Friday, April 20, 2018

Poetry Friday: A Madeleine and an Anthology

I've been reading madeleine poems with my eighth graders. There's a chapter in Nancie Atwell's book Naming the World of these poems. I'm not sure if Nancie was the first one to name a genre after the moment in Proust's novel À la recherche du temps perdu when a character eats a cookie called a madeleine, and suddenly the smell and taste of it brings on a flashback to his childhood that consumes the rest of the book.  We read the ones that she has in her book, plus a couple of others I've collected, and then I decided to write one with the kids.

What memory should I choose? I decided to go with food and drink, and the most obvious example was an experience I had at seventeen or so when I was helping with a class field trip at the school I used to attend in Kenya. We went to the part of the country where I had lived as a young child, and I was served a drink I hadn't had in a long time.

I decided to use a poem I'd read with the kids by George Bilgere as a mentor text for my poem. His poem is actually called "A Madeleine." It starts like this:

For me, it's a bit of cool hide
from an orange, a continent
torn from a pulpy planet,
held to the light and squeezed
until its cratered field
bursts with little geysers,
citrine explosions. 

Here's the rest of the poem. 

I think this is an absolutely masterful poem.  Notice how Bilgere describes the orange itself in the first stanza and then life growing up on an orange grove in the second, and how the first makes him remember the second.  The "continent torn from a pulpy planet," the "little geysers" of juice coming out of the peel, and then the end, where he compares his family to an orange that hasn't been peeled yet: just amazing.

I decided to borrow his first two words and then the first two lines of the second stanza, so I gave the kids this template:

For me, it's...

Fill in the blank.  Maybe it's a food or drink (start there).  Or maybe it's your grandmother's perfume, or a stuffed animal that you still cuddle for comfort even though you're afraid maybe you're too old.  What is it that brings back memories of your very early childhood?

The two lines from the second stanza are:

Hold it to my nose
and I go Proustian;

I told them they could change that to "hold it to my ear" or "show it to me" or whatever works for the object they are discussing.  

I decided to write about morsik.  I told the kids about it in class and they wanted to see pictures, so I googled it, and didn't find much until I changed the spelling to mursik, which is apparently the official way to write it.  And then...well, the internet came through for me, as it always does.  Photos, a video including someone making it and claiming that it's the secret to the athletic skill of Kenya's world-famous distance runners, articles about people lamenting that it's now available in plastic containers (I had no idea!).  You have to understand that I haven't lived in Kenya since I left for college, and apparently time has continued to move on, in that way it does.

So here's what mursik is.  I should warn you that in the following video, some people speak without interpretation in languages you probably aren't going to know (unless you are from Kenya, in which case, karibu and can I pour you a cup of chai?), but the main narration is in English and you will see the whole process of making mursik.  And here's a really interesting article from the Kenyan newspaper The Standard.



Basically, mursik is milk mixed with soot from a burned stick (and apparently it matters what kind of tree the stick comes from, which I didn't know), and left to sour for three to five days until it has a yoghurt-like consistency. The Masaii add cow blood to theirs, but I've never drunk it that way. The kids were suitably horrified and my minilesson was launched.

I put my template up on the screen and made a bunch of notes, telling the kids I would work on the poem and show them my completed draft later. Then I encouraged them to write their own madeleine poems, and many started them. I've only read one so far - about a Barbie doll - and I loved it.  I can't wait to read the others when I get the drafts.

So here's my completed first draft, which falls very far short of Bilgere but which I like because it's the first time I've written about this experience.

A Madeleine
after George Bilgere

For me, it's mursik
poured from a gourd into a tin cup.
First they burned the end of a stick, 
and then scraped it in the gourd,
coating the inside with soot.  
Then they filled the gourd with milk
and put it aside to rest for a few days.
Now it's thick and clumpy, 
with a delicate flavor of yogurt mixed with charcoal.

