Red Beard Press

My eighty-year-old friend, Elli DeLling, just had a collection of her poems published by the Red Beard Press, a publishing company run by high school students here in Ann Arbor. They combed through a lifetime of her poetry, choosing their favourites for her book, then proceeding to edit them.  Conversely, in her recent poems, Elli began to modify her style, to play to the tastes of the teens. This was an instance of inter-generational cooperation like I’d never witnessed before. 

    Deeply moved by her publishing experience, I visited the Red Beard Publishing company’s weekly planning meeting. A dynamic and positive young woman from the University of Michigan conducted the meeting of of volunteers from several Ann Arbor high schools. They already were at work on their next book project—a volume of poems by two nationally known poets, Danez Smith and Frannie Choi. I listened in as they made design decisions for its cover, delegated work, and planned an outing to take photos for the cover.    

    For part of the meeting, a pair of local librarians visited to get advice and energy for their own teen outreach program. Students from the Red Beard press offered to lead workshops on fiction writing and book design as well as to hold a poetry slam in the library with an open mic.

    Overall, I couldn’t help think of Summerhill, the progressive English boarding school, that was the brain child of A. S. Neill, the English educator, which so influenced students and teachers of my generation. The teens at Red Beard amply demonstrated how they can accomplish as much as their elders if given opportunities for initiative, decision-making, and creativity— all Neill ever envisioned for students at his school.    

    I left the meeting with the insight that young people are capable of far more initiative, creativity and energy than their elders.  Certainly, in our tech-dependent publishing world, young people who are so conversant with the latest technologies, can be the logical leaders of adults.  Maybe that is the secret that those of us old enough to have to earn a living don’t want anyone to know. Young people are better than us in the end.

 

The Writers' Institute at UW-Madison

 

I just got home from the University of Wisconsin’s Writing Institute.  I feel drained and exhausted from keeping my eyes and ears open for the last three days. There was so much to hear and learn, so many people who could help me. 

                This was a fabulous conference, well organized with stars in the writing and publishing worlds.  Nathan Bransford and Jane Friedman gave great talks about social media and the changing times for publishers and authors.  Dale Kushner spoke from the perspective of a poet turned successful author.  A day later, I’m still laughing at Michael Perry’s humor.

                I pitched to five different agents, and by the last pitch session, my nerves had gone the way of all flesh.  I’ll never again be overwhelmed at the prospect of talking up my book.

                I’ve been to other writing conferences, bigger ones, but this one in Madison was special because the faculty cared so much about the success of the participants.  When my friend and I told Christine DeSmet that an agent had asked each of us to send our entire ms, she swelled with pride.

                Just writing this makes draw a big sigh.  So much to absorb. So much to implement.  I’d better stop writing this blog and get busy.

 

Greenwich Village, 1960's

I was a teenager in the sixties.  I grew up in Queens, a borough outlying the heart of New York City, Manhattan.  I went to the movies with friends, both girlfriends and boys.  On special occasions, my parents took my brother and me to Broadway plays.  But we never ventured into Greenwich Village with its folk musicians and poets whose sounds lealked onto its streets. So those dense square blocks in downtown Manhattan, called simply as the Village by New Yorkers, were unknown to me then.

As an adult, I’ve been writing a novel partially located there and partially located in my childhood locus of Astoria, Queens, where I am from.  So I have learned about the goings-on in the Village at that time. Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs—all of those folk greats—got their start in the crowded and crumbling coffee houses which dotted the Village Streets. Perhaps it was the availability of inexpensive digs which made it easy to transition from the practice room to the makeshift stage at the Gaslight Café or the Café Wha, but the Village became the folk mecca—the   place a folk singer had to come and be heard in order to make it on the national stage.  The closeness of the folk community, the fact they turned out for each other, promoted their art.

It wasn’t only indoors that all this music-making took place.  Every Sunday there were impromptu concerts in Washington Square Park open to all.  So while folk music sang about the common person, they also played to those who happened to be passing by.

It wasn’t only folk singers who came to the Village to be heard.  Poets and poetry readings abounded.  In some cases, poets sniffed out the folk scene as when Alan Ginsberg spent time following Dylan around. 

My main character gets to hear Phil Ochs, Allen Ginsberg and Audre Lorde.  She isn’t me; she’s lots luckier than I was.  I never got to venture out of the provincialism of my middle class neighborhood and hear these folk greats perfect their skills. I can’t undo the past.  My teenage self never got to go there.  I never heard a young Bob Dylan sing a song that he’d only jotted down the previous day.  I can only give my fifteen-year-old character, Alice Kaplan, comparable opportunities.

 

Pete Seeger

For me, the door slammed shut to the sixties two days ago when Pete Seeger died. Twanging along to his banjo or guitar, he was in the center of all its protests, articulating its moral zeal. There was never doubt he believed in the power of song to bring small folks together to change the big powers that be.  No matter if he was attending rallies to support unions, marching for the Civil Rights movement or to end the Vietnamese war, he’d sing then ask the audience to join in.  Clearly for him, song was tantamount to prayer.

The folk music itself was a big part of his message.  In listening to recordings, I was struck by how clearly he articulated the lyrics.  It was as if he viewed himself as some sort of conjurer, channeling the words and wisdom of small folks from our past to deal with the big  problems of our present. He sang songs for children and songs for grownups, songs at once soothing and invigorating, conveying an encompassing support and energy to go with the fight.

In recent years when I’ve seen him, Seeger has made my heart jump into my throat. Yes, that was my sensation at the sight of that reedy man in news footage of his ninetieth birthday bash at Madison Square Garden. He sang with so much joy in front of thousands, it didn’t matter his voice had lost half its former resonance.  Though frailer than I’d seen him, he still stood quite upright as if all his political battles had kept him in shape, building muscles no one would expect him to have.

