Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

TheLiteraryCatWhen browsing books at a fund-raiser by a local cat rescue, it seems fitting that I would pick up books about cats. My latest is an older book of about 200 pages that is filled with stories, essays, poems, and excerpts all related to the feline. Besides the topic, what attracted me to The Literary Cat is that many of the entries are by well-known classic authors. As an added bonus, at least every second page contains an illustrative photograph.

Growing up, most of my animal books fell into these categories: dogs, horses, wild. Very few cat books graced my shelves which didn’t bother me at the time due to my being devoted to canines. After an affectionate stray named Lucy came into my life, my whole pet perspective changed. Hence, I now better appreciate stories such as The Cat That Walked by Himself by Rudyard Kipling. This tale tells of how in the beginning, The Woman picked out a dry cave and the Man happily fell asleep with her in front of their cave fire, and thus the two became tame. Out in the wet woods, the wild animals watched. Then one-by-one they visited and exchanged services for the opportunity to live in comfort with Man and Woman. All except the Cat. Yet even Cat desired the positive attention of Man and Woman. Just on its own terms. And so Cat tricked Man and Woman.

Prior to Lucy, I had already begun visiting a nearby no-kill shelter, where I would pet and groom some of the more needy dogs. As I became more comfortable with a cat living in my home, I started to split my time at the shelter between cats and dogs. Without realizing it, I found myself becoming a cat person. Hence, I now better appreciate essays such as A Leave Taking, in which author Jean Burden writes of sharing life with a thirteen-year-old ginger tabby named Cinnamon. Paragraph after paragraph reveal memories of a shy but adoring cat who would scoot under the bed during company but jump on the bed next to Burden when alone again. Pain was everywhere the day Burden lost his best friend to cancer. In addition to the multiple personal essays about cats, there are also more formal observations penned by other cat experts and even naturalists.

After I lost Lucy to kidney disease and other complications, I got more involved with animal rescue. We fostered a senior dog. I started to help feed feral colonies. And, of course, more cats came into life. Hence, I now also better appreciate all the whimsical and serious poems scattered throughout the pages of The Literary Cat. There are ones by the likes of John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Sir Walter Scott. Also, Odgen Nash wisely reminds readers:

“The trouble with a kitten is THAT
Eventually it comes a

Besides the mix of short and long poems, there are also one-liners and paragraphs by other esteemed authors. Shakespeare credits cats with being vigilant, while Andrew Lang muses about the contemplative life of cats, and Mark Twain notes that a home without a cat may be a perfect one but “how can it prove its title”?

The Literary Cat, compiled and illustrated by nature photographer by Walter Chandoha, has some limitations. It lacks a table of contents. Many authors are unknown names, except perhaps in cat circles. Photos are limited to black-and-white.

At the same time, The Literary Cat is an entertaining and thought-provoking potpourri of literature about our feline friends. Some entries will reveal how little times have changed. Society still hasn’t found the solution to roaming cats. Others will show how much times have. More and more people now recognize that cats enjoy the indoor life. For me, I enjoyed this one-volume collection that celebrates cats.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

My review will not do justice to Beauty is a Verb, edited by Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black, and Michael Northern. Poetry anthologies do not fall under my expertise, even if the subject matter of disabilities is something I know about as a special education teacher. However, this almost 400-page book created such as impact on me that I’m going to try to write a few words of recommendation.

Should you ever have opportunity to pick up Beauty is a Verb what you’ll have in your hands will be far more than simply a series of poems written by those with physical disabilities. The anthology is organized into four distinct periods within the American Disability Poems: Early Voices, Disability Poetics Movement, Lyricism of the Body, and Towards a New Language of Embodiment. The earliest poems were written prior to 1960 when disability was still shunned. As such, poets within this period were unable to imagine such accommodations as the erection of curb cuts for wheelchair users. The second period includes the controversial development of crip poems or poetry of cripples. Some fear that if disabled people form a community, their separateness from society will be reinforced. At the same time, others believe that the connection of a community would be affirming to those with disabilities. Recent poetry shows more experimentation by poets in how they chose to explore disability.

Accompanying many of the poems are essays. Some of the essays are tributes to poets who are believed to have shaped disability poems such as Josephine Miles who suffered from the age of two with rheumatoid arthritis. Others were written by featured poets themselves and cover such enlightening topics as the antagonism and obsession felt towards Helen Keller: “I was an ordinary kid who never did her homework, never cleaned her room, and didn’t want to be saintly. There was no way that I could ever be able to hang out with Helen Keller.” Several of the essays even include references to landmark events for the disability rights movement such as how in 1977 the movement reached its apex when the disabled and their advocates took over the fourth floor of the San Francisco Federal Building for almost four weeks. This protest resulted in the ratification of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits any federally-funded program from discriminating against a person with a  “qualified” handicap.