Hold it to my nose
and I go Proustian
when, years after my last taste of it,
someone offers me a drink
on a back porch in Kericho District in Kenya.
As soon as I smell it,
and then taste it,
I'm a little blond, blue-eyed girl again,
begging for mursik from my parents' students.
The sharp tang brings back a time
when I took what I was given
and didn't ask where it came from
or whether there would be more,
a time when I knew who I was
and where I came from  
and it hadn't yet occurred to me that any of those
were complicated questions.

Ruth, from thereisnosuchthingasagodforsakentown.blogspot.com



Tabatha has today's roundup, and news: today's the release day for the new anthology she's editing, Imperfect: Poems About Mistakes, an Anthology for Middle Schoolers. And I have a poem in it! This is my first time being in an anthology and I'm pretty excited.  You can order your copy here.  And stop in at Tabatha's Imperfect Fête, too!  As she points out, "Considering we can't help making mistakes, we have to learn how to deal with them. How to make amends, how to forgive, how to laugh about it, how to move on." That's a good lesson to learn in middle school, or at any other time in life.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Line 17 - Why, That's My Line!

Before this month's Progressive Poem even began, Heidi gave us an assignment. She asked us to write down our thoughts about the first line, and our predictions for how the poem would go. I have to confess that I didn't write anything down, but I did think about the line, and silently appreciated the fact that our protagonist was a seed. Lately I've been thinking this phrase often, a phrase relevant to more areas of my life than you might expect: Seeds, not switches. I don't know who created this phrase originally but the first person I heard use it was Rob Bell. He was talking about how many processes are slow, organic, unpredictable, not started by flipping a switch but by planting a seed. I've thought about how often, in my teaching, for example, I want results and I want them right now. I'm in a hurry, not wanting to let things take their course. That's what I thought about the line: Let's see what happens. Let's let this little seed grow as it wants to.

And wow, it's really grown!

I started writing my line the way I start a lot of my writing: by looking at pictures. But let me back up a little.

When I woke up on Monday morning, one of the first things I did was upload four photos to Facebook. I've been doing a Photo a Day project; this is the second year that I am posting daily photos responding to prompts I find here. Today's prompt was "Striking." On Sunday I took some photos of a plant I found especially striking. Here are a couple of the photos I shared:
Right after I posted the photos, I clicked on Monday's line of the poem and read it. I thought about it, enjoyed it, reread it, thought some more. I loved the "trellis...made of braided wind and song." Isn't that beautiful?

But I needed some pictures in my head to get me started. I started Googling images. I started with a trellis, and then jasmine. And that second search term brought me a whole bunch of pictures that looked exactly like my striking plant, except they were white. Wait, I thought, is that plant actually jasmine? That would be just too magical to be true.  Or maybe too creepy to be true, with Google spying on what I just posted on Facebook.  Hmmm.....

I typed in "purple jasmine" and found a lot of pictures of a Disney princess in a purple dress, and then some flowers that are purple and in the jasmine family. I don't think my plant is jasmine, but it sure does look a lot like it. I think it's purple wreathIs purple wreath related to jasmine? I inquired earnestly of Google, and again, I don't think it is, but there is such a thing as purple jasmine, I learned, and another name for that is star jasmine.

I wanted so much to write about flowers in my line, but I couldn't. It isn't time yet. The star-shaped flowers hanging out with the wily Moon can't grow until there's a place for them to live. You can't rush seeds.  Seeds, not switches.

I wanted to continue the song that Sarah Grace started. After all, we are at a party. I watched some YouTube videos showing time-lapse photography of plants growing, and finally, after thinking about it all day, I wrote my line, all seven words of it. I hope you like it. I especially hope Christie likes it, since she has to add tomorrow's line.

So here it is, the Progressive Poem, with my line added at the end in bold:

Nestled in her cozy bed, a seed stretched.

Oh, what wonderful dreams she had!

Blooming in midnight moonlight, dancing with

the pulse of a thousand stars, sweet Jasmine

invented a game.



"Moon?" she called across warm honeyed air.

"I'm sad you're alone, come join Owl and me.   

We're feasting on stardrops, we'll share them with you."  

"Come find me,” Moon called, hiding behind a cloud.



