Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Fruits and Nuts of Prison Reform

by Chris Innes
author of Healing Corrections: The Future of Imprisonment

President Obama’s recent visit to a federal prison has highlighted an emerging bipartisan consensus in support of prison reform. The movement toward reform has been encouraged by the recognition that crime rates have fallen to levels not seen in 50 years while the number of people in American prisons continues to grow, albeit at a much slower pace than in recent decades. Of the interest in reform, the Wall Street Journal said, “Part of the reason is simple numbers: The U.S. is jailing people faster than the public can pay for them.” But even the most ambitious proposals for reform will still leave hundreds of thousands of people incarcerated.

The reason is that the current crop of reform proposals focus on a relatively small group that represent the so-called “low-hanging fruit” among the American prison population. Addressing the far larger share of people in prison will be a much harder nut to crack. The President, understandably, is focused on the Federal prison population, about half of whom are drug offenders. He and other advocates for reform have tended to talk most about people serving time for a drug offense and most especially about those people who are non-violent. But there are only about 200,000 Federal prisoners, out of the 1.5 million people serving sentences on American prisons. The fact is that the great majority of the people in prison are serving time for a violent offense, have a history of violence, and/or are repeat offenders with lengthy criminal records.

This raises the question of, after we are successful in accomplishing all the currently proposed reforms, “What’s next?” Mass incarceration is by no means our only problem when it comes to prisons. And the end of mass incarceration, when it comes, will create a future for imprisonment that will be vastly different from the one we now know. It may be that a downsized system will be worse than the one we have because we will be dealing with only the toughest cases. In other words, when we’ve stopped putting in prison all the people we think shouldn’t be there, what are we going to do with all those we think should be locked up? The subtitle of my book, Healing Corrections, is “The Future of Imprisonment.” The book provides a framework for creating healing environments within prisons and jails. It gives the answer to what secure institutions could be in the post-mass incarceration future.

When people first hear about the idea of creating a healing environment in prisons and jails, they often misunderstand its meaning. What is being healed, and thereby becomes healing, are the cultures within them. These cultures have become fragmented under the pressures of conflicting demands, limited resources, and the inevitable stresses and strains that go along with living or working in correctional settings. The focus of the transformation of these cultures is on the people who work there because they are the only ones who can do the work. Healing Corrections shows how people working in prisons and jails can be helped to communicate with each other and with inmates in constructive and compassionate ways to build a better place to work for themselves and healthier place to live for inmates.

Those who see the possibility of fundamental reform on our justice system are right. We are experiencing what could be a historic moment in our collective understanding of how the contradictions of and between our social, legal, and economic systems can be used to catalyze fundamental changes in order to re-create our justice system and redefine its role in society. One source of this change must be a transformation of the culture of corrections, which will, I believe, help initiate a shift in our society’s relationship to both the people who work for and those who literally live within our justice system. But along the way, we have some tough nuts to crack.

To learn more about Chris Innes' book, Healing Corrections, and to read his regular blog on this topic, visit

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Rainbow Was Real!: Dispatches from the Grateful Dead's Final Tour

By Michael Benson

As I was putting the finishing touches on my new book, Why the Grateful Dead Matter, to be published this winter by ForeEdge, reflecting upon cosmic events a half-century old, the last thing I was expecting was breaking news about the Grateful Dead. But on January 16, 2015, at 10:00 A.M., I received an email from the Dead announcing that Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Bruce Hornsby, with guests Trey Anastasio (uh oh, of Phish) and Jeff Chimenti (of RatDog, Further, and The Other Ones), would be playing three shows at Chicago’s Soldier Field on July 3, 4 and 5, 2015. The event was to be called “Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years of the Grateful Dead.” The announcement came with a couple of quotes.

Drummer Mickey Hart said, “ I have a feeling this will come out just right. Can’t wait to find out…Here we go!” Drummer Bill Kreutzmann added, “The Grateful Dead lived an incredible musical story and now we get to write a whole new chapter. By celebrating our 50th, we get to cheer our past, but this isn’t just about history. The Grateful Dead always played improvisational music that was born in the moment and we plan on doing the same this round.”

