Today’s Poem: Wind

Wind

Open the doors
throw wide the windows
and let in the wind.

Goodbye dust
goodbye toys
goodbye mail
goodbye rugs
goodbye stairs
goodbye tables and chairs
goodbye paintings and dishes and walls and shelves
goodbye books abandoned and books twice read
and books scrawled in the margins
goodbye tablecloths and curtains
and closets and coats
goodbye cupboards and pantries and floorboards
and plumbing and plaster and beams.

A house made of wind
a roof made of sky
a mind clean as paper.

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Underwater

Dear Blog,

I know, I know. And I’m sorry. I’ve been ignoring you, ignoring my commitment to the daily practice of poetry (was I completely mad for deciding to do that? Probably.), ignoring my commitment to engaging with Ideas (or, in other words, being Uppity, Bombastic, and Generally Annoying) and ignoring my insistance on gathering little bits of bright paper and pinning them against the sky.

(because, in the end, that’s what a blog is, right? Things gathered, things assembled, things roughly made. Like an automaton made of soda cans or a rendering of the Venus de Milo made of used wrapping paper and ribbon and tin foil. A blog is a wobbly thing, insubstantial, ephemeral, as permanent as smoke.)

If it’s any consolation, it’s not just you that I’m ignoring, dear blog. You should see my house. It’s a freaking mess. And I haven’t washed my son’s hair in about a week. (Of course, that is also due to the fact that he is very, very fast.)

But soon, I will crawl out from under the weight of this next revision, and soon I will feel happy (mostly) about the work that I’ve done, and soon I will breathe the sighs of the innocent and sleep the sleep of the blest.

I took this bit out of the book:

They say that an entire universe lives inside of the tear of a dragon, and, if you had eyes to see it, a close examination would reveal endless space, burning suns, spinning planets, and huge civilizations rising from the dust and vanishing into the ether in the time it takes for the tear to well, spill and evaporate.

Did my world originate in the tear of a dragon?

Did yours?

But I’m sorry to see it go, quite frankly. I like novels with thought experiments in them, and I really liked them when I was a kid. Maybe I’ll put it back in.

Don’t tell my editor.

I also took this out, my little bit of mythic scripture-making:

You see, the story that the children told was true. Or true enough. There truly was once a single Universe, and it did indeed split into the teeming, cacophonous multiverse – the Worlds upon Worlds upon infinite Worlds – that exists now. It was also true that the short, runty god (the one who had no name; the one we loved best of all) was the cause of it.

But there was more to the story.

The other gods, upon seeing what their brother had done, were enraged. Imagine their shock! : Three worlds where there once was one? “Madness!” the other gods cried. “Lunacy!” they shouted. “Stubby idiot,” they muttered under their breath. He was ordered to undo his rash creation.

But you see, the runty god with the stubby arms and legs found that he could not destroy the worlds he had made. “Look!” he said, “how the mountains uncurl from the sea! Look at the white clouds in this world, the golden clouds in that. Look how the planets spin, how the stars cast their light into the ragged edges of space and time.” Soon, the other gods noticed that the three new worlds were stable and whole. They didn’t wobble or shift. And what’s more, they saw how their stubby, ugly brother loved his new worlds. Loved them.

And so it was that the other gods decided to form new worlds as well – so many that they frothed and bubbled as though in a great sea. There were universes ruled by mathematics and those ruled by magic and those ruled by philosophy and those ruled by physics. There was even a universe entirely subject to the whims of a very large turtle. There were worlds that dwarfed their neighbors, and worlds that fitted neatly inside one another, like nesting dolls. Every universe imaginable erupted, spun and grew. The multiverse swelled and foamed. Worlds pressed so close to one another that their fragile skins stretched and bulged, curving the space within. And the creatures of these worlds saw strange reflections – the distorted glimpses of a world not their own. And they were afraid.

Finally, the runty god had an idea. “It isn’t right that the creatures of our new worlds should suffer. I propose that all of us spend time in the worlds of our devising. We must train teachers and thinkers and tellers. Stories shall be the antidote to fear.” And so they did, each god to its own world, its own creation.

All but one.

I may end up keeping that bit, but in a very, very, very different form. We’ll see.

