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My full, complete, legal name is Allison Marie Leach. My parents named me Allison because they wanted to give me a name similar to my paternal grandmother's, which is Aldora. Her name was formed in a combination of her parents' names. Her Dad's name was "Al" and her Mom's name was "Dora." Al + Dora = Aldora. My wonderful grandmother. I love this story.
Aldora's nickname, dubbed by my older sister, Mary, is Gong-Gong Strawberry. She was given this moniker because she and my Grandpa grew strawberries in their green backyard in Missouri. And Gong-Gong? Who can explain. I don't even think Mary can recall. It was a name that she invented when she was a toddler; it was a name that was easier to say than "Grandma," or perhaps she just thought it more interesting and original. I tend to think the latter.
by Lucille Clifton
Illustrated by Michael Garland
E P Dutton, 1981
Written by one of the sassiest voices in poetry—Lucille Clifton—comes the delightful novella, Sonora Beautiful. The voice is strong and angsty and delightful. (You can hear excerpts from the novella read by Clifton herself at the Poetry Center in 1983 here on Voca). The title character, Sonora, is our narrator who leads us through her so-called life. She opens with: “Some mornings I wake up and I am real ugly. I’m not joking. My face is all broken out. My ears are waving like wings. My legs and arms have shrunk or something. My clothes fall off me like off a stick,” (5). Not only is the voice strong and poetic and repeats the funny phrase “I’m not joking” throughout, but the language is also fresh and lively with metaphor and simile. After Sonora makes these comments, her Mom assures Sonora, “Oh, stop. You are beautiful, Sonora. Beautiful.”
the year when two high fives finally signify your age, a time of social reorganization, of jostling for individuality. During my teaching residency at Corbett Elementary last Spring, I was looking for a way to funnel my fourth grade students’ intense thirst for knowledge and competitive spirits into creative energy on the page. So I started hiding my lessons in guessing games. My writing groups turned into “teams.” Presentations of creative work happened during “finals.” This ekphrastic poetry lesson came from that time when I finally learned to use my students' need to engage with each other as a constructive structure for writing.
I called the lesson Poetry Riddles, and began it with a short discussion of rhyme in poetry. I asked the class to think of places in the world where they could find poetry outside of books. To their ideas, I added hip hop and riddles, which can both involve rhyme, but don’t do so as a rule (I generally veer away from teaching rhyme since I think it can constrict younger writers and leave their work feeling more basic and sing-songy than intended). I then asked the students if they wanted to play a riddle game, to which they responded with emphatic affirmatives.
Everybody Needs a Rock
By Byrd Baylor
Illustrated by Peter Parnall
My older sister Mary had a rock collection as a child. Even as she proudly showed me these rocks, which ranged from tiny, shiny pebbles to medium-sized quartz filled gems, I never quite understood her fascination with collecting these objects. Then I grew up and married a man who likes to collect rocks, too. In fact, one of his favorite books—Annals of the Former World by John McPhee—is a book all about rocks and the history of rocks. Even still, I can’t quite understand his fascination with rocks, either. I mean, I like rocks, I guess. I think mountains and the rocks that they consist of are beautiful. Living in the Southwest, I often come across incredible rock formations like Bryce Canyon’s orange steeple hoodoos and the Chiricahuas’ big, balancing rocks, and the orange, Flintstone boulders on your way to the Pinaleño Mountains. I find the huge, expansive rocks, the rocks that combine to make mountains beyond mountains, absolutely breathtaking. But the tiny rocks—those rocks that you find on hikes—yes, I look at them, but I have no interest in picking them up, as my sister did, as my husband does, and collecting them. I guess partly it’s because I hate having to pick up each individual, teeny-tiny rock off of his desk, each time I dust it. I have a miniature collection—another collection that some may find perplexing—and told him that he should put his miniature rocks within my miniature collection, which is actually just a printer’s drawer, flipped right-side up on a wall, so that it resembles a frame with tiny room boxes. He agreed on this, and now our collections have found homes within homes, a compromise of sorts, a marriage of minds, a way of melding our eccentric collections together. This makes me happy.
I was lucky enough to see and hear Seamus Heaney read before he died. Last March, at AWP in Boston, he was a keynote speaker, alongside fellow Nobel Prize-winner, Derek Walcott. I remember how witty they both were. I remember being astounded by their wisdom. I remember thinking: These two men are living legends.
Heaney was, of course, charming. Blame it on his Irish, sing-songy brogue; blame it on his happy eyes; blame it on that generous, hearty laugh. But when I think of Seamus Heaney, I think of a lullaby. After listening to the conversation and reading, I said to a friend, "I want Seamus Heaney to read me some bed time stories tonight." How lucky were his children to get lulled to sleep by that soothing voice.
This morning, after I found out that Heaney had passed, I looked up his reading on the Poetry Center's Voca archives. Heaney came to the Poetry Center on March 30, 1976, just two years after my parents graduated from high school. In the picture that was taken of him--outside of the old Poetry Center cottage--he has a curly, 70's-looking mess of thick hair. He looks sharp in dark clothing (such a poet!). He wears a dark button up long sleeved shirt, a dark blazer, dark pants, and a dark belt. And yet his expression is anything but dark; he has those same happy eyes.
