The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Approach to Early Childhood Education, Carolyn Edwards (editor), Lella Gandini (editor), George Forman (editor)

Last week, I was having dinner with a friend with whom I used to teach preschool. She was telling me about the work she was doing in her new classroom with her new teaching team. In case you aren’t aware, in many preschool programs across the US, teachers have a week or less (in this particular case, three days) without the children present to “transition” their classrooms. Also, somewhat unusually, at this school, teachers do not instruct the same class every year; the program enrolls children from three months to five years, and in the infant program, teachers have the option of moving with the children for up to three years. As a result, it’s highly unusual to have the exact same teaching team (three or four teachers depending on class size, ratio necessity, and age) for any classroom from one year to another.

Since I left the school, I’ve depended on this friend to keep me in the loop about the changes, struggles, and triumphs that come from working in this constantly revolving scenario. After she went home, having stuffed my little brain with plans for the new year, I was inspired to pull out one of the books I read back when I began teaching there.

She and I had both been hired the same summer, the year the school opened, and at that time, the center was hoping to practice a philosophy inspired by the work in Reggio Emilia, Italy. It’s a common misconception that the philosophy itself is called Reggio Emilia, but in fact, it’s the name of a town that happened to be the origin of some truly groundbreaking work with young children. The book, The Hundred Languages of Children, is a dense look the history and philosophy of teaching that has developed there and is probably not a strong choice for the casual reader. I know, however, that many of you are teachers who struggle to bring best practice to the students, families, and communities you work with. Even though this book is aimed at Early Childhood educators, it is an inspiring and fierce read for people who demand more from educational practices.

The history of Reggio Emilia is especially fascinating to me. This is an entire community that decided to work together to create a better education system. Who are these people? How did they get motivated to do this? In the book, it talks about the era of change that Italy went through – how the country was working diligently for the past forty-five years to establish better rights for working people, families, parents, and children (especially children with disabilities) – but how was it possible a single community managed focus enough to create the Reggio Emilia experience?

If this had been done in the United States, it would have been an elite program, open only to families that could afford the luxury of a top-notch education. Instead, in Reggio Emilia, the system was designed to be free and available to every member of the community, regardless of a child’s economic, religious, or developmental background. It was also created, through enormous struggle, by the community. This was not a school that dropped itself into the middle of a town and expected families to jump on board. The town went through an incredibly grueling process, together, of determining what they wanted and needed out of public education. This system required buy-in, and discussion, and disagreement. It was and is not always pretty (although as a teacher, swept away by what they have managed to do, it certainly seems absolutely remarkable from the outside).

The program the Italians have established relies almost entirely on documentation collected from classroom work with the children. The teachers record conversations with the children; they spend time note-taking and photographing the children’s work. They meet with other teachers to discuss what they have observed, and they do their best to share all of this with the wider community. Unlike in the US, where research must be disseminated by widely “reputable” sources before educational systems can even consider the information, this  style of data gathering has informed the entire system of pre-primary education.

This requires a huge amount of work, but it provides opportunities for a much greater range of people to have input (parents, teachers, administrators, interested citizens), which then leads to opportunities that would have not have been possible otherwise. It is also a reflection of the type of work these professionals seek to have the children do themselves – questioning, documenting, experimenting – and in practicing it themselves, they develop their own skills to scaffold the children’s investigations.

One of the things I remember wanting when I first read this book was more of the Italians’ notes and observations about the children’s work, especially when they were first starting out. To me, coming from a more traditional teaching environment, these new ideas were a thrill, but also proved daunting to execute. How was I to go about observing the children thoroughly enough to find the right topic, then create questions and hypotheses to move the curriculum forward with enthusiasm? I found myself grateful that at the end of one chapter, they emphasized how important small projects were to eventually having the ability to work with children on a deeper investigative level over the course of months.

When I went to the end of the year celebration in June of children I had worked with as infants (they were going off to kindergarten in the fall), we were treated to an amazing twenty-minute video presentation of the children’s investigations about space. The whole school was filled with the work they had done (all of it originally inspired by the flyover of the Space Shuttle Endeavour in September), and although all of it was impressive on its own, it was even more so when I heard, from their own mouths, the children’s discussions, questions, and conclusions over the course of nine months about the solar system and NASA’s role in space exploration. I was so proud of having been part of their very earliest experiences in education and yet also (blissfully) dumbfounded by what they were capable of doing and knowing at five years old as a result.

