Laura Purdie Salas’s new book

Hi everyone,
Laura Purdie Salas
Way to go, Laura Purdie Salas! My copy of CATCH YOUR BREATH: WRITING POIGNANT POETRY just arrived and I’m impressed (as always) by any book of Laura’s. This one is directed toward teen girls and provides encouragement and tips to shine a friendly light down the path.
Catch Your Breath
A number of poets have contributed to the cause by modeling a variety of poetic forms. Mine is a found poem, “Just Add Algae.” Pat Lewis chips in a delightful acrostic. Matt Forrest uses a haiku to show us how alliteration works. Teen girls (and a LOT of others) will enjoy the wit and wisdom of Kenn Nesbitt, Marilyn Singer, Nikki Grimes, Lee Bennett Hopkins, Laura herself, and a number of other talented poets.

Thanks for the invitation, Laura. Good luck with your newest title.


Vegas and Boston

Hi everyone,

Here’s a shot of the Las Vegas Marathon while we were there. I heard that it involved 35,000 runners.
At NCTE I’m sorry to say that I didn’t get any pictures but Linda Baie was kind enough to take one of Sandy and me Sandy and Davidand someone else took a picture of Georgia Heard and Laura Purdie Salas with me at Do I know how to pick glamorous women or what!

Writers at Work: Making On-line Writing Challenges Work for You, Part 4

Hi everyone,

Thank you for joining me today as Writers at Work continues with this month’s subject of making on-line writing challenges work for you.
David publicity photo
Making On-line Writing Challenges Work for You
Part 4
Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Hi again, Sandy Asher. I’m astounded by the number of challenges you seem to handle without breaking stride! On occasion you have mentioned that you think I possess a lot of energy. But REALLY! You make me feel like taking a nap after reading about all the projects you’ve been working on. You also are the personification of a writer at work. As you so succinctly put it, “A writer writes.”

Some of us may accept writing challenges and/or propose them because writers sense a constant need to test our mettle, stay fit, compare our work, get it out there. Some highly successful writers, such as you, also provide a service as role models for writers who may be a rung or two down but actively engaged in improving their craft.

Jane Yolen, for example, occasionally jumps on my poetry challenges with one or several poems. It invariably causes a burst of energy that attracts other poets to join in. Others have lent their talents as well: J. Patrick Lewis, Joyce Sidman, Laura Purdie Salas, Sara Holbrook . . . the list is much longer. One visitor was Gregory Maguire, author of WICKED: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE WICKED WITCH OF THE WEST.

As I mentioned earlier, not as many student writers have been represented on the Word of the Month challenge as I’d like, but we’ve had quite a few. Two in particular who stand out in my memory are Rachel Heinrichs and Taylor McGowan. They were both 4th graders when they first began posting their poems. In those days we held a vote-off at the end of every month to determine the Poet of the Month in each category. The girls mustered so many backers for their cause, some from other countries, that my total count of visits for the day – something over 1,600 – remained a record until early this year. It has been a privilege to keep track of Rachel and Taylor as they have grown, developed additional interests, and are now preparing to enter 8th grade this fall — an unexpected bonus for issuing a challenge that young people can also take on.

In another case a teacher began sending poems written by her high school kids. These were students with various learning issues and much of their work was not of the highest quality, but they loved the idea that they could write poems that would be published on my blog and they were proud of the encouraging comments they received from other visitors there. Their teacher wrote me a note. “When I introduced poetry, my students were interested. At first, they tried to act cool and aloof, but I knew them… When I showed them poetry, they were a little interested. When I taught them to read poetry, they were more interested. When I told them to write poetry, they thought I was crazy. When they wrote poetry, they came alive. Were the poems good? No, not technically. But they poured their hearts into them and they loved seeing their names on your blog. And that is when their reading scores went up.”

Sandy, I can see that my challenges may be different from those that come with specific rules and guidelines. You have had success accepting the challenges but making them work to your advantage by adapting them to your own needs. In my case, Word of the Month Poetry Challenge merely tosses out a word for anyone to accept or not. Some months most of the poems come from regular contributors but along the way new names are always joining in the fun. There is no long-term commitment involved so people come and go depending on whim, time, and energy. Some of the first devotees of Word of the Month continue to post their poems while others have dropped out somewhere along the line.

