Author Archives: Julie Larios

This, That and the Other

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Darwin, the Novelist? Read on!

No philosophizing this week, and no organized writing advice, since my writing advice usually turns into something akin to instructions for an origami swan: “Relax. Go to a cafe. Listen. Overhear. Read. Play with your dog. Take a walk. Write.” (Steps 1-8, fold here, fold there, then…it’s a swan!)  It’s like my best advice to parents with their first newborn: “Sleep when the baby sleeps and you’ll be okay.” Streamlined and optimistic.

Writing Advice

So instead of advice, I’m offering up three links to things that have interested me over the last month. They range a bit far and wide, but winter is not a bad season for the farness-and-wideness of things, is it?

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Best Thing I Read This Month: Charles Darwin, Natural Novelist by Adam Gopnik

This New Yorker article, written by one of my favorite essayists, Adam Gopnik, about the literary techniques of Charles Darwin. (if you have trouble with the link, the URL is https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/10/23/rewriting-nature )

Not many people explore how Darwin employed novelistic techniques to overcome resistance to his ideas. “He realized that he had to write a completely new kind of story, in a tone that made it seem arrived at; he had to present dynamite as brick, and build a house, only to explode the old foundations. Long-felt speculation had to be presented as close-watched observation, and a general idea about life had to be presented as a sequence of ideas about dogs.”

The reference to dogs is about Darwin’s opening information about the breeding of dogs, a topic that offered his readers a way to understand the concept of change; he used a scale of time and a subject they could easily understand, as opposed to starting point blank with the idea of evolution over millions of years. Start small, start with something clear and plain, draw people in, then go big and challenge their assumptions. Not a bad plan for a cunning novelist.

Gopnik goes on to say, “Darwin really was one of the great natural English prose stylists. He wasn’t a “poet” in that vaguely humane sense of someone who has a nice way with an image; he was a man who knew how to cast his thesis into a succession of incidents, so that action and argument become one. And, as with all good writing, the traces of a lifetime’s struggles for sense and sanity remain on the page. Reading Darwin as a writer shows us a craftsman of enormous resource and a lot of quiet mischief.”

Best moment in the essay, in my opinion: “Of course, the theory of evolution by natural selection would have been true even if it had been scratched in Morse code on the head of a needle. But it would not then be Darwinism: a “view of life,” in its author’s words, not an ideology. (An ideology has axioms and algorithms; a view of life has approaches and approximations.)”

That’s a classic Gopnik line, the theory of evolution scratched in Morse code on the head of a needle. Gad, I love the way he writes.

End result: I’ve put some Darwin on hold at the library. I’ll read it and see where it takes me. Meanwhile, I’m thinking about the writing of poetry being, at heart, the act of cultivating a nice way with an image. I’m thinking about approximation vs. axiom, and about the writer’s desire for sense and sanity, which makes me proud to be a writer (as long as we’re proud of what we do, we can keep going, right?)

Maybe by heading so many directions, I’m procrastinating. Or maybe I’m following a mysterious set of footprints into the forest, and where I end up will be my next poem or my next book….?

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 Best Poem I Read This Month – Tulips by A.E. Stallings

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Tulip Fields in the Skagit Valley of Northwest Washington

While snowed-in by what became lovingly known in the neighborhood as “Snowmageddon,” I read a lot of poetry, but this favorite was an easy pick, because I’m longing for tulips.

