Poem-A-Day: Dede Fox

A few months ago I was invited to become a member of the Board of Directors for Mutabilis Press, a publisher of poetry, and of course I jumped at the chance! I’ve long been an admirer of their anthologies and have had the pleasure of being published in some of them over the years. This year I’m including some of the Mutabilis Press poets in the Poem-A-Day series for National Poetry Month. Today is the first.

This poem by Dede Fox reminds me of the precarious balance I observe on the daily, as a parent of two teenagers (even saying that wracks my nerves) and as a high school teacher. I want so very much for my children, my own and the ones I teach. I want so much for the world to be an excellent place for them (even if it’s a wreck with, as the poet Maggie Smith suggests, good bones). I want so much for them to find their passions, and for those passions to contribute in beautiful ways to the world. I want so much for them to be unburdened enough to enjoy their youth but responsible enough to recognize it’s okay that youth doesn’t last forever, because good choices make for a much better other side of age.

I want so much.

 

Hide and Seek

She posts photos:
her dreadlocks through stages
in the dying process—
brown to blonde to purple,
lips stained dark blue,
emaciated torso in a black T-shirt,
feet in stiletto platforms

her favorite animals:
red-feathered chickens playing
follow-the-leader across hardscrabble soil,
turtles that she’s saved from 18-wheelers
crossing country highways,
dogs, cats, donkeys, fish, horses,
a bearded dragon with a human name,
all squatting at her dead grandmother’s
house with the girl and a boyfriend,
so young that he hides his age
behind a bushy beard and glasses

She sketches:
faceless teens with the words
“don’t let your light go out,”
or “I hope that one day you see me
for who I am
and not who you want me to be,”
but people who love her
at nineteen know her —
no GED, no job,
no driver’s license,
a frightened child
playing grown-up,
hiding out,
allowing her promise
to dim in the settling dust.

Only she can’t see
her unlimited talent,
wasted until she ignites it,
accepts responsibility
for lighting her own world.

***

Go to this month’s first Poem-A-Day to learn how to participate in a game as part of this year’s series. You can have just a little involvement or go all the way and write a cento. I hope you’ll join in!

***

Dede Fox is the 2017-2022 Poet Laureate of Montgomery County, Texas. For four years she mentored writers as the NEA/DOJ Artist-in-Residence at the Bryan Federal Prison Camp for Women and currently works with Houston’s Writers in the Schools at Texas Children’s Hospital. THE TREASURE IN THE TINY BLUE TIN, her first novel, was listed in 2010 BEST JEWISH BOOKS FOR CHILDREN AND TEENS.  Dede’s poetry collections include CONFESSIONS OF A JEWISH TEXAN and POSTCARDS HOME. “Chapultepec Park,” winner of the Christina Sergeyevna Award at the Austin International Poetry Festival, served as catalyst for ON WINGS OF SILENCE, her novel-in-verse published in 2019.

Poem-A-Day: Lee Herrick

Today is my daughter’s birthday. We have an official teenager in the house now. It’s pretty exciting to watch her grow, as it always has been, but particularly because she is growing into an outspoken young woman, finding peace in herself every now and then and finding purpose in positive activism. She’s aware of the world and knows what she would do to fix the problems with it.

She is utterly baffled by the nonsense around us.

She’s an amazing artist — watch for her Etsy shop this summer, my friends — and she has marched in more protests than I have. She believes in her causes, and they are some very fine causes: women’s rights/human rights, gun reform, climate change correction, anti-bullying campaigns, LGBTQ rights. She stands up for what matters to her, even in her classes sometimes, where she’s not the most popular kid but wow, she knows how to speak her truth.

One day maybe I’ll tell you about how, at the March For Our Lives last month, she posed for a picture with the police chief and led a group of kids in a chant of “Am I next?” until it became just a little too hard to bear.

Anyway, I’m not focusing on those things today, but instead just on my awesome kid and how much I love her and how adorable it is when she video chats with her sweet friends and we have to tell her it’s time to hang up and she rolls her eyes and says yeah okay and we tell her friends good night and they tell us good night and she hangs up and I marvel at how tall she has grown this year and how long her hair has gotten and how incredible and baffling it is that she likes to style it like mine sometimes.

And if I’m honest, I’m also focusing a little bit on the occasional kindness of the random world: on this poem, and how it came to me.

