About toads, kids, poverty, books, Aunt Lisa downloads

Toad Eyes

A couple months after I started working as a handyman in Albuquerque’s “Warzone,” I cleaned an apartment with the densest cockroach population I’ve ever encountered. Roach feces covered the walls. The whole place was crawling. To ensure I understood the situation, I was told by my employer, “The mother roaches carry the egg sacks.” Before he left me to my work, he poked around the roaches until he found a female he could make me look at.

“I get it,” I told him.

The apartment made me sick; the fetid smell was overwhelming. I think it imprinted in my nose; now I can walk into seemingly clean middle class houses and know what’s in the walls. What was in that apartment, to my surprise, was a children’s book; there hadn’t been young kids in the family. I toyed with the idea of cleaning the book up and giving it to one of the little kids in the apartments (by then I already had a following), but when I tried to wash it down, it seemed futile, perhaps thoughtless. I set it in a pile of household trash that was accumulating by the door. The door, which I forgot to lock.

One of the little kids wandered in and came to stand by me where I was scrubbing the kitchen counter. The boy was five years old. I’d gotten him to hold up all his fingers one time though I’d never learned his name. When he showed up in the roach-infested apartment, I was upset.

“You have to go outside,” I told him, “Too dirty.”

He let me lead him back towards the front door. When we got there, he spotted the book on the trash heap and grabbed it up, “Mine?”

I didn’t know what to say. Or do. I hesitated. Then I couldn’t help it…

“One minute,” I said, taking the book back. He followed me back to the sink and I washed and scrubbed the cover off as best as I could.

“Okay,” I said, handing it back, trying to convince myself it was no worse than the rest of the building. He ran off clutching it to his chest. I shut the door and my heart broke. 

–Lisa Gill

(excerpted from an essay titled “DMZ,” part of a nonfiction collection I work on)

NOW GETTING DOWN TO BUSINESS: KIDS & BOOKS

That sweet child’s excitement when taking that dirty book from me haunts.

It’s one of many many many kid-stories I carry from years working construction in the Warzone in the late 1990s. I carry the grief. I carry the despair. I carry the anger at the people who hurt or neglected those kids. I carry true ire at economic systems that left good caring parents unable to afford to do anything but go to work and leave their kids untended while they made enough money for food and shelter. And I also carry gratitude for the way I saw some people look out for each other. (One guy even fed me because he could tell I was hungry.) And because I saw the kids’ faces and talked with them, let them help me paint or listened to their stories, I carry hope. BIG HOPE. I carry all of it every day. The load is heavy and keeps me trying to figure out ways to make it better, tiny ways, anything, ever…

For a long time, and still, my imagined solution (which I’d rant at anyone who would listen) was to paint story books on the low parts of light poles in the neighborhood so kids could wander up and down and read them. The gangs would ignore and respect the toddler heights and not cover it with graffiti (I’ve tested gang response to guerilla art and know what I speak of). Moreover, all the gangbangers were kids once and plenty already have–or soon will have –kids. Their kids need support too. Accessible story books on light and telephone poles makes sense. A kid could read a story on light poles while walking to the school bus or playing outside. They could read that kind of a story even if their house had no electricity for a light bulb and no family member had the  money (or interest) to provide books. I still think that’s a good idea–Public Art, are you listening?!?!

My concerns with class and access are part of why I rarely charge for an event now, or when I do I also offer scholarships or volunteer opportunities–and this awareness is part of why I was such a huge proponent of guerilla literature in the 1990s. My first official teaching gig was at a university in Minnesota and the class I taught was titled “The Ethics and Methodology of Guerilla Literature.” I did tons of it. I considered myself a pamphleteer and still to this day that might be the most accurate moniker for what my heart wants to do.

I believe art should be available everywhere, everyday, in as many contexts as possible. It should be free and accessible and not limited to people who can afford to subscribe to the New Yorker or buy all the latest raves. It should not be limited to people who have been to college. Poetry should not be limited to people “in the know” about what literary journals are supposed to count and keep you illuminated about the current fads. Poetry, art, literature should be our daily life. And they should be both accessible and participatory. We need to communicate with each other. We need access. People are starving. (One day I’ll tell you about why I started the Poets Diner… Today what you need to know is that metaphorical hunger is as real as physical hunger. Both rot your soul and degrade your prospects.)

I didn’t stop putting poetry on the streets of Albuquerque until Graffiti Patrol got out of control. How many commissioned public art projects have they painted over now? It used to be I’d know—this neighborhood I can keep an “installation” up for two weeks; this one (more hoity toity) is only gonna last 24 hours. At a certain point, with various sprays added to light poles, I gave up. When I see graffit patrol now, I want to walk over and say, “Could I have that flyer? I’m actually interested in that event.” Or, “Too bad you get paid to cover up that spray painting—it’s really a pretty good one.”

