Posted by: jeannineatkins | August 5, 2016

Who is a Poet? Who Gets to Decide?

At the beginning of the class I taught on verse novels, a student told us she’d asked a prominent writer whether she might write a good one if she isn’t an experienced poet. He told her no. This story sort of hovered over us through the course. Even if no one had told us we shouldn’t attempt what we were attempting, our own minds supplied such a voice. We began reading Jacqueline Woodson’s Locomotion and Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog, in which both Lonnie and Jack have teachers who see poets in their sensitive young students. But we also read essays from writers who insisted that not every child is or can be a poet. We’re grownups, but we have histories of encouragement and dismissals. Who is a poet and who gets to decide?


Through July, we read verse novels and composed parts of some, trying to blend poetry and stories. As we wrote, we didn’t murmur aloud, “Is this worthy of being called verse? Is it good enough?” But I could feel the breath of the effort to infuse narrative with lyric moments. And everyone wrote some brilliant pieces. We had much to celebrate in the last class as people read work aloud. It was a festive evening.

Then the next day I got an email from a student, who let me know that she wasn’t going to stalk me with her doubt, but what she’d read the night before sounded a little flat to her ears, maybe partly in comparison to other more brilliant work.

Her work wasn’t flat. But I understand that amidst the celebration, traces of doubt were rising. Second thoughts had appeared in apologies we quickly squashed.

Doubt is always with us, and I think can rear high right after a class. We’ve had deadlines, prompts, structure, and each other’s interest and applause, and now all that is gone. I told my student a bit of what I loved in her work and advised her to reread Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and read Art and Fear. She wrote back that she would and was going for a swim. A lake was another most excellent idea.

A writing class makes a sort of home, and it’s sad when that door closes. But there will be other homes, though we have to make them. Staying connected with people in the class, and/or finding others who will share work, deadlines, and cheers. Doubt is part of the process. It doesn’t mean one should stop work. Rather we should make a place where it can be swatted down and kept in its proper sleepy place.


In Hate That Cat, Jack gets another school year with Ms. Stretchberry, who encourages him to examine his antipathy to cats, move beyond grief, write about a new love, and experiment with more poetic forms. Locomotion has shown Lonnie mourning not a dog, but his parents. And in Jacqueline Woodson’s follow-up, Peace, Locomotion, Ms. Marcus, who called him a poet – “Not a whole lot of people be saying, ‘Good, Lonnie,’ to me.” — is gone, replaced by a teacher who says he’s not a poet as he isn’t published. He stops writing poems, and more of the book is made up of letters to his sister. Though the poetry shines through.

Not just in a class but in our whole lives as writers, we’ll meet those who nudge us forward and those who seem to hold us back. Sometimes they can be the same person. Sometimes they can be us. Perhaps the writer who was asked by my student if she might be up to this challenge thought that if she had to ask, she didn’t have the talent or fortitude. But he was wrong. A better answer might have been to say, “I don’t know. What do you think?”

None of us can see the future value of anyone’s work, including our own. When I’m asked about potential, I like to err on the side of “go for it.” Writers owe that to each other as much as we need to urge each other to go back for another draft, letting each revision teach us how to make the next better. Most of us who write remember both teachers who saw hope in our work and ones who were unmoved. Both nurturing and fearful voices remain in our heads. Our job becomes to feel prodded by both, raising our own standards, while being kind to ourselves.


Meanwhile, we try to be grateful for the process, as no one knows how what we write will be received. Finding Wonders will be published this September. Stone Mirrors will come out this coming January. I love having two books of historical verse, which represent perhaps ten years of work, moving into the world together. Sometimes we get such happy endings – before we begin again.

Please visit the ever-encouraging Tara at A Teaching Life to enjoy more Poetry Friday posts.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | July 29, 2016

More on Verse Novels

Writing verse novels means trying to keep people turning pages, while also deepening with what we call poetry. And what is that? Coleridge wrote that prose is words in the best order, while poetry gives us the best words in the best order. His friend Wordsworth tells us that poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility. Both offer a good beginning, but we find something to argue about, too. Emily Dickinson wrote that she can recognize poetry if she feels as if the top of her head were taken off. And Mary Oliver wrote, “poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes led down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.”

“Poetry raises a high bar,” I tell my students. Poetry may be defined subjectively more often than novels are, and readers may have more expectations of something higher or deeper than they find in fiction.

“And there’s another bar,” a student pointed out. “Lots of people hate this hybrid form.”

