Poetry Month Spotlight: Tracy Mishkin

Indiana Writers Center, Poem a Day Challenge, April 2020

Rachel Sahaidachny, Executive Director of the Indiana Writers Center, has shared a writing prompt each day this month. The participants post their poems in a closed Facebook group, and the responses focus on encouragement, not criticism, constructive or otherwise. I’ve appreciated the challenge to write regularly and the opportunity to think (and sometimes vent) about current events. Here are some of the prompts that worked for me and the poems that I wrote. The prompts—and my commentary—are in italics.

#4 Is there an object in your house that used to belong to someone else? Write a two-part poem. Part 1 about the object’s “before you” time. Part 2 about the object’s “now.” Try to incorporate one rhyme in each part.

When I met your mother, she was perched on your off-white couch while you sat on the matching love seat. Close to 90, she had just returned from Florida and the second husband she’d outlived to care for you during chemotherapy. When you felt like crap, you napped on that couch under heavy blankets, clutching the one on top knitted by your mom. When you felt well enough, you leaned against the big cushions, choosing poems from a lifetime of writing. I sat on the loveseat and helped you make a book. Only once I said your granddaughter will remember you with these words.

This doesn’t end with a funeral. We finished the book, you started a clinical trial for immunotherapy, and now you smile when you see the commercials for the drug that cured you on TV. I smile too, because I’m grateful, really, but sad that mild dementia is taking you away piece by piece only a few years later. You gave me the couch and love seat when you could no longer live alone. Now you’re locked down in assisted living— not like when Grandma was on a locked ward so she wouldn’t go outside and wait for the bus to New York City— but because of this damn pandemic. The staff bring trays to your door at mealtimes, and that’s it, no other human contact. Crossword puzzles have lost all appeal. I sit on the off-white couch and talk to you until the battery in your hearing aid begins to die.

#5 It’s Sunday, which means we will explore a particular form. Prompt for today is to write a Nocturne—a poem that is set in the night (usually midnight).

#6 Write a poem using anaphora. Anaphora is a technique that uses a repeated phrase to begin lines throughout the poem. It doesn’t have to begin every line.

I was annoyed with myself for not writing for three days, or so I thought…

Nocturne: Procrastination

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” -Arundhati Roy

Monday I meant to sit outside last night and write this poem. Can’t write a poem about the night in daytime, am I right? I thought the dark and cool air would birth the words. Sometimes trapped, sometimes rushing out. But I tripped over myself, never made it to the stoop. Even now, I should be doing something else.

Tuesday I meant to sit outside last night and write this poem. Excuses. Too easy to fall into my latest thrill. My great escape. Work is hard. People are dying. A man I knew died alone. Excuses.

Wednesday Same. How do I let this happen? Shame. Everything I put off. Fine. I’ll write the night poem right now. Nocturne: liminal. Imagine myself on the threshold of my house. Between dark and light. Inside and out. Neighbor and stranger. Wave to them all.

After writing the Wednesday stanza, I realized that it was only Tuesday, so I didn’t feel so bad about getting behind.

#7 Write a poem using language from a text message or email which you recently received or sent.

How are you doing? Feels like I’m surfing a wave of uncertainty

The key to surfing: convincing yourself you are not going to fall into a wave, get lost.

Don’t think about tumbling, choking on water, the board smacking your head.

Focus on the blue curve below you. It could go on forever.

#8 Pick a favorite song, or one you like, listen to it, and write.

I chose the cover of “The Sound of Silence” by Disturbed, specifically the haunting music video.

Times so hard, gotta start with happy endings, when ship has almost reached shore. Surely they’ll save the stranded people—lonely, isolated—at least ten thousand. How are they so alone when they’re together? How do they write music—parchment, fountain pen—yet never play or sing? When sailors first saw them—kneeling, hunched—they stared. Why hands and knees, captive, surrendered?

Sailors, too, came from silent lands, journeyed to the ship, alone, on foot, through flat lands, forests. Each carried an instrument, salvaged from earth or fire. Harp, guitar, piano, drum. The keys twisted, burning. They pulled them from the flames. Let the dirt run from the guitar. The sound was still true.

#9 Chose a vowel (a, e, i, o, or u) and write a 10+ line poem with words that have only that vowel in them. For your poetic terminology, a poem which excludes one or more letters is called a “lipogram.” A poem which excludes all vowels but one is called “univocalic” (from the Latin for one-voweled).

I challenged myself to write a poem using words with only the vowel U. And this happened.

Mr. Trump

Ugh, just shut up. Guru? Untruth. Humbug, numbskull. Truth. Fuck up. Sputum glut. Bunkum hub. Lustful skunk.

