Notable Books by North Carolina Writers: September, 2006
Because teachers of writing, not to mention writers themselves, are always looking for books that help them become better at their jobs, we feature this month three books that writers and teachers of writing will find indispensable. Maureen Ryan Griffin's Spinning Words into Gold and Allan Wolf's Immersed in Verse are volumes any teacher might wish to have on hand, no matter the grade level or age of one's students. Although Allan's book is aimed more at younger writers, I found it a great read for a middle-aged poet needing some beginning-of-school energy! Maureen's book is worth its weight in gold: a thorough, well-organized compendium of ideas for writing, with plenty of examples to set the reader's own imagination perking. Dede Wilson's One Nightstand is a delightful introduction to the many forms of verse available to poets. Dede has written poems in each of the forms and provides a lively glossary with descriptions and suggestions for further reading. This little book is a joy to read and a terrific handbook to have in a poetry workshop.
Spinning Words into Gold: A Hands-On Guide to the Craft of Writing, by Maureen Ryan Griffin
(Charlotte, NC: Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2006)
How I Came to Write Spinning Words into Gold:
I immediately knew that I'd include lots of writing prompts, because what good is a writing book if you don't write as you're reading it? And I knew I'd include lots of pieces of writing, from accomplished writers (like the Pulitzer Prize-winning Mary Oliver and the icon Ray Bradbury) to new writers who had never seen their words in print before, because the best way to learn how to write, in my mind, is to read good writing. Finally, I knew I'd put in lots of stories - from my writing life, my students' writing lives, and the lives of many writers - because stories make wonderful teachers. I was so excited about the idea of this book that I immediately started gathering writings, ideas, and stories.
And then I came to my senses - it wasn't the right time to write this book. I was in the middle of another full-length book project, one very near and dear to my heart. Entitled How She Fed Us, it is a combination memoir/cookbook honoring my mother, who at the time was dying of Lewey Body disease, which was robbing her memory and so much more. I couldn't abandon this project to write a writing book. And I couldn't write both at once, not along with running my business, WordPlay, raising two children, running a household, and making frequent 575-mile trips to see my mother. The writing book would have to wait. And wait it did, while I finished my manuscript, lost my mother, and got pulled into many other projects.
But the idea still called to me, and I had decided that I would begin work on it as soon as I put together and submitted a book proposal for How She Fed Us. All told, over three years went by. One Friday afternoon, I put that book proposal in the mail. And less than 48 hours later, my phone rang. It was M. Scott Douglass, of Main Street Rag Publishing Company. Scott and I had known each other for years, and he had published a chapbook of my poetry, This Scatter of Blossoms. "I had this idea in the shower," he said. "You're going to write a writing book, and I'm going to publish it. I keep meeting all these students of yours and they go on and on about how wonderful your classes are. I want you to take what you do in your classes and turn it into a book."
His timing was impeccable, and Spinning Words into Gold is the result. It is, just as I'd envisioned, chockfull of writing prompts, pieces of writing, and stories, and it's designed for practicing writers who are ready to shape words into publishable essays, stories, or poems and for accomplished writers who are looking for fresh approaches and ideas, as well as for yet-to-pick-up-the-pen writers who know deep inside that the process of writing is valuable, whether it's for personal growth, self-expression, and/or publication.
Spinning Words into Gold is organized by chapter into the five W's of writing - Who, Why, When, Where, and What. And ever-important How is divided into five chapters of its own, with information on Beginning, Shaping, Polishing, Marketing, and Sustaining writing. In these ten chapters are essays, examples, and exercises covering many aspects of writing--from personal concerns, like how to find time for writing (in When), to craft concerns, like choosing a subject and genre (in What) and developing a setting (in Where).
"In the story 'Rumpelstiltskin,' the beautiful girl had straw with instructions to spin it into gold." Carolyn Noell wrote these words in one of my classes as she explored the gold writing offers. "What do I have?" she pondered. "Only words . . . ."
