Tag Archives: poetry

Bend, Don’t Shatter: Poets on the Beginning of Desire edited by T. Cole Rachel and Rita D. Costello

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Rachel, T. Cole  and Rita D. Costello, editors. Bend, Don’t Shatter: Poets on the Beginning of Desire. Soft Skull Press, 2004. ISBN 978-1932360172.  120 pp. $11.95

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Before National Poetry Month, consider adding this collection of longings and budding sexuality to your 800s collection. Poignant, raw, heartbreaking and uplifting in turns, these poems about queer youth forming identity and relationships are artfully arranged, opening with a boy pining for a boy and a girl stealing a kiss from a girl. Poems of pride, transformation, childhood gender-bending that disturbed family members, and the hell of high school (“homeroom is more room than home”) follow.

The caliber of the work is fairly even. Styles and techniques vary as much as the individuals writing. A few stand out: Rigoberto Gonzalez’s “Mariposa” that finds beauty in a percieved insult, and Lacey A. Dalby’s clever MacArthur High School that likens the daily grind to a battle. Gerald Wozek’s “Letter to Myself at Seventeen” (“I didn’t know how to save you then,/so forgive me. How you were able/to latch onto your spirit and go on breathing/astonishes me even now.”) is that one that made me cry.

This is absolutely, without question, a book for teens, but one that wary librarians will worry about placing IN the YA collection, for language, theme and content ranging from innuendo to honest lust and melting desire. Be fair; remember how you felt and talked and experimented as a teen and note that at least one poem (Dallas Angguish’s “Arrythymia”) was written by the poet when he was a teen. While I might call some of the poems arousing for younger readers, they are not pornographic, false or indecent, and they come from voices that need to be heard.

The overall message of the book–from the editor’s introductions to their biographies at the end–is validifying, reassuring and empowering for LGBTQ youth. The title encourages readers to hang in there, that life won’t always be this uncertain, closeted, lonely, and much of adolescence, whether you’re gay, straight or not sure yet, is “confused and totally freaked out.”

And that’s what gives this gem such universal appeal. Buy a few copies–they’re cheap enough, and you know at least one will get stolen, even though the cover and title are innocuous enough to not cause embarrassment at checkout time. Pair with Paul Janezcko’s Blushing for a diverse display next Valentine’s Day.

Newspaper Blackout by Austin Kleon

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Newspaper Blackout by Austin Kleon

Kleon, Austin. Newspaper Blackout. Harper Perennial, 2010. ISBN 978-0061732973 208 pp. $16.99

*****

I am in love with this book and want to have its babies. Newspaper Blackout is a collection of poems, loosely arranged by theme in a narrative thread that spans childhood through young adulthood, dealing with subjects such as the school locker room, first romance, and the dreariness of the office cubicle. What makes this book unique is the author crafted the poems essentially through editing another’s words–newspaper articles, specifically. After establishing an anchor point, other words were selected to form a poem, and all remaining words blacked out.

The book includes instructions on how to make your own newspaper blackout poems, and several winners from the author’s poetry contest, hosted on his blog. The author recognizes this is a not a new fad, and pays homage to others who have created (or reinvented) from the words of others in the preface, encourages support for the dying newspaper industry, and empowers readers to become poets in the simplest of ways.

Really, this is a highly accessible poetry book for non-poetry fans. It’s incredibly unique, and the poems are well constructed. The poems in this superb collection are by turns profound, funny, clever, silly, and touching. They are touchstones for universal experiences that anyone can relate to (little league, high school politics, desire, deciding on a career).

The poems are evocative, well-composed, and memorable. I had several moments where I caught my breath after reading. Two standouts that are particular favorites of mine:

“Genetics” (“the truth” / is / we’re all about / genetics / This could be an advantage / could be a disadvantage / The / risk / is / family / and / the only value to knowing is / you / can / say / “Gosh, now I understand what / makes me)

“A Teenage Moment of Caution” (A Teenage / moment of / caution / dismissed / when / her two best / friends tell her he / is / the Devil) .

Blackbeard the Pirate King by J. Patrick Lewis

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Blackbeard the Pirate King by J. Patrick Lewis

Lewis, J. Patrick. Blackbeard the Pirate King. National Geographic, 2006. SBN 978-0792255857 32 pp. $16.95

****

Part biography, part legend and all poetry, this picture book defines the famed and feared dread pirate Captain Teach in all his swashbuckling glory. “Apprentice Pirate” tells of Teach’s early life, while “In the Wake of the Sloops” details spoils of plundered merchant ships in luxurious detail. Lewis conveys the romance of the high seas with vivacity and drama from the first (“…Teach heard them call longingly–/the sirens of the sea”) to the last (“…As he staggered, bloody, lifeless, to the boards”).

