April 12, 2016

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Finding an Authentic Voice

I made it to the poetry Sweet Sixteen!

Surviving two rounds of March Madness Poetry was my personal goal for the competition. I’m happy about that and honored to have faced such gracious poets: Allison Hertz and Robyn Hood Black.

My family stayed up late for the announcement of Round 3 words. Mine is “quasi.” I made a few notes before I went to sleep, and then had a dream about baby chickens. Don’t ask.

Give the gift of chicks to a family in a developing country!

In the morning, I sketched out two of the initial ideas before I got out of bed.

The first idea came from the definition of “quasi”: almost, sort of like. It’s in the voice of a child who is adopted and doesn’t quite look like the other members of his family. He’s not as tall as his sister. His hair is brown, but not the same shade as his mother’s. He lacks the family’s freckles and cleft chin.

Quasi poem attempt 1.
The couplet using quasi was:

Sometimes I feel like I’m their quasi kid.
They love me, but I don’t quite fit in.

The poem's voice didn’t sound authentic. I wasn’t doing  justice to the complicated emotions surrounding adoption. 

The second idea went like this: funny poems have worked for me so far, how about a kid’s art project that looks sort of, kind of, almost like…?

Actual Shovan kid art project.
"Gargoyle" is proudly displayed on our bookshelf.

This poem has a narrative. The speaker brings his parents to the school art fair. They admire his paintings and a lovely mask, but then they see his clay sculpture.

Quasi poem attempt 2.

This brown clay masterpiece, what could it be?
It resembles a fish or a tap dancing tree.
Is it a dog knocking over a pail
or a quasi-chimp who’s escaping from jail?

Blah. The focus is on the parents. The child's voice gets lost. He's just reporting on events, not describing how he feels about Mom and Dad dissing his sculpture.

I had my morning cup of tea. Never underestimate the power of good British tea. Sent one kid off to school. Ate some Life cereal (cinnamon). Started again on the computer.

The phrase “quasi human” came into my head. Maybe my character was a mermaid, half girl and half fish.
Cute Mermaid With Purple Hair
Are you my speaker?

But when I began writing, the person speaking was more like a ghost—the ghost of a girl haunting her school.

By the end of the poem, the ghostliness had become a metaphor.

Sometimes when we pass in the hall
I hear you say, “She’s no one at all.”
I’m invisible, though I wear what you wear
a hoodie, jeans, and long, straight hair.

Showing off for your latest boy,
you scan the crowd for some new toy
to play with, tease, do as you please.
I tuck into shadows. I hide. I freeze.

I’m quasi human, not quite here.
When you look at me, I disappear.

The speaker feels (though it’s never stated directly) like a ghost at school. As the victim of a bully, she is invisible—the bully ignores her or treats her like a non-person. She also tries to make herself invisible when the bully is looking for a target.

After a few quick drafts and revisions, I read the poem out loud to my daughter—she was about to dash for the bus. Julia is in middle school, which is where I imagine the poem taking place.

Jules gave it a thumbs up, but in reading the poem out loud I noticed some problems with meter. Each line had 8 or 9 beats. Line 3 and line 8 had more. They stuck out.

Went about my day, reciting the poem in my head.

Here is a full page of notes—all on the second couplet. I wrote these in the parking lot of the health food store. 

Reworking a single couplet.
The photo cut off the left margin of the page,
which includes rhyming word banks.
I decided to leave line 8 alone, other thank replacing the active word “tuck” with a more ghostly and passive verb, “melt.”

It’s okay that this line sticks out a little bit. The line carries emotional weight. The two short sentences at the end of the line have a quick cadence, like a heart stopping and starting. Keeping it slightly longer than the other lines is a way to emphasize that this particular line is important.

Oh, and a title! Since this is an epistolary poem, a poetic “letter” from one person to another, I titled it “Dear Bully.” There’s a note about the title at the bottom of the poem.

Here is the final poem, which you can also read (AND VOTE FOR!) at Think Kid, Think!, along with the other March Madness Poems:

Dear Bully

Sometimes when we pass in the hall
I hear you say, “She’s no one at all.”
I’m invisible, though we both wear
a hoodie, jeans, the same long hair.

