Thank you, Ed DeCaria of Think Kid, Think! for being today’s guest poetry poster!
This past March, the kids’ poetry world went completely mad. I’m here to confess: It was all my fault.
It started so innocently. I was new to the scene, and just wanted to have a little fun, spark some creativity, and maybe a bit of competitive spirit among kids’ poets. I never thought that things would spiral out of control the way that they did. Besides, it was just an idea. Ideas are everywhere! Like last week – I suggested that my coworkers and I all wear sombreros to work on Friday. And? Not a single sombrero.
Ideas come and go.
So why did my Madness! 2012 children’s poetry tournament cause such mass hysteria? Why did 11,000 people visit an eight-week-old website over 100,000 times in one month? Why did they collectively leave 1,800 comments, transcending traditional post-and-reply protocol and moving into the realm of actual conversation and community-building? And why on earth did 64 poets – from college students to Caldecott winners – voluntarily scramble to write 126 new kids’ poems at my command, turning words that were hand-picked for their seeming impossibility into crowd-pleasing verse?
I don’t know!
But it was pretty freakin’ fun to watch, and even more fun to host.
Honestly, the event far exceeded my (and probably everyone’s) expectations. There were a dozen ways it could have flopped, but by every measure I can think of, it succeeded. Kids cheered for teachers. Teachers morphed into poets. Poets became stars. And as stars, they shined – in moments of pure silliness, beauty, strength, and brilliance.
At Katie’s request, I’m going to dig into the past to try to isolate the cause of my madness. What made me think it was a good idea to put crazy, complicated-sounding words into kids’ poems? Let the inception commence …
Inception, Level One: Merriam-Webster’s People’s Top Ten Favorite Words
A few years ago, Merriam-Webster published a list of People’s Top Ten Favorite Words. Here is the list:
When I began reading the definitions of these words, I thought Wow, how cool would it be to write an entire collection of poems using crazy words like this? Like most of my poetry book ideas, I quickly set out to write the first poem in the set. Within a day, I had finished “The Flibbertigibbet” (which I featured in the Practice Round of this year’s tournament). I then hunted endlessly for other unique words like these, packed with poetic potential. Words that CRAVED to be put into poems. Words that shouted out their subjects, singled out their rhyming partners, and all but dictated what meter they would accept, if any. Words that were determined to become poems … as soon as someone sat down to write them.
I had kept this idea to myself for awhile. It was only this year that I finally decided that even more than I wanted to write these poems, I simply wanted poems like these to be written. As the media build-up to the 2012 NCAA basketball tournament gained momentum, I realized that I had dreamed up a way to make it happen, and I rolled with it.
Okay, that explains the madness at surface level. But come on … something darker seemed to underscore the event at times. I assigned words like “dismemberment”, “androgynous”, and “nonconfrontational” to be used in kids’ poems! How do I explain my penchant for punishment?
Inception, Level Two: The Devil’s Dictionary of Ambrose Bierce
Years before I discovered that Merriam-Webster Top Ten list, I was given a gift that forever changed my perspective on words. My father, who routinely bought out entire paper estates at local auctions, kept shelves of interesting, old books in our basement (and in our garage, and in friends’ houses, and in secondary storage facilities). From time to time, he would give selected books as gifts – a few first edition Ian Fleming James Bond books to my brother, a first edition Julia Child Mastering The Art of French Cooking to my wife, and other assorted goodies. One year, he gave to me an abridged 1958 copy of Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary. If you ever want a new twist on words, pick up this book in any of its forms or visit thedevilsdictionary.com. It is disturbingly dark, though at times quite funny. More than anything, what I took away from this book is that words are not static. They take on new meanings or can even lose their meaning altogether as the world around them changes. And even more to the point, words can simply mean different things to different people, depending on their perspective.
Okay, that sort of explains my vocabulary sadomasochism. But why such an interest in words in the first place?
Inception, Level Three: Balderdash by Mattel
Balderdash. Not the newer “Beyond Balderdash”, but the original words-only edition. This is a board game where kids are rewarded for only two things: lying, and sensing when other people are lying.
The game required one player to read a word aloud from a card. Each word was, by design, one that less than 0.01% of the adult population would recognize. After reading, each player (other than the card reader) had a minute or two to make up a definition for that word. The card reader then collected the fake definitions, shuffled them in with the real definition, and read them all aloud. Each player then had to guess which definition they thought was the real one. Players earned points whenever anyone guessed the definition that they made up, or whenever they guessed the real definition.
Best. Game. Ever.
If you want to unleash the creative force that is a child’s brain, buy them this game and lock them in a room with like-aged family and friends until they all become avowed etymologists (and complete bullsh*t artists).
Balderdash forever cemented the bond between WORDS and FUN in my mind. Because of Balderdash, I still want to know the definition of every word that I encounter. Moreover, for every object, action, feeling, or concept that I come across, I want to know precisely what word in the English language describes it best.
Now it’s finally coming together. But how did word games like Balderdash (and Scrabble, and Upwords, and Scattergories) ever make their way into my house? None of my friends played games like that. Who created that fateful first link between words and fun within my family?
Inception, Level Four: Westinghouse by Grandma
At this level, my memory is sketchy, and details are scarce, so bear with me.
The only time I lived within 250 miles of my grandparents was when I was 6-10 years old. During that time, my siblings and I apparently took turns spending one day and one night by ourselves at their house. I only remember doing this once.
Staying there was an early lesson in negotiation – grandpa wanted only to put me to work, and grandma willed him to just let me play. After hours of hedge pruning, protesting, grape picking, complaining, stick gathering, groaning, floor sweeping, and sundry other tear-inducing chores, I was finally released to grandma, who cleaned me up and showered me with sweetness of all kinds. She then set me on the front porch with a lined yellow notepad, and told me that we were going to play a game. She would write a long word atop the notepad, and my job was to write down as many smaller words as I could using only the letters contained within that word. (Perhaps Bob Raczka played the same game as a child.)
She set the oven timer, and when I heard the buzzer go off, my time was up. She would then count the words and give me my score.
I do not remember how many times we played this game, but I feel like we did it for hours. Yet I can only remember one “word” that she wrote atop that notebook:
Westinghouse Electric was a manufacturing company founded in 1886.
To a child 100 years later, the word “W-E-S-T-I-N-G-H-O-U-S-E” reeked of oldness. But it was a perfect grandma word. And today, even absent accurate details, it’s a perfect grandma memory. Hand at my shoulder, she entertained me for hours with a comforting yet challenging game that combined word prompts, time pressure, and moderated scorekeeping.
Sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it?
This past March, the kids’ poetry world went completely mad.
This just in:
It was all grandma’s fault.