Author Archives: Julie Larios

The Music of It

Dawn Morehead 1 the_mad_tea_party_by_dmorehead_de8fssh-fullview

[Works of art throughout this post – altered books and dioramas – are by Dawn Morehead] This one is called The Mad Tea Party.

You can find more here. 

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I’m often stopped in my tracks by a bit of overheard conversation in English – something ordinary, something that has a specific way of being spoken aloud. “You’ve gotta be kidding.” We all know just how that sentence sounds, right?

“Go on!”

“I’ll never forget it.”

“He ought to be ashamed.”

“What are you gonna do?”

All the above are turns of phrase that native English speakers probably hear in their heads (reading them right now, for example) exactly as they are said aloud.  Robert Frost called this “sentence sound” (link below) – and he described it as what you hear when someone across a field is talking to you and you can’t really catch the sense of it, but you can hear the music of it. Accusatory, inquisitive, sorrowful – sentences have a sound. How a sentence sounds – a good tool for writers.  

dmorehead cabinets_of_curiosity_by_dmorehead_defgp53-fullview

[Cabinets of Curiosity by Dawn Morehead. See more here.]

My interest in the music of a language was sparked again recently by four things. First, I’ve been hearing (unfortunately) a lot of Ukrainian lately – a language I don’t know one word of. It’s being translated by reporters and/or their assistants on the scene of Ukraine’s conflict with Russia.  I can hear the music of it, at least the music of the sorrow or the anger affecting the way it’s said. Without understanding it, I understand it tonally.

Second, the documentary made about Michael Peterson’s trial for murder (The Staircase) shows a test jury listening to the expert testimony of Henry Lee, a forensic scientist well-known for his familiarity with blood evidence. His arguments about Peterson’s innocence were solid and convincing, or so the defense team thought, but the test jurists said they simply couldn’t understand him, “not a word he said.” These were Southerners, perhaps not from towns of tremendous cultural diversity, maybe not used to hearing many people whose first language was not English. It’s true that sometimes your ability to be understood in a learned language depends on your command of its sound qualities – the flow of it, and the emphasis on certain syllables, for example. Knowing the vocabulary of a language is one thing, knowing its music is another. I found Henry Lee easy to understand; but the test jury heard gibberish. To be fair, people who from the United Kingdom might not understand the way it’s spoken in the Deep South.  I’m including a link below to Eudora Welty reading her own short story, “Why I Live at the P.O.” Talk about musical English! But I’m sure some people who have learned “proper” English as a second language would not understand her, “not a single word.” 

Third, I’ve been listening to birds while I’m out in the garden. They have a musical language I don’t understand…but I have fun trying to guess. I’m confident most of the crows are scolding me.  

dmorehead field_guide_to_birds__folded_book__by_dmorehead_deevyyh-fullview

[A Field Guide to Birds / Dawn Morehead]

Fourth, in terms of not being able to make sense of what you’re hearing, I watched a damaged library copy of a movie I’ve seen before, A Month in the Country, inspired by the novel of the same name by J. L. Carr.  The sound on the library DVD was garbled to the point of unintelligibility; I should have given up and taken it back to the library. But I found it fascinating to hear whole scenes in English – lines and lines of dialogue – where all I could make out, other than an occasional word, was the basic cadence, the rising and falling of it, the music of it.  Like those test jurists I mentioned, or like Frost listening to his neighbor across a field, I wasn’t understanding anything, I couldn’t really make out the sense of it. As adults, we don’t get to experience that very often in our own native tongue. Maybe I’m easily thrilled, since I found it thrilling. And I love nonsense in general. “This is what English sounds like to someone who doesn’t speak it,” I thought as I watched the movie.

In the links this time around, I’m including one site where a singer is pretending to sing in English. You feel as if, with more careful attention, you might be on the edge of understanding it. But you can’t, because the singer is re-creating just the music of how English sounds, not the vocabulary. The vocabulary is gibberish.  

