Book Review: The Boy, The Mole, the Fox and the Horse

Sometimes, the right book arrives at just the right time.

So it is with The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and the Horse, by Charles Mackesy. At a time when a slower-paced book is needed, to calm the mind if not the heart, this small book — with such beautiful and evocative sketches and watercolors by Mackesy — offers an antidote of love, kindness, friendship and philosophy.

The narrative thread is a lonely boy who meets a cake-loving mole, who then rescues a fox, who then meets the horse, and all four creatures wander through a landscape, asking questions of each other on a range of topics, from what it means to be a friend to what it means to take care of yourself to what it means to love someone else and more.

There’s a quiet gentle, enhanced by the drawings, to the wanderings, sort of like the original Winnie the Pooh stories (before Disney got its hands on it), and that layered simplicity on top of message complexity makes The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and the Horse shine, page after page after page.

I’ve read the book twice in a week, and then shared it with my student book talk yesterday, and showed some of the pictures through video. This book is for any age reader, and while sharing it was the right thing to do, I believe this is one of those books you squirrel away, and take out when the world seems off-kilter, and maybe a little scary, and you need some reassurance that there is a path forward and you find the path with the ones you love, and traverse it together.

See? Perfect book for the times.

Peace (wandering through),
Kevin

Five Poems for OpenWrite

I stumbled on the Five Day Open Write at Ethical ELA and decided to join in. For five days, I wrote a poem, using the theme or style suggested, and came back to comment on the poems of others (there were a lot of people writing poems, which was very cool to see).

And I like that it’s just five days (and then other times of the year, it’s another five days of writing invitations). I also liked the graphic (above) that gives frames for commenting.

Here are the poems I wrote:

Never accept what
they tell you
she told me
or maybe
she didn’t
tell me but only
showed me
the way forward
towards resistance,
a mother’s message
to a son still resonating
decades after
she told me
or didn’t

 

I wish I could turn
and wander from
these moments,
to remember forever
how it was before

with school hallways
bustling with chatty energy,
jostling bodies walking,
the slamming of the
metallic locker doors

the quiet of our writing,
mid-way musings of
pencil scratches on paper,
digging into words,
emerging towards something more

of recess, and lunchtime,
of navigating friendship,
of bus loop energy,
of greetings, farewells,
silent reading on the floor

I wish I could turn
and wander from
this moment,
a return to the before

 

The way we felt
still feels now later
like unbridled
joy

from our perch
on the porch
as the pooch
zoomed by on
joy

with nary
a screen in sight,
or phone in use,
just pure abandon
in a moment of burst:
joy

 

some words can’t be found to be spoken
i know it feels this world, broken

i see this world, it merely seems broken
and a duplex like this, mere poetic token

but poems like these are not tokens
they’re like canapés or cakes, broken open

breaking open for us to dig inside, hard and oaken
like words, bound tight, but barely spoken

 

I remember
brushes on snare,
his foot on the pedals
of the big bass drum held
in anchor with concrete bricks –
the pounding of rhythm
through the rooms of the house

I remember
fingers on mallets,
the soft fabric covering,
the way we’d move from down low
to up high, the metallic rectangular
notes vibrating with such soft touch

I still remember
my father, the accountant,
who still plays those drums,
who still listens for the vibraphone,
who sought and found his own rhythm,
and kept on rolling it forward

Peace (and poems),
Kevin

On Rhyming Images: A Poetic Inquiry

Poems
Poems flickr photo by Pascal Maramis shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

The other day, Greg and Sarah began an inquiry into the question of “how to rhyme an image” based off a tweet that Sarah posted after she watched a short presentation from Greg, and her query became the heart of the third edition of Local Glocals, an informal podcast some of us are doing around poetry of the local.

I could not participate in the live event, so I sent some audio responses to guided questions (as did Sheri, and maybe others, like Wendy and Terry, in the CLMOOC poetry community. I’m not sure who answered the call for responses). This is the basic text of my responses of thinking where image meets text and where image inspires text, and maybe vice versa on both of those ideas. (Greg is going to weave everything together into an audio show).