In the meantime, someone tell me a story. Or tell me good news. Or tell me a joke. Put it into a bottle and throw it into the sea of my own making, my stormy, foaming brain. Or tie it to a rock, and let it sink to the bottom. And maybe I’ll find it. Maybe it’ll keep my heart from drowning.


My House Is Lousy With Amputated Novel Bits

I can’t walk six step across a room in my house without tripping over the bloody stumps of amputated novel bits. They scatter across the floor, hide in corners, collect under toyboxes and under beds.

Some of the bits have joined with others, grafted themselves together – ragged flesh to ragged flesh and sewn tightly with good, strong thread. They are agile creatures, my little homonculi made of paper and letters and ink. They are crafty and sneaky and full of juice. They vie for my attention, whisper compliments from their dusty shadows, try to turn my gaze from the novel on my computer, or the novel in my notebook, or the novel in my head.

“Why, Kelly Barnhill,” they croon. “Aren’t you looking lovely today!”

This is a lie. Today I am the opposite of lovely. Today I am pale skin, wild hair, darkened eyes. But they say lovely, and for a moment, in my imagination, lovely persists.

“Thank you,” I say.

“We have some thoughts,” they say, “about your current project. We have some ….. concerns. Why don’t you open a new document, and we can work it through.”

They do not belong. They do not fit. And oh! How they want to!

There is no home for these bits, alas. And there is nothing I can do. In deference to their plight, though, I will allow one of them to live here, on this blog. This was taken from JACK and it was originally penned by one of the characters in JACK- one Clive Fitzpatrick. I love Clive so very much, and I want him to have his own book someday. Or maybe, I’ll collect his writings and publish it under his name. In any case, here is a bit from one of his stories, from his imaginary book Tales from Nowhere – or Everywhere:

“You are not who you think you are,” the old man said.

“Is anyone?” the boy asked.

The man thought on this. At their feet, three small field mice sniffed at the embers of the dying fire, looking for scraps. The old man reached down and picked one up by his tail. He showed it to the boy. “What is this?” he asked.

“A mouse.”

“If it could think, if it had the concept of Self that you or I have, what form would it think it was?”

“A mouse, of course.”

“And it would be wrong. It is not a mouse. It is lunch.” The old man threw the mouse into the air and caught it in his mouth. He bit down with a grin.

The boy looked down at his shoes and was silent for a while. “So I’m the mouse,” the boy finally said.

“No,” the old man said gulping down his lunch and wiping his chin. “But like the mouse, you are similarly misinformed about your role in this story. If you intend to survive to the end, might I suggest that you attempt to learn something.”

Tales from Nowhere (or Everywhere), by Clive Fitzpatrick

Today’s poem: “Love Letter”

Love Letter

Against a windswept darkening sky,
against the geometric bite of power lines,
against the muddy brown field,
bracing itself for snow –

Four turning trees
write a love letter to the sky.

Red maple trees,
and oh!
red
red
maple.

Each crisp, bright leaf
snapping like the flags
of countries undiscovered,
and countries long gone.

Last night’s #kidlitchat (or: who is this book FOR?)

For those of you who are not twitter-obsessed, kidlit-obsessed, or just generally obsessive (me? obsessive? oh, yes.), you may not know about the weekly chats on Twitter in which the practitioners of children’s literature (as well as the readers of said literature, and the teachers and the agents and the reviewers and the aspirants of children’s literature) all get together and chat on certain topics. It’s called #kidlitchat, and I participate when deadlines and bedtimes and dishes allow. It’s typically lively, full of interesting people, and often useful. Last night’s topic: reviews.

And it got me thinking.

Do kids care about reviews? Does a review impact a kid’s relationship with a given book? And if the reviews are terrible, or great, or nonexistent – and the kids *still* dig the book regardless, do the reviews matter?

Now, I am green enough in this business that I don’t really know. I can only make guesses. I do know that I never met a kid who read reviews. Most of the kids I know don’t care if some grown-up liked the book, but care quite a bit if their friends liked the book. (In my case, though, with the kids I hang out with regularly, they do want to know if I liked the book – but that’s because they know that, secretly, and in my deepest of hearts, I am, and always will be, a fourth grade boy. Or, as one neighbor kid said: “You’re a non-grownup-grownup.” And then I was happy forever.)

