This summer, my father-in-law had a heart attack as he walked home from picking up a newspaper at a corner store. He and my mother-in-law were visiting family in Massachusetts, thousands of miles from their home in Arizona. By rights, Jim should have died. He literally collapsed on a neighborhood street.
But he didn’t die. Angels intervened. Neighbours sitting on a porch, enjoying the morning, saw him fall. An off-duty EMT was home and began effective CPR almost immediately. The ambulance that came for him was from a major trauma center.
For a few days, things were chaotic and unclear. Family drove in, flew in, called in and stayed close in every way that they could. And then, miraculously, Jim was ok. There were some cuts from the fall, some broken bones from the CPR and a defibrillator implanted for his heart, but in large part, he’s just fine. By the end of the summer, he was walking around, wondering when he’d be able to get back to his long hikes in the desert canyons of Arizona.
There are no words for this sort of miracle. I couldn’t write about this when it happened in July, and I can barely gather all the threads now: the wrenching loss; the nearly unbelievable salvation; the incredible rebirth; the emotions and experiences of so many people.
Today I received a beautiful letter from my mother-in-law, thanking her family for our support. My father-in-law wrote about his experience almost right afterwards,and I found his account equally moving. Each letter is haunting, so I’ve turned them into found poems. It’s the only way I can capture those few weeks in July.
My Strange Disappearance
I didn’t return in a reasonable time.
I have no memories
so I’m reconstructing from what people have told me.
I presumably stopped breathing,
my heart presumably stopped pumping.
Some force was certainly at work
to bring two strangers to my side
to bring me back from sudden death.
Unless I imagined this
family mysteriously appeared.
Do I believe in angels?
I sure believe in something.
I like the word angels.
-found in a letter from Jim Perry
Words to describe the love
I’ve been looking for words
But each time I thought or spoke
I felt raw and open.
I wake in the middle
of the night or
on my early morning walks.
I am swept away.
The heart-distance is non-existence.
He copied the phrase into his agenda Wednesday, February 6 “Décris la joie.” Describe joy. After Math. Before Reading.
Décris la joie. Describe how wonder is suddenly more necessary than air when I check on him before I sleep. The silk of his hair The satin of his skin The even slip of his breath.
Décris la joie. Describe the way my heart seizes and jumps when they bound in after playing outside. The whirl of the air The whoosh of their hugs The carefree wildness of their laughter.
I ask Have you done your homework? Yes, he says, It was easy.
Reflection on my process:
I originally jotted this exchange down when the assignment came home. I kept coming back to it, and tried to write it as a humorous piece because it made me laugh out loud when it happened. It sort of worked as a funny bit, but there wasn’t much to it.
I hesitated to turn it into a poem, but decided to take the plunge because Slice of Life writing is, in part, about learning to become better writers. If I can’t try new things in this supportive community, when will I try them? Also, it’s the weekend, so I had some time to work on this if I wanted.
The first and last stanzas came easily because they are what literally happened. I nearly published the poem like that, but I know I tend to cut my poems off at the knees by not offering enough development. The middle two stanzas then, were my attempt to show how hard it is for me to describe joy. I made some of the lines longer because I wanted them to reflect the complex nature of the task. I let the sensory details be shorter because, in the end, they seemed to me to be the essence of the feeling.
In the end, I don’t love it, but I like it. I’m still a nervous poet, but I like how this combines the humour of the initial situation with the complexity of the thought behind it. I’m not sure I love the middle two stanzas, but I’m glad I pushed myself to add them. And hey, maybe I’ll try another poem or two this month. We shall see.
A few weeks ago Stacey Shubitz posted a six-word story as her Slice of Life. (She, in turn, had been inspired by Jennifer Floyd’s six-word story post.) I’ve toyed with these before, but I’ve never shared any because, well, I’m never quite content with my own. (“I’m never quite content with my own” = seven words) Story of my life. (= four words)
That said, I can’t quite shake the idea, and I keep writing them. So, without too many more words, in no particular order, here are six of my six-word stories:
I am trying to teach poetry to twelve Grade 10 students who, for the most part, are not especially interested. They are very clear about their lack of interest. This year, as I did last year, I am trying to convince them that poetry is about playing with language, and that playing with language is worthwhile because it’s fun and it helps you say things the way you want to say them.
In case you are wondering, they are not interested.
This semester we are struggling. I have done all the things – the interesting intro, the playful, the different, the cool.