After I quit street art, I just printed more broadsides and left them in coffeehouses… I have lost track of all the broadsides and saddle stapled anthologies, but it included a couple years of the rag before I handed it off to another editor, then Ke5tra: Sound Literature for a poetry and jazz series, all kinds of specials written for events like International Women’s Day. Even now that I’ve been starting to go “legit” with poetry by trying to form a nonprofit, I’ve kept up editing and publishing the broadsides. Sometimes these days my paper obsessions are actually grant-funded. (Grants have been nice for me, since the early days there was no funding and it was 100% out of pretty bare bones pockets.)

But back to the kids. Shortly after I started this incarnation Local Poets Guild (Local Poets Guild was also the original name of all the street art anonymous activism I was doing in the 1990s with friends), my mom was telling me about one of  her book clubs. Each book participant takes turns doing research on the author they are reading. This author was running a christmas special for a free downloadable children’s book called “Peas on Earth.” I thought, “What a brilliant idea!” A downloadable childrens book would be accessible to anyone with a computer and printer, or could be read just on the screen… it would cost seven sheets of paper and a bit of ink as opposed to the $15 a pop for a printed childrens book. (I can barely afford those for my niece and nephew and know how many they plow through.) As for the digital divide, which wholly irks me, this is nonetheless the kind of thing people can hand carry across the schism. I decided this was something I wanted Local Poets Guild to offer. Free downloadable books for kids related in some way to poetry. I approached a poet I know who does amazing work turning kindergartners into rhyming happy giggling poets. I told him the idea and asked if he would write one. He was interested but my sales pitch must have been too querulous or perhaps sounded technologically tricky. He forgot. I forgot. I didn’t think of doing one myself.

I don’t consider myself good with kids. I’m shy–they’re intense. And I’m not a parent. I never planned to be one. At nineteen, I actually went to the gynecologist and asked them to sterilize me. I’m aware now–and became aware that day–that nineteen year old women aren’t supposed to ask that question. The doctor was too flabberghasted to respond. But I was serious. I would handle the risk with birth control, but that day I made my decision and allowed myself to honor it by grieving. I wrote –and then performed– a short story where my lead character has a miscarriage. For me, the arc did the emotional trick I needed to let myself feel. The decision did not feel one hundred percent voluntary—undeniably, it was influenced by sexual abuse in childhood and then a stranger rape. My first and only thought was that I would not bring a child onto this planet to be tortured. I didn’t believe I could keep a kid safe when I couldn’t keep myself safe. Likely, I was right: I was unable to slow the revictimization and aggression against my body and spirit for another decade.

So I found my children vicariously, kids of poets I know, little sisters and children of people I dated. I enjoyed the times thoroughly but was occassionally surprised when I was told I’d had an impact–and often the impact was that the kids I interacted with told their teachers strange things.

One in fourth grade told his teacher that he was a published author. (He and his sister and his father and I had made a chapbook together.)

Another in middle school told her first algebra teacher that she’d already knew algebra because I’d taught it to her with a stick in wet cement when she was four and I was working construction on her house. (That one is harder to explain–I have no doubt we did math in the concrete as we also played archeologist when the trenching for the addition landed on an old trash heap with bottles and watch parts… but algebra? She would have been four—I have no idea what we scrawled.)

And a few years back, I was tagged on facebook to read and respond to a poem by a local teen writer. When I read it, I was inspired by it and could hear some other possibilities to go farther. Right there in the little tiny facebook comments box, I tried to write up some poetry options ala David Foster Wallace Consider the Lobster Footnotes Style. All my comment did was succeed in confusing all his friends horrifically (they wanted to kill me in the nicest way) and I simultaneously befuddled a poet I had huge faith in ALL BECAUSE I offered him a variant of a comment I got in grad school that had helped me when I was 38 years old. 38 YEARS OLD!  He was probably sixteen at the time–but he was so talented and mature about how he lived and acted that I’d forgotten he was still in high school. He forgave me and we continued friendship and my odd types of support including offering any opportunites I could finagle for readings and even poetics talks (which he did great at). A few years later, SO HAPPILY FOR ME, he asked if I would write him a letter of recommendation. You want to do these things. You dream you get to do these things. And when asked, you work your butt off to do the person you write a letter for justice. My letter was only one tiny part of a huge package of materials that he used to get accepted into Yale. They gave him a very deserved scholarship. He is doing all of us proud.

And I continue my awkward everything. It sort of makes sense that I’d have no concept what is appropriate or fun for kids. When I was little, I was way too serious. I made all my stuffed animals go to school. They were extremely well educated about evolution (and the Bible) as I was trying to reconcile the divisions of those concepts my church was ranting about and couldn’t see why God couldn’t have made evolution. They also got lessons in cross pollinating flowers, and one year I was obsessed with space stations. (I HAND MADE LITTLE TEXTBOOKS FOR MY DOLLS). The info I researched. Libraries–which my mother took me to–were my haven

