Posted by: jeannineatkins | April 21, 2017

Poetry at TLA

So many thanks to Sylvia Vardell for rounding up poets to celebrate the genre, Janet Wong for suggesting poetry to slip into summer reading, and my publisher, Simon and Schuster, for sending me to the Texas Library Association convention. I loved meeting poets whose work I love, and librarians, a few of whom, when I handed them my postcard, said, “Oh, I know you.” Meaning that maybe they catalogued some my work. But, yes, I say that, too about authors. The physical presence is a bonus.

Signing books meant the swiftest of conversations, but hearing about girls who loved science, and those who might need to know about Edmonia Lewis, was a thrill.



It was pure joy to hear people reading our work. At the Poetry Roundup, here is Janet Wong, Amalia Ortiz, Janice N. Harrington, Tamera Will Wissinger, K.A. Holt, me, Helen Frost, Allan Wolf, and Sylvia Vardell.


Occasionally I got to glimpse the San Antonio skyline.

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Lots of good words came and went, but I’ll try to remember answering the question, “What are you doing these days?”

“I’m writing something that’s probably impossible.”

“That sounds like what you’re supposed to do.”

Posted by: jeannineatkins | April 18, 2017

Emily Dickinson and A Quiet Passion

I guess the surprise would have been if I loved A Quiet Passion, the movie about Emily Dickinson as played by Cynthia Nixon. All readers have their own views of who the poet was, since part of the beauty of her poems are how wide open they are to interpretation, and many accounts of her life are shaped in part by speculation. There were parts of the movie I liked, but it seemed stilted, neither a narrative nor a documentary but trying to be a play, and I felt as if the effort was to show the opposite of the upbeat Emily we find in The Belle of Amherst. Surely, there was a woman between that often-cheery one and the embittered woman shown in A Quiet Passion.


Emily Dickinson’s life was hard in many ways, and I’m sure there were times when she was sad and angry. She was often ill, and of course pain leaves a hard mark. But I don’t believe resentment was the major arc or mood. She must have sometimes been lonely, but the film never shows her enjoying the garden or conservatory her father had built for her. We don’t see her listening to birds or children, or chatting with the servants. She was intelligent, and understood that staying in her father’s house meant she’d have to give up much, but what she kept was her freedom to write.

We do see her at her desk, but only in the younger woman do we really see the passion she had for language. She wrote about 1800 of poems, and I have to think she felt proud and satisfied with the wonders she created, satisfied with expressions from her soul.


After we left the theater, I talked with my friend Ann, a retired first grade teacher, about what I thought was missing in the movie.

“I remember you telling me long ago about how you wrote as child, at recess, and outside, and in bed,” Ann said. “That you felt you had to write. After that I noticed more how some kids walked around with books. Some held toys. And some carried pencil and paper and just wanted to be writing. I tried not to get in their way.”

What we don’t see in the movie is the Emily Dickinson who wrote on the backs of envelopes, corners of newspapers, or chocolate wrappers in the kitchen or in the garden, tucking scraps of paper into the pocket of her white dress, and sometimes reciting aloud.


Dan Chiassan writes in The New Yorker: “She was a scholar of passing time, and the big house on Main Street was the best place to study it… In the 1850 national census, Dickinson listed her occupation as “keeping house”; the scraps might have kept her as she did so. … the “still—Volcano—Life” she describes as ever churning under her daily rounds.”


Posted by: jeannineatkins | April 4, 2017

Beyond the First Draft: The Art of Fiction by John Casey

Sometimes it’s good to read about issues other writers face, and how they find ways out. There are no tricks, no clear path, and rules have limits, which award winning author John Casey discusses in essays with origins as craft talk given at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in Tennessee. He quotes Edward Gibbons, when at the beginning of volume 7 of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire he recounts some treatises on strategy, but notes, “The discipline of a soldier is formed by exercise rather than by study; the battles won by lessons of tactics may be numbered with the epic poems created from the rules of criticism.”