#11 Use the last line of one of your poems as the first line of a new poem.

I chose the last line of poem #8.

Rescue Guitar

The sound was still true despite the batter and dent. She didn’t fret. Her fingers coaxed notes around the sprung string. Like a poet writing without some common letter, improvising around absence made her better.

#14 Select 10-12 words from a poem (or from a couple poems) you admire and use them to create a new poem. Try to have a variety of word types (verbs, nouns, adjectives, etc.) in your selection.

I didn’t get inspired for #14 until I saw the prompt for #15. I chose “Notes to Myself During National Poetry Month, 2020” by Dante Di Stefano, which was published in Rattle as part of the Poets Respond feature on April 14, 2020.

I wrote down ten words from this poem and numbered them. Whenever I needed a push, I asked my husband to choose a number between 1 and 10.

#15 This is a prompt from Poets & Writers Magazine:

“Truth can be lazy because it becomes satisfied with itself, and it is often so tethered to time and space that to demand one truth can often invisibilize another’s truth,” says Natalie Diaz in “Energy,” an interview by Jacqueline Woodson in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine.

“When and where does truth begin, and whose truth is it?” Think of an issue in your life that you feel conflicted over, an idea or state of being that you have long held to be true, whose solidity you have begun to question. Write a poem that attempts to demand more from this perceived truth, exploring how it entered your belief system. To whom is it tethered?”

The familiar riot in my mind. Sometimes I wish I saw the world without these painful shades of gray. Eleven years of red leaves falling, cherry blossoms tarting up the street, and still I’m juggling working for the man with working on the inside of his damn jungle. Sweating so long under this corporate canopy, I forget the sky is not beneath me. Sky, Tracy, it means above and blue, remember? Symptom of a mental pandemic: if the strings of my guitar snapped daily, I would check the obvious. A rough fret, a burred edge, even a pick too heavy for the strings. I might get hooked on playing four instead of five, but I’d know that anytime I could replace the damn thing and let my instrument sing as it was meant to. But no, me and my front row seat for the crisis of corporate America. Big surprise: slashing staffing means more rushing, more mistakes, more work, less time to think my God what have we done. Some sleep. More coffee. Letting legal addictions sprout like green weeds. Nothing to be done but tell myself Friday’s payday. Perhaps I’ll think of something money can buy to spend that precious paycheck on.

#16 Write a poem about the story of your name. Things to consider: What do you know about the source of your name? What name/nickname have you taken on and why?

Again, two prompts combined in my head and I got a poem.

#17 The cocoon is a place of transformation. What happens there is a mystery. If this time is your cocoon moment, what transformations are occurring? What might emerge? Alternatively, work with the Phoenix mythos: the burning down; out of the ash a new creature is born… rises. Maybe your poem has space for both.

Dead Name

Phoenix, must you leave your nest in ashes to be reborn? I prefer the torn cocoon, you with monarch wings. This isn’t about what I prefer, is it? Your past must be burned. You fill your nest with baby pictures, toss in every reminder you can find, even that old photo of you in a lady’s hat, which I would think would make your new self smile. This isn’t about what I think. But when the ashes cool, I will search them for a keepsake.

#18 What do you know about water?

I liked that this prompt wasn’t just “write a poem about water.” It made me think about water—and knowledge—in a different way.

What do you know about water? It runs, but it is not afraid. Rushes without hurry.

What do you fear about fire? The heat will be wasted, flames leaping.

What do you expect from earth? Rock will smash scissors, scissors will slice paper, paper will wrap rock.

What do you assume about air? It will always be there.

#20 a prompt from Jessica Reed

Reverse-engineer a poem: take a published poem that you love and remove all the nouns and verbs—all the content. You should be left with a skeleton of a poem, just a syntactic structure (you might have to remove a few adjectives or adverbs as well—whatever it takes to get to the skeleton). Now, start filling in the blanks with fresh content. The supplied syntax will guide your poem in unexpected directions. If that isn’t happening—if you’re making too much “sense,” try listing words on a separate sheet of paper and plugging them in “Mad Libs” style. You can also mine for fresh vocabulary in a book that you wouldn’t normally read, perhaps from another discipline.

The poem I chose is “Separation,” by W.S. Merwin.

Our honesty betrays us like a stream underground: cracked pavement, flooded grass.

#21 Choose a spice, herb, or flavor. Do a bit of research—does it have medicinal qualities? A history? Where does it come from? If you have some on hand, spend a bit of time smelling or tasting it, and allowing images, memories, thoughts to come up and write them down. If not, imagine the smell or taste—what does it make you think of? Can you cobble a poem out of these notes? Does one of the notes trigger a poem?

