EarthView – WorldView

EarthView – WorldView

I gave a talk to students who are studying to become teachers at the University of Maine in Farmington at their annual Diversity Conference.  At the same time, the New England Geographical Society  was meeting on campus.  And a part of that conference was a 20-foot inflatable balloon, hand-painted to look like a globe, and set up in the university gym.  It happened that the talk I gave had the title, Center of the World. I’ve been fascinated by the Buddhist idea that wherever we are, anywhere in the world, we are in the center.  Wherever we walk, everybody is walking in their own sacred space.  Of course where I was going with that is that, through books, we can begin to imagine  the world’s of others.  I found this to be the most wonderful syncronicity that I could walk down the windblown, golden streets of Farmington to the  gym and  see  this world, called EarthView, a creation of Bridgewater State University.  This photograph is by Jacob Belcher and it appears in the Bridgewater Independent.  He captures the vivid colors of the gorgeously painted earth and the silhouettes of students who have climbed inside Earthview.  “It’s a globalized world,”  the newspaper quotes Bridgewater geography professor Vernon Domingo. Here was a grand way to experience it.   Soon I’ll post my  talk, Center of the World,

The Verse Novel: Caroline Starr Rose

The Verse Novel: Caroline Starr Rose

“Braiding the Verse Novel”  is a series of interviews I did with writers of novels –  and one biography  – in verse.  We had our conversations over the summer of 2012. I’ve written articles about verse novels for School Library Journal and NH Writer which draw on these conversations in different ways.  Here, I’m posting the generous responses from each of the writers who allowed me to ask them questions.

Caroline Starr Rose, author of the award-winning middle grade novel May B.,takes readers into a culture of poverty on the Kansas frontier of the 1800s. Here’s our conversation.

Terry:  Would you select a few lines from your novel and tell about a choice you made in the craft of those lines?

Caroline: I adore this question, partly because I write by ear, if that makes sense. I know other verse novelists who use specific forms. Hearing them speak often makes me feel like a dunce. The wise Carolee Dean (FORGET ME NOT, Simon Pulse/Oct 2012) recently shared with me all the devices she found in my own work — things like alliteration, internal rhyme, assonance, she intentionally plans that I don’t really think about — and it was eye opening. It was a reminder that there is no one way to write. In drafting, rhythm, sound, and the visual play a huge role in how my story unfolds. Here is an example:

My legs fold under me

as I try

to catch

my breath

between sobs.

This stanza shows May’s full understanding she’s been abandoned. My editor wanted to make sure the reader was visually and emotionally present in this moment. I added all sorts of words that in the end just weren’t right. My editor suggested we keep the stark, simple language and change the line breaks so that the reader, along with May, must slow down and catch their breath — literally experience the emotion with her.

That’s the power of poetry: it communicates beyond just the words on the page. It is most fully understood, I think, when it is spoken, seen, and heard — when the senses are fully engaged.

Terry: Can you draw a parallel between your use of poems to create the novel and cultural or literary traditions of the community represented in the novel?

Caroline:  May B. didn’t start as verse. What I first wrote very much frustrated me, as it felt so distant from what I’d imagined. I set my writing aside and returned to my research. In reading first-hand accounts of midwestern women in the late 1800s, I picked up on the similarities their journals and letters contained — terse language stripped of emotion and verbose description. I returned to my drafting, trying to mirror the style of these women. This was the key in discovering May’s voice and most honestly telling her story.

Terry: Do you thing that there is a kind of story that is best suited to the verse novel form?

Caroline: For me, verse works best when working with a very close first-person point of view. It allows access to a character’s thoughts without many extras. I also love the immediacy verse gives, not only to the character but the setting. Verse has become a great vehicle for me to write historical fiction because I want the character and her world to feel real, present, and accessible. Ideally, history comes alive when readers see how similar our feelings, fears, and motivations are when paralleled with people from a different era.

Terry, this is wonderful. Thank you for allowing me to participate. I love your angle on using poetry to convey culture and language. I think this is why books where children have limited language skills/new language acquisition work so well through verse. We experience the story through the characters’ eyes. —Caroline Starr Rose

Braiding the Verse Novel: Margarita Engle

Braiding the Verse Novel: Margarita Engle

“Braiding the Verse Novel”  is a series of interviews I did with writers of novels –  and one biography  – in verse.  We had our conversations over the summer of 2012. I’ve written articles about verse novels for School Library Journal and NH Writer which draw on these conversations in different ways.  Here, I’m posting the full responses from each of the writers who allowed me to ask them questions.

