penny harter on A Prayer the Body Makes and writing during the pandemic (+ a recipe)

The pandemic has made me even more grateful for poets.

It’s truly a godsend to find comfort and solace in poems, and with this much prolonged worry, fear, and uncertainty defining our daily lives, I’ve been needing double or even triple doses of my usual poetry fixes. Luckily New Jersey poet Penny Harter began sharing new poems on social media a few months ago. Her words are an oasis of calm, a chance to dwell in stillness and beauty, reconnect with wonder, and cultivate gratitude.

Penny also just recently published a new poetry collection called, A Prayer the Body Makes (Kelsay Books, 2020). With astute observations of the natural world, life affirming childhood memories, and poignant reflections on coping with grief and loss, we are reminded that poetry can be both prayer and meditation, an important means of looking without and within to strengthen inner resolve.

I’m happy to welcome Penny to Alphabet Soup today to talk about her new book, and what she calls her “poetry ministry” on Facebook. She’s also sharing a comfort food recipe just right for fall. Before we hear from her, here’s one of her social media “pandemic poems” to whet your appetite.

 

“Grapefruit” by Dan Kretschmer

 

JUST GRAPEFRUIT

Carefully, I place half a grapefruit
into the small white bowl that fits
it perfectly, use the brown-handled
serrated knife to cut around the rim,
separate the sections.

The first bite is neither sweet nor bitter,
but I drag a drop or two of honey around
the top, I love how it glazes each pink piece,
then seeps between dividing membranes.

Pale seeds pop up from their snug burial
in the center hole, and when I’m finished,
I squeeze sticky juice from the spent rind
and drink it down.

Each grapefruit is an offering, its bright
flesh startling my fasting tongue. When
bitterness spills from the morning news,
I temper it with grapefruit, savor hidden
gifts as I slice it open, free each glistening
segment, and enter honeyed grapefruit time.

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CHATTING WITH PENNY HARTER

 

Penny at around age 4

 

For the last several months, you’ve been writing and sharing almost daily poems on social media, a welcome “island of calm” amidst these trying pandemic times. How and where are you finding focus and inspiration within your lockdown routine? Any advice for those who might like to do something similar?

There are several sources of inspiration for me. Often I go for a daily drive, mostly local, just to get out for a bit. I’m fortunate that there are marshes, lakes, even the bay and sea not that far from where I live, here in Atlantic County, NJ, and I frequently see things that inspire me, from birds and other animals, to plants. And of course the sky in all kinds of weather.

 

Marsh sky

 

I also read poems, both online posted by friends and in various books, and often find lines that inspire me there. I view this almost daily writing and posting as a practice or a kind of poetry-ministry.

 

Marsh view

 

What can you tell us about the day in early June when you wrote, “Just Grapefruit”? How did you find your way into this poem?

I find it important to deliberately “center” in the moment. I usually have a grapefruit for breakfast. I entered grapefruit time, focused on it, and slow-motioned the preparing and eating it. It was a kind of meditation.

I love the abundance of natural imagery in your poetry overall, especially the mention of various birds and trees. Would you please share your three favorite tips for writing poems about nature?

The best way I can answer this question is to quote one of my recent daily poems:

 

Before the Naming

Yesterday I met some unknown flowers blooming
along the foundation of the neighboring condo—
the former home of an old woman who died some
years ago. I’d never noticed them before, though I’ve
lived here a decade, never witnessed their blossoms.

Like an aging nature spirit, a woodland wise-woman,
my neighbor tended her garden as if each species were
her child. She even rescued the tiny, failing rosebush
given to me when my husband died, found for it the
fertile, sunny corner where it thrived.

She planted her flowers, and they endure though she
is gone into a wicker casket strewn with roses, given
a green burial bordering the woods. Yesterday, I could
not name those pink and white pitchers, but today
I find them in a photograph, name them calla lilies.

