Finding Poems

A few years ago, I had the pleasure and honor of observing Robert Pinsky as he conducted a small class at the University where I was working. He was warm and smart and - unlike some poets - clearly invested in teaching. He mentioned a project he assigned wherein his students were expected to read lots of poems with the aim of collecting their favorites in a notebook. Just a simple binder, probably, and maybe there was more to it than that, but the idea struck me, even in its simplicity, as important. I have always read and written poetry (see the Friday and Tuesday First Drafts effort for more), but I didn't know many poems deeply. I didn't have any memorized, I didn't gather them, I had never attempted to curate a collection.

A few days later, I started my own Poetry Notebook, and today, I assigned one to my students. I asked them why they didn't read much (or any) poetry, and they said things like, "it just takes so much effort; when I read, I want a story to take me somewhere. I don't want to have to work to figure out what it means; I just never know what it's supposed to be about; I prefer stories because I can relate to the characters." I understand their hesitations all while I lament their unnecessary resistance. They don't yet know that poetry can be funny as well as "deep," that there isn't just one right answer to "what a poem means," and that the things requiring the most effort are often the most worthwhile.

Today, I began by freeing them to see poetry in more ways than one: in spoken word or google poems; in haiku or sonnet; in found poetry or song lyrics. I showed them the spinning action in the Poetry Foundation app and watched as many of them pulled out their devices and immediately began playing with it. I invited them into the books on my shelves and shared with them my Poetry Notebook. And perhaps most importantly, I read to them. In one class, I read "Bread" by Richard Levine and maybe didn't do it justice because I don't know it well enough. In the other, I read E. E. Cummings' poem that begins
i thank you God for most this amazing day
and that one, I know. I know it intimately, musically. It makes a loop somewhere around my ribcage and thrums in my fingertips. And I think they heard it. I can't wait to see what they find.


Or Something More Like a Stone Skipping Across the Surface of Water

The school year has begun, so my self-assigned goal to remain present in this space has also begun. Look for posts once a week. 

It is not an uncommon reality for a reader to hit a rut. It has been written about with greater frequency, skill, and grace than I care to approach here, but I want to focus for a moment on a particular kind of reading frustration, one that I think often gets ignored. Towards the end of the summer, I got to spend time with two of my favorite people, both bookish friends. Naturally, they asked what I'd been reading lately, and I blanked. I had to check my list. I could think of only one that stood out in an entire summer of reading, and that one I wanted to dismiss as not worthy of my continued attention upon it. The problem was (is?) that none of the books I had been reading were capturing me completely. When I review my list, I can say with confidence that the last 16 books I have read have been good. I didn't actively dislike any of them (though my review of I Kill the Mockingbird might have leaned that way), but neither was I changed by them. Being moved, changed, inspired by a book is part of my core, and there is definitely something wrong when that hasn't happened in months of reading.

The question is: What causes the rut? (Not that kind.)

Is it merely coincidence? The stars aligning to give me a strong dose of average before some excellence comes my way?

Is it the State of Books Today? Just no.

Or is it me? A mindset I am bringing to the reading or the selecting or both? Though coincidence does likely play a role, I'm putting my chips on this one. 

I think I've been selecting the wrong books for the wrong reasons and reading them in the wrong ways. That's a lot of wrong, and if it's true, I've been lucky to get so many averages out of it. Take note of the evidence:

Digital reading is not the best format for me to fully dig in to a book 
  • the majority of my summer reads were digital

There's a difference between reading for my class and reading for myself
  • half of the last 16 books have had some connection to school

 Being changed by a book requires you be fully invested in it
  • a huge number of books I have read recently have been accidental or for random reasons

That seems to prove the onus is on me. But take heart, friends, I'm reading now a book that I bought after reading a NYT review of it. A book I wanted to read. A book I felt was important. Now, it won't likely be THE ONE. I've read David Grossman before, and it wasn't among my favorite books of all time, but still I am intrigued by this book and what it may demand of me. Because after all, a book is like any other relationship. If it doesn't demand anything of you, it's probably not offering much either.

I think it's about time I allowed my books to make some demands.


I Kill the Mockingbird by Paul Acampora

I Kill the Mockingbird is a middle grades novel which focuses on three friends in the summer between their 8th and 9th grades. The main character is Lucy, and she shares the action with friend-but-maybe-more Michael and matchmaker-friend Elena. Together they decide to honor a recently deceased favorite teacher by "doing something" to make everyone want to read To Kill a Mockingbird. The internets were talking about this one a few months ago, so when I saw it on a recent book buying spree, I picked it up. Hard back. Independent Bookstore. Doing my part, people. Just doing my part.

So. The aforementioned internets buzz is mostly favorable. It talks about how great it is that the book can be focused on Harper Lee's classic To Kill a Mockingbird without being reductive or just some sort of sad spin off. It refers to the quick dialogue between these teens and their great social activism. It winces a little at some pandering to independent bookstores (What? It happens.) and the vague motivation for the great social activism, but overall decides it is a lovely little book. Pats it on the head.