Tulips

The tulips make me want to paint,
Something about the way they drop
Their petals on the tabletop
And do not wilt so much as faint,
Something about their burnt-out hearts,
Something about their pallid stems
Wearing decay like diadems,
Parading finishes like starts,
Something about the way they twist
As if to catch the last applause,
And drink the moment through long straws,
And how, tomorrow, they’ll be missed.
The way they’re somehow getting clearer,
The tulips make me want to see
The tulips make the other me
(The backwards one who’s in the mirror,
The one who can’t tell left from right),
Glance now over the wrong shoulder
To watch them get a little older
And give themselves up to the light.
From Olives (Northwestern University Press, 2012).
This poem first appeared in Poetry (June 2009).
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Best Source of Inspiration for Poetry This Month – The Smithsonian Magazine
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Who can resist an article about the fur of flying squirrels turning fluorescent pink under ultraviolet lights? Also, information about the vocalization of songbirds. About the art of facial recognition. About space dust on fire. About how “flames have forged our world.”
I’ve written poems about every one of these strange phenomena, all of them inspired by articles in The Smithsonian Magazine, especially articles about science. I’m convinced science is where it’s at for poetry – the imagination engaged not with magical realism but with the marvelous real.
Hope you have some wonderful end-of-winter wanderings. I can feel optimism seeping in. Tulips are coming.

The Art of Naming Things

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My fellow Books-Around-the-Table blogger Julie Paschkis recommended a book to me yesterday titled Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours – the subtitle is Adapted to Zoology, Botany, Chemistry, Mineralogy, Anatomy, and the Arts –  published by Smithsonian Books. The press’s website (visit it if you have a minute after reading this post – wonderful!) describes the book, first published in 1814, as “a taxonomic guide to the colors of the natural world that has been cherished by artists and scientists for more than two centuries,” adding that it is “a charming artifact from the golden age of natural history and global exploration.”

Now, it might sound like Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours would be of little use to a poet who writes picture books. For an illustrator, yes, the connection is clearer. But Julie Paschkis recommended it to me because we both love words, and Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours is about words as much as it is about colors.

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Julie Paschkis’s word-filled “Apple-Babble” ( see Julie’s artwork at  https://juliepaprika.com )

Here is a description from the Smithsonian Books website:

In the late eighteenth century, mineralogist Abraham Gottlob Werner devised a standardized color scheme that allowed him to describe even the subtlest of chromatic differences with consistent terminology. His scheme was then adapted by an Edinburgh flower painter, Patrick Syme, who used the actual minerals described by Werner to create the color charts in the book, enhancing them with examples from flora and fauna.

In the pre-photographic age, almost all visual details had to be captured via the written word, and scientific observers could not afford ambiguity in their descriptions. Werner’s handbook became an invaluable resource for naturalists and anthropologists, including Charles Darwin, who used it to identify colors in nature during his seminal voyage on the HMS Beagle. Werner’s terminology lent both precision and lyricism to Darwin’s pioneering writings, enabling his readers to envision a world they would never see.

“Envisioning a world they would never see” – with that, the connection to poetry takes a small step forward. Both poems and stories work to share specific moments (or narrative arcs) that resonate with but don’t reproduce their readers’ experiences. Imagination is the key, and precision in our descriptions gets the reader there.

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A sample from the book – Werner named the color, then gave us three categories (animal, vegetable and mineral, where we might find it.

I also keep going back to the press’s description of the book as “a taxonomic guide.” I’ve been interested in taxonomy for a long time – it’s the art of classifying things according to their similarities. Biological taxonomy involves things like domain, kingdom, genus, species, phylum, class, family, and order. It’s hierarchical – that is, it goes from broad to narrow.

Here is a biological taxonomic chart…

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…and here is a botanical taxonomical chart from the father of all taxonomy, Linnaeus, who used Latin to name the plants, a system we still use for precision’s sake in a world of many languages:

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A taxonomy of color – which is not hierarchical – would look more circular,  like this:

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If you’ve ever been to a paint store and gathered paint chips, you know what kind of imagination and effort goes into the naming of specific shades!

