Posted by: jeannineatkins | December 17, 2014

What I’m Reading: Three Contemporary Novels

Some favorite novels I read this fall would make good gifts or winter reading, and are popular enough to be found in most bookstores. I always like Sue Miller, and The Arsonist may be her best yet. The element of serial arson added intrigue without taking over the story of a middle aged woman in crisis, having left her work in Africa after about fifteen years, and her mother, who’s coping with changes due to her husband’s illness. We get love and achiness both in their relationship and the men they love.

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Still Life with Breadcrumbs by Anna Quindlen begins as a sixty year old woman leaves New York City to live more simply upstate, not for philosophical reasons, but because of money, which plays a big part in her calculating and anxious mind. This becomes lightened by a developing relationship with a younger man, a roofer, who’s always lived in this small town. The parts I liked most dealt with her choices as a photographer, and the ups and downs of fame that don’t much influence her art, but affect her income and choices of how she’ll live. Her artistic process is beautifully described. Of course Anna Quindlen is also well known for nonfiction. I also liked Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, now out in paperback.

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I just finished Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult, which pulled me a long with a mystery involving a missing mother, with clues drawn from the maternal habits of elephants. Told in several points of view, I sometimes found the twelve-year-old narrator a bit unbelievably precious, but I loved her spunk all the same. To my surprise, I came to be very fond of the psychic. The elephant researcher sometimes brought me to tears, with her choice to endure scoffing by scientist colleagues to focus on grief, and her immense tenderness for the animals she studied. The elephants, based on real ones in sanctuaries, became complicated characters along with the humans, and there’s a magnificent moment of heroism near the end.

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Posted by: jeannineatkins | December 9, 2014

Finding Gratitude on a Scratchy Chair

All kinds of art are quests for beauty. Finding something true can blur with making it. But we often work with great messes under our hands. Sometimes we can enjoy the process. Colors are great! Words are cool! Other times we tough it out, though I try to find a kinder voice than a commanding one to keep me at the desk. I remind myself to look for small shiny things along the way. If nothing glows on my page, I’m thankful for the cup of coffee, or a stretching break on the yoga mat behind my desk, or the dog sleeping beside it, who tells me when it’s time to take a walk. There’s a memory of a scene I wrote last week, and seems to hold up. I look into the tulips my husband supplies me, with love.

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As we see the nearby world, rough or sweet, so we may see the work on our pages. Sometimes I squirm as I consider the disarray I’ve made and must deal with. Under that itchiness is often a hunger for beauty, though it may be in a plain form. A sturdy five word sentence. Without a verb. Or something more rollicking or baroque. Or a sentence that brings a chapter to a close, since it’s too soon to end a whole book.

Restlessness sometimes takes me to one of the poems in books stacked nearby. Some sure-sounding stanzas may freshen my vision, give me the pleasure of what someone else managed, perhaps from such a fog as the one that hovers over my keyboard. I remember that some kind of beauty is possible, and get back to the soft sound of my fingers on the keys, with the right pinky often stretching right to “delete.”

Gratitude ebbs and flows, like just about everything of value. It may need a nudge if not brute force, but if it doesn’t turn to habit, we can ride it as long as we can. There are big things to be grateful for, but if we can’t get peace all over the world, it can be wise to be glad for what’s closer to our elbows, including this chance to work with words. Yes, tulips help. Every sentence takes faith that this may be the one that may be the lantern in the forest. And it’s a faith that must scramble back after every sentence that breaks it. Belief that we can reach something good isn’t steady, but a wave, perhaps one without much rhythm. So I keep on. I get a word right, then maybe even a little paragraph. Or it’s right enough for now. We don’t have to go for rightness cast in gold. Sand will do. We can like it, quickly but deeply, and let it feed us faith for the next page.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | November 30, 2014

Grateful at Second Glance

While sleep evaded me last night, I set my thoughts back to the novel I’m writing. I sat up four or five times to scribble, and woke to see five pink index cards scattered near my slippers. The single sentence that I wrote seemed to shine, though not brightly. The other thoughts didn’t have the sheen of ripe fruit, but were mottled, brown around the edges. Still, I typed them up, fluffing them into sentences, and will mull over them in the daylight. My dim takeaway was about the tone of my novel, which the nighttime suggested might be a little darker. I didn’t want to hear that. This is an adventure for eleven or twelve year old readers. But maybe the cheer isn’t earned. Maybe the voice needs to change.