Cream of What Now?

It’s not the oldest item on my spice rack— that would be the allspice from 1997. But Cream of Tartar is the weirdest. It is no fishy sauce but an acidic powder that makes mile-high meringues and boosts the chewy tang of snickerdoodles. Mixed with vinegar, it cleans stainless steel like nobody’s business. Homemade Play-Doh would be lost without it. Video: the many benefits of cream of tartar. Watch as it stabilizes whipped cream and polishes copper. (Add lemon juice in a 1:1 mixture. Rub on, rinse off.) Herbs and spices come from plants, but cream of tartar comes from the crystalline crud that builds up inside casks as wine ferments. It’s not creamy like dairy, but think of creaming as whipping egg whites to a high foam. Are you dismayed when boiled veggies lose their color? Just a pinch of this miracle shit will help your beets stay bright. Science! Science for the win!

#22 Since it’s Earth Day, I thought we could explore ecopoetics. Ecopoetry is poetry with a strong ecological emphasis or message. Some suggested questions to ponder: How do you try to reduce your impact on the environment? Do you ever feel guilty about what, or how much, you throw away? What could you live without? Ecopoetry often uses environmental elements in the poem, pastoral or nature details. It is poetry produced as a result of an environment and humans in the environment.

#23 Docupoetry is poetry created out of primary source materials such as news articles, interviews, medical records, diaries, court transcripts, and other public records. Either utilize direct lines from a source (or more) and rearrange them, interpret meaning through your own words, or use a mix of both approaches.

There’s poetry online. I mean poetic language in unexpected places. For my spice poem, I googled “list of spices” so that I could have a bunch to choose from. I read a few articles about cream of tartar, and all of them had some terrific turns of phrase. I ended up copying several things right into the poem. And today we’re writing docupoetry! I wasn’t feeling the eco-poem yesterday, but today’s prompt reminded me of Holly Haworth’s March 2020 essay “Undefined Waters,” which has some moving thoughts on language and our environment—as a result of Trump’s recent gutting of the Clean Water Act of 1972.

It’s easy—too easy—to be seduced by language, to stop thinking critically and just love the sound of words.

Rill and runnel. I used to think of creeks and brooks when I saw those words. But a rill is something more specific: an ephemeral stream, a trickle of water that springs up after heavy rain.

Once rills were all over the poetry map, sonorous, easy to rhyme. Mismanaged agriculture causes most rills today. Sliding hillsides, preventable erosion. A gully is an overgrown rill.

Holly Haworth wrote about the ephemeral streams and semi-permanent puddles that grace her land in Georgia during winter rains. Rills and runnels as they were meant to be, yet may not be for long.

The Clean Water Act of 1972 protects waters, but Trump & Friends have tightened that definition, excluding headwater streams and wetlands. Our waters will burn again, said an attorney, referring to the 1969 fire on Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River.

#24 choose a cliché and write a poem which makes it fresh

I couldn’t resist starting with Shakespeare’s sonnet 18, which challenges the love clichés of his time.

Poem in which My Husband Looks a Bit Lame in Comparison to Today’s Weather

Shall I compare you to a warm spring day during a pandemic? You’re cute, but wind and sun and sky are vital to my mental health. Redbuds are my favorite flowering trees— The contrast of pinkish-purple flowers against dark bark, especially after rainfall, rocks my world. I smile when you waggle your eyebrows at me, but a warm and windy day inspires me to write after something of a drought. To be fair, I’ve written many poems because of you, but mostly to express frustration. Nature’s working hard. Even the phlox is exerting itself, though it appears to be lazing around like ground cover. You worked six hours today, but I don’t think you’ll clean the litterbox. You could surprise me, though, like an unpromising forecast that turns into a lovely day, or a curve flattened by a Republican governor who’s quick close the state—so much better for being unexpected.

About Tracy Mishkin

Tracy Mishkin is a call center veteran with a PhD and a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Butler University.  She is the author of three chapbooks, I Almost Didn’t Make It to McDonald’s (Finishing Line Press, 2014), The Night I Quit Flossing (Five Oaks Press, 2016), and This Is Still Life (Brain Mill Press, 2018). She been nominated twice for a Pushcart — both times by Parody — and published in Raleigh Review and Rat’s Ass Review.

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month

For this year’s National Poetry Month at BMP Voices, we seek to celebrate the ways in which we’re interconnected — highlighting community, gratitude, and the ways in which creativity redounds upon itself, fed by collective energy and goodwill. Our fee-free contest is open to all styles and forms of poetry, with an eye toward our mission of discovering voices that are immediate, immersive, and urgent. Poems inspired by the work of others are welcome. We also welcome poems written to other poems or poets.

