The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 7, No 3 (2003)

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Giving Children a Piece of the World Through Poetry

Sue Alderson


Sue Alderson was born in New York City and has lived in Ohio and California before becoming a professor at the University of British Columbia Department of Creative Writing. She started a program there that focuses on writing specifically for children. She has written over sixteen books for children in many genres, as well as for adults. Alderson was short listed for the Mr. Christie Award and for the Sheila Egoff Award and has been nominated for other awards in Canada.

 

I've known a lot of really nice, intelligent, capable, talented people who seem to be afraid of poetry. I always suspect they weren't given poetry as children. Oh, they might have been forced to memorize lines of poetry, or taught poetry by someone who was also afraid of poetry, but they weren't really given poetry, as a gift like a favorite hand puppet or a music box, to be loved forever. A world without poetry is only part of the world, but if you give your children poetry, you give them access to everything, you give them the universe.

I will be moving back and forth here between my poetry for children and my poetry for adults. I hope I'll be showing the similarities, the ways in which strategies of metaphor and heightened, evocative shaping of language are similar, so if you give children poetry written for them, you are giving those children grown-up poetry as well. I'll also be touching on my own core subjects, themes and metaphors, and showing how these emerge in the two groups of poetry.

I started my writing life with poetry for adults, and I've recently returned to it. With the advent of my two children, the transition to writing picture books was natural--I like forms where every word counts. And so Bonnie McSmithers came to be. I've been called Mommy McSmithers and many have heard me say the Bonnie books were about myself and my daughter and about my mother and me. Only a few know that Bonnie was our Border Terrier and when I was little my dad frequently mixed up our names, calling me Bonnie and the dog Sue. We both learned to come.

Ten Mondays for Lots of Boxes took years to find a publisher mainly because it is entirely free verse. A thank you to Ronsdale Press for bringing it out. One influence on me for this book was the poet Carl Sandburg's Rootabaga Stories in which he makes up wonderful names for characters. To follow this poem, you'll need to know that Lots of Boxes is the name of the hero and his new best friend is a girl named Sky Climber. Their dog is called the Wandering Blue-Eyed Glumfy. The dog is really a dog I had at the time--he had blue eyes but a more prosaic name, we called him Muffin.

"On the Seventh Monday"

Sky Climber planted a strawberry bed.

She watered it and weeded it

and watched the seedlings blossom.

"Thirteen blossoms. Thirteen blossoms in May

means thirteen fresh strawberries in June."

Sky Climber dreamt strawberries.

One night the Wandering blue-eyed Glumfy

found the strawberry bed.

"Looks like a soft bed to me," he must have mumbled.

The Glumfy scratched around and churned a round hollow

in the soft rich earth to fit himself

curled-up-and-tail-tucked-in.

The Glumfy dream soft, rich earth.

Beach settings occur frequently in my adult poetry. Many of my adult poems are about a character I call "this woman." Here is a "this woman" poem set at the beach.

"Fishing"

The Great Blue Heron pulls the landscape into a Japanese print,

stands still in shallow waters, waits

for a glint of fish.

This woman pulls herself up from the sand,

brushes off, reluctant to leave but

her back against the log has gone stiff. She tries to pull

this year, this week, this hour into a Japanese print, peers

through murky water, paddles her fingers

in the absence, slips off her shoes, wades

over sharp shells. This becoming is no

easy trick, she thinks, this pulling together, this keeping

on. Still, this is the right neighborhood. There are fish

about, and beaks. And wings.

A Ride for Martha is about friendship and it's also about an inclusive society and cultural harmony. Based on the ethnographics of early Saltsping Island, the characters in this book include Sarah, whose heritage combines the Cowichan and Scottish cultures, Lizzie who is African-American-Canadian and Martha and Ida whose background is probably English. In this story, Martha in a boat by herself is at risk from the tide and she is saved by Lizzie and Sarah, the children of color who are the heroes of this book. This book includes a recurring verse but the passage I want to present is prose and contains many of the techniques of free verse. It's really a prose poem and occurs at the climax of the book.

Sarah and Lizzie were the first ones to reach the place where the boat was. Ankle-deep, knee-deep, hip-deep -- could they get to her before the wind or current pulled the boat out of reach? The girls had to struggle against the swirl and pull of the water, almost waist-deep now. Would they make it? Could they?

Some of my adult poetry deals with the clash that sometimes occurs at the edge of cultures rather than the ideal harmony of A Ride for Martha. The next poem deals with racism:

"The Castle"

The castle

was almost finished,

paper-cup shaped turrets; you poked windows, doors in

with a finger. Even then you were good at details, knew

about openings. We were all together on the beach,

you were almost three. You filled your pail

with water, were carrying it back to our sand trench

to fill the moat.

A woman stared at your slow progress

with the heavy pail I thought she must be thinking:

what a beautiful child, look at her long hair, her thick

lashes, see how her beautiful body shapes itself to the task.

The woman spoke: How is it you are so dark

when your family is light?

You said nothing, continued with the pail, poured it in.

But when the rush of water seeped away, you lost

interest, watched the horizon.