We’ve had a spoken word poet and a hip hop artist visit our class. We’ve imitated, tried various forms, talked, created crazy alliteration. We’ve read dead guys, living poets, and instapoets, and we’ve had visits from a spoken word poet and a hip hop artist.
But in case you are wondering, my class is not especially interested.
Now that I’m really sitting down to think about it, the unit is sort of working, but I’m not gonna lie, it’s sort of not. In fact, this year I have been tempted to give up. Day after day, I come in enthusiastic and prepared. Day after day, one girl reads a book under the table, one boy pulls out his phone and two girls whisper giggle at every transition. Four of twelve is a lot of visibly uninterested kids. Others are angling to convince me that compliance = engagement. I’m not buying what they’re selling, but that’s only fair because they’re not buying what I’m selling either.
As I write, I’m realizing that I’ve been assuming that their behaviour is designed to tell me that – in case I didn’t know – they are *not* interested, but they may actually be even more nervous than students in previous years. This lack of interest may be a disguise for some serious fear. After all, I am asking a lot of them, and the most visibly uninterested are also kids who stand to lose a lot by engaging. One thinks of herself as a writer, but she’s very unwilling to edit or consider any direction for her freewriting. (She also has a habit of abandoning books 3/4 of the way through.) One has told me that he will “probably” be interested in reading when he gets older because that’s what happened to his mom; writing doesn’t figure into his self-image. Two are reading and writing at a level significantly lower than Grade 10. (But they are reading! Hooray!) And I’ve got three exchange students who speak very little English. (But they are trying and they are learning. Hooray!) And some non-attenders (who mostly make it to English right now. Hooray!)
I wonder if when I say “play” they hear “I’m actually going to give you grades for all of this and I’m just pretending this is fun”? Wouldn’t be the first time. But they’ve met their match: I will not give up. Honestly, I pretty much never give up. I’ve got more persistence than is realistic by any stretch of the imagination.
And I want to think about today when we took Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool” and Gertrude Stein’s “Susie Asado” as our mentor texts. The students were pretty interested in “We Real Cool”. They liked the enjambment, the alliteration, the assonance. (They especially like the word “ASSonance.” They always do.) They were able to talk about the way the sounds were “awesome” and “on purpose.” I think they felt competent in their understanding.
“Susie Asado” was a different story. They pretty much sat, dumbfounded, in front of it. I said, “What do you notice about this poem?” and no one spoke. SIGH. I waited. Finally, one of them risked the truth: “This poem doesn’t make any sense.” No kidding. We talked about the sounds of words. We tried to imagine what on earth Gertrude Stein was doing and why anyone thought this was worth publishing. I made my naysayers put away books and phones. We listened. We talked about onomatopoeia. We watched flamenco dancing (because Gertrude Stein said that “Susie Asado” was an attempt to render the sounds of flamenco, particularly of one flamenco dancer. If you believe Gertrude Stein.) We talked about what things we know that have distinct but changing sounds – my mom driving behind a bad driver, a beach, a storm. And then we tried to write our own sound poem.
Ok, that’s a lie. Then I told the students to try to write a sound poem, and 9 out of 11 (because one was absent) stared at a blank page for five minutes. My ask was really really hard. So I suggested that maybe I should write in front of them and they could help me out. That was the ticket. And this is as far as we got. We are trying to record the sound of the hallway just before the bell rings and then as it fills with students…
Not the mock shyness as she stands in my doorway, eyeing me.
She asked to see me.
Not the slender length of her limbs.
She’s four; she might have grown.
Not the wild flare of her colorful skirt as she twirls around.
She is still all energy.
Not the hand-knitted heavy socks defying August heat in blue plastic shoes.
She has her own style.
Not the shameless request for food as her mother sighs, “I just tried to feed her.”
She knows where I hide the treats.
Not even the soft scratchiness of her newly-shaved hair.
I have seen the pictures.
What surprises me is the heat of her head as she tucks her whole body into my embrace;
What surprises me is the sheer hot truth of her.
Today, after nearly 6 weeks away, I got to see my friend’s child for the first time since she started chemo. She is doing well & the chemo is doing its job. There is a long journey ahead, to be sure, but right now it is marked by optimism. Much of our visit was the same as always; much of it was not. When they left, I couldn’t stop thinking of her and chose to write this.