Well, the announcement was only minutes old when social media began to explode with outrage. How dare they? Trey? The Treyful Dead? It was capitalism at its worst. Just wait. Ticket prices were going to explode. Only millionaires would be able to go.

Every Dead show is different, but the vibe is always exactly the same. (Photo by Dennis Duffy)

By the time summer rolled around, the big stadium Dead tour had expanded, adding two shows in the San Francisco 49ers football stadium in Santa Clara, where there would be accommodations for the tie-dyed Deadheads who couldn’t get close to a ticket in Chicago.

The most ecstatic and controversial moment in Santa Clara came during the first show, in the middle of “Viola Lee Blues” when a rainbow formed over the stadium. The event was largely believed to be a manifestation of the vibes in the stadium and/or Jerry smiling down on the event from heaven, a freaky good feeling that threatened to be dampened, but only somewhat, the next day by a Billboard magazine report that the rainbow was not real, and that the promoters had spent $50,000 for some fantastic projector capable of creating artificial rainbows. As it turned out, the report was based on a tweet hoax. The rainbow was natural—and therefore, in the mind of Grateful Nation, possibly Jerry’s work.

Here are three contrasting first-person accounts of the Santa Clara shows, held in the San Francisco 49ers football stadium in Santa Clara:

Monday, June 15, 2015

Summer Reading Special! Enter to Win!

Spring in New England is blending beautifully into summer, which puts us in a generous mood.

And you're probably starting to make your picks for vacation reading. Let us help!

Let us help you save some dough, too. Through August 31, UPNE is taking 30% off the list price of a boatload of books—a colorful mix of new releases and classics, from true crime to nature writing, from a history of shipwrecks to a history of airships, and just about everything in between.

The discount is available only through Apply promo code E123EW at checkout.

Peruse the books in the slide show above. Click on the image, then its caption, to read more about each book.

But wait, there's more.

How'd you like to have all of these books...for free? Enter to win the whole lot of these summer reads by signing up for the UPNE newsletter, here. Contest goes through Monday, June 22.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

On a Long-Lost American Masterpiece, and Why Public Museums Matter

The Moving Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress on view in Building 13 of the Pepperell Mill Campus, Biddeford, Maine, June 18, 2012. Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette, courtesy Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.

by Jessica Skwire Routhier, coauthor (with Kevin J. Avery and Thomas Hardiman, Jr.) of The Painters' Panorama: Narrative, Art, and Faith in the Moving Panorama of Pilgrim's Progress

You would think that an 800-foot-long painting, created by leading American artists and seen all over the United States in the 1850s, would be hard to lose track of. But in fact, that’s exactly what happened to the Moving Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress, the subject of The Painters’ Panorama, new from UPNE this month.

By the time the panorama was rediscovered, in 1996, in the storage vault of Maine’s Saco Museum (then called the York Institute), no one had seen it for more than a century. Historians of panoramas, a kind of mass entertainment medium of the 19th century, as well as scholars of the Hudson River School painters who designed it—Frederic Edwin Church, Jasper Cropsey, Daniel Huntington, and others—were aware of its history and importance in their fields, and they often referred to it in their writings. But they invariably described it as “lost” or “unlocated,” never imagining that this enormous canvas, once the toast of New York and described by one excitable reviewer as “beyond exception the finest work of art ever produced in this country,” lay safe and untouched—albeit utterly forgotten—within the walls of one of America’s first-generation museums.

Land of Beulah, design attributed to Jasper Cropsey, from the Moving Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress.

In fact, the reason we know much of anything at all about the Moving Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress, beyond the historical fact of its existence and the newspaper accounts of its production and enthusiastic public reception in 1851, is that it was donated to a public museum. It’s a historical coincidence that just as panoramas were falling out of fashion—they were being replaced, in the second half of the 19th century, by magic lantern shows and other novelties derived from the alluring new art of photography—museums were being established all over America. As the U.S. passed the benchmarks of its 50th, 75th, and 100th anniversaries, and as American towns, especially in New England, passed even more impressive anniversaries (Saco was founded in 1636), citizens were inspired to create institutions that would preserve their history and artifacts that embodied it.