The Owl and the Pussycat
by Edward Lear
Illustrated by Jan Brett
Growing up, I had an illustrated book of poetry for children, the illustrations of which were pretty lousy, but the poetry of which was pretty great. “The Owl and the Pussycat,” Edward Lear’s nonsense poem, was one of my favorite selections. So I was super-stoked to find the poem in board book form, meticulously illustrated by Jan Brett, when my son was about five months old.
He’s always been opinionated about books (screaming and batting away the ones he deems unacceptable), and I’ll be honest: he was indifferent to “The Owl and the Pussycat” at first. But he clearly didn’t hate it, so I kept at it, and eventually he succumbed to its charms, which are many.
The lush romanticism of it kills me. The Owl is an elegant fowl; he looks up to the stars above and sings to his small guitar (imagine poor Pussy’s discomfort if he creepily stared into her eyes while he sang about her) (though even with his discreet technique, after a year and a day, I’d be ready to abandon ship). The Pussycat is a decisive lady: O! let us be married, too long have we tarried.
The poet Lucille Clifton prefaces one of her poems during a reading at the Poetry Center in 1975 with this: “I have days when I want to stay in the house all day because the world shouldn’t have to look at me.” She’s joking, of course, but her sentiment is one that I’m sure many people can identify with. Even now, as I type up this review, I’m thinking, “Jesus, I have some stocky, cottage cheese thighs.” It’s an ever circling conversation, argument that many people have with themselves. I can remember in high school and even now into my adulthood, hearing friends of mine blurt out the following about their bodies:
I hate my thin hair.
I hate my curly hair.
I hate my big thighs.
I hate my small boobs.
I hate my baby face.
I hate my hips.
by Eve Merriam
Illustrated by Harriet Sherman
I first came across the poet Eve Merriam when 2012 Poetry Out Loud State Champion, Josh Furtado, recited her poem “Catch a Little Rhyme." The poem is simple and playful, but it was Josh’s spunky, West-Side-Story-like performance that really made the poem come alive. It wasn’t until recently, though, that I came across one of Merriam’s poetry collections. To my delight, in the Poetry Center’s Children’s Area, I came across her children's collection, Out Loud. Published in 1973 and with illustrations by Harriet Sherman, the drawings that accompany the poems are delightfully funkadelic, reminiscent of some of those commercials in between skits on Sesame Street, like this one.
These illustrations aren’t just illustrations that accompany the poems, per se. The illustrations are the poems. In other words, these poems are concrete poems, in that the shape of the poems mimic the subject matter of the poem. For example, in a poem about a snake, Merriam uses the form of a slithering snake (and also a lot of alliteration) to make the poem seem alive:
What Can You Do with a Paleta?
Written by Carmen Tafolla and Illustrated by Magaly Morales
Tricycle Press, 2009
It's summer. I live in the Tucson desert. It's hot outside. I'm expecting my first baby in a few weeks. Did I mention it's hot outside?
So when I recently saw the picture book, What Can You Do with a Paleta?, on the shelf at the Himmel Park Library, I knew I had to read it. After all, the paleta is a refreshing, frozen dessert bar made from natural ingredients like nuts, fruit, and milk (did I mention that Tucson is hot?). In the back of What Can You Do with a Paleta?, the author provides this information for those unacquainted with the Mexican dessert: “Paletas come in lime, coconut, pecan, mango, banana, kiwi, strawberry, watermelon, guava, chocolate, horchata, jamaica, tamarind, pineapple, vanilla and more.” Are you hungry yet?
The book itself presents the delicious paleta (which is sold all over the United States in paleterias, kiosks, carts, and even at Walmart, with varying degrees of quality and authenticity, of course) through the story of one little girl's barrio. We get sensory, poetic lines about her neighborhood:
“. . . where the smell of crispy tacos or buttery tortillas or juicy fruta floats out of every window. . . that's my barrio!” And finally, we learn about our protagonist's favorite summer treat: “. . . I think the very best thing to do with a paleta is to. . . lick it and slurp it and sip it and munch it and gobble it all down!” I'll have two, thank you very much.
Though I’d never recommend the majority of his work to young students, Roberto Bolaño’s poem, “Godzilla in Mexico,” is a one-time exception. I stumbled across this poem, which appears in the collection, The Romantic Dogs, with great surprise, since Bolaño always has a fun time bashing poets in his fiction. It’s a startling poem, an apocalyptic vision of Mexico City under attack by poisoned air that soon kills a father and his son, who then seemingly awake and ask, “What are we?” It’s both childish and morbid. The kid is “watching / cartoons on TV” just before his father realizes they are “going to die.” This begs the question: How do we talk about death with youth? It’s usually a taboo subject to bring up with youth, but I think it’s a topic that’d be interesting to hear about from their perspective. The poem’s title alludes to Godzilla, something I remember watching as a kid, so it seems Bolaño is trying to equate death, a very serious subject, with something a little more monster-like, like something we’ve watched on TV, as the child does in the poem. With this in mind, consider the following prompts after reading the poem aloud:
1. Bolaño sets the stage with a realistic setting (father and son watching cartoons) paired with a fantastical tone (the title, poisoned air, and the allusion to reincarnation). Use this combination of the mundane and the fantastic to create a setting for an imitation poem.
2. To add to the above prompt, think back on a childhood memory between you and a parent and what emotions that evoked or still evoke now.