Secure in talons' embrace, Jasmine rose

and set. She split, twining up Owl's toes, pale  

moonbeams sliding in between, Whoosh, Jasmine goes.

Owl flew Jasmine between clouds and moon to Lee's party!



Moon, that wily bright balloon, was NOT alone.
                                                    
                                                      Jas grinned,
                                                       stretched,
                                                         reached,
                                                            wrapped
                                                               a new
                                    around            tender
                                                rootlet
a trellis Sky held out to her, made of braided wind and song.
Her green melody line twisted and clung.


Keep following the journey of the Progressive Poem by clicking on the blogs in the list below.  I wonder what will happen?


April
2 Jane at Raincity Librarian
4 Michelle at Today's Little Ditty
5 Jan at bookseedstudio
6 Irene at Live Your Poem
7 Linda at TeacherDance
8 Janet F. at Live Your Poem
11 Brenda at Friendly Fairy Tales
12 Carol at Beyond LiteracyLink
13 Linda at A Word Edgewise
15 Donna at Mainely Write
16 Sarah at Sarah Grace Tuttle
18 Christie at Wondering and Wandering
19 Michelle at Michelle Kogan
20 Linda at Write Time
23 Amy at The Poem Farm
24 Mary Lee at A Year of Reading
26 Renee at No Water River
27 Buffy at Buffy's Blog
28 Kat at Kat's Whiskers
29 April at Teaching Authors
30 Doraine at Dori Reads

Friday, April 13, 2018

Poetry Friday: Happy Birthday, Lee Bennett Hopkins!

We're celebrating Lee Bennett Hopkins' birthday today on Poetry Friday.  As soon as I found out, I went looking for his books on my shelves.  The first thing I found was Author Talk: Conversations with Judy Blume, Bruce Brooks, Karen Cushman, Russell Freedman, Lee Bennett Hopkins, James Howe, Johanna Hurwitz, E. L. Konigsburg, Lois Lowry, Ann M. Martin, Nicholasa Mohr, Gary Paulsen, Jon Scieszka, Seymour Simon, and Laurence Yep.  (Whew!  That's quite a subtitle!)

I loved reading the conversation with LBH.  He tells about his childhood, and how he hated school and didn't do well until eighth grade, when a teacher influenced him with the "gift of hope."  He wasn't interested in poetry until he started teaching.  There's even a series of photos of three stages in the life of a poem, from the few lines of the idea to the revision-in-progress to the published piece.  Here's his description of his "typical workday:" "I don't have a routine.  I write whenever I feel like it.  It's back to childhood: no rules!  Even so, I'm very disciplined.  I'm always working on several books at a time.  I always have a lot of projects going."

Thank you for all the many projects you have brought to completion through the years!  Your work has been a gift to students and teachers everywhere.  Happy birthday!

I've been enjoying the extra poetry in my inbox that April always brings, even though, as usual, the many goings-on around the internet are too much for me, and I can't possibly keep track of everything I'd like to and still keep track of my life and my students.  Poetry, reading it and writing it,  is a year-round preoccupation of mine, and one thing I enjoy is the Poetry app put out by the Poetry Foundation.  (You can download it here.)  It lets you search for poems by author, first line, poet, and even mood.  And you can make a favorites list.

Here's a poem from my favorites list for this second Poetry Friday in April:

There is No Word
Tony Hoagland

There isn’t a word for walking out of the grocery store
with a gallon jug of milk in a plastic sack
that should have been bagged in double layers

—so that before you are even out the door
you feel the weight of the jug dragging
the bag down, stretching the thin

plastic handles longer and longer
and you know it’s only a matter of time until
bottom suddenly splits.

There is no single, unimpeachable word
for that vague sensation of something
moving away from you

as it exceeds its elastic capacity


Read on to find out why Tony Hoagland would find such a word useful here.

As always, I've been enjoying the Progressive Poem, too.  Below you can find the list, and links to the sites of everyone participating.  My line is coming up on Tuesday.