He was incorruptible too. In a pale blue work shirt, he refused to cave into the pressures of McCarthy, not naming names during the grilling of the House on Un-American Activities Committee. He didn’t seem to care about wealth and power so he couldn’t be intimidated by  threats of their withdrawal.  If TV networks no longer wanted him, he found a way to survive, singing around the edges of our country and world. Despite his anti-government stance, he was unmistakably patriotic, bursting into Woodie Guthrie’s anthem, “This land is my land, this land is your land” at every opportunity. Clearly, He would never have fought so hard against money and power if he’d had doubts that our land was worth it.

Seeger could be a bit of a curmudgeon.  He didn’t necessarily want times to change. When Bob Dylan first played folk on the electrical guitar, Seeger was horrified.  But when he was behind the mic, singing and strumming with all his might, the whole audience in his hand, he was stunning, a spirit onto himself.  For me at least, he made it easy to believe that I was part of something bigger, better than myself, that I could live in brother and sisterhood with the many others in the audience, equally smitten with his powers of voice and heart.

Once a Child, Always a Child

I just finished writing a middle school grade novel tentatively titled Lies My Best Friend Told Me and sent it off to an agent.  I have the expected postpartum pangs, but I’ve told myself I’m not done with writing for children.   I’ll never be done.  Children’s literature has always made my heart sing, and probably always will—even if I live to be as old as my mother did.  For me, growing up, which seems to have taken my whole adult life, has meant reaching down to the first books I loved as a child.   Or maybe  learning to re-love children’s books has meant learning to respect the child in me. I  graduated college with the usual delusion that I was finished with all this childish stuff.  Parenthood  provided my excuse for a return to reading the books of my childhood to my children.  And I reveled in it—this getting to reread to my children books I’d loved such as Winnie the Poo and Peter Pan.  And my small subjects had no choice.  They had to listen to their mommy’s melodramatic readings.  My choice of books may have been fantasies, but they were real, too.   Once, after having read the latter to my oldest son at bedtime, I snuck back to his room.   “Psst,” I hissed from the doorway, “I’m Tinkerbell, and I’m here to teach you to fly so you can come with me to Never Never Land.”  He bolted up then saw it was me.  I never figured out if the look he gave me was one of embarrassment that he’d fallen for my ruse or  simple disappointment that he wasn’t going to take off for this magical land.

Of course, there was a whole new generation of writers who had published sinceI’d been a child which I got introduced to as a parent.  Although Dr. Seuss might have been around when I was small, he didn’t really become famous until I was in my last years of elementary school, too late for me to have read him then.  So I introduced  him to my children and read him I did, getting almost  physical pleasure from Seuss’s rhyme and meter.   “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant/ An elephant's faithful one hundred percent,” I must have almost shouted that and other of his delightful refrains.

Are you ever too old for a children’s book?  Not if you don’t forbid that part of yourself to continue to grow and flourish.  I found that as an adult reader of children’s books,  I had much the same taste as I had as a child.  For example, as a nine- year-old, I had loved the largely realistic and humorous books of Beverly Cleary.  As an adult reader of children’s books, I gravitated to the same.  When a friend who had an older child told me about a hysterical book for children by Judy Blume entitled Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, I couldn’t wait to read it to my five-year-old son.  I’m afraid I found the antics of Fudge far funnier than my kindergartener did.   I learned then that if I wanted to read a children’s book, to go ahead and read it myself rather than impose it on my son before he was ready.

Beloved Teacher-In memorium

Memorial: Blanche Chaiken

(March 10, 1922 - January 19, 2003)

by Ellen Halter

 

You found me

on the near side of childhood.

Your brow,

arched like a spade,

plunged through topsoil

to the secret garden

of my heart,

trillium running through it.

 

Your retinue

of nine-year olds,

sailed with you

after school,

through the projects,

its mean grid

of concrete and brick,

to the library.

Port of entry,

its bay and lagoon,

underwater dives,

we'd surfaced

late afternoon,

the sun in our eyes.

 

Out-of-focus,

blurred,

memory

I believe.

Ramrod as a mast,

regal as a queen,

you trod abroad,

toeing outward

away from me.

 

You, my dear,

interred,

bones to dust,

I can’t conceive.

Dumb to the love of the child,

deaf to the poet’s pleas,

To please,

please,

heed.

 

You there,

deferred,

a mirage,

I retrieve.

My shoulders squared,

my eyebrows raised,

readied to proceed.

A New Beginning on an Old Page

It's snowing this February night on the midwestern town where I've spent the last twenty-five years.  It's my home, but not my hometown.  at heart I'm an Astoria Girl.  Always have been.  Always will be.  Because I left when I was seventeen and never returned except for summer vacations, I have a need to resurrect that past.

The place I called home as a child was a cooperative development called Queensview in Astoria, New York.  My husband who grew up in a real small town thinks it was a small town of sorts.  It had a stable population, so many of us who moved in as babies spent our entire childhoods there.  We watched each other grow up and leave.  And then we lost each other until now--the era of Facebook and other social networks.

In the last couple of weeks, I've joined two Facebook pages--the "Queensview Nursery Alumni Association" and "Astoria Kids."  As I wrote on the Nursery Alumni page, I graduated 56 yrs ago.  LOL!  Best of all, I found a former classmate there.

I've also come upon unexpected images of my younger self as classmates have posted class photos.  The biggest surprise is the accuracy of my memories.

Signing off on this snowy winter night.

An older Ellen