Guest Post, Elizabeth Sheets: The Illusion of Ascending

dad readsI’ve always been a reader. I don’t know if this is my parents’ fault or not. Recently I found a crayon drawing and questionnaire book I made when I was in elementary school. On one of the pages it asks what my parents do during the day while I’m at school. My answers were: My Dad builds Rockets. My Mom sits on the couch all day and reads love stories. I don’t think that was entirely true, I mean, my Dad read books too. In any case, I do remember that prior to puberty, trips to the mall were exciting for two reasons: first, because I could climb up and sit in the conversion vans in the car dealership that was actually in our mall; and second, we got to go to Walden Books. My family didn’t have a lot of money, so we didn’t buy a lot of new books there, but it was a thrill just to be there and look around. I knew that eventually the books on those shelves would find their way to our city library.

As a kid, I was fairly well read. Once I got beyond Dr. Seuss, I enjoyed Roald Dahl, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Scott O’Dell, Louisa May Alcott, Franklin Dixon, Carolyn Keene, the Choose Your Own Adventure Series, and of course, Judy Blume. There are a few in that list some might consider literary, but many fall into the category of good old genre fiction. I still have many of them because I saved them for my children. And now I’m saving them for my grandchildren, because I don’t think I was as successful as my parents were at passing down the love of literature.

As I got older, I dove harder into genre writing. Once I could get books from the library that didn’t have the purple dot on them, my literary world was blown wide open. I devoured everything from Jean Auel, Piers Anthony, and Marion Zimmer Bradley to Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Anne Rice. Some of these authors I still read today. Because they’re good, and because I can get lost in the worlds they bring to my mind’s eye.

Once I started my degree program, my literary world was blown open again. Even with all of the reading in my youth, there was much that I missed. Memoirs? Whatever were those? Well, all of those English Lit classes filled me in, and filled me up to the brim with writing on every social topic I could imagine, and a few more besides.

Writing classes and workshops introduced me to the short story, and the idea that writers who don’t get paid are somehow of more value than those who do. I’m not much for martyrs, but I bought in. In my few years in school, my professors helped nurture in me a love of the short story, and an appreciation for the craft of drawing them out of myself and others. And so now, my private library grows full of chapbooks and short story collections. To my list of favorite authors I’m adding Roxane Gay, Aimee Bender, Stacey Richter, Matt Bell, Dan Chaon, Tara Ison, Margaret Atwood, and so many more.

But for all my education, and my editorship with a literary magazine, and my degree in English and Creative Writing… I still read Anne Rice. In fact, she might just be my very favorite person ever (not that I know her personally, but I do follow her on Facebook, so I feel like that counts… anyway).

I’m reminded of this funny thing that happened recently.

modest houseMy husband and I raised our children in a suburban neighborhood of the sprawling Phoenix Metropolitan Area. We had a modest income, and a modest house. We drove practical cars, and our kids went to public schools. There was a house of worship a half mile in any direction from our house. Our neighbors were diverse. To the east was a family of folks who spoke little English, had obnoxious barking dogs, and always had parties in the front yard instead of the back. To the south were the drug dealers. The husband rode a very noisy Harley and cut his entire lawn holding a Weedwacker in one hand and a beer in the other. His wife had no teeth and only wore a bra on Sundays. (I guess they weren’t very good drug dealers.)

We lived in that house 15 years, and our kids came up just fine.

And just a couple of months ago, we moved. Since our income has doubled, so has our mortgage and the square footage of our new house. Our new block is glorious. The neighbors all cut their grass on Wednesdays, and everyone drives a new car. There are bunnies and quail everywhere, and no one parks in their lawn.

School just started a couple weeks ago, and as I was driving past the elementary school on my way back from my morning Starbucks run, I noted that the crossing guard drives a Jaguar. A Jaguar.

This is it, I thought, we have definitely arrived. All of that hard work, education, ladder climbing, etc., has all paid off. Finally. Now we can live among the educated folk. People like us. Cultured people. People who read. If the people across the street are drug dealers, well they’re damn good ones because their kids drive BMWs.