One of the most critical things I absorbed from this book is that the goal of teaching is not to indoctrinate children with the idea that every thought they have is perfect or to give them the false hope that every one will be successful.  Instead, the teacher’s role is to engage them in problem solving with their peers so that their work is meaningful to them.  Protecting them from failure was not my job.  Providing support when they felt sad, angry or frustrated was, of course, but that could be done in many ways.  This book revolutionized, for me, the belief that caring for children is not a separate idea from encouraging them to be competent, questioning individuals. This has been done magnificently in Italy, but it can be executed successfully on many levels anywhere people care enough to start asking questions.

For more information about the North American Reggio Emilia Association, go here. If you’re curious about the history and details of Reggio Emilia, the Wikipedia article here is a great place to start.

A housekeeping note:

Beginning this week, I will be posting once a week on Thursdays. Having looked at my schedule for the autumn, I realized this would be the best way to continue to provide reviews during a particularly busy season. I will be re-evaluating after the new year, and if possible, I will return to twice a week posting then.


Pigeonwings, Heide Goody and Iain Grant

I spent about a week trying to decide whether it was ethical to write a review about a book written by Iain Grant, my editor for Ten to One, and Heide Goody, one of the judges for the project. Since I already published one for the first book (Clovenhoof) in the series back in March, it seemed worth exploring the reasons behind my hesitation and my ultimate decision to joyfully endorse Pigeonwings.

The reason for hesitating is pretty straightforward. I’m the middle of a writing a book that also has an element of competition. (If you’re new to this site and have no idea what I’m talking about, I’ll throw you some context about Ten to One over here.) At the moment, we’re down to eight writers (out of the original ten), and the bar was raised impressively between Chapters 1 and 2. Do I want to be the last writer standing eight chapters from now? Of course. We all do.

This made the decision to write a glowing review even more difficult. I blame this difficulty entirely on the fact that I was not brought up to believe I should do whatever was necessary to win. My parents had deeply entrenched beliefs about the ethics of competition in all aspects of life. We were to be open-minded, compassionate, hard-working; if we didn’t win the day with those methods, then we weren’t meant to win it at all.

They stuck to those ideals, occasionally to their own professional detriment, and without a doubt, those lessons, taught almost entirely by example, stayed with me. They were harsh ones to learn too, since the disappointment of being passed over after putting forth an honest best effort is excruciating. I think what saved me from the heartbreak of the many (many) times I’ve learned that I am not the best or most valuable person in any given situation is that my parents didn’t tie self-worth to success; instead, I was brought up to believe two things: self-worth is connected to effort and intention – not results – and love is unconditional.

What it came down to ultimately was that I didn’t want to write a review of Pigeonwings only because it felt a little funny to promote the work of people in a position of power over me. On the other hand, I think I may have unintentionally just defined what most people consider a form of networking. I’ve never been very comfortable with networking or self-promotion (as far as I can tell, most introverts aren’t), but I understand the value of it.

What I understand even better, though, is the value of working with people who are good at what they do. I enjoy collaborating with writers who are talented, competent, and passionate. It’s easier to put aside concerns about conflict of interest when I consider how difficult it is to get a great book published, and how fortunate I am to be working with people who manage to do just that. It might make me a little uncomfortable to get out my pompoms and start cheering for this book, but to be honest, back in March, reading Clovenhoof  was what convinced me to fight for this job. Finding these authors and loving their work has given me to the opportunity to work on a book I adore, and if that doesn’t earn them a little well-deserved recognition for their own literary efforts, I don’t know what does.

I also loved Clovenhoof so much that when I went to Amazon last week to pick up the new novel and saw that I could borrow it for free with Prime, I didn’t. I paid for it (because yes, I do believe spending money on something signifies worth), and then I spent the next few days carving out little blocks of time around hosting two of my best friends to read it. (I discovered I could read fifteen percent in the fifty minutes it took me to go four miles on the cross trainer at my gym, which made me feel like a multi-tasking maven.) 

