Chatting with Andrea Potos about Arrows of Light

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever: its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness.” ~ John Keats (Endymion, 1818)

Andrea at the Promega Employee Art Fair (Madison, Wisconsin, 2018)

 

The first poem in Andrea Potos’s chapbook Arrows of Light begins like this:

The lake is a blue scarf ironed
by stillness, locust leaves burnt
yellow, everywhere, softness
in September air.

Her exquisite metaphor took my breath away as I envisioned the tranquil autumn scene. Potos next quotes Keats:

The first thing that strikes me on hearing
a misfortune having befalled another is:
Well it cannot be helped — he will have
the pleasure of trying the resources of his spirit

Miles away, Andrea’s mother is undergoing cancer radiation treatment. The doctor “will aim one perfect arrow of light in the errant spot that would claim her if it had its way . . . ”

 

This poignant opening poem, “Morning of My 56th Birthday,” sets the stage for 25 other luminous and poignant ruminations about beauty, light, loss and grief. With her mother’s decline, each precious moment is amplified, bringing intense clarity and love.

Even as Andrea grieves, she celebrates life. Light and dark, joy and sorrow, flip sides of the same coin. She juxtaposes these two elements with extended metaphors of blue and gold: the blues of lake, sea, twilight, flowers, sadness; the golds of autumn, sunlight, Van Gogh, and radiant childhood memories.

“Grief, he told her, is the exhale of love (the ache of breathing) . . . “

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Faith Shearin’s “A Few Things I Ate” (+ a recipe!)

Lucky me, poet friend and kindred spirit Andrea Potos had the Poetry East Spring 2017 Food Issue sent to me shortly after it came out last year. You can bet I’ve been savoring and feasting on it ever since (thanks again, Andrea!).

This special issue, published by DePaul University, contains 49 poems presented in seven courses (truly the perfect meal), along with seven delectable recipes and a bevy of beautiful fine art paintings.

In the Main Course section, I was especially taken with Faith Shearin’s poem, “A Few Things I Ate.” The conversational style drew me in immediately, and I love how Faith built a captivating narrative with an embellished list of telling details, how she subtly wove in deeper regrets as well as fond memories. It’s wonderful how carefully chosen specifics can be so universally relatable.

Are we not all a product of what we’ve eaten throughout our lives? The countless foods, with their why’s and whens and wherefores, reveal our unique, personal stories.

I thank Faith for permission to share her poem, for answering my questions about it, and for her yummy recipe. Enjoy!

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Tailleuses de soupe by François Barraud (1933)

 

A FEW THINGS I ATE
by Faith Shearin

There are a few things I’m sorry I ate: a piece of fried chicken
in an all-night diner that bled when I cut into it,
a soup in an elegant French restaurant where I encountered
a mysterious ring of plastic. Also: a bowl of spaghetti served
with so many long strands of hair I wondered who,
in the kitchen, had gone bald. I’m sorry I ate the fast food
cookies that tasted like paper the same way I am sorry
I let certain men kiss me or hold my hand. I’m especially sorry
I ate a certain hot dog on a train that had been twirling for days
on a lukewarm display. Forgive me for all that cafeteria food
in college: packaged, bland, frozen so long it could not
remember flavor. And, hungry in my dorm, I ate bags
of stale lies from vending machines, once even a pair
of expired Twinkies filled with a terrible chemical cream
I am still digesting. After my daughter was born I bought
so much organic baby food my husband found the jars
everywhere: little glass wishes. One winter I ate exotic fruits
from upscale stores so expensive I might have flown instead
to a distant tropical island. Then, careless, I ate
from containers only my microwave understood. I know
what food is supposed to be but often isn’t; I know
who I might have been if I ate whatever I should have eaten.
Remember the time we ate Ethiopian food and spent
a week dreaming so vividly our real life grew pale?
Or the day we ate so much spice in our Thai food
that our mouths were softer? I’m not sorry I ate
all those ice cream sandwiches from my grandmother’s
freezer and drank those Pepsis with her on the way
to Kmart to buy more pink, plastic toys. She liked
the way sugar made me lively, and anyway,
she was suggesting the possibility of pleasure.
She made a vegetable soup that simmered all day
on the stove: growing deeper, more convincing,
and a carrot cake with cream cheese icing that floated
on my tongue like love. Now I am middle-aged. I am fat
and eating salads or, before bed, talking myself
into rice cakes that taste like despair. My father
is diabetic and must have everything whole wheat
and lean and my sister can’t have any salt. I’m sorry
I ate all that cereal when we first got married,
by myself in the kitchen, the milk pale and worried.
Remember how I covered my fruit with cheese
and mayonnaise? I’m not sorry, whatever
you might say. Then there were the lunches
we ate on the beach, watching the seals
sun themselves: thick chicken sandwiches wrapped
in a foil so silver they must have been valuable.

