Monthly Archives: March 2013

March Madness–the Massachusetts Edition

On Saturday we flew to Boston to spend Passover with my sister and her family.  Both my kids flew in too (one from Chicago, one from Oberlin.)  So I was more than a little distracted when I got my word for the elite eight round of March Madness.  But I gathered the family around the kitchen table to brainstorm suggestions for my assigned word:

I don’t recall our exact discussion, but having others to talk to sparked some ideas. I recently finished writing a series of dinosaur books, and I was struck by how little evidence supports many of the  “facts” we assume we know about dinosaurs.  I thought that I might write from the viewpoint of a Velociraptor, and let the Velociraptor express that s/he is really a mystery to us, despite our assumptions.  Do we know s/he was a vicious predator?  Maybe velociraptor was a decent fellow.  And what will an unknown creature of the future conclude about us 100 million years from now?  My daughter suggested I play with decent/descent/dissent, which I thought was a great idea.

imagesBut another idea started to take hold.  I love praying mantises and mentioned them at school visits this month while talking about my book Can an Old Dog Learn New Tricks?  I had also just finished reading the final edits of my praying mantis story that will be in the May/June issue of Click Magazine.  Perhaps it was the praying mantis who was the decent fellow.  I started thinking about the mantis folding its arms in prayer and other religious images.  In the middle of the night, when my whirling brain and my sister’s hard futon kept me awake, I jotted a few lines:

Come closer dear,
You’ve nothing to fear.
I’m a decent chap/fellow

Alone on my leafy lair
I fold my arms in hopeful prayer

After a few more scribbles I searched youtube for praying mantis videos and found a terrific Animal Planet video.  I borrowed some words/ideas from the narration and jotted down some rhymes while my husband slept:

Rapt attention
slice and chew from head to tail/end to end
bite/don’t take flight
razor sharp
master of deception
deadly speed
blending in, mimic leaves, twigs
spies prey (10,000 miniature eyes)
sway my head as you move
track prey in any direction
move backwards
on the hunt
closely creep
sharp spikes spear
faster than a blink of eye
slowly chew while prey still alive
nibble spine like we clean steak knives
leisurely clean   a cat licking its fur?
Swivel head

In the morning I finished a draft just before the gang went out on our day’s adventure.  That night I made some more edits, after getting feedback from my sister and my kids.  Debbie Diesen, a member of my critique group, had also offered to read it and sent comments.  The only one unwilling to offer her 2 cents was my niece (who happens to be finishing an MFA in poetry…but said she knows nothing about kids’ poetry.  That clearly wasn’t stopping anyone else!)  After a final polish I sent it off Sunday night.  I was fairly pleased with the way it turned out:

Prayer of the Praying Mantisimages-1

I fold my arms. I kneel in prayer.
I’m hidden by my leafy lair.
I spy a tremor, tiny shake
creeping closer, quiver quake.

I focus raptly on my prize,
ten thousand lenses in my eyes.
My costume hides me, in plain view;
my dinner nears my holy pew.

I raise my arms and pray my prey
will find my altar, come to stay.
With patience of a saintly priest–
a decent chap–I bless my feast.

She’s almost here, another stride,
will bring my banquet to my side.
And now at last, she’s reached my trap.
I sway my head, and then… I snap!

I’ve made a few revision notes for my mantis.  He should probably wear a vestment instead of a costume.  I think his pew is a sacred one, not holy.  And I wonder if decent chap should fall on the chopping block?  I’ll let the poem sit a little longer, and come back to it again.


The voters decided to send M. M. Socks and his Cello Sun to the final four.  I had a blast in March Madness and am thrilled to have four new poems to revise, and the starts of several others.  But I’m also a little relieved to watch the final two rounds of the contest from the sidelines.  You can too!

Head on over to A Year of Reading to read more Poetry Friday adventures.

Portrait of a Trembling Poet

The madness continues, and I find myself (unexpectedly) in the sweet sixteen.  I do not recall forty years ago celebrating my sweet sixteen, and am delighted to join the poetry party.Unknown

This round brought me to my knees.  I was filled with the angst and self-doubt of my sixteen year-old self.  And unlike the last two rounds, I had an unscheduled day in which to write.  As a result, I have three versions of my contest poem to share (not to mention the aborted starts of several others) and…warning…a long and self-indulgent story.