Yes, there’s that. From time to time well-educated people think it’s a fine idea to tell me that they hate verse novels. Um, okay. You know I write them, right?


We do our best to put tension into narrative, which we can learn about from E. M. Forster, including his insight that plot asks for elements of mystery, which means that part of the mind must be left behind brooding, while the other part marches on. And then we try to tease forth lyrical moments.

At its best, a verse novel puts together poems in a way that makes each one mean more than it meant alone. And then I ask my students: Can every line both deepen and move the story forward? We wonder what makes a good verse novel, and why should or shouldn’t what we’re writing be in verse? We try to create a sense of moving forward, while leaving white space where we ask readers to pause to absorb or reflect.

We want something intimate, but we’re using conventions such as litany, alliteration, rhythm, and sometimes rhyme that aren’t part of everyday speech. John Stuart Mills wrote, “Every poem contains within itself an essential difference from ordinary language, no matter how similar to conversational language it may seem at first to be. Call it formality, compression, originality, imagination – whatever it is, it is essential… the space between daily language and literature is neither terribly deep nor wide, but it does contain a vital difference – of intent and intensity.”

Aiming for what is personal and universal, we’re bound to fall short, while hoping our efforts leave something. My students are courageous.


For more on poetry and the inspiration of hollyhocks and Emily Dickinson, please visit Margaret who is hosting Poetry Friday.


Posted by: jeannineatkins | July 14, 2016

A Day with Louisa May Alcott and Friends

“Beauty in the humblest things” was the theme of this year’s Conversations at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House. I was able to be there only yesterday for conversations that take up most of a week, but I left, as one often leaves that Concord neighborhood, refreshed from being around not only Alcott devotees, but people who carry a sense of what makes life good. Here is historian Kristi Martin, who spoke about the sacred domestic and literary imagination, standing with her sister on the left. (And a copy of one of May Alcott’s portraits in the background.)


When Jan Turnquist, executive director of Orchard House, speaking as Louisa May Alcott referred to Little Women, the whole room chimed in on the novel’s first line: “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.” It was a lovely chorus, and fun to hear this Louisa speak of her other less-well-known works.


Gabrielle Donnelly also evoked the warm parlor and sisterly connection as she compared the March family to Jane Austen’s Bennett clan. Later in her talk, she mentioned Mr. Bhaer’s proposal, in which he and Jo huddled under one umbrella, sheltered as the girls had been in Little Women’s first chapter. There’s a lot of such warmth in Gabrielle’s books, too. I hope you’ll read her novel, The Little Women Letters.


It was great to listen to talks and also just chat together near the old Concord house. Remembering, teasing, digressing – we felt among family.

Here are Gabrielle Donnelly, me, author Susan Bailey, who blogs at Louisa May is My Passion, and Kristi Martin.


I’m standing shut-eyed between Professor Anne-Laure François, Lis Adams, education director at Orchard House, Gabrielle, and Iman, who I met last fall when she led a tour through the house – something offered seven days a week.


That was an intimate tour group with just me, my friend Jen, and an uncle and his niece, so I felt free to reply to a comment about May Alcott, which led Iman to mention she was reading a novel about the artist. “Little Woman in Blue? Um, I wrote that,” I said. Iman beamed and invited me to spend all the time I wanted in May’s bedroom.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | July 6, 2016

Verse Novels: What Bears Repeating


Picking flowers for the bud vase, I remind myself, “Not too much.”


It’s a good way to start a morning of writing poetry, though teaching a course in verse narratives, well … I’m stacking up books and scribbling more notes than will ever get spoken in class, particularly since I’m sharing a table with nine smart and vocal grad students. I try not to talk too fast and remember Maxine Kumin’s words: “A poem is a small thing. It’s fragile, and you don’t want to overcrowd it.”

Verse novels are bigger and sturdier. Still, even as we advance the story, we need the compression of imagery or other strategies to elevate the form beyond broken lines. We want narrative that is brightened or leavened by lyric, or what Mary Oliver refers to as a coiled moment ready to spring. Tess Gallagher calls too much narrative slog in verse the presentational mode. She asks poets to aim for a sense of direction formed by value and judging. What’s on the page should be there not just because it happened or could happen. It should be of consequence.


