Friday, February 26, 2016

Eileen Spinelli's _Another Day as Emily_

The Plot: Eileen Spinelli's Another Day as Emily (2014) tells the story of 12-year-old Suzy's summer. The narrative begins with Suzy's younger brother being hailed as a hero by neighbors and the local news for calling 911 after their elderly next-door neighbor takes a fall. Suzy begins to feel neglected and overlooked after this incident and the several that follow: she feels her mother pays more attention to her 4-year-old brother, she doesn't get cast in a play she auditions for, and she has to miss a special birthday baseball game with her father when her brother gets lost. Suzy, in the midst of her summer project on everyday life in the 1800s, decides to emulate the poet Emily Dickinson's "life of solitude." She asks her family and friends to call her Emily, she wears only white dresses, she refuses visitors and outings, and makes a list of Emily-approved activities (including writing letters and poems, playing piano, baking, reading, making breakfast, washing dishes, dusting, gardening, playing with the dog, listening to crickets, and caring for sick family members). The most interesting aspects in Spinelli's unnecessarily long verse novel is the character's fascination with Dickinson, but we don't get to this part until almost 100 pages into the narrative and even then it isn't fully developed. There are multiple pieces of disconnected narratives (her grandmother in Arizona is ill, her neighbor boy who has an alcoholic father is accused of stealing, and so on) that don't lead anywhere and ultimately make the book tedious and uninteresting at points.

The Poetry: The most disappointing thing about Another Day as Emily was the lack of poetic technique or form throughout in a book that is inspired by Emily Dickinson. The book is filled with short free verse poems. The poems come one after another on the same page eliminating the space that appears in most verse novels and collections of poetry, and these blank spaces are filled by Joanne Lew-Vritethoff's pencil illustrations that appear sporadically in the margins. There isn't much attention to line, which would be fine, but the book also lacks attention to space, lyric, image, and anything else that might distinguish it as falling within any poetic tradition. Even poems that draw directly from and quote Dickinson fall flat, like "Hope" which includes the first stanza of Dickinson's "Hope is a thing with feathers":
I chose this one
because I've been
feeling grumpy lately.
But now I'm not.
Now I've got hope
perching in my soul (128).
The Page: Spinelli's verse novel is ultimately a missed opportunity for a writer and her protagonist to use the verse novel form and a tradition of American poetry as inspiration. Suzy only attempts to write two poems in the 224 page narrative, and both depict her as being apathetic and bored by poetry although she is an avid reader and lover of books.

I give Another Day as Emily one star.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Jacqueline Woodson's _Brown Girl Dreaming_

Published in 2014, Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming has been awarded the 2014 National Book Award for Young People, the 2015 Coretta Scott King Award, and was named a 2015 Newbery Honor Book. In the summer of 2015, Woodson was named the Young People's Poet Laureate by the Poetry Foundation. On the Poetry Foundation's website, they note that this "title is given to a living writer in recognition of a career devoted to writing exceptional poetry for young readers. The laureate advises the Poetry Foundation on matters relating to young people’s literature and may engage in a variety of projects to help instill a lifelong love of poetry among the nation’s developing readers. This laureateship aims to promote poetry to children and their families, teachers, and librarians over the course of its two-year tenure." This week, I read Brown Girl Dreaming for the fifth time and taught it for the third semester in my Literature for the Intermediate Reader class at Western Michigan University. If you are interested in teaching Woodson's work, HERE is an activity that I use to open up my students' discussion of Brown Girl Dreaming. Each time I come to Woodson's work, I find something new, and it becomes a richer text for me.

The Plot: In Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson traces the experiences of her first person speaker Jackie (who is the representation of Woodson's childhood self). The narrative begins at her birth and describes what life was like growing up during the civil rights era in both the North and the South. Jackie's parents separate when she is an infant, and she travels from Ohio with her mother and siblings to live with her maternal grandparents in South Carolina. Eventually, her mother moves the family to Brooklyn, New York. In addition to the examination of racism through the eyes of a young person, Woodson also tackles issues of the broken family, religion, death and illness, imprisonment, and her experience with a learning disability. Brown Girl Dreaming is divided into five sections: "i am born," "the stories of south carolina run like rivers," "followed the sky's mirrored constellation to freedom," "deep i my hear, i do believe," and "ready to change the world." The poetry within these sections is further framed by a rich paratext; Woodson includes a family tree, an epigraph from Langston Hughes's poem "Dreams," a scrapbook collection of family photos, and an author's note.