How do you rhyme an image?

What I like about this question is how it moves us beyond the pure visual aesthetics of photography or art. We have to see the image as a text first before we can think about what a rhyme is or what a rhyme may even be, from one picture to another. Perhaps we need to consider complementary colors, the way the color wheel tones of one image might connect to the tone of another image, and how our eyes process light off the world to make color hues our brain understands. Maybe one color tone of one image spills into the other image, and that is what we can call rhyme, the brain finding comfort in the connection. Think of interior decorating, and the way that a designer is intentionally thoughtful of what colors work, where, and what colors, don’t and why. Or maybe it’s the view perspective of the images that is the source of rhyme, or harmony — how one photographer’s viewpoint is in sync with another photographer’s viewpoint, the actual perspective of what the looker sees in the image itself. I’m also curious about the opposite of all this — how do images NOT rhyme? Is there a sudden jolt, a recognition of something off, a sense that this does not go with that, for god’s sake and why did you even try? Does the non-rhyming of an image make us, instead, look closer at the curation of the images — what underlying thinking brought these disparate things together? And is either of these two ideas — complement and dissonance of the visual — poetry?

* What are your other artistic endeavors? What connection to poetry do you see?

I play at being a songwriter, so poetry is the heart of that creative expression on many levels. One thing I find, with songwriting, is that couplets drive so much of the work because of the rhyme that goes in the flow with the music, and there are many times when a song won’t work because the couplet is either too rote, too simple, or I can’t find a rhyme at all. I do try to mess with the rules when I can — false rhymes, uneven lines, and all that. I find it both helpful and unhelpful to read a lot of rhyming poetry, though, for in songwriting, those rhymes and rhythms are apt to spill into my own writing, sometimes without me even realizing it until later. I’m fine with stealing and remixing phrases from others for songs, to twist the interesting ideas into something different, but when I catch myself with an exact phrase from some poem in my lyrics, I have to stop and shake my head, and start erasing or scratching out to start again.

* Do you, and if so how, do you use images in writing poetry?

I love using images as a source of poetry, and do it often. In years past, I spent every April with Bud Hunt’s blog, where he was posting odd images every morning to inspire poetry. I’ve gathered up a bunch of websites that generate random images from Creative Commons (thanks to folks like Alan Levine and John Johnston) for inspiring verse. Lately, I’ve been engaged with Margaret Simon and her “This Picture Needs a Poem” feature at her blog and I’m always watching Kim Douillard for her work with the lens of her camera to spark poetry in her students, and herself, and in others. The thing I find fascinating about images as inspiration for poetry is that the writer edges into the image from the side, looking for something maybe even the photographer didn’t notice. You want to pay attention to what no one else has seen – maybe it’s something inferred, like the story before the image was taken. Maybe it’s what comes next in the scene. Maybe it’s right there, in front of you, but you only see it by taking your time and being open to it. From this, poetry flows, and it’s an interesting kind of poetry, too, because a reader later may not have the visual context for full understanding of the poem, and that’s OK, too, I think. Poetry should give us pause, to wonder.

* Why did you choose the poets you are sharing?

This is strange, but I am sharing an interesting poetry bot, created by Zach Whalen, called Auto Imagist, that is designed to take the image texts from random photographs, and combine that gathered text into poems, in the style of William Carlos Williams. The results are fascinating for the stylistic approach (Williams, of course, wrote wonderful short poems where the visual cues play a key role in the reader’s ability to connect) but also for the technique that remixes the text of images into poetry. What you see in the bot-generated poems are little scenes, small glimpses of the world, little corners of dust and stories. I suspect echoes of the original photographs, as described in the image text, remain, but are obscured by the remix. I don’t know how Whalen created the bot — the raw code is at Github — and I’d be curious to learn more about the programming approach, and how the bot actually works its poetic magic, and of course, this all raises the question: can a bot be a poet if it remixes the words of humans?

