Saturday, March 18, 2017


the solid presence of
the undeniable truth of
the heavy power of
the ontological history of
the metaphysical magic of

I have always collected stones, even as a child, recognizing some unusual, unnamed treasure in small ordinary pieces of earth, pieces that could be held tightly in hand, giving strength, granting a wish, advancing a prayer, blessing the one whose fingers warmed the surface ...and closed into a fist around the life and story that was contained therein.  (Read my related poem, Stones in Our Pockets here.)

I have always collected stones--- as stories-- I was here, I was in this place, and this small piece of this place can now go with me, be with me, always

Stones that glitter, found as I walked the labyrinth at Proctor (the conference/retreat center for the Diocese of Southern Ohio)

Larimar, that I got in the Cayman Islands-- pale blue stones, the color of the Carribean Sea, the only place in which it is found.

The stone etched with a crooked cross after laying for eons on the bottom of the ocean before I found it one Easter morning on a beach in St. Thomas.

And the strings of stones-- the rosaries and prayer beads, I collect as I travel.

Stones have the power to hold our stories, to tell our stories,

We dream and hope and hold on to the little pieces of the earth to anchor us to the most important paragraphs of our own stories and to imagine the sentences that construct the stories of others.

Stones and I have a history.

So it was with surprise and delight that I discovered two books that honor the power of stones and their connection to our human stories.

We have all seen lovely editions of the Grimms' Tales. We may even own several.

But in The Singing Bones, Shaun Tan offers a uniquely beautiful and haunting edition, forcing us to see these timeless tales with new eyes, to consider their power to evoke our individual and collective lives in symbol and archetype and trope.

In the Forward, Neil Gaiman reminds us

People need stories.  It's one of the things that make us who we are.  We crave stories, because they make us more than ourselves, they give us escape and they give us knowledge. They entertain us and they change us, as they have changed and entertained us for thousands of years.

Tan has created stone-like sculptures to illustrate each story... or what he calls " the hard bones" of each story.  Each full-page illustration is preceded by just a paragraph, a short abstract, representing "what matters".  In the Annotated Index there are brief summaries of each tale for those who want to know more.  In the Afterword, he explains how as an adult he "came to appreciate these tales for their complexity, ambiguity, and endurance."

Of his sculptures, Tan says
What matters above all else are the hard bones of the story, and I wanted many of these objects to appear as if they've emerged from an imaginary archaeological dig, and then been sparingly illuminated as so many museum objects are,  as if a flashlight beam has passed momentarily over some odd objects resting in the dark galleries of our collective subconscious.  Like the tales themselves, they might brighten in our imagination without surrendering any of their original enigma.
 In his work, Tan has consistently exhibited the power to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar.

My first encounter with his work was his near novel-length picture book, The Arrival, which wordlessly illuminates the journey of a man leaving his home country and his family, then arriving and surviving in a new and strange land. This was one of my students' favorites, and still remains one of mine.

To see more works by Shaun Tan click here.

While Tan created stone-like sculptures to illustrate his book, in Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family's Journey by Margriet Ruurs, Nizar Ali Badr created illustrations with found stones or pebbles of varying sizes as his medium.

The author, Margriet Ruurs, says of his work in the Foreword:
Nizar's work spoke to me strongly.  In his art I saw people changing--from happy, carefree children into people burdened and fleeing.  There was hurt and sorrow. But ultimately there was also love and caring. and amazingly, all of this told with stones.  
She describes being inspired to create a story that could be illustrated by this amazing artist.

Their timely and unique collaboration is written in both Arabic and English. Her poetic prose illuminates the stone pictures and tells a story of freedom and loss, war and fleeing, fears and hopes, and finally arrival, after much walking, to a new nation, a new home.

My favorite illustration, very similar to the cover image, is accompanied by these words:

A river of strangers in search of a place
to be free, to live and laugh, to love again.
In search of a place where bombs did not fall,
where people did not die on their way to market.
A river of people in search of peace
 To see more amazing pebble art by Nizar Ali Badr click here. or simple search his name in Google images.

At a time when our government has made a journey such as the ones described in Stepping Stones or The Arrival an impossibility for many, the very stones cry out as witnesses for those dreaming, wanting, needing to make the journey... and those same stones sing in celebration with those who have already come to new homes.

the solid presence of
the undeniable truth of
the heavy power of
the ontological history of
the metaphysical magic of

 Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

Shaun Tan and Nizar Ali Badr both represented stories in a unique way-- with stone-like sculptures and pebble art.

What story in your life can you tell using only objects? Can you use stones--- or perhaps another medium-- like sticks, buttons, leaves,.. the possibilities are endless?