Links today: 

  1. Robert Frost on “the sound of sense” and “sentence sounds,” from a letter he wrote to John Bartlett in 1913.  Sometimes I imagine Robert Frost reciting a slightly crusty version of Jabberwocky.
  2. Here’s an interesting article about how Russia has dealt with the Ukrainian language
  3. In 1970, Adriano Celentano released a song that was 99% gibberish, in which he tried to approximate the sound of English. Here it is. Charlie Chaplin does a fair job of going the opposite direction, singing a song in nonsense French-Italian. 
  4. Writers who can create a voice that sounds authentically like spoken English – all the cadences, the tonal qualities, the flow, plus all the sense of it, are few and far between.  Hemingway gets cited. His sentences are short, clean, and clear. But my favorite is Eudora Welty. You do have to attune your ear to the way she speaks it, with her soft Mississippi drawl, the same way you do with the English in Downton Abbey.  For a real challenge, try the English spoken in Danny Boyles’s film, Trainspotting! Here is Welty reading her wonderful short story, “Why I Live at the P.O.” 
  5. Here’s how teaching herself to write in a new language changed Jhumpa Lahiri’s voice.
  6. A great collection of children’s book illustrators form the latest exhibit (“Generations”) at the R. Michelson Gallery. 
  7. And speaking of children’s books, here is the 2022 list of award winners from Bank Street School of Education. Congratulations to them. Lots of poetry books included, hurrah!
  8. Throughout this post, I’ve included the photos of the work of Dawn Morehead – she does amazing things with altered books. You can find more here. 
  9. One last treat in terms of turning the music of our language (book pages) into beautiful objects. Here are three samples, and here’s the link
Tea cup by Cecilia levy
Shoes by Cecilia Levy
Boots by Cecilia Levy

Last minute addition: Don’t want you to miss this interesting article from The Smithsonian about ways in which bird song resembles human speech. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/do-birds-have-language-180979629/

My Brain on Spring

My brain in winter mode –
Professor Richard Macksey’s home library in Baltimore, MD…
My brain in spring mode: Skagit Valley Daffodils (Edmund Lowe, photographer)

At the coming of spring, I go from mostly INSIDE myself (blanket, book, sofa, the smell of hot cocoa, and a mental image of the personal library. above) to mostly OUTSIDE myself (garden, seed packets, blue sky, the smell of fresh dirt.) Sweet peas (pretty) have been planted; raspberries (yumm) have been transplanted (fingers crossed); sugar snap peas (yumm again) are in; tulips, grape hyacinths and forsythia are blooming under pink cherry and white almond trees. Even my daphne bushes survived the big freezes (multiple) of Winter 2022.

As the weather warms and flowers bloom, I’m inclined to share more. So here are a few links, and my reasons (other than red tulips in bloom) for sharing them:

  1. I love the work of local photographer Edmund Lowe (see photo of the Skagit Valley daffodil fields, above.) When I look at his photos I not only see his world, I also hear it, smell it, taste it, touch it. All art is a conjuring of the senses, isn’t it? No matter the medium (including writing!) we want to link our bodies to the story. Here is a link to his website.
  2. I want to share Julie Danielson’s examination of Corinna Luykens and her 2017 book, The Book of Mistakes. At Danielson’s blog “Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.” Luykens makes an artist’s case for having fun and letting go of anxieties, specifically those that involve making mistakes with your work. An accidental smudge, a disproportionate head? Serendipitous mistakes, says Luykens, often take you exciting places. And if you’re interested in children’s literature in general, check out Danielson’s blog . It’s not to be missed.

3. Another sharable favorite: Du Iz Tak by Carson Ellis. This is my kind of book, 100%. How did I manage to miss a careful reading of Carson Ellis in all my years with kids books? Her work is relatively new to me, and I’ve had a ball reading it (Home is the most popular, I think, but don’t miss In the Half Room.) Imagine being a fly on the wall when Du Iz Tak was pitched to its editor: “Well, it’s a story told completely in a made-up bug language. No, there’s isn’t a translation; no, there isn’t any explanation. It’s all just bug gibberish.” Of course, the read-aloud inflections and the illustrations provide clues about what these strange words mean. Many picture books stay soft and quiet, but this one makes you laugh out loud. Here’s a link to the Kirkus Review, which locates a deeper meaning. Personally, I’m satisfied with the wordplay.

4. From the Archives: a fascinating look at the life and work of Ursula LeGuin, by Julie Phillips, in the New Yorker a few days after Le Guin died. “An author’s business is lying,” she wrote for the introduction of The Left Hand of Darkness. Reade this article and see if you agree. If you already love Le Guin, I recommend her book of essays, No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters.

 “As great scientists have said and as all children know, it is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception, and compassion, and hope.” (U.LeGuin)

A bit of trivia: The photographer and all three of the authors mentioned in #1-4 live/lived in the Pacific Northwest – Oregon and Washington, west of the Cascade Range. Is it the fresh air we breathe here that keeps our imaginations stimulated? I say yes.

