Book Review: The Poetry of Strangers

Brian Sonia-Wallace hit the streets with a manual typewriter to see what poems he could write for other people, and quickly found his calling. In The Poetry of Strangers, Sonia-Wallace recounts his years as a street-corner poet, typing out verse for anyone who “needs a poem,” as he asks those who come to him.

Part of it was an experiment, to see if he could spend a month as a street poet, earning enough in donations in a month to survive, and part of it was making connections with other people, to allow them space to tell their stories to him, the poet filter, who then would gift them with a poem.

The book recounts his journey, and while there are some sections that veer off the trail of his main theme, the book is a nice companion to stories of groups like Typewriter Rodeo, and suggest that bringing old typewriters into public spaces might touch an emotional core to many of us. And that he is able to both leverage poetry and elevate language to anyone with an interest is exciting for us writers, and suggests possibilities for poetry.

While I enjoyed his tales of where his talent has taken him (from streets of many cities in America to corporate functions to political campaigns and more), what I found to be most powerful was his insights into people, who yearn to be heard in the age of digital noise. Some of the most emotional moments, he notes, are in the conversations he has with people before he writes them their poem, where they share parts of themselves with a stranger/writer/poet, who then recasts that story in verse, and hands it over.

He ends his book with this:

With every poem I write, I remember the value of a story doesn’t always depend on how many likes or retweets it gets, or how many people it reaches. Sometimes, just one person hearing a story — is enough. — from The Poetry of Strangers, by Brian Sonia-Wallace, page 286

Peace (in poems),

Slice of Life: Drumroll, Please

Newspaper Announcement

Last week, for Slice of Life, I mentioned how I had been told I was a finalist in a short story contest here, sponsored by our local newspaper. Well, I didn’t win it all but I did come in what they are calling First Runner-Up (sort of Second Place, I guess) and this morning, my story was published in its entirety in the newspaper (in wicked small font!).

Newspaper Story

I’m pretty excited about it and I will bring the newspaper into the classroom today, too. You can listen to the interview I did with the local radio station and hear me reading the story out loud, over the phone, if you are interested.

Now, for my next story …

Peace (writing it),

Process Notes: Turning Poem into Song (About Writing a Poem)

I’ve been trying to write each month with the folks at Open Write via Ethical ELA (it’s pretty inspiring how many people come to write there), and it works by having just five days of writing prompts each month (so, manageable). The email notifications are always welcome, as I always forget it is coming up.

Mostly, I work on my daily poems with the prompts. The other day, the theme of ‘thanks’ came up for the first prompt of November, and I began a poem about the greeting cards you get from stationery stores, and then veered into something different, something more interesting (for me).

The shelves have become
barren of those silly cards,
those throw-away phrases
that always tried so hard
to make us laugh, in aisles
of the grocery store and
boutique shops and kiosks
in the mall, manufactured thanks
spit out by cold machines,
while I’m still one of those few
who settles down in the quiet,
pen in hand, to carve out poems
from the bones of memory,
a crinkled paper-cut of words
tucked into the folds
of your jacket pocket

It was the place where the poem took a turn in the middle with the writer becoming self-aware that I could not shake throughout the day. I found the words becoming lyrics in my mind all day long, small phrases dancing in my mind, and finally, I had time to sit down with my guitar, and I slowly began wrangling the poem into another shape altogether, turning the lines into lyrics of a song.

An interesting and challenging element of this process is that the rhythm and rhyme of the poem didn’t quite work (I’m not sure why I even heard the poem as song verses, given the lines) and so I found myself moving the pieces around, adding words, twisting phrases — all in the service of song.

I was intent on keeping the meaning, though, of a poet — feeling a bit estranged from the world, of thinking they are “one of the few” still scribbling words to paper – still writing, and intent on tucking words into the pockets of another person, hopeful that the poems will be found and recognized, and read. I think I was successful in this thematic connection from song to poem.

Paper Cuts You (Everywhere You Go)

I may be one of the few
to settle down
in the quiet and write you a poem

I wish I knew
how to share the silent
the way memory holds us like bone
the paper cuts you everywhere you go

These four walls
these blue lines
the days turning into night

I can’t recall
what it is we said
I’m tucking words inside your sleepy head
dreaming on this paper bed

And if it rhymes, it’s time
to break it all apart
I’m the poem inside
the pocket of your heart

And if I had the words
then we’d be OK
I’d hold you in the dark before the light

So close the door
pull on the shades
I’m writing you from somewhere yesterday
and tomorrow will be better than today

And if we find it’s time
that we make it from the start
I’m the poem
inside the pocket of your heart

The music was first recorded as a rough demo with only guitar and voice as a way to get it down. I found I liked what it was in that rough format but the song needed a bit more lyrically to bring things around to something hopeful. So I began all over again — adding other instruments — keyboard, piano, bass, guitar, strings. I wanted to keep my voice front and center — the poet, thinking — and the guitar fairly sparse strumming, more like a mandolin (the capo is high up the neck).

