07 Jul

At the Sea Floor Cafe – By Leslie Bulion

Posted in Book Reviews, Education, Poetry, Teaching

I first learned about At the Sea Floor Cafe: Odd Ocean Critter Poems by Leslie Bulion (Illustrated by Leslie Evans) at Book Expo America this past spring.  A book of poems about ocean creatures?  My inner poetry-science geek was instantly intrigued.

While the book is short (I read it in one sitting), you could spend an entire school semester with it and not run out of things to discuss.  In fact, what I liked about this book is that each poem opened up an entire world to the reader, not just with the science but with the poetry structure itself.  Each poem in the book represents a different form ranging from rhyming couplets to free verse, to a pantoum (my personal favorite).  With each poem comes opportunity for a unique lesson plan relating either to the poetry or the science, or both.

My one slight concern with the book is I wonder if it’s trying to do too much.  Reading it in one sitting, the poems began to run together and I felt I wasn’t able to fully appreciate all the detail that went into each poem, both in its structure and in the science behind the verse.  The concept for this book is so smart and unique, I would hate for readers to miss the nuances of each poem by glossing through this book too quickly.

My recommendation for parents and teachers: Ask readers to select one poem and spend time with it, rather than having them read through the book in one go.  The book is short, so the temptation to breeze through it is definitely there, but young readers will get more mileage out of this book if they read through it slowly, one poem at a time.  For each poem, I would encourage readers to do one or more response activities to help emphasize what they learn in the poem.


  • Draw pictures of the ocean critter in the poem.
  • Cut out pictures or search for pictures on the web and make a poster about the ocean critter (what it eats, what its habitat is like, funny behaviors, etc.)
  • Go to the library (or the computer) and look up three cool facts about the ocean critter in the poem.  One rule: These have to be facts not found in the poem.
  • Read the poetry notes about the poem and try to write your own poem in that form.


I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  It has lots of cool facts about ocean creatures, and the poetry notes at the end really show that the author knows her stuff.  Because this book is so full of opportunity for teaching, I would love to see a parents’ guide available to give parents ideas for activities that could go along with this book.  Good teachers will see millions of opportunities with this book and will get a lot of mileage out of it in their classrooms, but for kids reading it at home I think a guide with companion activities would be wonderful.

Overall, it’s a funny and quirky book.  When I teach another poetry workshop for kids, this one is definitely going in my repertoire.


25 Apr

A Day for Poetry

Posted in Creativity, DIY MFA, Poetry, Writing

April is National Poetry Month and today I’d like to take some time to enjoy that genre where words really count.  In poetry the wrong word–no matter how small or innocent-looking–can be the difference between pretty or pathetic, inspiring or insipid.  Words rule in poetry in a way that isn’t possible for any other genre.

I can already see some of you rolling your eyes.  “Here she goes… getting all ga-ga over poetry.  Gross.”  I promise I’ll keep my love of verse under control.  All I ask is this: before you click away, take 30 seconds to read the following poem.  Not because I told you (though that’s also a very nice reason), but because you’re a writer and you love words in all flavors.  Take these 30 seconds to recharge your inner muse and enjoy words for their own sake.  This poem by Billy Collins is about reading poetry, but it continually helps refresh my perspective on all literature, regardless of genre.

Introduction to Poetry
by Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Homework: Today I’d like you to visit poets.org or break open an anthology and read one poem you’ve never read before.  It can be a poem with an interesting title, or a poem that you’ve been wanting to read but never got around to.  There are no requirements except that it be a poem.  Once you’ve read it, I’d love to hear about what you read.  Also, do you like poetry and read it for fun, or was this new for you?  If you love poetry, what about it speaks to you?  If you’re not a poetry-lover, what turns you off?


10 Nov

Verse Novel Challenge Update

Posted in Literature, Poetry

Hi all!

As you may recall, I’m participating in Caroline Starr Rose’s Verse Novel Challenge.  The goal is to read five verse novels by the end of 2010.  I’ve recently finished reading the fifth one so I thought I’d do a little update and give my take on the verse novels I’ve read.

Love that Dog by Sharon Creech

This was the first verse novel I read this year, which I reviewed here.  I loved this book and read it in one sitting because I couldn’t put it down.

Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse

A beautiful, heart-wrenching book.  I was completely pulled in.  The musical connection (the main character’s love of the piano) especially resonated with me.

Witness by Karen Hesse

Loved this book.  It was SO powerful.  I especially loved how each of the different characters had such distinct voices.  After a while I didn’t need to see their names at the top of the poems; I could tell who was speaking from the language alone.  I wish I had read this when I was writing my literature thesis on “Book As Experience” because it would have been a perfect fit.

Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff

The prequel to True Believer, this book is simply lovely.  Unlike the other verse novels I read, this was the only one that read as one long poem, rather than a collection of poems.  I know in a previous post I questioned whether Wolff’s verse novels could be considered such (since she herself refers to them as “prose with line breaks”).  But I was dying to read Make Lemonade and figured that if it felt poetry to me then it would be OK to consider it part of the verse novel challenge.  Let me tell you, it was pure poetry.

One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies by Sonya Sones

This was another book that I read in one sitting.  I love the idea of a book set in LA and in the glitz and glamor of the celebrity world and yet the story rings true to any kid.  The pain of loss, the trials of fitting in at a new school, these are all things that readers can relate to, regardless of the glamorous setting. My only quibble was with the ending, which was a teensy bit predictable, but it was still satisfying. 