A few months ago I became a regular reader of Margaret Simon’s blog, Reflections on the Teche, and I almost immediately fell in love. Sometime in March, she posted yet another of her beautiful pictures of the Bayou Teche and I pretty well just asked to come visit her. She was gracious in her reply (for example, she did not say, “I don’t even know you!”), and I hope she understood what I was trying to say: her descriptions of the place around her came alive in a way that made me want to be there. I haven’t visited yet, but Margaret’s awareness of the Bayou that surrounds her infuses much of her writing, so I was delighted to learn about her new book, Bayou Song: Creative Explorations of the South Louisiana Landscape(University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, 2018).
The book is a wonderful mix of elements: Margaret provides poetry and short, informative descriptions of various flora and fauna found on the Bayou Teche, Anna Amelia Cantrell offers whimsical illustrations and Henry Cancienne adds gorgeous photographs. These work together to create mini-sections: a photograph or two, some information, a poem and an illustration. But wait, there’s more! After all that, in each section readers are offered two entry points to add their own ideas to the book: a writing prompt and a sketch/drawing prompt.
I loved it – and I had a feeling my students would love it, too, but… it’s summer. No students at hand. So I turned to my favourite stand-in students: my children. I told myself that I just wanted to know if they would find the format as compelling as I did, that I was not actually forcing them to do school work during the summer… and then, I got a clever idea. You see, we’ve been on the road for a while now. First, we drove from Ontario to South Carolina to visit my family. After a ten day visit, we hopped back in the car for a series of adventures – an overnight in a cave in Tennessee, a trip to a waterpark, a drive through multiple states and, finally, a visit to my sister’s family in Kansas.
In terms of landscape, it’s safe to say that Kansas is not much like Ontario. As we drove along, I couldn’t take my eyes off the tallgrass prairie of the Flint Hills and the sky and the farms and, well, all of it. My darling children were more engrossed in their tablets than the landscape and, even though they humored me by tearing their eyes from the screens when I called out “Look at the ________!”, their lack of interest was driving me crazy – until I realized I might have a solution at my fingertips: Bayou Song. I knew Margaret had written this book with kids in mind. In fact, I asked her about the audience she envisioned as she wrote.
“I absolutely envisioned my audience as my students. I’ve taught them poetry every year and have come to be known as the poetry teacher. I love this. My heroes are teachers like Amy VanDerwater, Laura Shovan, Irene Latham, and Laura Purdie Salas. I turn to their work over and over for teaching and writing inspiration. I also wrote it for teachers! I want teachers to find a way to enter into poetry with kids that is not intimidating but inspiring and fun.”
I had a feeling my kids and their cousins (all boys, ages 7, 9, 9, and 10) might, indeed, be inspired and have fun if I could get them to read even a bit of Bayou Song. So one morning, as we drove to the Milford Nature Center, I challenged them to observe the plants and animals around them. They were suspicious but I played up the fun and the challenge and they became champion lookers. My nephews are from Kansas while my boys are first time visitors, so their observations built on each other as we explored.
We walked through the nature center and watched the rescued bobcats, turkey vulture, kestrel, bald eagle, prairie dogs, snakes, and owls… we peered into the stream and saw the water bugs, minnows, frogs, herons… we chased down butterflies, grasshoppers, and beetles as we wandered down the trail… we heard the cicadas, the bees, the birds, the water…. we found the tracks of deer, raccoon, herons, humans… In short, we immersed ourselves in the landscape for several hours.
When we got home, we turned to Bayou Song to see how our observations helped us. Margaret is a great believer in poetry for kids and asked her own students about parts of this book. Here’s what she says:
“I write poetry with my students all year long. When I was editing these poems, I asked for their advice a few times and stole some of their ideas. The one that comes to mind is ‘Things to Do if You’re a Snapping Turtle.’ My student Lynzee came up with the last line. She said, ‘Don’t leave home.’ I re-envisioned the line as ‘Don’t leave your room’ thinking about how a room is a special, safe place for a child.”
So, I followed Margaret’s lead. I asked for the kids advice: is this a good book to use in a classroom? We opened the book and the boys were immediately drawn to the Legend of Bayou Teche.
Legend of Bayou Teche
Long ago, in the days when Native American tribes lived
in harmony with the land, there lived a huge venomous
snake. The snake’s body stretched for miles and miles.
The Chitimacha tribe warriors gathered together to
conquer this enemy snake. To kill a hundred-mile-long
snake was no easy task, so it took days for the snake
to die. As the snake fought to survive, it twisted and
turned and created a great gorge in the soil, eventually
dying and decomposing, leaving behind Bayou Teche.