Just as interesting to me is that word in the title: “nomenclature.” The art of naming things. It has an almost Biblical ring to it, straight out of the Book of Genesis. Werner’s desire to name things is innate to human beings – after all, we can talk very little about things that go unnamed. A child just learning to speak is given nouns – named objects – to play around with. My own kids spent a lot of time with A-Z books and Richard Scarry’s Busy World and Best Word books (is the power of naming things the reason behind a certain inhabitant of the White House claiming he knows “lots of words…the best words”?) More important than giving us power, knowing the names of things allows us to reach that level of “precision and lyricism” that Smithsonian Press believes Werner inspired in Darwin.

So, Reader, I ordered  Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours. The book has two ideas that have everything to do with being a writer:

1) “Taxonomy” – classifying things according to their similarities. That’s what metaphors do, no? Metaphorical thinking helps us understand how one thing resembles another and is involved in our ability to empathize.

2) “Nomenclature” – the precise naming of things because we “can’t afford ambiguity” in our descriptions.

Besides, it’s late January and a book about color will brighten up my day. I can’t wait for it to arrive! Thanks, Julie Paschkis!

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” Sea of Words” by Julie Paschkis

[**As Bonny suggested in the comments below, the perfect companion book for this is Julie Paschkis’s own picture book, VIVID. See pictures from it here. ]

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A Little Gingerbread

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My daughter (visiting for a few days from Boston) and my husband, sister, brother and I went last Saturday to Bellingham’s annual Gingerbread House display in our port’s Alaska Ferry Building.   Some of the “houses” (also pyramids, robots, tree trunks, animals, volcanoes) were a great success (see the photo above, with Oz’s yellow brick road, Dorothy’s house coming down from the twister, a field of red poppies, and the Emerald City in the corner – what a lot of work that must have taken!) Some were just plain cute, and a few were what you might call a hot mess. Better said: For some of the projects, grand ambitions ruled the day, not grand abilities (but more power to them for forging ahead.)  Let’s also admit that from time to time the aesthetic approach of “If a little is good, a lot is better” took a kid with free access to marshmallows and Skittles way over the top.

In any case, the gingerbread projects – about 50 every year – are ambitious, hilarious, fascinating, and full of heart. A few are even mysterious. And all are a delight to see. You can spy a Christmas tree made of green Cheerios, cedar shingles made of Wheat Chex, ladders made of pretzle sticks, a path made from a piece of cooked bacon, and at the end of the viewing – joy! – you get to vote for your favorite project for the People’s Choice Award.  I think the robot pictured below might have won that award.

Here are the photos my daughter took to share with my grandson back in Boston. There is no deeper meaning to this post, no words of wisdom. It’s just good to remember that the kids we write for,  and the families they are a part of, have lives filled with humor, wonder, creativity and community. We’re lucky to have our books be part of all that.

Enough said. Enjoy the gingerbread.

AND FROM MY HOUSE TO YOUR HOUSE, HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

[THIS R2-D2 STANDS ABOUT 30″ TALL AND ITS HEAD MOVES!!!]

 

Sixty-Six Years of the Best

For the last sixty-six years, the New York Times Book Review editors have been announcing their choice of the 10 Best Illustrated Books of the year. I encourage you to follow this link to the 2018 list:

If you love picture books, if you share the ones you love with your friends and colleagues, and if you are a student of the history of illustration, then the NYTimes’ Best Illustrated lists 1952-2018 include almost all your favorite illustrators – just look at some of the many:


Maurice Sendak, Alice and Martin Provensen, Marie Hall Ets, Ludwig Bemelmans, Roger Duvoisin, Walter Lorraine, H.A. Rey, Laurent de Brunhoff, Leo Lionni, Edward Sorel, Bruno Munari, Ed Emberley, Edward Ardizzone, Ben Shahn, Tomi Ungerer, Arnold and Anita, Lobel, Edward Gorey, Brian Wildsmith, Alexander Calder, Jacob Lawrence, Remy Charlip, Mitsumasa Anno, Edward Koren, James Marshall, John Burningham, Rosemary Wells, Petra Mathers, Lane Smith, Peter Sis, Leo and Diane Dillon, William Joyce, Maira Kalman, David Shannon, Jerry Pinkney, David Wisniewski, Ted Lewin, Chris Raschka, David Diaz, Richard Eglieski, Gennady Spirin, Douglas Florian, Kevin Henkes, Kadir Nelson, Jon Klassen, Susan Marie Swanson, Ian Falconer…AND (sound of trumpets please) our own Julie Paschkis!!