In the end, the song is different from the poem — the middle section, with worries that the poet is falling into method as opposed to heart, turns things a bit and the last parts give more hope, with the poet being the poem inside the pocket of the heart — but the pieces are still connected by some invisible string, circling around the central idea of a writing having hope that words can still impact the audience – even an audience of one person.

Peace (sounds like love),

Giving Ourselves the Gift of Forgiveness

forgive“forgive” by timlewisnm is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

We’ve been in the midst of our parent-teacher conference week. Forging strong connections with families is always important, and it is even more so during these Pandemic times of hybrid and remote learning. All of our conferences are taking place on Zoom, which at times began to take on the role of a video confessional booth, although I didn’t mind when it veered into that direction.

Before we even ventured into the topics about academics or student progress, I consistently started out with the question: How are you (the family doing)? That question caused a pause, and then often a sigh, and then it sometimes opened a floodgate of response, and it was soon very clear — most families are just barely balancing the demands of their own work and lives with the school lives of their kids, and their collective nerves are frayed.

Some parents leaned in to apologize for not doing enough to help support their child’s learning during the Independent/Remote Days (in our Hybrid, we see students two days a week in the building, and then they are home for three days, doing independent work). Some families, primarily those with more than one child at school, admitted they just can’t keep up with the emails and notifications from different teachers, and have stopped looking.

More than one parent started to tear up. Many asked for more advice on how they can best support their child at home. Most said something along the lines of, “We’re doing what we can, but it doesn’t feel like it’s nearly enough.” They have not given up, but most seem resigned to the reality of the situation.

More than a few asked pointed questions about whether we are seeing gaps in academic performance due to the Spring shut-down and current Hybrid model, and if so, what would those gaps mean? I spoke reassuringly about what we are seeing, what we are doing, and the direction we are heading as a school. Parents seemed relieved by information and anecdotes.

All expressed heartfelt thanks for the teachers and the work we are doing, which I appreciate (particularly given some contentious decision-making by our local School Committee over fully re-opening the school and eliminating the six-foot-distancing rule, which families pushed back against, hard, leading to a reversal of that decision for the upper grades).

I found myself, often, urging parents to find forgiveness for themselves, to remember that we are still in a Pandemic and, unfortunately, the Pandemic is getting worse right now with winter coming, not better. I reminded them that all we can ever do, is the best we can do, and that taking care of our families is priority number one. For some, that means working from home. For others, it means trusting children to be productive in their independence.

Be kind to yourself, I told one single parent, who was distraught as our conversation unfolded. Family first. We will work together to address any school issues, I told them. You are not alone in this. Forgive yourself, for you are doing what you can in this moment of uncertainty, I reminded them. That is what our children need — love and support and stability — more than anything else.

Maybe I was reminding myself, too, as much as giving them a gift of forgiveness to give themselves.

Peace (to you),

Missed The Marathon; Found Some Poems

Consider the Hinge

My National Writing Project friends at the Morehead State Writing Project hosted a post-election Writing Marathon last week that I had hoped to join but then could not.

Write Our Way Out

Luckily, they shared out the prompts afterwards and so I spent a few mornings, using the prompts to inspire some small poems. I’m sorry I could not join the night of the Marathon, but I was glad to be able to take my time each morning with a poem.

UndertowI was also trying out a new mobile app from the folks at Buffer (which hosts the free Pablo), which I use quite a bit for adding visual elements. The app — Buffer Remix — turns Tweets into an image, with different themes and photo options (including image search from Unsplash). It’s kind of cool. It works best with tweets with fewer words.

Look to the StarsThe Morehead State Writing Project folks are hosting a second event tonight, and while I signed up, I have yet another conflict. I’ll be keeping an eye out for the prompts for further morning poetry writing.