Here’s my take on it: I’ve been lucky so far with THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK. The reviews, on the whole, have been quite positive – and sometimes glowing – and I am grateful for them. However, I will say this: getting good reviews for one book while one is working on another book (for me anyway) can be silencing. After getting three good reviews in a row on JACK, I had ceased work on VIOLET, the next book. Like completely. I was completely frozen, and terrified of screwing up. In fact, it took getting some bad reviews on Goodreads to get VIOLET going again. (And to those four people who gave it a two-star review, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Honestly. I need to know what I need to do to be better.)

Now, I know that my grown-up readers (both regular readers, and readers who write reviews) are part of my audience too, (heck, I love children’s literature just as much – or maybe even more – than the next guy) but they are not my intended audience. My intended audience is a thirteen year old kid. Or a ten year old kid. What matters to me, what really matters, is what the kids think.

When I was writing JACK, the only people who knew about it – the only people who engaged with the story at all – were my students in my work as a fiction instructor in the schools. Whenever I taught a residency, I would read to the children from my works-in-progress, and as I pushed through the narrative, I found myself leaning towards things that I knew these kids would like. Because I had seen them like it, you see. I had pulled them along with me on whatever ride we were on, and I was able to notice what they noticed and love what they loved. And my eyes were tuned with kid-eyes.

But reviews are different. Reviews are not written by kids – they are written by grown-ups. And grown-ups think as grown-ups and they feel as grown-ups see with grown-up eyes, which is to say differently. And this is not to say that grown-ups suck and that kids are awesome (though I certainly did say that when I was a kid), but that the book the kid reads is not the book that a grown-up reads. The pages are the same, and the words are the same but the book and the experience of reading it are entirely different.

I get it that reviews matter – I do. I write for an audience that typically does not have control of its purse strings. It’s important that the book I write can be read by and understood by its grown-up audience.

But.

There is nothing better – nothing in the world – than standing in front of a group of kids, reading them a story, and listening to them gasp. Listening to them sigh. Listening to them giggle and snort. There is nothing better than finishing a passage and having thirty hands shoot up, all asking the question, “What happens next?” And having them slump on their desks when I refuse to tell them. (Because I am a meanie.)

I’ll appreciate every good review I ever get, and I will do my best not to let them make me feel silenced, or afraid to tell my story lest I start spontaneously sucking (which, let me tell you, happens like a million times a day), but I don’t ever want to forget who I am writing for: my kids, your kids, the kids down the road. Smart kids, struggling kids, lonely kids and connected kids. Kids in general.

Do reviews matter? Of course they do. But we still need to train ourselves not to think about them. And we need to turn off the constant critical noise machine and get back to work.

Or I do, anyway.

Poem of the day: “Frankenheart”

Frankenheart

two wings discarded-
their multicolored feathers
glinting in mottled light,
their stumps still bloody and damp-
warm from the body of the missing bird.

I drop to my knees,
marvel at their oily sheen,
marvel at the intricacies of sinew
and bone.

shredded sinew.
shattered bone.
I gather the wings to my breast
and fly them home.

later, when you sleep, love,
when I carefully,
gently-
so you do not wake-
slice your chest
wide open
and pull your armor away
(wide
open)
I lean in to your overworked heart,
feel it beat against my cheek
like a bird.

My stitches are uneven
and ugly
but they are strong
the wings on either side of your heart
will hold.
they always hold.

I have given you
steely eyes
an iron spine
a rosebud mouth.
I have stitched stories into your skin.
and now
a heart with wings.

I sew you shut,
feel it flutter and heat
feel it beat against your chest-
a bright, caged thing,
and mine forever.

You see? This is why we can’t have nice things.

https://kellybarnhill.files.wordpress.com/2011/09/squirreltinpeanutbutter_kal78.jpg?w=300

My son, home from school and starving, went into the kitchen to get himself a snack. He opened the cupboards, pulled out our gigantic container of peanut butter (I buy it by the barrel), grabbed a bowl and sat down at the table. He started unscrewing the lid.

“Young man,” I said. Leo stopped, unaware that he was being watched. “Just what do you think you’re doing?”

Leo pulled the lid off the peanut butter and laid it on the table. He leaned over the open top and breathed in the scent of it. He smiled. “I love peanut butter.”