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Night Garden: Poems from the World of Dreams (written by Janet Wong, illustrated by Julie Paschkis) named to the NY Times/NY Public Library Best Illustrated  Books in 2000. 

In the comments area below, I hope you’ll share your reactions to this year’s list (as well as to individual books on it, and/or books you think should have been named to it.)

You can see a more complete list here [this link has been corrected from a previously incorrect link] of  books named to the Best list between 1952 to 2016: https://www.librarything.com/bookaward/New+York+Times+Best+Illustrated+Children%27s+Book

For the 2016 list, go to https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/03/books/review/best-illustrated-books-of-2016.html

For the 2017 list, follow this link: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/02/books/review/best-illustrated-childrens-2017.html

And don’t miss the wonderful look at the 2018 illustrators’ studios, processes, and thoughts about their books here: https://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2018/11/02/books/childrens-illustrators-studios.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article

Autumn Leaves and Kitchen Sinks

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Well, it’s definitely autumn now, a season when you can turn a corner and have your breath taken away by the color of a bush. I had to stop the car the other day, out on Hannegan Road between Lynden and Bellingham in Whatcom County, Washington, because a maple tree I saw left me stunned. Every single color of fall was represented: green, yellow, gold, orange, red, hints of purple, all those colors set against a blue sky, with sunshine streaming through the bright leaves. I had to pull off the road and get out of the car, I wanted to take a…oh, no, no…no camera?

But I brought a few leaves home and set them in a small vase on the sill above my kitchen sink. Our window faces west, towards the setting sun and a view across town, out to Bellingham Bay and Lummi Island. Here’s what the sky looked like a little later that evening:
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I didn’t get a photo of the maple tree, but I did get a photo of those leaves above the kitchen sink, as you can see at the opening of this post.

As I washed the dishes that day, I thought about leaves, about the way light comes through them. Can you see how the pattern of the screen behind the window shows through? I thought about that kind of illumination and transparency.  Thinking about things like that, especially as I scrub out pots and pans, is part of my process as a poet.

Here’s my advice to writers reading my post today: put some autumn leaves on your kitchen window sill. Ignore the diswasher and wash your dishes by hand. I bet after a few plates and bowls, a handful of silverware and a kettle or two, you’ll be thinking about wind, light, color, transparency, and (look at that – the dishes are done !) you’ll be in a writerly mood.

The All-American County Fair

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We went to the Northwest Washington Fair a couple of weeks ago, and no – I did not ride on the Ring of Fire.

Instead, I went straight to see the piglets in the big petting barn next to the Swine Barn. How can it be, I wondered as I turned in my ticket and walked through the gate, that some wonderful sow is ready to give us a new set of piglets just in time for the fair each year? Thank you, sows of Northwest Washington!

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We took along my sister-in-law and niece who were visiting from their home in Hermosillo, Mexico, and we planned their visit specifically so we could show them the quintessential American event: the county fair. Though some people prefer state fairs, I like mine a bit smaller, more regional, like this:

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Oh, my gosh, that’s Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web, isn’t it?

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I like looking for names I recognize on the quilts or the flower & canned goods (especially peaches and pickles) displays.

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I love to see how inventive kids are when they make their “vegetable critters.”

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Each year I vote for my favorite display of kids’ collections (legos galore, model horses, matchbox cars, dolls, beer bottle caps) and I vote for the local grange displays. This year we saw a corn stalk that measured 14-feet tall. Bravo! Corn is very big on my list of Why the World is Wonderful. The countryside of Whatcom County, Washington, where I live, is covered with corn fields (that is, where it’s not covered with raspberry fields. And blueberry fields…) A drive out into the country to find a corn stand can be pretty breathtaking.

