Micah Tasaka

i am riverside

After Jayne Cortez’s “I am New York city”

 

i am riverside

take my brain of buses,

of gunshots, of siren screech

take my heart of foggy tap water

my hands are dying orange groves

my buildings are choking on smog

look at my coyotes, my homebums, my tumbleweeds

approach me, mountain lions

on my camp outs in Box Spring Mountain mineshafts

approach me, empty pizza box

at parasite infested river bottoms

i rub my fingers through the traffic at the 60 split

sting my palms on smashed beer bottle glass

i lick the slime from barred windows in the east side

i am riverside

here is my mouth of black sidewalk gum

here is my nose of train track hum

legs apartface between knees, faded

watch me vomit in alleyways

drunk piss behind a tree

i am riverside

look i sparkle heat steamed blacktops

and midnight bike rides to liquor stores

my shoes stomp petals of cigarette butts

my eyes bleed graffiti filled gutter walls

touch my guts of rotting Baker’s ketchup packets

smell my lungs hacking tar, sucking meth

hear my clanking Cobra 40’s and

no sleep, all night dreaming –

and under-freeway tunnels:

citizens

smoke crack with me.

 


Micah Tasaka is a queer biracial poet from the Inland Empire exploring identity, spirituality, gender, and sexuality. Their work seeks to make a playground of religious myths while de-centering the patriarchal god of their childhood for queerer deities. They have performed throughout Southern California and have featured in Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Palm Springs. Their debut chapbook, Whales in the Watertank, was self-published in 2014.

Marcia Barnes

The Meadowlark

 

We hear the meadowlark no more

For she has flown away..

The fields are gone to houses

And she has no place to stay.

The land will sing with traffic

Where the children run and play.

But the meadowlark will not be here

For she has flown away.

 


Residing in a rural area in the Inland Empire  since 1990, Marcia Barnes has been a fused glass artist, a visual artist,  & a  hobby farmer, as well as writing poetry when the spirit moves her.  She sees the Inland Empire as place of great beauty that is often overlooked in spite of the ever encroaching urbanization of the area.  Her muse is the Earth, the Wind, & the creatures we share it with. When she rides her horse, she becomes one with the land, the hawks, the ravens  &  the meadowlarks that she still hears on occasion.

Robin Dawn Hudechek

Thirsty Leaves

(The California Drought, years later)

 

The only clouds we see are

useless as smoke.  I walk alone

on blistered roads crisscrossed in veins

of tar.   Few cars pass.

The sky above us is burning.

 

My water bottle shimmers,

a liquid jewel.  When I set it down, tree limbs

bend, shading the spot above my head.

Perhaps now, the peeling eucalyptus will begin to heal.

 

We should have fixed this years ago,

gathered the water in ancient pots and cisterns

as desert dwelling peoples have always done.

Now oak tree limbs are exposed bones

and the people have gone.

Nomads, heads bent under broad hats,

shielding sunburnt faces

return in tens of thousands

to the states of their parents

and grandparents, understanding only now

what their grandparents understood

from the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.

Some moments should never be forgotten.

 

When a stranger with parched lips

lifts his head, let him drink.

Pour the last drops of water on the mound

below the tree trunk.  Sprinkle drops on exposed roots

and whisper: it’s raining.  Thirsty leaves curl inward,

catching precious blades of water.

It’s raining.  Soon the sky will wash away,

this empty sky scorching our hills,

until we are all laid flat and bare,

and the rain washes over our faces

and pours into the open palms of leaves,

a singular blessing:  first a sip, then a drink.

 

 

Breathing in Water

 

I was nine when my mother took me fishing

and taught me how to use live worms as bait.

Impaled and wriggling on a fishhook,

their last moments of life

were as cruel as any death sentence

handed down in a human court.

They were caught in the indifferent jaws

of fish, who would meet death by suffocation

at the end of a line, thrashing

and rippling  waves behind them

threaded in blood, pierced by the hook

as Christ was, by a centurion’s sword.

Yanking hooks from slippery bodies

we dropped them into our pail.

Feeling sorry for these fish

with their gills rising and falling

in currents of air when they

should have been breathing in water

we tossed them back.