While Clovenhoof got me (and my apparently disruptive laughter) glared out of a London Starbucks on two separate occasions, Pigeonwings nudged me to wake up before my alarm just so I could squeeze in a chapter before the start of another day. Let me tell you about how only the promise of truly pleasurable reading could ever convince me to roll over before dawn…

Clovenhoof, who had been enlivening the quiz night at the Boldmere Oak by shouting out random wrong answers before he was kicked out by Lennox the barman, staggered home, turning each merry stumble of his hooves into a tap dance worthy of Gene Kelly. He tottered up the high street, not yet decided if he was going to indulge in a goodnight kebab, curry or pizza, and saw two shady looking figures outside Books ‘n’ Bobs.

“There’s nothing worth stealing in there,” he called out.

“It’s us,” said Ben.

And it was. Ben and Michael were sitting on folding garden chairs, wrapped in winter coats and blankets, Michael with a clipboard in his hands, Ben with a computer tablet in his.

“We’re doing a scientific study,” said Michael, a phrase that Clovenhoof typically understood to mean ‘spying on naked neighbours with a telescope’. As there were no neighbours, naked or otherwise, in sight, Clovenhoof was nonplussed.

“We’re recording local bus traffic,” said Ben, “and comparing it to relevant astrological data.”


“We log the bus and use its registration number to find its place and date of manufacture and draw up the corresponding horoscope.”

“You’re calculating the horoscopes of buses?” said Clovenhoof, who was quite sure he hadn’t drunk enough to be making this up himself. (loc 1489)


For more about Goody and Grant, head over here.

Libriomancer, Jim Hines

I’ve been meaning to read a book by Jim Hines for about nine months now, ever since I saw him competing with John Scalzi in a fantasy cover pose-off for charity (not his first time doing such a thing, but the first I’d been aware of it via Scalzi’s Whatever). Since then, he seems to be everywhere, defending the rights of women to be geeks, defending the rights of geeks to like whatever they want to like, and defending his own right to say and do whatever he wants in support of these things.  All the stories I’ve heard about him have been delightful, and when it comes right down to it, nothing makes me want to read more than liking the person behind the story.

I’ve discovered that when I know a little more about an author, when I’ve heard about his or her life, I’m inclined to like the book just that much more.  It’s especially important now that the internet is a thing; when I was a kid, I probably read and enjoyed books by all sorts of simply terrible people, and I never had a clue. That was fine. I didn’t have immediate access to blog posts, tweets, or Wikipedia pages for essentially every author I read, and maybe it was better that way.

Who am I kidding? Of course it was better. I read so much more before the internet and all of its distractions! I didn’t know terrible things about writers whose books I love! I didn’t have deep existential debates over nearly as many authors because I was too busy stuffing myself with delicious stories!

And yet, the internet has its uses, doesn’t it? For example, through this blog, I’ve been able to at least tangentially connect with almost 9000 people who love books with a passion kindred to my own. I also hear about and buy books with an abandon that borders on disturbing. Thank God for ebooks, which I basically treat as another limb, and for sites that recommend people like Hines – authors perfectly suited to my taste because, well, the internet is equipped to do such a thing.

Alright, so the internet is brilliant, and it also drives me crazy, so I guess that makes me…normal? I get distracted by it, but then it leads me to a sweet, funny, wonderful urban fantasy like Libriomancer and I get all excited all over again. I like that with a couple clicks, I can find out what conventions Hines goes to, or that the first few chapters of the sequel to Libriomancer is available for free on his website. It makes me happy to know I bought a book in support of a nice guy who tries to make a difference in his community of fans, and I think it’s great the internet is a powerful tool for him to speak out when things happen in that community that upset him.

I don’t know how great an effect such knowledge had on me when it comes to enjoying his novel. I already love the genre he writes in, and I’ve always had a soft spot for funny, bumbling protagonists, so if I had come across this book in a store, I’m sure I would have bought it and enjoyed his work because he tells a good story in a way I like to hear it told. It doesn’t hurt though, that in this case, the internet played the part of an excellent librarian, or a friend with complimentary reading taste. I don’t get recs from either type of person very often anymore, so the ability to discover new authors hinges, more than I’d ideally like, on this massive web of information.


If you find yourself craving more about Jim C Hines work, check out his site (and its free samples) here.

