Operation, Sloths, and Finding the Joy

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Amy Dixon shares both the heartache and joy of writing for children and reminds each of us to embrace our own path.

Sub It Club

operationWhen I was 8 years old, there was nothing I wanted more than the board game, OPERATION. It just looked so fun, with the tweezers and tiny organs, and the wonderfully startling BZZZZZZZ! that would happen when you made a mistake. I truly thought, that if I only had OPERATION, my life would be complete. On Christmas morning, I was thrilled to wake up and find it underneath the tree in all its red-nosed, anatomically-incorrect, naked-man glory. It only took a couple of times playing it to realize that it was much harder than it looked. Only the steadiest of hands could grab that miniature wishbone. And don’t get me started on the writer’s cramp. Impossible! The buzzing that looked so funny on the commercials quickly became annoying and tiresome. And, let’s be honest…a little bit hazardous! Were those actual electric shocks making my fingers tingle?

When we’re little, we…

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Writers Choose Their Details With Care

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CloseUpItemsFrBudapest#1_20151018_174025The Great Market Hall of Budapest (Központi Vásárcsarnok) stands on the Pest side of the graceful Liberty Bridge. The ornate two-storey marketplace is crowded with local shoppers and tourists, and a plethora of goods. Once inside, I plowed past displays of home-baked breads, red strawberries, fresh meats and vegetables, cases of cookies, stands of paprika, grilled sausages and beer, painted pots, embroidered blouses, enameled boxes, t-shirts, fur hats, leather gloves, handmade pottery, lace tablecloths, carved wooden saints, and many variations on the Rubrick’s cube, which originated in Budapest. It was dizzying to choose just a few items from this vast array.

After staggering out of the teeming marketplace with a tiny bag of purchases, I realized the shopping experience was similar to what writers must do to achieve a well-crafted story. As writer Avi stresses, editing is what shapes our work and makes it better: http://www.avi-writer.com/blog/2015/02/keep-going/.

Writers, like wise tourists, learn to choose their items with care. Details not only add realism but must support the unfolding themes and subplots of our stories and reveal our characters’ hidden qualities. When we authors are confronted with an unwieldy first draft, a swollen word count, and a loose-limbed plot, we can’t keep everything. Like shoppers, we have to choose, and choose well. We are told, and it is true, that everything must support our vision, no random detail thrown in just for fun.

So what was in the tiny bag I carried out of the Great Market Hall? two cans of paprika, a pinched pottery cup, a wooden puzzle, a wiggly spoon, and a painted barrette. These items all evoked Budapest for me. And like a well-edited book, fit very nicely into my suitcase.

Visiting Psychologist & Physicist: Ramzi Suleiman Offers up a Poem

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A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of hosting Ramzi Suleiman during his brief stay in New York. Ramzi is Chair of the Psychology Department at Haifa University. He’s also a physicist, engineer, and poet—in short, a Renaissance man. His presence in my home was as enlivening as a writer’s colony. By the end of our visit, Ramzi and I were exchanging poems and commenting on each other’s work.

After I read three of his poems I said, “It makes me realize how poetic your speaking voice is. Reading your poems is like hearing you tell stories around the table–as you have done many times this week. The imagery and metaphors are so rich, and the insights are so deep.”

I was especially taken with one poem translated from Arabic: Things Have Their Reasons. It carried me along like the ocean. Like ocean waves I found myself returning to it again and again, and emerging from it breathless.

Things have their reasons 

(translated from Arabic) 

Because things cannot be complete 

without their shadows, 

God created the candles 

And the glittering lamps 

on the water’s surface 

————

Because the sea surface rises up 

and collapses Down, 

like a lover’s chest 

Because lover’s sighs 

stumble one after another 

like the sea waves, 

God created the moon 

————

Because the Earth 

does not stop spinning, 

in search of its rendezvous 

God created the hours 

and asked them 

to look after the minutes and the seconds, 

and because, usually, appointments 

choose their appointees, 

God spared chance 

————

Because the pomegranate tree 

keeps its vows, 

and the full chestnut 

yearns for its self, 

God created the earth 

————

Because the night holds its grip 

On the day’s sleeves 

Like a blind man 

clinching his hand on his cane, 

Because the day 

Throws the remnants of its light 

And slips underneath the evening’s gown 

God created the opposites 

————

Because nothing is complete 

without what compliments it 

God created love 

Because things have no being 

without what is not in them 

God spared the pain. 

— Ramzi Suleiman 

Things Have Their Reasons will appear in “Trees Die Standing,” a book of Arabic poetry by Ramzi Suleiman, Raya Publishing House, Haifa, Israel,  Autumn 2015.

When the Heart Skips a Beat: Poetic Meter

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Most people would agree that poetry is best read aloud.

I was fortunate to have had a mother who read poetry to me from the time I could walk. Our first shared poems included those of A. A. Milne:

The End

When I was One,

I had just begun.

When I was Two,


I was nearly new.


When I was Three

I was hardly me.


When I was Four,

I was not much more.


When I was Five,
 

I was just alive.

But now I am Six,
 I’m as clever as clever.

So I think I’ll be six now for ever and ever.

Having absorbed Milne’s satisfying dimeter, I wrote my first poem. It was an ode to sweet hot cereal.

Brown sugar

all around,

Up and down,

Oh, hear the happy sound.

I can still feel the movement of my spoon shmushing and melting the brown sugar into my cereal. 

Only now do I notice how this early poem breaks the rules by having two beats in each of the first three lines, followed by three beats in the last. At the same time, doesn’t that last line act as a stop to the forward motion of the poem—like a flashing yellow light and clanging bell signals the lowering of the bar for an oncoming train?

I’m currently adapting 19th century poetry by a well-known children’s book writer/illustrator to serve as voices for some of the magical creatures in my middle grade WIP. The original poems employed four feet to a line (tetrameter). Sometimes the rhythm was a bit “off”, but I liked the quirkiness and interest this created. Yet, people–editors, writing groups—warn that meter must be spot on if it’s to appear in a published work for children.

When did children become so picky?

On the other hand, I balk at poems that begin with a certain meter and change into something mushy and undefined. Once established, listeners depend upon a reliable meter—as reliable as a heartbeat, so that when the heart skips or rushes on, or god-forbid, stops—we sit up and take notice.

Two useful guides to poetic meter and stressed syllables:

https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/Meter_Handout.pdf

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/learning/glossary-terms?category=rhythm-and-meter

Do you think poetry for children should follow a different set of rules than poetry for adults? I’d love to hear your comments.

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