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Few writers who aren’t amateurs are pleased with every sentence. Few stack up good chapter after good chapter, like a row of prettily wrapped boxes. Instead, many of us rack up mistakes, then get surprised now and then by a bit of half-hidden dazzle. Writing means grace and soldiering. Now and then we find a prize, but more often we’re pulling up our bootstraps or socks or whatever’s slipping over our feet. There’s more stopping than going. The trick is to remember the grace while in the midst of plain old marching.

There’s no hand waving, no quick steps, no music in most of my writing day, but I count on arriving sometime at a place that makes me want to sing. The bruised phrases may start to shine. Shuffled in new ways, they’ll turn into something worth another glance. I forge ahead, trying to be grateful for all my words, not just the ones that tell a tale, but the messy ones that get me closer to a shape with a beginning and end that seems as perfect as a tree. Maybe one I walk by almost daily, and forget to look.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | November 24, 2014

Verse Novels, Narrative Poetry

I’m having fun choosing books for a course I’ll teach this spring: Verse Novels, Narrative Poetry in the Simmons College graduate program in Children’s Literature at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. We’ll read and critique poetry for children and verse novels, which combine the pull of story with finely pared or lyrical language. We’ll consider book-length narratives that rely on formal elements such as meter and rhyme and those written in free verse, depending for their power on well-chosen nouns and verbs, startling conjunctions, and echoing imagery. Some poetry may be more musical than linear, with an emphasis on concision and pacing, but poetry and prose exist on a spectrum, and we’ll examine where borders blur.

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Discussion questions will include, but certainly not be limited to: What distinguishes verse from lineated prose? Does verse require a different kind of reading than prose? Does each poem in a verse novel stand on its own, or do some sections seem there just to move the story forward? Whether enjambed or end-stopped, does each line have a weight and a reason for ending where it does? How effectively do line breaks and stanza divisions create tension or rhythm, layer meanings, prepare readers for leaps across time and place, or emphasize a silence that may bring out a point or feeling?

Simmons students and alum friends, I’d love it if you’d pass along word about this new graduate level course. I believe the course, held on Thursday evenings in March and April, will be open to students besides those enrolled for the MA or MFA degrees. It’s a special time to be focusing on verse novels, with Jacqueline Woodson‘s brown girl dreaming having just won the National Book Award. (It’s in the pile, north of Pat Lowery Collins’s brilliant The Fattening Hut and Marilyn Nelson’how I discovered poetry.) Let me know if you want more information. Or if you have favorites you think I should include!

Posted by: jeannineatkins | November 19, 2014

Small Starts

Hidden memories may stir and even sprawl if we stumble into just the right small thing. Proust famously ate a cookie dipped in tea, then wrote seven volumes. I’m reading Jodi Picoult’s wonderful new novel, Leaving Time, in which besides great themes of, mothers and daughters, grief, and elephants, a girl’s memories are raised when a dollar bill folded in the shape of an elephant falls from a book. Little talismans, jewelry, postcards, or stones picked up from a beach may hold the power to move us back in time.

New stories can also start with something small. I might have an idea or plot in mind, but I’m likelier to find an origin in something tiny and tangible, then spread out. Many of my poems come from reading thick books, which I leave with maybe half a page of notes, a clutter of little things that I ponder until they seem to release short stories.

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Recently, a woman who I met when I visited her graduate class gave me two little rum-soaked and cream-filled buns to take home. “There’s a story to them,” she told me, sliding them into a plastic bag. “If I take your spring class, I’ll tell you.”