The Women’s Health Big Book of Yoga, Kathryn Budig

This week has totally gotten away from me. I think I knew, in the back of my mind, that one of my best friends was coming to stay for a week in August, but the entire concept of “August” was so far removed from my reality that when she arrived yesterday, I was honestly caught off-guard. On top of that, one of my other best friends (I have three – this was the one who I moved from NY to DC a few weeks ago) had to come out here for work on Monday and Tuesday. Even though she and I do a passably good job working from home together, when she got here, it was sunny and we wanted to get smoothies and it turns out the best place is a forty minute drive…and one thing led to another and zero reading was accomplished. To be fair, I prioritized other deadlines, but still, I’m a slacker and should be admonished accordingly.

Nevertheless, I wouldn’t want to leave you hanging, not when we’re tantalizingly close to the weekend. Instead of working, you need an excuse to stare slack-jawed at your computer screen, and those lists at Buzzfeed look suspiciously un-work-like. It’s fine. I get it. Sit back, relax, and consider when your last “doctor’s appointment” or “car trouble” occurred; if it was more than a month ago, I think you’re due for a day off tomorrow. If it was Monday (and God bless those untenable Mondays), then read on because you’re going to need some serious decompression after everyone else starts faking a cough around 4pm.

The Women’s Health Big Book of Yoga is what I force on all the people I love when they complain about tension from work or travel or just, you know, life.  I own two copies of it myself (the giant paperback for home and the ibook for travel), and since I got it last Christmas from my sister-in-law, a top-notch yoga instructor – and instructor of instructors – I have yet to get tired of Budig’s style of teaching.

She has a wonderful sense of humor and a frankness I crave in my own practice. I love a teacher who is comfortable with the fact that audibly creaking knees, unexpected gas, and pitiful groans happen. When I’m in class, one of my friends, a woman who recently had knee surgery, often gasps aloud what I’m desperately trying to hold back (“Sweet Jesus I’m on fire,” “Please God no,” and “Kill me now” have all been heard in our lunchtime sessions), and our teacher doesn’t blink an eye. She just smiles and reminds us to breathe into the stretch.

When I’m at home though, I can moan to my heart’s content, and I know Budig won’t judge me a bit. Even after seven months, I find that I can flip this book open anywhere and learn something new and totally doable in about fifteen minutes. She doesn’t ask for a ninety minute commitment or insist that I follow an entire sequence through; instead, she has designed a book that is perfectly suited for a wide range of ability and availability – both key factors to keep me coming back for more.

Most of the time, I use this when I need a good stretch while I’m watching tv (to justify that extra episode, obviously), and Budig’s instructions and images are so clear that I can study them during commercial break and be ready to go when the show starts again. I personally can’t ask more of a body book than that – my brain could be melting out of my ears, but my hips will be infinitely more open when I’m done.


To find out more about Kathryn Budig, reach on over…………here.

Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son, Michael Chabon

The handy thing about being a father is that the historic standard is so pitifully low. One day a few years back I took my youngest son to the market around the corner from our house in Berkeley, California, a town where, in my estimation, fathers generally do a passable job, with some fathers having been known to go a little overboard. I was holding my twenty-month old in one arm and unloading the shopping cart onto the checkout counter with the other. I don’t remember what I was thinking about at the time, but it is likely to have been the original 1979 jingle for Honey Nut Cheerios or nothing at all as was the needs, demands, or ineffable wonder of my son. I wasn’t quite sure why the woman in line behind us – when I became aware of her – kept beaming so fondly in our direction. She had on rainbow leggings, and I thought she might be a little bit crazy and therefore fond of everyone.

“You are such a good dad,” she said finally. “I can tell.”

I looked at my son. He was chewing on the paper coating of a wire twist tie. A choking hazard, without a doubt; the wire could have pierced his lip or tongue. His hairstyle tended to the cartoonier pole of the Woodstock-Einstein continuum. His face was probably a tad on the smudgy side. Dirty even. One might have been tempted to employ the word crust.

“Oh, this isn’t my child,” I told her. “I found him in the back.”

Actually, I thanked her. I went off with my boy in one arm and a bag of groceries in the other, and when we got home I put a plastic bowl filled with Honey Nut Cheerios in front of him and checked my e-mail. I was a really good dad.