Writer in the Storm of Night

Peace (and poems),

Video: Letters to Veterans

Most years, our elementary school hosts an amazing breakfast and all-school ceremony to celebrate our military veterans in the community. We live near two National Air Guard bases, so many of our families have military people in them. We often have dozens of veterans attend from all different services and from all different experiences, and introduce themselves to the student community, and students sing songs of appreciation. I’m a veteran, too, and I always appreciated the celebration.

This year, we can’t do that kind of event, due to the Pandemic, so I asked my sixth graders to write letters to our community veterans and then gathered them together into a video format. It’s not the same, but it’s something.

Peace (in the world),

Slice of Life: Short Story Finalist

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write on Tuesdays about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

The other day, I found out a short story I wrote for contest hosted by the local newspaper and radio station is a finalist, with the winners to be announced in the coming days. This Short Fiction Contest used to be a HUGE deal around here where I live during its heyday, as writing groups and others put its annual submission date on the calendar as a must-watch time of year.

Like many others in this area full of writers and artists, I have submitted stories over the years, and I was even a finalist one other time (in a strange piece that used the format of a end-of-book contributors biography list to weave in hints of stories that connected all of the people together).

The contest went dormant for a few years as the local newspaper struggled to cut costs and ended its weekly magazine (where the story was hosted). But then this year, before the Pandemic, the newspaper revived the contest with a call for submissions. I had an idea for a story, sparked by something I had read about an unclaimed piece of land, and then wrote it in a blur over a day or two, then workshopped it with some friends at an online community I was part of (Yap.Net) where the advice of my reader friends was so incredibly helpful to fine-tuning the narrative and voice.

Then I submitted the story.

But, of course, the Pandemic hit us not long afterwards. The newspaper struggled to stay afloat with reduced advertising, and I didn’t even think about the contest at all, or my story, for a long time. I just figured it was another casualty of the times.

A few weeks ago, I saw a notice in the newspaper that the whole thing was back on again, with help 0f the local radio station, and then two weeks ago, I got an email saying I was a finalist and would I come on the local radio to read my story and be interviewed (of course, I did – it will be here as a podcast after it runs on the air this week sometime)?

So now I am waiting to see what happens.

My students are excited (Our writing teacher is a finalist! The story will be in the newspaper! He spoke on the radio and mentioned us!) and I’ve been using the moment to play up the fun of being a writer telling stories and getting some recognition now and then, and explaining where my idea for the story came from and how I wrote the story, and the moments of struggle in the writing, and all that.

So, I wait … but not much longer.

Peace (writing it down),

Book Review: Diary of a Wimpy Kid (The Deep End)

I’m pretty sure, somewhere, in the past posts at this blog, there are fourteen other reviews of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid collection, starting with the very first one published 15 years year ago. I bought it for my eldest son; we read it together; we laughed at the hijinks; we bought the second one the following year. And so on and so on and so on, as each of my three boys grew up, we read the books each November.

Now my eldest son’s an adult, away from home, and my youngest is in high school, and still, I buy the latest Wimpy Kid book each November like clockwork. For a time, I did it because my students were still reading the series, and I am always trying to stay attuned to their interests. But I asked around the classes the other day, and no one said they were buying the new book, nor did many even know Kinney was still publishing them.

But I bought the newest one anyway, mostly out of habit, but also, because Kinney’s visual style and humor storytelling still makes me giggle at times, and who can beat that, really? Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Deep End, the 15th book, is classic Wimpy Kid, although the opening scenes in which the family is stuck at home, isolated and going batty, suggests the social distancing of the Pandemic in an inferential way (not outright), as Kinney seems to be acknowledging the world beyond the book, and the lives of his readers.

Then, the story moves on, with Greg Heffley and his family hitting the road in an RV to go on a vacation trip, and as usual, all sorts of craziness begins to take hold as they visit different vacation stops, each progressively getting more nutty, with flare guns in National Forests, a wandering skunk, inner tube disasters, sewage tank problems, etc.

The “deep end” of the title refers to both the swimming pool that sets the scene for the final section of the book, in which the family’s fun at an RV camp pool leads to their RV going into the river and heading downstream fast, and the going off the “deep end” is Greg’s observation of his own situation of losing it. As per normal.

There are narrative consistencies that Kinney keeps anchored on throughout the series, right from the start — family, resilience, humor — and the fact that Greg is still a middle schooler after 15 years and 15 books might give one pause, until you realize that middle schoolers have the best and worst views of the world, and that makes them a perfect foil for a comedy series like The Wimpy Kid.

Looking forward to next November …

Peace (laughing along),