Write about how rendering your story through a tangible medium changes your perspective.

Write a poem or essay to illuminate your illustration.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

E Pluribus, Unum?

By the wayside (Own work) [CC BY 1.0 

We are broken.

We are broken
at the very least.

We are broken 
and destroyed
at the extreme worst. 

We have long hidden
the chasms,      the schisms
are pulling open
no longer holding
the resentment
the anger
the hostility
 the hate

the deep divide
as tamped down
all encompassing
bubbles and oozes
to the surface
threatening to tear
the democratic fabric 
we wear
so unaware.

We watch in dismay
as freedom of speech
becomes  a civil war
rather than a civil responsibility
a civil right.

Our tongues and pens
are swords
cutting into
our Pluribus
our fictitious Unum.

Sapna Chand [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

How do we talk to each other?
How do we walk back from the abyss to a place safe enough to have a conversation-- to a space of critical and constructive, yet compassionate and kind discourse?

And what conversations need to be had to close the distances between us?

How do we tell our stories and be heard?
How do we hear  the stories others tell us?

How do we integrate facts accurately and significantly into our discourse?
How we humanize data and statistics so that we understand the human stories represented by each number, each percentage, each bar graph and pie chart?

How do we respectfully lift the invisible--that which we don't see, choose not to see, out of the context in which it remains hidden?

How do we train ourselves to see?

How do we foster talking with rather than talking to, at,  past, and around each other's Truths.

How do we talk to each other?

Some of my past blog posts may be helpful as we individually and collectively figure out how to talk to each other and how to teach our children and  our students.... and ourselves to also listen.

Included in most of the posts are books and other  resources that may be useful for current and necessary conversations.

We Are All Alike, We Are All Different

Remaking Our World

Open Season on Black Men

Ferguson and Other Nightmares

Social Justice


Against Forgetting: Poetry of Witness

The Poetry of Resilience

I, Too, Am America

Who Are We in America?

Black Lives Matter..., Too:  Let's Talk

An American Lyric:  Claudia Rankine

The Rights of Children

The Danger of a Single Story

You Do Not Define Me:  Telling Our Own Stories

 Today's Deeper Writing  Possibilities

Identify a person with a different perspective, opinion, or experience than your own.

Have an extended conversation with that person-- listening to understand her point of view and how she arrived at her thinking and understandings.  Share your own point of view-- identifying, if possible, places where your thinking converges,

Write a reflection or poem about your conversation, clearly explaining both points of view, and points of agreement.

Include any questions that remain about your partner's position and your own.Also identify any surprising  points or lessons learned.

If possible, share your writing with the person with whom you had the original conversation
Encourage them to write their perceptions and memories of the same conversation and share  with you.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016



Writers are always searching for perfect words to paint powerful images. We shade with appropriate adjectives, we color with clauses, we expand our definitions with details; we specify , we clarify, and we bring our images to life by describing what they are, what they have,  and what they do.

Another often overlooked way to create powerful images is by telling what something or someone or somewhere is not.

We can approach objects, places, people, situations, and events from the opposite or unlikely side, from a new perspective,  by examining what  our subject is not, what it does not have, or what it cannot do.

Like looking at the negatives of old photos, we can examine the negative spaces as a means of creating a similar, yet different image- -a shadow image.

An Angel for Solomon Singer by Cynthia Rylant contains a powerful and poetic description of a room, considering all that it is not,  and all the features it does not have, and all the things Solomon is not allowed to have or do in this room-- all things for which he longs.

Solomon Singer lived in a hotel for men near the corner of Columbus Avenue and Eighty-fifth Street in New York City, and he did not like it.  The hotel had none of the things he loved.
His room had no balcony ( he dreamed of beautiful balconies).  It had no fireplace (and he knew he would surely think better sitting before a fireplace).  It had no porch swing for napping and no picture window for watching the birds.  He could not have a cat. He could not have a dog.  He could not even paint the walls a different color and, oh, what a difference a yellow wall or purple wall would have made!

With these negative words, we not only see the dismal hotel room in which Soloman dwells, but we also feel his loneliness, his weariness, and  his pain.  A description of what the room actually contains, what it actually looks like, would not have created an accurate image for us, nor fill us with the same empathy.

Once I noticed the power of this not/no in this passage, I began to see this technique in other texts and  to experiment with it in my own writing.