~ posted by permission of the author, © Poetry East: No. 90 (Food), Spring 2017.

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[author chat + recipe + giveaway] Patricia Toht on Pick a Pine Tree

Please help yourself to milk and cookies (photo by P. Toht)

I’ll always remember the Christmas my parents visited us in Virginia and we decorated a balsam fir tree together. Unlike the artificial trees that defined my childhood in Hawai’i, this one was real — it liked to drop its needles but how we loved that woodsy, fragrant evergreen smell!

We sat around the kitchen table and strung garlands of popcorn and fresh cranberries while a cozy fire crackled in the adjoining great room. This was novel for us, but our lei-making experience served us well when it came to handling big needles and long strands of thread. Of course our tree was the best Christmas tree ever, because with shared memories, mugs of warm cider, and a nice collection of handmade ornaments, we had made it our own.

Pick a Pine Tree by Patricia Toht and Jarvis (Candlewick, 2017) celebrates all the joy, wonder, magic and anticipation of finding and decorating that special tree. Written in jaunty rhyming verse, this book is well on its way to becoming a perennial favorite with its timeless sentiment.

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chatting with author kate coombs about Breathe and Be: A Book of Mindfulness Poems (+ a giveaway!)

“Simply put, mindfulness is moment-to-moment non-judgmental awareness.” ~ Jon Kabat-Zinn

Today I’m happy to welcome back award-winning author and poet Kate Coombs to talk about her new poetry picture book, Breathe and Be: A Book of Mindfulness Poems (Sounds True, 2017).

Kate introduces the practice of mindfulness to children with fourteen poems that foster an awareness, appreciation and respect for nature through close observation and introspection, which in turn engenders a newfound sense of self.

With Anna Emilia Laitinen’s gorgeous watercolors, each double page spread is an invitation to pause, enter the world of the poem, and internalize the soothing imagery. Kate’s choice of the tanka (five lines divided into syllables of 5, 7, 5, 7, 7) is the perfect vehicle for brief but meaningful contemplation. The book begins with a centering awareness of breath and presence:

I breathe slowly in,
I breathe slowly out. My breath
is a river of peace.
I am here in the world.
Each moment I can breathe and be.

Subsequent poems illuminate various facets of mindfulness and meditation: objectively observing the flow of thoughts that “swim by like little fish,” finding a “quiet place” in the mind when seeking solace, imagining oneself as an element of nature (cloud, stone, river, seed, tree), and living in the moment:

Tomorrow’s an egg
that hasn’t hatched. Yesterday
is a bird that has flown.
But today is real. Here now,
this minute, the true wings.

Young readers will be able to see how nature can be a reassuring refuge in times of trouble, worry, sadness, or other emotional imbalance. By summoning the inner self, they can be a “calm umbrella” in the face of turbulence, or a strong, steadfast tree that remains patient in all seasons.

When days crash thunder
and throw lightning around
I am still, watching.
I am a calm umbrella
inside the blue and gray storm.

Envisioning each floating leaf in a stream as a negative thought drifting away can quiet overwhelming concerns. Above all, cultivating the ability to look within as well as without will enable them to “see the world new” and feel more “alive in this world.”

The illustrations feature a small group of multi-ethnic children in a northern landscape interacting with their surroundings atop tree branches and in hammocks, walking through the woods, and playing together by a campfire, on a hillside, in a boat, under a tent. There are trees in almost every picture and lots of small animals to delight and surprise. The peaceful image of toy boats drifting downstream, a tree-flock of fluttering birds, and a bevy of playful rabbits add to the charm, while butterflies and tadpoles signal transformation.

