Notes from the Undergrads #4

Notes from the Undergrads is a series of posts written by SDSU Engl. 576, a publishing and editing class, comprised primarily of undergrads, with a few grad students thrown in for color.  They explored issues of literary life ranging from book reviews to literary graffiti, live readings to the writing process.  Today, enjoy the work of the Ramblings On editorial board.

Good Ol’ Uncle Shelby

by David Pope

If you’re reading a literature blog like Poetry International, odds are that you’re a bit of an English nerd. And if you’re an English nerd, odds are you started reading early. And if you … you know what, I’ll just cut to the chase. We all read a Shel Silverstein book or two growing up, right? Right.

Everyone remembers “Where the Sidewalk Ends” but how much more do you know about Uncle Shelby? I was always kind of suspicious about children’s lit writers. In my mind, they’re all just like my kindergarten teacher: into quilting, arts & crafts and cats. You know the type. But in my English 528 (Shel Silverstein: American Iconoclast) class at SDSU with Joseph Thomas, I’ve discovered that Silverstein is anything but.

For those who don’t know, Silverstein got his first “big break” as a cartoonist for Playboy Magazine. Yes, THAT Playboy Magazine. While some of his drawings and limericks that appeared in Playboy were indeed “adults only,” a couple of his works, including “ABZ” and “Silverstein’s Zoo”, which were later printed in the form of children’s books, originally appeared in Playboy, nearly identically to the versions that eventually showed up in the children’s section.

With most (good) children’s literature, going back and re-reading the works as an adult can give you a newfound appreciation you never had as a kid. But viewing some of Silverstein’s most memorable work in the pages of Playboy, between an article on LSD experimentation and a centerfold of Miss November, gives his stories a fascinating new context and elevates and complicates them even further.

I’m reminded of cartoons like Rocky and Bullwinkle, where the innuendos and other jokes go straight over any kid’s head, but their parents watching along with them get a laugh for themselves.

Additionally, it turns out Silverstein was a total womanizer and kind of a bad ass. A bad ass with a killer beard, at that.

My point? Shel Silverstein’s plight is a perfect example of how research on the personalities behind some of your favorite pieces of literature can give you a better, deeper understanding of them. (I refuse to use the “don’t judge a book by its cover” cliché, but you get the idea.)


On eBooks

by Loretta Roddy

There is a revolution going on, but it’s not taking place on the streets, being covered on the eleven o’clock news, or hashed out in the political arena.  It’s taking place in living rooms, coffee shops, libraries, and bookstores.  I’m talking about the e-book.

The convenience and ease of electronic books appeals to many literatis.  Travelers no longer have to worry about packing a mini anthology on trips; they can download and read any number of books on the fly.  Rather than purchasing a multitude of novels and books for class, students can download all their course books on Kindle – never to be caught unprepared again (plus they may avoid back problems later in life)!  Paperless, and compact, e-books boast to be the eco-savvy literature of the green movement: no more printing of tree-consuming novels, no more throwing away (or hopefully recycling) of read books.  Rather than filling up shelves, boxes, and the space underneath your shoe collection, e-books are stored neatly on computers, MP3 players, or e-book readers, like Kindle or the iBooks application for the new iPad.’s Kindle has become a wish list item for many.  For $259.00, this lightweight (it only weighs 10.2 ounces!) and magazine-slim portable library can download a book in one minute, no PC necessary.  It has a long lasting battery life, built in 3G wireless accessible in over 100 countries, and advanced screen technology to mimic the look of paper and lessen the strain of screen-reading on the eyes.  Kindle can hold hundreds of reasonably priced “books” and access them at the touch of a button.   A book can be purchased instantly, without ever leaving the couch, eliminating the trip to the bookstore, the perusing of the aisles and titles, and the buying more than you came for (or is that just me?).  Finish a gripping novel?  Can’t wait to get the sequel?  No problem.  In a few minutes you can be whizzing through the next thrilling page turner (or button pusher, in Kindle’s case).

With all of these wonderful features, how can I still think of Kindle and the electronic book as a weak substitute for reading?  The answer is a combination of philosophies and personal preferences.  One, old school is cooler.  Superficial reasoning? Maybe.  Still, there is something to be said for certain “traditional” methods of doing things.  For example, receiving hand written notes in the mail, from someone other than the crazy old aunt in Ohio, is such a simple pleasure.  It is so nice to find a note from a friend among the pile of bills and credit card advertisements that pile up in .  Writing and sending letters is always appreciated, yet often bypassed for the quicker easier e-mail. In the music world, records have the best sound quality of any form of recordable sound, yet tapes, CDs, and now MP3s have made records seem like ancient memorabilia from the stone age of our parents.  The ITunes empire, the email takeover, the digital camera’s supreme reign, the cell phone (I could go on for days), all of these ingenious 21st century inventions remove a part of the ritual in the action.  Taking a picture becomes a detached action. Point and shoot.  Maybe print them off the computer later, maybe never see them outside of cyber space again.  Please don’t misunderstand my stance here: I freak out when I leave my cell phone at home too, quickly jump on ITunes to download the latest Jay-Z and Taylor Swift, and can be seen carting around a digital camera.  But there is something to be said for doing it “old school,” or in this case, pre-1980.

