Every year the library at my school has a Book Spine Poetry contest during April; I’m the judge. Every year I’m delighted and amazed at the incredible creations our students and faculty come up with.
This year we had a 1st Place winner and an Honorable Mention at the faculty level. They’ve given me permission to share theirs with you.
The Honorable Mention went to a BSP by Kate Lambert, who made a poignant comment on the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey — the effects of which are still being felt by many, many people in our city and in our school community.
And the 1st Place winning Book Spine Poem goes to Harlan Howe, not only because it’s really good, but also because it is the longest BSP I’ve ever seen that was still coherent and cohesive. You don’t normally see ones nearly this long still be making any sense by the end.
If you have any book spine poems — they really are easier than they seem like they should be — just go to a bookshelf and start picking out phrases randomly until something catches — please feel free to post them in the comments below or send them to me.
So Spring Break is over now, and re-entry after a holiday from school is always challenging. I’m frequently reminded of the day my mother took me to the parish school where I would be entering kindergarten (for the second time, at this new school, because the diocese didn’t think I was old enough for first grade). I stayed at that school all the way through eighth grade graduation, and their insistence that I start kindergarten with other children my age (despite my academic and intellectual abilities) was perhaps one of the few genuinely good administrative choices I ever witnessed there.
But I’m reminded of it because, that day she took me there to register me, Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” had been playing on the radio in the car, and I remember singing the song’s chorus (the only part I could remember) over and over as we walked through the school building, and I kept misplacing the word “inspiration” for “education.” So I was singing, “We don’t need no inspiration…” And I asked my mom what inspiration meant, and she either didn’t or couldn’t really tell me.
I’m sure there are other deeper psychological reasons for my associating that song with the awfulness of my experience at that school, but I’ll leave that for another time.
This morning on the way to school, my kids and I cheerfully sang and danced along with the Bee-Gees’ “Staying Alive” on my iPod. (We are disco fans. They especially love it when I dance like John Travolta at the stop lights. Just the arms, of course, because, come on. No idea what the other motorists think. Not really sure I’m concerned about it, either.)
So in honor of how challenging it is to come back to school after a break longer than an ordinary weekend, I give you this. Enjoy.
And so today, as promised, two poems since I missed posting one yesterday.
Book spine poetry is a marvelous thing. Once you see an example, it’s probably pretty easy to figure out how it works. You just use the titles of books as your lines. I suppose you could consider it a type of found poetry.
Every April at my school, the library holds a contest to see who can come into the stacks and “find” the best book spine poems. Here are the two winners from the faculty/staff category this year.
Have you made any book spine poems lately? If so, please send me a picture of it or post it (if you can) in the comments below!
If you’ve been following this blog for a while you know that during National Poetry Month I like to do some sort of month-long celebration of verse. Sometimes it has taken the form of a poem contest. The last couple of years, I’ve curated a Poem-a-Day series, which has been hugely fun. This year I want to do a little of this, a little of that, to reflect the enormous variety of things to appreciate about poetry. I will never be able to present everything in a month, but that’s okay.
Today will be the first of probably a fair few Book Spine Poems, because I love them. If you’ve not heard of this phenomenon before, BSPs are found poems made by putting the titles on the spines of books together. Every year at my school, the librarian and I sponsor a Book Spine Poetry Contest for the high school students, and frequently one of our teachers, IT wizard Harlan Howe, “primes the pump” on the first day with a BSP of his own. They’re usually really, really good and so entertaining, and this year’s is no exception.
I’d love to know what you’re doing for National Poetry Month, if anything. If you’d like to share your own poems with me and possibly have them show up here on my blog (I still have a few spots for this month left open), please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your poem and the subject line “Poem-a-Day series” so it doesn’t get lost in my inbox or spam filter.