5. Do you know the work of Nicole Appel? Read about her and get a look at what she draws here.

6. Not from the Pacific Northwest but from a part of the world we all have our minds on: the Ukrainian illustrator Maria Prymachenko (several spellings but Wikipedia goes with this one.) Thanks to Jama Kim Rattigan, a Facebook friend, for the heads-up – Jama has been posting many pictures by Ukrainian artists. Below is a piece of Prymachenko’s art. She worked mainly in embroidery and ceramics.

I know we’re holding in our hearts all the people who are suffering in that part of the world right now. Please do what you can to help them – perhaps a donation to UNICEF, for the children?

[Update from Wikipedia; “The Ivankiv Historical and Local History Museum, where several works by Prymachenko were held, was burned during the ongoing 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, with the supposed loss of 25 of her works. However, according to a social media post by journalist Tanya Goncharova, local people were able to save some of Prymachenko’s works from the fire. According to an interview with Prymachenko’s great-granddaughter, Anastasiia Prymachenko, in The Times, ten of her works were saved by a local man who entered the museum whilst it was on fire.” ]

Link Time

“Anna and Walter Schwarz on Will A. Lowman’s Jackass” (Eliza Schwarz) from the Anacortes Museum’s collection of 70,000 historic photographs.

I’ve decided to focus my contributions to Books Around the Table on links to sites that intrigue me. Some will have to do with kids books, others with writing, others with quirky sparks that might intrigue you as well. If you have links you want to share which do a similar job, I hope you’ll add them via the comments below.

My favorite this time around: The photo pictured above, of two kids on a jackass. It’s from small-town Anacortes Museum’s collection of 70,000 historic images (this in a town with a population of approximately 17,000 people!) newly digitized and put online as a searchable database. Here’s the link: https://anacortes.pastperfectonline.com/randomimages

Want a writing prompt? Find historic photos of a few unrelated people whose faces or circumstances interest you. Imagine a narrative that connects them.

Other interesting links this time:

  1. Goodnight Moon’s Margaret Wise Brown was an iconoclast. Who knew? https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/02/07/the-radical-woman-behind-goodnight-moon
  2. Sometimes, your comfort zone is all about the relative scale of things. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-new-yorker-documentary/when-a-cruise-ship-is-as-big-as-its-port
  3. ALA Media Award winners 2022 – Newbery, Caldecott, etc.: https://www.ala.org/news/press-releases/2022/01/donna-barba-higuera-jason-chin-win-newbery-caldecott-medals
  4. On teaching your kids to be lazy: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/20/opinion/teach-children-to-be-lazy.html?referringSource=articleShare
  5. Authors talk about their creative process: https://www.washingtonpost.com/books/2022/01/20/authors-creative-process/

Mrs. Fry, who ran a bakery in Anacortes
The children of Seid Chee, who was the labor supervisor at the Anacortes salmon cannery.
“Simon’s Wrecking Jalopy in the Marineer’s Pageant Parade” (1935)
Luvera’s Fruit and Grocery, founded in 1918 by Nicholas Luvera of Calabria, Italy. [From the Anacortes newspaper: “Luvera’s supplies 93 per cent of the purse seine fleet with groceries, and enjoys a large part of the waterfront trade. Nothing but the best of everything is the rule at Luvera’s, the first store to install the new R C A Victor radio.”]

The Pleasure of a Book Group

 

Why We Swimkillers-of-the-flower-moon  hamnet 

The Wonder  Water Wood Wild Things  The Leavers

Akin  Fine Just the Way It Is Song of the Lark

  Little  Paper Palace

BOOKS WE READ THIS YEAR

As the end of this sometimes difficult/sometimes hopeful year approaches, I begin to feel a number of New Year’s Resolutions sneaking up on me. I capitalize “Resolutions” because those little buggers need the insistence and ferocity of a capital “R”; my track record with resolutions is not stellar. I often break them by January 2nd. But it’s a new year, so new goals, right?

Some of the goals are about my relationship with my body. I’m 72 and this relationship, like any relationship that lasts decades, includes fondness, irritation, misunderstandings, boredom, and laughter.  Bodies are strange things, no? Frankly, I’ve always been better friends with – and kinder to – my brain. Brains can also wear out, of course – that thought scares me more than mortality.

