The Inception of Madness

Thank you, Ed DeCaria of Think Kid, Think!  for being today’s guest poetry poster!Ed
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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:

  1. Defenestration
  2. Flibbertigibbet
  3. Kerfuffle
  4. Persnickety
  5. Callipygian
  6. Serendipity
  7. Mellifluous
  8. Discombobulated
  9. Palimpsest

10. Sesquipedalian
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 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.

Recent Comments

    • Ed DeCaria
      April 16, 2012 - 7:33 am · Reply

      Thanks, Renee! It was fun to write this. Having seen the movie Inception, I wanted to trace the madness as far back in time as possible to a memory that I could latch onto as the genesis of the idea.
      THANK YOU KATIE for the chance to publish this here.
      And “Hi!” to everyone who visits Katie’s site!

      • katie
        April 16, 2012 - 1:57 pm · Reply

        Nuh uh. That thanks is to you, both for your poetry madness as well as for contributing to this fun month!

  • Janet F.
    April 16, 2012 - 10:01 am · Reply

    Ed, we are definitely kindred souls. I played this game decades ago and we called it Fictionary. A parlor game with friends and I LOVED it. Never bought Balderdash since I had the cheaper experience available. Played Fictionary with 5th graders. Also Password was a favorite with them. The original version was just fine. (Now I imagine there’s an APP for that!) The Westinghouse game also is a favorite. We were waiting online to visit Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.( My 7th grade son and I on a blustering Feb. day before they had built the lovely new visitor’s center.) To pass the time I had to come up with something fun. Having just the Monticello “program” and a pen, I wrote Thomas Jefferson on the top and we began. The time flew. Others in line started watching. The longer and more often you play this game the better you get. I recommend it to parents and students all the time. A way to create a “habit of mind” that words are interesting and more. Bravo to you for taking the next leap and coming up with the oh so wonderful March Madness! A true fan!

    • Ed DeCaria
      April 16, 2012 - 1:29 pm · Reply

      Thanks, Janet.
      There are other cool Balderdash-like board games as well. Another that I recall being particularly fun was “Wise & Otherwise”. Highly recommended.
      Of course, making up one’s own board games is super fun as well. My siblings and I spent a lot of time doing that as kids and are actually trying to turn some of those into “real” games even today.

  • rebecca
    April 16, 2012 - 10:19 am · Reply

    Your story about your grandma brought me to tears.
    I loved the line: “I was finally released to grandma …”
    Westinghouse, yellow notepads, words. She sounds awesome.
    I get the grandpa work thing, too. At any rate, this is exactly what I tell
    students when I do poetry workshops; don’t tell me grandma loves you
    in your grandma poem, SHOW me grandma and how she loves you.
    Give me a detail, give me something specific. Then I KNOW your
    grandma, and your poem means so much more. Thanks, Ed.

    • Ed DeCaria
      April 16, 2012 - 1:45 pm · Reply

      Thanks, Rebecca. Fun to think back on those days. Glad you could relate.
      I completely agree on show vs. tell. Even show doesn’t go far enough, actually. Don’t tell me how you felt (I felt comforted), don’t show me how you felt (I smiled as she brought me cookies), make me feel what you felt.
      Ironic that we literally train kids to “Show and Tell”, though.

  • Suz Blackaby
    April 16, 2012 - 12:39 pm · Reply

    In other words, we were ALL flying by the seat of our pants, from the top down!
    Three cheers for Grandma!

    • Ed DeCaria
      April 16, 2012 - 2:26 pm · Reply

      What ever do you mean, Suz?
      I had everything under control at all times*. Never a worry*. At no point was I concerned about too few signups*, or people not submitting their poems*, or people submitting bad poems*, or server overload*, or my inability to post everything on time*, or widget failure*, or oversleeping*, or voting fraud*, or not being able to think of enough words to assign for each seed*, or someone rejecting their word*, or anything else*.

      *Re-read that part about Balderdash above.

  • Penny Klostermann
    April 16, 2012 - 2:43 pm · Reply

    Ed, This was a completing entertaining post. It’s awesome what you did with March Madness. I got whooped the first round by Kenn Nesbitt, but it really didn’t effect the amount of fun I had (well, maybe a tad). Here are a few things you might have found me doing during the tournament!
    *checking my email several times a day to see if I had any “March Madness” emails
    *wondering what wonderful words would come next
    *wondering how in the heck anyone could make a poem suitable for kids with THAT word!
    *returning time and again to see if the next round was up….even though I knew it couldn’t be, since the poets still had writing time left
    *reading and voting…then heading back to exclaim “Ok…the voters have that one right!” or “You’ve got to be kidding me!!!! That poem doesn’t even hold a candle to it’s competitor…and yet, it’s winning!!!!” (I know poetry is very subjective….but hey…I know good meter when I hear it 🙂
    Anyway…it was great! I’m glad Grandma hooked you on words at an early age…and I’m more thankful for Westinghouse than I ever even realized!

    • Ed DeCaria
      April 16, 2012 - 6:21 pm · Reply

      Thanks for the comments, Penny!
      Kenn’s Rd1 poem (2-chapped) was stellar. I remember it very well because he turned it in that same night he received the word and I thought to myself Man, he doesn’t mess around. This is gonna be tough to beat.
      I love your list — I was doing a lot of the same things and had some of the same reactions! The crossover days between Flight 1 and Flight 2 of Round 1 — when all 64 first round poems were first up to be written and then up for vote at the same time, were the craziest. I felt like a emergency switchboard operator.