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We live in real county-fair territory….

I sometimes agree but often disagree with the judges about which item was awarded Best of Show (Big Purple Ribbons, Big Red-White-and-Blue Ribbons!) in just about every category under the sun. And I’m always touched by how eager and devoted the 4-H kids seem to be to their animals and their chores.

This year we paid special attention to the horses, since my niece has three of her own and is learning to jump with them. We saw barrel racing, saw the judged 4-H horse jumping, and were struck dumb by the size of the Clydesdales when you’re standing right next to them.

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I like staying as long as humanly possible, but at least from midday until the sun goes down and the carny rides light up and the food begins to smell divine. We eat without any attention to what’s healthy for the long term, and without any regard to “a balanced meal.” To follow the Charlotte’s Web thread, we pig out on….

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Kettlecorn…

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…and curly fries…

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…and corn-on-the-cob…

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…and hot dogs…

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Anything with whipped cream and berries gets our attention, but….

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…”Chocolate-Covered Bacon”? Maybe too much, even for us….

Garth Williams knew exactly how a person (or a pig…or a rat) feels after a day at the fair:

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When the fair begins….

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…and when it’s time to go home!

I’m not a true flag-waving patriot most of the time. Maybe I’m an ACLU and League-of-Women-Voters-style patriot. My neighbor, a sweet guy, flies an American flag most of the year, while I fly a Bellingham flag with symbols on it which stand for for two Native American tribes, one saltwater bay, a waterfall, and four towns which eventually became the town we live in. So the red-white-and-blue is not quite as appealing to me as the green-white-and-blue. But when it comes to showing my family from Mexico around, giving them an experience I consider truly American, the county fair is the way I wave a flag. You might call me a county-fair patriot.

Now that our guests have gone, I’ve got some quiet time, and I’m looking for a good book to read. I think I’ll get out my old and battered copy of Charlotte’s Web.  If “Write what you know”  is good advice for writers, I’m sure E.B. White knew a few fairs, as did Garth Williams – they had county fairs (and the people who head for the Swine Barn first) all figured out.

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‘All morning, people wandered past Wilbur’s pen. Dozens and dozens of strangers stopped to stare at him and to admire his silky white coat, his curly tail, his kind and radiant expression.” (Charlotte’s Web)

 

Pals

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At the Waterslides, Summer 2018

My daughter and grandson have been visiting this week from the East Coast just outside Boston. I worried about whether my grandson would have enough to do while visiting, but – as you see – kids find other kids and off they go. Five hours yesterday in the blistering heat at Birch Bay Water Slides (“Where the Sun Always Shines”) —what’s not to love?

Why am I posting this photo? Just wanted to remind myself of who I write for. I can get isolated at my desk while I write; it’s refreshing to be with kids when I’m stuck for a story or when I run out of juice – it’s good to be where I can hear them laugh, or where I can listen to the stories they tell me.

Some of us write for the boy with an undercurrent of shyness, some for the kid with 60’s hair and a wild flag swim suit. Sometimes we write for the kid with a summer buzz-cut who is willing to pause for a photo for his grandmother when he’s dying to get back to the slides.

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We write for the kid who is shivering. The kid laughing. We write for kids of every imaginable shape and size. Kids at summer camp who miss home.  Kids for whom summer camp is only a dream. Kids having chocolate-vanilla swirl ice cream cones melting too fast to keep them from dripping all down their arms. Kids visitng libraries and signing up for summer reading programs. Kids with pals…and kids without. Kids who remind us of ourselves. Sometimes for kids whose troubles make our hearts ache. Other times for kids who make us believe in the world again.

Spend a summer day with kids and have a ball. Laugh a little with them. Listen. Think about the energy they have.  We write for kids. How lucky is that?