Fairy tales remind us of the power of what’s brisk and concise, and when they’re used to shape verse may give an echo of what we’ve heard before. We’re always paring, but repetition can bring readers into a poetic rhythm. Repeated words or phrases at the beginning of the lines are what some poets call anaphora, or more informally litany or incantation. Repeated words such as Let, Listen, Behold, can cast a sort of spell, setting us free to nod, tap our feet, and switch from one kind of paying attention to another that might be deeper or more joyful. We find litany in psalms, Walt Whitman, Goodnight, Moon, ocean waves, and breath. In Kwame Alexander’s Crossover, one poem begins “Mom, since you asked, why am I so angry,” and is followed by a series of lines beginning with “Because,” repeated like a bouncing basketball, one student noted. The central metaphor of a crossover shows up as a basketball term, a crossing between brothers, and moving between life and death, offering another pattern. So do the repeated formats of dictionary-like definitions, all beginning with the universal and moving to the personal.

We’re reading some sonnets with the echoed sounds of rhymes and sestinas with words reappearing at the ends of lines, but also find that sometimes repeated shapes of poems, such a series of couplets or tercets that reoccur give form enough. Always there are questions, such as when do formal elements take us out of the story and when do they bring us deeper in? Someone compared Crossover’s theme of basketball to being like poetry. The sport may look spontaneous and even chaotic, but there are lots of rules and form behind all that movement. Oh, my students make me happy.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | June 28, 2016

Socks and Verse Novels

The local strawberries are so very sweet, and buying at a stand this morning, the kind woman gave me some extras, washed, so I could taste in the car. Delphiniums are doing their very blue thing. Neighbors down the road just got one majestic black cow and one ivory cow, both impressive as if a statue had been hauled off the streets of Paris and plunked in the green field. I straightened my sock drawer and feel embarrassingly satisfied. The news from the world has been making me feel speechless in its face, but my social media also shows me that some people are still baking clementine cakes, reading by the water, feeding hummingbirds, going to work, dancing with librarians, making pottery, fretting over first drafts, and other good things. Sometimes I’m glad to take a very short view of what’s around me, and let the wider background fade.


Those short views can be solace. It’s one reason why I’m glad to be teaching a course in verse novels at Simmons at the Carle starting this afternoon. I look forward to meeting ten people who care about the genre, and it’s one that doesn’t skirt news of the world, but also promises beauty. In Love That Dog and Hate That Cat, Sharon Creech shows a boy slowly approaching grief with words. In that first volume, it takes Jack about eighty pages to get to the memory he needs to mark. Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson shows us another boy who lives in a harsher world but also uses language to navigate memory and loss, and finds beauty in his relationship to his sister. Oh, and we’ve got a few essays, also, though they’re crankier re defining poetry than Ms. Stretchberry or Ms. Marcus. Those teachers and Jack and Lonnie are characters I feel enriched for knowing. And when I write, I also choose characters who I love and want to spend a long time with. They make the rest of the world fade for just a while, even while calling me to another complicated world on the page. What a privilege. And truly, even better than matching socks snuggled close.

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FYI to writers: Open spots remain in Writing One in the MFA program at Simmons at the Carle which I’m teaching this fall, a course that can be taken by itself without going for the degree. Anyone around the Amherst, MA area, let me know if you have questions or interest!


Posted by: jeannineatkins | June 7, 2016

Practicing Acceptance

Walking the dog and on my porch, I’m revising a novel. Watching lots of sentences go, under my hand. Getting frustrated at the new messes I’m making as I’m trying to clean up a draft. There are more squiggly lines and arrows than when I began.


The flowers remind me that perfection is fleeting. Can I enjoy what’s here and not cringe, at least for too long, at what’s leaving and what is yet to be done? Words and blooms must come and go. Trying to write well means lots of lowering of bars. Yoga isn’t all nice postures and Namastes. There’s sweat and straying thoughts and lopsided warrior poses, too.


And when I fail at patience, the dog is always eager for another walk. Where I may be inspired with an idea for another necessary mess-making revision. Or just enjoy bee hum and butterflies zig-zagging over the dirt road. Because it is summer.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | June 1, 2016

Crazy Brave by Joy Harjo

The porch today gives me a view of bees and the first hummingbird of the year between star flowers and iris. Our black dog is dozing. I took a break from research to read Crazy Brave, a poetic memoir by Joy Harjo, and am inspired by the way facts and myth, the tangible and spirit, weave together. She writes of the pulls of her ancestors in the Creek Nation in Oklahoma and family struggles that shaped her as a poet. “I was entrusted with carrying voices, songs, and stories to grow and release into the world, to be of assistance and inspiration. These were my responsibility. I am not special. It is this way for everyone. We enter into a family story, and then other stories, based on tribal clans, on tribal towns and nations, lands, countries, planetary systems and universes. Yet we each have our individual soul story to tend.”