April
2 Jane at Raincity Librarian
4 Michelle at Today's Little Ditty
5 Jan at bookseedstudio
6 Irene at Live Your Poem
7 Linda at TeacherDance
8 Janet F. at Live Your Poem
11 Brenda at Friendly Fairy Tales
12 Carol at Beyond LiteracyLink
13 Linda at A Word Edgewise
15 Donna at Mainely Write
16 Sarah at Sarah Grace Tuttle
18 Christie at Wondering and Wandering
19 Michelle at Michelle Kogan
20 Linda at Write Time
23 Amy at The Poem Farm
24 Mary Lee at A Year of Reading
26 Renee at No Water River
27 Buffy at Buffy's Blog
28 Kat at Kat's Whiskers
29 April at Teaching Authors
30 Doraine at Dori Reads

Here's to all the things poetry celebrates, and here's to the way poetry puts words to things for which there are no words.  Happy Birthday, LBH, and Happy Poetry Friday, everybody!  You can see more tributes and more poems here at today's roundup.

Friday, April 06, 2018

Poetry Friday: Late Due to Tomatoes

This is just to say
that I'm sorry I was late
to my meeting this morning
except not that sorry.
I stopped to take some pictures
of the tomatoes in my yard.
They were so beautiful.
So small and green
and so flecked with
rainwater.
And the meeting
seemed so far away.

Ruth, at thereisnosuchthingasagodforsakentown.blogspot.com

That happened yesterday morning.  I was only slightly late to my meeting - maybe a minute.  And it wasn't an official school meeting, just a get-together with a couple of friends to pray before school on Thursdays.  And look at my tomatoes:

On my way to that meeting, I was thinking wildly sentimental thoughts about why this was National Poetry Month and how growing things were like poems and how my tomatoes made me a lot happier than meetings.  And all of that thinking led me to a more realistic poem about the effects of poetry on one's professional life, "To a Frustrated Poet." It begins like this:

To a Frustrated Poet
by R. J. Ellmann

This is to say
I know
You wish you were in the woods,
Living the poet life,
Not here at a formica topped table
In a meeting about perceived inequalities in the benefits and allowances offered to employees of this college.
And I too wish you were in the woods,
Because it's no fun having a frustrated poet
In the Dept. of Human Resources, believe me.

I posted it here, but if you follow the link in that post to find the end of the poem, you'll reach a dead end with a statement from Minnesota Public Radio (grrrrr, talk about a Frustrated Poet - that's what I become every time I follow a link to the old Writer's Almanac).  So I found this link instead.

I have been enjoying all the extra poetry around this time of year, including the Progressive Poem.  Here's a list of the places you can go to keep up with that:


April
2 Jane at Raincity Librarian
4 Michelle at Today's Little Ditty
5 Jan at bookseedstudio
6 Irene at Live Your Poem
7 Linda at TeacherDance
8 Janet F. at Live Your Poem
11 Brenda at Friendly Fairy Tales
12 Carol at Beyond LiteracyLink
13 Linda at A Word Edgewise
15 Donna at Mainely Write
16 Sarah at Sarah Grace Tuttle
18 Christie at Wondering and Wandering
19 Michelle at Michelle Kogan
20 Linda at Write Time
23 Amy at The Poem Farm
24 Mary Lee at A Year of Reading
26 Renee at No Water River
27 Buffy at Buffy's Blog
28 Kat at Kat's Whiskers
29 April at Teaching Authors

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Spiritual Journey First Thursday: Poetry

It's the first Thursday of the month, and that means a collection of posts on spiritual journeys.  You can find today's roundup here.  This month the topic is poetry, which is appropriate since we are in the first week of National Poetry Month.

I remember a lecture in graduate school where the professor said that the Poet (capital P) had taken the role of God in modern life.  I dismissed this as complete nonsense (not aloud, just in my mind), and actually couldn't even imagine what such a statement might mean.  Today, while I still dismiss equating God with a human Poet, capitalized or not, I understand the concept a bit better.  Poetry goes beyond the mundane; it expresses thoughts and emotions that go deeper than a typical conversation on a typical day.  It's clear that for many people there is a connection between poetry and spirituality; perhaps we could say that the poet takes the role of a priest or holy person (not God), ushering our thoughts past the ordinary and into something more ineffable.

