Posted by: jeannineatkins | February 24, 2015

Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature

This snowy month is a good one for slim books of poems and thick biographies. Because I often read history and biographies for research, I don’t always make time to reach for them for pleasure reading. This meant a thoughtful gift from my husband, Linda Lear’s Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, a gorgeous, carefully written, but undoubtedly hefty volume has been on hold for a time when I could immerse myself in this life. From the first page, I was swept in as Linda Lear began with references to Beatrix Potter’s work as an artist and writer, while showing her on the land she bought at mid-life when her career was established. The farm in England’s Lake District satisfied her love of the pastoral and mystery, while also giving her the routines of farming life and a sense of permanence.


Linda Lear shows us Beatrix’s childhood and the third floor nursery, with its menagerie including rabbits, frogs, mice, bats, snails, and a hedgehog or two. She shows the love she had for her younger brother, the guidance her father, an avid photographer, gave to vision, and a relationship with her mother that couldn’t be called tender. But she breaks the myths of bars on the nursery windows, and while not suggesting that Beatrix’s mother was an ideal one, she generously and astutely reminds us that her pretentions might well have come from the powerlessness she found as a woman in upper class Victorian society.

Beatrix always loved stories, and the fairy tales told by her Scottish nanny seemed as pivotal to her as those C.S. Lewis’s Irish nanny told him: bringing enchanted forests and winged creatures to stave loneliness. Beatrix read Edward Lear’s nonsense verse when she was four and Alice in Wonderland when she was six or seven, and began doing her own illustrations for these works. Linda Lear notes that later she’d enjoy and find creative inspiration writing letters to children just as Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll did.

Beatrix also enjoyed reading what she’d later call “good-goody, powder-in-the-jam books.” But perhaps, at age eight or nine, she found more of herself while drawing rabbits in jackets and scarves ice skating and such. Later she had art lessons, and her father’s friend John Millais gave her instructions and advice on painting. She was drawn to watercolors and felt she learned most from visiting galleries. Turner was her favorite, though she was interested in the work of women such as Angelica Kauffman and Rosa Bonheur.

Beatrix studied ferns and fungi, painting these close-up as well as landscapes. She became an accomplished amateur scientist, writing papers and setting forth theories, though her gender excluded her from some scientific circles. We get the particulars of this work and how she came to write, illustrate, publish, and market small books for small hands. Linda Lear paints a less romanticized version than we’ve seen before of the two important men in her adult life, but says she fell in love “slowly and companionably” with both and was “lucky in love, particularly for a woman of her class and era. The book ends with Beatrix bequeathing land to the National Trust “at a time when the plunder of nature was more popular than its preservation.”

Beatrix loved fairy stories as a child and surely never entirely lost her attraction to the fanciful, but in her last years she was most known as a good friend to many, a clear-headed sheep farmer, a happy wife, a grand protector of the land, and someone who valued simplicity, no nonsense. Lear quotes the death notice in the local paper that has no mention of the work which made her famous, and ends with “No mourning, no flowers, and no letters, please.” Beatrix’s ashes were scattered in her beloved hills, though exactly where has remained secret, as she wanted.

It’s all exquisitely told and researched (with almost 100 pages of notes!), as is Lear’s prize-winning Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature This is a big book, but now that I’ve finished I am miss Beatrix. Maybe I’ll pick up one her small books.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | February 17, 2015

Remembering Maxine Kumin

Maxine Kumin’s life and poems keep inspiring a year after her death, her ashes scattered in the outermost pasture between the vegetable garden and the woods of her southern New Hampshire farm. The January/February issue of American Poetry Review includes “Maxine Kumin’s Legacy: Six Voices,” deeply moving tributes from poets who adored her, some first as students, and later friends who’d visit and talk about poems by the pond, ride horses, or cross country ski. All six poets are women, and several spoke of her importance to them in showing what a woman poet could be: deeply engaged with politics, physically strong, happily married, a good mother, a nurturer of animals, a generous and intelligent teacher, and committed to her writing. Her example was a welcome relief from more publicized images of women poets as solitary, suicidal, or narcissistic. Emily Grosholz writes of how Maxine “just wanted to write poems and ride horses and raise children and run a farm and respond to her friends and tell the truth about the world as she understood it and generally get on with her life.”


Robin Becker remembers how Maxie showed up in her graduate class at Boston University in 1973 as a substitute for Anne Sexton. Robin was a closeted lesbian at the time and had turned in a poem with pronouns carefully deleted. She writes that after her peers respectfully commented, Maxine noted, “We don’t know if this poem’s about two women or two men or a man and a man and a woman.” Robin asked, “Does it matter?” “It matters if you want it to matter,” she replied.