The Poetry: Brown Girl Dreaming is told primarily in lyrical free verse but is interspersed with a series of eleven haiku. No matter what form she employs, Woodson's poetry reflects a deep meditation upon the historical and personal roots that helped shape her speaker as a writer. For example, the second poem in the collection, "second daughter's second day on earth," begins with the language of Jackie's birth certificate. The first three lines of the poem read: “My birth certificate says: Female Negro / Mother: Mary Anne Irby, 22, Negro / Father: Jack Austin Woodson, 25, Negro” (3). The repetition of the final word in each line, “Negro,” emphasizes its significance as a marker, and these first three lines take on the feel of a collaged legal document within the poem. The poem mixes the left justified historical and documentary style narrative with stanzas rich in voice and lyric that are centered and italicized: "I am born brown-skinned, black-haired and wide-eyed / I am born Negro here and Colored there" (3). This poem goes on to reference Dr. King, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Ruby Bridges, and Rosa Parks as important figures who Jackie might model herself after as she grows up. This blending of personal and national history in the poem suggests Woodson’s desire to locate her story within and next to the stories of those individuals who profoundly transformed the world for brown children forever through their roles and their activism in the civil rights movement.

The Page: One theme that Woodson investigates in her memoir in verse is that of silence and blank space. Woodson has noted, “Memories don’t come back as straight narrative. They come in little bursts with white space all around them. It felt more realistic to write mine as poems.” The haiku series within Brown Girl Dreaming speaks volumes in its use of negative space. For example, the first haiku in the series, “how to listen #1” appears in part one of the verse novel entitled “i am born.” In the poem, memory, body, and emotion intertwine as a reflection of the early life of Jackie and her life in Columbus, Ohio with her mother, father, and siblings: “Somewhere in my brain / each laugh, tear and lullaby / becomes memory” (20). This poem encapsulates the drive of the entire collection—the focus of the narrative is remembering a history in order to gain insight into the self and understand the how personal and cultural history shapes an individual.

Brown Girl Dreaming is a gorgeous exploration of personal and national history. Woodson's use of lyricism, imagery, free verse, and haiku are distinct and moving. I give Brown Girl Dreaming five stars and highly recommend it.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Marilyn Nelson's _How I Discovered Poetry_

Recently, The Lion and the Unicorn published its annual essay in which their panel of rotating judges awarded the 2015 Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Poetry (see the Critical Perspectives tab for citation). This year's judges, Lissa Paul, Kate Pendlebury, and Craig Svonkin, honored two books published in 2014, one of which was Marilyn Nelson's How I Discovered Poetry. This year marks the tenth year of the award's existence, and while I am thrilled that this award exists and that poetry for young readers is consistently acknowledged, I very often disagree with the award panels' views on the verse novel for young readers. Since the award's inception in 2005, although the judges rotate every year, it is always clear that the judges find very little merit in the verse novel as a form. They often dismiss and denigrate works as not being "good" poetry. While I agreed with their selection of Nelson's work as an honor book (they actually never refer to How I Discovered Poetry as a verse novel, so it's my understanding that they don't consider it one), I found their discussion of Kwame Alexander's The Crossover and Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming unsettling and frustrating. The judges note that "comically inauthentic is the strongest stuff Alexander has, as most of the book relies upon anemic free verse" (339) and that "Woodson too often destroys the strength of her verse with maladroit line breaks and missed opportunities for structural or linguistic repetition... Woodson's ear, sadly, is fallible" (340). It is always clear that the judges of The Lion and the Unicorn Award have a very particular kind of poetry in mind, and it is usually not a poetry that is representative of the current trends in contemporary American poetry. This week, I take a closer look at Nelson's work and will follow up next week with a look at Woodson's verse novel; both works are unique in their exploration of autobiography and the personal, race, childhood, and American history. Marilyn Nelson is the author of poetry for adults and young readers; her poetry has received numerous awards and honors including a Newbery Honor, Coretta Scott King Honor, National Book Award Finalist, and Printz Honor.

The Plot: Nelson's How I Discovered Poetry (2014) includes an author's note at the back (which has become a standard for verse novels that explore the author's past personal history) that explains: "This book is a late-career retrospective, a personal memoir, a 'portrait of the artist as a young American Negro Girl.' The poems cover the decade of the fifties, from 1950, when I was four years old, to 1960, when I was fourteen" (101). The poems in her collection touch on many historical issues and events from the Civil Rights Movement to the Red Scare. Throughout the work, it is clear that place and geography are significant, as each poem is labeled with a location and date. Beginning in Ohio and moving through Texas, Kansas, California, New Hampshire, Maine, and Oklahoma, the narrative follows the speaker's family as they travel across the US. The speaker's father is an officer in the Air Force and her mother is a teacher. The narrative focuses on the young speaker as she discovers her love of books and poetry and as she tries to make friends and understand the changing world around her as her family moves around the country. 