Showing off for your latest boy,
you scan the crowd for some new toy
to play with, pick apart and tease.
I melt into shadows. I hide. I freeze.

I’m quasi human, not quite here.
When you look at me, I disappear.

Note: The title refers to Dear Bully: 70Authors Tell Their Stories, Edited by Megan Kelley Hall and Carrie Jones.

Laura Shovan
Dear Bully: Seventy Authors Tell Their Stories
Check out the "Dear Bully" website.

Was I bullied as a teen? That's a long story, so first...

Poetry Friday is at Greg's house, GottaBook. I'm sure there will be more posts from the Sweet 16 authletes, along with book reviews and original poetry from our great community of bloggers.

And now, my bully story. The short version.

UPDATE (teens and up only!):

Writing "Dear Bully" brought up memories of my own bully, an ex-boyfriend. (Admission: I own but have not yet read the Dear Bully anthology, probably because of the memories it's likely to trigger.)

We broke up at the end of sophomore year in high school, but stayed friends, sometimes more than that, for a few months. Then I left the tight social circle we shared.

It was hard to walk away from some of those friendships, but I wasn't ready for the drinking--and other things--that were happening when we hung out together.

After a year-long relationship with my ex, I had left many other friendships untended. Only a handful of old friends were willing to welcome me back. By midway through junior year, we all started driving. That's when the real bullying started.

My ex would sit in his car and wait for me in the school parking lot. Every day. It didn't matter what time I left. Whether I stayed at school until 6 PM, or left at the last bell, he was there.

As soon as I started to pull out of the lot, my ex would slam his foot on the accelerator and cut  me off, swerving to miss my car and beat me through the lot's single exit. I don't know how many times he nearly hit me.

It went on for months. I began to panic every time I had to stay after school, but I never told my parents. I never told a teacher. I didn't want to admit this was happening.

Finally, a dear friend told her parents, who told mine. The car-bullying stopped, but things did not get easier at school. Every day, I felt the way the speaker in my poem does. I wished I were invisible, below the radar. But I also felt invisible, as former friends disappeared from my life.

Almost 30 years later, this incident is still painful. That's probably why I haven't talked about it much, even as an adult.

There are some great online resource for teens who are experiencing bullying. Here's one I like because it has kids' voices front and center:


Linda B said...

I know this will speak to many, such a topic for everyone today-too much going on that is serious. And I wish it would stop! I liked the enjambment of the lines in the first stanzas. And I enjoyed hearing your thinking, Laura. You show me things I don't have the habit yet of considering. Best of luck in this round!

Author Amok said...

Thank you, Linda. In this competition, it's a risk going serious. The funny poems seem to be doing best.

I appreciate your comments. Voting is now live! Thanks for the good luck wishes.

Author Amok said...

Those of you on Facebook, I am sharing a little bit of my own "Dear Bully" story over there. It's not easy to write about, even nearly 30 years later.

Buffy Silverman said...

Thanks for the detailed look into your process--so interesting to see how everyone approaches this challenge. And this is such a haunting poem--love the invisible/melt into shadows/hide, freeze.

Heidi Mordhorst said...

Laura, this is more fascinating than most of the process posts we've all been enjoying, and I bet it's BECAUSE you were on your way to connecting with your past experiences. Just as you didn't quite know that when you started noodling around with "quasi," we didn't know that we would end up in the high school parking lot with you. Interesting, interesting turns of mind, phrase and history. Wonderful.

Author Amok said...

Thank you for the note, Buffy. Even though there's not a "real" ghost in the poem, I'm glad I was able to keep the haunted tone. I appreciate it.

Author Amok said...

Heidi, thank you for the kind words. I was reluctant to do another process post, but maybe it's important to show how much work goes into each phrase of a poem.

You're right, I did not expect the poem to take me back to these memories. The girl in the poem is having a different bully experience than mine. It wasn't until I sat with the poem for a day or two that I began to write down this abbreviated version of that period. I feel for kids who are going through this, especially with the added element of social media. There's really nowhere to hide. Comments that used to be cutting in the halls can now spread through an entire school community.

Gloson Teh said...

Sorry to hear about your painful experience. :( Thanks for sharing it. I might have experienced similar incidences, though they are not close to your extent. If I do though, I'll know I'm not alone.