At that time Robin was trying to figure out what mattered, and as she did (“what matters to me resides in careful looking”), the two became friends, over the decades exchanging poems, with Maxine offering “hardnosed but encouraging, critical commentary” and talking about their work as teachers.

Deborah Brown writes of Maxine’s resistance to abstractions, and Darla Himeles quotes, “A poem is built on the furniture that’s in it,” referring to “the nouns and verbs that form a poem’s internal structure – key words that should be sturdy, aesthetically appropriate, and specific enough to be poetically functional.” She also quotes her from a workshop at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center as saying, “A poem is a small thing. It’s fragile, and you don’t want to overcrowd it.”

Carole Simmons Oles remembers making lentil soup she brought to Maxine’s house after her good friend Anne Sexton died, then forty years later, simmering it in her kitchen after receiving “the news from Maxine’s daughter Judith that her mother was slipping away.” Carole wrote about their early friendship and the later years when Maxine struggled with pain and health, sustained by writing. These pages are filled with grateful lives touched and changed – so grab this issue of APR while you can. The tribute ends with Alicia Ostriker’s poem, “The Redeemed World,” that cites strawberries, horses, the pond, the Red Sox, and Maxine’s love and courage.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | February 13, 2015

February Excursion

Even we who love snow are kind of sick of it, and I expect those who don’t live in New England are tired of hearing us protest that really there has been a lot. Yesterday I drove into Portsmouth where I had to vault snow berms to feed the meter, then walked among others sheltering our achy-from-shoveling shoulders, eyes aimed at the slippery sidewalk. We were overdressed and underclean: salt-stained jackets, slush on our boots. (Of course I mean overdressed in the sense of bulk, not fashion – there is none.) Many mouths were pursed, foreheads furrowed. Or was that just me? My kind friend Amy sent me a photo she took of an eagle overlooking a frozen river, and I wrote back that her eagle looked disgusted. Oh, no, she wrote, he is thinking, “Isn’t this lovely.” Some of us manage better than others.

Yet people on the whole are kind to each other, showing patience at corners with vision blocked by towering snow banks and give a brisk New England wave to thank those who pull over for safety. Lost mittens are posted on picket fences. We have weather conversation and sympathy at the ready.


I went to Riverrun Bookstore, where I was greeted by a display of books on Shackleton and his collapsed and frozen ship. I bought a copy of Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Almost Famous Women and The Fo’c’sle a gorgeous picture book written and illustrated by Nan Parson Rossiter based on Henry Beston’s The Outermost House, which I decided to reread, though should I begin with winter or summer by the ocean? Then I made my slippery way over to Book and Bar, quiet that morning, so I got a great seat by the window and in the shadow of their great poetry selection. I wrote about two sisters, a boy, a dog, chickens, and summer, taking breaks to read poems in Finding my Elegy by Ursula K. Le Guin. I hadn’t known she started out as a poet. This collection holds 70 selected poems from the past and 77 new, often about mythology or cosmology, artists or explorers, cats or lions, nature, aging, elusive knowledge, and shifting gifts.

I drove back home with new books and new chicken-filled pages through fluffy falling flakes. I walked my dog down the quiet road until we were met by a golden retriever with cabin fever. I unleashed Parker and a woman and I watched the dogs and her two-year-old bound around them. The boy shouted gleefully, waving bare hands, with his mom explaining how he hated mittens. Snow fell on our little crowd without shovels, leashes, or child-sized mittens. Then the laughter of the boy with small red hands swerved to wails as he realized that while the world is beautiful he was cold. His mom scooped him up, the dogs ran one last snow-spraying loop, and we headed our separate ways to warm houses.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | February 12, 2015

What I’m Reading: Breathless and Gorgeous Infidelities

Two new poetry collections from friends have brightened my winter. The themes of family and time bind the poems in Sarah Lamstein’s Breathless, available from Finishing Line Press. References to rites and rituals take place beside ordinary family moments in kitchens, yards, or bedrooms. With the first poem titled “Pregnant” and that last one “Old Man Catching His Breath,” a loose line weaves generations considered with honor, humor, and awe. In “Last Moments,” Sarah compares the way a mother watches her young children to sitting with someone dying, “keyed to every sound and movement/ trying to ease their passage.” Her language is precise, and her vision makes the world seem larger and full of joy.