Last year, when I was curating my April series here, I went looking for poems about birthdays and found “How to Spend a Birthday” by Lee Herrick on the Poetry Foundation website. I looked him up and asked if I could use this poem for my series on my daughter’s birthday. I explained that her father’s last name is Herrick, too, and that he grew up not too far from where this poet lives. Not the same family, as far as we can tell, but hey, what a coincidence.

He didn’t get my message in time for me to use it then, but when he did, he was so gracious and said I could, so I saved it for today. The poem is from This Many Miles of Desire (2007).

***

“How to Spend a Birthday”

Light a match. Watch the blue part
                                                             flare like a shocked piñata
                                            from the beating
                                            into the sky,
                                                             watch how fast thin
wood burns & turns toward the skin,
the olive-orange skin of your thumb
                                                             & let it burn, too.
Light a fire. Drown out the singing cats.
Let the drunken mariachis blaze their way,
streaking like crazed hyenas
over a brown hill, just underneath
a perfect birthday moon.

***

Lee Herrick is the author of Scar and Flower, forthcoming from Word Poetry Press in January 2019. He is the author of two previous books of poems, Gardening Secrets of the Dead (WordTech Editions, 2012) and This Many Miles from Desire (WordTech Editions, 2007). He is a Fresno Poet Laureate Emeritus (2015-2017) and his poems have been published widely in literary magazines, anthologies, and textbooks including The Bloomsbury Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Berkeley Poetry Review, The Normal School, The Poetry Foundation online, From the Fishouse online, ZZYZYVA, Highway 99: A Literary Journey Through California’s Great Central Valley, 2nd edition, The Place That Inhabits Us: Poems from the San Francisco Bay Watershed, One for the Money: The Sentence as Poetic Form, and Indivisible: Poems of Social Justice, among others.​ He currently serves on the leadership team of The Adoption Museum Project.

He has traveled throughout Latin America and Asia and has given readings throughout the United States. He was born in Daejeon, South Korea, adopted at ten months old, and raised in the East Bay and later, Central California. He lives with his daughter and wife in Fresno, California. He teaches at Fresno City College and in the MFA Program at Sierra Nevada College.

Poem-A-Day: Jeannie Gambill

My children are eleven and about-to-be-thirteen. Sometimes I wonder whether I will ever stop worrying about them. I’m confident the answer is likely no.

Sometimes at school events, I test this. I’ve been teaching at this school for eighteen years. They’ve been attending this school since they were four. They treat the campus — which, after all, is a comparatively safe one most of the time — like they have the run of it. This is not uncommon among faculty children who have grown up within its walls and gates.

But I still worry. Part of me wants to walk them to their building every morning and pick them up from it after school. (I don’t, though, not anymore.) And sometimes when we go to a game, I even let them run off and play — excuse me, “hang out” — with their friends on the other side of the fields, and I plant myself in the bleachers as if it were the only place I wanted to be.

On such occasions I like to tell my friends I’m snapping off a helicopter blade.

At the last reading I gave, several poets were presenting their work, and one of them, Jeannie Gambill, read this one. It resonated, to say the least.

I sometimes think I will start to relax when my kids are past the age of twenty-five. Jeannie assures me this will not be the case.

***

Directive
to a grown daughter

When you ride your motorcycle
wear your helmet.
Not the half helmet.
Wear your full helmet
always.
When you go out on your motorcycle
take only streets
where
there are no cars
no trucks
no buses
no other moving vehicles.
Do not go out in the rain.
Never on the freeways.
When you decide instead
to go on your bicycle
be faithful to all of these
instructions. The routes
you’ve shown us you take to work
through neighborhoods
on your bicycle, there are
cars parked on these narrow
streets. Be careful. It’s hard
to see you.
Your motorcycle surely lost
from view when you are in traffic.
Do not go into the traffic.
Do not go anyplace where
there is danger. Stay
blocks away from any vehicle
in which the driver
is un-focused. Please say
you will do these things.
When you train on the highways
in the hills   when you want
the challenge   need the long
stretch   the cumulative miles
when you bike into the hills

when you take your bicycle
round the curve   slow
on the upward incline
and   down   down   gaining speed
the curve   go round the curve
go round and down the hill’s
curve     not too fast.
When you line it out
the song of you
adhere please
to this
entreaty.