This idea of poets (or artists in general) goes along with the idea C.S. Lewis expresses in The Great Divorce.  A visitor from Hell to Heaven (The Ghost) is gaping at the surroundings and wishing to paint them.  He falls into conversation with a resident of Heaven (The Spirit).

"'I should like to paint this.'

'I shouldn't bother about that just at present if I were you.'

'Look here; isn't one going to be allowed to go on painting?'

'Looking comes first.'

'But I've had my look.  I've seen just what I want to do.  ... I wish I'd thought of bringing my things with me!'

The Spirit shook his head, scattering light from his hair as he did so.  'That sort of thing's no good here,' he said.

'What do you mean?' said the Ghost.

'When you painted on earth - at least in your earlier days - it was because you caught glimpses of Heaven in the earthly landscape.  The success of your painting was that it enabled others to see the glimpses too.  But here you are having the thing itself.  It is from here that the messages came.  There is no good telling us about this country, for we see it already.  In fact we see it better than you do.'

'Then there's never going to be any point in painting here?'

'I don't say that.  When you've grown into a Person (it's all right, we all had to do it) there'll be some things which you'll see better than anyone else.  One of the things you'll want to do will be to tell us about them.  But not yet.  At present your business is to see.  Come and see.  He is endless.  Come and be freed.'"

(Look at the copy I found on my shelf!  It was published in 1969 and it is dusty and missing its back cover, and I love it.)

I appreciate Lewis' musings on art here - both that it can be a way to finding God, and that it is much less than God.  That is how I think of poetry and its role in my spiritual journey.  It can fill me with love for Creation, but it can't replace the Creator.  In the Bible, poetry is used as worship, and as expression of emotions positive and negative.  But neither the poetry nor the poet is the point; the point is God's splendor and majesty.

As long as poetry maintains its proper place, it can absolutely be a part of my spiritual practice.  And it is; both reading it and writing it.  Here's a poem I've loved since high school, a poem which helps me think about the beauty of the world.

God's World
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
Thy mists that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour!  That gaunt crag
To crush!  To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, world, I cannot get thee close enough!

Long have I known a glory in it all,
But never knew I this;
Here such a passion is
As stretcheth me apart.  Lord I do fear
Thou'st made the world too beautiful this year.
My soul is all but out of me, - let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.


I felt that way yesterday as I took this picture.  Obviously my world is very different from the autumn day Millay describes, but just look at that sky!  "Lord, I do fear thou'st made the world too beautiful this year." 


Sunday, April 01, 2018

What I Learned in March

I think I'm not very good at doing these posts, because although I try to keep a list through the month, it never gets much on it.  Still, since I did January and February, I'll try March too.  My March list has only two entries, both names: Annie Dillard and Parker Palmer.

More and more, it feels to me that life is about speed, careening through my life and through history, trying to keep up with the increasingly mystifying news of the world and with the breakneck pace of each school year, changing topics and activities to keep my students engaged, rushing through my work so that I can go to bed and then get up the next morning and do it all again.   Both Annie Dillard and Parker Palmer, though, help me to slow down and to reflect on what it's all about.

In my February post I wrote that I am participating in a discussion group of Palmer's book The Courage to Teach.  This continues to lead to nourishing conversations, the details of which come back to me during my teaching days and during ongoing interactions with friends from the group and sometimes even in dreams.  We've talked about paradox and the nature of knowing, about how our strengths and our weaknesses as teachers are sometimes two sides of the same coin.  Sometimes we envy Palmer the rarefied air of his work at the university level, and compare it ruefully to the flatulence humor of our own workplace, but I've taught college too, so I get that his job isn't all pure learning and shiny enthusiastic students.  I just love the way his thought, put down on paper, facilitates our ability to think in new ways.