I don’t want my brain wearing out, and I hear it’s good for brain health to keep the brain active. One resolution I feel coming on is this: READ MORE BOOKS. Not that I haven’t been reading in bits and pieces, but as some of my blog posts suggest, my attention has been brief and scattered. Articles here and there. Headlines, Commentary. Opinions. Reviews. Interviews. Cartoon captions. An essay about the joys of Rome or a googled article about how electrical circuits work. Fluttering and jumping. Snippets and bits.

But I’ve been lazy and undisciplined about books. What’s that about? Pandemic fatigue? I don’t have the answer(s) yet. Might not ever figure it out, but I’m going to try to get the joy back. I remember reading several books a month – even big, generational narratives –  and loving them when I was younger. Would I read One Hundred Years of Solitude now? Probably not, and what a loss that would be. Lately, if a book is long and challenging, and I’m reading it on my own, I abandon it.

Here is my working theory: I need to talk about books with people. Especially novels, which I find, pro forma, challenging. Non-fiction, easy: the real world is intriguing. But fiction? I need to talk about fiction. That way, I can see characters and authorial strategies from a different point of view. If I’ve disliked a novel and someone else has liked it, why would that be? Have I missed something? Have I read carelessly? Have I neglected a good story because I’m too hooked on style? Too hooked on reality, too suspicious of the imagination?

Luckily, I have a group of friends I talk with about books.  Over the last year, the books we’ve chosen have honestly been the only books I’ve read cover to cover. Maybe my resolution to read more books is actually a resolution to pay attention to other books the way I pay attention to the ones I read and discuss with friends.

We’ve been meeting monthly for ten years – Zooming, for the last year and a half. Books we’ve discussed have ranged from classics to recently published books, from old favorites and small gems to big bestsellers. We’ve never established parameters about the way the books would be chosen, haven’t made rules about the way we would talk about them. We simply decided that each person, in turn, would pick out a book that the group would read. Some of the book choices have surprised us – we ended up not enthusiastic about some we thought we would love, and we absolutely loved a few we initially were unsure of (Hannah Kirshner’s Water, Wood and Wild Things: Learning Craft and Cultivation in a Japanese Mountain Town – who expected that to become one of our favorites this year?)

Over the last ten years, we’ve read between eight and ten books per year. We’ve turned mixed reactions over and around in our discussions. I’ve come to think of our conversations the same way i think about going to museum exhibits – enjoying them most when I’m with someone who likes a piece that I’ve approached with disinterest. Those familiar questions come out:  Have I missed something? Have I looked at the exhibit carelessly? Have I too often privileged style over substance? Is there something I can learn from this? The person I’m with (often my sister, who studied art in college) invariably knows a few more details than I do about technique, about effect, about effort, about the life of the artist. I listen and become interested. I find new footing. I grow. So it is with my book club.  Without fail, someone adds an observation that gives me a new perspective.

In 2021, we read eleven books. I’ve put their covers up at the beginning of this post. Loved some, disliked others, was bored by some, couldn’t put others down. Looked forward each time to hearing what friends thought of of a story, and why they thought what they thought. I heard people mention things about the book I hadn’t thought about. Loved re-viewing the book after their comments. A new member is joining us this month, and I look forward to getting to know her through books. 

As for the resolution I feel coming on: If I read eleven books this last year, can I put aside the snippets and bits long enough to double that number, or triple it? Can I re-engage with longer reading? Re-engage with novels? Re-connect with more people to get a discussion going? Maybe the bottom line in that resolution is “reconnect with more people.” I moved to a new town not too long ago and barely got settled in – I’m slow when it comes to settling in – before the pandemic began and new friendships went on hold. Maybe it’s time for me to join the local library’s book club.  Make new book friends, keep the wonderful old book friends. And give another old friend, my brain, more of a workout.

Coffee and Something to Read

If you’re reading this first thing in the morning, be sure you make your cup of coffee straightaway. After all, it’s National Coffee Week.

Now sit down and, as you drink your coffee, pretend you’re sitting in the extravagant Caffe Gilli in Florence. Go ahead, make it a cappuccino. Have a croissant, too. Caffe Gilli doesn’t cost a penny when you’re daydreaming.  

In your daydream, you’re sitting at the table on the right, nearest the clock.

As you sip, you need something to read. Here is something wonderful – an interview with the author/illustrator Maria Kalman posted this week on the Art of the Picture Book website.

When you finish, you can tell yourself you just had the perfect morning, and it will be true. Coffee and Kalman.

