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Return from the Abyss

22 Sep

Summer slips away, leaving room for Fall. The first order of the day is to talk for a moment about a friend’s book of poems, Selene by Michael Odom. 


Don’t turn your back on her

I see this book as a reflection of an obsession. A woman. A sorceress. A corpse. An eternal ambivalence, love and hate. The cover uncovers, revealing the darkness within. It is not an easy read. But then, poetry can be unsettling. A way of seeing that slices through the dailiness to a core that may be exquisitely ugly. But it is real, and we cannot turn our guilty gaze away from the disaster. Just the opposite. We hope to understand more about our own lives the longer we stare at the ruins of others’.

The opening poem lets the reader know that men will not get off easily in this book:

“The simple strength of men who never know,

Their muscle-coats, their steel, their robotic wars,

Their Scantron lives lesson-planned in their brains,

The blows they give and take to the head, sports,

Their races to finish lines, walks to start,

Ready-go guns, their disciplined controlled

Resilience, their climbing grasps, like primates,

For leafier nests, prettier mates, shinier cars,

And Power, the lying god, their angry work

Ethics with long old ages dreaming TV

And beaches and golf, their nearby balls-of-dust

Planets they reach for and prayers to a ghost,

Big man boasts…I know a boy much smaller

Who carries in his pocket a collapsed sun.”

For what it’s worth, I can’t help but think that the boy is the poet’s sun. Pun intended.
The reading pendulum will swing completely in the other direction tomorrow with a new title for Perfect Picture Book Friday. And then a rec for a new YA or two next week. Some Middle Grade novels…Stay tuned! Looking forward to catching up with everyone in the blogosphere.

Spring Night (After Wang Wei via Robert Okaji)

10 May

Well, it seems I’ve been inspired by one of my favorite poets, Robert Okaji.


Spring Night

(after Wang Wei via Robert Okaji)


Dogwood petals sigh in spirals, blessing my recline.

Spring darkness rests on hollow muted hills

while moonlight strikes the owls awake,

their hoots slipstreaming through ravines.


Unlike Robert, I named the birds and took liberties with the tree petals. I’m writing a new rhyming picture book right now, so this detour was a welcome respite. Feeling a little spring-feverish. Ahhh—ahhh—Cheers!


Surprise! Mother’s Day Gift!

12 Apr

I am NOT having an affair with my postman. He loves to ring and run, never waiting to see if I’m home. When I find the package on the doorstep, there’s not even a telltale trail of exhaust from his vehicle on the street. I’m not sure if he’s afraid of me or is an extreme introvert. Either way, it doesn’t matter. Not when he leaves this on my doorstep!

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My early Mother’s Day gift to myself, the last delivery in Tupelo Press’s subscription series, Cooking with the Muse, written and compiled by Myra Kornfeld (chef, author, educator) and Stephen Massimilla (poet, scholar, professor, painter).

This cookbook is crammed with delectable poems, essays, recipes, and food porn photos and illustrations. I can’t wait to get the pages dirty, because as we all know, like writing and sex, cooking is about the process as well as the destination.

The contents range from  “A Brief History of the Poetry of Food” to a year’s worth of recipes, essays, and poetry organized by seasons. It is more than splendiferous, folks! It’s a food-prose-poem orgy! Get busy and buy this for yourself or someone you love.

You can buy it all by its lonesome, OR you can still subscribe to last year’s series and get the whole kit-n-kaboodle (a nod to my buddy, author Mike Allegra) along with a discount for the 2016 subscription series.

Although the graphic shown directly below reads “2016,” it’s really the 2015 series.

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As you may (or may not) have noticed, last year’s subscription included Lawrence Raab’s “Mistaking Each Other for Ghosts,” a poetry title that was long-listed for the National Book Award. Tupelo Press rocks! 

Here’s the series being offered for 2016:

Screen Shot 2016-04-12 at 12.10.41 PM

So ya know what I’m going to do, right? I’m going to give myself a Mother’s Day gift for next year and order another subscription series.

And as long as the postman delivers, he can ring and run. It’s those beautiful Tupelo Press books that I’m pining for, not him. 

Click on the link below. After all, it is 

National Poetry Month!!!