And then I turned down our street. It was a Thursday. Blue barrel pick up day. About three houses in, out came a neighbor down his drive way, pushing his barrel out to the curb. He was wearing a pair of very snug fitting, bright red boxer briefs. His hairy belly was spilling over the waistband, and his tangled bedhead hair pointed in all directions from his unshaven face. He looked up as I drove past. Smiled.

I about choked on my chai.

But it’s okay. I’m glad I saw him. It’s a great reminder: there’s room on the block for everyone.  He cuts his grass, he parks in the garage. Maybe his wife builds rockets.

Guest Post, Anthony Varallo: Homage to the School Book Fair

book fairDo you remember your school’s book fair? Ours was held in the library, the tables transformed into merchandise displays, books facing out from cardboard stands shaped like Snoopy’s doghouse or Clifford’s gigantic bowl, books grouped by series, recognizable in an instant, the red and white Choose Your Own Adventure logo; the Garfield books arranged like long, squat bricks; Hardy Boys books a blue sky, Nancy Drew a field of yellow. Pricey hardback picture books, too, that always included, year after faithful year, Green Eggs and Ham and Where the Wild Things Are, even though this was elementary school, Dr. Seuss long since replaced by Gary Paulsen. Looking at the picture books a crime punishable by lunchroom teasing.

We would visit the fair as a class, our teachers instructing us that we had a few minutes to browse and make our choices, but not to bend the books, which seemed contradictory instructions. You couldn’t really make your choice without bending the book, at least a little.  We handled Garfield At Large and The Mystery of Chimney Rock and You’ll Flip, Charlie Brown as if they were the First Folio. We checked prices, added up sums, estimated how much money we could wheedle from our parents. But it’s for books, Mom. You’re always saying how important reading is, right? Everyone else is getting at least twice that much.  

It was strange to see the school library—the last word in free stuff—become a place of commerce. Two book fair representatives sat at the checkout desk, the place where our librarian, Mrs. Dougherty, usually stamped our copies of Baseball’s Greatest Plays or Shark Attack! weeks before we lost them on the bus, the representatives wearing nametags, oddly overdressed, a black cash box atop the desk, a key turned inside its lock. We weren’t used to buying things at school, and we certainly weren’t used to the library being a place where everyone wanted to go.  If the library got too noisy, Mrs. Dougherty would sometimes punish us by making us put our heads down and turning off the lights. After school, the library doubled as a detention center. It was thrilling to think about buying books at the library, as exciting as it would have been if McDonalds took over our cafeteria and served up Big Macs and fries.

Later, we’d return to the book fair, sometimes with parents or grandparents (and parents’ wallets and grandparents’ wallets) in tow. Look, we’d say, and pretend we’d just discovered a book we’d been bending all week, its contents nearly memorized, its cost already factored into our asking price. Can we get it? Our parents would regard the book skeptically. This? they’d say. Isn’t this a little young for you? Then they’d reach for a mass-market paperback, Where the Red Fern Grows or Call It Courage or Johnny Tremain, and say, How about one of these instead?  And, since we’d anticipated them suggesting something exactly like that, and since we’d already factored the price into our plan, we’d say, Sure, we can get one of those, too.

Nowadays, I am that parent at my children’s school book fair. I’m the one who tries to steer them away from books about puppies solving mysteries in France (note adorable beret-wearing pooch on cover), or TV show tie-ins, or the umpteen bazillion books about video games, video games, and more video games. Still, my children want these, and I want them to want books, and I’ve never been good at not spending money on books, so to the register we go, where all the other parents are waiting in line with their children and their children’s stacks of mostly terrible books. We parents give each other a look, as easy to read as any of these slim volumes: wish we could have gotten these on Amazon instead.

Guest Post, Casey Patrick: Poetry Won’t Get a Man to the Moon

If you studied poetry in high school, you may have not-so-fond memories of being asked to endlessly dissect Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” or perhaps William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow.” Maybe your teacher asked you to extract a poem’s rich symbolism, to explain its meaning, and maybe the consensus you came to was that all poems are really metaphors for Death or Love or Other Big Concepts. (I remember one particularly painful English class where someone drew a box around each stanza of Williams’s wheelbarrow poem and proclaimed that they were, in fact, shaped like wheelbarrows: symbolism of the highest order.)