Gorgeous Infidelities is beautifully printed and bound with marble-papered covers, suitable for an artistic collaboration. The poems were written by Naila Moreira and the black and white photographs, mostly of people, landscapes, and interiors, were taken by Paul Ickovic. The poems are in a sort of loose dialogue with the photographs; sometimes I’d find a link, sometimes not, but there was never a sense of direct illustration and both works were complete in themselves. Many poems are built on the forces of love, curiosity and yearning and bring in science – particularly botany and astronomy – politics, religion, and nursery rhymes. The gifts of chance encounters seem to link the poems and pictures in this signed, limited edition that’s available at Broadside Bookshop.

It was a pleasure to read poetry by writers known more for their prose. Thank you Sarah and Naila for your good words and inspiration!

Posted by: jeannineatkins | February 9, 2015

Slipping in Some Magic

Shoveling snow, shuffling sentences. I’m nearing the end of my novel’s first draft, full of sprawling snowdrifts of words. I’m tossing extra shovelfuls onto the banks, stray ideas to make everything more complicated before I look for a clear path through. Or at least a path. My way to the door isn’t exactly straight or smooth, and I’ll also be letting my pen shift as I find a way among the too many heaps of themes and conversations. In early drafts, I want diversions and too many possibilities. I’m not yet able to assess which ones will work best, and I’m still eager to be led astray.


Some of what’s underneath my snow banks will come to light, but I want to keep some of the dark mysteries, and what’s new for me, some magic. I grew up with a brother and sister who both loved fat books with dragons and spells like Lord of the Rings, but I stayed loyal to little houses and prairies, firmly keeping to realism. I married someone who loves fantasy, too, and I try to include such books in my curriculum. But when left to my own devices, I’ve pretty much stuck to the ordinary world.

But more and more I’ve wanted to put a bit of magic in a novel. I’ve attempted this before, and failed, but until now I don’t think I found the sort of magic I can believe in. For me, that’s connected to old and small things, often found or broken, which were sometimes what I played with as a child, vehicles for my games of pretend, which happened in the woods by our house or under a tree or porch. I’m working with the way that history seems to sweep me to another place. I’ve got an attic in a house that is some kind of haunted and woods that glimmer with some enchantment. How very different is a ghost from a person, after all? Setting forth the magic and listening to its possibilites, as I listen to characters, it took on a course of its own.

So here I am, creating places with odd histories and a twelve-year-old character who believes that anything can happen. Just the way writers do anytime we pick up our pens.




Posted by: jeannineatkins | February 4, 2015

59 Reasons to Write by Kate Messner

59 Reasons to Write: Mini-Lessons, Prompts, and Inspiration for Teachers offers friendly suggestions about making time, breaking through fears, revising, forming writing groups, and everything in between, including prompts and suggestions for developing point of view, characterization, setting, and other the elements of writing fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.


Kate Messner is the author of many books, from the fun Marty McGuire chapter books, the exciting Eye of the Storm, the poetic picture book Over and Under the Snow, and the newly released novel All the Answers, with most highlighting themes of strong people at home in nature. 59 Reasons to Write, like Real Revision, was published by Stenhouse and is intended for teachers who write and teach writing, but can be used by anyone with a pen or laptop looking for inspiration. When Kate stopped her full time job teaching English, she didn’t stop being a teacher. Not only does she visit lots of classrooms to talk about writing, but seeing a need for teachers who wanted some structure and company as they wrote, Kate enlisted other children’s writers to contribute to Teacher’s Write, an online community where teachers could use the prompts, suggestions, and feedback of published writers to focus on their own writing during the summer.

59 Reasons to Write expands on selected lessons and questions and answers, winding together themes. I was happy to join in as a writing mentor, and can say that despite the struggle that writing can sometimes be, it was fun to write and read together, to see the many varieties of responses to one simple suggestion. I haven’t yet read the book cover to cover, but loved seeing prompts from Jo Knowles and an example of using fiction as a writing model from Anne Marie Pace, who showed how she looked at the first chapter of Sarah, Plain and Tall for things such as how dialogue and description were balanced, and how the last page of the first chapter touched the first, then used some of this underlying structure as inspiration for her work in progress.