I thanked her and nodded, intrigued, but in a bit of a hurry. There was rum, cream, a cherry in the middle and maybe a story down the road. What else could I want? All the second or third or hundredth looks we’re willing to give can change what’s in our hands, or let us hear something new in the music made by repetition. Memory comes and goes, ephemeral, like much beauty. And so we hold things gently, like a baby bird, making room for heartbeats.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | November 13, 2014

May Alcott and Me

I’m in full dream-come-true mode as I announce that LITTLE WOMAN IN BLUE: A NOVEL OF MAY ALCOTT will be published by She Writes Press in fall 2015.

My fascination with the youngest Alcott sister began when I was a girl playing Little Women with two friends and my older sister, who claimed the role of Jo March. I also wanted to get my hands ink-stained and eat apples in a garret, but I didn’t see what was so wrong with liking clothes or handsome boys, too. As years passed and I learned about point of view, I wondered how much the portrait of May changed to Amy in Little Women was developed from the lens of an older sister, who might have been jealous of an independent girl who didn’t feel as strong a need to please their parents.

The many writers of nineteenth century Concord gave me plenty of material to research. I walked on cobblestones and through woods, imagining my way into the sister, daughter, artist, and lover of romance. I swam in Walden Pond, where May also swam, though in a flannel gown. I rewrote the novel multiple times: just ask my writing group, who patiently and thoughtfully read through revisions of revisions. I could tell you long stories about the manuscript finding its way on and off the desks of agents and editors, but at last it found a happy home at She Writes Press, a hybrid press that is creating innovative ways to put women’s books into the world at a time when the old ways don’t always work well. The people I’ve begun working with have been warm, straightforward, smart, and respectful, making the publishing experience – fun!

I’m excited that more people will get to cheer for May Alcott, someone I came to love the more I learned and wrote. She was inspired by Michelangelo, and while never matching his extraordinary talent, May courageously worked among people who said women couldn’t paint a masterpiece. Despite what she was told, and many kinds of setbacks, she kept doing what she loved. In my eyes, that makes her great.

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A portrait of May painted in Paris by her friend Rose Peckham, displayed at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | November 11, 2014

The Frame of a Poem

A poem may look like a box with clear lines that signal readers where to start and stop. Like the four sides of a photograph, the edges can move us or build tension as much as the picture. Even when beholders focus on the what’s in the frame, they should have a sense of life beyond it. Poets may create symmetry, but within the poem there are few hints of where a revelation, if there is one, might lurk. As in the best photographs, it’s not often smack in the middle. We want readers or onlookers to feel a bit off-balanced, because that means they’re awake. In the midst of writing, there’s little we can know for sure. That’s the game. Everything is possible, which is exhilarating when it’s not horrifying. We’re both lost, and holding on. Seeing the light within a tree, and the shadows.

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How does a poet know when she’s reached the end of a poem? And does that mean a poem is finished, or only stopped for a while? Some of this is mystery, and its acceptance, which may not come with stars or whistles: Alexander Calder said that he knew a sculpture was finished when it was time for dinner. The end of a poem may be found in its beginning, with its inspiration and uncertainty. When I reach a place where I feel I’ve done all I can, I send my work to my writing group. After they point out holes or clumsily thick patches, I make more holes, then reconstruct. Finally I reach a point where I’ve explained some, but not everything. An end should keep some rips and empty spaces, a reason to look back, a sense we bring from our lives that everything might have turned out differently, while the last line is true to the drama of people or ideas touching and changing each other. There’s the satisfaction of a knot, but it’s a loose one. The poem articulates a moment or question, but what comes together can be undone again, bringing us back to beautiful uncertainty.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | November 7, 2014

The Poetic Tense

A colleague recently referred to the poetic tense as distinguished from the past or present tenses, with the latter being what I usually use for poems. I asked if he invented the term; he demurred. A quick Google search didn’t bring me more information. I suppose there are things than even Google doesn’t know, but also a verb is a verb. On the other hand, time slips. Maybe there is a particular tense that moves beyond or within the moment in attempts to gently snag attention, then let it go. That slipping away again may be as important as the meeting. A good poem has loose hinges or rattling windows. It invites, but doesn’t crowd. A poem may remind us that we are always in the midst. We are on our toes, which, as any ballerina will tell you, takes a lot of strength.