Before the naming, seeing. Before the seeing, pausing
long enough to be there, to slowly approach whatever
is calling you into its family, and then to listen for what
it has to tell you—perhaps a name it has given itself,
or the name it has chosen for you.

* * *

 

We have to keep our eyes, mind, heart, and spirit open to the beauties and mysteries of the natural world. One thing this lockdown has given me is slow-motion time—time enough to really “see” each thing’s radiant being, from grapefruit to blossom.

A Prayer Your Body Makes is my favorite of all your poetry collections. How would you describe the book to someone who might be unfamiliar with your work? What are you most proud of regarding the book?

The poems in A Prayer the Body Makes range back and forth in time, exploring the relevance of memories as we age and acknowledging mortality while affirming our connections to one another and the cosmos.

A number of the poems reflect my changing perceptions as a result of my journey through cancer and chemotherapy. Craft-wise, I’ve been working on creating a ‘turn’ in my poems, and sometimes incorporating surreal elements. Above all, I hope that these poems celebrate the miracle of our being here at all.

I’m especially proud of the variety of poems in the book, and of my continuing ability to create poems that speak from my heart, even though I’m now a very senior citizen.

Some of the most poignant poems in your new book reference your spousal loss support group and your late husband Bill Higginson, who passed away 12 years ago this October. What have you learned since then about poetry’s power to console and facilitate healing?

My late husband William J. (Bill) Higginson died almost 12 years ago now. I found great support attending the weekly meetings of a chapter of H.O.P.E., a south Jersey spousal loss organization. After a year or two, I took on a leadership role for the same chapter.

The first collection I wrote after Bill died was Recycling Starlight, charting the first 18 months of my grief journey. I found the writing to be enormously helpful in my healing. I needed to give voice to my sorrow, claim and confront my memories. Share my grief.

And speaking of the new book, although years have passed since Bill died, and I am well over the hard passage of grief, I miss and love him still, so sorrow echoes in many of my poems, along with celebrating the miracle of my being here at all.

I especially enjoyed the glimpses of your childhood and reading about people and places that are so dear to you. I love your description of the kitchen in, “A Kind of Hunger.” Could you provide a little backstory about this poem?

 

A KIND OF HUNGER

Where have they gone, those who stirred
the pancake batter, greased the pan for
the fish fry, shucked corn-on-the-cob,
sliced fresh tomatoes?

And where is the galvanized steel tub
we kids were sluiced in, salt and sand
running off our naked bodies as we
giggled, unashamed?

Night peers through the windows here,
casting shadows on the worn countertop,
the dulled stainless double-sink, the usual
dim and messy corner.

This kitchen breathes as if a sea-wind
has entered, riding the dark, sweeping
it all away until only hungry ghosts
remain, inhaling everything.

~ from A Prayer the Body Makes (Kelsay Books, 2020)

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Barnegat Light Beach House (ca. 1933)

 

Every summer when I was a child, my family vacationed at my mother’s great-aunt’s and uncle’s old, brown shingled beach cottage at Barnegat Light, a town on Long Beach Island, NJ. In that house was the kitchen I depict, the homemade table, the galvanized tub we sloshed the sand off in (we being me, my little sister, and various assorted cousins). I revisited it, triggered by a photograph of a similar rustic kitchen, and the memories flooded in.

Can you recommend any poems or books by other writers that you’ve found especially comforting, hopeful, or uplifting?

Absolutely. So many, hard to name, these new or recent:

Two anthologies:

Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness & Connection, edited by James Crews (Green Writers Press, 2019)

Poetry of Presence: An Anthology of Mindfulness Poems, edited by Phyllis Cole-Dai and Ruby R. Wilson (Grayson Books, 2017)

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Bluebird by James Crews (Green Writers Press, 2020)

Some Glad Morning  by Barbara Crooker (University of  Pittsburgh Press, 2019)

Hush by Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer (Middle Creek Publishing, 2020)

Wind Over Stones by Adele Kenny (Welcome Rain Publishers, 2019)

Any collection by Jane Hirshfield

Finally, have you been doing any notable pandemic cooking and/or baking? If so, please share a favorite recipe. 🙂

I took a shepherd’s pot pie recipe I found online and modified it to a chicken “cottage pie” recipe. The changes I made were, in part, the result of what I had on the shelves when I first decided to make the dish.

