Animals

How I Discovered William Carlos Williams

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.

"As The Cat," in Along Story Trails.
“As The Cat,” in Along Story Trails.

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!

It’s Poetry Month!

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).

Tuli Kupferberg, out looking for poems.
Tuli Kupferberg, out looking for poems.

 

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

for twisting

open

a bottle of juice

or fetching

the

telephone.

 

Relatin’ dudes to chickens

My friend Evan does the excellent Necessary & Sufficient podcast, wherein he mails you two words, and you then discuss them with him. This is my third time being on it, and it may be of interest to you, especially if you like chickens.

 (If you missed the link I put up there, click this sentence.)

I got "bantam" and "standard."
I got “bantam” and “standard.”

How to Start A Story

I like to tell my students that the more you critique other people’s stories, the better you’ll get at seeing areas of improvement in your own writing. I am a good example of this. Since I started teaching, I have picked up on things I see a lot of my students do, and then in turn I realized that these are often things I do myself. One thing I see a lot of is stories that start with a lot of description and telling you who the characters are and what they’re like. I understand the urge to do this. Starting a story is hard, so why not just get out who we’re dealing with here? I think that works when you’re writing an early draft. I say get as much out of your head as you can at once, so if you need to do a data dump as the opening, go for it. But when it’s time to revise, I think I can make a good argument to not open your story this way.

Let’s take a look at the opening of Charlotte’s Web, which many people (myself included) consider to be one of the great openings in literature.

“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

“Out to the hoghouse,” replied Mrs. Arable. “Some pigs were born last night.”

“I don’t see why he needs an axe,” continued Fern, who was only eight. 

“Well,” said her mother, “one of the pigs is a runt. It’s very small and weak, and will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it.”

Look at how much information we get from this. We know Fern lives on a farm, (and not only that, a farm which has pigs), she is eight, her last name is Arable, and as we’ll see in a paragraph or two, she is very determined when she puts her mind to something. Now look at how a first draft of this might sound.

Fern Arable was an eight year old girl with a mind of her own. She enjoyed living on the farm with her parents where they raised pigs, sheep, and geese. She didn’t like it when animals were killed, especially for what she considered to be unjust reasons. One day as she and her mother were setting the table for breakfast, Fern looked out the window and saw her father walking across the yard with an axe.

“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” Fern said to her mother.

Which one grabs your attention more? The one that puts you right into the action, right? Keep this in mind when revising. You only have so much time to grab a reader’s attention.

However, don’t worry about this when you’re writing. The problem I have run into with my well-developed critiquing muscles is that I recognize when I’m doing stuff I don’t want to be doing as I am doing it. Don’t get caught up in the urge to edit as you write. The ideas want out, let them get out. No one needs to see the early drafts. Then, when you go to revise, be like Papa with the axe, and do away with the words that get in the way.

Happy Poetry Month!

I’m going to have some exciting poetry news to share later in April, but for now, just get into it. Here’s my favorite William Carlos Williams poem to help you get started.

 

As the cat
climbed over
the top of

the jamcloset
first the right
forefoot

carefully
then the hind
stepped down
into the pit of
the empty
flowerpot

 

Somebody say jamcloset?
Somebody say jamcloset?

Character development

My friend Nicolle and I are working on a graphic novel/webcomic type thing. We have finally decided on how the characters should look. So, presenting Tabs and Dizzy.


 

We’re not quite there yet, but when we are, the comics will be posted at The Cats In The Alley Tumblr.