Sometimes I’m a cloud.
Sometimes a mountain or a stone.
Sometimes I’m a river,
a small seed or a great tree.
But I am always me.

 

A haven of stillness and beauty, Breathe and Be offers children and their parents a delightful, attainable path to inner peace and a renewed reverence for the natural world. After all, when was the last time you sat on a hillside to watch the clouds drift by, wiggled your toes in the sand, strolled through the woods to hear the whisper of leaves, or lazed in a hammock just “being”?

I see myself
by the ocean, toes touching sand,
fingers finding a shell
at the edge of blue water.
Where is your quiet place?

Let’s find out more about the book from Kate!

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🌲 AUTHOR CHAT WITH KATE COOMBS 🐠

 

What inspired you to write a book of mindfulness poems for kids?

I actually wrote the book on spec! A writing friend of mine had become the children’s editor for Sounds True, which was just starting to publish children’s books such as Good Morning Yoga. She gave me a couple of topics and I was immediately intrigued by the idea of mindfulness. I started researching it and then wrote Breathe and Be. As you can imagine, it turned out to be a really rich experience.

Why did you choose tanka as your poetic form, and why did you write them in first person?

Mindfulness has its roots in Asian religion and philosophy, so I felt the tanka made a good fit. I thought about using haiku, but it just isn’t long enough for the kinds of things I wanted to say. I wanted each poem to be a comfortable, thoughtful little space to wander about in. I didn’t really notice that I wrote in first person! I think it probably made a good fit because mindfulness and meditation are very personal.

Kate’s workspace.

Please tell us a little about your writing process. Did you write most of the poems outdoors?

I did a lot of online research about mindfulness in addition to getting a few books, and I copied and pasted some of the ideas and lists and definitions I found into a document. Then I tried to turn each of the rather abstract ideas into an imagistic poem. Show, don’t tell! Although I didn’t write outside, my office windows overlook a tree-filled canyon, which is a good fit for this book full of trees.

When did you first learn to meditate? What is your daily practice like now?

True confessions: I’m not the world’s best meditator. However, I have learned that being in nature helps me experience mindfulness. I think that’s why this book turned out to be such a celebration of the natural world. I have a pine and scrub oak forest in the small canyon out back, plus 30 houseplants and a balcony herb garden. I wouldn’t know how to live without plants and trees. But with them and other beautiful things, like water and clouds, not to mention birds and bugs, I can be mindful. You don’t need a yoga mat to find peace and focus in nature. Though you can always lie down on your back in the grass!

Kate’s been taking cloud photos for about 5 years, and considers it a form of meditation.

How has practicing mindfulness fueled your creativity?

Mindfulness pulled me in and trying to describe it fueled my creativity. I did start entering a state of mindfulness as I wrote about it. More and more, I experienced the poems mindfully. It’s the most unusual experience I’ve ever had as a writer, creating and then living in a beautiful, tranquil space.

Describe your “quiet place.”

Both of my quiet places are featured in the book: a forest and an ocean shore. To be specific, my forest is in Sequoia National Park. Although I love simply walking the paths among the huge trees, my favorite spots are Round Meadow and Crescent Meadow in the Giant Forest area. Each meadow is filled with green growing things illuminated by sunlight, and each is surrounded by giant Sequoia trees, pines, and undergrowth. There is a combination of quiet and noise there, but the noises are the buzzing of bees and the wind through the grasses and branches. The sky is very blue.

A favorite family vacation spot: Sequoia National Park (1996)

My ocean shore is a beach along the Southern California coast just north of L.A., a little spot called Leo Carrillo that is part of a state park. When we were young we used to go boogie boarding there, but now I’m happy sitting and watching the waves, or walking along the damp sand just beyond the reach of the water, looking at little rocks and shells, the surf and sky, and seabirds, especially pelicans.

Please share your reactions to seeing Anna Emilia Laitinen’s illustrations for the first time. Which is your favorite spread and why?

I first saw the pencil sketches, and they were wonderful—I quickly fell in love with Anna Emilia’s beautiful work. I think its delicacy and peace match the quiet mood of the poems. Like Anna Emilia, I love nature, especially trees. The artwork makes me want to go for a walk in the woods.

I like all of the spreads, but I’m particularly fond of the little fish, just their colors and the way they swirl across the pages, with the children looking a bit like fish themselves.