No one mentioned the puddle of

red that appeared behind their fins

on the water.  No one thought of

the predators who would be drawn to that blood

by our careless hooks.

 

Doesn’t it hurt?  I asked on behalf

of worms and fish who would never speak.

My mother shook her head.  Worms have no feeling.

Why then did the worm’s head curl and twist,

and bunch lower in my fingers whenever

the metal point of the hook drew near?

My mother had no answer.

 

 

The Woodsman

 

The tree is a lens, an ancient eye

blinking,  a web of frost

melting in an empty socket,

a pond disturbed.

He can feel it burning.

 

Sleet scars the bark in icy lashes; he circles it with his hands.

The tree is a throbbing vein; he can hear it breathing.

 

The woodsman laughs, and lifts his axe,

dreaming of a house flickering warmth,

a candle tucked among snow drifts.

 

Soon his children will scramble onto his lap,

a daughter and son

who know nothing of trees and sap

their arms and legs, tender as branches

tangling playfully.

 

Mallards and Blue Geese rise up from their streams

as the axe falls and the trunk splits into halves, then quarters.

 

Two hawks circle the sky

and a field mouse sniffs the wind.

A shadow of a wing catches the man by his foot,

a shadow of a wing drops over his head.

 

The tree is a heart.

To save himself he must slow its beating,

lift the axe once more.

A deer emerges from the woods and blinks at him.

a single horned owl perches in its trunk nest.

The woodsman coughs and raises his hand to shield his face.

 

From behind rocks and under branches,

he can feel their eyes

on his boots and the back of his neck.

The forest is a cacophony of cricket song and scratching claws,

hooves advancing in new snow

and the mournful howl of wolves.

 

Eyes moist and teeth bared, glinting in the moonlight,

they are waiting for the axe to swing

the wrong way,

and the woodsman’s leg, to fall–

severed from his body

sky throbbing red in his ears.


Robin Dawn Hudechek received her MFA in creative writing, poetry from UCI. Her poems have appeared in numerous publications including Caliban, Cream City Review, Blue Arc West: An Anthology of California Poets, Cadence Collective, Gutters and Alleyways: Perspectives on Poverty and Struggle, East Jasmine Review, Hedgerow: a journal of small poems, Silver Birch Press, Right Hand Pointing, Calibanonline and work forthcoming in Chiron Review. She lives in Laguna Beach, CA with her husband, Manny and two beautiful cats, Ashley and Misty. More of her poetry can be found at robindawnh.wordpress.com

Shittu Fowora

featherage of the interim

 

All it takes

for me to fall

into an equation

and endure mortality

like a life-sentence

is a string

of words and I come,

undone

I touch the moment

by light words,

I test it by the featherage of the interim

 

my lantern invents

an idea of strength

it draws in air for inspiration

 

Densities and words

lyrically erase my eyes

and I am a punctuation

drenched in words.

 


Storyteller, poet, freelance writer and editor. Shittu Fowora, a lifelong fan of history and the power of scented words has recently been motivated by the winsomeness of birds and the wisdom of ants. Having been stung more than twice while attempting to lounge in trees to write verses, he now spends more time around PCs and electronic gadgets,at other times,he’s in bed, not sleeping.
His works have recently appeared in or forthcoming from Sentinel Quarterly review, Cha, Monkeystarpress, StoryMoja, Elsewherelitmag, RousingReads, Thewritemag, Helen Literary Magazine,NaijaStories.com, DANSE MACABRE,WritersCafe.org, National dailies and various literary outlets.

Cindy Bousquet Harris

Constellations

Constellations pad

the sky paths, leave puma

prints above my head.

 

Bed Sheets and Dental Floss

Laundry crept into my head,

folded me, hid me

in corners, pressed me

to the edge

you didn’t notice

the count was off,

had to be,

could have been

much worse, sheets

dangling from the ceiling

like a sentence.

Floss from razored boxes

tripped me,

wound its minted accusations

through my brain;

all those hours of weaving

couldn’t know

if it would really hold

to lower me

outside the walls.