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We should learn rules, but realize that turning them around may yield much the same. In the first chapter, John Casey takes on some tried and sometimes true writing advice and notes what most works for him. For instance, he examines the good of writing what one knows, but its trap of nostalgia. He mentions that his major work as a writing teacher is not to correct work, but to show students what you see in it. He reports a story that Katherine Anne Porter taught simply by reading students back their work to them. He speaks of being a student in the MFA program at Iowa in the 1960’s, when a requirement for writers was to take a course in another art: learn an instrument, take a life drawing class, or work on a soundless movie. He thinks part of the reason for this was to learn to isolate the elements of the art, in a way that can be hard to do with writing, which may feel too familiar. Metaphors of process can be drawn from other arts.

I particularly liked the chapter in Beyond the First Draft called “Things,” which considers how setting plays a part in plot and how to decide what should be revealed when. A novel set in the past may include habits or work unfamiliar to most, so decisions must be made about when explanations or exposition is given. We might think to give it at the outset, but John Casey advises best to wait until it matters most. He offers the case on instruction on rock climbing given at Outward Bound Schools. Often the instructor says little until someone is halfway up a cliff. “At that point, most people are all ears.”

Posted by: jeannineatkins | February 24, 2017

Trusting the (Bumpy) Writing Process

Other than tasks related to snow and shovel or leash and dog, for the past week or two, I’ve been fairly free to write. Being immersed is great, except when it’s not. A lot of time for writing means a lot of time tripping over obstacles and insecurities, not to mention some boredom facing the page. I love my characters, but they don’t keep me entertained every minute. I’ve devoted a lot of the past two years to my present work, which not a soul has seen. Most of the research is done, I’ve written a pretty complete draft, and the structure seems steady, so I’m at the point where I’m taking out words, which puts me in mild panic: What will I have left? So much is messy. Can any of this really turn into poems?

Trust the process, I tell myself, which is tough when the process is long. The process is easier to trust when there’s gliding. But chopping is what needs to be done, so I breathe. I think of my yoga teacher telling us, while we stand swaying one leg, like trees in the wind, that wobbling is work, too. Wobbling can make us stronger.

I wrote that I tell myself to trust the process, but those words seemed to drift into my fidgety and snarly self. No one stepped forth to lecture. I’m not sure they’re words I’ve ever said aloud, though they’re familiar. I could mock the idea of trust, call it hokey, swat it aside, but it’s wiser to bow my head and put out my hands as if someone tiptoed in with a hot cup of tea.

It’s one thing to admire the writing process from a distance, say one we call the end. But when you’ve just spent days building a small monster you have to cut down, it’s hard to be mellow. Writing is a motion with rhythm. While we sometimes need drive, the work isn’t going to happen all at one speed. Self forgiveness is as important as discipline. I can imagine a beautiful goal, but I have to wade through lots of doubt and wrong turns to get close.For all the years I’ve been writing, I can forget that for every good sentence I have to write half a dozen bad ones, and another eight that are mediocre. In no particular order.Sometimes we must let up, and welcome – so patiently! – the thoughts that come in the silences we leave.


I grew up thinking of trust as a steady force or light, but trust can be bumpy. Trust is there as we tip the balance between setting high standards and forgiving our lapses, finding a place between shiny possibilities and what we can manage with words. The math is simple. The more time we spend writing, the more time we spend messing up. I’ll stick with Trust the process as my motto, my mantra, my companion, and remember that neither trust nor writing is ever easy for long. It’s okay. Complaining is part of the process, too, and helpful — so, my writer friends, feel free to share your own struggles in the comments. We moan a bit and go on into the work which we’re so privileged and sometimes even happy to do.


Posted by: jeannineatkins | February 14, 2017

Animals, Trees, and Stones

Nature can heal. Sometimes we need a break from information coming at us, or the practical needs of life. In the foreword to Late in the Day: Poems 2010-2014, Ursula K. Le Guin writes, “Skill in living, awareness of belonging to the world, delight in being part of the world, always tends to involve knowing our kinship as animal with animals. … One way to stop seeing trees, or river, or hills only as ‘natural resources,’ is to class them as fellow beings – kinfolk.”



“Poetry is the human language that can try to say what a tree or a rock or a river is, that is, to speak humanly for it, in both sense of the of the word ‘for.’… So we admit stones to our holy communion; so the stones may admit us to theirs.”