“And?”

“I wanted a snack.”

“I see peanut butter and I see a bowl,” I said. “Aren’t you missing something?”

Leo stared at me.

I stared back.

WHAT?” he said, exasperated.

“This is not how we eat peanut butter,” I said primly.

“FINE,” he said, stomping over to the silverware drawer. “I’ll use a stupid spoon.

“Well-” I began.

“Crazy moms and their crazy spoons,” Leo muttered.

“Actually, I meant-” I said.

“When EVERYBODY knows that peanut butter tastes better with fingers.”

Then he shoved a heaping tablespoon – actually, it was so heaping that it was closer to a third of a cup – of peanut butter into his mouth and rolled his eyes at me.

“THERE,” he garbled. “HAPPY NOW?”

In which my insufferable laziness is explained!

As you can see, oh Internets, I have fallen down on my poem-a-day pledge. I have also fallen behind on a slew of other projects. My book, for example. And my house. In fact, the dust bunnies in my house have become so very large and so very ferocious that they are now, as we speak, conducting military strategy meetings and precision drills and sewing uniforms and inventing automatons and robots and will, in short order, come streaming out of my house and take over the world.

Or I’m pretty sure that’s what that pounding is. Unless the pounding is in my head. I spent a large portion of yesterday dancing. And laughing. And oh, how the wine did flow!

In any case, I did not write any poetry because I was engaged with this:

That is my baby brother. And that is his blushing bride. And I am their weeping big sister. (And YOU GUYS. For serious. I was a blubbering idiot. And was mercilessly ridiculed by my loving family, god bless them all, goddamnit.)

So in the meantime, dear readers, while I put my brain back together, and while I replenish my stores of fluids that were lost to the cascades of happy tears, I leave you with this:

Love, love, love without ceasing. Love without hesitation. Love without fear. When we raise our glasses to the happy couple, then all divisions fall away, all strident hate-mongerers, all blathering blowhards crowding the airspaces, and all fearful suspicion. There is only hope, and joy, and promise. And so I raise my glass to them, and I raise my glass to you.

Cheers!

Socialism in the Public School System?? OH NOES!!!!

Ladies and gentlemen, Socialism – that’s right, I said it: SOCIALISM – has reared it’s ugly face in Our Nation’s Schools and is now terrorizing the innocents. Don’t believe me? Well look at this:

SOCIALISM!!!!

(Graphic representation of Socialism, rendered by supercomputers.)

And if that wasn’t proof enough, here is what I pulled out of my son’s backpack this morning. Not only is he being indoctrinated in Socialism’s false gospel, but he’s being forced to say it after the pledge of allegiance – hand over his red blooded American heart and EVERYTHING:

The Kindness (read: Socialism) Pledge

 

I pledge myself on this day

To try to be kind in every way

To ever person, big or small

I will catch them if they fall.

When I love myself and others, too

That’s the best that I can do!

Leo has this memorized.

And all snarky sarcastic hyperbole aside, I kinda got weepy when I read it. I also thought it best to not show it to his die-hard-Capitalist, Ayn-Rand-quoting-and-Wild-Kingdom-watching grandpa. Because my beloved Father-in-law just wouldn’t understand.

Those of you who read this blog know that I am a pinko-commie nanny-state liberal and proud of it. You probably also know that I adhere to the Gospel of Kindness (in addition to some other Gospels, but we don’t have to get into that right now). The point is that kindness matters, but I’ve never seen it as a central core principal in a classroom before – so central, in fact, that children recite it. Daily.

And I love that.

And I think that I should write my own Kindness Pledge. And that I should recite it – hand over my heart – every day. And I think that maybe our folks in Congress, and the blowhards on the news, and the suits in the Executive Office – they should take a Kindness Pledge too.

Can you imagine if people thought that it would be better to be kind  than to be right?

Can you imagine if we valued kindness over bull-headedness? Kindness over military prowess? Kindness over money?

And honestly, I think we actually do, which is why the lack of kindness hurts us so much. But I think it would be helpful for us – as a community – to actually make explicit that which is implicit. If we put our need for kindness into words.

Because words matter.

Just ask a first grader.