Peace (from the East),
Kevin

Slice of Life: The End of Days

The title of this post is a little click bait-y. Sorry.

The other day, I received in the mail a copy of a new book by my writing project colleague, Michael Silverstone and his writing partner, Debbie Zacarian. It’s entitled Teaching to Empower.

Michael sent me a copy of the book because I was one of many teachers Debbie and Michael reached out for vignettes from the classroom, around the theme of student or teacher empowerment, and I had forgotten most of what I had written.

So, I thumbed through the book and found my piece. In it, I had focused on our video game design unit, and how I entered into the world of game design, as a way to help students engage with technology and writing, after overhearing so many discussions about gaming, at the end of the school days, while waiting for the bus.

In fact, I’ve written many small pieces over the years about that particular period of the school day, of just waiting around, of boredom being interrupted by some interesting question or thought, of aimless chatter, or of how a line of discussion that starts one place and ends in another — all as we waited for the dismissal announcements over the loudspeaker.

Of all the things I’m missing now in the Social Distancing era, this end-of-days bus-waiting time (See? I told you the phrase would makes sense) doesn’t quite rank at the top of my worries, yet it’s emblematic of a periodic realization: I don’t quite know my students anymore. We’re in our tenth week of learning and teaching from home.

Honesty, I don’t really know how they are doing, other than how they look for a stretch of time on the screen. I try to read eyes, and gestures, and smiles, but the screens interfere with those moments. The technology masks the humanity. I don’t really know what’s shaking up their lives or what’s the newest, best, most exciting thing happening to them.

I’m in touch, but I’ve lost touch.

My piece in Michael and Debbie’s book reminded of this because it was such a celebratory moment of how eavesdropping in on student conversations helped me rethink the way I was teaching, and then guided me into some curriculum changes that made a huge difference for so many students (particularly my struggling writers).

I end the vignette with the idea of standing there, in the classroom, waiting, listening back in, with the reminder that you never know what you’ll hear if you don’t take the chance to listen. That seems quaint now, and so out of touch with the times. So it goes.

Peace (what we hear),
Kevin

Music from the Pandemic: Faucet Drop (Quarantine Together)

My friend, Bob, the drummer in all of our rock and roll bands over the past 20-plus years, called me up the other day to chat and, as he is apt to do, Bob handed me a phrase of words that he thought I could turn into a song: Dripping Faucet.

When I went quiet, he explained that these quarantine days have forced, or allowed, couples to get to know one other, to spend time together, to be active and quiet, to hear the dripping faucets. He thought the metaphor could work, but I was doubtful. Even trying to rhyme with “faucet” is pretty tricky.

Still, later, I kept circling back on the idea, as much because if I can give a friend a gift of a song — and Bob loves to inspire songs — I will do it, but also, it was less the phrase than his explanation of the phrase that rumbled around in my head. That evening, I wrote the lyrics and the next day, I worked on the music.

I changed the original phrase, first to “here we sit / we let the faucet drip” in the song and then when I misspelled “faucet drip” on my paper to “faucet drop” I thought: I like that mistake and kept it as the title of the song.

This is another song in my collection of music tracks I have been making during this strange time of being home. My aim is gather them all up on Bandcamp at some point.

Peace (singing it),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: Bone (The Complete Collection)

Thirteen hundred pages of fantastic adventure. That’s what I dove into when I picked up my son’s massive book of Bone, by Jeff Smith. I’ve read parts of Bone over the years, but never in sequence (so I never really saw the larger story unfolding) and always out of context. Smith’s story is a classic, of course, and reading it from start to finish over 1300 pages gives you a sense of scope.

If you don’t know Bone, it tells the story of three cousins from Boneville — Fone Bone, Phoney Bone and Smiley Bone – who begin the story on the run, driven from Boneville for some political scam (Phoney is always on a con or scam of some sort) when they stumble over the mountains, get separated and discover adventure that includes dragons, rat creatures, magic, a lost Queen and discovered princess, strange locusts, treasure found and lost, epic battles and more.