Posted by: jeannineatkins | February 7, 2017

Broken and Whole

I can remember back when the Internet could first enter our home and news of the world became available for me to glimpse near the keyboard. I was used to those rows of letters as a quiet place where I could be close to the people I was writing about. The pictures shimmering above it came from my mind. I resisted trading in my typewriter and having that intimate world and the one beyond my walls come together, but gave in. Much good has come of that. Being in touch with people far away eases the loneliness of writing. But it’s also a big distraction. Like many people these days, I’m finding it hard to keep myself from checking in to see what new disaster for the earth or its inhabitants we need to contend with not only this day, but this morning. Some days it seems bad news come around every few hours.

I want to be informed, but I also have books to write. I struggle to keep the focus we practice in yoga to keep us balanced, even though I’m a wobbly tree. And sometimes I go out to talk about books. This weekend I launched Stone Mirrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis with a room filled with wonderful people at The Odyssey Bookshop. Many thanks to Ann, Joan, and everyone who came! It was a privilege to talk about a girl who in 1863 had a hard time finding a place in a school where she was admitted, but not entirely welcomed, who faced prejudice and survived violence to move to Rome and spend months and years hammering out faces and bodies from broken stone. She took her pain and carved out something beautiful.


My book is written, but Edmonia Lewis stays with me as a presence near my laptop. She watches as I call forth another amazing and overlooked woman. I find some focus here, not exactly meditating, not exactly channeling, but I wouldn’t call it plain old writing either, as I softly call these women and gently try to briefly enter their spirits, as if they were gauzy clothing. Perhaps particularly with Edmonia Lewis, a novel in verse meant for teenagers and up, readers will find disturbing scenes, but I hope they join this amazing sculptor as she finds ways to both accept and transcend what she was given. We may have been taught to see joy and pain as opposites, but often they come together. Much needs to be broken before we can know what’s whole.


Edmonia Lewis split stone, then filed and polished, aiming for an ideal. Ekua Holmes, who illustrated the cover of Stone Mirrors, worked in collage, putting torn paper together to make something lovely. Poets work with broken lines, perhaps for emphasis or the power of pause or what poet Jane Hirshfield calls “a little Sabbath.” Writing can make something new from what was neglected or broken. In a New Yorker article called “Poetry in a Time of Protest,” Edwidge Danticat writes, “Trump’s speech was dark, rancorous, unnuanced. Afterward, I wanted to fall into a poet’s carefully crafted, insightful, and at times elegiac words.” I love the gaps and stretch of nuance, the way they invite our own answers. I don’t know if poetry or other sorts of beauty can save us, but we need its reminder of better places, and the tender effort of moving toward shine and hope.


Posted by: jeannineatkins | February 3, 2017

Inspiration in Winter  


The poets got to the woods before me.


My dog chewed on sticks while I took the photos. We were both happy.

This afternoon I’ll back cookies for the launch of Stone Mirrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis tomorrow, Feb. 4 at 4 p.m. at The Odyssey Bookshop.

Thank you to The Daily Hampshire Gazette for the kind review.

I’m also delighted for the interview about Stone Mirrors and the creative process over at Today’s Little Ditty, with pictures of Edmonia Lewis’s artwork and a long-ago photo of me with my sister and our beloved Grandmère. I offer an exercise in using personification, something I explored for this book, and there’s a chance to win a copy of Stone Mirrors.

Posted by: jeannineatkins | January 26, 2017

Stone Mirrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis

Book Page is one of my favorite places to add to my reading list, so it was a thrill to see their review of Stone Mirrors. And interesting to note I wrote four score poems. I hadn’t counted.


I’m also thankful for other reviews, including from The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books: “Written with sensitivity and grace, this compelling title of injustice and vindication will leave readers pondering the complicated relationship between pain and art.” And at Book Links, I talk about one of my biggest surprises while writing, in a piece that includes other poets with diverse work coming out this year.

I’ll have more to say about Stone Mirrors at its launch at the wonderful Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, MA Saturday February 4 at 4 p.m. I’ll talk about the ways I blend history and imagination and show slides of Edmonia Lewis’s work.


And friends near Boston — where Edmonia became a sculptor –I’m excited to also be reading, talking about the inspirations of anger and love, and slide-showing at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, MA on Sunday March 12 at 3:00 p.m.