If you want a second cup, pour yourself one. This time pretend you’re in the Caffe Greco in Rome, founded in 1760, the spot where John Keats drank his morning tea.

With your second cup, try the two short videos (below) of storyteller Patricia McKissack. They are excerpts (can’t find the whole lecture) from her 2010 Spencer Shaw talk at the University of Washington. The highlight for me: She reads a poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar in the style of a jump-rope rhyme (Video 2.) In the first video, she talks about her storytelling coming from inquisitiveness – she wants answers, but she wants good stories, too. And can she tell a story! – as could her grandparents and her mother – I wish I’d been at that lecture to hear her.

By the way, the Spencer Shaw Endowed Lecture this year will be given by author/ illustrator Yuyi Morales. You can hear the lecture free – live streaming on YouTube October 14th at noon PST – here’s a link.

McKissack Video 1 “I write because I have an inquisitive mind.”

McKissack Video 2 Jumping Rope to Paul Lawrence Dunbar

[Note: When you watch the McKissack videos, be sure to move the bar back to the beginning – for some reason they’re opening for me mid-way through.]

And if you need a shot of Caffe Greco’s interior for your daydreaming, here it is. Sigh.

You’re sitting at the table next to the statue.

Hither and Thither, Bits and Pieces

One Heck of a Pickle.

This post constitutes what is called a “mixed bag.” It’s summer, and as far as I’m concerned, that means my mind can wander. And my mind usually wanders hither in bits, thither in pieces. Here are seven of those pieces.

  1. Summer: the beach, family, friends, and a picnic of hot dogs, corn on the cob, potato salad. And though I’m holed up inside my house due to dangerous heat and unhealthy air quality levels (the smoke from forest fires has finally descended on the suffering, over-cooked Pacific Northwest (scary orange sun, eerie orange moon) I’ve spent a bit of the morning making potato salad, heavy on the mustard and dill pickles. Bought eight ears of corn from a farm stand yesterday. Saw friends last night, all of us vaccinated, fingers crossed that was okay, because it was glorious to sit around a table with them and laugh and reminisce.  Summer!
  2. Summer: nonsense and play. While making the potato salad this morning, I realized that if I totally followed my own writing advice to play more, be goofier, dive into nonsense, I would write a book about dill pickles. Maybe format it as a blog post from a young child who loves everything tart and sour – dill pickles, sauerkraut, rhubarb.  Or maybe just write a few poems about tart edibles for a collection of jump rope rhymes.
  3. Jump rope rhymes. Hmmmmmmm. What rhymes with pickle? The list turns out to be more substantial than I thought.  Bicycle, tickle, fickle, nickel (and pumpernickel!), prickle, popsicle, icicle, and, of course, motorsickle.  Practically a sonnet’s worth. Nothing Shakespearean. Maybe a limerick.  You know what they say, follow your passion. Even if it’s a passion for poetry and pickles. 
  4. If you didn’t see the high jump during the Olympics, be sure to look it up online. There was a golden moment at the conclusion of the jump, after both finalists (good friends from Qatar and Italy) cleared 2.37 meters. The jumper from Qatar, rather than agreeing to a “jump-off,” asked an official if he and his friend could share the gold medal – and the official said yes. The ballet of the jumps (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GjSCT97GSsA) was gorgeous, and the friendship that showed up at the end of the competition was even more so.
One Heck of a Friendship

5. Writers: If you haven’t seen The Father yet, see it. It stars Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman; they are brilliant. Watch it once to get the story (a doubled and unsettling perspective on Alzheimer’s) and once to study the character development on the part of the screenwriter and the craftsmanship on the part of the actors. In both cases, this is a lesson in “less is more.”

One Heck of a Movie

6. In case you ever doubted it, climate change is real. Here’s an image from the Seattle Times today. Smoke from the wildfires, temperatures from Portland to Seattle in the mid-90’s. Air quality officially “Unhealthy.” Third summer in a row.

One Heck of a Mess.

7. Last but definitely not least, kudos to friend Erik Talkin, whom I got to know at Vermont College of the Fine Arts. His picture book Lulu and the Hunger Monster just won a Social Justice Literature award from the International Literacy Association. “The SJL Award seeks to recognize outstanding books that address social responsibility towards individuals, communities, societies and/or the environment and which invite reflection and socially responsible action by the reader.” That’s a wonderful goal. And a well-deserved award, Erik!

