I actually have had a pretty good summer this year, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to slack as far as making August count is involved.
I first came across the poetry of Stevie Smith when I was a teenager. Once again, I think it was in some collection of literature meant to be used in the classroom. I don’t remember if it was one from a class of mine, or if I came across it in some other way (the used bookstore obsession began early). I do know two things for certain. The poem of hers I first read was “Not Waving but Drowning,” and for the longest time I thought she was a man because I am a doofus and apparently learned nothing from Stevie Nicks. (Though, the book could have included some biographical information that might have cleared this up. JUST SAYIN’.)
More recently I discovered that she also illustrated many of her poems. This completely added to the appeal, since stylistically she keeps it simple, which I enjoy. Sometimes a doodle says more than a grand work of art (and sometimes a doodle IS a grand work of art). This is not to besmirch grand works of art. Everything has its place.
Anyway, while Not Waving but Drowning is her best known poem and it seems like I should go for a deep cut, sometimes you just have to play the hits. Here’s a scan of the poem (from The Collected Poems of Stevie Smith) with the illustration that was so dearly lacking from the version I first encountered.
A few years ago in a fit of Poetry Month Mania, I took out a book called The Outlaw Bible Of American Poetry. It’s gigantic, so I knew not everything in it was going to appeal to me, much like other sorts of Bibles. I was right. However, I hit one section and was mildly floored. Maybe even more than mildly. And maybe I wasn’t floored so much as totally excited, because here was someone that was doing something I hadn’t seen before, but was exactly what I was looking for. It was a poem by Mike Topp, and here it is:
What’s he doing there? Is this a joke, or is it poem? What does he actually mean? It worked on so many levels I had no way to not be totally into it. I immediately went out and bought what books of his I could find.
His poetry is nothing like you’ve ever seen, and when you think you’ve got him figured out, he does something different, and you have to figure him out again. I say don’t even try to figure him out. Just dig it.
Here’s one called Broken Dish:
I dropped a dish and broke it while listening to a record. So I just played the record backwards until the dish came back together again on the floor and hopped up into my hands.
And finally, there’s the one he may be best known for: Them Hot Dogs
How about Them Hot Dogs,
Ain’t they neat?
Little piece of bread,
Little piece of meat.
Go buy all his stuff, and follow him on Twitter too: @miketopp
I come from a family of teachers. As a kid, I had these two elderly aunts who had taught generations of people in their town. I spent a lot of time with them, and they had tons of cool old books, which I dug through eagerly. One of these books was called Along Story Trails, and I think it was a “reader” for a classroom. It had a wide variety of stuff in it – folktales, poetry, short stories, and abridged versions or excerpts from longer pieces, to name a few. It was where I first encountered Beowulf (an adaptation), Rikki Tikki Tavi (sparking a lifelong love of the mongoose), and this poem by William Carlos Williams, often referred to as “As the cat,” given that’s the first line.
What I love about this is the illustration (a cat, years before the internet!), and how it helps a young reader visualize the action in the poem, and how the words reflect the movement of the cat. This remains my favorite Williams poem. Note the “plum” jar, likely referring to another famous Williams poem.
Sadly, I lost my original copy of this book years ago, but was able to find another. I use it in school visits a lot to show how I came to be such a voracious reader. (I then show the comic books I read as a kid to point out that I didn’t just read fancy poetry, I read EVERYTHING.)
Happy Poetry Month! And don’t forget I’ll be on Boston Public Radio on WGBH radio for the MBTA Poetry News Quiz this Friday around 1:30. I’ll be facing off against Liam Day, who has written a book of poems about MBTA buses. Tune in!
Big things are happening! I’ll be a part of a MBTA Poetry News Quiz on Boston Public Radio on WGBH Radio on Friday, April 10th. The news quiz is on around 1:30. With any luck, I will have a collection of MBTA haikus ready then too (however, problems, as we all expected, are ongoing – this is going to end up being an epic collection). I’ll be facing off against Liam Day, who has written a book of poems about MBTA buses. You can stream it online, so tune in.
To kick off Poetry Month, I thought I’d share a found poem by Tuli Kupferberg off his album of found poems called No Deposit, No Return. There’s some hilarious stuff on there, some of it very NSFW, but I chose one called “Social Studies,” and you’ll figure out soon enough where it was taken from (click the words “Social Studies” back there to hear it).
And while we’re in the found poetry mood, here’s one of mine:
Hairy and slender
with slim fingers and black nails
the Capuchin monkey’s hands
are just right
a bottle of juice
There’s a bit of a rumble in the writing community right now over an app called “Clean Reader,” and rightfully so. This app is designed to “prevent swear words from appearing on your screen,” while reading e-books. They promote it by saying, “you decide how books should appear,” which, as a writer, is pretty alarming. As you’ll see in my letter to them below, word choice is a huge part of writing. Using the wrong word can weaken what you’re trying to do, or change it completely. Since we’re dealing with swearing, say you have a character who never swears, and then at one point in the story this character is made so angry by someone that he or she yells, “damn you to hell!” That would illustrate how far this character had been pushed. However, a third party coming in and changing this to “Darn you to heck!” has now completely altered the intention of that line. Not only that, they have done so without the permission of the author, as they do not notify writers if their books are included on the list of books this app can provide. According to one of the articles that they link to on the Clean Reader site, the owners make a commission on any books they sell through the app too. This is super shady.
On the topic of word choices, they say in their FAQ that they have “discussed [the legality of altering book texts on-screen, even if not altering the original files] with several lawyers and they have all agreed that Clean Reader does not violate copyright law because it doesn’t make changes to the file containing the book” That doesn’t fill me with confidence. Did they actually hire these lawyers? I discuss things with people all the time. That’s not the same as paying someone to do due diligence. It’s a strangely casual word choice, and it makes me wonder if they’ve really investigated their legal standing as deeply as they should. If nothing else, it certainly illustrates my point about word choice nicely.
