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.)
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:
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.
Profanely yours, Erik P. Kraft
The bookstore system powering Clean Reader has pulled out. I just got this email in response to mine:
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.
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.
If you’re interested in a copy of my 2011 Haiku-A-Day book, you can get one here or here.
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.)
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!
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.
One of my former Gotham Writers’ Workshop students got in touch with me recently about a problem she was having. She’d just started an MFA program, and was having problems right off the bat. When she was my student I had given her input on my experiences with MFA programs (I was in one bad one, which I left, then one excellent one). I knew she had gotten into a couple, and was weighing which one to go to.
The story she had worked on in class was about a girl who had been held captive in a basement, who then escapes. She is picked up by a truck driver, who realizes something is wrong. The truck driver takes the girl home with her to keep an eye on her, and during a discussion it’s mentioned that the truck driver is Navajo. In my class, we didn’t get too much farther than this, which is always the problem with my classes. I get invested in the story, and then class is over, and I never see how the story ends. But when she got back in touch with me, I remembered it. It was well-written and an interesting premise, so it stood out, even after months of having taught other classes. It also was what she submitted to get into the MFA programs, so the admissions people obviously thought highly of it too.
She chose her program, and began workshops. This is where the trouble began. When her teacher read the story, he refused to let her work on it. His reasoning was that since one character was Navajo, and the writer was not, she would never be able to transcend stereotypes, would be branded a racist, and the book would never get published. This is all based on the portion I had seen in my class, where the Navajo aspect is really mentioned in passing. I agree that there is reason to treat cautiously when dealing with cultures that aren’t your own, and she is aware of this also, doing extensive research, as well as pairing up with a professor who is a Navajo expert to help her get things right. My issue with this is telling someone that they can’t write a story no matter what. If there is a concern that the story may go in a bad direction, I feel you should address that when you see the story going in that direction, and then you address the aspect of it that goes bad. I don’t think it’s a writing teacher’s place to forbid someone to write a story. How is someone to grow as a writer if they don’t experiment, take chances, and maybe even fail? Say the story did end up dealing in stereotypes and coming off as racist. That’s when you say, “I really think you need to fix this,” and if it seems unfixable, then it’s the writer’s role to decide if the story should be abandoned. I would never tell a student they could not work on something. I’d tell them that I thought a story had major flaws that needed to be addressed, but they are free to work on what they want to work on. My job is to help them make it as good as it can be.
She had a meeting with the professor and the director of the program, but the professor wouldn’t argue anything beyond his initial points, and so it faltered. The irony is that another teacher in the program is a white woman who recently published a book about a Native American tribe, which basically sinks all of his points, but here we are.
I do understand the idea to “write what you know,” but if you’re doing research into a culture, doesn’t that help as knowing? (There’s also the “Brian Wilson didn’t surf” argument, which I feel sometimes comes off as glib, in spite of being a good point). But the larger question I have is, should a teacher ever forbid a student to not write a story? Particularly the story they hoped to finish by enrolling in the program? I’m curious to hear other people’s thoughts, and I hope I’m missing something.
On the one hand, you keep all the negativity in one place. On the other, seeing a whole list of “DENIED!” is kind of a bummer. Maybe I need to work on my phrasing. (See, you can put a positive spin on it! In any case, it seems poetry is a tough sell in general, mine especially so.)