At the Saco Museum, which was established in 1866, the founders (which included John Johnson, co-inventor of the world’s earliest commercial camera) were also aware that the technological inventions of their time would bring permanent, global change to the way that we work, make things, and look at the world. They knew that the artifacts of the past, or indeed of their present, would not necessarily be the artifacts of the future. The museum’s earliest formal collections therefore included not only art and historical artifacts, but also geological and natural history specimens as well as technological gadgets, including Johnson’s 1839 camera.

“The Splendid Moving Mirror of the Bunyan Tableaux!” Polytechnic Institute (location unknown), circa 1857. Collections of the Dyer Library and Saco Museum, Saco, Maine. Gift of Kathleen M. Swaim.

So in 1896, when the Bryant family of Biddeford (Saco’s sister city across the river) approached the Institute with the gift of the Moving Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress (or the “Bunyan Tableaux,” as it was then frequently called)—which had been hanging, neglected, in a family barn for a generation or more—the trustees were probably intrigued by it less as a work of art than as an artifact of American entrepreneurship and innovation. Indeed, in the sparse documentation that exists for the gift of the panorama, there is no indication that anyone at that point remembered that the panorama was associated with major American artists—not even Frederic Edwin Church, who was still very much alive at the time and widely revered as a living patriarch of American landscape painting.

Perhaps this explains why, apart from an apparent exhibition or performance within a year of its donation, the panorama was rolled up, tucked away, and soon forgotten. A century’s worth of museum directors, curators, and trustees must have picked their way around it in the storage vault, assuming that it was nothing more than rolled-up dropcloths. Finally, in 1996, then-curator Tom Hardiman (a co-author of The Painters’ Panorama) decided that it was time to finally take those aging bolts of fabric to the dumpster—but he’d better just look at them first to make sure they weren’t anything important.

You might say, at this point, that “the rest is history”—but to do so might imply that what came before was somehow not history. One of the most engaging things about the panorama is its rich and complex relationship to history, from the work of 17th-century English literature that provides its title and subject, to the simultaneous rise of American art and theater in the pre-Civil War years, to the advancements in travel and textile production that meant it could feasibly be presented to audiences all over the United States, to its quiet berth and century-long sleep in one of America’s earliest public museums, to that same small museum’s extraordinary efforts in 2012 to restore and reinterpret it for a new generation and a worldwide audience—efforts made possible, notably, through advancements in video-sharing technology and digital photography.

Jacob Dallas, Joseph Kyle, and Edward Harrison May, The Moving Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress (detail), 1851, distemper on muslin, Saco Museum, Saco, Maine. Gift of the heirs of Luther Bryant, 1896. Photo by Matthew Hamilton, Williamstown Art Conservation Center; photo splicing by Portland Color.

The Moving Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress was created as a teaching object; its Christian message was meant to positively influence those who came to see it (find out more about the book The Pilgrim’s Progress here). To many, those ideals are no less important today than they were in 1851. However, in its current form and context the panorama also provides a broader illustration of the world and human experience—the “humanities,” if you will. It is, for instance, lasting evidence that art, religion, entertainment, technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship are not mutually exclusive endeavors, not then and not now. The panorama gives physical, material weight behind the ideal that these passions and pursuits can exist together, not only in a single, remarkable artifact from a specific moment in time, but also—significantly, satisfyingly, and enduringly—in our public museums.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

How Narrative History Rescues the Past

Battle between Alexander and Darius, Pompeii, House of the Faun, via Wiki Commons
by Russell Lawson
Author of The Sea Mark: Captain John Smith's Voyage to New England

“Narrative History Rescues the Past.” You're not likely to see this headlining the latest news feed, though subtle truth rarely makes the news.

Moreover, narrative history is rarely sensational, rarely fantastic, and is (unfortunately) not imaginary, rather based on real people and real places; reality rarely captivates the way fantasy and the unreal do. Yet fiction is not likely to rescue the past.