What thoughts, happy or sad, are floating by you at this very moment?

I’ve had a tough year, but a lot of happy things have come into my life recently, and this book being published is one of them. Even though I know it’s my book, it feels like such a gift because it brings me comfort and happiness when I read it or even think about it. So that’s how I’m feeling right now!

Anything else you’d like us to know about the book?

I found out that the tanka is actually the predecessor of the haiku. Haiku is a cool little format, especially for pinpointing moments in nature. However, the tanka has more leeway both in terms of length and subject matter. I’ve seen it written with a very boring diamond-shaped formula in schools, but the real deal is much better. I hope this book will help kids experiment with writing tanka.

What are you working on now?

I’ve been regrouping lately after experiencing some writer’s block. I’m revising a picture book about traditional Polynesian navigation and I have a few other nonfiction picture books in mind. I’m also revisiting a poetry collection that has languished for months. I have a couple of middle grade projects on the back burner, as well. So we’ll see what happens!

I do have another poetry collection coming out next fall. It’s called Monster School and is a lot of fun, hopefully a little scary, too.

Thanks so much, Kate!!

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BREATHE AND BE: A Book of Mindfulness Poems
written by Kate Coombs
illustrated by Anna Emilia Laitinen
published by Sounds True, November 1, 2017
Poetry Picture Book for ages 4-8, 32 pp.
*Includes an Author’s Note with more info about mindfulness

♥ Check out this cool Story Hour Kit!

♥ Other posts about the book:

♥ Take a few minutes to bask in the beauty and stillness: Enjoy this lovely reading of Breathe and Be:

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🌿 SPECIAL BOOK GIVEAWAY! 🌼

The publisher has generously donated a copy of Breathe and Be for one lucky Alphabet Soup reader. For a chance to win, please leave a comment at this post telling us about your favorite “quiet place” no later than midnight (EST) Wednesday, November 22, 2017. You may also enter by sending an email with BREATHE in the subject line to: readermail (at) jamakimrattigan (dot) com. Giveaway open to U.S. residents only, please. Good Luck!

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The lovely, talented, and tea-drinking Jane is hosting the Roundup at Raincity Librarian. Float over there on your autumn leaf of choice and check out the full menu of poetic goodness being shared in the blogosphere this week. Go in peace. 🙂


*Interior spreads posted by permission of the publisher, text copyright © 2017 Kate Coombs, illustrations © 2017 Anna Emilia Laitinen, published by Sounds True. All rights reserved.

**Copyright © 2017 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

Chatting with Author/Illustrator Melissa Iwai about Pizza Day (+ a recipe and giveaway!)

Few words elicit more mealtime cheers than:

“LET’S HAVE PIZZA!”

It doesn’t matter how old you are. Just hearing the word ‘pizza’ you’re suddenly starving for peppers, mushrooms, onions, and olives (okay, pepperoni and sausage) enmeshed in a savory tomato sauce and ooey gooey melty cheese, happily resting atop a thin and crispy or thick and chewy crust. Oh yes!

There’s just something about rolling your pizza cutter over the outer edge of crust and hearing that little ‘crack’ as you free that first hot slice. Then you blow on it just a little before taking your first bite of savory goodness, pulling a long string of mozzarella and gobbling it up quickly so you get it all in your mouth.

If you’re a pizza lover, you’ve come to the right place. Brooklyn-based author/illustrator Melissa Iwai is here to tell us all about her brand new, freshly baked picture book, Pizza Day (Henry Holt, 2017) , which officially hits shelves today. Yum!

Pizza Day is especially geared for hungry preschool munchkins, and is a tasty companion book to Melissa’s wildly popular Soup Day (Henry Holt, 2010). While his mother is away at work, an eager young boy and his father pick fresh veggies and herbs from their garden to make a pizza from scratch.

Accompanied by an adorable puppy named Caesar, they gather juicy red tomatoes, basil sprigs, carrots, onions and a green pepper, all grown from seeds they planted in the Spring.

Father and son wash the vegetables, then make the pizza dough, measuring and stirring ingredients, kneading the dough, then letting it rest and rise. Vegetables are chopped and added to the sauce, which is left to simmer on the stove while they enjoy playing together outside.

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