“We’ve got spirit, yes we do! We’ve got spirit, how about you?” the cheerleaders yell at one-third of our student body at a time. The children repeat the chant back to them: lower school’s high-pitched squeal as they indulge for a moment in sanctioned hyperactivity; middle school’s thick tenor as they toe the line between wanting to please their beautiful, smiling cheerleaders and practicing disaffection; the seismic grunting of the upper school whose voice is filled up mainly with the dark yell of the football teams.
I grew up and still live here in Texas, where some boys learn to play football before they learn to write sentences with punctuation. And after twenty years in education, most of it in a high school, there are three things I’ve done more of than most people I know: listen to commencement speeches, recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and attend pep rallies.
This weekend is homecoming. Yesterday morning’s rally was typical fare: excellent gymnastics from our athletic cheerleaders to some of the most bastardized pop music I’ve ever heard; hilarious relay races performed by selected students; questionably funny/unintentionally offensive banter from the student emcees; cheering from the entire student body, the youngest kids always the loudest. There’s a certain persistent tension between wanting to support my student athletes, whom I genuinely like and appreciate for how hard they work in my challenging English class, and being a little put off by the showy displays of ego, the occasional misogyny, and the weird association some within football culture make between their sport and fighting a war. I find it difficult, sometimes, to reconcile that machismo with the thoughtful, earnest attempts to understand Shakespeare at their tender age, their noble, generous struggle to write the most engaging personal essays and the most thoughtful literary analysis they can. On Fridays, I want to ask them, Who are you, really? Which you is most you? How much of that stuff do you believe? How much of it do they, like Tim O’Brien says, feel in their guts? Which part of them is the most real?
But of all the debatably outrageous things I’ve seen at pep rallies over the course of my life––including, once, seeing a boy rip the water balloon-soaked t-shirt from his body in front of everyone––nothing compares to what we were subjected to when I was in second grade, and every time I attend a pep rally, I cannot help but think about it.
It was 1981 in Houston. That year, Reagan had entered the White House and survived an assassination attempt, Pope John Paul II had survived an assassination attempt, and we had launched the Space Shuttle program and with it, the collective aspirations of every Star Wars fan I knew, myself included, that one day we would personally explore the heavens. On a more intimate scale, Han Solo had taken the job of Badass Archaeology Professor in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lady Diana had married Prince Charles in the most Cinderella dress I’d ever seen outside of a Disney movie, and I’d won my first spelling bee. Our teacher had shown us a picture in the newspaper of a unicorn born in California, cementing my passionate belief that these mythical creatures were real, and no amount of skeptics claiming it was just a one-horned goat could sway my fervor. The world lay at our feet, rich with possibility and promise. I planned to be an Egyptologist and had my father wake me up at 5:00 on a Saturday morning so I could watch the funeral of Anwar Sadat on television, because I wanted to see him entombed in a pyramid.
At my small, private elementary school, we gathered together in the gym on Fridays for prayer service in the morning and a pep rally in the afternoon, festooned in the blue-and-gold buttons and spirit ribbons we could buy for a quarter each week and pin to our clothes to show support for our team. Some of my cousins also attended this school, and one of them, Craig, was in the eighth grade. I loved Craig, who was kind and fun and always had a hug for me when I saw him around campus, even though I was a little kid. He also played football, a fact I hadn’t realized until one day, at a pep rally, he and a bunch of his classmates and teammates were brought up onstage, put onto metal folding chairs, and blindfolded. What was about to commence was a kissing contest.
Now, remember that this was the barely-post-1970s, pre-AIDS era of kissing booths. Every carnival and state fair, on television and in real life, had one. Even our little parish’s church bazaar did, replete with a Farrah Fawcett lookalike inside it.
So the idea that the boys were all going to be kissed at the pep rally was entertaining. They were blindfolded because they were going to judge the kissing on a scale from one to ten, with ten being the highest. They were instructed to keep their hands on the sides of their chairs. As the principal explained the rules, the boys grinned, huge bracey smiles stretching to the edges of the folded bandanas over their eyes. In their uniform navy trousers and white Oxford shirts, their pimpled faces largely obscured, it was hard to tell them apart.