Doubtless I appear to be writing nonsense: how can people living in the present, anticipating the future, rescue something that has disappeared, gone, never to be relived? The past can be remembered, recollected, but rescued? Hardly.

Stubbornly, perhaps, I maintain that the past can be rescued, and that narrative history wrought by narrative historians is precisely the means to do it; a good narrative historian is a rescuer of the past.

Take my latest book, The Sea Mark: Captain John Smith's Voyage to New England. There have been many books written on John Smith, of course, and movies made, and poems written, and caricatures drawn, and monuments dedicated to—and more. Why would he need to be rescued, if by that obscure, if pithy, word rescue I mean to bring to awareness, to make known, in the present?

No, that's not what I mean by rescue. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me define terms. First, what is meant by narrative history?

Narrative history is an account of sequence of events over time restricted to actual sources or implied events; it uses the historical imagination to re-create a particular episode (if consistent with sources); it uses quotes from writings as a replacement for dialogue; it does not manufacture or imagine a plot, rather the plot occurs as a matter of course based on what really happened; it re-creates scenes based on actual experiences; events and sources guide the imagination and storytelling (not vice-versa); and it relies on honesty: honest use of sources, honest presentation of past, honest evocation of human experience.

A narrative historian must write about a person or topic which they wish to re-live, re-create, re-experience. Sources must exist to allow for this mental exercise, as well as the penchant to understand human nature, which is gained by reflection into self. Added to this is a good imagination: to imagine the past, imagine what happened, imagine the people, then conform the imagination to the sources, to what really happened. Empathy unites, organizes, creates the whole portrait of the past: as the historian researches and imagines, visits places, he/she must feel, must sense the past, must empathize with those who once lived.

Empathy is the means by which the past can, as it were, be rescued. Empathy with another, even another long dead, requires a vicarious dialogue to be created in one's head. This dialogue with the past was perfected by a highly imaginative philosopher of the 14th century: Francesco Petrarca, who conversed by means of his pen and paper with past people, Cicero and Augustine: he asked them questions, and heard, in his mind, a response.

A dialogue with the past: this is how the historian rescues the past. This dialogue is a mixture of the subjective (feeling based on imagination) with the objective (reason based on sources); it is getting to know the past person: their habits, feelings, thoughts, interests, aims, emotions, accomplishments; it is dealing honestly with the past: the honest appraisal of person by not imposing one's own point of view, one's own preconceived notions, on the past, which is anachronistic.

To empathize with the past one must feel the past as well as feel the present. To understand the life of a past person, one must understand his/her own life. The historian's own life helps to write the story of the past: the historian's own feelings helps to understand past feelings; the historian's thoughts helps to understand past thoughts; the historian's experiences helps to understand past experiences.

In short, narrative history/biography is the story of two lives, one life explicitly told (the past person) and one life implicitly told (the historian or biographer). In studying these two lives, the life of the past person is rescued, comes alive in the present, to live again in the historian's mind and in the words put on paper.

Indeed, rescuing the past might be the means of rescuing the present.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

12 Tips for Caring for Someone with Alzheimer’s Disease
by Robert B. Santulli, MD, coauthor (with Kesstan Blandin, PhD) of The Emotional Journey of the Alzheimer's Family

Caring for someone with Alzheimer’s is certainly one of the most stressful challenges a person can undergo. For some, the degree of strain is so great that it can interfere with providing good care, and can lead to hastened placement of the individual in a facility. The stress of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s can be harmful to the care partner, as well. Taking good care of oneself must be the first job of anyone who is caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease. A care partner can only manage the many tasks and challenges involved if he or she is in good shape mentally and physically. With this is mind, here are a dozen pointers that care partners may find helpful. These tips, and others, are discussed in greater detail in the book I co-authored with Kesstan Blandin, The Emotional Journey of the Alzheimer’s Family.

1. Take Good Care of Your Own Well-being 
Care partners frequently neglect their own health needs while focusing on the needs of the person with the disease. Eating and sleeping well are critical. So is regular physical exercise. Have regular visits with your primary physician. A good primary care provider will be sensitive to how you are managing stress and will intervene when it appears necessary.