One Heck of An Award

That’s all from me this time around. Autumn approaches, and maybe my wandering mind will settle in for a period of linear thinking….? Meanwhile, summer: Indulge yourself in the misc.’s and etc’s of the season.

On the Art of Construction

First, before we get into the word “construction,” let me just say that June got away from me.

I say that as if June were a rambunctious toddler, but the fact is, I’m actually the toddler, and it’s me that got away from June. Not to mention getting away from time in general since February of 2020. Somehow, a lot of us have been functioning outside the normal tocks and ticks, with both internal and external clocks providing a cuckoo bird to pop out occasionally and announce the state of affairs, but no hands to mark exactly where we are in a given day. Did I say “given day”? Do I even know what day it is?

Bigger question: Should I blame it all on the pandemic? No, I should not. I’m getting older – there’s that. Still, the pandemic didn’t help. But it might have been wise to keep an actual calendar on the wall and turn the pages. At least then I would have seen the lay of the land, with Sunday standing solidly at one end of a week and Saturday standing just as solidly at the other end, with rows of weeks stacking up one after another, and with a substantial oomph to the accumulation, also known as “months.”

Instead, I’ve been keeping my calendar on my iPad lately, and things are different in iPad World. They have a different shape. Less oomph. Less turn-the-page-ability, more spillage of May into June, etc.

So, should I blame my losing June (June losing me) on my electronic calendar? No, I should not. I will blame it on construction equipment. Excavators, lumber deliverers, Mack trucks! At my house to build an addition to the nest.

Mack trucks mean business.

I’ve been eating, sleeping, dreaming, breathing construction progress. We had a big crane come up the alley in May and move our outdoor studio from one part of the yard to another. Lost an asparagus bed and some raspberry plants, very sad, but a thrilling moment when the 12×12 structure was lifted off one foundation and put onto another. Like a great clumsy bird flying low to the ground. Or more like a big baby being carried in straps and swaddling by an equally big stork.

Baby studio about to lift off.

An excavator came and dug a somewhat precise hole. Our garden lost its adolescent golden chain tree, but holes are fascinating, too. I managed to save the pink dogwood and the white hydrangea paniculata at the edge of the hole. Whew.

What we called the Big Digger.

Then the foundation forms were built in the hole and a cement truck came to the front of the house, accompanied by another truck with a 90-foot crane/hose to deliver the cement up and over the house and into the back yard from the cement truck. Neighbors came to watch. Fast work, loud and messy and exciting. Very carnivalesque.

The talk of the neighborhood.

Then our builder went for a ride on his mountain bike, fell coming down a dangerous trail, broke his collarbone, had to walk out on his own, was taken to the hospital, had surgery. Real life came back into focus. The next day he’s walking around with his arm in a sling and making sure his assistant knows what needs to be done. The man is a sweet lunatic. And he loves building houses.

Next the sill is then nailed in place (I hope I have the terminology right!) and plywood subfloors go on and it starts to look like a bedroom. Walls even start to go up. As of the moment I’m typing this, the room awaits more walls and trusses and a roof and shingles and and and and and. And that is how I lost June.

I love our construction team. Bravo! I could sit all day and watch them work.

I wish I had taken woodshop in high school but that just wasn’t “done” in the 1960’s. So my brother learned how to swing a hammer and use a skill saw; he worked in a lumberyard and basically built a second floor on to his house one summer. I, meanwhile, studied literature, read poetry, and learned to construct both Elizabethan and Petrarchan sonnets. People call what I do “creative” and what our construction crew does “manual labor.” I know for a fact that both our efforts demand blood, sweat and tears. Well, not blood, hopefully. We’ll save that for mountain biking accidents. But definitely sweat and tears.

I’m tempted to offer up comparisons between the building of a house and the writing of a book – the design work, prep work, foundational work, the structural considerations, the progress forward, the big Mack truck of a deadline bearing down on you, the dozens of first decisions and final decisions, the trance-like condition of creating something that makes you lose track of hours and days. The joy you feel when you’ve made something that will stand the test of time.

Poetry and house-building. Many similarities between these two arts.

What a DELICIOUS day!

I’m so happy to tell everyone reading Books Around the Table today that my latest picture book collaboration with illustrator Julie Paschkis is now officially out in the worldDelicious: Poems Celebrating Street Food Around the World has been published by Beach Lane Books! Big shout hurrah, huzza, yippee and yay!! And a big thanks to editor Allyn Johnston for the fine work her team did in making this a real, hold-in-your-hands book.