The ocean began to swallow itself;

the sky turned hollow.

Were you thinking of the difficult art of building walls

strong enough to keep danger out

and contain the sea?

Sure As Strawberries. If I were giving a book talk to children about this book, I would describe my summers in rural New Hampshire, the droughts we had, how my family hired a dowser. He did find water on the third try, an artesian well on our neighbor's land--the neighbor let us use it, in the true spirit of community--and also, we had brought the dowser who found it. But this is not a regular book talk so I won't tell you all that. What interests me tonight about the book are the metaphors that "The gift runs deep and hidden. It's there to be found like water, like a good friend, sure as strawberries." The gift Uncle George is talking about here is not the water itself, it's the ability to find water, to help others, to find friendship and be a friend, to love. And the gift starts "small as a berry seed" and "needs some nourishing before it grows"--like a child. "Friendship is precious as water," Uncle George would say and this friendship implies love.

The recurring rhyme in this book is closer to formalist poetry than in my earlier books:

Willow wand, willow wand,

betwixt, between, beneath, beyond,

find the winding water,find

the deep and hidden stream.

The importance of love, symbolized by water in a dry land, is central to my adult poetry, as in "wilderness," about the death of my mother.

"wilderness"

i

pain-pill all she could say . push the button he said.

this is what they said to one another now.

when I left, she took my face in her hands, looked hard

into my eyes, said

keep going.

ii

across the desert, out of Egypt,

her breath came hard, her eyes wide and staring,

all she carried flat, and sunbaked,

sure as history, out into wilderness.

we held her hands,

sang to her.

do we all carry it that way?

what could she see?

your questions drive me crazy, she once said.

I am as crazy as she, sometimes.

iii

the rings wouldn't come off her fingers.

the nurse used soap.

I walk into wilderness; what I carry is flat and sunbaked.

I see eyes, eyes, in every rock.

this poem is true as water, true as a question.

Wherever Bears Be: A Story for Two Voices--This is not only a narrative told entirely in dialogue, but it is also entirely in free verse with a couple of rhymed "songs". This is my most recently published book, and I'm grateful to Tradewind Books for taking it on. But it's one of my earliest creations--I wrote the first draft of the manuscript about 20 years ago. The moral of that story is: believe in yourself, believe in your writing, and never throw anything out.

Here's a bit of the story so you can see the poem for two voices in it.

Wherever Bears Be

"We have to go blueberry picking up high on the mountain,

Belinda, you and I. I wish we didn't!

Sloggy old mountain.

Sloggy Belinda."

"Sloggy Samantha!"

"I wish you'd keep up, Belinda!" "Keep up yourself!"

"I wish we'd find one bush so full of berries,

we'd be done in a wink.

I wish mountains were flat!

I really do wish all of that!

"This path

slogs up

and up."

"It does!"

"These trees are thick

with the thought of bears..."

"Bears?"

"...bears hungry for berries."

"Hi, bears, wherever bears be."

"I'll make up a song, to hold the bears back:

Fiddle-dee-di, fiddle-dee-dee,

Stay away, bears, wherever bears be!

Grumbley, rumbley bears, be fair!

There are berries enough for us all to share!

I also write adult poems for two voices, an example is "Conversation Found at the Marriage of Figaro, Prague, l997". This is a collage poem I wrote in Prague, combining the voice and stories of my guide at the concentration camp, Terazin, with program notes from the Marriage of Figaro. I visited Terazin in the afternoon and saw the opera that evening, and the combination spoke to me in this way.

"Conversation Found at the Marriage of Figaro: Prague, l997"

I gave my coat to a woman when I went in Terezin.

After the war, she wouldn't give it back.

It is morning. They are impatient to be married.

This other lady, everyone knows her.

She was with child when she came before Mengele and you see,

either the child was taken, or it was the gas. You see?

Later, the Countess is sad.

Well, this woman somehow managed it.

Mengele didn't know. She went to the right.

Later, the Countess is sad

that true love is over.

Later, he saw her again, she was very big, he was amazed,

how did you do it so I didn't know? I managed. I managed.

Her husband is philandering.

Well, Mengele let her have the child.

He had an idea, to see how long a baby would live

without any milk. This woman killed her baby herself.

She seals the letter with an ornamental pin.

My sister, she doesn't look Jewish at all. After the war--

The magnificent celebration begins.

she was in Terezin the whole time--

she went in a shop and someone said, I see there were holes where the gas was.

The celebration begins.

She closed my coat with an ornamental pin.

The celebration begins.

She said, what would my friends say?

They vow to each other: may we all be happy...

It's such a lovely coat. They would ask, these ladies,

what happened to your coat? I can't say to them, it was

love can turn this day of suffering into

a Jew's coat.

The masquerade ends.

You see?

Here's another poem for two voices,"Sneaking the Border: 1900, Bertha's Story," about my grandmother's immigration. Elderly Bertha narrates, as she looks back, her memories and her present in flux, and the second voice shows what the child Bertha might have been feeling.

"Sneaking the Border: 1900, Bertha's Story"

Can't take a chance.