One of my attempts with this technique is this third section of a longer five-part poem, The Dancer's Dream Suite

She never planned to be a dancer.
She was not the ballerina who befriended each neophyte dancer that entered the company.  She never immediately smiled as visitors entered the studio to witness, to gawk-- to envy the lithe bodies stretching and bending on the highly polished hardwood floor.
She had none of the easy dancer banter hidden in her mind that fell effortlessly from the mouth of her sisters in pink. She had never been like the current starling darling of the company, a little girl dreaming of elegantly spinning from the time she was three.
She never wore a tutu for Halloween or ran into her yard in ballet slippers before her mother could remind her to change.
Dancing was not what she intended to do and she never intended to stay in this place.
The company was not her family, as the Russian proclaimed, and most of them were not even her friends.
No one applauded her successes and waited with flowers for her after the last performance to take her to a late dinner as Jake’s CafĂ© around the corner where the other dancers gathered and stayed long into the night dancing wild unstructured gyrations that were not part of classic ballet.
No-- instead she exited the stage door, caught the train home, riding silently, neither looking out the window or at her fellow riders.
No-- instead she returned home to feed her cats and read trashy grocery store novels until she fell asleep alone, dreaming of children she didn’t have and their father whom she had not yet met. © RobinWHolland

This dancer comes to life as we consider what she is not, how she has none of the expected characteristics of  a dancer. Again, her loneliness is tangible and resides in the negative space.

I recently was introduced to two additional  and powerful uses of negative space.

As I read the poem Lure by Robin Coste Lewis in the collection Voyage of the Sable Venus, winner of the 2015 National Book Award for Poetry, I was struck by the quiet horror that we feel as the narrator recounts  an incident of incest that "did not take place"  in her childhood. The negative statements recounting her truth render the images and events all the more disturbing and haunting.

Her poem begins:

I am not there.
(We are not in that room.
I am not sitting on your lap.
I am not wearing the yellow
and white gingham skirt so pretty
Grandmother just made for me
this morning....

In a recent interview about her work  with Nicole Sealey at PEN America, in response to a question about the most daring thing  Lewis had ever put into words, interestingly, she responds by discussing Lure and what she was not intending to do with this piece.

... “Lure,” is an exploration of incest and its long-term impact on survivors. That was challenging to write because... I wasn’t interested in being shocking, or even cathartic. If all I can do is to get my poem to go “Boo!” that might be thrilling for a second, but it would be cheap, gimmicky. I’m also disinterested in catharsis as a goal. As a tool, sure, but as a goal I remain suspicious. So what if we all cry. Who cares? A poem is not an Oprah episode. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against crying. I hope my work allows the reader to access sensations that have been locked away or ill-considered. But when we make that the sole mark or goal—“I cried...” —we miss out on poetry’s deeper properties, which can take us far beyond emotional release. And so when thinking about how to write about incest, I knew catharsis was not enough. I wanted more. I assumed my reader was more intelligent than me, so then there was no need to over-explain, or to trick my reader with a gimmick, even a gimmick about abuse. Also, I never want my work to be a sly narcissistic invitation that requires the reader to look at me instead of the poem. 
You may read the entire interview here.

 E. Lockhart begins her young adult novel, We Were Liars  by having one of her characters tell us  about the negative spaces of the family who populates her novel--who they are not.

Welcome to the beautiful Sinclair family.
No one is a criminal.
No one is an addict.
No one is a failure...

On the first page of this novel we are immediately intrigued as she alternates between what the Sinclairs are and are not, leaving us wanting to know this privileged family, to understand their particular pains and specific situations, as they gather each summer on their private island.

 And finally, as I was looking for something unrelated on the internet this week,  I re-encountered one of the most well-known protest poem/songs --The Revolution Will Not Be Televised by one of my favorite artists from the 70's, Gil Scott-Heron. ( This song is the first cut on Pieces of a Man.)

You will not be able to stay home, brother
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag
And skip out for beer during commercials
Because the revolution will not be televised
The revolution will not be televised
The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox
In 4 parts without commercial interruptions....
I  smiled as I realized the entire structure of his poem/song  is in negative space--- the revolution will not......
I also smiled at how times have changed--- and how not being televised, not being streamed, not being seen instantly, everywhere, is no longer an option.

You can listen to to the entire song here  and read the complete lyrics here.

The power of no, not and negative spaces.
The underside, the shadow image.

We can use these negative statements and views to look with new eyes at objects, places, people, situations, and events.

What is not?

 Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

Reread the samples and others you may locate.

Describe an object or a place  by telling about what it is not.

Write about a person, their circumstances and situation--- tell their story using only negative descriptions and statements.

Write about an event- a trauma, a sadness, regret, or a celebration by detailing what did not happen--either as a technique to describe what actually happened in the manner of Robin Coste Lewis in Lure- -or to examine what truly did not occur.