Then came the kicker. The girls who were going to be kissing the boys, whose smooches would be evaluated by them, were our junior high teachers. That’s right, the middle-aged women who taught these kids grammar, theology, social studies, algebra were now going to plant their puckers on them, too. The one man on the academic faculty, the junior high science teacher, was exempt from this game.
The student body roared with laughter and glee. The boys, now trapped on their folding chairs by blindfolds and the cheering crowd, grinned or snickered or squirmed, but not a single one stood up or yanked off his blindfold or even held up his hand to halt the proceedings or ask a question. A few of them rapidly fidgeted their sneakers back and forth. Their chairs were spaced a few feet apart, so if they were talking to each other, I’m not sure much of it got through between the bandanas around their heads and the noise of the younger students, the children whom they, as eighth grade boys, were routinely told to man up in front of, to set a good example for as the leaders of the school.
The kissing started. One at a time, a teacher would go to her boy and smooch him on the lips. The crowd whooped and hollered. Then the boy would grin again, still blindfolded, and give his rating. Craig got the most laughs when he pronounced his religion teacher––a tall, stocky grandmother with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair––a fourteen. Soon the kissing was done. The teachers moved offstage, anonymous to the football players at least during the glistening moment of the pep rally. The boys were told they could remove their blindfolds, and their faces were red as they observed their fellow students cheering for them, laughter mingling with the yells. They were dismissed from the stage and left the daïs to be consumed by their classmates sitting criss-cross applesauce by grade level on the gym floor. It took a while for the noise to die down.
I don’t know who thought any of that was a good idea, but it never happened again, and frankly, by the time the next pep rally rolled around, no one was even talking about the kissing contest anymore. It joined the ranks of other inconvenient memories, pushed down out of the way like the fraying polyester ribbons we collected from one school year to the next, wore every Friday during football season. They were the things we believed we didn’t have to mention, the tattered flags we pinned to our sleeves next to the shiny new ones, entire outfits made of fluttering blue and gold strips to show that we, yes, we had the most spirit, we were the most dedicated fans, we would do whatever it took to support our team.
School has started, and I’m teaching again. My tenth grade English classes and my grades 9-12 Creative Writing class have not yet begun to look at me with abject skepticism, but then I haven’t asked them to write a lot of poetry yet.
When I was in high school, I detested poetry. My instruction had been confined to the episode in The Odyssey when Odysseus outwits the Cyclops by telling him his name is Nobody, “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold and a few other poems about World War I, some Shakespeare, and maybe a little Emily Dickinson. While all those things are great, there wasn’t really a sense that poetry was something still-living people did. Poetry itself did not live. The most contemporary poet any of my friends knew of was Sylvia Plath, and her caché was having tried so many times to kill herself. And by the time we were aware of her, she was also already dead.
Is it any wonder I considered myself a fiction writer only? In stories, for me, there was peace. There, in stories, was the world as I dictated it, a haven for a girl who felt invisible more often than not, silenced not by malice but through the daily machinations of the 20th-century Texas in which the accident of her birth had placed her.
And, much like the progressive French women authors who write comte de fée (fairy tales) centuries ago were able to make female characters into empowered heroines with agency and active motivations by couching those characters in the realm of children’s fancy*, stories allowed me to reshape the reality of the world as I knew it.
When I got to college, I knew I would be a fiction student. (I went to the University of Houston for Creative Writing.) And then halfway through my degree, I had to take some cross-genre classes. Poetry workshops were my new experience: I made friends with other student-poets; learned from living, breathing, author-poets; tried writing poetry myself. I read the works of the poets of my own time, I learned how to see the world around me in short bursts of lyric. The rain-drenched courtyard outside my dorm became leaves “on a black, wet bough.”**
I wrote nothing but poetry for several years, and through this practice what I learned about language, about the relationships among words and between word and meaning, completely changed the way I worked. When I came back to fiction afterward, my writing style was wildly different, dramatically improved. My stories had become worth reading, all because poetry had taught me language.