“Out in the world” is exactly where this book lives – New York City, Oaxaca, Jaffa, Marrakech, Launceton, St. Petersburg, Lima, Mumbai, Surabaya, Seoul, Athens, Dakar, Beijing, and Boston, to be exact. And there could have been so many more cities, each one with its own rich stories about traditional street food. Choosing just fourteen poems to fit the picture book format was hard! So many beautiful cities, so much delicious food. I wrote one of the poems to honor many of the foods at once.

“Syrian shawarma wrapped in a pita? / Biryani? Pork carnitas? / Maybe I’ll get a hot falafel? / Schnitzel? Pretzel? Sesame noodles? / Cajun? Lebanese? Cuban? Thai? / So many choices! What should I try?”

I set “Carts in the Park” in New York City, where doors open wide to many immigrants and many kinds of street food (thinking of hot pretzels covered with mustard, a hot dog in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and divine biryani one night after a show in the Theater District.) But my own personal experience with this kind of gathering of food carts is Portland, Oregon, a city that in the past has supported a whole city block of food carts downtown, as well as mini-parks full of carts in other neighborhoods. I hear a big apartment building might be built on the food cart block – say it ain’t so, Portland! We need some food cart advocates. Maybe this book and others like it will help ensure another generation of food cart lovers?

Food carts in downtown Portland

When you travel, do you come home with memories of unexpected moments with a local food seller? A small conversation, a delicious bite of traditional street food? I suspect you do, I hope you do, because those memories stay with you and become part of your family lore, don’t they? My best memories of Mexico, aside from visiting my husband’s family, are from the lively markets and the street carts – hot corn on the cob covered in chile sauce, all-you-can-drink orange juice, sweet peanut brittle, morning tamales, fruit juice popsicles, churros, cocoa, and – yes – deep fried grasshoppers. The poem I wrote for Oaxaca comes straight up from my love of the kind and hard-working Mexican street vendors I’ve met.

“Steaming cup of champurrado / panecitos, cinnamon churros — / mmm, mmm! Delicioso! / Lovebirds chirp: Pio! Pio!”

This is my fourth book with Julie Paschkis, and when the box of author copies arrived at my door, I said my usual hallelujah for Julie’s energy and vision, her talent, and – most important – her friendship. With this book in particular, I thank her and my other Books Around the Table friends for their patience and support – this book was a long time coming! Many first versions of the poems were just too long for a picture book collection (one stand-alone poem about Mexican markets was highlighted in 2010 in a blog post by Jama Kim Rattigan – eleven years ago this month!) so the project came to a standstill. I even put the manuscript away for a number of years, busy with my teaching at Vermont College of Fine Arts. But it kept sneaking out of that drawer in my desk, and it really does help to have an encouraging and supportive writers group to keep your spirits up. Thank you, Laura, Julie P., Margaret and Bonny.

I’m hoping someday I’ll get to St. Petersburg….“Four pelmeni / three piroshki / two sweet blini — / one big belly.”

And hoping I’ll get to Lima …. “From a tin tray / on parade day / to celebrate the Lord of Miracles — / star cookies, pink sprinkles!”

And to Marrakech. And to Athens. And…and…and….

Can you tell I’m aching to travel again? Fingers crossed. Vaccinated, wearing my mask, dreaming of Oaxaca.

February: The Bits-and-Pieces Month

I’m not sure why I think of February as a bit of a pretender in the January-to-December calendar. It could be the lack of a satisfactory ending: finished in a too-tidy 28 days, so some days go missing. It could be the lack of a proud identity: it’s surrounded by the more illustrious months, January (“I’m the beginning of a brand new year!”) and March (“Spring will be arriving before I’m gone!”) Or it could be the awkward unprounounced “r” at the heart of it (does anyone say Feb-ru-ary rather than Feb-u-ary?) which feels a little “presumido” as they say in Spanish. A bit pretentious and effortful. I remind myself right now that it has Valentine’s Day…so romance, love, roses…maybe I’ll cut it a little slack? Or maybe I won’t, because every February I wish I could escape the Pacific Northwest and go someplace less gray and less rain-soaked.

In any case, I feel like it’s a month that merits a collection of thoughts, so I offer up some interesting bits and pieces that have been on my mind and on my desk.

