POETRY WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE

Poetry_Will_Save_Your_Life_Cover

“Poems are made from the lives lived, borne out of experiences and shaped by solitary thought.” ~ Jill Bialosky

I just finished reading a wonderful new book that I picked up solely because of its intriguing title: Poetry Will Save Your Life by Jill Bialosky (Atria Books 2017). The  Kirkus Review sums it up well: “An emotional, sometimes-wrenching account of how lines of poetry can be lifelines.” 

This short memoir is centered on specific poems that have brought the author comfort, meaning, inspiration, or understanding during pivotal moments in her life. Bialosky organizes the book by themes such as Shame, Memory, Escape, Passion, First Love, and Mortality. A brief bio for each poet is included which deepens our awareness of the poem’s meaning. Each poignant chapter could stand alone. 

Throughout the book, Bialosky reflects on the profound lessons and meaning poetry can offer us. “Poems are composed of our own language disordered, reconfigured, reimagined, and compressed in ways that offer a heightened sense of reality and embrace a common humanity.”

Whether you are a poetry lover or haven’t read a poem since high school, there is something in this book for everyone. 

Ms. Bialosky, an award-winning poet, novelist, and book editor, never veers off into English professor mode when reflecting on the poems. Rather, she selects key phrases or themes that connect with her experience. Here she examines a stanza of E.E. Cummings poem, somewhere i have never traveled, gladly beyond.                

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands
                 

Bialosky explains that the “use of the word voice as a modifier for eyes allows the reader to experience how much the speaker of this poem “sees” into his subject. Then she intuits the poet’s question:  How is it that one person can unlock something private within us? Or awaken things in us we fear?” 

Bialosky writes about the death of her first child shortly after birth. She shares the never-ending pain of her beloved young sister’s suicide.  In the chapter of grief, Bialosky comments on Auden’s poem, Musee Des Beaux Arts.  “W.H. Auden documents the otherworldly state of grief and tragedy; how it strikes families while others are doing the dishes or taking the dog for a walk. Even dogs continue on their doggy life.” 

Anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one can connect to this paradoxical state of being: How can everyone else just go about their business when my beloved is gone? 

Bialosky says, “I will spend years trying to capture the experience of suicide in a prose work…Poems remain a sustaining source of comfort.

Like Jill Bialowsky, words, too, have been an integral part of my healing after losing my father—words shared with a therapist, words of comfort from family and friends, words I have written, and words of those who have crawled through the tunnel of trauma and grief and come out the other side.

It has been exactly two years since my father’s tragic death. In some ways, this is unfathomable.  How could two years have passed?  This disbelief has me thinking more about the elusive nature of time. If time is constant, why do our brains perceive it so differently? Why does time slow down when we grieve and speed up when we are happy?  Why when we are waiting excitedly for a special event, do the days not move fast enough?          

passing-the-time

For centuries, poets have pondered time’s mystery. Consider Henry Van Dyke’s poem, Time Is.

Time is
Too Slow for those who Wait,
Too Swift for those who Fear,
Too Long for those who Grieve,
Too Short for those who Rejoice;
But for those who Love,
Time is eternity.

Emily Dickinson expresses this idea of expectation and waiting in her poem, If You Were Coming In The Fall.  Although the agoraphobic poet spent most of her life inside her Amherst, MA home, Dickinson enjoyed her share of romantic interests. The following poem is thought to be attributed to a family friend, Judge Otis Phillips Lord, who died 2 years before Emily.

                          EmilyDickinsonSmall

If you were coming in the Fall,

I’d brush the Summer by

With half a smile, and half a spurn,

As Housewives do, a Fly.

If I could see you in a year,

I’d wind the months in balls—

And put them each in separate Drawers,

For fear the numbers fuse—

If only Centuries, delayed,

I’d count them on my Hand,

Subtracting, till my fingers dropped

Into Van Dieman’s Land,

If certain, when this life was out—

That yours and mine, should be

I’d toss it yonder, like a Rind,

And take Eternity—

But, now, uncertain of the length

Of this, that is between,

It goads me, like the Goblin Bee—

That will not state— its sting.

                                            ~

Jill Bialowsy concludes that “poetry gives shape to those empty spaces within us that we have no words for until we find them in a poem.”  

Do you have a favorite poem or one that holds special meaning?

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Summer Reading for Teens 2013

It’s Book Bucket time again!