Joy Harjo moves chronologically, but divides the sections into east, west, north, south, with each direction having its own tone and spirit. In East, we learn of her years before school, full of a confident and creative connection to the earth and sky. Every day she spoke to the sun. She smelled each crayon before she used it “and felt each color as a friendly field of possibility.” “For me drawing was dreaming on paper.”

We go on to read about how her father’s rage and a pull toward other women that led to her parents’ divorce. She admired him and was afraid of him and found those places came together inside her. Elsewhere she discovered that “the most humble kindnesses made the brightest lights.” When she was eight, her mother gave her an anthology of verse, and found “Poetry was singing on paper.” Some words from William Blake and Emily Dickinson gave shape to her experience. “And to open that book was to disappear into many dream worlds, like the ones I had left behind after I started school …”

A stepfather brought more violence into their home. As a teenager she was glad to escape to the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, a place that felt like home and she suggests saved her life. The school had been begun by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and run like a military camp, but in 1967 it had been transformed to foster native arts. We read about how she developed as a visual artist and performer, and met the man who’d become her first husband. She gave birth to her first child at eighteen, and another child, fathered by another man, not too long later. He was also unfaithful, and they separated.


Panic increasingly became a part of her life until she had a dream of flying in an attempt to escape a monster. Afterward she wrote a poem reproduced here from her first collection She Had some Horses (1983) that begins: I release you, my beautiful and terrible fear.” She writes of the dream and a poem as a crucial door. “I wanted the intricate and metaphorical language of my ancestors to pass through to my language, my life.” The last pages echo the hope in the book’s first section, East. “the direction of beginnings. When beloved Sun rises, it is an entrance, a door to fresh knowledge.” The memoir’s last line is: “I followed poetry.”

Posted by: jeannineatkins | May 19, 2016


For most of the springs in my life, I’ve broken lilac branches and brought in bouquets to make a room fragrant while I write. Lilacs don’t bloom for long. Some gardeners don’t want the sort of shapeless shrubs or small trees that may straggle in their yards for the fifty-or-so weeks when they don’t bring purple and fragrance. But why live in New England and not indulge? I also love lilies-of-the-valley, now starting to bloom, which others dislike for the way they spread. Let them.

The month of May is a lovely coming-around to me, but I’m watching my five-month-old puppy see much for the first time. He lifts his nose to smell air or follow bee flight. He stares out the porch window listening to the gaggle of wild turkeys. When I took him for a walk on the first hot day, he flopped on the grass and rolled, momentarily defeated. Then we found a stream, where he nosed into cool ripples. Every dog he smells coming might be his new best friend. He tugs on the leash. Sometimes he’s ignored. Sometimes he gets to touch noses. And every once in a while, yes, here is his new best friend and we humans step back and watch the dogs lunge and twirl into play.


At the table on the porch, I find facts new to me and arrange them in ways that will be new to anyone. I’ve been doing this for much of my life, with the sense of the familiar and fresh blurring. I’m writing now in the wake of some bad writing news to which my husband responded, “Why do you think that manuscript keeps getting turned down?” I felt buoyed by his  hint that something was off in the reading, not my attempts over years to shape the work in various ways. And there was some good writing news: a lovely review for Finding Wonders.

The emotions of a writing life, like much that matters, comes in waves. Life has its tides of dejection and lilacs. Sending out work, getting it back, sending it out again. I can’t hold our puppy in my arms any more, but I’m also buying fewer rolls of paper towels and less dazed from lack of sleep. Often I dare to leave shoes on the floor.

It’s good to be awake to what happens then choose where to set our attention. I’m sticking with my husband’s and friends’ faith in my work and enjoying the lilacs while they last. Poetry is made by letting in then weeding out. I choose historic facts from thick books, set some constraints, then nudge the borders, too. I aim to suggest transience, but also what lasts. Every editor won’t ask of a manuscript: Does this matter? But at this table, I try to keep that question alive.


Posted by: jeannineatkins | May 11, 2016

Mulberry Leaves and Apple Blossoms

Somewhere or other I’ve seen tallied accounts of all the sights, sounds, and smells an average person might encounter in one day. And our job as humans is to sort them through the enormity, decide what matters, or contend with what seems to mark us whether we wish it would or not. Today I’m working with a to-do list, but while driving I notice trees that make May New England’s the pinkest month. While waiting for an appointment, I take out my laptop. I’m revising, but with one eye on the little girl amusing herself with a straw and her starting-to-get-cranky younger brother, rocked by the mom who’s having a conversation. Ah, that girl is turning the straw into a sword.