Only wonderful words. The stuff we spin into writing that entertains, educates, inspires. What would my life be like without the joy and fulfillment of spinning words? Without the beautiful, useful words of others, from the fairy tales and songs I loved as a little girl to the poems and stories I love today? I'm grateful to all the writers who have contributed so richly to me through their words. This book is my way of passing their gifts along to others. It is a guide to the craft and practice of writing, but, even more, it is a guide to reaping the rewards writing provides.--Maureen Ryan Griffin
Have Fun with Words
I often have my students collect words to bring to class, and I have found a great way to put those words to use. You'll find it under The Shuffle in the "How…to Begin" chapter of this book. This exercise that I've adapted is laugh-out-loud outrageous, and it teaches many lessons about word usage, not the least of which is to have fun with them.
If you've ever been around a one-year-old, you've heard someone engaged with language as sound-in-the-mouth pleasure: "Ba ba ba ba Da da da Ma ma ma ma ma," interspersed with crows of sheer joy. We writers can forget how beautiful the sounds of words are, singly and in combination. The Shuffle, and other wordplay, reminds us.
Because the students are limited to using only ten words as they Shuffle, they become aware of what a privilege it is to have an entire language at their disposal. They also learn that interesting things can happen inside limits. We owe The Cat in the Hat to the list of 300 words that an educational specialist handed Theodor Geisel, commonly known as Dr. Seuss. They were words that first grade children were likely to be familiar with, and they came with a challenge--could Geisel write a book that only included them? He could, and did. And we owe another classic Seuss book to a $50 bet from his publisher. Sure, he'd pulled off a book using only 300 different words--bet he couldn't do it using only 50. The resulting Green Eggs and Ham was 50 words on the money, as it were, and it became an all-time best seller. I wonder from time to time, as we Shuffle in class, what Dr. Seuss could have done using only ten words.
If you use words as wonderful as the ones my student Devin Steele chose to play with, you're bound to have a good time, even in a ten-word playground. And you may even find what you've put together, with the help of some punctuation, makes a little sense:
One thing is for sure -- when you work within limits, you become conscious of how much each word matters -- in poetry and in prose.
You may have noticed another benefit to The Shuffle as you read "Conundrum" -- the unexpected combinations of words that show up as you play. Sometimes these surprises are rife with possibility for writing. As students share their results, I listen for promising word pairings. Bump together perplexed and peach and get a children's picture book that teaches through humorous illustrations of mood-riddled food. I can see it in my mind--an ABCDarium, from "annoyed artichoke" to "zany ziti." Todd Justman's bleeding automaton could become a thriller sci-fi novel. And my husband saw the implications of Ellen Downs's potluck hoax immediately. "That's easy," he said, "That's when you lift the casserole lid, and discover there's nothing inside." Surely a crime novel or short story in the making!
It's also fun to make up your own words, an idea I was introduced to in books I loved as a girl. In my beloved "Betsy-Tacy-Tib" books by Maud Hart Lovelace, when Betsy Ray's father had a wonderful idea, he called it a snoggestion. To two girls at boarding school in Ursula Nordstrom's The Secret Language, leebossa means wonderful. Nordtrom's characters, Vicky and Martha, only had a handful of words in their language. My student Melanie Gillispie's family has a whole lexicon. "We throw things away in the crash man," Melanie says. "We use the frigasrator to keep food cold. When we just don't want people to bother us, we roll our eyes and say, 'Yeave me ayone!' And, we would never, ever leave the house without clean frickies on our bottoms!"
Melanie's family's language reminds me of the joy of malapropism--the ludicrous misuse of words with similar sounds--sometimes intentionally for laughter's sake, and sometimes unintentionally. As my friend Caroline Castle Hicks remarked, "Some poor souls have no idea they're 'malapropping.'" Malapropisms were Richard Brinsley Sheridan's gift to the world through his eighteenth-century British comedy The Rivals, in which a character named Mrs. Malaprop utters such phrases as "Illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory, " "He's as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile," and "Then he laid prostate on the ground." Obliterate, alligator, and prostrate never sounded so good!