 


Cindy Bousquet Harris is a poet and a licensed marriage and family therapist. Her poems have appeared online and in print journals, including Indiana Voice Journal, Snapdragon, Eclectica, and Blue Heron Review. Cindy’s had the pleasure of giving poetry readings at the Claremont Library, the Dorothy Ramon Learning Center, and at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center in Venice, CA. She lives in southern California’s “Inland Empire” region with her husband and children.

Blink of an eye / ideas and people connect / in haiku by Timothy Green

Frogpond

In Japan, the brief poetry form is all about socializing. Why not here, too ?

When my grandmother’s hearing had grown too poor for the telephone, we started exchanging letters. Once a month—on the same day as the Edison bill—I’d receive a handwritten letter, pressed firmly with a retired schoolteacher’s perfect cursive, yellowed paper cut neatly from the same ancient notebook. Family gossip, news of my father, the weather back east, details of her various ailments.

She’d close every letter with a haiku. It was both a hobby of hers, and a nod to my odd profession. Her last was probably her best:

snow-covered sundial

waiting

to tell time again

I imagined her as the sundial, snowed in by age, her bed long-since moved to the living room so she wouldn’t have to negotiate the stairs, waiting patiently for whatever spring might come in whatever existence might come next.

When I had a moment, I’d tap out a hasty reply, glancing out at the palm trees on Ventura Boulevard from my office window, and close with a responding haiku.

it’s December too

in California

the crickets shout!

There was a joy to the haiku that I’ve only recently come to understand. Easy to write but impossible to master, they never grow old. You can write them in the car stuck in traffic, or plop them easily at the end of a newspaper article. Haiku are so simple they can be simultaneously silly and profound, and that contrast has kept them fresh for centuries.

Most often my grandmother’s haiku would offer a shift in mood, adding levity or perspective or clarity to the information that the letter had shared.

lost my other shoe—

now even the right

isn’t left

Almost a decade later, I still remember many of them fondly, and they always embody my grandmother’s quietly sarcastic personality.

More recently, I interviewed Richard Gilbert, a haiku scholar at Kumamoto University in Japan. He described with great enthusiasm the beloved space haiku holds within Japanese culture. With a total population of 130 million, it’s estimated that 12 million attend a regular haiku group. Witty celebrities compose haiku-like senryu live on TV.

Haiku itself descends from a party game, so it should be no surprise that they’re fun to write. At the kukai, as it was called, friends would gather around a bottle of saké, taking turns composing lines on a chosen topic. Class boundaries and social conventions dissolved as participants adopted pen names, many of them humorous. Bashō was named after the banana tree outside of his hut.

Listening to Gilbert tell it, haiku as a social act sounds like so much fun that I can’t help wishing we made it a part of our culture in the West. An outlet for playfulness and creativity and face-to-face interaction, haiku embody much of what we seem to be lacking in the age of smartphones and Facebook.

So let’s start now. Why not cap off your annual holiday letter with a summary haiku? Turn a family dinner into your own kukai, composing short poems about the season.

Before you start, it’s important to know what haiku are and what they aren’t. No other form of poetry is so misunderstood. Haiku are not three-line poems of five, then seven, then five syllables. Counting syllables doesn’t make any sense in Japanese, which is divided into units of time and not sound. You can think of traditional haiku as three lines that are short, then long, then short in duration, but even that generality isn’t an important rule in modern haiku.

The heart of a haiku is really the kireji, the cutting word, which is almost a form of punctuation that divides the poem in two. In English we might use a dash or colon—this division separates the first image from the last, creating a comparison that can be evocative or uncanny. The best example is Bashō’s famous frog:

old pond—

frog jumps in

the sound of water

That dash is the kireji, and it signifies a complete cut in time and space. The haiku presents one image, an old pond, and then another isolated image, the frog jumping into the sound of water. How the two images relate to each other is left up to the reader—and it’s that interactive, connective leap that stirs our thoughts and emotions. This is one of the many things Bashō meant when he said, haiku jiyu, or “Haiku is for freedom.”