It’s good to spend some time with people of the past who’ve struggled and triumphed. But there are books, and there’s the world, which seems to change every day now, sometimes every hour. I was inspired seeing pictures of loved ones at the Women’s March, resisting and rising and refusing to be pushed backwards. I expect I’ll be on the street sometime, but right now I most need to bend over my work at home. One of many things I felt in November is that the women in history I write about matter as much now as they did long ago. The struggles of women and others who are treated with disrespect are far from over.

We’ve heard that those who fail to learn from the past are condemned to repeat it. Though it seems that even those who faithfully study the past may repeat it, too.. As I wrote about Edmonia Lewis making her way as the first person of color to achieve international recognition of a sculptor, I know that women still must fight to earn places in universities, galleries, and museums. Just a few years ago the intrepid researchers who call themselves the Guerilla Girls found that only about 4 percent of paintings on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Arts and the Museum of Modern Art were done by women. (Recently the Metropolitan added two works by Edmonia Lewis – steps! And hurrah for the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, which owns eight of her works. Here is one of her tributes to Minnehaha and her father.


The Death of Cleopatra was seen by enormous crowds at the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876. It still amazes, but I like the way it’s displayed (bottom left) in an accessible way with other sculptures, even as it towers over some.


The Smithsonian Museum of American Art keeps some of their works in storage in clear cases rather than being shut away, so you can view them. Edmonia Lewis’s bust is of Anna Quincy Waterstone on the right.


But back to exclusion, which happens not just in art, but in science. While US Census Bureau statistics show a rise from 1970 when women in STEM fields was about 7 % to 23% in 1990, that’s pretty much where it’s leveled out for the past decades. As I discover girls and women who matter, and who I come to love, I can’t let them be. So I work word by word, fiercely, trying to show some of history that’s essentially been kicked aside.


I’m honored that Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science was included in some lovely lists celebrating 2016 books. Finding Wonders was named a Bulletin Blue Ribbon, CCBC Choices 2017, Booklist Lasting Connections, and one of the Best Poetry and Novels in Verse at the Nerdy Book Club. Many thanks to all of those who keep pushing forward books that might change lives – and their readers!

Posted by: jeannineatkins | December 15, 2016

Loving People of the Past

During the last class of my writing for children course, the students shared bear-shaped chocolates and wonderful final projects, and I answered some questions about what may come next. For twelve weeks we focused on craft, but now we squinted at what they might do with their work. I tried to sound casual about the time that publishing might take, but I’m afraid some were counting years with some alarm. I shifted the focus to what they could do to withstand rejection, which almost every writer experiences. Read Art and Fear and most importantly, stay in touch with each other, and form a writing group or pair up with partners. It’s important, I said, to meet in person or online partly to critique, but also to share the process of what happens when sending, or avoiding sending, writing into the world. Doubt can creep in, and it’s wise to have friends to help put uncertainty in its proper place. When you can’t rustle up your own confidence, good friends can remind you of your worth.

We can use a thin skin to write, but may want a thickening skin to publish. I did not mention that I started sending out Stone Mirrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis, the book that’s coming out next month, so long ago that it was printed on computers that are historic and made its way through the post office, rather than in attachments. I was writing in an era of different dogs and a daughter still living under our roof, first in prose then in verse, draft after draft after draft. There were lots of revision and rejections before it landed on the desk of the right person at the right publishing house at the right time. What remained constant was my love for its subject – and that’s something I mentioned more than once to my students, too: write about people, real or imaginary, who you crave as company for a long time.


We don’t need to count the months or years of work, but to stay true to the fictional or real or in-between people who matter. Edmonia Lewis’s courage called to me when I read about her life and art fifteen or twenty years ago. In l862, she attended co-educational classes in Oberlin, where students of color could earn degrees for the first time, though perhaps not made entirely welcome. Some of what happened to Edmonia Lewis in one dormitory seemed close to the kinds of discrimination and violence sadly still familiar today. With enormous determination, she grieved, fought, and moved past horrific acts to become a sculptor famous in her time. She was forgotten for decades, but brought back to attention largely by feminist and black art historians in the 1970’s. Now her work is displayed in museums including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which currently displays busts of Hiawatha and Minnehaha, and The Smithsonian, which holds eight marble sculptures, including Dying Cleopatra.