I do have a couple of quibbles with the anthology. First, the tiny print is off-putting, and almost kept me from reading this valuable body of work. Second, as a special education teacher, I wished to see more than physical disabilities represented. However, the editors do provide a reasonable rationale for this latter decision: “…. We primarily chose poets with a visible disability. In this, the poets’ difficulty becomes twofold, a struggle with physical limitations coupled with the society’s critique of non-normative body.”

As a package, Beauty is a Verb gives an insight into how societal attitudes towards disabilities has evolved. As I perused it, I found myself wanting to pursue a doctorate in disability literature. I can also imagine teachers of students in high school or college selecting certain poems and essays to spark conversations about what it means to be both abled and disabled in one’s body. Although perhaps for a select audience, this is an impressive volume.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

An expression that comes to mind about Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall is that “the whole is greater than the sum of all its parts”. The main storylines to this verse novel are the immigration of a Mexican family to America and the death of a parent. Thematically, the story is also about family, friendship, and identity. All of these parts interconnect to make an emotional experience that will have long-lasting impact.

The immigration experience forms one storyline to Under the Mesquite. Lupita and her siblings were born in Mexico, but her family moved to the United States when she turned six. However, this verse novel is not about the difficulties which can happen to immigrants in crossing the border or when trying to avoid deportation; Lupita’s family enters the U.S. legally. Nor is this verse novel about the challenge of being a second or third generation Mexican; Lupita spent her formative years in Mexico, and when the family moves to the United States everyone ends up feeling pretty happy “living the American dream in Eagle Pass”.

Instead, Under the Mesquite is about an altogether different struggle: one which I call dual homesickness. Basically, when she’s on the American side Lupita misses her former life in Mexico, but when she’s on the Mexican side she eventually finds herself longing for her new home in Texas. My being from Canada, it’s a conflict with which I well relate.

Because Lupita looks different and has an accent, naturally she also faces discrimination. And yet to my surprise, its Lupita’s Mexican friends who harass her the most, accusing her of talking “like you wanna be white”. Because of these different takes on immigration, I found Under the Mesquite to have a fresh approach.

The death of a parent forms a second storyline to Under the Mesquite. When Lupita enters her freshman year in high school, her mom is diagnosed with cancer. Despite the rallying times when it felt as if her mom would recover and life would return to normal, Lupita and her sisters receive the dreaded middle-of-the-night call.

Under the Mesquite is about the exhaustion and anxiety that accompany a death vigil, and the sorrow that fills a girl’s heart following her mother’s death. Yet it’s also filtered through the unique experiences of McCall, for Under the Mesquite is largely an autobiographical story. Lupita’s earliest role is that of a surrogate mother, the oldest child who steps in and cares for the siblings while the father remains by the side of his hospitalized wife. When the cancer worsens, Lupita wishes to do nothing but retreat. Her drama teacher becomes a confidant at this time and encourages her to funnel her emotions into the stage.

It’s often said that there are no new stories. You could view Under the Mesquite in this way, for death of a parent isn’t a new tale. But how McCall develops the relationship between Lupita and her mom, down to the symbolism of the mesquite tree, is original, and therefore makes for a memorable read.

A story told through verse has a strong chance of turning ones off who are not accustomed to the format. Myself, I first stumbled across Under the Mesquite at the library. It being about a teen who writes poems and loses her mother intrigued me enough to start flipping pages. The instance though when I saw its poetic format, I rejected it. Only when I saw Under the Mesquite listed as an award winner, and still felt entranced with its premise, did I give it a chance.

Now that I have, I love the emotional punch McCall creates with her intense visuals. I also appreciate that the poetic form allows her to provide the perfect emotional distance from one of the most painful experiences anyone can face. Does this mean poetry is better for writing about heart-wrenching topics? I don’t think so, because I’ve equally enjoyed prose stories on the topic. But, it’s not worse either. Just different. Which means Under the Mesquite has further sold me on the merits of verse novels.

I love writing about Mexican-Americans because we have strong roots and strong points of view, but we also have the same fears, the same dreams, the same universal struggles as all other cultures, and I want to bring our humanity to the forefront, depict us as human beings without detracting from our culture, our uniqueness.

–Guadalupe Garcia McCall, Fictionalizing a Life Story with Guadalupe Garcia McCall

GuadalupeMcCallCulture. If readers take away just one thing from her verse novel, Under the Mesquite, Guadalupe Garcia McCall would like for it to be a sense of their voice and heritage.  McCall loves to write about Mexican-American characters, because this is part of who she is. But she’s also more that her culture. In my interview, I ask her about Mexico, acclimating to the United States, and other aspects of her life such as family, friends, and pets. In Under the Mesquite, which was named a William C. Morris Debut YA Award Finalist, she writes in fictionalized form about moving to America but also about the death of her mother to cancer. I’ll post a review tomorrow of Under the Mesquite. Save the date: March 1!