Much more goes into classical haiku, but this is all you need to know to write decent modern haiku in English. Don’t count syllables, just count images or ideas: There should be two.

watching football

my keyboard

almost silent


To learn more about the history of haiku, you can find my interview with Richard Gilbert in issue #47 of Rattle, or read his translations of contemporary Japanese haiku poets at his website.

Two Stories by Nan Friedley

Still Hungry for More Thrills & Chills?

We will continue to run a new story each day this week. These stories were written at an Inlandia workshop for those wanting to write for Ghost Walk.

***

The Last Encore

Venue: Back to the Grind

Characters: Master of Ceremonies, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Anne Sexton

Master of C: Welcome to Ghost Walk’s Dead Poets’ open mic night. This evening we are pleased to present three confessional poets who are making a special appearance, back from the dead, to share some of their most memorable work. Our first poet, Sylvia Plath, in a state of severe depression resorted to suicide by oven in 1963, welcome back to our world. Give it up for Sylvia.

(MC and audience applause, cheers)

Sylvia Plath:   Thank you so much for the warm welcome. I will be reading an excerpt from Lady Lazarus a poem that feels particularly relatable this evening.

Lady Lazarus

Dying

Is an art, like everything else

I do it exceptionally well

 

I do it so it feels like hell.

I do it so it feels real.

I guess you could say I’ve a call.

 

It’s easy enough to do it in a cell.

It’s easy enough to do it and stay put.

It’s the theatrical

 

Come back in broad day

To the same place, the same face, the same brute

Amused shout

 

‘a miracle’

That knocks me out

There is a charge

 

For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge

For the hearing of my heart

It really goes.

 

And there is a charge, a very large charge

For a word or touch

Or a bit of blood

 

Ash, ash

You poke and stir

Flesh, bone, there is nothing there—

 

Out of the ash

I rise with my red hair

And I eat men like air.

 

(MC and audience applause, cheers)

 

Master of C:   Thank you Sylvia. We sure do miss you. Wish you could have stayed with us to write more amazing poems. Our next poet, John Berryman, decided to end his life by jumping off the Washington Avenue bridge on the campus of University of Minnesota in 1972. Let’s welcome John to our stage to perform a poem from his Dream Song book.

(MC and audience applause. cheers)

John B:   Thanks for bringing me back for an encore reading this evening. I’ve chosen Dream Song 14:

Life, Friends, is Boring

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so

After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,

We ourselves flash and yearn

and moreover, my mother told me as a boy

(repeatedly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored

means you have no

 

Inner resources,’ I conclude now that I have no

inner resources, because I am heavy bored

people bore me

literature bores me with its plights and gripes

as bad as Achilles

 

Who loves people and valiant art, which bores me

And the tranquil hills, and gin, look like a dog

And somehow a dog

Has taken itself and its tail considerably away

Into mountains or sea or sky, leaving

behind me, wag

 

(MC and audience applause, cheers)

 

Master of C:   Thank you Mr. Berryman for your many Dream Songs we enjoyed through the years. It was so inspiring for you to lend voice to your words. Our final poet of the night is Anne Sexton. When life became too overwhelming for Anne, she locked herself in the garage with her car running to eventually die of carbon monoxide poisoning in 1974. We are so happy you have returned to join us for open mic night. Please welcome Anne Sexton.

(MC and audience applause, cheers)

Anne Sexton:   Thank you. It is so nice to see so many young people in the audience who are interested in poetry. Although it may not seem like it, writing was a source of comfort to me as I hope it is for you. I will be reading:

Waiting to Die

Since you ask, most days I cannot remember

I walk in my clothing, unmarked by that voyage

then the almost unnamable lust returns.

 

Even then I have nothing against life

I know well the grass blades you mention

the furniture you have placed under the sun.

 

But suicides have a special language.

They want to know which tools

They never ask why.

 

Twice I have so simply declared myself

have possessed the enemy, eaten the enemy

have taken on his craft, his magic.

 

In this way, heavy and thoughtful,

Warmer than oil or water

I have rested drooping at the mouth-hole.

 

I did not think of my body at needlepoint.

Even the cornea and the leftover urine were gone.