The Reasons For My Excellent Mood: A Numbered List

Several things have been conspiring to put me in an exquisitely excellent mood. Here are some:

1. My Beloved Editrix wrote me last night with the next round of notes on IRON HEARTED VIOLET. And guess what! She doesn’t hate it! In fact, she kinda digs it. And I am ludicrously happy about that.

2. I, Kelly Barnhill, have received my very first piece of fan mail. And this after getting some pretty nasty letters over a particular poem that, shall we say, portrayed a rather salty version of Jesus. (I don’t care if those people didn’t like the poem, by the way. It’s not great literature by any stretch of the imagination, but I still like it, after all these days, so there.) Anyway, FAN MAIL!! Who knew?

3. My baby brother is getting married this weekend. And now I’m feeling super lovey-dovey, which always embarrasses the heck out of my husband, which, of course, is an added bonus. Ah! So fun to be of the long-married!

4. Because my brother is getting married, and because we are Catholic and therefore more numerous than the stars in the heavens and the sands on the sea shore, I have a SLEW of relatives descending on our fair city as we speak. So there’s lots of folks to hang out with – including a particularly beloved Aunt and Uncle that I got to have coffee with just yesterday. Hooray!

5. I’m doing a reading at one of my very favorite-ist bookstore ON EARTH: Wild Rumpus Books.

6. I’m letting the newest draft of WITLESS NED sit for a little bit, and in the meantime have started on a new project. And I’m really digging it!

7. I’m writing poetry again. Granted: the poems themselves mostly suck, but I don’t care. I’m not interested in sending them anywhere or doing anything with them, or even editing them. I just like writing them and sending them into the air. Like balloons.

8. IT’S FALL! And after WEDDING MADNESS ™ finally winds down, I will be raking leaves and going apple picking and spiking cider and roasting vegetables and preparing for snow. Autumn is, by far, my favorite season. I can’t wait until we have our first fire in the fireplace.

So those are my reasons. Does anyone have anything to add? Anything that you are feeling particularly happy about (and that I can share in your excellent mood)?

Today’s Poem: “Farewell Goose”

Farewell Goose

Thirteen geese fly in formation –

sharp, black curves

against a skim milk sky –

over the head of a boy on the ground.

The boy is denim blue against a fading green,

hair so yellow it gleams.

He raises his hands, waves,

calls out to the birds overhead.

But all I hear is the call of geese,

their voices cold, cold, cold,

and flying away.

 

Off to the vet

Well, my dog – the one who was lost and then found, the one who was dead and then was alive – is still with us. She still has a very large tumor on her foreleg, and it is still infected.

It will be infected forever.

It will be infected until she dies.

This is not to say that she is dying, necessarily. She could well die of something else entirely. She’ll just have to be on antibiotics the entire time. And normally, my bright line with animals, and whether their life should or should not be artificially extended is what I like to call the “fun standard”.

Is this animal having any fun?

Is this animal living with dignity?

Is this animal afforded moments of pleasure, moments of ease, moments of joy?

If the answer is yes, then we will continue with the antibiotics. Currently, the answer is yes. Harper, despite the -let’s face it – distressingly ugly lump on her leg,  still chases squirrels and rabbits (she catches them too), still wags her tail when she sees us, still steals peanut butter and jelly sandwiches when she sees an opportunity, still splashes in the creek when I let her.

She’s still having fun.

Still, the vet is going to see her today, and I a bracing myself for bad news. The lump is considerably larger than it was before, and it feels hot. This can’t be good. She still likes walks. She still runs. It doesn’t seem to be slowing her down. Still, I worry.

Oh Harper! Oh my sweet little beastie! How deeply you are loved!

Today’s Poem: “Harvest”

Samuel Palmer, Harvest Moon, 1830s

“Harvest”

In autumn we make lists:
pumpkin soup and sweetened nuts;
tough winter greens; an armload of herbs drying at the hearth;
brussel sprouts, tubers, bright fleshed squash;
salted cheese curing in the basement;
casks of ale keeping cool underground.

We plan pies, freeze berries,
chant an endless litany of bread.

And you, my love, I shall feed and feed.
Here, I say as I seat you at my table.
Here, as I push in your chair.
Here is the bounty of the spinning world.
Here is food for the nose, food for the tongue,
food for the beating heart.