Annie Dillard's thought is mind-stretching for me, too.  This month I read an essay of hers that blew my mind in all the best ways, "An Expedition to the Pole."  It can be found in The Abundance and Teaching a Stone to Talk.  Long and discursive, the essay is hard to quote because it is the opposite of sound-bytes.  Annie Dillard's writing is the anti-Twitter.  In this essay she is comparing attending church and participating in its ancient rituals with being a polar explorer.  In both endeavors, we are aiming for the ineffable but sometimes get bogged down by the day-to-day.

Listen to this:

"A high school stage play is more polished than this service we have been rehearsing since the year one.  In 2,000 years, we have not worked out the kinks.  We positively glorify them.  Week after week we witness the same miracle: that God is so mighty he can stifle his own laughter.  Week after week we witness the same miracle: that God, for reasons unfathomable, refrains from blowing our dancing bear act to smithereens.  Week after week Christ washes the disciples' dirty feet, handles their very toes, and repeats, it is all right - believe it or not - to be people.

Who can believe it?"

Or this:

"Wherever we go, there seems to be only one business at hand - that of finding a workable compromise between the sublimity of our ideas and the absurdity of the fact of us."

(Come to think of it, that could totally be a Tweet.)

Another essay of Dillard's that I loved was "For the Time Being," which is in a book of the same title and in The Abundance.  This one is about Teilhard de Chardin and his combined vocations as churchman and scientist.  It takes the long view, showing the whole life of this brilliant man and what he accomplished in his work and his friendships, but also the frustrations he faced.

Another way my thoughts were guided in March was by listening to a podcast that I didn't put on my list: this episode of Sandra McCracken's podcast Steadfast, in which she interviews Peter Harris, founder with his wife of A Rocha International, a Christian environmental group based in Portugal.  Harris, too, talked about slowness, and patience, and accomplishing small things over long periods of time.  He talked about the Eucharist, and how its elements are bread and wine, not grain and grapes.  It is made of things which take time to produce.  It can't be rushed, or done at a drive-through.

Slow down, my listening and reading and discussing told me this month.  Be patient.  You really have no idea what is truly going on in your students' minds, or the world around you, or even your own heart.  Be faithful, trust the process, keep getting out of bed and going to work, aiming for the ineffable but plodding through the day-to-day.  Don't be weary in well-doing.

Did I learn those lessons in March?  Well, at least I took a step closer to learning them.  Let's see what April brings. 

National Poetry Month: Day 1

Of course the most important thing I'm celebrating today is Christ's resurrection from the dead.  In addition, it's the first day of National Poetry Month, and that means the first line of the Progressive Poem!  Head on over to Liz Steinglass to see the way she has begun our poem!  I'll be adding my line on the 17th.


April
2 Jane at Raincity Librarian
4 Michelle at Today's Little Ditty
5 Jan at bookseedstudio
6 Irene at Live Your Poem
7 Linda at TeacherDance
8 Janet F. at Live Your Poem
11 Brenda at Friendly Fairy Tales
12 Carol at Beyond LiteracyLink
13 Linda at A Word Edgewise
15 Donna at Mainely Write
16 Sarah at Sarah Grace Tuttle
18 Christie at Wondering and Wandering
19 Michelle at Michelle Kogan
20 Linda at Write Time
23 Amy at The Poem Farm
24 Mary Lee at A Year of Reading
26 Renee at No Water River
27 Buffy at Buffy's Blog
28 Kat at Kat's Whiskers
29 April at Teaching Authors
30 Doraine at Dori Reads

You can read all the Progressive Poems since 2012 here.  I've participated in every one!  

Friday, March 30, 2018

Poetry Friday, Good Friday

He said I wrote about death,

by Kim Dower

and I didn't mean to, this was not
my intent.

Here's the rest of the poem and it ends this way:

I did not mean to write about death,
but rather how when something dies
we remember who we love, and we
die a little too, we who are still breathing,
we who still have the energy to survive.


Good Friday is about death, and love, and surviving.  Sunday will be about resurrection, but let's not rush ahead.  

Here's Heidi's roundup, which includes a discussion of the Progressive Poem, coming soon.  I'll be posting my line on the 17th this year.