By then there was a patchwork of us,

scraps of young men, mothers with children, many.

Many. The agent took us to a barn.

For a week, we slept on scraps

of memories: Mother, our table, chairs, borders of

old stories, rhymes: come, who wants it, come, who needs it.

The doctor shaved her head. No. That's wrong. Not

yet. I am in that barn still, waiting.

where can i pee?

where won't they see?

One night at twelve o'clock, the whisper:

come! We shook awake to run,

our one particular soldier paid to look

the other way--we sneaked that border! Sneaked it! Safe!

The air smelled like hay.

Wagon and train to Rotterdam. We'd missed

our boat. Worse, Sister was patched with ringworm.

squirmy wormyhead,

put the child to bed,

pull down the shades,

dark as a grave

Nobody said this would be part of the story.

We can't cross, can't return,

have no money, no bridge, no one to run

with. Everything smells like dead

fish. The doctor shaved her head, there, that's right,

baldy, baldy shave

don't cry, be brave

gave me salve, green soap, a week.

Every day I washed and washed her.

She was seven, I fourteen. A long time ago. Yesterday

scrubly, scrably,

scably, scably

Finally, she's well. We ship steerage,

that ocean made from scraps

of our old best clothes, one huge rolling

rats creeping

rats squeaking

border. We sneak it. If you stick out your tongue, you can

taste the salt in the air.

Pond Seasons. Patsy Aldana at Groundwood Press suggested I take a British Columbia pond and write a series of poems about the creatures associated with it, going through the seasons, starting with Spring. She said everything in the poetry should be true, and this was the first time I did nonfiction library research for every poem!

I chose Jericho pond, of course. The last poem in the book, under Winter, is Turtle.

"Winter: The Turtle"

Under the ice,

under the water, burrowed

under the mud

at pond's bottom,

the turtle pauses

in hibernation

like a deep sleep,

safe from fright,

waits for spring thaw,

for the return

of warmth, and light.

Does this old tucked-away turtle

have the knack

of dreaming?

Perhaps of sunbright water's sparkle?

Or willows' greening?

A world without poetry is only part of the world, but if you give children poetry, you give them the universe, remember? Here is "The Universe Posed as the Question":

"The Universe Posed as the Question"

Here is a shift in the dark:

a tortoise heavy with eggs

drags herself from the wake

over the sands, digs in. This is

her laying-in, her hour for truce with land.

Delivered, she heads for the depths.

The cold sea curls around her,

washes away the tail-froth.

It is said the world rides

on the back of a tortoise, has done so

since the beginning. Stars scatter

at her plunge; she dives to the deep

center of the question. Her flippers, scarred and grey

with salt, move against the centuries,

storm-polished, silent.

And finally, while I don't have an adult poem about Beavers, I want to read you the Beaver poem (in the Winter section) and finish with a story about it.

"Winter: The Beaver"

Outside, it's snowing.

The pond has almost frozen,

the wind is blowing.

Inside their lodge, the beavers wait,

eat bark from twigs they've stored.

They can hear the outside winter roar

while, snug and warm,

they weather out the storm!

Now you'll remember that Patsy said she wanted everything in this book to be absolutely true. Well, when I wrote this poem I knew that Jericho Pond had summer beavers, but the parks people cleared them out before winter. However, I wanted a beaver poem in the book and the only season that needed a poem was winter--so I took a chance and put the Beaver in the pond in the winter and hoped no one would notice--and no one did. But the next spring, after the book had been out for a couple of months and I hadn't been back to Jericho since the previous fall, a friend took me walking there. As we approached the pond, she said "look at the wire mesh around the trees and all the fallen, chewed up growth--that winter beaver sure has made a mess of this place?" "Winter beaver?!!" I screeched, and sure enough, there were young trees down with tell-tale chewed ends--there really had been at least one winter beaver at Jericho, and maybe more than one. And that shows you the power of poetry!

 

Sue Alderson

 

Grateful acknowledgement is made to the editors of the following journals in which these poems for adults appeared:

"Fishing", Contemporary Verse Two

"The Castle", Room with a View

"Wilderness", Grain

"Conversation Found at the Marriage of Figaro: Prague, 1997", The Antigonish Review

"Sneaking the Border: Bertha's Story", The Windsor Review

"The Universe Posed as the Questions", Grain

Grateful acknowledgement is made to the following publishers for allowing us to reprint selected poems of Sue Alderson from these books:

"On the Seventh Monday". Ten Mondays for Lots of Boxes. Ronsdale Press. Vancouver, British Columbia.

"Willow Wand". Sure as Strawberries, Red Deer Press, Calgary, Alberta.

"We have to go blueberry picking up high on the mountain", Wherever Bears May Be. Tradewind Books. Vancouver, British Columbia. (US Publisher. Tricycle Books)

"Winter: Turtle", "Winter: The Beaver". Pond Seasons. Groundwood Books/Douglas & McIntyre Ltd. Toronto, Ontario. 1997

 


Volume 7, Issue 3, The Looking Glass,September7, 2003

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"Giving Children a Piece of the World Through Poetry" © Sue Alderson, 2003.
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

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