When my students tell me they don’t want to read or write poetry, when they confess it freaks them out, I remind them that poetry is all around us. We practice with short form debriefs about mundane things, focusing on turning a single image into two or three sparkling lines of metaphor and comment.
My friend Chris Noessel, who lives in the San Francisco Bay area, takes Casual Carpool to work and sometimes posts on Facebook his impressions of his varied carpool experiences. One day this summer a line from one of his posts caught me, felt like it had rhythm, and I turned his post into a poem. Not a great poem, by any stretch, but something fun to work with for half an hour while I sat, otherwise unfocused, procrastinating my novel revisions.
In this immaculately aging sedan, my feet intrude upon a floor mat bedecked with red and pink hearts, a riot of affectionate color in a gray, gray mechanical world.
A plastic key fob boasts a picture of the driver and children, witnessing a moment of joy on a roller coaster, but her movements, . now fastidious, . brake – accelerate – brake – like dressage. A full ten car lengths separate us from the white van
ahead. The driver’s back, ramrod, doesn’t rest against her seat, stiffens against the radio’s latest testimonial: a man lamenting his thug life full of guns, dope, and, oh yes, bitches.
. The driver taps her index fingers – da dum, da dum – in time on the steering wheel.
doot doot do do, doot doot do do, doot doot do do, doot doot do do…
Find the lyric in at least one moment of your day, every day.*** It’s like meditation without having to meditate: this forced daydream of language, your moment of Zen in a chaotic world.
* For more discussion of this idea, see Jack Zipes’ When Dreams Came True.
** This line is paraphrased from the imagistic poem “In a Station at the Metro” by Ezra Pound.
*** I currently have a contest running on Twitter: the first three people to reply to me with a one-tweet-long poem about school starting up again will win a free copy each of my new ebook FINIS. You won’t be the first winner (that spot has already been claimed this morning), but will you be the second or third?
It’s not so much a photograph as the black-and-white computer print-out of a photograph. And it’s not so much placed on the windowsill among the framed snapshots and portrait prints of my family as it is stapled haphazardly into an empty spot on the aging bulletin board. The bulletin board whose juvenile illustrated border has been falling down for years, whose navy blue felt backdrop is dusty and faded by the sun around the rectangles where items like this not-so-much-a-real-photograph have been thumbtacked and stapled up for years. So many years.
But this picture matters to me. It’s a picture of my birthday. Or more specifically, of a birthday party my Creative Writing class threw me one year––in 2009, I think––and I’m there in the middle, surrounded by my students and desks piled high with paper plates and napkins and homemade cookies and random snack foods from the grocery store that opens before school starts and a chocolate cake with a candle on it. The photo is grainy and hazy and even a little graffitied by my daughter, who drew ball point pink hearts around her favorite students, ones who used to babysit her and her little brother before they moved away to college.
I am dramatically rearranging and overhauling my classroom this year. It began with the acquisition of a Promethean Board which necessitated moving my computer (and thus desk) to the opposite side of the classroom, and that meant moving my bookshelves around, which snowballed into moving everything else around, too. In cleaning off the bookshelves I let go of a lot of things I don’t need or want anymore, and halfway through inservice week I spontaneously decided to redecorate my bulletin boards, which I hadn’t really done ever, choosing instead each semester only to add more stuff on top of what was already there. The fire marshal might have written me up, if he’d seen it.
By any logical estimation, this not-so-much-a-photograph, this piece of paper, curling at the staple-holed corners and ripped down one edge, ought to be tossed into the recycling bin. But I cannot let it go. This casual print-out of a digital photo one of the kids emailed to me is proof that during at least one point in my teaching career, I was able to make a meaningful connection with a room full of high schoolers that was powerful enough that they found a way to throw me a surprise party in my own classroom on my birthday, complete with decorations, food, a cake, and even handmade cards and a gift wrapped in lovely paper with a bow. I seem to recall that one of them posted to Facebook a short video of them singing to me, then one of them saying, “Now get your germs all over that cake!” and all of them laughing as I––also laughing––blew out the candle and then cut each of them a slice. Only half a class worth of work got done that day, but no one really cared about that.