 Margarita Engle is the Cuban-American author of The Surrender Tree, recipient of the first Newbery Honor granted to a Latino writer.  Her other young adult novels in verse include The Poet Slave of Cuba, Tropical Secrets, The Firefly Letters, Hurricane Dancers, and The Wild BookThe Lightning Dreamer is forthcoming from Harcourt in March, 2013.  Engle has received two Pura Belpré Awards, two Pura Belpré Honors, three Américas Awards, an International Reading Association Award, and the Jane Addams Award. She lives in central California, where she enjoys helping her husband with his volunteer work for wilderness search and rescue dog training programs.  Her next picture book is When You Wander, a Search and Rescue Dog Story, forthcoming from Holt in March, 2013.

Terry: Would you select a few lines from your novel and tell about a choice you made in the craft of those lines?  How did you shape them to achieve something key to the story?  (This is a wide open question.  Maybe you used or created a formal structure and would describe that. Maybe rhythm was key to you. I look forward to hearing wherever this question takes you.)

Margarita: Writing a historical novel in verse is a process of exploration.  In the opening poem of The Surrender Tree, I imagined what it would feel like to be a young, enslaved, self-taught wilderness nurse, whose gift of healing is misunderstood as something dangerous and malevolent. In the voice of Rosa la Bayamesa, I explored her point of view:

 

Some people call me a child-witch,

but I’m just a girl who likes to watch

the hands of the women

as they gather wild herbs and flowers

to heal the sick.

 

I am learning the names of the cures

and how much to use,

and which part of the plant,

petal or stem, root, leaf, pollen, nectar.

 

Sometimes I feel like a bee making honey—

a bee, feared by all, even though the wild bees

of these mountains in Cuba

are stingless, harmless, the source

of nothing but sweet, golden food.

I imagine only a Cuban would notice that the part of this poem that refers to the names of cures is an echo of one of José Martí’s Versos Sencillos (Simple Verses) about finding comfort in knowing the names of wildflowers.  However, I believe that everything else in this poem is universal. All young people experience times when they feel misunderstood. Nature, healing, and hope are also aspects of life shared by all cultures, and all ages.  Rosa la Bayamesa healed soldiers from both sides during thirty years of warfare, so I knew I had to carry her character into adulthood.  I also knew that later in the book, there would be a scene with children saving her hideout by placing beehives in the path of enemy soldiers.  It was an incident I had read about, one too important to omit, but I can’t say that I consciously used the bees in this first poem to foreshadow the later scene.  I spent so much time immersing myself in the research that real events floated around in my head, searching for places to land. Throughout the imaginary thoughts in this novel, documented historical events wove themselves into the poems.

Terry:  Can you draw a parallel between your use of poems to create the novel and cultural or literary traditions of the community represented in the novel?

Margarita: Poetry and music play such an essential role in Cuban culture that it was natural to include them.  Since the book was really about people like Rosa, who did not leave a diary or any written record of her life, I made only brief references to the most beloved poet of those times.  José Martí is the “father” of Cuba’s independence from Spain, but his martyrdom in the “Spanish-American War” is so well-known that I only mentioned his poetry in passing. Instead, in a series of poems beginning on page 106, I let the voice of a young refugee girl named Silvia speak about natural sounds, along with the birdcalls of Mambí rebels, who communicated while in hiding, using the Canary Island tradition of a language of whistles:

 

Mambí birdcalls, a stream, tall reeds, the song

of a waterfall, my own tumbling, exhausted,

singing wild hopes.

 

Next, on page 107, the voice of Rosa’s husband, José, speaks about music:

 

All night I stand guard, singing silently

inside my mind, to keep myself awake.

 

Then, on page 108, Silvia marvels at the power of song:

 

Does the old man in the forest

know that he sings in his sleep?

 

And finally, on page 109, Rosa turns to non-verbal communication with young Silvia:

 

I see a story in her eyes.

She thinks she has no right to eat

while so many others starve.

If I had to describe the rhythm of these poems, I would say there is a hoofbeat.  Like so many of Cuba’s improvisational “country music,” songs from this era were sung on horseback.  I picture an easy lope, the kind of pace that a horseman would use to cover great distances without tiring his faithful mount.

Terry:  Would you suggest that there is a kind of story that is best suited to the verse novel form?  Tell me your thoughts.

Margarita: I would like to think that any sort of story could be told in the novel in verse form, but that might only be true of the kinds of stories that interest me.  I don’t enjoy the distance of an omniscient third person narrator.  I love to plunge straight into the heart of the story’s events and emotions, using thoughts and feelings rather than long descriptions and dialogue.  At the same time, I do enjoy the visual aspects of a story, so I use what I know about nature and the five senses.  The Surrender Tree is set in tropical rain forests and caves.  Sounds, sights, fragrance, stench, all of it has to be included, so that both the author and reader can time travel back to a remote Cuban jungle where former masters and former slaves fought side by side, for the shared goal of independence from Spain, followed by peace, the greatest treasure.