My daughter is just finishing up her homeschooling projects, so I haven’t yet presented her summer book bucket. Meanwhile, my Writing Workshop students have asked for summer reading recommendations.  So here you are:

Wonder

by R. J. Palacio

Knoph

Wonder

I fell in love with this book.  I listened to the audio version which was fantastic.  This story has heart, humor, and wit. It is the kind of book you want to talk to someone about after reading.  The story is told in multiple perspectives–from the main character, August, a fifth grader, his classmates, and  his sister in tenth grade.  So there is a wide range of interest here. Auggie has struggled all his life with a facial deformity which prevented him from attending school.  When he begins Beecher Prep, he hopes to be treated like a normal kid and to make friends. The story deals with friendship, bullying, empathy, teachers, and how a family copes with adversity and illness.  The author called her debut book, “a mediation in kindness”. I’d recommend it for both girl and boys ages 10-14, but adults will love it, too.  Wonder has been on many top ten lists this year. Don’t miss it.

Summer and Bird

by Katherine Catmull

Dutton 2012

summer and bird

A beautifully written fairy-tale about two sisters, Summer and Bird, who awake one morning to find their parents missing. They embark on a mysterious quest through a forest to find them.  The girls are then pulled into a fantastical bird world called Down, where birds speak and connect with humans.  The sisters alternate chapters in telling the story.  This is a great book for girls who enjoy fantasy, nature, and relationship stories. It has emotional intensity and dangerous situations. Ages 12 and up.

The Agency, Book 1

 Y.S. Lee

Candlewick Press, 2011

the agency

It is the 1850‘s London and twelve-year-old Mary Quinn is sentenced to hang for stealing. In the nick of time, she is secretly rescued by a member of the covert spy group called The Agency.  Working under the guise of Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls, the all female agency trains young females to be spies. Mary’s first assignment is to disguise herself as a lady’s companion and infiltrate a rich merachant’s home in order to uncover the mystery of some disappearing cargo ships. This is a great book for more sophisticated readers who enjoy historical fiction with romance and suspense. The lush details will transport you back to Victorian-era London.  Recommended for ages 12-18.

Code Name Verity

by Elizabeth Wein

Hyperian 2012

Code name verity

This Printz Honor book has made a number of top ten lists. It will keep you hooked to the very end. After surviving a plane crash, “Verity”, a young female spy, is captured in  Nazi-occupied France. In exchange for a lesser form a torture and a stay of execution, Verity agrees to write her confessions about her espionage work. We learn the story of how she crossed paths with Maddie, the young pilot of the plane and why Verity abandoned her after the crash. Will trading secrets with the enemy save Verity’s life? This multi-layered adventure story is quite a grown-up one, so I recommend it for 14 to adult.

Close to Famous

by Joan Baur

Viking 2011

almost famous

Twelve-year-old Foster dreams of growing up to become a celebrity chef despite her reading disability. Set in a rural town of West Virginia, where Foster and her mother move to escape an abusive boyfriend, the story is full of odd and memorable characters. You’ll fall in love with Foster, the narrator, with her big heart and pillowcase full of secrets. Can the quirky townsfolk of tiny Culpepper help Foster realize her delicious dreams?  Ages 10 and up.

The Great Wall of Lucy Wu

by Wendy Wan-Lon Shang

Scholastic 2011

great wall of lucy wu

Lucy Wu is a sixth-grade girl with a strong will and great ambition. This girl has plans for her future which include becoming a basketball player  and an interior decorator. Alas, everything seems to get in the way, from having to share her room with Yi Po, her grandmother’s sister, to dealing with the school bully. Then there is the dreaded Chinese school her parents force her to attend. Lucy will make you laugh as she navigates her bi-cultural life with flair. Ages 9-12.

Legend

By Marie Lu

Putnam, 2011

legend What would a summer reading list be with out a dystopian thriller? Seems like some young readers can’t get enough.  If that’s the case, Legend, first in a trilogy set in futuristic Los Angeles, should satisfy.  It’s a roller coaster ride that doesn’t stop. Though predictable and familiar at many points, it has emotion and compelling characters. The story alternates between fifteen-year-old June, a prodigy from the wealthy district, and fifteen-year-old Day, a wanted criminal born into the slums. This highly-visual book seems destined for the big screen. For boys and girls ages 12 and up.

Has your child you enjoyed any of these titles? What are you reading this summer?  

A Great Teacher Gift

Looking for a last-minute gift for that special teacher? A gift that she/he probably doesn’t already have?

I recommend the beautiful picture book , Dream: A Tale of Wonder, Wisdom & Wishes by Susan V. Bosak.  Published in 2004, this gem has received numerous awards.  The book poetically explores hopes and dreamsthroughout the arc of one’s lifetime.