Occasionally, the rhyme scheme stretches the meter to discomfort, as in “The Queen Anne’s Revenge:”  “‘The Brethren of the Coast,’” Pirates/No country could contain/loved stealing gold/And seas patrolled–/To a man they hated Spain.” For the most part, Lewis shows mastery of poetic forms and evocative command of language. The sextilla “The Blockade of Charleston” very effectively uses its galloping eight-syllable lines to convey the drama of Blackbeard’s tyrannization of a city for medical supplies.

The poems are accompanied by artist’s renditions of the pirate king. Works by Pyle, Wyeth and Schoonover are interspersed with more contemporary artists such as Farrell and Kelley. The mediums vary delightfully from woodcut to oils to acrylic, and each image seems perfectly matched to the depiction.

A historical footnote sets each tale in context. An author’s note, map and timeline add depth. Illustration credits are noted at the back, and a short bibliography of books and websites offers sources and further reading, making this an exceedingly well-documented volume of poetry. The pirate theme is sure to be popular; purchase to round out your poetry or pirate collection.

Tour America: A Journey Through Poems and Art by Diane Siebert illus. by Stephen T. Johnson

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Tour America: A Journey Through Poems and Art by Diane Siebert illus. by Stephen T. Johnson

Siebert, Diane illus. by Stephen T. Johnson. Tour America: A Journey Through Poems and Art. Chronicle, 2006. ISBN 978-0811850568 64 pp. $

*****

Opening with a poem comprised of clever, absurd and unique names of American towns, Tour America is a whirlwind tour of sights in half of the continental United States. Following the path of motorcyclist poet Siebert and her husband, the poems take up from New Jersey, speed north through New York and New England, across the Midwest, down the west coast, across the southwest and back north up the east coast, coming to rest at the Washington monument in Washington, D.C.

Just like a video game that allows the player to go meta, each entry shows the state pinpointed on an outline of the US, and the location of the attraction pinpointed on a state map. Johnson’s vivid and dynamic images bring us along visually as Seibert chronicles the sights, sounds, smells and feelings of each place. Her poems pay tribute to the wonders of America, man made and natural, from the majestic to the fantastic: Charleston’s Old Ironsides; the St. Louis Gateway; Roswell, New Mexico; Mount Saint Helen’s, Washington; New York City’s gargoyles, Chicago’s El. The pit stops are as much a conglomerate as our melting pot of citizens.

The writing style matches each location–Mount Saint Helen’s poem is fittingly punctuated with ellipses and all caps: Kerplow! Ka-booms! The ode to the El has a rollicking, fast pace, while Niagara Falls’ simplistic sparse words convey the size and beauty of the falls in just twenty words. The Badlands has a quiet desolate tone, while Mount Rushmore is given a distinguished sound. Siebert’s Vortex poem has a dynamic energy, but a swirling or disjointed concrete poem might have better conveyed the “mind-boggling” inexplicable force for this location in Gold Hill, OR.

Each poem is accompanied by a fact box that at best expands on information in the poem with statistics and anecdotes (Lucy the Elephant, Golden Gate Bridge, Vortex) and at worst, seems to be little more than the poem in paragraph prose (Old Ironsides).

The illustrations are as rich and varied as their subjects, with the composition tone and medium chosen carefully to reflect an era, tone and attitude, a place in time, not merely a location. The El is represented by a photomontage collaged with painted newspaper clippings, fragmented the way the view appears like a film strip outside of train windows. The Cadillac Ranch shows cars on end with a combination of pastel, gouache, oil and charcoal that creates the rainbow effect of the hot sun’s reflection on oil and rust. Las Vegas is a busy, bright and shiny collage of jewels, fruit, dice and tropical plants. Rosewell’s photograph background gives and eerily realistic tone to the digital spaceship’s searchlights (pieced together from car headlights, perhaps?).

Mount Rushmore’s pencil and crayon etching on greenish paper reminds the reader that these dead presidents appear on our currency New York’s gargoyles are photos and digital collage to reflect the neon of the city that never sleeps. Many of the images have the feeling of grand masters, with their oil on canvas or panel medium created impressionist like swirls in prairie grasses, the aurora borealis, clouds, and oceans. This reviewer, hardly an art major, only sounds so smart about composition because the artist helpfully lists the medium for each image in an appendix. A partial postmark appears on each page to timestamp the visit, and dot the endpapers.

This picture book for all ages is recommended for collections in the US and abroad, could be used for units on poetry or geography, and would make a great gift for your favorite armchair traveler.