  • Amy Ludwig VanDerwater
    April 16, 2012 - 3:30 pm · Reply

    I tip my sombrero.
    What a word-filled childhood! I love your dad’s storage facilities filled with someday-gift books, THE DEVIL’S DICTIONARY, your favorite word list and Balderdash and porch-sitting with Grandma. This path had to lead somewhere, and I am so glad that it led to your generosity with the Madness. There is a parenting article in this post, and I’m off to share it. ‘Can’t wait to see what you do next. Many thanks! a.

    • Ed DeCaria
      April 16, 2012 - 6:24 pm · Reply

      Thanks for sharing, Amy. I was raised to see the value of education — no doubt about that. My H.E.L.P. acronym that I emphasize on TKT (humor/empathy/logic/passion) is largely a reflection of family’s values, not just my own.

  • katie
    April 16, 2012 - 6:27 pm · Reply

    As I’m madly trying to get ready for a big meeting, a fancy schmancy gala and the NESCBWI conference (all happening this week!), I’m enjoying getting my email notices and reading this ongoing conversation! Just wanted to poke my head in and tell you I AM following it! It’s so great!

    • Ed DeCaria
      April 16, 2012 - 9:00 pm · Reply

      Hey, no problem Katie, I’m keepin’ the place running for you.
      Anytime you need a site sitter, just let me know, and I’ll be here. As long as you don’t mind if I invite other people over while you’re out …

    • Ed DeCaria
      April 16, 2012 - 8:57 pm · Reply

      Everyone needs to stop what they are doing RIGHT NOW and go read Sharon’s post called 10 Random Things About Cows at her website, which I just visited for the first time.
      Hi Sharon! Thanks for commenting, and for having a blog that writes random things about cows. We recently borrowed a book from the library called Bears! Bears! Bears! by Bob Barner, and in it I learned that giant panda bear cubs are born the size of a stick of butter. Compare that to your sixth bullet. (Ooh, see everyone — now you cannot resist — you must click the link to Sharon’s site to read this and nine other random facts about cows.)

      • sharon stanley
        April 17, 2012 - 7:30 am · Reply

        you are so kind ed, to make that recommendation! visit often…there is a lot of “randomness” on the farm! cows really are interesting animals and farm life is NEVER boring!

  • Melinda Harvey
    April 16, 2012 - 8:54 pm · Reply

    Ed! I am so glad to hear from you! I was afraid that you had checked yourself into the poetry madhouse! Thanks for the look back…it is amazing to learn that your website was so new and did so much for poets and poetry readers! Don’t lay too low for too long! We need you back on the poetry scene. Thanks again for giving birth to such a creative event. Where do I send my money for the Madness wordle tshirt?!

    • Ed DeCaria
      April 16, 2012 - 10:34 pm · Reply

      Hmmm, and here I thought I had just checked myself OUT of the poetry madhouse …
      Hi Melinda! Good to hear from you, too. How’s “Mrs. Harvey’s class”?
      As I said in my TKT post linking to this guest spot with Katie, I intentionally decided to lay low during April since I needed a rest and since I hogged so much attention in March. With so many other great events going on, especially a lot of daily events, I’m busy myself just trying to keep up. I’m here today, I’m on Greg Pincus’ 30 Poets / 30 Days on Thursday, and I’ve got a few other invitations that I’m excited about, but still need to arrange.
      As for TKT, I’ll be back posting regularly in May … new poems, new ideas, new ways to participate. Don’t be a stranger!
      But in the meantime (and thereafter), keep visiting Katie here, visit Greg, visit Renee, visit Sylvia Vardell, visit Poetry at Play, visit Amy LV, and lots of other great blogs and sites doing cool things this month.

  • Greg Pincus
    April 17, 2012 - 2:15 am · Reply

    I don’t blame grandma – I celebrate her! Thanks for the fun month, Ed, and the great explanation, toooooo. Here’s to more Madness in years to come!

  • Quinette Cook
    April 17, 2012 - 9:19 am · Reply

    I love the madness behind the madness. Back story always makes for a good story or in this case great poetry! It was so much fun being part of this event. Thank you for all of your hard work. Can’t wait to see what’s next!

  • Ed DeCaria
    April 17, 2012 - 11:54 am · Reply

    Thank you, Greg and Quinette! Yes, more madness in future years, but I’m no one trick pony, so we’ll have other fun together at TKT throughout the year as well.
    And speaking of ponies … my grandpa used to promise each of us a pony someday. That would be another interesting memory stroll — tracing back to the exact moment that I realized he wasn’t actually serious about those ponies. Because for awhile there, we all fully believed that in just a few weeks we would be riding our own special ponies in their back yard. But it was all Balderdash!

  • Shanda Trent
    March 10, 2015 - 12:42 pm · Reply

    My husband just asked which company sponsors MMPoetry#. Ha! I said, just a guy in Chicago who loves poetry. That led me to your Inception series.
    Pre-Balderdash, my neighbors and I would get together to play a game we called “Fictionary.” Same rules. The word that stands out in my mind, 30 years later is “gargarism.” Look it up.
    And, I’m another kindred spirit in the make-little-words from big words game, my second grade teacher got me started on this. She must have been having a bad day. Or just a lazy one. She wrote the words Milk Carton on the chalkboard. Away I went! It was quiet in the room for a loooong time. And guess what, over 40 years later, I am still playing that game when I’m bored–in line at the market, the waiting room, the bathroom….. I like to think I’m warding off dementia. Unless I’ve been word-demented all along.
    So glad you shared your madness with the world, Ed.

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