This Is Kind of an Epic Love Story Is the Rom-Com We Need

I’ve always had a soft spot for romantic comedies.

Romance isn’t taken too seriously and there is almost always an interesting cast of characters along for the ride. When it comes to romantic comedies involving LGBTQ+ characters, there are all too few in the world. As a result, I was delighted to discover Kacen Callender’s book This Is Kind of an Epic Love Story. Not only is it written by a Black queer author, but the main characters are queer people of color.

The book tells the story of Nathan Bird, an awkward Black teen and aspiring filmmaker. Nathan Bird doesn’t believe in happy endings due to his dad’s death and a break up with his girlfriend-turned-best friend. When his childhood best friend Oliver “Ollie” James Hernández returns to town, Nathan must decide whether his romantic feelings for Ollie are worth acknowledging.

One of the best aspects of this book is its main lead, Nathan. His awkwardness, quirks, and passion shine through the sensitive voice given to him by the author. His internal dialogue is especially well-done, letting you get a sense of the anxiety he feels when it comes to interacting with others and forming close relationships. One train of thought goes, “I should do something. Ask her out. Tell her she looks nice. Wait, is that catcalling? Even if it’s in hipster cafe and not out on the street? Fucking shit. I’m a catcalling bastard.”

One of the best aspects of this book is its main lead, Nathan. His awkwardness, quirks, and passion shine through the sensitive voice given to him by the author.

Besides Nathan, his old and new love interests are also well written. Florence Lim is a visual artist who often draws Nathan’s favorite movie characters for him. She wants to see Nathan happy with a new love, even though Nathan still isn’t over her. While she has moved on and now has a girlfriend named Lydia, her friendship with Nathan is still important to her.

Meanwhile, Ollie is a deaf teen who aspires to be a photographer. He is as passionate about his art as Ollie is and uses his passion to encourage Ollie to go for his dreams. Ollie also uses a combination of sign language and the notes app of a cell phone to communicate, but this is just an extension of his character. Ollie is never depicted as inspiration porn for Nathan; he is just an everyday teen dealing with family problems and romance.

In addition to the main characters, the secondary cast is also well done. In particular, Nathan’s mom is a nice balance of loving and strict, while Nathan’s sister Rebecca is a close confidant despite her being across the country.  Nathan’s relationship with his mom is poignant because they have to learn to deal with the aftermath of losing Nathan’s dad. Other interesting secondary characters include nerd-jock Gideon and nerdy romantic Ashley, who are mutual friends with Nathan, Flo, and Ollie.

Together, all the characters tell a sweet story of not only romantic love, but also coming-of-age, friendship, and family.

Together, all the characters tell a sweet story of not only romantic love, but also coming-of-age, friendship, and family. Nathan’s interactions with his loved ones are enhanced by smart, fun, and realistic dialogue. One particular conversation I enjoyed between Nathan and Ollie was about having sex for the first time, how awkward they felt and whether they were ready to do so. In fact, this might be the first time I’ve read about sex that wasn’t perfect the first time.

Nathan’s interactions with his loved ones are enhanced by smart, fun, and realistic dialogue.

A more quirky aspect of the dialogue is the various pop culture references throughout the book. Many nods are subtle such as Ollie naming his dog after Donna Noble from Doctor Who and Florence talking about the America Chavez comic book with her girlfriend Lydia. Certain movie references are used in an entertaining way, such as when Ollie and Nico spontaneously reenact a kiss from the film Amelie.

The only flaw I found in this book was the mild confusion I had while reading the interactions between Nathan and his loved ones. There are so many characters that it was a little difficult to keep up with them all. At one point, I had to go back and reread certain parts when I felt like I was missing something.

Nathan and his loved ones will make you smile and yell at them at the same time.

All in all, this book is the teen rom-com we need more of. Nathan and his loved ones will make you smile and yell at them at the same time. Filled with laughter, drama, and honesty, this book is queer coming-of-age bliss.

top photo by Satria Wira Bagaskara on Pexels

On Self Love

I invented masturbation.

You’re welcome.

It’s a feature of my persistent narcissism that I have often assumed I’m the first to discover something inexplicable. I’m the first to stumble into the vortex of writing, that out-of-control spiral of need and greed and forward motion. I’m the first to dice up my skin in the name of despair (though I never felt any pressure relief from cutting; I was an intensely practical self-mutilator, rehearsing for the inevitable main event).

I didn’t come to adolescence loving myself. I got breasts at nine and shit went downhill from there. The sense of body that I’d had before—the body that could climb trees and scale the sides of the creek by my house—vanished. Now I had this brand new vehicle I didn’t know how to drive.