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Photo done, back to the slides….

 

 

Lost Words…?

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I read recently that the British writer Robert Macfarlane – whose work I know primarily through his wonderful adult non-fiction book Landmarks – has published a children’s book titled The Lost Words.  It’s large (11×15), lushly illustrated by Jackie Morris, and it includes twenty acrostic poems (“…not poems but spells,” Macfarlane states in the preface, “of many kinds that might just, by the old, strong magic of being spoken aloud, unfold dreams and songs, and summon lost words back into the mouth and the mind’s eye.”)

The twenty words were selected from a longer list of words deleted in 2007 from the  Oxford Junior English Dictionary “in order to make room for more modern words.” Here is a list of the words Macfarlane singled out, along with a few words from his spells, and some photos I gathered. Imagine kids not growing up with these words…

ACORN

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ADDER

BLUEBELL

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BRAMBLE

CONKER

DANDELION

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(“tick-tock, sun clock”)

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FERN

HEATHER

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HERON

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IVY

Old house covered by ivy in Paris, France

KINGFISHER 

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(“colour-giver, fire bringer, flame-flicker, // river’s quiver…ripple-calmer, / water-nester, evening angler, weather-teller, rainbringer….” )

LARK

MAGPIE

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NEWT

OTTER

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“Ever dreamed of being otter? That utter underwater thunderbolter, that shimmering twister?”

RAVEN

STARLING

WEASEL

WILLOW

Spring at Dows Lake Park

WREN

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Acorn? Dandelion? Ivy? Otter? Weasel? Kids don’t use these words anymore? I guess many don’t. The words, along with others, were deleted from the OED Junior to make room for high-tech words that kids now use more frequently: block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, MP-3 player, voicemail.

But herons, ferns, newts – what happens when we lose the names for things? Do we lose the ability bit by bit to notice them? Do we lose the ability to care about them?

One of the best discussions about these deletions/additions (filled with explanations from the OED Junior editors, and protests from people like Margaret Atwood) can be read at the Fact Check page of this Snopes site  – Snopes is where people go to check out stories they can’t be sure are true. Can this story about words from nature being deleted from the dictionary be true? Yes, says Snopes, it’s true.

So – is the real crime the fact that the Junior OED deleted the words, or the fact that we don’t get our kids out into a world where they need to know these words? Where they can collect acorns and make troll faces out of them, where they  recognize what kind of bird is referenced in “Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore'” where they know what the names of the flowers in their May baskets are, where they walk through a forest and can say to whoever they’re with, “Look at all the ferns…”?

It’s not about going back to word choices that are stiff and archaic. And I don’t want to return to the past and make anything great again. I welcome the word “blog” – here I am, after all, blogging away. So I’m not nostalgic for a lost world. Just for lost words. And for an attitude of inclusion rather than exclusion.

To send you off, here is one of Macfarlane’s spells, written for the tiny acorn – I love both the object and the word (and now, the spell):

Acorn

As flake is to blizzard, as

Curve is to sphere, as knot is to net, as

One is to many, as coin is to money, as
bird is to flock, as

Rock is to mountain, as drop is to fountain, as
spring is to river, as glint is to glitter, as

Near is to far, as wind is to weather, as
feather is to flight, as light is to star, as
kindness is to good, so acorn is to wood.

[As usual, I’m thrilled by both content and technique – love the internal rhymes and near-rhymes – not/net, many/money, flock/rock/drop, river/glitter, weather/feather, flight/light, good/wood – whew! That must have taken blood, sweat and tears to write that, keep it all acrostic, make the structure clean and strong, make the repetitions poetic, and still say something meaningful, from the heart!]

If you would like to follow up about the author or illustrator, here are some links:

ROBERT MACFARLANE is interviewed by a Waterstone’s bookseller  here 

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Robert Macfarlane

JACKIE MORRIS posted a look at how The Lost Words came to be – the collaborative process with Robert Macfarlane – on her blog.