Life gives us much to smile about in the moment, even when the general shape of a day or year seems tough. Writing also puts forests of imagery before us, and for a poem, we really have to de-clutter and hone, looking for what will stay in front. Just as a morning is more than our agendas, but what catches us as we proceed, writing a poem means our attention shifts from our first mission to stray words.

I recently spoke to someone about writing poems about real people for Finding Wonders. Sure, I began with biography, but research extended to nature and science books, travel guides, history tomes and more. I write poems because it pushes past biography the way the living are not our work or even our home lives, but what we see and hear, where and when we live. Much of my work begins after I have notes on what made someone famous. I look for what houses looked liked, what people wore or ate. Reading other people’s poetry is part of the process, too, keeping my eyes sharp, my ears open. I accumulate a lot before I sift. Some of what I find may add detail that makes someone seem more alive. Some may shift to metaphor, even ones that shape poems or the book.


Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis, Kim Todd’s wonderful biography of the artist and scientist gave me necessary information, including a note that Maria’s uncle worked in a silk mill. Most is lost about Maria’s childhood as the daughter of an artist in 1700’s Germany, but I had to think that this curious girl would visit her uncle at work, and see moths and chrysalises that were unspun to collect their silk, perhaps starting Maria thinking about metamorphosis which she’d later record in paintings that would help change science. I found some brief accounts of silk mills from her time and place, and more extensive nineteenth century manuals written by mill owners in my Massachusetts neighborhood, which established the process wasn’t so different.

Maybe Maria would take her uncle strudel wrapped in linen – what else was eaten for breakfast? Was her hair braided, too? I learned that barefooted children gathered mulberry leaves for the silkworms to eat. I left the crumbly-covered volumes for nature books to look for the shapes of mulberry leaves, the color of berries. This was a lot of reading for about half a poem. But even the many words I left out shape the poem.

Then it’s time to drop off the library books. And this is what I see.




Posted by: jeannineatkins | April 25, 2016

What Disappears and What Stays

Write every day, even if just a bit, is advice I’ve been given and give. Writing likes you to show up for at least a peek. The sentences you compose one day encourage your mind to return to a project more gracefully the next morning. But we should also remember that each day is different. Its tone may need respect.

Saturday night I baked a lemon cake, following the instructions to beat in each of the six eggs one at a time and to alternate spilling liquid and dry ingredients before stirring. I made sure the grated orange and lemon peel soaked in the fresh squeezed juice for the requested hour. And I thought of Jane, a friend from childhood who I hadn’t seen in a long time. I’m usually pretty loose about baking directions. What’s the big deal about adding the eggs all at once? But I remembered making cookies with Jane when we were about ten and she insisted on following the cookbook’s instructions to the letter. The idea was that we should at least once try to get things just right.

Jane’s sister had asked me to bring a dessert to the memorial service. Entering the parish hall on a day when the doors could be kept open, I added my cake to a long table of desserts made by other women who knew the woman who’d liked to bake. As I caught up with some old friends, one told me that the house where I’d grown up was gone. “Really?” Yes, others thought that was true, though with the house having been on a hill behind trees, no one had gone to look.

After the service, my husband and I climbed a hill that was shorter than I remembered. I stared at grasses and brush, trying to imagine a house with a big yard and forsythia bushes I used to play under and a stone wall where I set up toy animals.

“You never showed me your old house,” Peter said.

“I guess I just waved my hand as we drove by. I never thought it would be gone.”


The friend and the house haven’t been part of my life for a long time. But nothing is nothing, even dried leaves, grasses, stones, or questions that can’t be answered. Why do I remember the way Jane so diligently followed a recipe that day? Why has so much else disappeared?

Houses, friends, even memories vanish. But important things last, too. That’s what I’ve learned from getting to the age where I sit in a church and squint my not-so-good-eyes at gray-haired strangers for signs of a young person who I might have sung with in the choir with or walked with on the hill behind the church to see the stained glass window and wonder why a velvet curtain covered it in the sanctuary.




Age has also taught me to take gifts where they come. Since there were many desserts, cake was leftover that I was told I should take home. I swept off the wedge before someone else might stop me. I ate some for breakfast, though the sweetness didn’t entirely break my melancholy. And I’m slowly finding my way back to the work waiting for me. Write every day. Yes. And honor the mood of the day. The same person, but not quite the same person, will compose the sentences to come.

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