ALLISON: What are your memories of Mexico?

GUADALUPE: I remember the patio, or quad, where I played with the neighborhood children. Our house was catty cornered to my guelita’s house, so I was able to play with my best friend, Santa, in the quad all day. My Tio Juanito spent his days with us, riding his bike to get us candy and sodas from the store and watching us so we didn’t get out of the yard and into the street. There was a giant mulberry tree in the center of the quad, and he would climb up there and catch “chicharras” or cicadas for us. We ran through the sunflower fields and watched our mothers wash clothes on aluminum washboards and hang them up on the “tendereros,” their clotheslines. At night, we’d wander into the sunflower field and let the lightning bugs crawl all over our arms, get lost in our hair and just watch each other glow in the dark. It was a magical, carefree time, full of love, nature, and happiness.

Another thing I remember is all the weekends we spent in San Vicente, a small municipality where my father’s primo had a rancho. We visited often, helped with chores, herded goats, rode horses, swam in the Rio Grande, and just enjoyed life.

ALLISON: Have you visited your homeland as an adult? What was it like?

GUADALUPE: When I was a young mother, I felt the pull of Mexico, the desire to have my children experience what I had experienced. My husband and I took them to my grandmother’s house several times, and we went to the rancho in San Vicente. They enjoyed it. It was a good experience for them. The boys are grown now, and life for them is full of activity and movement, so we haven’t been back there since they were small.

ALLISON: You were good in theatre and fashion, why did you choose to be a writer?

GUADALUPE: As a young lady, I had many passions. I loved drawing, singing (although I’m not very good at it), acting, fashion design, and reading / writing. I don’t think I chose writing as much as writing chose me. I started writing when I was very young and always loved the feel of that pencil in my hand. Now, I love the feel of those keys beneath my fingers. I have a lot going on inside my head and I love exploring those characters, those stories, playing with words. When I write, I feel like I’m taking a vacation. I get to be in my own little world with the people I love, the characters I create.

ALLISON: What appeals to you about country life?

GUADALUPE: I love nature. I feel the spirit of the creator in everything in nature. There is nothing more beautiful than seeing things go through the cycle of life. We can learn so much from plants and trees and animals. There is something so organic, so peaceful and comforting, in watching life unfold, curl up, breathe, and experience everything mother earth has to offer.

ALLISON: If you had to pick somewhere else to live other than Texas, where would you live? Why?

GUADALUPE: There is no one answer to that question. I know that this is going to sound weird, but I want to live everywhere. My only regret in life is that I only have one life to live…I don’t know who said that, but that is exactly how I feel. I want to live multiple lives. I want to experience EVERYTHING. I want to love, live, and experience different relationships, in different settings, in different times.

ALLISON: What pets do you have?

GUADALUPE: We have several pets. First, there is Baxter; he is a pitbull mix. He is the best house dog I’ve ever seen. He is a loving, sweet boy who loves to eat french fries. Who am I kidding, he just likes to eat. Then there is Blanca, she is a long-haired white Chihuahua. She owns our hearts. She is the doll of the house, and dances for her food. She loves it when I sing her song, “Tengo una muneca vestida de azul.” Last, but not least, we have a Luna. Luna is a white/gray short-haired feline with gorgeous, huge brown eyes. She spends her days resting her chin on the edge of the couch with her eyes closed, listening to everything and reacting to nothing.

ALLISON: Who were your role models growing up?

GUADALUPE: My role models were my teachers. I loved them. They were nurturers. They were mentors. They were loving and kind. But they had great expectations for us, and I always wanted to deliver for them. My mother was also a role model for me. From her, I learned to be both gentle and tough. I learned to love and laugh with all my heart, and to give my family only the best of me, to love them above all else. But I also learned to be strong, to be courageous, to be ready for anything life threw at me.

ALLISON: Why a verse novel?

GUADALUPE: The verse novel was a suggestion from my editor, Emily Hazel, at Lee & Low Books. She saw the potential for it in the collection of poems I had submitted to them. When she asked if I was willing to work with her on the creation of a novel-in-verse, I immediately accepted. And I am so glad I did. She was absolutely right about the format.

ALLISON: You wrote: “I didn’t address my mother’s illness in the original manuscript (the collection of poetry) because it is a difficult thing to talk about.” How many versions did you undergo before you could tackle the difficult subjects in your novel?