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Jackie Morris

Over at Brainpickings, Maria Popova talks about the link between attentiveness and naming.

And if you’re interested in poetry for children, check out the Poetry Friday round-up this week, hosted by Michelle Kogan.

The Art of “Controlled Chaos”

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The Skagit River Poetry Festival is being celebrated this weekend (today through Sunday) in La Connor, Washington. Some big names, along with local hero-poets, are on the list as presenters and guest readers – most notable is the three-time Poet Laureate of the United States, Robert Pinsky. I’ve attended the festival just once, when the organizers invited my sister Mary Cornish to be one of their presenters and workshop leaders. The setting is idyllic, of course – quaint La Connor, a small town on the banks of a slough where the Skagit River approaches the sea. The town sits at the western edge of the Skagit Flats, home to world-famous tulip fields. My father once had a small shop -“The Blue Heron” – of his handmade jewelry on the main street of town.

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La Conner, Washington – Mount Baker in the background, Cascade Range

I’ve been debating with myself whether to attend this year, and still haven’t quite decided. Robert Wrigley is leading one workshop; he’s a wonderful poet, and I worked with him briefly when he came in as a guest to talk to my MFA class at the University of Washington. Love his poetry. But I’m not sure his 2018 workshop interests me enough. Instead, I’m thinking of signing up last minute for a Sunday workshop called “Controlled Chaos: The Long-Armed Poem” with Ellen Bass, simply because I find her description of the workshop irresistible. It speaks to what I believe about poetry, and I want to share the description with readers of Books Around the Table. I’d love to study with someone who says this:

“A certain kind of poem reaches out a long arm and sweeps disparate, unexpected things into its net. It scoops in a great deal of material that is more or less obviously related. It doesnt hug the shore. It doesnt walk a narrow line. It retains a kind of wildness. It can seem untamed. And yet all the elements have enough magnetic or gravitational attraction, enough resonance, that the writing feels organically whole. To write this kind of long-armed poem, to allow the excitement, tension, and passion of chaos into our writing, we have to open the doors. We have to be willing to be surprised, startled, even shocked. We have to be willing to experience the most essential state of creativity, the state of not knowing, of being open, of being willing to be changed. In this workshop, well look at examples of the long-armed poem and I will give some practical suggestions for how you might experiment with bringing more controlled chaos into your own writing.”

“Controlled chaos” – yes! I love that phrase. This is often my goal: to embrace “the state of not knowing.” This holds for my poetry for children, as well as my poetry for adults.

And here is another element of the description of the workshop I like – Bass’s instructions about what participants “might want to bring”:

“….any or all of the following: a snippet of overheard conversation, an image from a dream, a quote from a book you’re reading, a line or two from your journal, a memory that’s been on your mind, a handful of words that have caught your attention, a song that’s been going through your mind, something you saw recently in nature or in a city.”

Like I said, irresistible. So why resist? I’ll drive south on Sunday, across the Skagit Flats, taking along some possibilities. A line in a song. An overheard conversation. A handful of words and a desire to play. Essential: a willingness to experiment with controlling the chaos through poetry.

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To see the Poetry Friday round-up this week, go to Sloth Reads.

Here are my contributions: a poem by Ellen Bass titled “Enough” [see note in comments] and a poem by Robert Wrigley titled “At the Beach.”

Enough

Enough seen….Enough had….Enough…
Arthur Rimbaud

No. It will never be enough. Never
enough wind clamoring in the trees,
sun and shadow handling each leaf, never enough clang
of my neighbor hammering,
the iron nails, relenting wood, sound waves
lapping over roofs, never enough
bees purposeful at the throats
of lilies. How could we be replete
with the flesh of ripe tomatoes, the unique
scent of their crushed leaves. It would take many
births to be done with the thatness of that.