2. Get As Much Help As Possible 
You will feel much less stressed if you get as much help as possible with the job – other family, friends, paid assistants. Sometimes the greatest hurdle in achieving this goal is not the lack of availability or willingness of others to help, but the reluctance of the primary care partner – particularly a spouse – to acknowledge the need for assistance, and allow others to help.

3. Have Regular Periods of Respite 
Respite means not only that you have time when he you are not engaged in providing care, but also, time when you are relieved of the psychological burden of worrying about the person with the disease. In order for this to be possible, you need helpers who are trustworthy, and with whom the person with Alzheimer’s is reasonably comfortable. This can take some doing, but is well worth the effort.

4. Maintain a Social Life and Interests 
Separate from the Person with Alzheimer’s Disease You need to maintain you own sense of identity, independent from that of being a care partner, and continue to pursue those activities that have been important to you previously. This should include social contact with persons other than the individual with Alzheimer’s.

5. Learn as Much as Possible about the Disease 
Knowledge is critical in managing any chronic illness, but this is especially true in the case of Alzheimer’s disease. Learning about the behavioral challenges that are common in Alzheimer’s disease, and how to manage them, may be more valuable than any medication currently available for this.

6. Engage in a Comfortable, Open Dialogue about the Disease with the Person with Alzheimer’s 
While it may sometimes seem that talking about the disease with the person with Alzheimer’s will create additional stress, usually the opposite is the case. Family members – care partners and those with the disease alike – often report that they are much more comfortable once they have been able to talk openly about this previously - avoided “elephant in the room”. Of course, this must be done in a way that is not judgmental, and is sensitive to the self-esteem of the person with the disease.

7. Talk with Close Family and Friends About the Illness 
Perhaps you feel that discussing the situation with other family members or friends is unnecessary and perhaps even disloyal. While that sentiment is understandable, it is based on the false premise that Alzheimer’s is something about which one should feel ashamed, and that it should be hidden from others. It is important not to let old-fashioned notions about the illness interfere with you getting all the support you can from friends, family, and other confidantes. Doing so will help you be a better care partner, and that should be the goal that overrides almost anything else.

8. Attend a Support Group Regularly 
Support groups offer unique and powerful benefits, and many care partners indicate that their group has become a vital lifeline at a very difficult time in their lives. Even people who initially feel they don’t need to go to a support group find them extremely beneficial, once they start attending regularly. You are not alone in trying to cope with this.

9. Find Activities Your Loved One Will Enjoy—Especially Activities You Can Appreciate Together
A common challenge family care partners face is being able to identify activities that are appropriate, achievable, and enjoyable for the person with the illness. Take careful note of those abilities that have been preserved in the person with the disease, and focus on activities that make use of the capacities that remain. Finding the right activities and pursuing these depends on your motivation and creativity, more than anything else. Usually, the person with Alzheimer’s is no longer able to initiate this type of spontaneous activity. In addition to identifying suitable activities for the person with the disease, it is especially valuable to identify activities that the two of you can enjoy together. Try going for walks together. Not only is there benefit in the activity itself, but also, walking together promotes another crucially important activity: talking to each other.

10. Find and Celebrate the Positive Aspects of Providing Care 
While there are many difficult and stressful aspects of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s, it is not all negative; nearly every care partner can point to positive aspects of the undertaking. Being able to focus on the positives of any difficult task is good for your mental wellbeing, and that is especially true for this task.

11. Focus on What You Can Control, and Learn to Accept the Rest
People who have a very strong need to feel “in control” tend to have a very difficult time as care partners. But the nature of Alzheimer’s is that the disease is generally in control - not really your loved one, and certainly not you, unfortunately. Try to determine which aspects of the situation you are able to predict or control, and focus on those, while recognizing and accepting the many aspects of the situation that are not in your control. Things you can control are your own behavior and emotional reactions to the situation. This is where you should focus your efforts.

