usually finish them. If one can ever call a poem finished. I admit that my revisions folder gets cobwebby and the resident house spider is no help. As I type, I realize that I’m in the middle of this little essay and I can’t see the exit sign. But you get the idea. Identify your patterns and adjust to taste.

To Pee on the Tree or Not to Pee?

When I walk Duncan the Dog, he reads tree bark the way I read books. He’s not interested in the tree itself, only the messages left by his canine tribe. I don’t know what he learns from his sniffing, maybe something like “Oh, that old lab was here today and that little Pomeranian is pregnant. Wow!” His own signature is writ in urine.

Critiquing poetry is much the same, though we write in ink and sweat, not pee. We don’t judge the poet, only the work. We neither defend nor prosecute the “tree.” It’s what’s on the bark that matters.

Today the critique group to which I belong, Gamuts, will share a potluck lunch and review a poetry manuscript. It works this way: the poet du jour has assembled her manuscript to the best of her ability. She has included a title page, a table of contents and the full text of each poem on a separate page. She has numbered the pages. She will have handed out print copies of the manuscript weeks ago. The rest of us will have read the work at least twice and written comments on the pages.

First we talk about the collection as a whole: the themes, style, structure of the book. We pretend the writer is not at the table, sipping her wine and crunching her salad. She’s eating and she’s listening and taking notes. After discussing the larger elements, we work through the poems one at a time, looking for fresh, precise language, rhythm, structure within the poem. What I like someone else mourns. We look for leaners–poems too weak to stand alone outside this manuscript. We name the keepers and the cuts, the pets and the mutts. We remain civil and somewhat objective. Objectivity challenges us because we often know the backstory of a piece and may not be alert to what a stranger needs to get the news.

Most of all we don’t lift a leg to offend the poet because each of us at some point will be the tree.