Poetry’s Bells and Whistles

I was doing some research this morning and came across a workshop session titled, Adding the Bells and Whistles to Your Novel.  There wasn’t a description of what the workshop would include, but I was fascinated by the Bells and Whistles.

My two year old electric car has lots of bells and whistles.  It has a rear view camera.  It can parallel park itself.  It signals me when cars approach on the left or right.  There is even cool purple interior lighting at night that outlines the door.

In doing a web search for the meaning and origin of Bells and Whistles, I’m more confused than satisfied.  The definition is something non-essential added to a product to make it more attractive to buyers.  Given this definition, I wonder if poetry should ever have bells and whistles since really good poetry boils the words down to only the bare essentials.

But, my web search attributed the origin of the term to shipping where bells and whistles are used to mark time and signal alerts.  It was suggested that it had something to do with carnival organs that have both bells and whistles and finally, I found several references to the term coming from trains.  Most of the references I checked did agree that the term came into usage during the 20th century in the US and now is recognized in most English speaking countries.

OK, so lets get back to my question of, What are the bells and whistles of poetry for you?

For me, one is the way a poem looks on the page.  I love when poets use caesuras to good effect.  Concrete poetry does this, too.  The reader not only gets the good words, but the lovely image on the page.  Years ago when Toi Derricotte pointed out to me that William Carlos Williams poem The Red Wheelbarrow is set up in stanzas of little wheelbarrow shapes, the poem took on a new life and energy for me.  For me, that is a bell and whistle.

I can remember spending months wrestling with a poem about the sunrise and I wanted the poem to read right to left to show how the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.  I struggled with this poem because I was writing it for children and having them read backwards was not a good thing to do since they were struggling with learning to read in the first place.  I finally solved my problem by writing the poem as a reverso, a poem that can be read top to bottom or bottom to top.  In my case the poem could be read left to right or right to left.  Now, there is a bell and whistle added to a poem.

Since poems are meant to be spoken aloud, I wonder what the bells and whistles of that are.  Is it onomatopoeia?  How about assonance,  consonance or alliteration? Would those all fall in the bells and whistles category?

I’m going to have to do some more research and thinking on this, but in the meantime, what are your ideas for Bells and Whistles in Poetry?

Living on an Island

I took a letter to the post office to be mailed yesterday. As I stepped into line I heard a rooster crow inside the building. I couldn’t believe my ears. As I stood waiting, I could see a man at the counter with a big wooden box and he was mailing chickens! He got done with one box and pulled up another that had been setting next to the wall. When he had completed his transaction, filling out forms, the postal clerk picked up the big box and moved it to their storage area. The chickens started crowing and were quite loud inside the building. The clerk scraped his fore arm on the wooden box, so he paused to get another form (I figured it was a workman’s injury form) from a co-worker. When it was my turn at the counter, I got this postal worker.

“Are you OK?” I asked.

Oh, sure.”

When do you get a pick up so you don’t have to listen to that all day?” I asked.

They’re going by over night delivery. But if they aren’t quiet, I’m eating them for dinner.” He smiled at his joke. “Actually they get picked up at noon.”

I was glad because even I wouldn’t want to listen to loud, crowing chickens all day.

Living on an island is an adventure. All I could think of was how far the chickens were going to travel. Were they going to another island? Were they being shipped to the mainland? Were they a special breed? Special layers? Or fighting cocks? Were they going to a fair or other chicken competition?

I didn’t think that the chickens would be coming back, because Kauai is very careful about letting agriculture of any kind on our island for fear of bringing in foreign substances and diseases.

Oh, the Kauai chickens are so much fun!

How to Write a Poem

First, start with the Universe,

grow it bigger, vaster

than even you can hope.  Try

to find new words to describe

the unimaginable.

Next,  wait

for the sound of parakeets

swarming, in the evening,

roosting in the trees, what words

their dreams provide.

Finally, smell gardenia and clover.

Fill your lungs with the scent

of possibility.

Now, take your pen

and write your heart.

New Year Poetry Postcard Exchange

For the New Year, Jone MacCulloch organized a post card exchange among children’s poets.  I got mine done early.  I did water color washes on the right sized paper and then wrote an individual haiku on each wash.  It was a fun, easy, quick project for the 10 people I sent my cards to.