I had a bag of frozen peas and diced carrots in the freezer. I had a box of regular instant mashed potatoes rather than the garlic pouch in the recipe. I decided to top the mashed potato topping with grated cheddar cheese.

I’m off wheat so used 3 tablespoons of a gluten free all purpose baking mix to thicken the melted butter / stock mix. Also, I limit salt so added none, just used poultry seasoning. And I chose to use stock rather than milk for flavor. Did use milk for instant potatoes though.

After I tasted the first result, I loved it so stuck with my changes. 😊

*The original recipe for Chicken Shepherd’s Pie can be found at Taste of Home.

 

Mix before mashed potato and cheese topping.

 

Ready for lid.

 

With lid ready to go into the oven at 350 degrees for 40-50 minutes.

 

Finished cottage pie cooling before eating.

Chicken Cottage Pie

  • Servings: 6
  • Difficulty: average
  • Print

Ingredients

  • 2 boneless skinless chicken breast halves (6 ounces each), cubed
  • 4 tablespoons butter, divided
  • 1 pouch instant mashed potatoes (for 8 people)
  • 3 tablespoons gluten free all purpose flour/baking mix
  • 1/2 – 3/4 cup low sodium chicken stock
  • 2 teaspoons poultry seasoning
  • 3/4 cup shredded Swiss cheese
  • 1/4 cup grated cheddar cheese
  • 1 bag frozen peas and carrots (10-12 oz)
  • 1 can creamed corn (14.75 oz)
  • 2 small onions, sliced

Directions

  1. In a small skillet, cook chicken in 1 tablespoon butter until no longer pink; set aside and keep warm. Prepare mashed potatoes according to package directions.
  2. Meanwhile, in a large saucepan, melt remaining butter over medium heat. Whisk in flour until smooth. Gradually add stock; stir in seasonings. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat; cook and stir for 1-2 minutes until thickened.
  3. Remove from the heat. Stir in 3/4 cup Swiss cheese until melted. Add peas and carrots, corn and chicken. Transfer to a 2 quart baking dish coated with cooking spray. Top with mashed potatoes; sprinkle with cheddar cheese.
  4. Bake, uncovered, at 350 degrees F for 40-50 minutes or until heated through. Let stand for five minutes before serving.

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ABOUT THE POET

Penny Harter’s work has appeared in Persimmon Tree, Rattle, Tiferet, and many other journals and anthologies. Her poem “In the Dark” was featured in Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry column. Among her twenty-two published books and chapbooks, her most recent collection is A Prayer the Body Makes (2020). A featured reader at the 2010 Dodge Poetry Festival, she has won three fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, two fellowships from Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA), and awards from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the Poetry Society of America. For more info, please visit: pennyharterpoet.com

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A PRAYER THE BODY MAKES
by Penny Harter
published by Kelsay Books, May 2020
Poetry Collection, 76 pp.

♥️ Read Penny’s almost daily poems by friending her on Facebook, or view them at her website blog (click “More” and then “Blog” from the drop-down menu).

♥️ Other Penny Harter poems at Alphabet Soup:

 

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♦ BOOK GIVEAWAY WINNERS ♦

Since we had to pick three separate winners, we decided we definitely needed to contact Monsieur Random Integer Generator for assistance.

As you may remember from past giveaways, it is not always easy to locate this debonair, monocled bon vivant. He is always on the move and up to something exciting and adventurous.

In the past we tracked him down skiing in the Swiss Alps, hunting pigs with pygmies in the Andaman Islands, designing a Valentino suit in Milan, and taking afternoon tea with the Queen at Sandringham.