My daughter Amanda graced me with a malapropism of her own when she was a tall-for-her-age nine-year-old. I was carrying her up the stairs at the time, panting with exertion--we'd been reading a chapter of Louisa May Alcott's Eight Cousins in which Uncle Alex tells Rose she's been mollycoddled. "What's mollycoddled?" Amanda had asked, and I was showing her, bodily. "Mollycoddled," Amanda said. Then, "I'm being pollywaddled!" From mollycoddled to pollywaddled; the sounds are as luscious in the mouth as fresh raspberries.
Engage in playing with language for sound's sake. If you've made up words of your own, list them. If not, try it. Spend some time listening to children, and write down the fresh uses of language that you hear.
Maureen Ryan Griffin has led classes and workshops in writing and creativity for more than ten years at Queens University and Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, and a wide variety of other venues including the North Carolina Writers' Network, civic and other organizations, private women's groups, bookstores, schools, and churches. She offers individual coaching and critique, as well as an expanding selection of retreats, workshops, and classes, through her business, WordPlay.
For the past fifteen years, Ms. Griffin's poetry and nonfiction have appeared in numerous publications, including The Texas Review, The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer, St. Anthony Messenger (Ohio) , Potato Eyes (Maine), Kalliope (Florida) , Chelsea (New York), Cincinnati Poetry Review, Catfish Stew (South Carolina), Catalyst (Georgia), and Calyx (Oregon). She is the author of two collections of poetry, This Scatter of Blossoms(Main Street Rag, 2003) and When The Leaves Are In The Water (Sandstone Publishing, 1994). Her essay, "Waiting for My Real Life to Begin," appears in Marlo Thomas's The Right Words at the Right Time, Volume 2(Atria Books, 2006) and her poem, "Such Foolishness," is included in Thirteen (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2003). She has frequently contributed commentary to WFAE, a National Public Radio affiliate.
The excerpt presented here is from Chapter 4 ("What") and is one of the sections that shares ways to tap into the power of words.
One Nightstand, by Dede Wilson
(Charlotte, NC: Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2005)
How and Why I Built One Nightstand:
In much the way poets claim an occasional gift poem, I claim One Nightstand my gift book. Intuition, serendipity--whatever one wishes to call it--worked overtime on this project.
This book began when I decided to disentangle my light poems from my more serious work by compiling them for a chapbook. Noticing how some of these poems were in forms, I thought perhaps one or two of the more obscure ones should be explained. As I worked and studied and began to discover unfamiliar forms, some of my old poems began spilling into new shapes. It was as though they were begging for this. The whole process dreamed itself. I started writing new poems in forms. The text took on a shadow life, exhibited a surprising libido. This from a girl of the 1950s! Let me say, from the title poem: the whimper was wooed.
No matter how many poems I write, no matter how many collections of my work appear, I'll continue to consider One Nightstand my most important contribution. I love the music, the beat, the repetition of form, and if this book imparts but a fraction of my enthusiasm to the reader or poet, if it inspires but one writer to learn the craft that underlies all great work, then I've done all I can do.--Dede Wilson
No verse and no vow
Our mood does exclude
If the wow had not "cooed" in line two, this poem might have stayed under control. It's mostly in dimeter (two beats).--D.W.
Not in My Sleep
If I should die in my sleep,
Don't say I died in my sleep.
"Not in My Sleep" is a triolet. The triolet is eight little lines of lilt and pleasure from France. Let A and B stand for the refrains, and the poem is simply ABaAabAB. Originally a form of syllabic verse...the poem is now found in many variations. We have used trimeter (three beats) rather than a syllable count for "Not in My Sleep," which is a double triolet. --D.W.
Urban Nursery Rhyme
Lovely daughter lust begot her
Who's the mother can't unknot her
Near the opera you can spot her
"Urban Nursery Rhyme"
The earliest poetic form in English, accentual verse developed out of oral poetry and the need to memorize. It is still heard, orally, in rap poetry, a good example being Gwendolyn Brooks's "We Real Cool." Though accentual verse technically means any poem with the identical number of stresses in each line, regardless of the number of syllables, the more traditional is composed of a line consisting of two beats, a caesura (pause or separation), and two more beats. It is most obvious in nursery rhymes. Think of how you recite the following:
See-saw Margery Daw
And if you've read "Urban Nursery Rhyme," you know what this bit of innocence means!
