Friday, April 28, 2017

Back from Wisconsin

There are so many places in the world that I would be happy living. One of them, it turns out, is the Coolee region of southwestern Wisconsin, centered on the city of LaCrosse, where I just spent a lovely week speaking to children from six elementary schools (Galesville, Ettrick, North Woods, Whitehall, West Salem, and Northside), as well as visiting two public libraries (Galesville and LaCrosse), and giving a talk at the University of Wisconsin, LaCrosse.

It's so pretty in the Midwest! I think of Carney in Maud Hart Lovelace's Carney's House Party, thinking that her Vassar classmates "haven't any idea how nice the Middle West is."

What is nicer than to walk along the banks of the mighty Mississippi in a park designed by Frederick Olmsted?

Or to wander through tiny towns like Galesville and Whitehall, with populations of fewer than 2000 people but yet boasting thriving downtowns with appealing cafes and markets? Here I stand overlooking Galesville, during a fascinating tour from my librarian friend Winna.
And meeting the town founder, Mr. Gale.
The children were uniformly delightful. My talks were a nice mix of my usual meet-the-author assembly (now complete with much-admired slides of my cat, dog, and grandbabies) and writing workshops for smaller groups on the principle of "Show, don't tell," These led to much hilarity as child volunteers acted out scenarios of being sad, mad, and glad, while the rest of us took notes on their facial expressions and body language. Great slumping shoulders, sad ones! Great clenched fists, mad ones! Great leaping into the air, glad ones!

I hadn't realized that I would be so close to Pepin, Wisconsin, site of Little House in the Big Woods, or to the homestead of Caddie Woodlawn, dear to me ever since I played the role of stuck-up cousin Annabelle in a fifth-grade dramatization. So now I have to plan a return trip to make that pilgrimage.

What a big wonderful world this is! I'm glad I had the chance to spend a week in this sweet part of it.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Off to Wisconsin

Last July I received an email from the children's librarian in Galesville, Wisconsin, inquiring whether Cody Harmon, King of Pets was going to be the concluding title in my Franklin School Friends series, or if additional titles were planned. She explained that she has a section of her library for "series" books (with "series" defined as "more than five books"). Should she move Franklin School Friends into the series section or keep it with the regular collection?

I wrote back expressing astonishment at such heroic efforts to shelve my books correctly. She and I then fell into a witty email correspondence, as she happens to be one of the funniest human beings I have ever encountered. I couldn't resist dropping a hint that I'd be interested in coming to Wisconsin to do some author visits at local schools (and also admire my appropriately shelved books in the Galesville public library). Wina (pronounced Winna) passed my name onto a school librarian friend, who was indeed interested in sharing my services with her teachers and students, but lacked the budget to bring an author all the way from Colorado.

Oh, well. I tried.

But - wait - I really did want this to happen - and Galesville isn't that far from LaCrosse, Wisconsin, where a new friend of mine teaches in the philosophy department (a friend I met last summer when I gave a talk at the American  Society of Aesthetics in Santa Fe). What if - ooh - what if the university would be willing to host me as a visitor? I could be both visiting professor AND visiting author, as I had recently done at Coastal Carolina University and Carleton College?

So tomorrow I fly to Minneapolis, where I'll rent a car to drive two-and-a-half hours to LaCrossse, Wisconsin. Then I'll spend all of next week presenting to children at six different elementary schools: Galesville, Ettrick, North Woods, Whitehall, West Salem, and Northside, as well as at two public libraries: Galesville and LaCrosse. I'll also give a talk at the university. And meet Wina at last!

All of this thanks to one librarian who cared enough about how to shelve my books in her library to write a hilarious email to me. And to one brilliant and generous philosophy professor friend who took time out of her enormously busy schedule to write a grant proposal to fund my presentation at her university and outreach from the university to the community.

Wisconsin, here I come!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

"What You Do Most Is What You Do Best"

I promise I won't write every single blog post for the rest of my life about poetry, poetry, poetry.

But I'm still loving every minute of my poem-a-day commitment for National Poetry Month. Today, April 13, I now have 13 new poems that I've written, and I've noticed a pattern.

I'm getting better.

Even though I am doing this only for its own sake, just for the sheer creative joy of the writing itself, it's hard to break a lifelong habit of self-appraisal. I know which poems I've written are just so-so, in my own assessment, and which ones have a little spark of something special - perhaps six words strung together in a fresh way - or one burst-out-into-a-chuckle flash of humor - or some tiny insight about the human condition that may not wow anyone else but records something I want to keep in my heart. Lately, I've had more of these moments, more poems I feel like sharing with the universe.

This makes sense. I recently heard the motto "What you do most is what you do best," and it does seem to be true. Even though I have a long way to go before I've logged the 10,000 hours of practice that Malcolm Gladwell says is necessary to achieve mastery in a field, just the ten or so hours I've logged this month have made a difference. I'm a better poet than I was two weeks ago. (And a happier person.)

It's self-reinforcing, too. The more I love writing poetry, the more time I spend writing it. The more time I spend writing, the better I get. The better I get, the more satisfaction I derive from both activity and product. The more satisfaction I get, the more I keep doing it. . . .

I know I can't sustain this schedule of poem-a-day writing. I'm letting many other more urgent pursuits fall by the wayside, beguiled into tarrying with my muse. My current plan is to finish out the month of poetic obsession, then turn to neglected articles and books, to preparing the course I'm teaching this summer in the Graduate Program in Children's Literature at Hollins, and other tasks.