12. Know When You Have Reached Your Limits, and Act Accordingly 
There may come a point when you feel you are no longer able to continue the tasks of caring for someone with Alzheimer’s at home. It is neither shameful nor disloyal to recognize the point when a change needs to be made, and act accordingly. Making preparations for this ahead of time should not be viewed as a sign of weakness or disloyalty, but instead as a concession to reality, and as an act of love for the person with the illness.

A version of this post originally appeared on Psychology Today.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Thirteen Stereotypes about Poets

by Gary Soto
excerpted from Why I Don't Write Children's Literature (March 2015)

It’s a disappointment that I’m not invited to parties more often because I possess an extensive social armor in the form of twelve suits, including a rare Paul Smith three-piece—rare in that there is only one other like it in the United States. To my mind, it’s very close to “bespoke,” meaning that a tailor, working from my slender measurements, made it just for me. I’m disappointed because I want to be present at a party where a midlevel techie—wine glass in his right hand, cracker in his left—asks, “What do you do?”

“I’m a poet,” I would answer, nibbling on my own cracker, sipping from my own drink. “Gee, this is a nice party. Look, there’s more food coming!”

And you live where? the techie might wonder, in his semi-vegan heart. But aloud he says, “Interesting. I read a short poem about black birds once. Didn’t understand it at all.” Cracker crumbs fall from his lower lip. His cell phone lights up and I disappear from his thoughts for seconds—no, for good. He turns away.

Still, I get to mingle with others at the party. I scan the scene and sip my wine. It’s good stuff—a blend of silliness, with just a touch of hilly ravine. Got to get a case of this, I remind myself.

In short, poets are misread. We’re like others in that we have hearts and lungs, money and then no money, and places to go—even if it’s by foot. If you call with an invitation to us older poets, on a landline, we will make every effort to come.

Poets Wear Berets
We are no longer partial to berets, though we’ve all seen them tilted smartly on heads, both male and female. Admittedly, they’re attractive head coverings, but only for the generation before 1960, and only if you were European with an owl-shaped face. Still, if a contemporary poet wears a beret it should be made of wool and smell of tobacco and worry—worry for the next poem and the next meal. When we do don hats, I’m afraid it’s the dumbed-down baseball-cap look—or a beanie, like that guy in U2. People assume that’s what poets look like—like the beanie guy. But no, that’s more like a rocker with a really expensive guitar.

Poets Are Silent and Reflective Types
If drinks are free for more than two hours—and if the party extends to another venue, offering more of the same—a poet can get really loud. He might collapse to his knees, roll onto his side, and keep talking, even while the brain has given up and the eyes resemble salmon eggs. The collapsed poet does not go quietly into the night. Though crumpled on the floor, his lips are still moving slightly.

“Bush,” the poet mumbles, “George Bush started it all . . . Rosebud, rosebud . . .”

Some smarty remarked that we poets come into the world not knowing a single word. After we have honed the ancient craft, however, we won’t shut up. But we also come into the world expecting a proper drink, right away. “Where’s mommy?” the newborn poet asks, then wails.

Poets Like Flowers
Sniffing them, we think of our future funerals, when an organ moans and the mourners, other poets in out-of-style ties, are keen to the aroma of vittles in the adjacent room. Flowers, of course, are beautiful in a vase, on half-price calendars, and when presented to us with the Nobel Prize for Literature. This big daddy of all awards most likely doesn’t happen, however, and we will have no occasion to shake hands with a real king and bow to his wife, the queen, thin as a tulip. But if it should occur, we would wear a red boutonniere, the color of the blood we spilled getting there.

Poets Vote Democrat
Yes, most darken those zeros in the voting booth in favor of Democrats. But a few vote Republican. Generally, these poets iron their jeans and then re-iron them, with sharp creases. Republican poets are always men.

Poets Don’t Work
We are apt to work hard—as long as we don’t have to bend over too much. We work for figures just north of minimum wage, correcting college papers that often begin, “In today’s society,” and teaching creative writing workshops where babyish students complain, “You just want us to write like you.” We appreciate work that ends about five o’clock and committee meetings that take no longer than the time in which to eat a sandwich. We like paychecks, but fret at all the deductions on the paystub. All those taxes never benefit poets.