Mr Cornelius, our resident bear vivant, is the only one of his species to have M. Generator’s personal cell number. After trying for three days, Mr Cornelius finally reached him, en route via train to Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Yes! M. Generator is in America! And don’t tell anyone — but he’s campaigning with Joe Biden (incognito of course). 🙂

Because of his busy schedule and the pandemic, which prohibits him from personally visiting us here at the Alphabet Soup kitchen, he agreed to pick the winners by mental telepathy. Of course such a feat requires some form of nourishment (M. Generator is generally ravenous) — so Cornelius teleported him some homemade provisions: 350,000 lemon bars, 4,569 cranberry orange scones, and 849 blueberry muffins.

M. Generator made quick work of everything, then picked these names:

For a copy of THE SECRET GARDEN COOKBOOK by Amy Cotler, the winner is:

Laurie Dunston!

For a copy of ONLY THE CAT SAW by Ashley Wolff, the winner is:

Susan H.!

And for a copy of KAMALA HARRIS: Rooted in Justice by Nikki Grimes and Laura Freeman, the winner is:

Marcia S.!

CONGRATULATIONS, LAURIE, SUSAN AND MARCIA!! WOO HOO!!

**thunderous applause**

**cartwheels**

**backflips**

Please email your snail mail addresses so we can send your books off to you lickety split.

Thanks, everyone, for all the great comments. Our next giveaway will be for a copy of JOEY: The Story of Joe Biden by Jill Biden and Amy June Bates, so stay tuned!

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Lovely and talented Tabatha Yeatts is hosting the Roundup at The Opposite of Indifference. Shimmy on over to check out the full menu of poetic goodness being served up around the blogosphere this week. As always, stay safe, be well, wear your mask, and have a good weekend!

 


Copyright © 2020 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

[chat + giveaway] Ashley Wolff on Only the Cat Saw

 

Miao! We are so pleased and honored to welcome award winning Vermont author, illustrator and teacher Ashley Wolff to Alphabet Soup today.

We’re big fans of her adorable Baby Bear books, classics such as Compost Stew: An A to Z Recipe for Earth (Mary McKenna Siddals), Baby Beluga (Raffi), and of course, the wildly popular Miss Bindergarten series, written by Joseph Slate.

In all, she’s published close to 70 titles (as either author/illustrator or illustrator), showcasing her lifelong love of nature and animals, and her mastery of a variety of styles and mediums, including acrylic gouache, linoleum block print + watercolor, and collage.

Her most recent self-illustrated picture book, Only the Cat Saw (Beach Lane Books, 2020), is a refreshed edition of a perennial favorite (first published by Dodd, Mead back in 1985) with all new art for a new generation. In this gentle, calming story, a multiracial family of four go about their daily routine from sunset to sunrise, while their marmalade tabby observes the wonders and beauty of the natural world.

 

 

As they’re busy with supper, only the cat notices the colorful sunset outside the window. During bath time, the cat has wandered out by the barn to play with fireflies, and while the older child, Tessa, reads with her flashlight under the covers, the cat witnesses the drama of an owl hunting a mouse. Oh, the wonderful things people miss when they’re preoccupied!

Spare text + single page spreads tracking the family’s indoor activities alternate with double page wordless spreads showing what the cat is up to. With each block of text, the repetitive tag line, “So only the cat saw . . . ” signals a suspenseful page turn that rewards the reader with beautiful scenes rendered in rich colors and lush textures, immersing him/her in the cat’s world of tall grasses, sleepy farm animals, lightning and rain, even a shooting star.

 

 

I love what Ashley has done with scale, perspective, and composition to play up the cat’s point of view, and her lighting effects, from gorgeous sunset and sunrise, to lamplight, flashlight, fireflies, moon and stars underscore the simple joys of life indoors and out. Such a lovely reminder to take time to appreciate what we too often take for granted.