Maybe, despite the occasionally asinine discussions, this sparked your enduring love for poetry. But did your English teacher ever talk about the importance of poetry? Did he or she ever stand there and reassure you that one day you’d be grateful you read Frost, the way your math teacher insisted that you’d one day thank her for teaching you algebra? It seems to me that the tendency to dismiss poetry as eccentric or irrelevant starts with the way we interact with it in school.

UntitledOf course, most of us encounter poetry long before we’re asked to study it. We grow up reading Shel Silverstein or Dr. Seuss or other rhyming books. We grow up learning chants at summer camp or rhyming our names in an endless loop (Casey, Casey, Bo-Basey, Banana-fana…) or just making up nonsense words to pass the time. We learn to talk and read by fumbling with language, by stretching it to its limit, which is the beginning of poetry. But by the time we get to school, poetry becomes just another topic on the agenda, a vehicle to teach students the definitions of diction and tone and mood.

The way we talk about poetry affects how students will think about its value, and it’s too often discounted. After I taught a week-long poetry camp recently, I handed out an evaluation to the students, who were all around high-school age. Though all of the students said the class helped them improve their creative writing, only some of them said it would also help them be a better writer in school. Having seen firsthand how reading and writing poetry can improve students’ language skills, the disconnect between these two answers is frustrating. But I don’t blame the students; rather, it’s an example of the way poetry is presented in our schools and consistently undervalued in our culture. We don’t talk about it as a useful skill, when in fact it’s an incredibly useful tool to expand vocabulary and introduce students to many different voices and topics. (And for a perspective on the undervaluing of poetry in monetary terms, I recommend Jessica Piazza’s wonderful project and companion blog, Poetry Has Value).

Although teaching is not my profession, I’ve had the chance to teach creative writing to various populations over the last several years, including juvenile delinquents, elementary school students, and adult writers. Still, I don’t claim to be an expert. But the power of language and writing is so clear to me that I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we gave poetry a little more attention in the classroom, if we celebrated its ability to craft something beautiful and startling out of the same words we use every day. In my experience, teachers are often surprised by the ways poetry can be tied into other academic subjects. Plan a lesson on cinquain and students get practice with identifying words as nouns, adjectives, or verbs. Plan a lesson on haiku and students get practice counting syllables. Teach a lesson on William Carlos Williams’s “This Is Just To Say” and even third graders can identify the irony. So why don’t we value poetry in the same way we value multiplication tables or the timeline of the Revolutionary War?

Despite the fact that studies have shown many students are reading below grade level, particularly black and Hispanic students, as well as students from low-income backgrounds, teachers often skip over covering poetry completely, especially in the younger grades. It’s often the case that they don’t know enough about poetry to feel comfortable teaching it. (When I’ve visited classrooms to teach, that’s the most common thing I hear.) But it’s also a wider problem that stems from the culture of constant testing in our education system. If no one is demonstrating the value poetry can have for students, teachers are apt to see it as frivolous, especially when there are “important” (and testable) skills like math and science to cover.

True, poetry won’t get a man to the moon. But what good are the equations that get him there if he can’t communicate clearly what he’s seeing once he lands? Poetry can be as important as the five-paragraph essay to the way we teach students about language if we’d only let it. As Williams famously wrote, “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”

Guest Post, Gregory J. Wolos: One Seuss, Two Seuss—Old Seuss, New(er) Seuss

Gregory J. WolosI came across the word “curmudgeon” the other day and was struck by what a fine alternative it is to “grouch” or “sourpuss.” Wondering where such a word came from, I searched out its etymology in my Oxford English Dictionary. I discovered that, though “curmudgeon” has been in use since the sixteenth century, even the experts can’t trace its derivation. As I sat pondering the mystery of “curmudgeon,” the word’s foggy origin and unique sound reminded me of one of my favorite children’s books, one I used to read long ago to my now-adult children— On Beyond Zebra, by Dr. Seuss. I’ve got my half-century old copy in front of me now, and memories waft from its pages as I turn them.

The ostensible subject of On Beyond Zebra is language—the alphabet, specifically. The story’s narrator explains to his “very young friend who is learning to spell” that the standard alphabet is woefully insufficient: there are marvelous creatures all over the world with bizarre names that require equally bizarre letters. The narrator conjures up these letters and creatures, one after the other, such as YUZZ for Yuzz-a-ma-Tuzz and SNEE for Sneedle (“a terrible kind of ferocious mos-keedle”). The book’s theme, nearly shouted at the reader in rhyme and illustration, is “Be creative!”