Tupelo Press Bookstore

Setting Fire to the Origami Crane – For Sarah Briggs Hoffmann

21 Sep

A little over a year ago, we gathered family and friends on an island in Muscongus Bay in Maine to celebrate Peter Hoffmann‘s (my father-in-law) life and bury his ashes in the island cemetery. It was a glorious day—sunny and warm—for a picnic, wine, and shared memories.

Sarah, my mother-in-law, asked the kids to craft parachutes with candy payloads and toss them from the treehouse to represent the Berlin airlift of Peter’s childhood.

Later, we lighted a bonfire, dined in the darkness, and listened to some of Peter’s favorite jazz recordings.

Then Sarah passed away around 3am that night, most likely from a heart failure brought on by a severe asthma attack. She had long struggled with diabetes and asthma.

There is no word for the emotion. Shock is far too tame. Disbelief, a limp noodle of a word. Nothing could be said.

So we said little, hugged a lot, and kept the family close because we were going to bury Sarah’s ashes four days later. This is the birch log one of her three sons hollowed out to hold Sarah’s ashes.

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Giotto, Sarah and Peter’s dog, kept vigil while we waited to bury her beside Peter.


Throughout the days following her death, Giotto would suddenly stand, look out the window and howl silently.

This past August, family members gathered on the island to honor Sarah’s life. She loved children, always engaging them with stories and activities, like the parachute project for Peter’s memorial. Often times, sparklers were involved.

So we constructed a wooden origami crane. Our son and his cousins designed, nailed, nail-gunned, taped, and wired sparklers, roman candles, and fireworks waterfalls to the structure. Then at dusk, we set it floating on Muscungus Bay before lighting it on fire. We didn’t have a proper camera for the event, so phone shots will have to suffice.





Construction completed:


Setting the crane afloat on the old raft, The Rusty Blade:



Waiting for darkness:



Shimmering across the bay:


Farewell, Sarah

Sarah also loved poetry. So when we returned, I donated to Tupelo Press’s 30/30 project, where selected poets write and publish a poem a day each month. I sponsored a poem from one of my favorite poets, and gave him only a title as starting point. Here’s Robert Okaji’s stunning and uncanny result:

Setting Fire to the Origami Crane (the one floating on Muscongus Bay) at Sunset / by Robert Okaji


Who is to say which comes first, the flaming crane

or the sunset’s burst just over the horizon


and under the clouds? There are causes and causations,

an illness named bad air and another attributed to wolf


bites, neither accurate. There is the paraffin to melt,

and the folded paper resting comfortably nearby, with


a small, unopened tin of shoe polish and the sound of

tears striking newsprint. You know the myth of the


Viking burial — the burning ship laden with treasure

and the deceased clothed in all his finery. But pyres


are lighted to make ash of bodies, to ease the soul’s

transition to the heavens. Think of how disturbing


it would be to come upon the charred lumps of your

loved one washed ashore. And other myths — various


versions of the afterlife created to bend wills and

foster hope where little exists — to which have you


departed? There are no returns in your future, no more

givings, and your ashes have dispersed among the clouds


and in the water. They’ve been consumed by earth and

sky, inhaled and swallowed, digested, coughed out but


never considered for what they were. So I’ve printed

your name a thousand times on this sheet, and will


fold and launch it, aflame, watching the letters that

comprise you, once again, rise and float, mingle


and interact, forming acquaintances, new words,

other names, partnerships, loves, ascending to the end.



Thank you, Robert. Sarah would have loved the poem you didn’t know you were writing for her.


Find more of Robert Okaji’s poems on his website: O at the Edges

or at the Tupelo Press 30/30 Project website under August poems. These will only be available until the end of September.

Rhythm and Margaret Wise Brown

15 Apr

Marcy Erb, a poet/illustrator turned me on to a poem this morning:


In Memoriam John Coltrane

by Michael Stillman

“Listen to the coal
rolling, rolling through the cold,
steady rain, wheel on

wheel, listen to the 

turning of the wheels this night

black as coal dust, steel

on steel, listen to
these cars carry coal, listen
to the coal train roll.”

Doesn’t it remind you of Margaret Wise Brown’s “Two Little Trains”?

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Here’s an excerpt:

“The moon shone down on a gleaming track,

And the two little trains going West;

And they hurried along and heard the song

Of a black man singing in the West.

