Thursday, October 4, 2012

“Roasting Questions”

“You learned Lear’s Nonsense Rhymes by heart, not rote;
       You learned Pope’s Iliad by rote, not heart;
 These terms should be distinguished if you quote
        My verses, children—keep them poles apart—
 And call that man a liar who says I wrote
        All that I wrote in love, for love of art.”
Robert Graves, “A Plea to Boys and Girls”

Poetry & the heart—poetry & love: common enough associations. But while culturally we may stereotypically associate poetry with romantic love, in fact the love behind good poetry exceeds that emotion, however fervent it may be. The love that gives voice to poetry can encompass many manifestations: the love of a mother for her child, for instance, or in a related way, the love of a poet for herself as a child in a way that both connects to the past & also keeps that child alive & vital in the present. In the end, the greatest love of the poet as poet is for the language itself & the act of creation that brings that language to life in a way that no other poet could accomplish—because true poetry always bears the unique stamp of the subject who creates it.

I first came to know the poetry of Barbie Angell in early 2011, tho it seems as if it were much longer ago; it seems that way, because her poetry has a timeless quality, & a compelling ability to connect the reader to earlier selves. Because I realized that Barbie’s poetry is truly unique, unmistakably the work of an unusually creative individual, & also because I recognized her poetry’s capacity for wide appeal, I asked her to become a contributor to this blog, & to my great joy she accepted the invitation. Now I’m happy to tell you about her new book of children’s poetry, Roasting Questions, issued thru Grateful Steps of Asheville, North Carolina.

Although Barbie’s poetic explorations overall take her beyond the realm of children’s poetry, she has a true & sparkling gift for this “genre.” & what is children’s poetry, exactly? When I was a graduate student teaching creative writing at the University of Virginia, I used a text titled The Rattle-Bag edited by Seamus Heaney & Ted Hughes. A quick glance at the author index shows that the anthology contains Emily Dickinson & William Blake & Wallace Stevens, not to mention translations of Vasko Popa & Lorca—& indeed many familiar names. But one day, my students discovered to their great consternation & confusion that The Rattle-Bag was listed in the publishing information as “Children’s Poetry.” How could this be?

The best so-called children’s poetry is simply good poetry—& one might conjecture, at least to a great degree—that the best poetry is also in some sense children’s poetry, because great poetry must always partake of magic & the numinous & the sheer delight in words that are at their base, the emotions of childhood. When we are young, the Mother Goose rhymes are indeed numinous.

In this vein, Barbie Angell’s poetry creates a world: a world of delight & poignancy & fun & encouragement. Whether we are reading the exploits of a mud pie baker whose greatest creation is neglected by all or about a superhero who is so self-absorbed in his exploits that he doesn’t have time to rescue someone, we enter a realm not only of the imagination, but of a particular imagination—& in that very particularity, with its quirks & obsessions & subjectivity, we find something universal. Of course, this is always the case with good poetry, whether in the case of an individual image or in a whole collection of poems.

In terms of technique, children’s poetry is a match for Barbie Angell’s great poetic strengths. She has a strong sense of meter, without ever sounding mechanical—her lines have interesting rhythms on a basic iambic frame. She also has a great knack for rhyme—including interesting assonant slant rhymes—for instance in the closing stanza of one of my favorites in the collection, “Wanting Nothing”


So here’s a piece of nothing.
Please keep it close to you.
If you find you’re out of something,
it's nothing you can use.

Some of my other favorite slant rhymes are “love/fudge,” “cloves/knows,” “yourself/mental health.”

Barbie Angell also has a positive genius for personification. For instance, in her poem “Tea Party,” Insecurity, Self-esteem, Grudge, Strength & Despair all become objects in an updated version of Alice’s afternoon with the Mad Hatter & March Hare; elsewhere, we find that Happiness & Tomorrow become real characters, while in the poem  “Insatiable Appetite,” we learn that “irony tastes like fudge”!

Roasting Questions is delightfully illustrated by Barbie herself (she also did the book layout)—for a glimpse at one of the poems & illustrations, I’d direct you to the preceding post called “The Wishing Tree,” which may be my favorite poem from the collection—but I’d also note that the layout on the blog doesn’t do justice to the actual book layout! Barbie’s drawings are colorful & filled with details that will appeal not only to children, but to anyone with a vivid imagination—as such, they are the perfect complement to poems that have exactly the same strengths. Who could not take pleasure in the delightful detail offered here?

She chased Happiness down the stairs
    and then out the back door.
      She lost him in the street
        down by the record store.

“The record store” gets me every time.

It goes without saying that I recommend this book. Roasting Questions is available thru its own dedicated website, set up by Grateful Steps
(simply follow the links on the title throughout this post, or the link in the sidebar of this blog.) Because Grateful Steps is a non-profit organization, the printing costs are being covered both by pre-sales & by a Kickstarter-like sponsorship program. The sponsorship is available at levels ranging from $1.00 to $500, with many levels in between; each sponsorship level brings a gift. These range from an audio file of Barbie reading a poem to signed books & prints of the lovely artwork to commissioning Barbie to write a poem on a topic of your choice. Each level also contains all the gifts of the preceding levels as well! Once pre-sales & sponsorship have funded the printing, Grateful Steps will begin printing Roasting Questions with a 1,000-copy run of the first edition. I should mention that you can view the entire book on the website!

Barbie Angell is a well-known, respected & loved poet in the Asheville, North Carolina area where she resides. She performs frequently, & the video below will give you some sense of the enthusiasm & joy she brings to her poetry.  In the final analysis, it’s love she brings to her poems—the sort of love Graves mentions. Nor is it an accident that Graves mentioned Edward Lear—a children’s poet—as his example of this. If poetry is most fundamentally an act of the imagination, then poems like Lear’s “The Owl & the Pussycat” & “Calico Pie” must be considered true poems. Barbie Angell’s poems partake of this—like all good “children’s poetry,” they will be enjoyed & “learned by heart, not rote” by readers of all ages who can open themselves to the imagination. As Barbie writes:

With the start of a book, if you care to look,
there's a glimpse of a world yet to be.
The end, you will find, can alter your mind,
and help you discover your dreams.


  1. Thanks for sharing this John. I really enjoy Barbie's poetry! So excited about her book:)

    1. Hi Joyce: So glad you liked it! If you're interested in Barbie's book, please note that pre-orders are crucial, as they are funding the actual printing. Thanks as always!


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