On Beyond Zebra is one of several books written and illustrated by Dr. Seuss between 1946 and 1956 that are hymns to the imagination. The pages of On Beyond Zebra, If I Ran the Zoo, If I Ran the Circus, and McElligott’s Pool burst with invention. Dr. Seuss’s pictures and rollicking anapestic tetrameter lead the reader to such thrilling oddities as fish with time-telling faces and tiny creatures that juggle punctuation marks. We find ourselves in such imagination-stretching locales as “Fuzz-a-ma-wuzza-ma-dill” and “the far western part of south-east North Dakota.” These books practice their central ideal: if the reader looks around him or herself with fresh and unbiased eyes, there are amazing things to be seen. Not only do these early works encourage readers to “think outside the box,” they model the process. The narrator of McElligott’s Pool, for example, speculates: “If I wait long enough, if I’m patient and cool,/ Who knows what I’ll catch in McElligott’s Pool?” Then he answers his own question by picturing page after page of spectacular fish eager to take his bait. We readers join him as he populates and names the creatures of his universe— the implication being that we share his god-like power to create.

It seems to me important not to confuse Seuss’s books in praise of creativity with such overtly moralizing works as How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Horton Hatches an Egg. Because books like Grinch or the Horton stories focus on a particular virtue, such as unselfishness or faithfulness, their outcomes are predictable and reductive. Their characters and settings may seem original, but they serve conventional conclusions: good wins; evil, if it isn’t purged, suffers. All of which is fine, if you like sermons.  But what I am suggesting is that the books I’ve grouped with On Beyond Zebra portray a more complex, interesting, and truthful world.

The Zebra books are full of joyous wonder—but they also tell of misery and despair. In On Beyond Zebra the reader experiences creatures like the Quandary, who “worries, far into the night . . . Is his top side his bottom? Or bottom side top?” And there are Thnadners: “and oh, are they sad oh!/ The big one, you see, has the smaller one’s shadow.” Jogg-oons spend their lives “doodling” around “far desert dunes . . . crooning very sad tunes.” These creatures illustrate a fact about the world: sadness is as real as happiness. “Existential angst?” Seuss seems to ask the reader. “Here it is: look and learn.” Horton the elephant won’t always be there to bail you out.

Which brings me to Oh, the Places You’ll Go, Dr. Seuss’s last book. I’m afraid that, measured against his best earlier work, Seuss’s final story must be viewed as a dismal failure. I can hear your outraged voices: “What? The wonderful book I received (or gave) just this year as a graduation present a ‘dismal failure’? Why, the valedictorian quoted it in her commencement address—in fact, the speech itself was delivered in rhyme. It was so creative! And inspiring! What are you—some kind of curmudgeon?”

Call me what you will. But I condemn Oh the Places You’ll Go for the very same reasons that your valedictorian’s principal approved the speech that used it: it’s safe; it’s an agglomeration of platitudes; its messages are as generic as those of a Nike slogan or a Hallmark card. Where are the “Places” in Oh the Places You’ll Go? There are none. The book is nothing more than a series of substance-less slaps on the back, like “Kid, you’ll move mountains!” or “Life’s a great balancing act!” Clichés are fine for T-shirts, coffee mugs, and politicians, but once we’ve heard them, they dissolve like sugar stirred into a glass of water. By contrast, the masterfully imaginative works of the Zebra group take us everywhere: they show, rather than tell. In fact, they don’t just show, they show how.

I’d rather gift my graduates with On Beyond Zebra. Dr. Seuss left the final page of this book blank, except for one last fantastical letter with a question printed under it: What do you think we should call this one, anyhow? The reader has been invited to create both the name of the letter and the whatever-it-is the letter will help spell. Let’s say I call the letter CURM—needed to begin Curmudgeon, of course (the word even the Oxford English Dictionary can’t explain). The picture I draw is a cartoon version of me!  I’m pointing at you, and I seem to be accusing you of something—but what is it? And what are you going to do about it?