It had never really occurred to me that I was a “girl” and thus not a “boy.” Until puberty any differences between those two states were negligible.

It had never really occurred to me that I was a “girl” and thus not a “boy.” Until puberty any differences between those two states were negligible. When I was the leader of the girls’ tag team in grammar school, I enlisted my best friend Tommy to play on our side. I vividly remember standing on the playground while the other kids tried to explain to me that Tommy couldn’t play on the girls’ side.

Since I wasn’t convinced, I said, “Then I’m not gonna play.” So they gave in. And Tommy played on the girls’ team.

Then I’m not gonna play could accurately asses most of my responses to things that are assumed. If anyone had told me masturbation existed, I probably would have avoided doing it out of sheer antagonism.

However.

I had no idea. I thought I was a fucking genius. This body, that was all sorts of screwed up, which I could only vaguely relate to the bodies of others (while maintaining a level of mental foreignness that served to alienate me from myself), could, when played just right, feel fantastic. Better, in fact, than running the bases at softball, and almost as good as that burst of energy I used to get jetting clear across the soccer field to stop the opposing team’s offense from scoring.

There was a problem, though. A relatively large problem.

I was fucking terrible at masturbating. Oh man. Really, really awful.

I stumbled into physical pleasure through ignorance and experimentation, like I’ve stumbled into most things worth doing. And when I say “ignorance” I’m not kidding. I’d somehow made it to eleven years old without really understanding my own anatomy.

How much I can blame the world for this is debatable. I don’t remember anyone ever using words like “labia” and “clitoris” and “vulva,” but that doesn’t mean they didn’t. In my early memories, I didn’t inhabit my body. I inhabited other people’s bodies, on a somewhat random basis, usually having to do with how cool their bike was, or how interesting I found the way they talked.

Had I been a more social child, I would have probably decided to be an actor. The line blurs between acting and fiction writing; I put on other people’s clothes all the time, I walk in their shoes, I think their thoughts. I have made rather a lifestyle of playing with imaginary friends, and the roots of all that was how I saw the world as a child: as an observer, an outsider, constantly trying to assemble from scraps a complete picture of how things worked. I thought if only I could figure that out, I might be able to find my place.

Not everything I’ve ever experienced is down to being genderqueer; then again, absolutely everything is down to gender. Masturbation was a way to test and observe myself as if from the outside. Finding the key to that particular lock seemed like the holy grail: if I could work it out, maybe everything else would become clear.

But hell, I didn’t even know where the lock was, let alone what kind of key it required. My early efforts at pleasuring the body I happen to have were arduous, exhausting, and frequently acrobatic.

Perhaps if I’d had a mirror I might have made sense of what I was doing. As it was, each time I hunkered down … it was like wandering into the desert anew, disorienting and somewhat hopeless.

I’ve never had a good sense of maps, of visual representations of physical space. Perhaps if I’d had a mirror I might have made sense of what I was doing. As it was, each time I hunkered down—in the dead of night, when the rest of the house was assumed to be unconscious—it was like wandering into the desert anew, disorienting and somewhat hopeless. I was by no means always successful at finding the delicious, indulgent, inveterately sinful feeling of flying, for which I had absolutely no name. (The word “orgasm,” like the word “masturbation,” did not exist in my world. They were ephemeral concepts without anything so concrete as language attached to them.)

How much of my ignorance was because I was so afraid and ashamed of this body? How much was an intentional shying away from everything that reminded me that I was stuck in it like a prison? A prison with, of course, no directions, and constantly changing corridors.

Listen, I know it’s something of a hush-hush thing, but I’m just going to put this out there: I spent a lot of time trying to get off when I was eleven and twelve and thirteen years old.

Listen, I know it’s something of a hush-hush thing, but I’m just going to put this out there: I spent a lot of time trying to get off when I was eleven and twelve and thirteen years old. Insomnia has frequently led me to profound increases in productivity, and that was no exception. I had, at the time, a television with cable in my bedroom, so when my eyes were tired of reading I’d shut off the lights and watch late-night movies.

And masturbate. Because I have always been very good at multitasking.

Remember that I thought this was a sin I’d invented, that I was the only one with the mechanics to do this thing, whatever the hell it was, and that since I had this bit of magic, I’d damn well better learn how to wield it.

I didn’t learn to love my body through masturbation. This body—with its inconvenient shapes, its fat stores, its annoying lack of length—continued to confound and irritate and enrage me for years. On some days it still does. What I did learn, stumbling around in the dark of my brain while vainly attempting to pleasure my body, was that despite how alternately horrifying and transcendent my physical experience was, my emotional journey was oddly ascending.