We had until the Chinese New Year, this weekend to complete our mailings.  Many of the poets ordered their postcards from one of the on-line services with their poem printed over a photograph.  But this meant all of their poems to their recipients were the same.  Quick and easy and ten people have snail mail in their home mail boxes.

I received another of the 10 I’m supposed to get yesterday and the return label was decorated with “Live, Laugh, Love.”  I love the alliteration, but I always smile when I see those inspirational messages that come in threes.  Being a children’s poet means that I love words and learning the meanings.  And when I look at those three words, I do have to ask myself, how can one NOT live?  If I’m reading the message, I must be alive.  Isn’t it rather silly to tell someone to live?   I think it would be better–keeping with the alliteration–to tell someone to Laugh, Love and Learn.

The other one I’ve seen is Breathe.  How can one not breathe?  If you aren’t breathing you couldn’t read the message in the first place. It is sort of like the nurse telling you to relax just before she gives you a shot.

So, even though those messages don’t work for me, they do make me laugh and as they say, Laughter is the best medicine.

2017 New Year Resolutions


Now that we’re coming to the end of the year, many of us are evaluating our progress and setting new goals, planning our new year resolutions, and thinking about our dreams.

I’d like to tell you about my cousin Lenny, his big dreams and how he always seems to live down to his expectations. Cousin Lenny is the black sheep in my family.

This story starts with a Sunday dinner at Aunt Sally’s house. All the family shows up and we have a great meal. You know the sort of thing, fried chicken, okra, sweet potatoes, hush puppies, sweet iced tea and Aunt Bee’s coconut cake.

On toward evening Lenny says his good byes and starts the two hour dive to his home, but when Lenny got on the freeway, the traffic was so bad, he decided to take the back country roads. Lenny is driving by the tobacco fields and the cotton fields, he passes the occasional farm house with the comforting lights on inside the house. When all of the sudden, Lenny hears a thump, thump, thump.

So Lenny pulls over to the side of the road and gets out to see what the problem is, and sure enough, Lenny has a flat tire. When Lenny opened the trunk to get out the spare, he remembered he’d lent his jack to his brother a month ago and Lenny hasn’t gotten it back.

I’ll just phone my brother to bring my jack back, but when Lenny looked at his phone, the battery was dead and he didn’t have any cell service out in the boonies.

Not to worry, Lenny thought. I’ll just walk back to that farm house, I saw about a mile back and ask to borrow a jack.

As Lenny began to walk, he started to fret. What if the folks at that farm house aren’t up? NO, the lights were on, so they must be up. It was getting colder so Lenny turned his collar up and kept walking.

What if they don’t have a car jack? Farms have pick up trucks and tractors. Nah, everyone has a jack. The farmer probably has the very first jack he ever used. Heck, farmers save everything, he probably even has his granddaddy’s jack, even his great-granddaddy’s jack. It won’t be a problem to borrow a jack.

It’s probably a little red jack with one of those crank handles. The farmer probably treasures that jack from his great-granddaddy. What if the farmer won’t lend me his jack? What if the farmer looks at me and sees a city slicker and won’t trust me with his jack? He probably thinks I’ll break the thing. Yes, he probably won’t lend a jack to me.

Lenny had worked himself into quite a state by the time he reached the farmhouse –and the lights were out.

Well, they couldn’t have gone to bed too long ago, the lights were on when I drove past. So Lenny knocked. Tap, tap, tap.

Lenny waited . Nothing happened.

I probably didn’t knock loud enough. Lenny knocked again, this time louder. Knock.  Knock.  And while he waited Lenny started to thinking, what if the farmer is mad that I woke him up? What if the farmer keeps a shotgun by his bed and he comes to the door and shoots me? No one knows I’m out here in the country. I saw the movie Deliverance. I know how these rural farmers are. I’ll bet the farmer is a Klansman. I bet he keeps his Klan robe in the closet by the door so it’s ready anytime he wants to go out. I’ll bet this farmer doesn’t like people from the city.