***

Jeannie Gambill’s poetry has appeared in Gulf Coast, Cenizo, The Weight of Addition: An Anthology of Texas Poetry, Untameable City: Poems on the Nature of Houston, and the Texas Poetry Calendars of 2011 and 2012. She was recipient of the 2011 Dana Award for Poetry, and a winner in the Artlines Competition (2012). She has been a featured poet in Houston’s Public Poetry Reading Series and was a finalist in the Ruth G. Hardman/Nimrod Poetry Competition. She lives in Bellaire, Texas.

Poem-A-Day: Sarah Blake (again)

Remember that searing poem by Sarah Blake yesterday? Here’s another one. I love how the poem weaves together a child’s impulse, some interesting knowledge, a captivating animal, and a comment on human society in just a few lines. It’s poems like these, short but punchy ones, that I think demonstrate one of the great powers of poetry: to make us see and understand and appreciate and wonder all in the economical space of a moment.

***

Throats

 

My son howls at the fox. I guess
the long snout is enough, the body

we associate with a dog, doggish,
even the terrier next door throws

back his head, howling at us when
we come close. I always feel like

it’s an invitation, over the fence,
the vulnerability of the neck, and I

learned wolves howl to rally, to unite.
I can imagine that a silent pack would

be quicker to disband than one that
offered themselves like that, throats

bared, always saying to each other,
Me too, me too.

***

Sarah Blake is the author of Mr. West and the forthcoming collection, Let’s Not Live on Earth (both from Wesleyan University Press). An illustrated workbook accompanies her first chapbook, Named After Death (Banango Editions). In 2013, she was awarded a literature fellowship from the NEA. She lives outside of Philadelphia with her husband and son. http://www.sarahblakepoetry.com

Find Me At Femmeliterate

I’m so pleased to announce that an essay of mine about Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, Harry Potter, and reading with my daughter across the generations has been posted at one of my favorite blogs, Femmeliterate, as part of their Women Writers Reading series. Go check it out! Just click on this link to go there:  http://www.femmeliterate.net/reveuse-by-angelique-jamail/

 

 

Featured Poet: Christa M. Forster

A few weeks ago, physicist Brian Greene visited the high school where I teach and gave an assembly about string theory and other exciting scientific matters, and then he worked with individual science classes on specialized topics. His visit was, in a word, fascinating, but if I tried to explain the highlights of his presentation, I would fail miserably. Greene is such an accessible speaker, which is in part what he’s known for, that I had no difficulty understanding any of what he said, but I could not hope to duplicate his explanations without at least an outline, and I was listening and enjoying his talk too much to take notes. I suppose this qualifies as a “you had to be there” moment?

Some of my colleagues did take notes, though, and it was interesting to chat with them after the assembly to find out what resonated most with them. One of my fellow English teachers, also a fiction writer, focused on the disparities between micro and macro in the theory of relativity and the metaphor of how big things and little things meshing don’t always make for successful communication.

Christa M. Forster, whose review of Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars showed up here this month as the Women Writers Wednesday series intersected with National Poetry Month, wrote this poem after the assembly.

***

For Brian Greene, a Poem
.
 

You don’t know what matter is
but you know how to stick it
into the cast-iron meat grinder
your sister once convinced you
to put your pinky finger in.

You did it even though
your mother warned you
against doing it.

Your sister with her scrambled
egg curls and Mediterranean eyes
smiled at you and commenced
to grind away your little finger, which,
once she started, was stuck, and you

(only three and no knowledge
of the pink and white fragility
of flesh) saw what it really was:

meat.


***

Christa Forster: Writer, Teacher, Performer whose goal is to make life more meaningful for herself and others through Education and Art. Follow her on Twitter @xtaforster.

Featured Poet: Kaye Starbird

I didn’t post a poem yesterday because it was the Orange-Belt Fairy Princess Badass‘ birthday. (She’s now a yellow belt, by the way.) And since I’m a working mom who throws her kids birthday parties and even bakes them cakes (that often look as if they’ve been drawn by Dr Seuss), I was too busy on a weekday to post. I had every intention of doing so, but I also figured you’d live if I skipped a day.

This cake's primary ingredient is love, and its three layers are held together with Type A overcompensation for being a mom who has two jobs, teaching and authoring. Okay, not actually. It's really Cool Whip.
This cake’s primary ingredient is love, and its three layers are held together with Type A overcompensation for being a mom who has two jobs, teaching and authoring. Okay, not actually. It’s really Cool Whip. My daughter wanted to decorate it herself, so she placed the candles.