59 Reasons to Write is about the size of a speckled composition notebook, but without such a stiff binding, so it’s easy to flip from one soft page, and one idea, to another. Every writing book has its tone, and the warmth in this one comes both from Kate and the generous and hard-working people she gathers around. Readers will fold over pages or put down the book with a strong sense of yes-we-can, and perhaps even more than 59 Reasons to Write.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | January 29, 2015

What I’m Reading: Essays after Eighty

Out the Window starts off Donald Hall’s Essays After Eighty, with observations on birds, daffodils, and snow as he draws subtle parallels between his childhood vision of old people with the way he sees himself now, and memories of his mother’s aging with his own. There’s beauty, insight, self-mockery, and some mockery of others who seem deserving, such as museum guard who spoke baby talk to the poet when he was escorted in wheelchair through the National Gallery. Later in the book, he notes his gratitude for the incident, for its harshness lent a necessary counterpoint to the chronicles of pleasure in birds. He notes that good writing depends on contrast.


Donald Hall says that he’s leaving behind poetry in this decade, though his prose is elegant and sharp, carrying me through subjects not my usual fare such as smoking, baseball, beards, and testosterone. I love the remembered presence of his former wife, poet Jane Kenyon, whose death he wrote about movingly in The Best Day the Worst Day. Donald Hall doesn’t have a website, or even a computer, though he’s always had and has someone to transcribe his writing. He’s fond of revision, which ”takes time, a pleasing long process. Some of these essays took more than eighty drafts, some as few as thirty.” He recalls working with legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn, “who is well remembered for his fastidious scrutiny of sentences, his polite and fierce insistence on repair.” In On Rejection and Resurrection, he writes of starting to send out poetry at fourteen and coming home from high school to his mother cheerfully greeting him: “Another rejection today, Donnie.” He became inured enough to keep on, though not so thick-skinned that he couldn’t deeply sympathize with, and help, a talented friend so pained she could no longer submit work.

Donald Hall became an editor of The Paris Review while in his twenties. He admits his mistakes and celebrates what he learned by being on the other side of the transom. “When people send poems to a small magazine and wait a year for rejection, did the editor read over the poem seventeen thousand times? Or did he wait until chagrin overcame boredom?” He speaks honestly – he is always honest, and often humorous – about praise and its flip side, glory and its shadow, and how such always comes in pairs.

At NPR, you can read some excerpts of Essays after Eighty, a slim and powerful collection which ends not with windows, but A House without a Door. That last essay echoes the first with more thoughts on aging, but still a view of animals coming and going and Eagle Pond.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | January 27, 2015

Say it Again

We expect to hear lines repeated in poetry and songs, while a novel by its very name prepares us for novelty, with each sentence new and every word choice fresh. I’m now reaching the end of a first draft of a novel, paying attention to themes I want woven, with threads appearing and hidden. I draw out details of setting for small echoes. When trying to hint at the meaning of an object or incident that shows up more than once, I usually change the wording, so readers may get a sense of something both familiar and new.

Last week I worked on a chapter toward the end of my manuscript where children play a game they played early on. I wanted some sense of how the game was similar and different, showing how the characters had changed. Should I emphasize this by using the same words for their running and dodging, as a poet would in a refrain? I don’t think most readers would notice a line repeated maybe 100 pages later, but that isn’t necessarily the point. There’s a lot I don’t think many will notice, but matter. Could I repeat half a sentence or a whole one, I asked, pretty rhetorically on Facebook. I got an onslaught of encouragement from writers, variations on Why not?

Copy editors are trained to look for repetition, and when we committed such by accident or careless obsession, we’re grateful for being saved from stray words – repetition that happened over writing a book over months or years – or remnants left when scenes were shuffled. But sometimes we repeat words deliberately, for emphasis or to show connections. We grow up with repetition – children learn to speak by babbling repeated names and No’s, singing lines over and over, reading books again and again. Then there’s some sense we should grow out of it, with the exceptions being required memorization and prayers. Many move on to favor free verse without the refrains and rhymes of formal poetry. But let’s not give up all that’s good. In a lovely collection of essays, In the Blue Pharmacy, Marianne Baruch writes “Poetry… has something profoundly to do with how things repeat, that things repeat at all, why they can’t help repeating… past the cold dark, year after year to inevitable spring … we wait for that familiar cadence in spite of our contemporary hunger for invention and pledge of allegiance to Ezra Pound’s great call to poets to ‘make it new.’”


Surely fiction writers can borrow a bit of this. In Poetry as Survival, Gregory Orr writes of story, symbol, and incantation as the three main shaping elements of poems, with story being a way to make sense of the world, considering where we came from, where we are, and where we want to go. Symbol “allows an object to mean more than itself, to take on additional meanings, as a magnet might bristle with paperclips. The symbol’s unitary nature as an object acts as an embodiment of contraries and a reconciliation of thematic conflicts.” Of course story and symbol are part of fiction, but can we also pull in at least whispers of incantation, which Gregory Orr notes can express intense emotions as well as create them, citing the power and even magic of chants.

