Fans of my annual Poetry Month Freakout may remember I did a write-up on the greatness of Stevie Smith last year (or, just scroll down a few posts, I’ve been a bit of a deadbeat once poetry month ended). The BBC just did an article on her, given that there was just a big event celebrating her in the UK. Always an unheralded tastemaker, I am. Dig it.
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.
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!
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:
Boston.com did a nice story about my MBTA haiku coping mechanism. I’m not alone in my beef with the T.
Come on down to Mill No.5, 250 Jackson Street, Lowell MA and buy some stuff! This is an amazing space, and I’m super impressed with all the stuff people have for sale here.
I’ll be selling some stuff at Pulp & Press in Lowell, MA on Saturday, March 1st from 12 – 7. I’ll have signed books for sale, as well as comics, and whatever I can glue together that I have in my pockets. I won’t be the only one there, though, so check out the link and come on out! If you want a slightly less vague idea of what I’ll be selling, see my Etsy page, but that’s not everything I’ve got, you know. You might even be able to get your picture taken with The Ape Dude, but you didn’t hear that from me.
You can get your autographed copy of “And the baby was a clown!” there, for sure.
The opening for Doodle was Friday night, and it was packed from start to finish. I was there for most of it, so this is not hearsay. Here I am posing in front of some of my pieces with my clearly exhausted son, who is wiped out by all the awesomeness.
The show runs until January 26th. Hours can be found here.
More pictures can be found on Doodle’s Facebook page.
A high point for me (there were many) was a person who works at a gynecologist’s office coming up to me and telling me how much she loved this comic:
I’ve got some pieces in an art show called Doodle, which “is a show on cartooning in all of its forms.” The image for the show was done by my friend Craig Bostick, and the show was curated by Jef Czekaj. I’m not sure I need to say much more, but if I do, just check out the website of the show. The opening is this Friday, January 8th, from 6-8pm, at the Nave Gallery Annex, 53 Chester Street, Somerville, MA (Davis Square, next to Redbones).
Here’s part of Craig’s image. Who doesn’t like cowboys? (You might even like him more if you see what he’s wearing.)
Cats In The Alley (written by my friend Nicolle, and drawn by me) debuted last night during the Superbowl. If you were too busy looking at the power outage, you can still read it, because the internet is forever. You can also like us on Facebook, or follow us on Tumblr.
Here is a panel from the first one that we are going to make into bookplates. Instead of “this book belongs to” they will say “this book was not thrown away by _______”). Just try to act like you don’t want these!
New episode Sundays and Thursdays. You can add them to your RSS reader if you’d like to keep up.
My friend Nicolle and I are launching a webcomic on February 3rd. Bookmark Cats In The Alley. Do it.
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.
I just added a couple of small prints of some drawings I’ve done over on my Etsy shop, if anyone’s into that sort of thing.
Including the infamous “And the baby was a clown!”