But. BUT. I can't just leave it there. The whole time I was reading this book I was wishing it could have been better. Because all the things above are true. It IS great that it isn't reductive, and some of the dialogue is sharp, and who doesn't like to encourage teens to DO SOMETHING about what they care about? It's all good.

Unfortunately, y'all, it is not all good. It is, instead, a decent idea that is not very well-written and that has gaps in crucial concepts. Let's begin with the not very well-written. The aforementioned lack of actual motivation for the action is a big point, not something to just set aside. Because we never see or understand what a great teacher Fat Bob was (Yes, actually the character's name*), it is impossible to believe the attribution of this great movement to his memory. Lucy comes up with it in a throwaway manner, and as the action proceeds, it has less and less to do with any actual memorializing and more about this fun idea, which would have been enough. Teenagers do stuff sometimes just because it's fun.

It's also doesn't make any actual human sense at times. There is a scene where the three kids are walking through a mall bookstore. They decide to ride the escalator to the second floor. Lucy bumps Elena with her hip while on the escalator. Elena bumps Lucy with her hip just as Lucy is about to get off the escalator, and Lucy trips. Then this happens:
Elena grabs for my arm, but instead of stopping me she shoves me toward a small table covered in books. I plow into it like a tall, skinny bulldozer. The table tips and knocks into a couple low shelves. Books fly everywhere. The next thing I know, I'm sitting on the floor surrounded by paperbacks covered with artistic renderings of pirates and ball gowns and big-busted ladies wearing looks of despair. I pick up one of the books and study the cover. "This is romance?"
Elena rushes forward. "I'm sorry! I didn't meant it. Are you all right?"
Michael joins us. "What happened?" (47-48)
I can't explain how stabby this makes me. I was on my feet, trying to get my husband to reenact some grabbing for my arm that could transform into a shove. It doesn't work. It also doesn't work that ALL that action could happen before "Elena rushes forward." From where? She was right next to Lucy. She was the one shoving her, remember? And then, Michael, who is right there when the hip bump/grab/shove happens, "joins us" having apparently missed it all. Not possible. And this is not an instance where I need to suspend some disbelief (as some of the cheery reviews suggested adults might have to do to enjoy it); it is thoroughly unnecessary unbelievable material.

Like when these friends (who have been friends so long they know what is in every drawer of each other's kitchens) want to build a website but think they don't know how, and Michael reveals he took a web design course at the community college last summer. How would they not know that? Did they spend all the previous summer assuming he was with them? Or wondering where he was during the day but never asking him? Or when Lucy is outside as the sun is setting, waiting for it to get dark before she does a thing I won't tell you because spoilers. We get "Soon, the stars begin to twinkle in the sky. While my eyes adjust to the darkness, I enjoy this clear, beautiful night that is filled with cricket songs and fireflies and ukuleles" (148). May I just suggest that if you are outside as night is falling, YOUR EYES DON'T HAVE TO ADJUST! THEY HAVE BEEN ADJUSTING ALL ALONG.

Just stabby, I tell you.

Bad writing aside, let's discuss how problematic it is to make social media and the internet a major plot point and then not accurately portray how those things work. Though lolcats would tell us otherwise, it is ridiculously difficult to "go viral." A website (which you apparently can just "make" using whatever name you'd like and not have to worry with any of the details involved with registering a domain, etc...) and posters in a 2-hour bus radius of Connecticut and brand new accounts with Facebook and Twitter and Instagram do not mean that within a week or two, you will have a national action campaign going. It's just not going to happen. Someone must have mentioned this to the author because there is an awkward attempt to explain how hard they work to engage their audience ("we communicate every day with anybody and everybody who stops by one of the Mockingbird sites") which is just so sad. Even that Facebook and Twitter and Instagram are listed like this, as though merely mentioning them gives you net cred or something. Later, Tumblr gets a mention. Bonus cred!

Clearly I was bothered by these things. As I mentioned, I wanted the book to be good for a couple of reasons. First, I agree with many of the points the author seems to be trying to make here. I would love to get behind a book with these messages. Secondly, Acampora does something refreshing and important by making unveiled but unloaded references to God, prayer, and the fact that Lucy and her family are Christians. Too often, we relegate any mention of Christian faith to the Christian bookstore as though Christianity can only be a balm to a believer or a tool to convince or condemn an unbeliever. Christianity is a truth in the lives of many, many teenagers, and I don't know of a single "mainstream" or real representation of what it means to be a teenager who believes in Christ. Despite all my stabbiness, I tip my hat to Acampora's ability to use faith as nothing more (but certainly nothing less) than a critical part of a character's identity.

Let me close with a reminder to myself. It doesn't have to be a perfect book, or even a very good one, to offer you something to think about. This book did that with this statement about cancer:
I'm not one of those people who think that cancer is some kind of jousting match. People live or die based on good medicine, good luck, and the grace of God. The people who die from it did not fail. The people who live will die another day. (60)
That, I like.

*I was going to include a section about how inappropriate I found this whole situation, but just go to The Book Smugglers. It is covered well there.