GUADALUPE: I think we went through about three revisions before Emily saw the direction the manuscript was taking and addressed it with me. I think I was always writing that story, but I was being so subtle, so careful, so quiet about it, that it took us both a while to see what the story was really about.

ALLISON: As a young immigrant from Mexico, how did you adjust to life in the US? What of these experiences did you incorporate into Mesquite?

GUADALUPE: I adjusted very well. I was a very communicative child. Even though I was very shy at first, once I was placed in a bilingual classroom, I blossomed. That is why bilingual education is so important in our schools. It provides a safe, familiar bridge for young people to travel back and forth from English to Spanish as they acclimate to the new language in a new world.

ALLISON: I incorporated some of the earlier struggles with language acquisition and then my desire to speak without an accent so that I could have a chance to win in oral interpretation competitions across the state. I think it’s important for young people to see that there is nothing wrong with learning and becoming proficient in a new language. To keep their accent or modify it, there’s nothing wrong with either decision. It’s up to them. They have that choice and it’s all okay. They have to do what is right for them.

ALLISON: How important is your culture to you? What advice would you offer to young people who are now immigrants themselves?

GUADALUPE: Culture is very, very important to me. Culture is part of who I am at my core. It colors big parts of my world, my life. However, it doesn’t define me. I am still an individual, with a unique perspective, a unique personality. I think what I said earlier answers this question. Young people, regardless of their gender, social group, or ethnicity, have to do what is right for them as individuals. We all belong in this world. Every corner of it, every nook, every cranny holds possibilities for us as inhabitants of earth. We have to be open to it all.

Gaudalupe_TeaserRead any debut novel of an author and you’ll often discover that it’s hugely autobiographical. Such is the case with Guadalupe Garcia McCall and her verse novel Under the Mesquite, which was named a William C. Morris Debut YA Award Finalist. I’ll post an interview tomorrow with McCall and a review of her book on Saturday. Save the dates: February 28-March 1!

Born in Mexico, McCall immigrated to the United States when only six. She grew up in Eagle Pass, a border town in South Texas. Eagle Pass is also the setting of Under the Mesquite, which was released in 2011 by Lee & Low Books. Although McCall told Lee and Low that the journey of her main character is only somewhat similar, she also notes that the setting had a lot to do with the way her book developed. She tried to keep the sense of how Mexico used to be. A lot of her family still frequent Mexico and she wanted to show that connection.

Growing up, McCall had many role models, but most especially her mother and her aunts. In the same way, the main character of Lupita finds her mother to be of huge inspiration. Later, while living in the United States, McCall also found role models in her teachers. According to Beyond the Pale Books, her third grade teacher admired her stories written in Spanish and always entered her work into school competitions, while her high school teachers encouraged her to publish.

McCall also had positive sibling relationships. Like her main character, McCall had five sisters and two brothers. Naturally, she fictionalized events, but she told YALSA that the emotional connections and siblings rivalries stem from her own childhood.

For McCall, the easiest part of adjusting to the United States was the language. She surmises to Lee and Low that she might have learned English quickly, due to being a linguistic learner by nature. As she grew older, her main struggle with English involved learning to speak with an American accent instead of a Mexican one. As in Under the Mesquite, it only took “a million Blow Pops to get the job done”. In her novel, McCall also describes Lupita’s struggle with dual homesickness, which is an emotion I’m well-acquainted. When on the American side Lupita wished for Mexico, but when on the Mexican side she eventually began to long for Texas.

In her teens, McCall used acting and drawing as a way to escape. Like her main character, she was an actress in high school. She competed in both acting and speaking events for her school. Unlike her main character who wrote poetry too, McCall also liked to draw. She would illustrate and frame the costumes for her school plays just for fun. Her drama teacher encouraged her to pursue a career in fashion. However, writing has always won out for McCall. She told Lee and Low, there’s always “a movie sequence developing” in her head.

Now McCall is both an author and an English teacher. When asked by Lee and Low about how she balanced both careers, she admitted, “It is most definitely challenging to keep the teacher separate from the writer, especially when I’m supposed to be teaching and the movie reel is going on in my head. What a bummer—not to be able to just drop everything and write!” I relate to how she feels, myself trying to live in both worlds. McCall also feels privileged to produce work that she can share with her students, that will both enrich their lives and help them find themselves in life.

McCall lives with her family, which includes three grown sons, in West Texas. She loves living the simple life in the country, where she be close to what she loves: nature. Besides teaching, she writes poems and novels. Much of her poetry, including her first poem, has been published in several literacy journals. She’s currently working on her third novel.

Read an autobiographical poem: 411 on the Muse

Read an interview with McCall: Morris Award Interview

Watch a trailer for Under the Mesquite: SchoolTube

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