Tabatha said...

That sounds really scary, Laura. I was scared of someone in high school -- a female friend who was taking medicines that made her behavior erratic and frightening. I didn't tell anyone either until it came out that I had skipped school to avoid her. Why didn't I tell earlier? I wish I had.

jama said...

A powerful poem, Laura, good luck with it in Round 3!

I'm so sorry you had this experience -- it was interesting to read about your process and how it led to your unearthing these painful details from your past. As Linda said, your poem will speak to many -- too many, actually, who are experiencing the same fear and pain as victims of bullying.

Author Amok said...

Gloson, it's important to know you're not alone. Being bullied, as I mentioned, is a very isolating experience. Part of what a bully does is isolate his or her target.

As a parent of teens, I see that I should have told my parents right away. Not telling anyone, not speaking about it at school, was part of why the car-attacks continued. I wasn't giving consent to it, of course, but I wasn't standing up to oppose it either. I *felt* like a victim.

Good luck out there, with your teen peers. Be strong. Be yourself.

Author Amok said...

Tabatha, I don't know why we, as teens, don't tell. It made sense at the time. I remember feeling like telling would make things worse, expose me to a different kind of attack, more anger. Did you feel that way with your friend? There's also that need to say, "I've got this. I'm in control of my own life." So complicated.

Jama -- Thanks for your thoughtful comment. It was not easy to write about this. I am still friendly with a handful of people from high school, including the person who finally told. I have no idea what they will say or think if they read this post. While I wouldn't say "I don't care" what they think about it, it's more important to me to share the story.

Andromeda Jazmon said...

Laura this is such a powerful post! Thank you for sharing your process and your pain. There are so many layers to work through - I admire your courage and grace.

laurasalas said...

Laura, thank you for sharing all of this. I loved seeing the background to your poem and witnessing your process. And I'm so sorry for the harrassment you experienced in high school. There are infinite forms of bullying, aren't there? The silver lining? Powerful poems as an adult! <>

Author Amok said...

Thanks for your support, Andi and Laura. I knew my husband at the time this happened and we haven't spoken about it in years. I've told my teenagers some things about the ex, but never about the car-bullying. Writing the poem has allowed me to open up about it. Important, as my children are the age I was at the time.

Linda said...

Laura, your poem is wonderful and full of emotion. I know kids will connect with it. I also enjoyed reading about your process. It's always interesting to learn how a poem came to be.
As for bullying, I think most of us have experienced it in some form or other. I doubt we ever really get over it. Thanks for sharing your story!

Ruth said...

Wow. There's so much in this post. I love the poem, and I applaud your courage in sharing your story.

Author Amok said...

Linda and Ruth, I appreciate your comments. I'm not moving on to the Elite Eight. Whew! The anxiety was killing me. I can breathe again.

Robyn Hood Black said...

Hey, Laura - I hand't checked the voting yet. A powerful poem and post, and I'm glad, even if it didn't carry you on in the contest, that it made its way into the world. Thank you for being so candid - I think kids will identify with this. And thanks for the peek into your process, too.

Mary Lee said...

The story behind the poem always adds so much more...although I'm sure anyone (present company included) who has been bullied brings enough to your poem for it to hit home on its own. Thank you for writing an important poem for MM13. It was "the right words in the right order."

Tara @ A Teaching Life said...

The story behind the way this poem took shape and the story behind your experience of bullying itself is so powerful, Laura. I am going to share this poem with my students- middle school is such a cess pool of bullying, and we have had a rash of experiences in sixth grade recently. You thoughtful poem will foster much needed conversations, I am sure. Thank you.

Ed DeCaria said...

Laura, thank you for walking through your poetic process and for telling your story. Reading stuff like this makes my facilitation of the event all the more rewarding for me.



Matt Forrest Esenwine said...

I just came upon this post after reading today's, and following a couple of links. I'm sorry to hear about your ordeals in high school - and although it doesn't make it any better, please know you weren't alone. Many of us dealt with things like that - myself included - and felt the same as you did. In my case, the public school in our town was so small (41 in my graduating class) I had no way of becoming invisible if I tried! On the plus side, neither you nor I would probably have the poetic perspective we do today, had it not been for those difficult times...something to ponder!