A seed placed in the earth becomes food – a miracle.
Food, gathered from gardens and heaped in kitchens
becomes palatable, irresistible – a narrative of pleasure.
And this is another miracle.
Love is a miracle, I say
as I slip roasted vegetables
into your open mouth,
as I lick the oil from my fingers.

Love is a miracle.
And so are you.

Presenting…..THE TANGLEWOOD TERROR!!!!!

The Tanglewood TerrorWould you get a load of that cover? I have so much love for this book, it’s not even funny.

For those of us who spend a lot of time with kids (as I do: students, offspring, short relatives, hordes of neighborhood children stomping around my house all day), we’ve all had the experience of reading a kid’s book and wanting desperately to shove it into the hands of every grubby-faced, scabbed-kneed, gap-toothed kid of our acquaintance. There are some books that speak fluent Kid – and do so in a way that jock kids and nerdy kids and anti-establishment kids and outdoorsy kids and adventurous kids and timid kids will all somehow see a hint of their experience reflected in this novel.

There is a mystery in the woods behind Tanglewood – one that could possibly destroy the town, and Eric Parrish – football player, pig keeper, rotten big brother and poor-choice-maker – decides to find out exactly what it is…..before it’s too late! THE TANGLEWOOD TERROR, by Kurtis Scaletta does it for me on so many levels. Indeed, because of this, I’ve decided to compose a list:

KELLY BARNHILL’S LIST OF REASONS WHY SHE DIGS THIS BOOK:

1. SCIENCE! – Now, I love science fiction as much as the next geek, but one thing that we really do not see enough of – in Middle Grade fiction – is fiction that engages explicitly with scientific facts, and uses the unravelling of mysteries in the natural world as a tool to raise the stakes and deepen the mystery. I’ve always been fascinated with fungi and have spent a lot of time mushroom hunting, particularly when I lived on the West Coast. But here we have GLOWING MUSHROOMS! And MONSTER FUNGI! And MAD ADVENTURES! And KOOKY OLD SCIENCE FICTION WRITERS! And SECRET HOVELS! And it’s awesome.

2. PIGS! Honestly, there are not enough pigs in children’s literature. And the pig in this particular book is a delightful creature and I adore her.

3. FOOTBALL! You don’t see a whole lot of books in which science and football overlap, but they do so here. Eric Parrish, like most kids, is good at a lot of stuff, and tries to be better at a lot of stuff and is interested in a lot of stuff. And his willingness to engage in the different parts of himself is one of the things that makes his portrayal so real, so genuine and so endearing.

4. PESKY, UPPITY GIRLS! ‘Nuff said.

5. BULLYING! Actually, that’s not a good thing – of course it’s not – but the issue of bullying, and the consequences both overt and subtle, and the toll that it takes on a person, are all handled with the sensitivity and grace of a grownup combined with the cluelessness and confusion of a kid. It’s handled extremely well, and I was pleased to see it.

6. SELF-CENTERED PARENTS!! There really is nothing worse than people who justify their self-centeredness by claiming that their selfishness is just altruism in disguise. In TANGLEWOOD, we have two parents on the brink of divorce, and neither is demonized, neither is overly wicked, but selfishness really is the underlying organism that begins to pull the family apart. Indeed, that each parents would have dreams of their own – and thwarted dreams – allows the reader to see their actions from their perspective, and mourn their choices that led to this mess. Scaletta never preaches and leaves it up to the reader to make their own determinations about what, exactly, is going on with this family. Suffice to say, as Eric vainly tries to patch up the cracks in his home-life that his parents leave behind, he shows exactly what he is made of – and it is some tough stuff. Good on you, Eric.

7. ANNOYING LITTLE BROTHERS WHO ARE SECRETLY AWESOME! ‘Nuff said on that, too.

8. POSSIBLY CRAZY PULP SCIENCE FICTION WRITERS!  As writer who sometimes writes science fiction, and is more possibly completely crazy….AND who really digs the old school, “Golden Age of Pulp Fiction” stuff, I loved this aspect of the story. And it made me want to cultivate my inner crazy-but-brilliant hermit. Yanno. For posterity.

9. MADCAP ADVENTURES! ON WHEELS! Everything is better when motors are involved. And when it’s motors in the hopes of rescuing a town from possibly-murderous fungi? SIGN ME UP!