Told with humor and seriousness, Smith’s Bone book harnesses the power of graphic storytelling in so many ways, it’s hard to know what to focus on. There are allusions to classic stories and classic cartoons, to humous gags that are hinted at early and then re-emerge later, and somehow, Smith juggled it all over the course of more than a decade of writing and illustrating, and publishing in installments.

Given our time of staying inside during the pandemic, the discovery of my son’s Bone collection was a welcome site, and the hours spent with the cousins and their friends (and enemies) was a literary diversion that kept me deep in the story. Bone is worth a visit for readers of all ages. (Note: this huge book is costly – $40 at B/N. I think we picked up years ago at a book sale for cheap — what a deal!)

Peace (beyond Boneville),
Kevin

 

Pandemic Poem from the Classroom: Broken Pencils

Tiny pencil

I went in to my classroom yesterday, at the allotted time, and began the difficult process of packing up all of my students’ belongings into clear plastic bags. Everything from every desk. Everything from every locker. Odds and ends. The left-behind stuff of every kid, placed into a see-through bag. Stickers with student names on the outside. At some later date, their families will drive through the back lot, and these bags will be delivered to their back seat, and they will drive off.

It was very depressing work, really, almost like an invasion of their privacies — handling not just school work – graded papers and papers never handed in — but also, the odds and ends of them, the things from friends they kept close and the things they kept for reasons only they might understand. All of it, packed into a bag. It felt like a morgue, really, and I am reminded of scenes from military movies, where what material objects remain are gathered, honored, returned. The locker hallway for fifth and sixth grade were lined from one door to the other with plastic bags.

One image that stayed with me later in the day, hours after I had finished the task, was the pencils. So many pencils, of all sorts and in all conditions. Who knew they had so many pencils? I bet I packed hundreds of them, and many fell to the floor as I worked, some ripping the bag and falling out. All I could think about is, what might still get written? What did we not get written this year?

My poem this morning is all about that.

It’s the broken pencils
that give me pause,
as I label and empty
these steel desk drawers

into clear thin plastic bags
that refuse to contain you;
your belongings ripping at the
fabric of my work –

You’re spilling out:
unsharpened, snapped-tipped,
eraser-bitten, rainbow-ed
and graphite possibilities of
lines, circles, dots, smudges
stories, poems, notes, plays

These broken cardboard boxes
releasing wild Ticonderogas
to the floor, scattering and silent,
as if lions sit in wait

You are everywhere
in this classroom,
and nowhere,
all at once

Peace (packing it up but not in),
Kevin

Panels from the Pandemic: Strange Times (for Teachers)

Strange Times

I’m making, and have been making, webcomics about this time of Distance Learning and the Pandemic, and now and then, I will share out some of those panels from my collection. Most of these were already published on Twitter.

This first comic — Strange Times — is about how the shift to home/teaching has affected the regularity of our hours as educators, and thinking on when our students are engaged and awake, as opposed to when we, teachers, are awake and engaged. Everything is still spilling together.

Peace (in the moments),
Kevin

WMWP: Thinking on Twitter

Last night, I took part in a National Writing Project video conferencing that was themed on how local writing projects — like our Western Massachusetts Writing Project — can broaden its presence in online spaces. My fellow co-director for outreach, Samantha Briggs, and I were invited to talk about WMWP’s Twitter account, which I realized has been around for ten years. The chart above was something I pulled together as I was thinking about the pros and cons of Twitter for an organization.

I had noted in the break-out table discussion that I wasn’t all that certain how successful the Twitter account actually is in reaching our local teachers on a scale that makes an impact. It seems like it has been more successful in making connections to other writing projects, and national organizations. That’s not bad, but I wonder if the focus might need to shift, if we are to be more centered on how to engage our WMWP teachers in the work of teaching, writing and learning.

Peace (in hashtags and tweets),
Kevin