I understood myself as kinky through fantasy long before I discovered that other people were also freaks. (I never thought I’d invented tying people up and fucking with their heads, though—got enough of that in different forms on primetime.) An extended period of solo experimentation also allowed me to explore gender in ways that I wouldn’t have been able to if my sexual initiation had occurred with other people. In my brain I could play any role, and I did. I was not saddled with the expectations that partners later had, in the dark days before words like “genderqueer” and “gender fluid” and “gender nonbinary” were in common use.

An extended period of solo experimentation also allowed me to explore gender in ways that I wouldn’t have been able to if my sexual initiation had occurred with other people.

After years of vigorous, dedicated practice, I got good at masturbation. Damn good. Getting myself off isn’t better than sex with other people, it’s a totally different sport. And it’s the only one that leads to genuine moments of self-acceptance, the kind of wholeness that you actually need a social vacuum to cultivate. Finding yourself through the medium of your body, your skin and nerve endings, the endless fascination of your own responses to stimuli, is a journey with no beginning and no ending.

If you also manage to find love in that place, where you are the only one who matters, where your needs meet your desires and are answered, that’s a lucky fucking break.

Obviously, I assume I’m the only person who’s ever managed the trick.

The author owes a debt of gratitude to the writers of Roseanne, whose episode about DJ whacking off induced zir to look up “masturbation” in a dictionary—literally, a big heavy hardcover volume of Webster’s—and marvel that, in fact, other perverts had already worked out how to do it. It was quite shocking. The dictionary has been a suspect form of literature ever since.

top photo by Rebecca Matthews on Unsplash

Idaville

I used to think of Encyclopedia Brown mystery stories as logical, serious, and solveable. I probably also believed in a tidy universe. On re-reading, I realize that I was completely and utterly wrong. I missed the humor, I didn’t see the absurdity, and I completely mistook the tone. And, as it turns out, I was probably also wrong about the universe.

The long-running series by Donald J. Sobol followed a set formula: the reader would be introduced to an eccentric citizen of Idaville who would bring a case to our boy sleuth, Encyclopedia Brown. The victim would give a summary of what had happened, or confront a suspected villain who would protest and counter with a story of their own.

Encyclopedia Brown stories could always be solved; that was the promise.

Encyclopedia might ask a question or two, and then he’d announce that he had solved the case. The reader could try to logic it out or choose to flip to the back of the book and learn about the one telling detail that had tipped Encyclopedia off.

Encyclopedia Brown stories could always be solved; that was the promise.

In Sobol’s volume Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Treasure Hunt (1988), the young sleuth helps his dad, the chief of the Idaville police, determine whether a thief has made off with some antique screens. He helps a boy recover a pizza (or at least the money for it) from bully Bugs Meany. With the aid of his henchwoman, Sally Kimball, he finds a treasure hunt cheater, gets a stolen camera back, and helps a junior artist friend win a contest. He discovers a tree thief, a toilet paper thief, a tent saboteur, and a worm-wrangling huckster.

Instead of a presenting a capricious, dangerous universe where solving a case involved being in the right place at the right time, the world of Encyclopedia Brown seemed to posit some sort of order—an order that I could control.

What I liked about the books as a fifth grader was that they contained the possibility of solving the cases oneself. They were a refreshing change from the Nancy Drew books (which I now see are adventure/suspense stories that are insistently framed as mysteries).

Instead of a presenting a capricious, dangerous universe where solving a case involved being in the right place at the right time, the world of Encyclopedia Brown seemed to posit some sort of order—an order that I could control. I was a child (just like Encyclopedia!), and I could solve a mystery by reading carefully and critically! I even had a degree of power over the narrative itself. I could turn to the end of the book and find out the solution—I could choose to see the conclusion—or I could read the next story. Because of the physical act of flipping to the end for the solution and then shuffling back for another story, it was a little bit like a choose-your-own-adventure, a kind of book that was popular when I was young. But in spirit, Sobol’s stories were the complete opposite. In choose-your-own-adventure, the narrator often ended up dead. In Encyclopedia Brown, everything turned out fine:

In police stations across the United States, the same question was asked again and again.

Why did every grown-up or child who broke the law in Idaville get caught?

Every case in Idaville was solved. Encyclopedia Brown books were not perilous, they were not fraught. No one died. Encyclopedia didn’t even get a bloody nose, thanks to his muscled henchwoman, Sally. The universe of those books seemed orderly, and thus reassuring both in subject and in tone. For years, long after I’d stopped reading the Encyclopedia Brown books, I held them in my mind as straightforward, maybe even utilitarian. My young self wasn’t there for the prose; I was there to solve some problems.