Now, I have already purchased a copy for a Certain Nephew on his Certain Birthday, and will be snagging another for myself when Kurtis reads at the Red Balloon this Friday, but I want to encourage all of you to snag a copy now. Hell, get two – one for you and one for a kid.

Today’s Poem – “The Fox”

The fox behind my house
settles deep in the grass
his long tail draped cunningly to one side.
Red, green, red, green, whispers my heart.
My fingers freeze above the keyboard on my lap

No. They are frozen. They are crumbling to bits.

The fox winks its black eye.
“If you were as beautiful as me,” he says,
his white teeth flashing like pearls,
“your stories would never falter.
They would move mountains,
crumble stones.
They would be as implacable as gods.”

“I do not doubt it,” I say through my shortage of verbs,
through my paralysis of action.
The screen flickers, and dies.
The fox rests its face upon its small feet,
its face tipped upwards. It grins its foxy grin.

“Close your eyes,” it says.
And I do.
“Arch your shoulders.”
“Sway your back.”
“Dig your paws into the ground.”
“Leap.”

And in my mind, I move as a fox moves
and breath as a fox breathes
and leap as a fox leaps.

“You understand now, don’t you?” it says.
“I do,” I say. And the story begins itself-
and it is wild, wily; a thing alive.

Back to Normal

The children are back in school. My hands are raised to the heavens. My mouth sings hymns of praise. I have cleared away the debris on my desk (there was beach sand on my desk. And a flip flop. And nine snail shells. And a note from my daughter demanding her own room) and I have gotten back to work.

There was a time, when my kids were small, that my only time to write fiction was between the hours of four and six in the morning. This is a scenario that I cannot recommend. During those years, I would haul my shaking carcass out of bed, stumble to the stove and light it. Sometimes I would forget to put on the kettle, and would, instead stand in the darkened kitchen, staring at the cold blue of the hot flame. Once I burned my hand. Another time I singed my bathrobe. Honestly, I’m astonished that I didn’t – not once – burn down the house.

Or maybe I did. In a different universe. I’ve been obsessing with universes lately.

In any case, I would stumble, tea in hand, sloshing it all over my damn self, and lean into my desk chair and start to write. I wrote a grown-up novel that collapsed under its own weight (I had actually started that one in college), and a young adult novel that was so dark and so upsetting and so violent that no one in their right mind will ever want to read it (all copies – I’m pretty sure – have been destroyed) and a mystery novel that wasn’t horrible, but still wasn’t particularly publishable.

It was an important time for me, but it wasn’t a time of producing good work. Just work.

But then – oh! then! – my kids went to school. No more collapsing at keyboards! No more zombified visage! No more potential disasters with fire! Instead I was rested, rejuvenated and organized. I planned out my writing day the night before, and worked in time to read. I had time, each day, to plunk words on the page, and the words – while not good, per se – weren’t terrible. I had graduated from Sucky to Mediocre. I was on fire!

But here’s the thing about the school year – it’s only nine months. Like a pregnancy. And like a pregnancy, it ends with interrupted schedules and lack of sleep and crying fits (mine, mostly) and bouts of vomiting and sticky surfaces and howls of rage. (Also mine). It is almost impossible for me to work during the summer.

Now sometimes, one has to. Deadlines, after all, exist, and boy did I have one. I needed to get the new version of Iron Hearted Violet to my beloved editrix, and I fear that I tried her patience, alas. My time was interrupted, and the work was slow, and the deadline began to creep, and bend, and topple forward. If I lived in NYC, I think she might have strangled me.

Right now, I miss my kids – I really do. The school day is long, and I’m lonely without them, but I need the time away from them in order to make fiction. Right now, my house is quiet. Right now, my heart is quiet. And right now, my new book is taking shape – even as I write this post, even now – under my hands. It presses on my skin. It whispers in my ear. And now, with the kids blissfully at school, it’s quiet enough for me to hear it at last.

Today’s Poem: “Cheating at Cards With Jesus”

Cheating at Cards With Jesus

The Lord is a pain in the ass when He’s had too much whiskey.
But then, so’s anyone, so I couldn’t fault Him for it.
He leered over the rim of his cards and winked.
The table had cleared out. It was just him and me.
He sipped on the dregs of His drink and belched.
“Well,” He said. “What’ll it be?”