When I was in fourth grade (as my daughter is now), I read this poem in my Literature class textbook, and for some reason it stuck with me — and has for all these years. But finding this poem, when all I could remember was a title and the first stanza and last two lines (because how could I forget them?), was a challenge. Hooray for the Internet and crowdsourcing information! I was able to track down the text of this poem here on someone’s blog. Et voilà.

***

.

Tuesday I Was Ten

.

Tuesday I was ten, and though
The fact delights me plenty,
It sort of startles me to know
I’m now a half of twenty.

 

It’s nice to own a bigger bike
With brakes along the wheels
And figure skates (the kind I like)
And shoes with little heels,

 

And have a real allowance, too,
To make me wise and thrifty;
But still, I can’t believe (can you?)
I’m now a fifth of fifty!

 

Although an age like ten appears
Quite young and un-adventure-y,
My gosh! In only ninety years
My age will be a century!

.

***

.

Kaye Starbird lived from 1916-1993. I know nothing else about her except that she wrote this adorable poem. “Tuesday I Was Ten” was published in 1963 in Never Cross A Crocodile. Enjoy.

The Allowance Conundrum

When I was a kid, I got an allowance. It was tied to my chores, and if I did them, I got my dollar or two a week. I saved it in a thick glass Snoopy bank that cleverly had no stopper, so in order to get the money out, I had to literally break the bank. Once I figured that out, the money started going into a wallet. I’m sure I must have spent it here or there, but the only place I really remember doing so was at the annual Book Fair at my school’s library. I have a vivid memory of excitedly counting out seven dollars when I was in second grade, money I had carefully saved, knowing that I would be able to buy not only three new books for myself, but new bookmarks and tree ornaments for my siblings for Christmas. Good times.

When I had children of my own and the “gimme!” tantrums began every time we went to the store, I realized it was time to give them an allowance. But I didn’t like the idea of paying them to clean up after themselves. Picking up your toys when you’re done playing with them and putting your dirty clothes in the hamper are skills you should have by kindergarten. My husband and I wanted our kids to be able to pick up after themselves because they are capable of it and it’s appropriate that they should; we are not their maids.

As they got older, we wanted them to assume more responsibilities, like helping to set the table or bringing their dirty dishes to the sink. Carrying their backpacks out of the car every afternoon. Making their beds. And if they grew up with the expectation that we would pay them to be, essentially, functioning members of the household, then they would never have the motivation not to be slobs if there weren’t a monetary reward. (And if this seems like an unrealistic concern, then you’re hanging out with much more evolved children than we are.)

***

Speaking of more evolved children… My friend Steven Tesney recently published this post on the Daddy Issues blog about the way they handle allowances in his family, and it’s an interesting system — more sophisticated in its philosophy than most I’ve encountered so far. I’m interested in what you think of it.

***

So instead of paying our kids to not be slobs, we started giving them a few dollars a week for no other reason than to have it, just so they can learn how to manage money for themselves. If they want to buy candy or Pokémon cards from the grocery store, that’s coming out of their allowance. We give them a smallish amount, because there’s not really much call for them to need to spend their money; we pay for things like gifts for their friends and extra fun things at school and outings. We give them bonuses, too: if they participate in a big chore (like helping us clean the cars or pulling weeds from the garden or raking leaves in the yard), there’s extra money for that; if we go to a festival or on vacation, we give them a chunk of money to spend on souvenirs and games and rides, and anything they don’t spend, they get to keep.

And if they don’t do their chores? They lose privileges like screen time.

But our system isn’t perfect. I wonder whether we’re giving them enough money. Some people advocate a dollar for each year of age per week, but most of the people I know who do that have only one child. Even though we tell the kids they need to divide their allowance equally between “spend,” “save,” and “donate,” sometimes the lines between those blur a little when Tiny Beowulf really wants to spend money on something. Sometimes they lose one of those little banks or wallets somewhere in the depths of their closets or bedrooms and choose to compromise quickly rather than spend some time looking for their stuff. The inconsistency makes it difficult to establish a good habit.

What do you do? If you have kids, how do you handle allowances, if at all? If you don’t have kids yourself but received an allowance when you were young, how did you earn it, and did the mechanics of your family’s system work well? I’m interested in hearing how the allowance debate is treated these days among all of you.

Please, discuss.  🙂