Look down, look down that long steel track

Where you and I must go;

That long steel track and strong cross bars,

Before we travel home.”

Aside from the variation in meter, I’m thinking you could insert Stillman’s poem into “Two Little Trains” and no one would be the wiser. They are so jazzy!

In “Two Little Trains,” the jazz rhythm that propels the trains and the reader forward is powerful. The string of slightly changing “O” sounds in “moon shone down on” and the internal rhyme of “along and heard the song,” and repetition of “look down, look down” strengthen the momentum. The religious imagery is also exceptionally strong. The reference to a “black man singing” brings to mind a spiritual. Then there’s the long steel track with a cross bar, the imperative “where you and I must go” (death), and the final comforting phrase “before we travel home” (also death, but not a bad place). 

There’s a reason MWB is still in print, folks. She was brilliant!

If you’d like to see a brief analysis of Stillman’s poem, you can find it at Stephen Cramer’s Tongue & Groove blog.

Happy National Poetry Month!

Hitting the “Send” Key — Squaw Valley Community of Writers

2 Apr





Just sent my short story submission to the good people who direct the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. If you’ve got a story or a chapter (5,000 words or fewer) from a novel lying about the house, you’ve got until MIDNIGHT TODAY to apply for this summer’s workshop.

Hope to see you there!

P.S. I’ll be off spring breaking for the next 10 days. Spending time in the “City of the Big Shoulders.” Fifty points to anyone who can name the city referred to and the poet (Yes, it’s April, National Poetry Month) who wrote that gorgeous metaphor.

See you all on the flip side! 



Everett Anderson – Perfect Picture Book Friday

13 Mar

It’s time for Susanna Leonard Hill’s Perfect Picture Book Friday!

Thanks to The Brown Bookshelf‘s feature on Lucille Clifton last month, I discovered her picture books. But it wasn’t easy to find them on a library shelf in San Francisco. They were sidelined in the “historical children’s” section of the Main San Francisco Public Library. Three were available for circulation: Everett Anderson’s Goodbye (Coretta Scott King Award winner), Some of the Days of Everett Anderson, and Everett Anderson’s Year.

I found the first so moving, I am compelled to feature it as a perfect picture book:

Screen Shot 2015-03-11 at 8.34.27 PMThe title page illustration:


The dedication reads “for my sad friends.”

And then another illustration of the boy looking over the reader’s shoulder, searching for someone he’ s lost.

The next page serves as a table of contents:

1) Denial

2) Anger

3) Bargaining

4) Depression

5) Acceptance

The Five Stages of Grief 

In these five brief poems, Clifton captures the boy’s voice and internal experience as he comes to terms with the death of his father.

Here is Everett Anderson’s anger:

“I don’t love Baby Evelyn

and I don’t love Mr. Perry, too,

and I don’t love Christmas or 

Santa Claus 

and I don’t love candy

and I don’t love you!”

Everett Anderson’s mama is a warm and loving presence who patiently waits for her boy to work through his emotions.

“Well, Everett,” his mama sighs,

“Who do you love?”

And he cries and cries.

 This extraordinary book is a powerful tool for anyone to use with a child who’s lost a loved one. So it’s a mystery to me why it’s sitting unloved on the shelf of the historical children’s section of the SFPL. The illustrations are masterful, depicting the emotions of the boy and his mother so accurately that I wanted to reach out and hug them both.



Like the rest of us, Everett Anderson also bargains with death and then becomes depressed when he finds that bargaining doesn’t work, either.

But lest you think the book ends miserably, I’ll leave you with “Acceptance”:

After a little bit of time

We see an image of Everett trudging alone through the snow, then—page turn— an image of mama and Everett, holding a photo of his father: 

Everett Anderson says, “I knew

my daddy loved me through and through,

and whatever happens when people die,

—page turn—


love doesn’t stop, and

neither will I.”

Everett Anderson’s Goodbye is still available through Amazon, and presumably can be ordered through your local bookstore. It should not be relegated to the dustbin of history.

Title: Everett Anderson’s Goodbye

Author: Lucille Clifton

Illustrator: Ann Grifalconi

Publisher: Holt (original), now Square Fish

Pub date: 1983 (original), 1988

Ages: K-3, I might even use it as an entry point for talking about death with older children.

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