  1. I’m celebrating a new book, Nathan’s Song, by the talented Leda Schubert. It’s one of those perfect picture books; Leda knows what she’s doing: not a word too many, not a word too few, exciting illustrations, and a story I love. It’s based on Leda’s real grandfather, a young Russian Jew who yearned to study opera in Italy, left the shtetl to do just that, and accidentally (he got on the wrong ship) became an immigrant in New York City. Wonderful book – if your local library doesn’t have it, encourage them to purchase it. Or, even better, order it and add it to your collection. Leda has recently posted photographs of her grandfather on Facebook; here is one of Nathan with his sister, and another of just Nathan:

2. Next, a heads up for tonight, literally: Friday the 26th is the best night for viewing the Snow Moon. Which is also known as the Big Hoop Moon (Cheyenne), the Sleet Moon (Comanche), and the Big Bear Moon (Tlingit.) By the way, February has no full moon every 19 years. Another example of its fragmentary nature?

The full super snow moon rises, Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020, at Smith Rock State Park in Oregon. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

3. Julie Paschkis’s wonderful post two weeks ago looked into pianos: learning to play them, reading about them. So I follow up with an unrelated “Piano” of my own: I recommend the book Atlantis by Carlo and Renzo Piano. The subtitle is “A Journey in Search of Beauty,” and it follows the trip by sailing ship of Carlo Piano, a journalist, and his famous father, Renzo Piano, the architect of the Pompidou Center, the Whitney Museum, and the new New York Times Building, among many other famous structures. I especially liked Chapter 16: City of Music, which offers up this interesting observation when discussing the call of sirens (the kind that seduce sailors, not the kind that sound an alarm): “There are plenty of theories about sirens….Some believe that what gets mistaken for sirens are rogue waves that produce melodies.” There’s a poem in that if anyone wants to write it. And here’s an interesting passage for another poem: “Sound is air quivering in space, physicality. .An architect is a constructor of music boxes. When designing a concert hall, merely achieving acoustic perfection is insufficient. An architect must also give it character. And he has to grant everyone access to the same emotions at the same time. One of the beautiful things about listening to music is that we listen to it together.” Piano goes on to talk about the lightness of music and the heaviness of architecture. Pure poetry.

That’s it for now: two bits and one piece, or one bit and two pieces.

Oh. One last bit-let (aka trivia): Did you know that February used to have another name? In Old English it was called Solmonath – which some translate as “mud month.”

No wonder I’m dreaming of Oaxaca!

THIS….?
…OR THIS?

.

2021: Three Favors, One Resolution

Yes, it’s 2021! Hallelujah!

There’s light at the end of that long tunnel called 2020, and as I emerge into that light I’m going to ask 2021 for three favors.

FIRST:

It’s easy for me to forget I live in my whole body because I spend a lot of time in my head. I suspect that’s true for a lot of us who love to write and love to read and who make the time to do it. But inside our heads can be a dark place, too – not dark as in frightening, but dark as in isolating. It’s important to remember the delivery system for our brains involves our lungs, bones, blood, and skin. Without them the inside of our heads go completely dark. As in kaput. My mortality is not something I need to be thinking about all the time, but reminders (there have been plenty this year) like Covid-19 push me out of my head into the open air, send me out into the neighborhood or over to the beach for walks and fresh air. More, more, more of this, 2021, are you listening? Help push me out the door.

SECOND:

To feel creative, I first need a little noise. Not a lot. But I’m at my happiest if there are people moving around, some chatter, doors opening and closing, kids playing, the goings and comings of a real world, the scene turning over in a kind of tidal way, bit by bit, as I watch and listen. Noise – the kind you get at a good coffee shop. The kind you get when you’re walking down a street in Rome, London, Paris, San Francisco, Oaxaca, anyplace new that’s filled with people. The kind you get in a public market or when you’re singing with a choir. Later, silence is fine. But first, give me a world that’s boisterous and rambunctious. I’m looking forward to more noise, 2021, please!

THIRD:

Who knew that it was possible to miss touching people? To miss giving someone a little kiss to say hello, hugging them to say goodbye. Shaking hands when you say, “Nice to meet you.” Sitting down next to someone else, not worried about the distance between you. Such an undervalued thing until this last year. Proximity. Rubbing shoulders. Touch. I long for that most basic and most lovely of our senses, 2021. So please, more.

***

There’s one other thing, but I have to thank 2020 for it. Last year helped me remember that the word “essential” applies to just about everyone who works hard to make our daily lives work, often without the respect they deserve. So I’ll toss in this one resolution, after asking for three favors: I’m going to remember, 2021, to let those essential workers know whenever I can how grateful I am.