In addition to being cozy and heartwarming, this story is  reassuringly relatable with its depiction of breast feeding, sitting on the potty, and having both parents share equally in household tasks. Kudos to Ashley for initially including these somewhat unusual details in the earlier book from 35 years ago, clear evidence of her feminist, forward thinking! 🙂

 

 

We thank Ashley for dropping by to tell us what it was like to re-illustrate one of her earliest picture books, and for sharing a favorite recipe and so many cool photos. Enjoy!

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[chat + recipe + giveaway] Please Look After Michael Bond Biographer Rosanne Tolin. Thank you.

 

Today we’re more than excited and pawsitively delighted to welcome More Than Marmalade author Rosanne Tolin to Alphabet Soup!

The 60-something resident Paddingtons are simply beside themselves. They’ve brushed their fur, cleaned their whiskers, and polished off at least 126 marmalade sandwiches in anticipation.

FINALLY, they keep saying — finally someone wrote a book about Michael Bond, their favorite person in the entire universe. Indeed, it is hard to believe that this is the first published biography of the iconic British author, whose first Paddington chapter book came out back in 1958.

 

 

Though More Than Marmalade: Michael Bond and the Story of Paddington Bear (Chicago Review Press, 2020), is geared for middle grade readers, it’s a beary interesting read for Paddington fans of all ages. A work of well researched creative nonfiction, the narrative is an engaging blend of facts and fictionalized scenes that highlight Bond’s life from his childhood in Reading, England, to his death at age 91 in 2017.

Bond always felt Paddington was “real,” and in this book we learn about the real historical events and personal experiences that inspired this inimitable bear character. We see how circumstance, a vivid imagination, and perseverance all came to bear at a time when Bond hadn’t actually planned to write a children’s book.

 

 

His love of trains, lifelong empathy for immigrants, script and story writing background, BBC cameraman experiences, and a fateful decision to rescue a lone bear from a department store shelf one Christmas Eve spawned a classic children’s book series that would evolve into several TV series and two feature length films, along with a slew of children’s merchandising. In 2018, the Great Western Railway named a new Intercity Express Train after Michael Bond and Paddington Bear.

Though he grew up in a nurturing, book-loving family, Bond was deeply affected by the hardships and devastation of WWII. In newsreels and at the train station, he witnessed the traumatic displacement of child evacuees from London (his parents also hosted two Jewish refugees in their home), and at age 17, he survived an air raid in his village before enlisting in the Royal Air Force and later, the British army.

 

 

 

More Than Marmalade not only chronicles Bond’s path to becoming a published author, it shows how he sustained a successful, demanding career — a journey that was fraught with rejection, a broken marriage, even a bout with depression. His grandfather’s advice about never giving up, and his enduring belief in a little stowaway bear from darkest Peru got him through thick and thin.

Why is Paddington so beloved by people of all ages all over the world? How are Bond’s messages of tolerance, kindness, and acceptance — especially of foreigners — more than timely? How does this book prove than when it comes to Michael Bond and Paddington Bear, there is so much more than meets the eye?

We know you’ll enjoy hearing what Rosanne has to say. More marmalade, please!

 

 

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Rosanne with the marmalade loving bear and her dog Dexter.

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Chatting with Elisa Kleven about Hiro’s Hats (+ a giveaway!)

 

Today, we are delighted to welcome back favorite author/illustrator Elisa Kleven to talk about her brand new picture book, Hiro’s Hats (Wild Swans Publishing Cooperative, 2019).

In this whimsical wintry tale set in the mountains of Japan, an adorable snow monkey finds a colorful hat “flying like a bright bird through the sky.” Soon after Hiro waves hello and the hat waves back, it flutters down to play, jumping in the leaves and flying like a kite in the wind.

 

 

Although his siblings tease him, Hiro loves the hat and considers it a friend. The hat seems to love him back, too. When it begins to snow and the world turns “as white as the moon,” the hat keeps him warm.