The Poetry: How I Discovered Poetry is a sequence of 50 unrhymed sonnets in iambic pentameter. The poems mostly follow the inner musings of her speaker and play with language and repetition. For example, the first poem in the collection "Blue Footsies" beings by meditating on the word "time": "Once upon a time. Upon a time? / Something got on a time? What is a time? / When it got on a time, could it get off?" (1). This rhythmic questioning continues throughout the poem, and other poems in the collection also emphasize language play. One of the most striking poems in the collection is the title poem, "How I Discovered Poetry," which discloses the speaker's degrading experience at nine years old of having her teacher choose a poem for her to read aloud to her all-white class:
She smiled when she told me to read it, smiled harder,
said oh yes I could. She smiled harder and harder
until I stood and opened my mouth to banjo-playing
darkies, pickaninnies, disses and dats... (97). 
The image created in this poem and the title are striking. I was only disappointed that this was the penultimate poem in the collection; I'd wished this moment would have come sooner in the collection, as it would have given more weight to the events described after, specifically of the speaker's emergence as a young artist.

The Page: Another unique aspect of Nelson's verse narrative is the fact that the pages are illustrated and that there are family photos dispersed throughout the collection. One of the most compelling combinations of word and image comes halfway through the collection on pages 46 and 47. This spread includes the poem "Darkroom" and incorporates an illustration of a string with clothespins holding up three black and white family photos. These same images reappear on the cover. Moments like these draw attention to the book as an artifact and its createdness as a collection of fragments of the author's personal history.

I enjoyed Nelson's How I Discovered Poetry. I highly recommend this collection to anyone interested in autobiography and the verse novel, and I give it four stars.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Cordelia Jensen's _Skyscraping_

The Plot: Cordelia Jensen explains in the acknowledgements of her 2015 Skyscraping that "a long, long time ago it was a memoir.... Although the book was once a true story, it is now, absolutely, a work of fiction" (346). Set in 1993 New York City, Jensen's verse novel tells the story of Mira, who is just starting her senior year of high school. She is excited about editing her high school yearbook, taking an Astronomy class, and applying to colleges, but her world is turned upside down when she walks in on her dad and his lover after school one day. Mira has long seen her father as a mentor and someone who she wants to emulate. He is a Spanish Literature professor at Columbia and stepped up to take care of her and her sister while Mira's mother went to Italy for a year to study art. After this incident, Mira's mother and father explain to her and April, her younger sister, that they have an open marriage, that Mira's father is gay, and that he is HIV positive. While April is supportive, Mira is not; she is angry that her father and mother have lied to her. Mira copes with her feelings through self-harm, drinking, smoking weed, and exploring her sexuality. While I am a huge fan of the problem novel, and Skyscraping definitely falls into this category, I took issue with much of the plot structure and the unredeeming representation of the seventeen-year-old protagonist. Mira is portrayed as judgmental, overdramatic, and even homophobic at times throughout the narrative. It is not until almost 200 pages into the verse novel, when she realizes her dad's HIV has progressed to AIDS and that he only has about one month to live, that she begins to let go of her anger and, frankly, stops throwing a temper tantrum. The only time Mira comes close to accepting her father is after she loses her virginity to her ex-boyfriend, tells him her family's secret, and he remarks that "AIDS is a deserved disease" (208). While most problem novels are issue focused and present their characters as somewhat self-centered, they also provide the reader a sense of comfort (in that they feel that they are not alone) as well as a window through which they might see themselves or learn something new about a serious topic. Skyscraping falls short for me in this respect; the protagonist is portrayed as hateful and without depth, and the way in which the significant issues are treated in the novel is problematic.

The Poetry: Jensen divides her verse novel into four seasons, following Mira through "fall," "winter," "spring," and "summer" of her final year in high school. The poems utilize free verse, and the author occasionally makes use of shaped or concrete poetry. The poems are mostly told in fragmented, end-stopped phrases which gives the verse novel a jarring quality, and at times makes it difficult to read. This is clear from the first poem in the narrative "Piloting":
I have everything I need.
My bag. My key.

The security man knows my name, 
lets me in.

Soon the school with be full;
for now, quiet, empty (3).
Just like these first few lines of the verse novel, the poetry throughout the collection falls flat. The author seems to rely very little on sound and music, and the images presented are mostly mundane. Jensen attempts to use the yearbook theme Mira chooses (outer space) as a metaphor for Mira's experiences and feelings of isolation, but again this metaphor becomes a missed opportunity for the author to inject lyricism and vivid imagery into her poetry.

The Page: Like many other verse novels, especially those that focus less on the music, imagery, and/or sound and more on narrative, Jensen's work attempts to make use of space (literal page space, as well as the metaphor of outer space). These attempts ultimately miss the mark for me as a reader.

I give Jensen's Skyscraping two stars.