I don’t know what a woman needs to do to impel a perfect stranger to inform her in the grocery story that she is a really good mom. Perhaps perform an emergency tracheotomy with a Bic pen on her eldest child while simultaneously nursing her infant and buying two weeks’ worth of healthy but appealing break-time snacks for the entire cast of Lion King Jr. (p 12)

I stole this book right off my father’s shelf and I don’t plan to give it back. He doesn’t need it anyway; he’s already placed well in his roles of Husband, Father, and Son, and I don’t want him getting any new ideas at this stage of the game.  Frankly, even if he changed the parts of himself that drove me crazy – and tangled within my absolute love and loyalty to him, there certainly are such things – I would be…concerned? Confused? Off-put, perhaps, by any extreme changes to his nature.

Possibly, that is because those parts of him are also deeply parts of me – the stubbornness, the curmudgeonly grumbling, the anxious and overprotecting love for the people closest to us. The traits that frustrate me in him are the same ones that drive people crazy when dealing with me, and it’s comforting to know that I have in him both an ally and an example of how deeply cherished a person with such quirks can be.

Where my mother and I negotiated, my father and I argued. We availed ourselves of the age-old stereotypes of fathers and daughters while remaining dear companions and confidantes. I can wholly imagine him in the situation Chabon writes of above, preening while simultaneously recognizing the patent absurdity of the situations inherent in fatherhood. I’m sure this familiarity is part of the reason why I loved this book so much. Chabon feels, not only like my own father, but like my brother, and my husband, and all the men I know who are well-intentioned but occasionally good-naturedly clueless.

Chabon manages to poke a little fun at himself while remaining just as wise as one might want such a man to be. He has his insights, his disasters, and flaws. He writes gorgeously, as I have come to expect him to, but his talent doesn’t overshadow the spectrum of human emotion he’s excavating. Instead, his mastery of language enriches the (at times excruciating) honesty of his own story. The book is as brutal and hilarious and heartbreaking as each of our stories would be if we had the ability to cast them out as he has, and because of that, the experience of reading it is one of precious, undisguised kinship.


For more about Michael Chabon, go here.


Unspoken (The Lynburn Legacy Book 1), Sarah Rees Brennan

Just a quick note: voting for Chapter 2 of Ten to One (the collaborative novel I’m working on) is now open. If you would like to support this great project (and me!), you can “Like” my newest section here. Every vote is precious, so if you have a moment to check it out, I’d be incredibly grateful. Thanks!

I was traveling for eighteen days, nearly three weeks during which plenty of lovely things happened. And yet. The story I have told most often since I got back on Monday was about the kid who threw up on my feet right before I got on the plane to fly home. I was wearing flip-flops, had woken up at four am, and was making a haphazard pass at my email when it happened. I actually thought his father had spilled a latte on me, and it was only after I had sprinted to the bathroom to get paper towels for the poor guy (he was stuck with two kids under five while his wife was getting the family breakfast, and it would have been impossible for him to manage to clean things up himself before she got back) that I realized what had actually happened.

It could have been worse, honestly. He could have hit me in the face. As it was, I wiped myself off the best I could and flew for six hours smelling…less than fresh. I didn’t make friends with my seat mates, in case you were wondering. I actually suspect they thought I was hung over and had puked on myself, and for that, they had no sympathy. I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t have either. It also seemed in bad taste to place blame on the real culprit, given that he was maybe three years old and clearly was having a rough time of it.

What does this have to do with Unspoken? Nothing, really. I just wanted to point out that after a trip that included a wedding, an extended family visit, three days on my favorite lake, and moving my best friend from NY to DC (which involved, amongst other things, the climbing of a hundred plus flights of stairs with heavy boxes, followed by five hours in the jump seat of a U-Haul) – after all of the chaos and crazy, I still had the energy to laugh off projectile vomiting. If that’s not the definition of a good trip, I don’t know what is.

Unspoken, fortunately, found itself snuggled right into the most relaxing part of my travels – my long weekend at the lake. For the last two summers, I’ve managed to score an invitation to stay at a lovely little house in upstate New Hampshire with some of my favorite people in the world. It has a deck overlooking the water, and it comes stocked with friends who love to cook, swim, play raucous games of Pictionary, and who, most importantly, understand and approve of curling up quietly with a good book.