Swears exist. People use them. If you don’t like that, that’s your preference. If a writer has put a swear in a book, they likely had a very good reason to do so. If that upsets you, you can choose to not read the book, or to tolerate the swearing as part of the larger work. (Great works of art can often contain troubling elements – that doesn’t lessen their greatness.) To read a book with any words changed is not reading the book as the author intended, as you’re not reading the same book. And to go and try to impose this on any book you want because you don’t like swearing is another thing completely. To impose this on peoples’ books without their knowledge, and while making money by doing so, takes it even further. This all started because the creators’ daughter is an advanced reader, and read a book intended for an older audience that had some swears in it. Rather than using this to open a dialogue, or perhaps be more involved in their daughter’s reading process, they just decided to pretend swearing doesn’t happen by making it not happen.
Everyone’s values are different. A swear in a book is just a word. I’m fine with swearing, but I don’t care for people changing my words without my knowledge, so I’ve requested to be removed from their app.
To Whom It May Concern,
I have written five books for children, and only one of them contains swears. The sweary book is a book for teenagers. I chose to use swears because the book is about my own experiences as a teenager, and my experience was that teenagers swear. Sometimes a lot. To pretend they don’t is dishonest, and wouldn’t be believable in my story. Kids are smart. They’d know if I was trying to sell them a bill of goods by making everyone in the story speak in a squeaky clean manner.
While we’re on the subject of honesty, I don’t know whether or not my books are even listed in Clean Reader, since you don’t feel that it’s necessary to notify authors of their books’ inclusion. Yet you have no problem with censoring their words. (Yes, I know, you leave the original book file intact, but don’t kid yourself into thinking that what you’re doing is anything short of censorship. You are altering, whether permanent or not, the work of authors without their permission because you find certain words they use offensive.) I have not granted you any permission to change my words, and therefore request that you remove my books from your app immediately. If they’re there. Which they may not be. I don’t know.
It’s unfortunate that your daughter had an unpleasant experience with a book containing swears. It’s much more unfortunate that your response was to try to wipe swears out of literature entirely by way of an algorithm. I also teach writing, and something I tend to stress is the importance of word choices. If a writer chooses the wrong word in any given sentence, it can make a huge difference in what they’re trying to say. So I impress upon my students to think about each word they use, and to ask themselves if it is the right one for their intention. I could give you examples, but I don’t think you’re interested in what writers do, unless they swear. A lot of thought goes into writing, and to mindlessly replace words a program thinks is “wrong” with words it thinks is “right” is highly insulting, and negates the time spent writing a book, which can often be years.
We are allowed to disagree. But you are not allowed to alter my writing. Please keep Clean Reader away from any of my existing books. I may write some with swears in the future. Stay away from those too.
Erik P. Kraft
The bookstore system powering Clean Reader has pulled out. I just got this email in response to mine:
My town paper did a nice story on me, and used some illustrations I did that were inspired by the ongoing train disaster.
Worth checking out, even if you live somewhere with reliable public transit.
I’ll be talking about my MBTA haikus on Under the Radar this Sunday, March 8th, on WGBH radio. That’s 89.7 in the Boston area, or you can stream via WGBH’s website. (Click “Radio” at the top, and then “Live Stream” on the left.) It’s on 6-7 pm EST.
(The title of this post is a reference to a Billy Bragg album that I am a fan of, which is in itself a reference to a poem. Round and round we go.)
And if you’d like to read more of my haikus, you can buy my 2011 Haiku-A-Day book here.
Boston.com did a nice story about my MBTA haiku coping mechanism. I’m not alone in my beef with the T.
Even if you’re not in the area, you may have heard about the winter Massachusetts has been having. We’ve been getting pounded relentlessly, and it’s caused the Boston-area transit system to be completely shut down several times. Even when it’s not shut down, it works less than great. In an effort to stay sane in the face of being constantly stuck on trains, I’ve begun to write haikus and tweet them at the MBTA. I’ve been collecting them at T’d Off Haikus, or if you want to watch them unfold in real time, you can follow me on Twitter (@erikpkraft). They predict it will be 30 days from the end of snow to get the system back up and running, and snow is forecast for tonight, so I’ve got at least another month to go with this.
I’m working on a story now that I have burned to the ground at least 4 times and started over again. Sometimes you have to cut out things you like in order to make the story work, and sometimes you have to cut out EVERYTHING. It’s not fun going back to square one, but the hope is that it pays off eventually. I came across this post about Where The Wild Things Are earlier in the week, and it was nice to see that Maurice Sendak not only had to do the same thing, but that he obviously nailed it after ditching most of his earlier attempt. Sometimes you get it close to right the first time, sometimes you don’t, and not even being Maurice Sendak can save you from this. Thinking you’re going to get a Where The Wild Things Are out of the process each time is probably a stretch, but sometimes the best thing for a story is to ditch what you have, and start over.
(I was going to apologize to anyone who saw me post this on Facebook earlier, but you know what? I’M NOT SORRY.)
You have one month to be awesome.
I did a school visit at Shaker Lane Elementary in Littleton, MA today. (Shakey is the Shaker Lane mascot. See what I did there?) I talked to the kindergartners and transitional classes, and they were a super enthusiastic and receptive bunch.
I tried to focus a bit on how much revision goes into writing, since one of the teachers had mentioned to me in an email that they were working on this idea in class. Luckily, I tend to revise like crazy, so I had a few things to say.
When you say, “Well, that’s it, thanks everyone,” and someone loudly yells, “That was AWESOME!” it tends to be a sign of a successful visit. Thanks, Shaker Lane!