From a challenger’s point of view, I take pleasure in watching a community of writers come together around a central issue such as writing a poem inspired by one word or writing something that is theme related or, well, writing anything at all. What invariably happens is that the sense of community serves like an extended family to welcome in newcomers and develop ties with everyone involved. People get to know one another. They exchange bits of personal history, express their concerns about an unruly line or a rhyme. Sometimes they even ask for advice although an unspoken guideline is never to offer unless asked.

So what do I make of these challenges? I think they serve an important purpose and you’ve already stated it: Writers write. No one ever said that writing is simple, fast, or easy. It takes work. It requires patience. It demands passion. Whatever it takes to keep us exercising our writing muscles can’t be a bad thing. I don’t take credit for the marked improvement I’ve observed in the writing of many who routinely post their work on my blog where I can see it, but I believe that those who write on a regular basis are going to get better. That’s how it works.

And now – drum roll please – Sandy and I are delighted to announce our special guest for next week’s concluding essay on this subject of “Making On-line Writing Challenges Work for You.” Our mutual friend Kristi Holl has agreed to join us on the 5th Tuesday so be sure you are here on July 30 to learn what she has to share. Until then here’s a way to get better acquainted with Kristi and her wonderful work. .

Thanks, Sandy! It has been good fun as always.

Kristi, the floor is now yours.


Writers at Work: Making On-line Writing Challenges Work for You, Part 2


Hi everyone,
David publicity photo
Making On-line Writing Challenges Work for You
Part 2
Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Well, dear Sandy, dear Sandy, I’m glad you asked how on-line challenges work from the point of view of the challenger. So far I haven’t been much of one to accept challenges but boy can I dish ‘em out.

My challenge-tossing habit began in 2009 when I became sole owner of a brand-new blog thanks to the devilishly clever Kathy Temean who, upon finishing the nifty website she’d created for me, said that I had to have a blog and, in spite of my manly protestations, proceeded to make me one anyway.

After some stuttering starts, I settled into the routine of searching for material to post. I didn’t want to talk about what I had for breakfast, as utterly fascinating as that might be. Besides, some mornings I skip breakfast so where would that leave me? I began to think about worthwhile content that would justify the time of anyone who happened by my speck of space.

One of my favorite exercises is to take a word – any word will do just fine – and see where it takes me. I’m hardly alone in doing this. What reminded me of it at the time was something I’d just heard Billy Collins say when he lectured in Springfield. One of his poems, “Hippos on Holiday,” sprang from those three words. First came the title, then the poem inspired by the thought.

I issued my first challenge, which I called, WORD OF THE MONTH POETRY CHALLENGE, in October 2009. It has continued each month since then. Again enlisting Kathy Temean’s help I created one category for adults and two for students (grades 3-7 and 8-12). Each month a number of poets, some in other countries, think about the word until a connection occurs that starts them off writing a poem. Long ago I stopped tracking how many poets, poems, and countries have been represented on WORD OF THE MONTH during the forty-five months since it began. Maybe one thousand poems? I get contributors from United States, Canada, U.K., Italy, Australia, Philippines, South Africa, Germany, France, Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia, New Zealand, and many others. I always accept my own challenge so I’ve now written forty-five poems for WORD OF THE MONTH.

The challenge hasn’t been as successful with students although we’ve attracted quite a few. Partly it’s a matter of time. Rules call for teachers to select up to three poems per month per class to post. But if a teacher is into a nonfiction unit or bearing down on math or preparing for testing or a million other things, spending time with young poets has to slip down the list of priorities.

Over the years I’ve thrown down the old gauntlet a few other times too. Now and then I’ll respond to some spontaneous urge. A year ago the lake behind our house was “turning.” Scum from the bottom was rising to the top as the weather changed and caused the semi-annual cycle. I moaned on my blog about my ugly lake and issued a plea for help in couplets. They came in serious numbers from poets who seized the moment to dash off a bit of sarcasm or encouragement.

Linking up with my friend and partner in two books (bugs and Vacation), I occasionally prevail upon Rob Shepperson to provide one of his wonderfully witty drawings, which I post with a challenge to caption it. The idea is borrowed from the weekly contest on the last page of the New Yorker. I see it as a way to exercise a different writer’s muscle and many of my visitors apparently do too.

On several occasions I’ve enjoyed posting challenges issued by others. J. Patrick Lewis has come on my blog with such interesting challenges that poets leap into the game. Steven Withrow suggested a challenge. So have Joy Acey, Jeanne Poland, and others. I’m happy to act as host when these opportunities come along.