I read most of Unspoken while my husband led the more ambitious members of our group in learning the rules of Mahjong. On our first morning there, he had discovered a book detailing the game’s rules, tiles, and etiquette in excruciating detail and was determined to learn. During the one rainy afternoon we had, I laid on the couch reading while they gathered around the table; this peaceful tableau was occasionally interrupted by bellowed phrases like “I’ve got a chicken hand!” and “Red dragon?! No!” They completely ignored my laughter, and instead debated intensely over a quantity of rules and behaviors I couldn’t have hoped to comprehend. It didn’t help that not one of them had even the slightest understanding of Cantonese and consequently had to sort the pieces through a laborious process I would never have had the patience for.

It was in this oddly studious vacation environment that I finished Unspoken only to discover that the sequel wouldn’t be released until the end of September. Although it wasn’t the best book I’d ever read, I’d certainly been swept up in the world Brennan created, and I found her characters so lovable that I was dying to know what happened next. In retrospect, it was probably for the best that I didn’t have the second one. I might have disappeared altogether back into that British hamlet and forgotten to appreciate the story unfolding all around me.

I might have missed out on picking twenty-five pounds of blueberries (too much for seven people – way, way too much), or swimming out to the floating dock, or having my friend translate from Portuguese the hilarious gossip of the Brazilian teens staying next door. Brennan certainly writes some lovely friendships into this YA adventure, but it just can’t compete with real life. Come September, though, when I need an escape from the ramp up of fall? I know exactly where to look for a lightweight escape.

For more about Sarah Rees Brennan, head over here.

All Aboard, Charles Tomlinson and On the 747, Malena Morling

I’ve been bouncing around the east coast for the last two weeks, and frankly, I’m spent. The only free time I’ve had has been devoted to writing rather than reading, so a true review will have to wait until Thursday.

I didn’t want to completely abandon you though, so I thought I would give you a little insight into my polar personalities when I travel. These two poems so accurately describe the experience inside my head when I’m using public transportation that it’s actually a little disturbing. On the one hand, I am a seething ball of passive aggressive rage toward anyone destroying the sanctity of silence I so often need after extended visits with family, and on the other, I’m ridiculously enthusiastic about the ability to bond with strangers under difficult circumstances. It makes no sense, I realize that. I guess the problem is that even though I love to play the curmudgeon, I’m just not that good at it…

All Aboard

All aboard and then
the entire train
breaks into phone fever and
intimacies of every kind
blossom into relations, revelations
as bosoms unburden themselves and stand
stark in that no-man’s-land of tattle
confronting the traveller:
I must exchange my seat and get
into the phone-free hermitage where I
can contemplate the self-sufficiency of trees,
the passing landscape and the sky,
but someone has anticipated me
and is talking into the mouthpiece of his machine
– the others are too well-mannered to intervene but I
tap his shoulder, tap again to snip
the unbreakable ticker-tape of his privacies
which have not ceased and do not until I lean
closer to indicate the to him invisible sign:
he lurches up and awake and gripping
his still unsheathed weapon makes
for the pollutable corridor. The others are silent –
disappointed: clearly they had been trying to filter out
the inessentials and impose their own storyline.
I had frustrated them with that fastidiousness of mine.
Too late for landscape now. I take out
a book too ruffled to read it –
close your eyes, there are no exceptional things
to surprise them in the dark out there.
I even fall asleep, then wake to the hiss of the brakes,
the shudder of resistance – we have arrived and so
I stand and step down into Gloucestershire in a Scotch mist.


On the 747

As soon as I sat down
the seven-year old girl
offered me gum
and showed me a postcard
of the airplane we were in.
She was writing her mother
whom she had just left at the gate,
smearing her love
in blue magic marker.
Then she pulled out a drawing
she had made of the wind
and one of a cloud
and a man who had ladders
for legs and eight arms
extending eight hands.
After the heavy body of the plane
lifted off the ground,
she held my hand and talked
about her flute teacher’s birds
and the eels she had bought
in a bait store and let loose
on the beach, each one
slithering into the dark
of the green waves,
returning to what she said
she could not imagine.


Neither of these poets have their own websites, but googling them will take you to more of their exceptional poetry.