Still nothing had happened so Lenny knocked one more time, really loudly KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCK. And from within, Lenny heard in a gravelly voice, “Hold your horses, I’m pulling on my pants.” And then Lenny heard the heavy steps of someone walking down the stairs and the door knob turning. Lenny was getting really agitated now, he braced expecting to see the barrel of a Klansman’s shotgun staring down on him.

Gunless, the farmer stood in the door way. “May I help you son?”

A most agitated Cousin Lenny turned away from the door. “You can keep your damn jack, you bigoted Klansman,” and with that Lenny walked away.


Lenny was so close to achieving his goal. Instead he shot himself in the foot.  I ask you, How often do we do we give up on our goals when all we need is just a little more effort, or a little help from our friends?

There is a saying in poetry. A poem is never completed, it is only abandoned. What Lenny did was abandon his goal.

I’m here to encourage you to hold onto your dreams, to put in that extra effort and if you find you need help, I’ll be standing on the other side of the door when you knock. All of us are here to assist you. Let us help you, encourage you, support you in your goals. Don’t give up on yourself and we won’t either.

Here’s to New Years resolutions that allow us all to grow.

Dear Librarian,

It has come to our attention that your collection, like most, doesn’t contain enough children’s poetry.

We know you feel terrible about this and will rectify the situation immediately.


I saw a sign similar to this in an art gallery in Melbourne, Australia.  I’m printing cards with this message to leave at the libraries and book stores I visit.

Would you like to join this  guerrilla  poetry action?


Do Grownups Color As They Read?


Three year-old Grace came dashing into my studio like a clog dancer.

Dressed in summer shorts and a crop top, I could tell she was upset by the stomping

of her cowboy boots on the tile floor.







I’m a children’s writer and I guess to young Gracie, I would know the answer.

Yes, I thought of saying, readers add the colors to our books. When writers write, and readers read they enter into a contract. The writer puts the words down on the page, trying to tell a story. Then the reader comes along and gives meaning to the words. It is the connections and links that the reader brings to the story that give meaning and add color to the words. But how do I explain this to a three year-old so that she can understand? It is the writer’s job to build bridges that let the reader enter into the story, to develop empathy for the characters and to understand the change that happens to the main character and feel the struggles the character has gone through. Oh yes, adults add the color to books as we read them. But, I had a hunch from her stomping this wasn’t really the question Gracie was asking.

I picked her up, sat her in my lap.

“What do you mean, Gracie? Do you want to tell me about it?”

“Donnie said I couldn’t color the page in my coloring book that I wanted to. I want to color the princess having a tea party with the fairies, but he says I have to color one page at a time, front to back—that’s how grownups read a story. He took my crayons and broke them because I wouldn’t color the next page with a dumb old prince.”

“He wanted to tell you how to read a book?”

“Yes, and that isn’t right!”

“Nope, you should be able to read a book anyway you want. Would a box of colored pencils help?”

“Yes, thank you,” Gracie said as she rushed out of my studio.

Is it afternoon nap time yet? I want to dream about the color readers add to my stories.

Ho-pe ole

I have a blog I write for children on it I include a poem a day with a daily challenge for kids to write their own poems.  http://www.poetryforkidsjoy.blogspot.com  Since I moved to Kauai in December, it has been difficult for me to keep up my daily routine.  But I keep trying to get back to my regular schedule.  I usually end the post with an inspirational message or some up-lifting quotation.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about adding a Hawaiian word before the quotation to help me learn the language of my new home.  I use A Dictionary of the Hawaiian Language by Lorrin Andrews. Yesterday as I was thumbing through the book, I was in the letter “H”.  I came across the word hope. In Hawaiian this would be pronounced ho (like a rake) pay (like a check.) This is a noun meaning the end or beginning of a thing; the termination of an extremity; the finishing result or termination of a course of conduct.

Hope can also mean the end of one’s life, death.  Hope ole means endless. Thus the circle of life is endless.

The word Hope in English translates into Hawaiian as manao lana.  The thing I think fascinating about this dictionary is that it links many of the words to Bible verses.  The verse for endless is Romans 9:18, and the verse for hope is Hebrews 9:26.