“There are no rules. Or, you can modify that rule by observing that each work of art generates its own unique rules,” writes poet Robert Pinsky. Yes, yes, yes. There’s a lot we can’t do, at least so we tell ourselves as we write. It’s good to pay attention to those moments of telling ourselves no, and call them into question. And if we’re not sure, try out our rule-breaker on Facebook or with other friends, and see if we don’t get cheers to go for what’s new.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | January 23, 2015

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

The basketball reference in the title and on the cover didn’t signal that I was the audience for Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover, so despite enthusiastic reports, I picked it up only recently while preparing to teach a course. My syllabus had a lot of strong girl protagonists, which we can never get enough of, but there was room for another sports-obsessed boy beside Ron Koertge’s excellent Shakespeare Bats Cleanup.


I can hardly tell a basket from a ball, but I loved The Crossover from the first hip hop infused poem. The bouncy rhymes perfectly matched the rhythm of a fast game, and while much of the book is free verse, rhymes and a fast beat are generally used when on the court. Sounds as much as sights are integral to how the protagonist comes to know the world. A crossover is defined, first literally, then personally, and the sense goes far beyond the court with a theme of young teenage twins finding their own places on a team and in the family, crossing into adulthood, and in and out of fear and peace. I liked the way definitions became a repeated motif, starting small, and expanding.

This is a fabulous novel published in 2014, a fabulous year for verse narratives for young readers. I blogged about Burleigh Muten’s look at a revered poet, imagination, and a circus come to town in Miss Emily, Mariko Nagai’s chronicle of life in an interment camp during WWII in Dust of Eden, Padma Venkatatrum’s exploration of a heroic girl, dance, and spirituality in A Time to Dance, a young boy’s experience of revolution in Caminar, and Marilyn Nelson’s wonderful How I Discovered Poetry. Another memoir in verse, Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming was much read and praised even before it won a National Book Award. Like Caminar, The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney is set in a war-torn place, in this case, Sudan. I’m sure I’m missing some in this year rich with verse narratives, and I’m not seeing as many in Sylvia Vardell’s Poetry for Children annual look at what’s ahead. I wrote about Caroline Rose Starr’s Blue Birds, coming out in March, just ordered Melanie Crowder’s Audacity, and in August I look forward to Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir by Margarita Engle. Please let me know of what other verse novels, memoirs, or histories might awaits us!

For more Poetry Friday posts, please visit the ever-inspirational Tara Smith at A Teaching Life.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | January 16, 2015

What I’m Reading: Blue Birds by Caroline Starr Rose

Blue Birds give us a vividly imagined account of the historic arrival of a British ship on Roanoke island in 1587 as told by two girls who record their steps toward and away from each other. Most often we get a few poems from one girl before switching point of view – just enough time so the change isn’t jarring, but not changing so often we feel torn. Both Alis and Kimi are struggling with loss while keeping alive curiosity and longing for more. One girl is angrier than the other, and we see the push-pull of her need. It’s a beautiful evocation not only of friendship, but really of first love: Caroline Starr Rose gives their growing bond that much respect.


The different backgrounds — Alis from London, Kimi native to Roanoke– are woven into their thoughts, but never take over. The author seems certain enough of her research to let most of it go. Blue Birds is a story of two people, alike and unalike, finding each other and themselves against land claims and fighting as twelve year olds seem likely to view such. They are bystanders to political decisions, but they form opinions, and step in to make change in wholly believable ways. One is the simple use of the word, “Go!” which changes everything. That two-letter word powerfully reappears at the end of the book, a refrain underscoring the poetry, much like the wooden bird that holds a memory for Alis and is seen as a montoac or powerful talisman by Kimi. It’s fitting that this object is the title, for memory and power come together in this remarkable verse novel.

BB PDF pic for blog posts 2

This post is part of a week-long celebration in honor of the book Blue Birds. Author Caroline Starr Rose is giving away a downloadable PDF of this beautiful Blue Birds quote (created by Annie Barnett of Be Small Studios) for anyone who pre-orders the book from January 12-19. Simply click through to order from AmazonBarnes and NobleBooks A MillionIndieBound, or Powell’s, then email a copy of your receipt to by Monday, January 19. PDFs will be sent out January 20.

For more Poetry Friday posts, please visit:  Irene Latham at Live Your Poem.

Older Posts »



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 95 other followers