29 Sep

Guest Post: "For All the Haters" by Elizabeth Dunn-Ruiz

Posted in Craft, DIY MFA, Poetry, Writing

 Today we have a guest post by the lovely Elizabeth Dunn-Ruiz.  Elizabeth was a classmate of mine during the MFA and writes beautiful poetry as well as heartbreaking teen literature.  She is also poetry editor of Verbal Pyrotechnics, a literary magazine dedicated exclusively to teen literature.  So if you have poetry that appeals to a teen audience, feel free to check out the submissions page and send it her way.  For more about Elizabeth, visit her blog at: A Lil’ Sumpin’ Sumpin’.  And now here’s Elizabeth’s take on why people hate on poetry.

Some people are scared of sharks, others of heights, an intruder in the night. Sure, a fearfulness of all of these things make sense; each could kill you after all. But why, then, are so many writers of fiction afraid of poetry? What has a poem ever done to you? Huh?

Okay, maybe it’s bored you, confused you, made you feel something you weren’t prepared to feel, but it certainly has not killed you! In fact, I’d argue that some poems are more scared of you than you are of them. Like this one, called “Poem that Begs for Reassurance”, by Peter Davis*:

My experience with the world around me is that I either feel it’s awful, or I feel that it is great. Right now I feel like this poem is awful. I feel like I am awful. I feel like an outcast in the literary world. Nobody reviews my work. As far as I can tell, nobody really talks about me. They do, but it’s never enough. I’m not besieged with e-mails soliciting my poetry. I keep waiting for something to happen. I mean, this is a good poem. Other people seem to have so much going on. I read their bio notes and think, “Well, jeez, how do they all do it?” I say to my wife, “Honey, I always feel a few steps behind. How can I do all of that in this poem?” Some of them maintain blogs with numerous links and a lot of daily hits. Others don’t even have blogs! All around me poets are winning prizes and being included in anthologies like The Best American Poetry. Some at very young ages. Some of these people, if they don’t already have tenure-line teaching positions, are very strong candidates for tenure-line teaching positions.

    Now, before that familiar fear bubbles to the surface, turns itself into rage and makes you shout What? That’s not even a poem! Stop, and breathe. And try and keep in mind that a poem is simply compressed language used to express emotion or ideas.

Perhaps in high school some archaic, convoluted, and important poem was paraded in front of you so that you–in a role of simple spectator–could analyze it, elucidate its virtues and confirm its place in the canon. The teacher didn’t ask you to get in there and walk around with the poem, hold its hand, listen to its secrets and share yours in return. No, you were just supposed to coolly observe it, as if it were the other, then write a five paragraph essay, sans  the word “I”.  Maybe it was then that you decided that poetry, like AP Calculus or showering in the locker room, was just not for you.

Billy Collins, America’s Poet Laureate from 2001-2003, in conjunction with the Library of Congress, created Poetry 180, a collection of poems to be read aloud, one a day for all 180 days of the school year, in an attempt to demystify, de-stress-ify, de-analyze-ify poetry and help us all simply experience and, perhaps even, appreciate poems. The first poem in this series is his, and, fittingly, it is called “Introduction to Poetry” and I think it is awesome.  He writes:

I ask them to take a poem

and hold it up to the light

like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem

and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room

and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski

across the surface of a poem

waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose

to find out what it really means.

We have been conditioned to think there is a right and a wrong response to a poem, that it can only mean one thing, when in fact that is not true at all.  When the pressure of analysis is removed, I think many of us who claim to dislike Poetry-with-a-capital-P are actually surprised to find that many poems are you know, quite likeable. 

I find that reading a few poems in a variety of styles before I sit down to write can help me generate ideas and approach my language differently. Poetry compresses ideas, emotions, and images into very few words and this is a skill that all writers can benefit from.  Look at this poem by Jane Kenyon:


I got out of bed

on two strong legs.

It might have been

otherwise. I ate

cereal, sweet

milk, ripe, flawless

peach. It might

have been otherwise.

I took the dog uphill

to the birch wood.

All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down

with my mate. It might

have been otherwise.

We ate dinner together

at a table with silver

candlesticks. It might

have been otherwise.

I slept in a bed

in a room with paintings

on the walls, and

planned another day

just like this day.

But one day, I know,

it will be otherwise.

In it she compresses a life into a few short images. The first introduces us to a character, a domestic setting, and, through the use of one key word, “strong”, indicates that she is grateful for her current health. Her use of repetition emphasizes the idea that we all make choices about how to live life. The slight modification to the repeated sentence powerfully implies that the speaker appreciates the choices she has made and the life that she leads as a result of those choices.

The content of this poem could have been the subject of a short story or novel, but Kenyon seems to want the reader to focus on the simple moments of a life and so she uses simple diction and sentence structure. The moments she describes, just like the poem itself, are quick and could be easily overlooked, but she is asking the reader to be attentive to the simple moments that make up a life. This poem illustrates that the structure is the message too.

As you approach your own work it is important to ask your self if your container is the right size for your content and if it’s not, adjust accordingly. You would never pack your son’s sandwich in a suitcase and send him off to school, now would you?

Another reason to read poetry is the playfulness with which many poets approach language.  Not to say that a poem is any less literary when it employs whimsy, simply that it is important to remember that language is not just about ideas, but is just as much about sound.  Take this line from Thomas Sayers Ellis’ “Presidential Blackness”, a serious poem about race and language, “…a new infinite alphabet pours from the pores of the poor…”. The cleverness of the wordplay is going to make this line jump out. It will stick with the reader because, well, it sounds good and it is fun to say. I encourage you to read your work aloud or ask a friend to read it aloud to you; consider revising anytime you need to take a breath or your friend stumbles. Listen for interesting juxtapositions and pay attention to your sentence structure. Just like my mother always said, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it, that matters.”

*I’d imagine that Peter Davis and this poem are presently feeling reassured, as he was just in town to launch the Best American Poetry 2010, in which he has four (wonderful) poems.


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