Sleep like calligraphy and night inking the brush. Try to explain.
Is that you, Basho? Climbing the toile in my papered hall?
To illuminate the dream, I'm pulling poets out of the envelope.
And do I dare to eat a pear? And why
When Emily finally stepped outside, did that narrow fellow in the grass...?
Julie's calling her talk "The Surly Sestina." Dannye's romancing the triolet.
Two spines against the bedclothes. You've put down Wolfe. I hold Hafiz.
"No Explanation" is a ghazal . The ghazal (we use the Persian pronunciation huzzle) is a form invented in the 7th century. It depends on a series of five couplets or more. The two lines of the first couplet and the second line of each succeeding couplet have an interior rhyme close to the end of the line (the qafia) and a refrain consisting of a repeated word or phrase (the radif). Generally, each couplet in a ghazal is like a haiku, complete, not related to another, though the poem as a whole has an underlying unity. Often the poet weaves his name into the last couplet.--D.W.
Dede Wilson is the author of two poetry collections in addition to One Nightstand: Glass and Sea of Small Fears. Her work has been published in Spoon River Poetry Review, Carolina Quarterly, New Orleans Poetry Review, Southern Poetry Review, Light, Sun Dog, Iowa Woman, Painted Bride Quarterly, Asheville Poetry Review,and many other journals. Her latest full-length collection, Caleb and Eliza ( a collection of persona poems based on the lives of her great-great-grandparents), is seeking a publisher. Ms. Wilson is a former board member of the North Carolina Writers' Network and former president of the Charlotte Writers' Club. Her poetry appeared on this web site in February, 2006 http://www.ncarts.org/freeform_scrn_template.cfm?ffscrn_id=198.
Immersed in Verse: An Informative, Slightly Irreverent & Totally Tremendous Guide to Living the Poet's Life, by Allan Wolf
(Asheville, NC: Sterling/Lark Books, 2006)
This Book's Method and Why I Was Called to Write It:
Lark Books gave me a lot of freedom, allowing me to experiment and play. The result? An illustrated double-spread section called The Stereotype Poets Hall of Fame and a section titled The Nine Habits of Highly Successful Poets. I was also able to discuss memorization and performance, which I feel are essential concerns of a well-rounded poet. And I was able to include a section in which I compose a poem from first inspiration to finished product, adding my own commentary every step of the way. The ideas in Immersed in Verse have been simmering in my mind for twenty years or so. It's fulfilling to see all these scattered thoughts, activities, and examples collected into one amazing little book.--Allan Wolf
Of Blooms & Booms & Secret Rooms
There are three essential elements of a poet's life: a bloom, a boom, and a secret room. The bloom is what catches the poet's eye. The boom is what explodes in the poet's mind. The secret room, with its magnificent views, exists in the poet's heart.
How about you? Do you want to be a poet? A poet with a bloom in your eye? A poet with a boom in your mind? A poet watching the world from a secret room held inside your heart?
Well, then, let's start!
Allan Wolf is an author, poet, performer, and educator who lives in Asheville with his wife and three kids. After teaching at Virginia Tech, Mr. Wolf became the educational director for Poetry Alive! , a national touring company that presents theatrical poetry shows for all ages. He is also a founding member of The Dead Poets, a band that transforms classic poetry into toe-tapping tunes. An active organizer in the early days of the poetry slam competitions, Mr. Wolf's mission has always been to take poetry to the people. He now writes and presents full time. His books include The Blood-Hungry Spleen and Other Poems About Our Parts (Candlewick Press), and New Found Land: Lewis and Clark's Voyage of Discovery (Candlewick Press), a novel in verse chosen as a School Library Journal Best Book, an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, and an IRA Children's Book Award Notable. (New Found Landwas featured on this website in December, 2005 .)
Mr. Wolf has three books coming out in 2007, including a second young-adult novel in verse, Zane's Trace(Candlewick Press) and a book of 150 Stick'em Note Haikus (Lark Books). He's a veteran traveler through all the diverse worlds of verse from poetry slams to public schools, salons to saloons. With literally hundreds of poems committed to memory, Wolf is always ready to spin out a stanza or two. Got rhyme?