I have a friend who is writing a memoir about the death of her young daughter.  When I asked her about her writing, she mentioned she was writing the book to give hope to other families who have gone through the same thing.  As I was reading the dictionary and going back and forth to the Bible verses, it was like a light bulb went off for me.  My friend’s words slowly made more sense.  Having hope means death is a beautiful concept.

I hope if you are struggling with the death of someone you love that you’ll be able to find the hope in your life to carry yourself forward.





2016 Progressive Poem

2016 Kidlit Progressive Poem

Welcome to Day 2 of the 2016 Progressive Poem.  Each year Irene Latham of Live Your Poem, invites poets to her own poetry festivities to help develop and build a progressive poem for National Poetry Month.  Each of 30 different poets supplies a line on their assigned day to cumulatively create the poem.

Yesterday the talented Laura Purdie Salas at Writing the World for Kids started us off with a rousing first line.

A squall of hawk wings stirs the sky

I’m so excited about this line.  A beautifully written first line in perfect iambic measures.  I love her use of squall. The alliteration of squall (a word that can also be used as a verb,)the verb stir, and sky echoes in my ear.  So my challenge is to keep to her rhythm.  Four iambic beats. And can I repeat her elegant dance steps?  My mind immediately went to the opposite of  that strong powerful hawk to the most delicate and fragile of birds.

a hummingbird holds and then hies

So, there you have it, the first two lines.  Looks like the beginning of a list poem to me, and I think we are foregoing punctuation at this point. There are still plenty of days and tons of possibilities.  For now, at least we are through the first call and response. And I can toss this creation over to the dedicated Doraine Bennett for Sunday.


A squall of hawk wings stirs the sky

a hummingbird holds and then hies


Here is the list of all the poets who are participating this month.


2 Joy at Joy Acey
3 Doraine at Dori Reads
4 Diane at Random Noodling
8 Janet F. at Live Your Poem
11 Buffy at Buffy’s Blog
12 Michelle at Today’s Little Ditty
13 Linda at TeacherDance
14 Jone at Deo Writer
16 Violet at Violet Nesdoly
17 Kim at Flukeprints
18 Irene at Live Your Poem
19 Charles at Poetry Time
21 Jan at Bookseedstudio
24 Amy at The Poem Farm
25 Mark at Jackett Writes
26 Renee at No Water River
27 Mary Lee at Poetrepository
29 Sheila at Sheila Renfro
30 Donna at Mainely Write


The BIG Move

If you didn’t know, over the Christmas holiday we moved to the island of Kauai.  I told my friends this move is probably the biggest project I have ever taken on.  All our possessions were loaded into a Matson shipping container and delivered to our new house.

The container was unloaded on Jan. 3 and 4.  Since then I have been unpacking boxes and boxes. My husband counted the boxes on Tuesday.

“There are still over 100 boxes to be emptied,” he told me.  So I keep opening and emptying boxes.  Then I flatten the cardboard to take to the recycling center.  So many boxes.

Today I stopped long enough to put some new blinds in the window where my desk sits.  This took the drill to make pilot holes for the screws.  My husband bought himself a new drill for Christmas, so I wasn’t exactly sure if I could, or how to use this one.  It took me a while to find the 1/16th drill bit the instructions recommended.  Sure wish I could have found the screw head for the drill so I could have used it to tighten the screws, but I didn’t.  I followed the directions to the letter, pausing several times to try and figure out the drawings that came with the blinds.  Each of the screws, 8 of them, had to be hand tightened with a phillips head screw driver.  This wasn’t exactly easy since I needed to apply pressure to the screws and did I mention I broke my wrist in Oct. at the start of our move?  It was painful trying to turn the screws and I had to take several breaks.  Maybe that was why I read the directions so many times.

Finally, after about three hours, I got the job done.  I like the way the blinds look in my window.  I’m proud of myself for figuring out how to do this.  And now I’m thinking the other two windows in my studio would look really good if they had the same blinds too.

Maybe when I go into town to the Dept. of Motor Vehicles to get a new Hawaiian driver’s license, I’ll stop at the hardware store to see if they have the blinds I need.

Living in paradise, everyday is a new adventure.