Encyclopedia’s real name is Leroy, my husband likes to note. He enjoys imagining a world where Encyclopedia grows up to become Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.

After re-reading as an adult, I find it increasingly plausible that Encyclopedia would hie off to Chicago and become a surly brawler. Because, contrary to my impression, Encyclopedia Brown books are not completely logical or straightforward. Law, order, and logic do not reign at the end of the day. They never did. Here are some of the citizens we encounter in Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Treasure Hunt:

  • “The last customer Monday was Farnsworth Grant. Farnsworth, who was ten, had founded the Idaville Flat Earth Association”
  • “Orson Merriweather had always wanted to be a tree…he put out The Social Directory of Big Trees.”
  • “Wilford Wiggins was a high-school dropout and too lazy to walk in his sleep.”
  • “When he felt up to it Encyclopedia dropped in on Lathrop McPhee. Lathrop had the largest collection of toilet paper in Idaville.”

That last quotation in particular highlights Encyclopedia’s subtle-but-insistent exasperation with his eccentric fellow citizens—“When he felt up to it”—and shows some of the absurdity that the young sleuth is dealing with. (Idaville is said to be in Florida, and this set of characters reminds me of Florida Man joke headlines.)

In another story, Encyclopedia barely keeps it together around the person he’s helping, Pablo Pizzaro, “Idaville’s greatest child artist.” Pablo’s work Bumps on a Log aapparently took fifth grade by storm:

Encyclopedia thought Bumps on a Log was small potatoes. He dared not say so, however, in front of Sally. She became fluttery whenever she was near Pablo.

While watching Pablo’s rival paint, Encyclopedia thinks, “Sailboat in Motion might be instant art, but it was the worst picture he had ever seen.” And later, “His eyes hurt from watching Sailboat in Motion take shape. He staggered off in search of relief.”

The title for this volume could have been Encyclopedia Brown and Life’s Rich Tapestry, or possibly, Encyclopedia Brown Is Somewhat Tired of This Shit.

In this re-reading Encyclopedia is less kid genius, more a person striving to be levelheaded while being surrounded by illogical, somewhat ridiculous (but often lovable) people; judging by the way he behaves in Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Treasure Hunt, the pressure is starting to get to him. The title for this volume could have been Encyclopedia Brown and Life’s Rich Tapestry, or possibly, Encyclopedia Brown Is Somewhat Tired of This Shit.

I mean, he is a child solving the cases that his dad, the friggin’ Chief of Police, can’t crack. If that isn’t topsy-turvy, I don’t know what is.

Then again, remembering back to how I felt about Encyclopedia when I was myself a kid, I know that I forgave this lapse in plausibility. The idea of a young person solving mysteries was delightful.

So I go back and forth. When I was a child, I needed Encyclopedia Brown to be comforting, solid. I wanted to think that problems could be solved—and that’s what I got. As an adult, I don’t have that certainty; I’ve become someone else. But it seems on re-reading that the books have been something else all along.

Top photo: “Detective A,” flickr / Ruud van Eck

Make Fun

Look, it’s been another long year, and my temptation this month is to quote blocks of funny passages from Gordon Korman’s 1981 comic middle-grade novel, I Want to Go Home, and just leave them here without analyzing my childhood or my feeelings.

Humor can be a balm, an escape—all that delightful, uplifting crap. But what I realized on picking up I Want to Go Home again was that my own humor also became a channel for anger. Whether that served me well remains to be seen.

I read I Want to Go Home many, many times starting in either fourth or fifth grade. In the story, Rudy Miller is sent to Camp Algonkian on orders of his school’s guidance department in order to learn to socialize better.

He runs up against enthusiastic campers, hearty counselors, a dizzying array of athletic activities, and a clueless camp director who begins all of his speeches by hailing back to his grandfather Elias Warden, founder of Algonkian.

Rudy is disgusted by all of his pink-lunged, wholesome, outdoorsy fellows. He refers to Algonkian as Alcatraz and his counselors as clones. His only friend is geeky, sensitive Mike Webster, who shares his dislike of camp, enthusiasm, and outdoor activities. Together, they hatch various schemes to escape the island, including:

  • Building a dam to flood the island;
  • Taking off in a boat;
  • Attempting to escape during a baseball game on the mainland;
  • Fleeing during a dance at a girls’ camp

What puzzles his counselors is the fact that Rudy is really, really good at all the things he disdains. He’s a fabulous soccer player. He trounces a counselor at chess and earns the chance to be camp director for a day. He outruns the competition at a track meet—and keeps sprinting off the field in an attempt to escape.

Rudy excels at everything and likes nothing. And this confuses his fellow campers and counselors, for whom being good at something means that they should damn well like it.

