Friday, September 26, 2014

Baila Conmigo!

I'm so happy that my first chapbook, Baila Conmigo, was just published by Dancing Girl Press. A few weeks ago, Kristy Bowen, the artist/magician who created the cover asked me for a list of things I liked, and then poof! she came up with this gorgeous design that somehow captures everything on my rather lengthy list. Thanks to her for turning my little stack of poems into a work of art!

The book can be ordered online at, and I'll have copies at my classes and other events this fall.

Speaking of classes, both the Monday and Thursday sessions of Creative Writing for Adults and Teens are starting up again soon. As always, all experience levels are welcome to join these warm, friendly groups as we write from prompts for creative inspiration.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Card Tricks

When I was a kid I had two favorite card games: “Old Maid” and “Authors.” The appeal of “Old Maid” was obvious, with its brightly colored characters like Tumbledown Tess in her red ski sweater and Fifi Fluff in her movie-star sunglasses and high-heeled pumps.

I’m not sure, though, why I liked “Authors,” so much. The portraits on the cards were, after all, either extremely grim or just plain bizarre. Why, for example, was Nathaniel Hawthorne painted with long, bright yellow locks (I secretly thought of him as “Banana Head”), and why was Robert Louis Stevenson’s face and hair tinged with purple shadows? Fitting in neatly with these unappealing pictures was a scowling Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who, with his balding head and big scraggily beard didn’t look like anything special to my six-year-old self.

How wrong I was. Alfred Tennyson, in fact, was a big, popular success in his own lifetime. So big, in fact, that Queen Victoria made him England’s poet laureate, which meant he got to represent his country at all sorts of official celebrations and got paid for the position too. His writing was so remunerative that by 1850 he’d finally made enough money to marry his sweetheart and was eventually able to buy a house in the country where he could let his crinkled beard grow while he wrote more spectacular poems.

And spectacular they were. Today people are still in awe of the music of his work as well as the vivid pictures he created with words. Take these snippets from “The Eagle”: “He clasps the crag with crooked hands” and “The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls.”

Try saying these lines out loud, or better yet, go outside and recite them while you’re walking. I guarantee the words will be some of the most delicious things you’ve ever had in your mouth.

In the 1880’s, Tennyson was made a baron, which meant he got to add “Lord” to his name and had a seat in the House of Lords. When he died he was buried in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey, which includes memorials to Geoffrey Chaucer, Lord Byron and George Eliot (a.k.a. Mary Ann Evans).

Despite this success, Alfred’s life was not all flowers and rainbows. His childhood, for one thing, was as grim as anything Charles Dickens could have dreamt up. His father was a bitter man who’d been disinherited by his own dad and was forced to get a job as a cleric to support his family. Fueling his unhappiness with alcohol, Reverend Tennyson was such an abusive father that he once reportedly threatened to stab one of Alfred’s brothers in the throat.

Needless to say, the reverend’s 12 children didn’t thrive in such an environment. One brother was put in an insane asylum and another was addicted to opium. Tennyson, however, found some happiness when he left home for Cambridge, where he made friends with other people who recognized his poetic gifts and encouraged him to keep writing. I suspect it was like finding the magic key that let him out of a dungeon. By writing beautiful and powerful verse, he not only rose above his miserable childhood, but he also found love and admiration and connection with people outside the grim walls of his family home.

Due to some financial woes, Tennyson had to leave Cambridge without earning his degree, and more hard times came when his early works were attacked by critics. Worst of all, his beloved school friend, Arthur Hallam, suddenly died in 1833. Once again, Tennyson used language to deal with his loss. The poem he wrote for Hallam, “In Memoriam,” is still considered to be one of his greatest achievements. In this piece, Tennyson struggles with the big questions about the fragility of life:

Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be:
They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, are more than they.

But he also asserts:

I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most,
'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

After Hallam’s death, much of Tennyson’s work had an elegiac theme. He wrote of the dead Lady of Shallot floating on a barge toward Camelot (“A gleaming shape she floated by,/A corse between the houses high”) and of the death of King Arthur (“So like a shatter’d column lay the king”).

You’d think a poet who dwelt on death so much would make for a gloomy companion. But Tennyson also weaves a note of hopefulness within his work, a suggestion that good things are still ahead. Take, for example, the end of “Ulysses,” a poem about the hero’s restlessness after returning safely home. “Tho’ much is taken, much abides,” Tennyson writes. After all Ulysses has suffered – the brutal battles of the Trojan War and the terror of facing everything from the gargantuan Cyclops to the wily sirens – the old hero still wants more action:

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek to find, and not to yield.

Today, writing probably isn’t the quickest way to make money or win points with the public. But as a means of creating order or beauty out of chaos or grief, it’s no card trick. Whether you pen formal poems or scribble in a journal now and then, putting your thoughts on paper can still work wonders.