I keep this picture around because it reminds me that I am capable of making these meaningful connections, that no matter how difficult it is for my students to relate to me as I get older and they seem to get younger, to get less interested in school and in learning for its own sake, to get more involved in the digital world we all now inhabit to the exclusion of real, tangible interactions with actual live humans…I was able to make an impression on them once, and I will find a way to do it again. I have to believe that, no matter how difficult it feels the first couple of weeks of the school year, no matter how many people ask to be transferred out of my English class because they’ve heard it’s hard, no matter how many of them stare up at me on the first day of school with faces that have shut down to mask the fear in their eyes. I’m so tired of not being known, so tired of not being given a chance.
I’ve been giving my classroom a make-over this week. The bulletin boards are now covered in a cheerful robin’s egg blue with white and silver scalloped borders. I’ve put up new artwork––some of the best of it by my AP Gothic Lit. students from last year. I’ve even included the book launch party poster for Finis. The walls have been freshly painted, all the surfaces have been dusted and Clorox-wiped. By the time classes start on Wednesday, the classroom will look like a brand-spanking-new place that is my own, rather than a room I inherited when I started teaching in it so many years ago, and even my desk will be cleaned off. I will appear to have it together.
In this process, I’ve been wanting to give myself a make-over, too. Wanting to walk into Macy’s and head right up to the Chanel or Dior counters and tell them to give me a new look. Preferably one with a shade of red lipstick I actually like, not too pink and not too orange. Something that won’t rub off on my teacup. Maybe find a new blouse or two to go with my fabulous skirt wardrobe.
In clearing out the physical detritus, I’ve been yearning for an emotional purge, too. I’ve had some setbacks with this school year already, and classes haven’t even started yet. Monday it felt like I was being slaughtered by a thousand bureaucratic and technical paper cuts. Here I am, already back at school and my summer’s work isn’t finished: I didn’t finish the rewrites of my novel, I didn’t finish clearing out the clutter in my house, I didn’t finish reading all the books I wanted to. My thinking about all of this is so entrenched in the negative, I have to consciously remind myself of all the good things that have happened: traveling with my family, successfully launching a new book and the excellent reviews it’s garnered so far, getting two of the rooms in my house and my wardrobe really purged and cleaned out. My god, I have to remind myself, the summer is only so long. How much did you expect to get done and still have a life? I’m too hard on myself.
David Foster Wallace’s brilliant commencement address to Kenyon in 2005 begins with an old joke about two young fish swimming around, when they encounter an older fish who says to them, “Good morning, boys. How’s the water?” After the older fish leaves, one of the younger fish asks his friend, “What the hell is water?” Wallace’s point is that we sometimes cling to our natural default setting of disappointment in the tedious fulcrum of mediocrity upon which so much of daily adult life turns; in this self-indulgent laziness, we sometimes forget to appreciate the value of our own experiences among other human beings. In short, we focus on the negative of what we know we don’t have, instead of recognizing the potential beauty in what we do not yet know about what we are going to have. Wallace’s speech is one of the most impactful and glorious elucidations of the Human Condition I’ve ever heard, made even more poignant by the fact that he, just a few years later, ended his own life. I share this speech with my students every May, just before the school year ends. Yet as often as I’ve heard it, I still have trouble, sometimes, remembering its wisdom.
My classroom is looking great so far. So here is my own personal start-of-term make-over: it’s going to be okay. Look, I’m getting writing done this very morning. After my writing date, I’ll head over to Macy’s and get some new lipstick. Then I’ll go home and attack one pile of paperwork and finish my summer reading, and then take my kids to a birthday party. My students are going to be marvelous and smart and kind and find something about my classes interesting. It’s all going to be okay.
I just have to keep reminding myself, This is water, this is water, this is water…