I waited up for the words to post Tuesday night, and started brainstorming immediately.  My word for the round was gnawing.  Here are my rough notes on what it inspired:

Gnawing pawing clawing thawing hem and hawing guffawing chawing
Gnawing in the pit of your stomach
Gnawing sense of unrest, unease, pain
Gnawing keeps teeth from overgrowing
Something gnawing at the door (take off on thus spoke the raven?)
POV of termite or other gnawer?  gnawing at my tail? termites, a gnawing problem?  an appetite for wood?

I seemed to be focusing on termites, until I got this crazy idea Wednesday morning:


My recent stack of poetry books from the library included these two collections of shape poems: Doodle Dandies by J. Patrick Lewis and Paul Janeczko’s A Poke in the Eye.  I especially loved the elegant, simple ones, like Lewis’ giraffe.  So I emailed Ed DeCaria, the mastermind and host of March Madness Poetry, to ask if a shape poem would pose a difficulty for posting.  He suggested that he could do a series of different length indentations, like someone taking a bite out of a poem.  Not sure he meant to suggest something, but what a simple, elegant, brilliant idea!  Did I take that gnawing gem and run with it?  No.  I still was stuck on my crazy mouse.

Screen shot 2013-03-21 at 4.53.11 PM

My mouse looked a little squished.  His head was too large.  His tail too low.  The eye a bit hidden in darkness.  The whiskers unnatural.  But I was kind of fond of the little fellow, especially his ready, steady paws.  And I’d spent hours on him, having absolutely no idea how to make a shape poem.  I sent a draft to Ed, who thought it would be challenging to format and couldn’t guarantee that the layout would translate.  I was not surprised by this news–I had suspected that this would not work.  He said he read the poem as straight text, and thought it read fine…I didn’t need little mousie.

I read it myself, without the shape, and thought it was the worst drek I’d ever written.  Panic set in.  I tried to write about porcupines, woodchucks, and a termite’s grocery list.  Nothing worked.  Finally, I returned to my mouse.  I put in some stanzas, trimmed some words.  I read it to my husband (who had patiently listened to my ranting) but he was unable to hear how truly awful it sounded.  I emailed it to Debbie Diesen, a member of my critique group who has an amazing ear for poetry.  Debbie has young boys, and I doubted she would still be online.  I was correct–I was on my own.

I rewrote, adding more rhythm and rhyme.  My computer crashed.  Twice.   I added a touch of humor near the end.  At 1:15 am I had turned my original poem into something that I no longer hated.  I thought of rereading it in the morning, but decided to send it in.  I was ready to be done.

I was about to go to the Y the next morning, but had time to check email.  Debbie had written back, saying she really liked the poem as I had sent it to her!  She gave me a few suggestions for changing emphasis with punctuation, including the brilliant idea of italicizing breathe.  She thought perhaps I should revise the last lines with a recall of the opening.  I read it again with Debbie’s suggestions.  Why had I hated it the night before?  This was clearly much stronger than the poem I had sent in.  The short phrases showed the mouse’s panic.  Why had I gotten rid of the sharpness/darkness that my husband loved? Why had I added all those extra words???  There was still another hour before the deadline.  Should I see if I could swap this version for the one I sent?

I read one version and then the next.  Over and over again.  I could not decide what to do.  Now I was 20 minutes late for my exercise date.  I decided I had probably bothered Ed enough the day before with my shape emails.  I went to the Y, and tried to stop second-guessing myself.

If you have managed to read all the way through my tale of poetry under pressure, you get to decide which you prefer.  Feel free to tell me in the comments!

Here’s the version that’s not on the March Madness site:

Portrait of a Trembling Mouse10-18-10-deermouse-img_3433

Ears atune to tiny sounds;
gnawing, clawing, underground.

Peer in darkness, sniff a sharpness.
Muscles tense, whiskers twitch.
Racing heart.  Panic pitch!

Terror spreads as weasel bounds —
Hurries, scurries, all around.
Choose a runway.  Dart and flee!
Tunnel’s empty.  Tremble.  Breathe.

Safe for now.  Underground.
Feet alert to every sound.

And to read my official entry, visit here.  It’s a match between anteroom and gnawing.

While you’re at it, enjoy the other poems on March Madness.

18923_originalPoetry Friday is at GottaBook.  Check it out!