But I'm going to sign up for another month-long poem-a-day challenge before the year is out. Poetry was my first love as a child. Maybe it will be my last love as I age. I'm grateful to the girl I was for all those poems she wrote. I like to think she'd be happy to know her future self would still be writing poems. I wish I could send her one to see if she'd like it. But even if she didn't, she'd be pleased that I was still putting one word down on the page after another, for every day of a happy April, fifty years later.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Wanna Have Fun? Write a Poem Every Day!

It's Day 6 of my commitment to write a poem every day this month under the guidance and encouragement of poet Molly Fisk (see previous post for delicious details). I can now report: these six days of poetry writing have been utterly transformative.

March was a month of malaise for me. I wrote dutifully on revisions for a children's literature scholarly paper, following February's dutiful revisions of an academic philosophy article. But I wrote nothing creative, nothing fresh and new and daring and different, nothing just for the joy of it, nothing just for me.

Now every morning I hop out of bed to race to my computer to see Molly's choice of the prompt for the day. You can see them rendered photographically on her website. The list so far:
April 1:  Where are you going next?
April 2: In reflected light
April 3: Praising camouflage
April 4: What am I going to wear?
April 5: Do you want to demolish something?
April 6: Are you going to grow old?

I think the prompt that produced the best poems from us as a group (there are eleven poets signed up with Molly for the month's challenge) was "praising camouflage." I think I'm fondest of the poems I wrote today and yesterday, on demolition and aging (though I'm pleased with my camouflage poem, too, which I wrote in a child's voice).

I was stuck for a while yesterday, thinking about what I might want to "demolish." I've found it's helpful to un-stick myself by starting with some research - in this case, internet searching on "dynamite," which unearthed this gem from a website called

Q: How can you get dynamite?

A: You first get a federal explosives license. You will need to prove three things: that you are a good person, that you need the license for professional reasons, and that you have a safe, secure place to store your explosives before you use them.

Ooh! How good a person would I need to be to be in order to be able to purchase some dynamite? How would I prove my goodness? My poetic muse afire, I busily scribbled for an hour, as happy (as Grandpa used to say) "as if I'd had good sense." 

Through the poetry challenge I've already made several new friends. One of them, when I messaged her to praise her exquisite camouflage poem, wrote me back to ask if by any chance I was the Claudia Mills who was the author of the article "Redemption through the Rural: The Teen Novels of Rosamond du Jardin," which she was reading with another discussion group. And I was! 

Her group focuses on the novels of a different mid-century author, the Beany Malone books of Lenora Mattingly Weber, which I don't remember reading, though I adored a different one of Weber's books: Don't Call Me Katie Rose. I couldn't find any Beany Malone books listed in the Boulder Public Library catalog, and even the University of Colorado libraries had little to offer. So I turned to Image Cascade Publishing, which offers reprints of many beloved girls' books of the past, otherwise all but unavailable.The full set of Beany titles - 14 books - totals a whopping $149 plus $10 shipping. I hesitated for a moment and then went ahead and clicked to purchase. Why not?
After all, I'm on a joy roll this month. Poetry AND new friends AND a new series of mid-twentieth century girl books to read? 

Go for it!

Sunday, April 2, 2017

A Poem-a-Day for National Poetry Month

April is National Poetry Month, and in the nick of time I signed up for the perfect National Poetry Month activity. I've committed to writing a poem a day, for the 30 days of April, in an eleven-member group organized by poet Molly Fisk.

The group works like this:
1. Every evening Molly posts a prompt for the next day, which we are free to use, or not. (Oh, but writing from prompts, I finally discovered ten years ago, is SO MUCH FUN.)
2. Then the next day we have all day to ruminate on the prompt and write our poem.
3. We post our poem on the classroom bulletin board.
4. We read each others' poems, and if so moved, post brief responses, with one rule only: appreciation, not critique. I LOVE THIS RULE.

It's only April 2 now, but already I feel new creative energy stirring within me. The first prompt was:
"Where are you going next?" I think my own poem on that prompt was just okay, but some of the other poets' offerings were brilliant and beautiful. It's fascinating to see all the different ways eleven poets can respond to the stimulus of the same five words.

Today's prompt is: "In reflected light." Hmm. What would I write? I'm not gifted at close observation of nature, or arresting turns of phrase, and this prompt seemed best suited to someone with those aptitudes. But then a memory forced its way to the surface of my consciousness, and then another. . .

Here's my poem. You don't have to like it, but I do! This month I'm trying hard not to criticize my poet self, I'm just appreciating her.


I made a million dollar bet once with my husband
that he had left the lights on in the car.
I could see them gleaming in the parking lot,
unassailable proof that I was right.

But I was wrong. Their dazzling beams
were reflected from the headlamps of the facing car.
A million dollars lost like that!

I made it back, though, when I bet two million to a friend
who said Billy Joel’s marriage to Christy Brinkley wouldn’t last.
I had “Uptown Girl” and “For the Longest Time”
as irrefutable evidence that I was right.

Because nothing lasts forever, for the purposes of the bet,
we defined “last” as “at least two years.”
And I won. A million dollars richer now!

That car’s been sold, that marriage ended,
as Christy and Billy’s ended, too.
But I’d still bet on a light reflected in the darkness.
I’d still bet on a song from a car radio
heard through an open window, on a summer night.