 

(MC and audience applause, cheers)

 

Master of C:   Thanks Anne for sharing your powerful poem with us. Perhaps your words will bring strength and courage to those in need. I want to thank all of our dead poets this evening for giving us a glimpse into their worlds. Let’s bring them back on stage one more time.

(MC and audience claps and cheers for encore, but no dead poets return to stage)

Master of C:   I’m afraid they are not coming back. They are lost to us now except on pages. Thanks for joining us tonight. Be safe going home.

***

Coveted

Venue: Annex

Characters: Homeless Hank, Eloise the Librarian, College girl/News Anchor, Boyfriend/News Anchor

Props: shopping cart, garbage bags, cane, pillow, sleeping bag, two microphones

Hank:       I like to hang out in the library parking lot…park my portable home on wheels in the back. I’m a collector. Wandering around the city I’ve found some gems. You’d probably be surprised by what I have in my cart. I’m a people watcher too…especially like pretty young girls…ones with long hair and longer legs.

Eloise:       I’ve been watching him from my office window in the library. He leers at young girls, drools when he sees one he really likes. Disgusting…dirty letch. I wonder what’s in his cart…curious if he has anything valuable.

(young college age girl walks by)

Hank:       It’s my lucky day! She’s heading to my secret hideout. I’d like to keep her warm tonight. Maybe just talk about my collections. I could give her a gift.

(Hank follows the girl, pushing his cart)

Eloise:       There he goes. She’s not paying any attention to him… with those earbuds and texting, she doesn’t even hear him. I better tag along. I wonder what he’s up to. I’m a little slower these days. (walks with a limp using her cane)

(Girl waves to young man by Mission Inn service entrance)

College girl: Sorry I’m late. Couldn’t find a place to park.

Boyfriend:   That’s o.k. I just got off…big party in the Music Room.

(Girl and boyfriend hug and walk off together)

Hank:       I was so close. She would have been a lot of fun. Guess I’ll just call it a day.

(Hank gathers his grimy pillow and sleeping bag from his cart, curls up on the annex steps and goes to sleep)

(Eloise waits till she is sure Hank is asleep…beats Hank with her cane. She walks away with Hank’s cart, smiling)

Eloise:       Serves him right. Tomorrow there will be an article in the Press-Enterprise about a homeless man found beaten to death. The police will request information about a bloody cane next to the body. I won’t be calling any time soon. (crazy laugh)

Girl News

Anchor:   On December 21st, the longest day of the year, is National Homeless Person’s Memorial Day. It started in 1990 to remember those homeless who have died on the streets in our communities. Each night, over 51,000 homeless sleep on the streets of LA.

Boy News

Anchor:   There is no official tracking of the number of homeless deaths. In LA county when no relative comes forward to claim the body, the person is cremated. In 2012, all the remains were buried in one unmarked grave…1,756 forgotten souls.

Literature in Idyllwild by Jean Waggoner

The words of a good story jump off the page to charm, cajole, reason and wrestle with the human imagination. They carry us away, while anchoring us more profoundly to our world. In summer, libraries entice young readers with prizes for significant amounts of any kind of reading, as adults, too, search for new flights of brainy experience.

Riverside readers live in one of the largest counties in the country. When joined with San Bernardino as the Inland Empire (Inlandia, as some of us prefer), our locality is about as big as the state of Rhode Island. We have plenty of places to go and things to see, as well as a huge library system to draw upon for reading, listening and viewing material. Nonetheless, those of us in the county’s rural parts, like Idyllwild, don’t have easy access to a good book store without driving some distance, or as Mount San Jacinto’s people say, “going off the hill.”

Sure, there’s online shopping, but what can a literary-book or CD-gifting auntie do at two O’clock on a Wednesday afternoon to get a birthday present mailed to a thirteen-year-old in the county seat by Friday, when no such virtual store delivery has arrived?

Idyllwild readers know how to find good reading material, of course. Our library offerings include used book sales and several of the town’s thrift and “junk-tique” shops carry old books. The Nature Center or Forest Service offer selected new books on topics of outdoor interest, including publications by Inlandia members Myra Dutton and Sally Hedberg.