Dreams cover

The story is multi-layered and can be appreciated by young children and older teens as well.  Aspiring artists will appreciate the full-color illustrations by 15 top world illustrators.  Each page has an inspirational quote and a hidden star for the reader to find.

The narrator not only encourages young people to dream but to to action: “You need the Believe of childhood, the Do of youth, and the Think of experience.”

As a teacher, this is just the kind of gift book I’d love to receive.  It works for multi-age groups and can be used in a variety of ways in the classroom. Dream was published as a part of the Legacy Project’s LifeDreams program. The website offers terrific ideas for literacy and cross-curricular activities.

I discovered  Dream a few years ago when I began searching for projects to inspire kids to set goals and imagine their future. Now I use the book as part of my writing workshops and presentations. At my latest educational workshop: Raising Girls to Dream Big, a young couple showed up with their newborn daughter. I was thrilled to have these first-time parents in attendance.  I congratulated them for getting an early start on raising a child with hopes and dreams.

So now I’ve adding Dreams to my list of meaningful baby gifts, as well as teacher gifts.

Happy Holidays!

Recovering from Perfectionism

This book may save my life!

I have always been a perfectionist, but it wasn’t until about 6 years ago, that I really understood how this mental malady was wreaking havoc on my life.  Still,  awareness alone wasn’t enough to turn me into an easy-going, go-with-the-flow, realistic goal-setter, mistake-forgiver type of person.  I felt powerless to overcome perfectionism’s relentless hold on me.

Eventually, I came to view my perfectionism as a chronic condition in need of management and care.  It might go into “remission” for a while, then flare-up. Occasionally, I will an experience acute episode and really have to take therapeutic measures.  I now consider myself “in recovery”, a state that requires vigilance, self-care, and self-awareness.

Buy I can’t do it alone.

That is why I was so excited to discover a terrific book called, The Seven Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writer’s Block by Hillary Rettig.  Hillary shows how perfectionism is more than a “destructive habit or way of thinking”.  Her book demonstrates perfectionism’s toxic effects on your view of “yourself, your work, and the world.”

As soon as the author began describing the characteristics and behaviors of perfectionists, my eyes popped.  Hey, this woman really knows me!   I downloaded the 182 -page book in the summer and still haven’t finished it (and that is okay!).  Rettig’s book is not meant to be read in one sitting.  It is a step-by-step guide and you don’t go to the next step until you have made progress. There are clear steps to take, exercises to do, behaviors to practice, and practical changes to make. I was going to wait until I finished to blog about this wonderful book, but every page of her book just keeps getting better. So, I thought I’d share it with you today, and then write about my progress in future blogs.

By the way, this book is aimed at writers, but anyone who is trying to finish a major project or has difficulty with output due to procrastination will benefit.  And speaking of procrastination…did you know that Perfectionism is at its root?

I will leave you with one defining characteristic from Secrets of the Prolific:

“Perfectionists hold unrealistic definitions of success and punish themselves harshly for the inevitable failures.”

Yup, that’s me.

Are you a perfectionist?  What tactics have you taken to tame this unruly condition?  What guides or programs have you found helpful? 

Summer Reading

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I live for summer.

As a sufferer of SAD,(seasonal affective disorder) the spring clock change kicks me into gear.  By June, I’m ready to fly. The summer break from my teaching job allows for more intense writing time.  These long stretches of time bring its own challenges and pressures.  Produce! Publish!

My self-imposed writing regimen also conflicts with another desire: to read a ton of books. In my world, one of the small pleasures in life  is coming home from the library on a Friday afternoon with a bag full of new books.  I’ve heard some writers say that they don’t read fiction while working on their novels.  This would be a hard practice for me to follow.  I find that reading certain authors inspire my own work.

When I was working on my YA novel, One Is Not A Lonely Number, I read  children’s novels with female narrators, like in my own story.  If I am working on a short story, I turn to my favorite writers for inspiration in language and voice. One of my favorite collections is Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.  The plotting, dialogue, insights, and language just blows me away.

When I get stuck, I reread my writing bibles: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamont, On Writing by Stephen King, and Stein on Writing by Sol Stein. As for those beach books–they are my reward for putting in chair time, for typing those 1000 words.  So this summer I hope to read:  Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman, Delirium by Lauren Oliver, More Cake and Lots of Candles by Anna Quindlen, Canada by Richard Ford, and Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner.

What’s on your list?