Thursday, August 18, 2011
On Posts, Purgatory, and Poems (as novel seeds)
Okay, I was going to write about beginnings and endings, BUT --I got waylaid by a strange post spouting from my neighbor's yard. A white pole with a hinged, windowed box on top, akin to those get-yer-info-here boxes, but friendlier looking. I went to investigate, expecting to find a house-for-sale flyer, and instead I found...
A poem, posted behind the glass, cheerfully greeting passers by.
My neighbor, Dick, is a retired English teacher. He jokes that there must be a circle of hell reserved for English teachers because they subject students to those dense, obscure poems you have to slave over. They've got skills to teach, test scores to improve, so they feel compelled to start with analysis instead of beauty, feeling, humor, joy. And so generations of students end up thinking they hate poetry. I can't believe Dick was that kind of English teacher, but even if he had to occasionally lapse in that direction, he's clearly working his way out of purgatory with his poetry post. The poems in there are see-things-afresh poems, joy-of-language poems. Families stop to read and smile, he says. Why, kids even pause to read them of their own accord. Who knows, maybe once in a while a kid so loves a poem, he slips that paper right out of the box and takes it home to read over and over.
Poetry posts. That's what they're called. And apparently they're sprouting all over Portland, my home town. Check it out at www.poetrypostspdx.com. (The photo above is from their site.) They even have a map of all the poetry posts in town.
Portland is a sweet place for those of us who love words, packed with independent bookstores, from Powell's mythical labyrinths to the sunny wonders of A Children's Place Bookstore; our cafes look like breeding grounds for authors and poets, intent over their laptops; Literary Arts treats us to amazing author talks at Portland Arts and Lectures--I could go on. I've known for a long time I live in a privileged book town. But even so, the poetry posts make me ridiculously happy. They're so matter-of-factly part of everyday life. Here on my street you got your houses, you got your cars, you got your trees, you got your poems...
Hey! Maybe this post (er, blog post, I mean) is about beginnings after all. Because that's how many of my favorite scenes start: as poems, tightly compressed kernels of image and emotion. That lets me fall in far enough that the chatter in my head stops and the flow of story takes over. I rarely start writing a book at the beginning. Beginnings intimidate me. I feel I'm supposed to know everything already, and I don't! So instead I fall into scenes in the middle, over and over, getting to know my characters, my world, my story. THEN I step back and sort out where the book (probably) begins and (possibly) ends.
Thanks to my neighbor Dick and to poetry posts for surprising me and waking me up. A poem is a way of seeing things fresh, unfiltered. Which is what YA Outside the Lines is all about.
-- Emily Whitman