For Mackenzie, who turned thirteen on July 10th, this auntie broke from tradition and selected writing, instead of reading materials: a journal and a booklet of flowery sticky-notes from Idyllwild Gift Shop (whose proprietor has often posted Inlandia workshop fliers on her bulletin board). Tactile and old tech, the gifts brought back teen memories, a spiritual link from one generation to another.

The shopping excursion also elicited some community appreciation of what we do have in Idyllwild. We’ve got organizations that promote the arts in our schools, often drawing on retiree talent. In the literary arts, we have theater, writing and book club groups. The Idyllwild Arts campus, a fine arts high school, also offers summer classes for kids and adults.

Although we have no literary laureate who writes specifically about our mountains, quite a few published writers work or vacation here, and luminaries like Ann Rice have stayed awhile, somewhat incognito, among us. Local stories have been collected, showcased and archived by our highly acclaimed Idyllwild Historical Society and Idyllwild writers continue to add local color to literary writing. The literary climate is alive and well, here!

Sadly, long-time Idyllwild resident Myra Dutton will no longer serve as co-leader of our Idyllwild Inlandia Writing Workshop, after this summer. We understand, and we value the gifts she has inspired us with, including her “daughter of the plains’ meditation” on the Andrew Wyeth painting Christina’s World, which she shared in this beautiful poem:

Riding the Sacred

I have heard the secrets here,

felt the breath and beat of wind

across the grass-maned prairie,

and I climb on the back of this Earth,

as if I had journeyed centuries before,

her wild hair twined in my hand.

National Poetry Epoch by John Bender

If April’s really the cruelest month, per our old American expat T.S. Eliot, why is it National Poetry Month?

One month is too short, and poetry desires thoughtful reflection, emotional investment and delight, not brief periods of frenzy—post one poem a day on Facebook, maybe someone will notice amid all the social-media noise.

So, given the power vested in me as this week’s grumpy, yet hopeful, Inlandia Literary Journeys columnist, I hereby declare 2015-2016 as National Poetry Epoch. Forget April. We have a great year ahead of us.

Skeptical? Well, at least for the Inland area, this year already has proved momentous.

The Library of Congress recently named former UC Riverside professor Juan Felipe Herrera as poet laureate of the United States for 2015-16. He officially begins in September with events at the library’s National Book Festival.

Herrera, who just finished his term as California’s poet laureate, becomes the second US poet laureate with strong ties to UCR. Best-selling poet Billy Collins, who served as national laureate from 2001-2003, received a masters in English from the university in 1965 and earned a doctorate in Romantic Poetry at UCR in 1971.

So forget about the people from LA who look down on our area. Forget about those on the East Coast who don’t even know we’re here. We’re no literary wasteland. We can boast of two poet laureates who lived here, worked here and breathed the same smog we breathe.

I’m not familiar enough with Collins’ work to know whether his time in the Inland area is reflected in his poems, but I know that this area’s stark beauty and working-class mixing bowl of huddled masses have informed Herrera’s poems.

And I know that Herrera will welcome our help making his time as US laureate a tremendous time of poems and poetry—an epoch of enthusiasm!

While he was at UCR and during his time as California’s top poet, Herrera joined then-Inlandia laureate Gayle Brandeis, Inlandia Executive Director Cati Porter and me at a guerrilla reading in downtown Riverside.

Our aim was to surprise the workers and businessmen at lunchtime with a surprise poetry reading. It wasn’t as guerrilla as I wanted it to be, because when the state’s poet laureate is going to read, you alert the city fathers.

And so, amplified by a small public address system powered by a battery from a defunct 1963 Buick—the whole contraption contained in the back of a child’s wagon—we brought poetry to downtown Riverside’s pedestrian mall.

During that November 2013 event, which you can find on YouTube by searching for “California Poet Laureate holds impromptu-style reading downtown,” Herrera was the pied piper of poems, the ambassador of allusion—clearly a guy who relishes sharing poetry.

He released more energy than that Buick battery, inviting passersby to compose their own poems on the spot. He made me and his other co-readers feel like the most important poets on the planet, even translating one of my lines into a cool Spanish phrase, “¡Raja la calabaza!” (which of course I’ve incorporated into the text of the poem.)