“Creepy,” said one. “Cool,” said another. “Turn the page!” said the third. I did, and we saw this:
“LOOK! It’s a snake and a tree!” “And it’s a river!” “There are birds.” We read the poem. The boys nodded a lot and got into a debate about creepy vs cool. Then we read the prompts:
Write it: Choose a place in nature (an ocean, a tree, a flower, an animal)
to write about. If you use personification (as in “I am a Beckoning Brown
Bayou”), you become the thing you are writing about. How would an ocean,
tree, flower, or animal feel, act, hear, smell, or see?
Sketch it: What is a waterway near you? Does it have a shape? Does the shape
match its name? Draw the waterway so that it matches its name.
We repeated this process for the first few sections – one boy lingered over the “non-fiction,” another liked the drawings, two had me read poems out loud repeatedly – until one of the kids looked at me and said, “When do we get to write?” Um, in mid-July a bunch of kids just asked me if they could write and respond to poetry. “How about now?” I suggested. I already had the paper, pens and colored pencils. The kids dove into drawing, writing, and sharing their ideas with each other. They talked about what we had seen. They thought about things in new ways – like leaves as hair or trees as rivers. All four boys were intensely focused as they worked. Here’s a peek into their creations:
(The fourth boy was also inspired, but creating his grand vision – the Kansas River and several complicated elements of animals and trees – required more stillness than he could muster in one July sitting, and he asked me not to share his unfinished product.)
Clearly, Bayou Song is an open invitation to children and adults (because, I can’t lie, I wrote a little something, too) to experience their environment and respond to it in ways that are simultaneously thoughtful and playful. When we went canoeing yesterday, the boy in my canoe was still imagining himself as various animals and noticing things as we floated by. As a parent, I couldn’t ask for more. As a teacher, I can’t wait to use it as a mentor text and as an inspiration in my classroom next year.
Would you like to know more about Bayou Song? Continue your tour at these blogs, where you’ll find more poems and illustrations from the book, interviews with Margaret Gibson Simon, and other surprises.
Last month Margaret Simon over at Reflections on the Teche dreamed up the idea of inviting people to participate in a photo exchange she called “More than Meets the Eye.” The idea was that we would send a photograph from our area to an exchange partner then each of us would write a poem about the other’s photograph. I was paired with Catherine Flynn (who blogs at Reading to the Core); she sent me beautiful pictures from in and around Bridgewater, CT.
Lovers Leap Gorge
I get nervous about writing poetry – even though I’ve watched my blogging friends write a poem a day for all of April and I’ve popped in to the Poetry Friday round ups to read and occasionally share – and when I’m nervous about writing… I research! The first thing I stumbled upon was Trip Advisor where a found poem leaped (haha) out at me. So… just for laughs…
Lovers Leap Gorge Trip Advisor Found Poem
This is a simple roadside pull-off with a nice view. Great photo op. No facilities exist. Daylight use only. Overnight parking prohibited.
But the stories, legends and history of the area deserve more than a tongue-in-cheek found poem. I was entranced by the sounds of the names, the newspaper articles from when they flooded the valley (covering over the Barnum house – yes, related to the circus) to create Lake Lillinonah (named for the young Pootatuk woman who, according to legend, leaped off the gorge with her lover). I learned that Still River runs into the lake and so much more. I wish I could have worked it all in.
And then… well, I tried free verse and a mask poem. I tried a little of this and a little of that and I couldn’t quite get what I was looking for. I wanted the circus (the sound of the calliope) to weave into the legend into the idea of man-made creation (because I’m assuming the legend is at least partly created and I know the lake is). It was the idea of weaving things together that led me to write my first-ever pantoum. It’s got my own twist – I used a refrain – and I tweaked the lines a little, but close enough.
Catherine, Margaret, here’s a Bridgewater/Lovers Leap Gorge/Lillinonah pantoum. Thanks for the inspiration!
Lillinonah “I feel sure bits and pieces of the old valley will come bubbling up to the surface of the lake for years.” Mrs. Sewell Montgomery in the Connecticut News Times
Lillinonah: Bits and pieces of the old valley Bubble to the surface. A lingering lilt of calliope Ripples through the water.
Lillinonah Bubbles to the surface. A lover, she leaps and her echoes Ripple through the waters of the man-made lake.
Lillinonah: Did your lover leap? Do his echoes Glide like a canoe over The man-made lake Where Still waters cover legends?
Lillinonah, Glide in your canoe over The lingering lilt of calliope Where Still waters cover the legends and Bits and pieces of the old valley.