Being in the present takes trust, like that poets ask of readers. In biographical poems like those I wrote in Borrowed Names, I don’t show the whole lives, but parts. The weight of too much information can get in the way of intimacy. There’s that balancing again for the writer who sets aside much information to put forward a few images. All writers depend on wordlessness as much as words, making choices about both what’s said and what’s unsaid, and what will be the most powerful. But poets in particular may teeter as we try to determine how much is too much, and how much isn’t enough. We don’t want to over-inform or bore, but we also don’t want to leave readers in the dark or some sort of dream world; at least I don’t.

Trust is a form of love. It’s holding on, but lightly. The way we read poems may be similar to how we write them, with images or ideas coming our way, then vanishing within the time it takes to read a line. Writers need to find our balance between the past and present, what seems certain and what is possibility, what is graspable and what may forever slip away, before presenting words to readers. The reading and the writing may seem to happen all at once, somewhere in the poetic tense. If there is one. Do you know?

Posted by: jeannineatkins | November 5, 2014

Nikky Finney and Elizabeth Alexander: Poetry and Devotion

Yesterday, poets Nikky Finney and Elizabeth Alexander returned to Smith College, where they both taught in the past. The two friends were clearly glad to be talking and reading together, and the overflow audience for a Q and A in the Smith College Poetry Center was engaged, too. One question was about how national recognition had affected their lives and works: Elizabeth Alexander was put in the spotlight when she became the fourth poet invited to a presidential inauguration, reading “Praise Song for the Day” in front of President Obama and millions more, and Nikky Finney when she won a National Book Award in 2011 for her fourth volume of poetry, Head Off and Split, and gave a stunning acceptance speech. Both noted their gratitude for having a wider audience for both poetry and attention to the lives of black women, while also saying they felt responsible for remembering who they were before the increased recognition, and a responsibility to go back to their desks.

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Thoughtful questions were asked about particular poems, the pros and cons of being identified as black women poets, the meaning of nostalgia and heritage, how they recognized when a poem was finished, and more. Responding to a question about how she knew when an experience might turn into a poem, Nikky Finney quoted Denise Levertov (“You smell a poem before you see it”) then related the genesis of the title poem in Head Off and Split, with her personal past and present colliding. She told us, “I like the slow process because I get to hear into the poem, to hear into me.”

A young woman asked, “Can you describe the moment when you felt like you could give someone a voice?” While Elizabeth Alexander draws more often from history, and Nikky Finney more often writes of the news of the day, both spoke about how they never want to be presumptuous, and how they balance their use of imagined voices or personas with a dedication to “using art to carefully fill the chasms in black women’s history.” Elizabeth said that she “heard the line ‘I am Venus Hottentot.’ I do not think she spoke it across time and space, but wherever poetry is before we make it, that’s where it came from.” Nikky Finney spoke about the importance of empathy, and when inspired to write about tragedies mentioned or overlooked in the news, sits at her desk where she asks for “permission, strength, and courage to get it right.” This related to her work in general. In responding to an earnest question about ways to cope with second guessing and self doubt, she said, “If I can remain devoted – devoted – to what’s on the page, I’m good.”

Posted by: jeannineatkins | November 1, 2014

Orhan Pamuk: Words and Wounds

Yesterday Orhan Pamuk spoke at UMass Amherst in a talk sponsored by the English Department. I tried taking a picture during applause, but it came out blurry. Instead, here are the ducks I saw walking to the auditorium.

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The Nobel prize winning author of books including Snow, The Museum of Innocence, and The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist spoke about his love of Istanbul, which he’s seen grow enormously in his decades of living there, the way places can be so evocative that it’s sometimes impossible to tell whether it’s the place or a person that’s melancholy, his slow writing of long novels, and the art of translation. He said that writers may start with a wound, and carry a sense that others have similar wounds and will therefore understand each other. “All literature comes from this childish, simple belief that we resemble each other.”

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