There are gaps in the historical record, making her life seem a good subject for verse, since I could start with research and use empathy to fill in lost scenes. Poetry reminds us that questions are often as powerful as answers. I honor the word Maybe as much as fact. Writing about women I believe should be better known gives me a drive – I mean to get to the work and get it right – that I hope also propels a narrative. And there’s a deepening because of all the time it takes, going back again and again, that creates some lyric in the work, the imagery and rhythms. 

I studied Edmonia Lewis’s statues, asking what might have compelled her to choose her subjects. Some reflected the sculptor’s background and drive for social justice, and her best known works of Hagar and Cleopatra are powerful women who faced exile or its threat. Since Edmonia Lewis left little and conflicting records about her childhood with Ojibwe aunts in upstate New York, I researched the sorts of homes they might have lived in, the food they likely ate, and how they might have struggled to make their way. I read about the ways Oberlin College, its preparatory school, and the community dealt with integrated classes, and what it was like to live as a free person of color in Ohio during the Civil War, then afterward, in Boston and Rome. I read about the complexities of being biracial and the damage that racism wreaks. There’s a round of research, respect for a life and time that’s different, but never entirely so, and remembering feelings we might have in common.

At last I got my author copies! Here I show it with flap copy I got to write as a poem.


I’m grateful for starred reviews from Kirkus and Booklist, which says, “How this brave, driven young woman overcame prejudice and trauma to pursue her artistic calling to the highest level . . . is a story that warrants such artful retelling.” The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books writes: “Written with sensitivity and grace, this compelling title of injustice and vindication will leave readers pondering the complicated relationship between pain and art.” Stone Mirrors is not an easy read, but I hope Edmonia Lewis will  show readers one amazing way of moving forward. Knowing history can make us stronger.


Posted by: jeannineatkins | December 5, 2016

Finding the End of a Book

I’m the sort of writer who lets lots of words, ideas, and pages sprawl, then sweeps a great deal aside to find a center. I often quote E.L. Doctorow on how writing is like driving in the dark: you just need to see just as far ahead as your headlights. But I add that I don’t generally drive without knowing where I’m going. For the novel I just completed, even while I was writing sloppy or exploratory drafts of early chapters, I was writing a similar messy draft of the ending. I had a vision, and while the particulars changed, the characters and general action of the last scene stayed the same up to my last draft.

But like the perfect beginning, endings are hard. Writing poems is good practice for how to open a door and how to shut it — or should you leave it a little ajar? My students just wrote picture books with interesting characters and reasonably steady arcs, but some endings left me feeling “Oh.” instead of “Ohhhhhh.”

How do we reach a good ending? The answer seems partly tied up to the depth of what’s happened along the way. Some good picture books can move along on one idea, but I think most of the best have layers, and we get a sense of them coming together on the final page or two.


Author Jill Esbaum recently pointed some of us toward an interesting article about how the megahit Frozen left the small audience at an early screening wiggling and clearing their throats. People cheered for the characters, humor, and some songs, but something was off. Discussions ensued about how to find and fix it. Could what was lacking be hidden in an ending that fell flat? Apparently the two sisters in the early version of the film had clashed throughout, though neither gave anyone much to root for, and at the end the change was about a lesson learned that didn’t evolve from their relationship. You can read the article to see how the writers explored layers in themselves, asking themselves their own hard questions about sisterhood, kindness, and the hazards of perfectionism to create more believable characters and an unforgettable conclusion.

The way to the good ending may be through writing lots of drafts, perhaps adding a new layer with each one, including those we take away. I just read an essay by Arthur Miller in which the playwright said that all anyone needed to know about tragedy is the story of Jesus. He noted that had the great man’s life just ended on the cross, it wouldn’t be so much. What makes it powerful is Jesus then asking God why he’d been forsaken. Miller points out that not only do we need that line of dialogue, but we need just that single line. Had Jesus gone on to say other things he thought and felt, it would have been too much.

How do we know what to put in and leave out? The best way I know is by trying lots of combinations. And asking, again and again, have I said yet what I really really want to say?

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