Oh blame life. That we just want more.
Summer rain. Mud. A cup of tea.
Our teeth, our eyes. A baby in a stroller.
Another spoonful of crème brûlée, sweet burnt crust crackling.
And hot showers, oh lovely, lovely hot showers.

Today was a good day.
My mother-in-law sat on the porch, eating crackers and cheese
with a watered-down margarita
and though her nails are no longer stop-light red
and she can’t remember who’s alive and dead,
still, this was a day
with no weeping, no unstoppable weeping.

Last night, through the small window of my laptop,
I watched a dying man kill himself in Switzerland.
He wore a blue shirt and snow was falling
onto a small blue house, onto dark needles of pine and fir.
He didn’t step outside to feel the snow on his face.
He sat at a table with his wife and drank poison.

Online I found a plastic bag complete with Velcro
and a hole for a tube to a propane tank. I wouldn’t have to
move our Weber. I could just slide
down the stucco to the flagstones, where the healthy
weeds are sprouting through the cracks.
Maybe it wouldn’t be half-bad
to go out looking at the yellowing leaves of the old camellia.
And from there I could see the chickens scratching—
if we still have chickens then. And yet…

this little hat of life, how will I bear
to take it off while I can still reach up? Snug woolen watch cap,
lacy bonnet, yellow cloche with the yellow veil
I wore the Easter I turned thirteen when my mother let me  promenade
with Tommy Spagnola on the boardwalk in Atlantic City.

Oxygen, oxygen, the cry of the body—and you always want to give it
what it wants. But I must say no—
enough, enough

with more tenderness
than I have ever given to a lover, the gift
of the nipple hardening under my fingertip, more
tenderness than to my newborn,
when I held her still flecked
with my blood. I’ll say the most gentle refusal
to this dear dumb animal and tighten
the clasp around my throat that once was kissed and kissed
until the blood couldn’t rest in its channel, but rose
to the surface like a fish that couldn’t wait to be caught.

EllenBassbyIreneYoung-e1514703294808

Poet Ellen Bass


Wrigley

Poet Robert Wrigley

Wrigley

Questions and Parrots

Parrot 1

In last week’s New York Times Book Review, author Ernest Cline was asked “What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?” He answered, “Apes don’t ask questions, even if they know sign language.”

Well, that sent my head spinning. I posted it on my Facebook page, and I asked this question (of myself and of my friends): Is the ability to ask questions and to wonder about things specifically human? Or is it the singular ability to articulate/voice that wonder which we lay claim to?

Matt Smith, a talented writer I got to know and work with at Vermont College of Fine Arts, sent me a link to a page in Birdology by Sy Montgomery in which we learn about a parrot named Alex and the woman who taught him to speak (better said, taught him some English vocabulary and concepts.) Alex had been taught colors, taught how to count, he recognized letters of the alphabet and numerals, and it seemed he could even add numbers. But the goal was not just to teach him words and numbers but to understand his thought process, to “show us something of how he saw the world.”

Parrot 2

Alex, it seems, could ask questions. When shown his reflection in a mirror for the first time, he asked, “What’s that?” He was told, “That’s you. You’re a parrot.” He asked what color he was and was told he was gray. When he noticed someone working at a desk next to him, he asked whether that person would like some food – a banana, a nut, and when told no he asked “Well, what do you want?”

He also invented words, among them “cork nut” for an almond, because of the nut’s porous shell, and “rock corn” when he encountered dried corn kernels as opposed to the moist kernels of fresh corn. He understood how language worked. He pursued information.

Inquisitiveness, the ability to question – that is, the ability not just to be curious but to seek answers, to be curious not just internally (wondering silently) but externally (asking) or, at the very least, the desire to know more, learn more, understand more – maybe it isn’t exclusively human. Again, my head spins. Setting my head spinning is a goal I embrace, a condition I enjoy.

I also embrace the act of asking questions and seeking answers.

As should any writer.

Or any parrot.

Parrot 3