Gary Soto, not unbalanced.
Unbalanced, Poets Must Hang onto Things When They Walk
Sylvia Plath put her head inside an oven—we know at least this much about her. Delmore Schwartz drank himself to death, and so did Dylan Thomas. Virginia Woolf, a prose writer with a poet’s sensibility, put rocks into her apron and walked into a cold river. In short, the public thinks that we’re unbalanced and steps back to give us room. But poets are well balanced. Consider how poets start off the day. We put on our socks first, then our pants, or maybe the other way around—pants first, then socks. We’re able to dress ourselves.

Poetry Slams Are for Everyone
Poets in a slam rhyme like this: “I was a’gonna fall / before the call / but big beautiful doll / hecka pale and tall / you feel me, y’all?” After some soft clapping from the audience, the poet swings his hair from his right shoulder to his left. Then he begins another: “Skinny but mad / fruitfully glad / mom and dad / like frowned at ‘Brad’ / but my words, sugar babe, ain’t that bad.” These slams start at about 7:00 p.m. and end when we turn about twenty-five.

Poets Drink Too Much Coffee
Like the regular Joes and Josephinas of the world, wesavor our morning brew. We drink two cups, get that sweet vibe going, then head to work on BART. In our office, we’re blasted by fluorescent light bulbs, but on our desk we have a potted plant to soothe our eyes.

“How’s it going?” a workmate asks.

“I stapled my tie to the desk—that’s how it’s going,” the poet answers. “You seen the scissors?”

We don’t sit in cafes jotting down ideas for poems that may or may not happen. Poets like their coffee with lots of cream and with sugar—two spoonfuls will sweeten the day.

Poets Listen to NPR
While driving a cheapo rental, poets may cruise the radio stations, halt briefly at NPR’s “All Things Considered,” and growl, “Oh, yeah, a station for the Volvo crowd.” When a reporter begins, in an urgent voice, “Today in Australia a kangaroo was found sitting among rocks at low tide,” poets snort, “Yeah, but what about me? I sat there and no one gave a shit.” Poets search for a station with loud music.

Poets Need Sensitivity Training 
A famous poet and his semi-famous friend commiserated over a prestigious prize that neither received. It instead had gone to a very famous poet.

“Get over it,” the famous poet scolded. “Bury the hatchet.”

“Good idea!” the semi-famous poet roared. “I’ll bury in it in his forehead.”

Poets Understand Dreams
We sleep in narrow or wide beds and we dream narrowly or widely. To our analysts, we report with mild urgency dreams such as this: “When I went into the bathroom I saw a polar bear drinking from the toilet. He raised his face with little drops of water dripping from his chops, and chased me down the hallway. We both ran in slow motion, but since he was more powerful he caught me and, well, gave me a bear hug.”

Analyst (tapping pencil against his leg—so Freudian): “Were there ice cubes involved?”

Poets Live on the Top Floor of the Ivory Tower
We live in houses with lots of windows, or apartments with some windows, or shared spaces with only one window, which we climb through when we’ve forgotten the key. We live in tents when the going is hard or with our parents when the going is really hard. No poet lives too richly. We don’t shine the silver or dust the chandelier or take tally of the Royal Copenhagen china. We seldom dwell in large houses with more than two bathrooms. When we do, it’s because our wife or husband or lover is the one with money. Even then, we feel a little embarrassed when we show our guests the view from the great room.

Poets Smell
Ghastly rumor! We shower and we wash our fleshy mitts. Some solitary days we contemplate the grime under our fingernails, grime that if analyzed in a lab would reveal pencil lead. We write poems that work and poems that don’t work. When we sweat, we provide the world with an unusual odor. “What’s that?” a curious business-type might ask, as he sniffs the confines of an elevator. Dogs howl at our sides as they recall from their canine past some primordial longing that involved the first Neanderthal poets. People hurry out of the elevator before the poet can say, “It’s me! I’ve just finished a poetry manuscript. The perfume is called ‘Essence of Limited Edition.’”

Why I Don't Write Children's Literature, by Gary Soto, is available from ForeEdge on March 3rd.