Now I have a niece and nephew. They call me Aunt Lisa (pronounced Aunt not Ant). I love it. It has a great ring in the ear with their still very small inflections (5/3). Until recently they lived across the country on the East Coast and I could only afford to go visit them once in four years. Now they live closer, in Boulder, and I’m so glad. This geography means I can roadtrip and get to know Nate and Avery. Sometimes I manage a letter or funny homemade card. Today, after I caught a toad while gardening, I thought, “This is something Nate and Avery might like to hear about.” I very quickly wrote an email story with a couple snapshots and sent it for my brother to read to them. Then, I shared it with my mom, and later mentioned it to a friend. My mom said, “You should write children’s books (there’s money in it).” My friend said, “I want to read it.” And I thought, “Oh, wow. I just accidentally did what I was hoping LPG would do. I wrote a potentially downloadable children’s book.” So I revised the story and flushed it out a bit more and formatted it into a pdf and now the Local Poets Guild has launched “FREE DOWNLOADABLE KIDS BOOKS.” (You can find the 7-page pdf of the book by clicking the KIDS BOOKS tab in the navigation bar or just click this direct pdf link Aunt Lisa Found a Toad.)

The first draft took me twenty minutes. The next more polished version took me a few hours. It’s 7 pages. It can be read online or printed. I don’t overdo the color ink as I know how expensive that is. I had fun. I used poetry tools like similes to help explain larger concepts or words that might not be known. And I definitely used big words (a few). I don’t believe in dumbing down for kids. NOT AT ALL. (Nor do I believe in dumbing down for adults, a thing a university once asked me to do with their advertising–at which I ranted, “What kind of students do you want to attract?” I quit for that and myriad reasons.) Dumbing anything down ever is a ridiculous concept. Everywhere. Anytime. Why? What for? Huh? And as for kids, I believe kids should be exposed to any word or concept that needs to come up… and then ideally they feel free to ask their parents, neighbors, and teachers for help with pronunciation and understanding. Kids can hack a good stretch–can we as adults?

My own experience in childhood was lucky. SO LUCKY. Lots of stuff in my childhood was profoundly f’d up but I got books. I got taught to read and write and in short order considered myself a poet (I was deadly serious about it by 4th grade when I was writing all my book reports in ballad form for startled teachers). I read on my mother’s lap. Alot. After the initial being read to phase, I became the reader. I’d hop up and read silently along with her from wherever she was to wherever I decided to go back outside and play. I’d make her hold the page for me so I could get it all. She read faster than I did, of course. Later in life, I knew the middles of a whole lot of books. Funny flashbacks when I’d get to those sections. It was one of my favorite times, one I’m actually nostalgic for.  I also took her books into my grammar teachers to show proof that punctuation didn’t have to work the way they were telling me. “See, this got published like this!” As a young voraciously reading teen, I had access to my mother’s American classics and my father’s cold war library of Russians. And before that, I got Shakespeare. In fifth grade I got six plays. During a lunchtime club at school in Germany, one teacher led about a couple dozen elementary students in studying Shakespeare. We memorized sonnets and soliloquies on our lunch hour and ended up reading six plays out loud during the course of the school year.

During the part selection in Hamlet, I kept volunteering, sneakily. I was practically invisible as a student and really unnoticed, so profoundly unnoticed that the teacher didn’t catch onto what I was doing (volunteering for everything) until all of sudden I was playing three side characters talking to myself… At which point he promptly nixed me down to one. Next play, I tried out for a lead and got the part Lady MacBeth. I completely stole it. They had no choice but to give the role to me. I was a raucously silent and bitten-tongued child with huge pent up anger. And because no one at school (or anywhere) had ever heard me raise my voice, when I channeled Lady MacBeth’s baby-bashing soliloquy, all the jaws in the room dropped—- kids and teacher, the other volunteer….  Their silence in response to hearing my real previously unspoken voice was better than any standing ovation. And then as a bonus, I got the part.

I actually think 5th grade is the perfect age for Shakespeare and I know another American teacher perhaps in LA got famous for doing this work with this age also, think there’s a movie about it. In my mind, kids at that age feel all the same emotions in the plays, are open (not too cool) to study, and need an outlet. We also don’t know we’re supposed to be intimidated by literature….

Which is all to say, “NO, I will never follow proper protocol for children’s book authors where you count words in sentences and limit syllables depending on target age group.” Nice thing is, I don’t have to dumb anything down… I’m publishing free downloadable children’s books. If you want it, grab it. If not, don’t.

And I want more children’s books so consider this a CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS

I want more from me and more from other authors. I want to take submissions that we can add to what will hopefully be a growing library. PDFs of up to ten pages kind of deal. I’ll also add a couple other “private” ones I’d written (even one the kids coauthored). Let’s do it. Let’s make some stuff kids can read and then let it trickle out into the world. It was fun to do. It was fast and easy and I didn’t fuss—I just did it. Doable trumps ideal anyday in my book. And all poets need to write children’s books. It’s part of our job. Even Joy Harjo and Demetria Martinez have done it recently. TS Eliot. Ogden Nash. ee cummings. We gotta do it. We were gifted with access to reading somehow—whenever or wherever that happened, early or late in life—and then we learned we could do things as writers—now it’s our turn to give back what we can.

Catch more toads–and then let them go….

–lisa gill

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