Gordon Korman was Rudy Miller to my fourth- or fifth-grade eyes.

At this point, Korman has now published nearly a hundred novels for children. But when I first started reading his books, he was young—not that much older than me, it seemed. He’d written his first novel, This Can’t Be Happening at Macdonald Hall, at age thirteen and sent it in to Scholastic, where it became the first in a string of hits. Macdonald Hall spawned a series starring Bruno and Boots, a pair of jokesters given to pulling stunts at their Canadian private school. (The current prime minister of Canada, who is also not that much older than me, named This Can’t Be Happening at Macdonald Hall as his favorite Canadian book. This article on Korman’s career is great, by the way.) Korman kept putting out funny, outrageous novels seemingly effortlessly, each featuring more elaborate plots and schemes than the last. He published five books before he graduated from high school.

Young Gordon Korman seemed to have pulled off an elaborate con — except his scheme was to get the adults to give him adulation and money for writing books in which he thumbed his nose at them. He was, like Rudy Miller, the kid who’d managed to outsmart the grown-ups again and again.

I was a very “good” child when I first read I Want to Go Home. I seemed sunny and undemanding. I won prizes at the science fair. I played piano. I didn’t talk back. My parents were also Christian and fairly conservative. At times I was desperate to appear “good” in every form that that word takes: an all-encompassing good that included purity of the soul, competence, and just general prodigiousness.

At other times, my act felt like utter and complete bullshit. I maintained a front out of fear: that I wasn’t actually very bright; that people would find out that I didn’t actually like or respect most of the adults with whom I acted so obsequious. And although I didn’t articulate it at the time, I was also convinced that I lived on the thin edge of the wedge. We don’t use the term “visible minority” as often anymore. But sometimes I feel like it’s an apt descriptor of how I felt. I was in the minority, and I was very visible. My acceptance into most spheres seemed to depend on being perceived as helpful or smart. If I wasn’t white, then by gum, I had to be indispensable, untouchably perfect—both.

But of course, the problem with keeping up the veneer was that it made me really fucking angry.

“You’re different. For instance, your counselors treat you like a prisoner. How come?”

“I am a prisoner,” said Rudy. “We all are, only some of us notice it more than others.”

Now I see that I was—and still am to a certain extent—preoccupied with the gap between my feelings about who I am and my successful performance of goodness and competence. I also see that I still have an equal, forceful desire to sabotage all of that. To rebel, yes, or to escape the narrow and impossible role in which I cast myself.

Nice to see that I’ve matured since fourth grade.

At one point, the extremely competent Rudy Miller says:

“Of course, my parents already have a spot reserved for my future Olympic medals. Maybe I’ll get them a moose head to fill the empty space.”

“You’re so good at everything,” said Mike, his voice filled with awe, “and you still hate sports.”

“With a passion,” agreed Rudy emotionlessly.

The gap between parental expectation and my own desires was something I identified with strongly. But what was interesting about I Want to Go Home was—is—that it stated baldly and often that you didn’t have to enjoy something you seemed good at. You didn’t even have to feign liking it.

In fact, the book presented a third option: you could be good and trapped, you could be angry—you could also be funny.

When Rudy becomes camp director for the day, his wit becomes immediately apparent to the rest of the campers:

“Your attention, please. This is your camp director speaking.” There was an enormous cheer from all the campers, as well as stamping of feet and banging on plates. “Tonight,” Rudy went on after the rumpus had died down, “the counselors’ tag championships will take place.”

[…]

“After that, the counselors will entertain by singing the ‘Anvil Chorus,” from Il Trovatore by Giuseppe Verdi.”

Rudy makes the counselors run around obstacle courses and play tag in the mud; he puts them through what the campers do and makes no bones about his wish to upend the status quo. He tells everyone he dislikes baseball, running, soccer, crafts. He openly plans to escape. If he doesn’t actually get away, he at least gets away with saying everything on his mind.

Because at least he’s funny.

That’s what I concluded, too—for better or for worse. I read the book and laughed—and I tried to be funny. In trying I often said terrible, vicious things. Sometimes my jokes weren’t productive—they often aren’t useful for Rudy, either. Humor was as much a defense mechanism as it was offensive. I could take vengeance through a cutting remark. I could be angry. But it could also be a way of being honest, of allowing me to say exactly what I felt to almost anyone at any time.

My default is still to make fun when I’m feeling riled. I’ve been doing it a lot, lately.

I maintained my image as a good kid through junior high and high school. Of course, I never tried to steal a boat or run away. But I spoke many of the best and worst things I could think of out loud. Sometimes I think I got away with a lot—sometimes too little.

Top photo by Mike Erskine on Unsplash