Sandy, for some reason the challenges I’ve issued so far have all involved poetry. I think I know why. There are many good bloggers who keep writers challenged with writing novels, picture books, creating story ideas, and so on. I also know of some who challenge their visitors to write poetry. Laura Purdie Salas posts a picture on Fridays and asks poets to write something in fifteen words. But poetry keeps me amused so I tend to stick with it.

My most recent addition, May 2013, is something called THEME OF THE MONTH POETRY CHALLENGE. The twist here is to help writers focus on one basic theme, very much like they’d probably need to do if working with an editor in hopes of being published. For this one I asked visitors to suggest themes and I got a lot. The first one I selected was fishing. For June, the theme was food. This month it’s relatives.

Sandy, I think I’ll wait for my second act to talk about the responses I get from those who accept my blog challenges. By then maybe I’ll have some new comments from participants that I can pass along. So for now, back to you!


Foreword to Edgar Allan Poe

Hi everyone,

Laura Purdie Salas wondered if I might post the foreword to the newly released book about the life and work of Edgar Allan Poe. I asked my editor, Jim Baumlin, for permission and he graciously granted the request. So here it is.

Poe cover
David L. Harrison

Burma-Shave was a brand of brushless shaving cream when I was a
boy in the 1940s. It was famous for its funny signs, which I loved to
memorize. There were usually five or six small signs spaced along the
roadside so when you spotted the first one, you started anticipating
those to come.

Does your husband
Grunt and grumble
Rant and rave
Shoot the brute some

Hardly a driver
Is now alive
Who passed
On hills
At 75

This was not my first experience with memorization. I was already
famous (with my parents plus one aunt and one uncle) for
memorizing the Gettysburg Address. And what did all those words
committed to memory teach me? They taught me the pleasure of
carrying beautifully written ideas around in my head.

Does that sound silly? I don’t mean that I became a memorization
freak, but I did like thinking, sometimes, about those words in my
head put there by Abraham Lincoln and wondering how he decided
on just those words and none others and how he managed to arrange
those particular words to create such a powerful message. “Four score
and seven years ago” reads like poetry. It has a solemn cadence to it,
the perfect cadence to begin a somber speech in a sad place. He could
have said, “Eighty-seven years ago,” but there would have been no
magic in it. It’s not just what you say; it’s also how you say it.

Not long later I discovered Edgar Allan Poe. I read “The Raven”
and was transported into the world of a master story teller, sitting
alone and forlorn, “pondering … over many a quaint and curious
volume of forgotten lore.” This was a long way from Burma-Shave
signs! And although Lincoln’s great speech was exquisitely crafted,
this guy Poe was a poet in a class by himself.

So what do you think I did? I memorized “The Raven,” of course.
Like, who wouldn’t? I’m not telling you you have to memorize
anything. But I am telling you that to read a poem or story by Edgar
Allan Poe is to sit in the presence of a unique American genius. Few in
any age have matched him for creating a mood, word-painting
indelible images, and capturing an audience the way Poe does.

He was born in Boston in 1809 and died in Baltimore forty years
later. During much of his brief life he was described as melancholy,
erratic, and willful. He never made much money and was often in
need. Yet he became an important figure in American literature and
even now, more than one hundred sixty years after he died, his work
remains well known and respected.

That’s why I’m so glad that the book you are holding has been
created. When you start turning its pages, you’ll learn about the life
and times of Poe, the mystery of how he died, the many ways in which
his work has influenced other writers and whole genres of writing
and, best of all, you’ll get to sample rich servings of the man’s
remarkable work.

If you want a good chuckle, look up some Burma-Shave signs:
Train approaching
Whistle squealing
Avoid that run-down feeling

If you want to read one of history’s finest speeches, check out
Gettysburg Address:
… our fathers brought forth upon this continent, a new nation …

But if you want to meet the haunting and often haunted melodies of
the works of Edgar Allan Poe—
It was down by the dank tarn of Auber,
In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir …
—turn the page and go!

David L. Harrison
Springfield, Missouri
1 February 2013

The book is a private printing that is available at the Library Center in Springfield and at select Big Read events. It can be purchased (for $5.00) exclusively at PawPrints Bookstore in the Plaster Student Union on the MSU campus. (417) 836-8959.