Only a friendly robin seems to understand. She wishes she had a hat just like Hiro’s, but he warns her that other robins might tease her. She assures him that they already do, calling her a baby because she loves her cozy nest.

 

 

 

Hiro and Robin joyously play together, making a snow monkey with a moss hat. When the wind snatches both hats away, Robin goes after Hiro’s hat, disappearing into the storm. Now Robin and her nest are gone, and Hiro is devastated. The next morning, Hiro wakens to find he’s wearing a snow hat and he hears singing.

 

 

It’s Robin! The friends are happily reunited and spend the rest of the winter together. With Robin snuggling on Hiro’s head with outstretched wings, he now has a warm feathery hat while she has a cozy nest. Come spring, Robin provides Hiro with the best hat of all, while all the other snow monkeys gleefully celebrate the season with silly spring hats of their own. You’ll have to read the story to find out what actually happened to Hiro’s very first hat. 🙂

Elisa’s engaging text and exquisite mixed media collages will captivate young readers, appealing to their love of creative play and making them wish they could be Hiro’s friend. His personality is so endearing and child-like, and as we see him giving his hat a bath, tumbling in the snow, or gleefully interacting with Robin, he’s just plain lovable and irresistibly charming.

 

 

Hiro’s Hats is perfect for imaginative readers who like emotionally resonant stories about animals, friendship, and the seasons, and who appreciate beautifully textured illustrations with a wealth of fine details. Elisa has also included some interesting facts about snow monkeys at the end for those wanting to learn more.

 

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[author chat + recipe] Around the Table That Grandad Built by Melanie Heuiser Hill and Jaime Kim

 

This week most of us will be gathering with family and friends for some serious feasting. We’ll travel from points near and far, bringing homemade dishes, stories to tell, and lots of good cheer.

As we take our places around the table, we can express gratitude for our many blessings, strengthen bonds, forge new connections, and enthusiastically lick our chops. 🙂

We’re especially delighted to welcome Minnesota author Melanie Heuiser Hill to Alphabet Soup today, as her debut picture book celebrates all the joyful deliciousness that comes with sharing a good meal with loved ones.

Around the Table That Grandad Built (Candlewick, 2019) is Melanie’s delectable take on the classic cumulative tale, “This is the House That Jack Built.”  A young girl first describes how her family sets the table with items that have special significance: “sunflowers picked by my cousins,” “napkins sewn by Mom,” “glasses from Mom and Dad’s wedding,” “forks and spoons and knives — gifts from Dad’s grandma long ago.”

 

 

And then (my favorite part!) she describes the mouthwatering menu:

This is the squash that took over our garden.
These are the potatoes and peppers we roasted.
And these are the beans, overflowing the bowl!

Yum! And there’s more — foods to reflect the diversity of her family, including “toasty tamales” and “samosas, spicy and hot.” This is all topped off with Gran’s homemade bread, Dad’s huckleberry jam, their traditional rice pudding, and lots of P-I-E-S!! 🙂

 

 

Jaime Kim’s exuberant mixed media illustrations, rendered in warm and cheery autumnal colors, burst with all the busyness and excitement of pitching in for a special feast.

Each step of the way, as Grandad’s handcrafted table is lovingly adorned by little hands laying on all the objects, ending with plates “red, orange, and yellow,” we can feel the wide-eyed, open-mouthed anticipation building.

By the time we see the finished table in all its glory, we share in the characters’ satisfaction of a job well done, where each has played a significant role. Build a table, build a meal, build a family.

Though this book is perfect for the holiday season, it speaks to any festive gathering of family and friends, where togetherness and convivialty reign supreme. Hungry munchkins will enjoy this lively read aloud as they identify and count objects, recognize colors, observe facial expressions, and pick out interesting details in all the pictures.

Now, let’s find out more from Melanie — can you smell her homemade bread baking in the oven? Mmmmm. 🙂

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