Blushing: Expressions of Love in Poems and Letters by Paul B. Janeczko

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Blushing: Expressions of Love in Poems and Letters by Paul B. Janeczko

Paul B. Janeczko. Blushing: Expressions of Love in Poems and Letters. Orchard, 2004. ISBN 978-0439530569 112 pp. $

*****

This beautiful collection of love poems and letters is artfully arranged and perfectly chosen by poet Paul Janeczko, appropriate for Valentine’s Day or year round. As best poetry is universal, the variety of authors included demonstrates that love is indeed the same for queer, straight, black, white, old, young, in the past and in the present.

The acknowledgments are meticulous and the introduction invites readers to return to this collection of classic and contemporary works in the various stages of their relationships. Ranging from first glimpse and the newness of love to seasoned passion to the breakup and beyond, romantic words by Shelley, Keats, Bradstreet, Dickinson, Shakespeare, Rumi, Neruda, St. Vincent Millay and more express the experience and emotions love inspires. If high school teachers used this as a basic text for their April poetry units, teens might get more excited about poetry and adult readers of literature might not be on the decline.

Clever black and white photos of prelude each chapter, showing young people taking a plunge, smooching and moping. The script and pink cover screams “girl book!” and it is a shame that romantically inclined young men may miss out on this gem. Recommended for public and school library collections.

Loose Threads by Lorie Ann Grover

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Loose Threads by Lorie Ann Grover

Grover, Lorie Ann. Loose Threads. Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2002. ISBN 978-0689844195 296 pp. $

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A strong debut novel that reaches close to the sparkle of Mel Glenn and the complexity of Abelove’s Saying it Out Loud, this novel in poems about what happens to a family of four strong women when Grandma Margie develops breast cancer falls somewhere between Lurlene McDaniel tearjerker and Sonya Sones brilliant.

Kay Gerber, smack dab in the middle of puberty, finds that she worries about issues she knows her friends will never have to deal with, and the poems, written in her clear and clever voice impart her hopes and anxieties in the midst of school assignments and family card games. Some of the best poems happen when Kay, obviously preoccupied by her grandmother’s condition while in school, finds herself thinking in terms of cancer in all of her classes, creating a black mask with red stitches in art and in “Pre-algebra Now: an equation: “X can only be one number./ Y can only be one number/for the perfect equation./If X is Grandma Margie,/and Y is health, / then the perfect equation/equals/life.”

The inevitable reference to Amazonian archers is here alongside the mother who doesn’t tell the rest of the family about her own lump scare until she discovers it is benign. The befriending of the school scapegoat allows Kay to take some action instead of remaining a passive character. The crochet motif is beautifully woven in from title to the first poem the last poem, and the novel leaves off where every good YA novel should: on the brink of a commencement. The dialogue poems don’t work quite as well as the strictly narrative ones, but the emotion is there if the fine-tuning isn’t. This book with high girl appeal is not a necessity; purchase where poetry is popular.

Tea Party Today: Poems to Sip and Savor by Eileen Spinelli illus. by Karen Dugan

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Tea Party Today: Poems to Sip and Savor by Eileen Spinelli illus. by Karen Dugan

Spinelli, Eileen illus. by Karen Dugan. Tea Party Today: Poems to Sip and Savor. Wordsong, 2006. ISBN 978-1590784280 32 pp. $

****

This is a charming poetry picture book. Poems are cleverly arranged in stages of having a tea party: shopping, creating invitations, preparing, brewing, and entertaining. Teatime Tips (“Teatime and Poetry make a splendid pair!”) accompany each poem, ranging from recipes to activities to placating party poopers.

Dugan’s whimsical illustrations are faintly reminiscent of Tomie DePaola’s soft rounded style, but have more color and action. The pictures, people with a multicultural cast of cheerful children, portray movement in every sense.

Spinelli’s text has trouble keeping up with Dugan’s smooth style. Some of the poems have odd rhythms due to forced rhymes, but in most cases, the desired effect is achieved, whether it be one of bustling preparation (“Pots clank/Glasses clink/Water gurgles/in the sink”) or calm lazy afternoons (“Brown sugar sand is soft and sweet/This day is good enough to eat”).

With curriculum connections potential in a variety of subjects, this book is a worthy purchase for any library serving younger elementary grade students–in spite of Spinelli’s need for a bit more polishing in the poetry department.

Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy by Sonya Sones

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Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy by Sonya Sones

Sones, Sonya. Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy. Harper Teen, 2016 (reprint). ISBN 978-0064462181 160 pp. $10.99

*****

In Stop Pretending, the unconventional (for the times of the original publication date) topic of mental illness is addressed in a unique way from a new voice: narrator Cookie uses poetry to express her confusion, grief, rage, fear, and hope when the older sister she idolizes checks into a mental hospital. This trauma overshadows and flavors the traditional struggles of being a teen: peer acceptance, family squabbles, first love.

Sones’s simple poems reveal raw emotion with immediate honesty and eloquence. Teens will empathize with Cookie and her family’s experience. A brief author’s note describes her personal experiences the book grew out of. Organizations that provide and support are listed. A must have.

Exploding Gravy: Poems to Make You Laugh by X.J. Kennedy, illus. by Joy Allen

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Exploding Gravy: Poems to Make You Laugh by X.J. Kennedy, illus. by Joy Allen

Kennedy, X.J. illus. by Joy Allen. Exploding Gravy: Poems to Make You Laugh. Little, Brown 2002. ISBN 978-0316384230 128 pp. $

Having never read anything by Kennedy, this compendium of the funniest poems of Kennedy was a treat (not the snack kind). Arranged by themes such as Families, Food, Monsters, Folklore, etc, these are humorous poems that one can’t help comparing to Shel Silverstein’s writing, because they are so similar in theme and style. Kennedy’s rhyme scheme is more subtle and less sing-songy. She also makes more use of traditional forms, such as in “A Day of Play” a limerick, and “A Social Mixer,” a sonnet.

Unlike Silverstein’s pen and ink sketch style, Allen’s pen and charcoal drawings are more whimsical and less cartoony, are bolder, and sometimes they take over the whole page.

The title poem tells the humorous tale of learning the lesson not to play with your food the hard the hard way. “Trouble with a Dinosaur” poses an interesting quandary and in “Mingled Yarns,” favorite rhymes and stories combine to create mixed up messed up quatrains.

Overall, this is a fairly even collection with only a few awkward moments. Perfect for recreation reading or expandable to classroom use, Kennedy will have readers chuckling out loud. A worthy add to your poetry shelves.

When Riddles Come Rumbling: Poems to Ponder by Rebecca Kai Dotlich, illus. by Karen Dugan

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When Riddles Come Rumbling: Poems to Ponder by Rebecca Kai Dotlich, illus. by Karen Dugan

Dotlich, Rebecca Kai illus. by Karen Dugan. When Riddles Come Rumbling: Poems to Ponder. Wordsong, 2013 (reprint). ISBN 978-1620910313 32 pp. $7.95

****

Following in the footsteps of poetry master Emily Dickinson, Dotlich presents her own collection of riddle poems for young readers. Poems about gumballs and snowflakes, yo-yos and pizza, celebrate childhood by focusing on individual experiences or everyday items. Each poem combines a sentence or two of evocative hints to solve a “what am I?” riddle.

Several poems use shape to get the point across, with unruly letters snaking into descriptive shapes. “Rumble” looks as if it is vibrating, while “slips” slides down an invisible slope. A poem about a snake practically begs for a sinuous weaving of words on the page, but Dotlich exaggerates the Ssss’s instead.

Gems include a roller coaster poem with a faintly uneven rhythm, as if you are on an amusement park thrill ride and don’t know what’s around the corner. Dotlich captures the of fireworks in one sentence: “I boom,/I pop,/I stay up late–/my neon colors/decorate/with bold design/and brilliant flair;/a masterpiece/I make/of air.” A teapot poem cleverly uses a word game to create the riddle.

Accompanying illustrations in shadowy-cool yet vibrant tones of spring green, purple, aqua, lemon and dark orange all but shout the answers, providing extra assistance on the tough ones and extending the poem in other cases. Some of the artwork has an extreme close-up perspective that lends an appealing abstract quality while presenting more of a challenge. Like alphabet soup, the borders are sprinkled with letters that spell the answer. Solutions are located at the front of the book for the clueless.

The language is vocabulary-building fun, and the poet makes use of tools such as pun as well as simile. Some poems will sound sing-songy if read wrong; a few non-rhyming poems would have been a nice reminder that not all poems must rhyme, but the rollicking rhythm moves the poems, and the rhyme scheme never feels forced. While perhaps too challenging for a preschool story hour, “When Riddles Come Rumbling” is perfect for introductory units on poetry, either in the classroom or shared at home.

The extension possibilities for this book are only as limited as one’s imagination. Children can develop their own riddle poems, assemble cut out letters to make words, or words to make poems; come up with a list of words that are onomatopoeic or take their own shapes, or learn about other poets who wrote in similar style. Recommended for purchase.