During his California term, Herrera brought poetry to other unexpected places, reading at the re-opening of the Oakland Bay Bridge and inspiring hundreds to join him in writing “The Most Incredible and Biggest Poem on Unity in the World.”

I have no doubt that he plans even bigger unifying events during his term as national laureate, so why wait?

As poets, literary fans and readers, let’s all pledge to share poems with others during the next year. Let’s invite friends to breakfast and give them a reading while they digest. Let’s volunteer at schools and teach the children to write poems, let’s give free readings at hospitals, bus stops!

Let’s go to readings wherever they’re held. Let’s buy poetry books, attend poetry workshops.

Let’s write love poems for poetry.

It’s our turn. It’s our epoch. Juan Felipe needs our help. We have work to do.


To learn about upcoming readings and Inland literary events, go to inlandiainstitute.org

Young Poets Have Lessons for Us All by Timothy Green

For our children, summer means trips to the beach, barbeques, and long stretches of glorious boredom. School is out, the days are long, and the possibilities endless. For this poetry editor, summer vacation also serves as a break from publishing adults, focusing instead on children, as I work to compile the annual Rattle Young Poets Anthology. With the help of their parents and teachers, thousands of children age 15 and younger share work with us each year. Listening to their voices is as soothing as ice cream on a hot day.

When most people think of “children’s poetry,” they think of poems written by adults for kids—they think of Shel Silverstein or Dr. Seuss. They don’t think of children themselves as poets, and it’s very difficult to find any anthologies of poems written in the other direction, by children for adults. That’s unfortunate, because, as I’ve quickly learned, children are absolutely brilliant wordsmiths.

This shouldn’t be so surprising. The early years of language development are magical. No other time in life is full of such wonder, such imagination, and such playfulness. Young poets don’t write out of habit; they haven’t yet learned how to be cliché. They write with a natural spontaneity that adults have to work hard to achieve. “The cents of a penny/ is less than your love,” writes Zoey Sheffield, age 6. Lines like these seem as effortless as they are abundant.

There’s more to young poets’ work than just the strange and beautiful ways that they construct language, though. Children are writing about most of the things that adults do, with a depth of understanding and attentiveness that deserves more respect than it’s usually given. Eight-year-olds are responding to climate change. Eleven-year-olds are trying to processes the graphic terrorism of ISIS. Four-year-olds are thinking about their parents’ struggles with anxiety and depression.

Until I started reading these poems, I never realized how rich and complex the interior lives of children really are. Consider this short poem by Briar Sprungin, age 8, and the level of emotion it captures:

The Woman

I was racing down the stairs,

a woman of white caught my eye.

She had two braids down to her toes.

She was mumbling something.

I asked if I could help her

but she didn’t say a word.

Then she whispered in my ear,

“Survive,” and disappeared.

It turns out that children are also great teachers of poetry, of what poetry is, and what it can be. In compiling these anthologies, we ask the young poets why they love poetry, and their answers provide some of the best insights I’ve found.

“I think of poetry as an art to transfer our thoughts about the world or imagination that lives around us onto paper,” writes New Zealand’s E. Wen Wong, then age 11, “[O]ur minds are search engines constantly producing ideas to make an impact on the world, whether it is big or small.”

Madeline McEwen, also age 11, says that poetry “gives us beauty even when the world seems ugly.”

Meanwhile, 7-year-old Cody Dane likes “making new rhymes,” and has the profound realization that “you can learn more when you’re rhyming.” His contribution to the 2015 anthology is this three-word poem that would make any concrete minimalist proud, exploring the way perception becomes awareness (through rhyme):

My Cat

Fur Purr Her

In a conversation with Rattle many years ago, Pulitzer Prize-winner Sharon Olds remarked that “There isn’t a bad poet in the 1st grade.” The most amazing thing that I’ve learned in editing this anthology is just how true that statement is. The thousands of poems that we receive for the anthology every year are but a tiny fraction of what is produced. Everywhere in the world, from the Inland Empire to Africa to Singapore, children are writing moving and memorable poetry—doodling with words for classes or for fun, but making so much more than refrigerator art.

These are small but powerful voices—we only have to listen and learn.