Tea, D.A. Powell

During my junior year of college, my poetry professor gave us three collections to choose from and told us to write an essay about our selection for the end of the semester. It was a small class – maybe twenty of us on a full day – and most of our time was spent workshopping each other’s pieces. I was one of only two juniors in the class, and I felt intimidated by my classmates, not because they were better poets than me (I don’t remember how any of us ranked in that regard, though I’m sure many of them were), but because they seemed so comfortable with themselves and with each other. I, on the other hand, made sure to come to class early so I could get the seat that pressed into the back corner, slightly outside the circle of desks.

powellThe only downside to that seat was that I couldn’t get out easily. Two other desks pressed in front of it, so at the end of class on the day we were to choose a book, I was the last one out. Tea was what was left. To be honest, I’d never heard of any of the books, so it didn’t matter much to me at that moment what I got.

As it turned out,  Tea was a fortuitous accident. I fell in love with Powell’s slick, graphic style, and the preface to the book just slayed me. Below is an excerpt from that introduction (I had to resist typing out the whole thing). The underlining is my own, from my copy of the text:

While I was writing these poems, a well-known poet, who is also queer, cautioned me against ‘using AIDS as a metaphor for a consumptive relationship.’ I do not understand ‘metaphor.’ I have the sort of mind that lumps together odd events, that enjoys the simultaneity of experience. My parents divorced during the Watergate hearings. The backlash against disco coincided with the Reagan administration. I was hospitalized for a nearly fatal accident while my friend Andy was dying, the first of many I would lose to AIDS. If two objects occupy the same space, is one a metaphor for the other? If so, then life is the cause of death; love, the root of unhappiness.

Yet there is a way in which AIDS moves through the text, just as other forces, events, and characters move through it. Because I based these poems on my own experience, I had to uncover the subject that drove the writing; and so I had to walk down many corridors in order to find what was at the center. Along the way, I had to write about failed love, destitution, prostitution  disease, homelessness, and a myriad other subjects in order to discover that the true hero of the poems is survival. This is how I came to put the elegies at the front of the book. I rise out of the ashes. To survive is an astonishing gift. The price of that gift is memory.

The reason I included the underlining I did when I was in school was because this book, with its gorgeous, puzzling, sensitive poetry, led me to take a huge risk in my own writing. It was not the first of such risks, but it was the first one to be received positively, and that was huge for me at the time. Actually, it’s still huge for me. As a writer, it’s exceptionally difficult to take chances, and when we do, they are often met with criticism; it is a rare and precious thing when we take a leap of faith and are rewarded for it.

In this case, instead of writing a ten page essay (which was the assignment), I wrote ten poems in the distinctive style of D.A. Powell, using only quotes from his own text. The book is full of my underlining and notes, made both as I was reading and as I was writing; as a result, every time I take it off the shelf, I am reminded of this experience. I’ve even kept a copy of the “essay” with the book, and whenever I reread his poems, I also look at my response.

At the moment I decided to hand in my essay in poetry, I wasn’t trying to be a pretentious jerk; in fact, I’d sort of given up on school for the first time in my life, and the only thing that kept me going to classes was the implicit promise I had made to my family when I chose to go to college. I had to try for their sake, but it was a struggle. This little project was the first one all year that really meant something to me. I felt like I was speaking in a foreign language, trying to sum up how deeply moved I was by Powell’s work. I didn’t need any words of my own to do that – he had already written them for me. All I had to do was massage them into new poems, and I could reflect back the power of his work.

When I reread both the book and the response last week, I noticed the roughness of my own work. I could see how flawed an idea it was, but I could also still see how much care was put into the response – how much I had loved writing it. It had been a lifeline, as much as Powell’s poetry had been for himself, and my professor saw it. He bent the rules for me, a kid who sat in the back and never spoke unless forced to do so. If he knew who I was, it was through process of elimination, because I never made an effort to engage him in conversation the way I had with teachers years before.

I did nothing out of the ordinary the whole semester except that paper, and when I got it back and saw that it was marked with the one and only A+ I ever received at university level, I remember shoving it under my other papers so that the other students, glancing around in that grade-comparing dance, wouldn’t see it and ask any questions. The grade didn’t matter as much as the message it sent did. It was my preservation – my reminder that under all the turmoil, I was understood. I could never thank Powell enough for giving me that when he wrote this book.


For more about Powell, head over here.