“I thought people bet their souls with the Devil,” I said.
Jesus yawned. “It’s cliché,” He said. “And you’re stalling.”
He fingered the card that I knew was a queen of hearts.
“And anyway, the Devil sucks at cards. Only a poet can play poker properly.
The Devil’s a numbers guy.”

“Hit me,” I said. Jesus paused.
“You sure?” He said, thumbing the top card.
King of clubs. I already knew it. I had marked it myself.
Or Jesus had marked it.
After all this time, the cards were well-worn and as readable as faces.
There were no more surprises, and I was about to go bust.

“Hit me,” I said again. Jesus nodded and filled our glasses.
The whiskey burned its way down until my whole body gleamed.
Jesus held His glass next to his drink-flushed face. He closed His eyes.
“A poem works, not for what it says, but what it does not say,” He said.
“A poem speaks from the empty spaces; silence brings light to the gloom.”

“Your point?” I asked. Why drag it out? I snatched His drink and gulped it down.
“A game is the same way. Just when you think you’ve won, you’ve lost,
and just when you think you’re lost, you are found.”
“I think you’re confusing your words,” I said.
Drunk asshole, I thought.

“I fold,” Jesus said. “You win.”
A boozy smile. A hard stare.
Two bright eyes,
hot and old as nebulas,
burn across the table. I wince.

“So,” He said. “What are you gonna do about it?

The “B” word.

Earlier today, my ridiculously lovely nine year old child came home in tears. She had, because she thought she was old enough, attempted to walk the dog by herself. Not very far, mind you, or for very long. The child is shaped like a slight bunch of reeds, loosely braided and bound with thin ribbons. She is as substantial as smoke.

I should have known it would not end well.

She came home crying. Leo, her brother, was aghast.

“It wasn’t Harper’s fault,” she said stoutly, unhooking her dog’s leash and kissing her on the head.

“What happened,” I asked.

She sniffed. “Harper tried to chase a squirrel. Then she pulled me into the bike path and this teenager had to swerve and then…” Her little eyes welled with tears. “He called me a B-word.” 

Leo was horrified. He balled his fists, getting ready for a fight. But with each moment that passed, he had questions. And his questions grew until they wrote themselves onto his face.

“What’s a B-word?” he asked.

“Don’t worry about it, honey,” I said. “Sometimes people make mistakes when they feel scared.”

“But what is it? Does B stand for something?”

Cordelia drew herself up. “The B-word is a word that is impolite to say. So we just say the B-word so we don’t have to say it.”

Leo nodded. “Okay,” he said. “But what is it?” He thought for a moment. “Is it baloney?”

“No,” Cordelia said.

“Is it bogus?”

“No.”

“Blasted?”

“No.”

“Binoculars?”

“MOM! MAKE HIM STOP.”

“Your brother’s just curious,” I said, trying really really really hard not to laugh. “He just doesn’t know.”

“Did he call you a baby?”

“NO!” And she stomped away.

Leo looked at me. “Is the letter B a mean letter?”

“No,” I said, “but maybe you should think of some nice words that start with B and use them around her sister. Maybe you should just say a bunch of nice things today.”

Later on, I found a little index card that he had put on his sister’s pillow so she would find it.

“BEEOOTIFOL,” it said.

Today’s Poem

As I mentioned before, I’ve decided to write a poem a day. Sometimes I will post them on the blog. Unless they are egregiously terrible. This one, to be sure, is terrible. But not egregiously so, and I will therefore post it.

I think a lot of writers have ghosts in their basements. I think the ghosts are drawn to us. I have one. She is obsessed with laundry. Here is her poem.

 
Reminder 
 
The ghost in the basement
taps her brittle fingers against the dryer.
Waiting.

 

“I’ve separated the whites and the darks,” I say.
“I’ve pre-treated,” I say.
She sniffs the air and wrinkles her nose.

 

She taps the dryer as I gather clothes,
heavy and damp in my arms,
and ripe with the stink of living.

 

She taps as I add the soap,
turn on the water,
and wash the life away.

 

Her fingernails are bitten to the quick;
her skin is old paper;
her mouth a bright, hot coal.