What about the paper, the pages, the bright cover, the unique bindings?  Where do you dog-ear your place, star your favorite passages, smooth the crinkles of traveling at the bottom of a beach bag?  How do you flip through the measured pages to find your spot, feel the glossy, rough, or smooth cover, take in the whole work, backside and inner flaps as well?  Different sizes, editions, hardcover versus paperback, note-friendly margins, size ten font with no paragraphs — these are the characters of the BOOK, not of the story.  These details make the creation the reader holds between his or her hands.  The printed letters staring at you from the cream, or white, or beige, or eggshell colored page, imploring “please read me! Decipher my hidden secrets, explore my wonders! Feel the excitement, the suspense, the sorrow, the relief.”  Can Kindle match this?  Can the iBook compare?  A screen covered with typeset, facing the reader, expecting to be loved the way its predecessor has been for thousands of years?  Is this possible? Have we reached the 21st century and surged forward with a renewed devotion to the detached, electronic, out with the old, in with the new lifestyle?

Lots of questions, but unfortunately not a lot of answers.  I have to admit, I have never owned or read a book on Kindle.  Aside from examining a fellow classmate’s Christmas gift, Kindle remains a sort of taboo in my opinion, something to be observed, but to actually own?  That would never do.  It would be a betrayal of my colorful, packed, unique, diverse bookshelf.  Old friends who wish me good night and rally me awake each day, old friends, new friends, unread friends.  Books contain not only their own stories, but those of previous owners, reminders of events come and gone with the language between the covers, happy lazy summer days on the beach, stressful all-nighters cramming to finish the last page.  A book is an investment of time, dedication, love, and adventure.  Can this be replaced?

The e-book revolution’s will-power remains to be seen: will it take over the way other such electronics have ousted their predecessors? Or will it fall to the wayside, a fad to be remembered on the TV special “I love the 2000s”?


Writers Block and The Search For Inspiration

by Jeff Matson

Chances are if you are reading this you have had some experiences with creative writing, and if you’ve experienced creative writing, you have also experienced what is commonly referred to as writer’s block. The two go hand in hand along the path to artistic expression through language. It happens to everyone. Whether you can’t seem to make your characters real, your plot has gone static, or you just can’t seem to find that elusive last line of a poem, all writers have to overcome writer’s block.

The one major hurdle with creative writing is that it requires one to be well, creative. When you just cannot seem to put the pen to the paper, remember that the source for inspiration can come from just about anywhere.  A good writer has a distinct perspective of the world. It is his job to try as hard as he can to make others understand and appreciate his unique vision through his words. But, in order to begin to sculpt your creative literary masterpiece, you must first open your eyes and ears to the world. A writer is a professional observer, with a flair for language, viewing the world through art-tinted glasses.

Here are a few exercises that have helped fellow writers and myself in the past. Hopefully, these tips for inspiration will get your creative juices flowing and your dendrites firing so that, with any luck, you may conquer your writer’s block.

-First, and I know this may seem obvious, READ! Try reading some new material or re-reading an old favorite. If your piece was inspired by another work try revisiting the original work or other work by that author. Try poetry, short fiction, even screenplays. By surrounding yourself with the work of others, you may find that one spark that can ignite a whole surge of new ideas for the work you are stuck on. Think of it this way: if you were an architect you would study other buildings. If you were a mechanic you would study cars. You are writer so you study books.

-When I’m stuck on a page I often revert to what I refer to as the blank-page method. Simply pull out a blank page of paper and a comfortable pen and let loose. Write whatever comes to your mind. It may be that you just need to get some things down on paper to clear your mind enough to find inspiration for your work. When attempting this type of free-write I usually go by one rule: Let it flow, Let it go.

-For those who are multilingual, translating a piece of writing from another language, like a poem, can be very stimulating and helpful for spawning new ideas and stirring up older ones.

-If you are like me translating a poem from another language isn’t really an option. A useful cure for writer’s block is the writing prompt. Try to get your thoughts flowing again by writing for a specific situation or prompt. It’s much easier to start writing if you already have a purpose. For example: Write about a time you did something embarrassing to get noticed or write about your favorite childhood memory. Any experience can be fuel for your writing.

-One of the most fun ways to get some fresh ideas for your work is to simply listen in on the conversations of others. If you are trying to create a character or dialogue that you want to ring true to life on the page there is no better example than real people in real life situations.


Poetry forgive me, I have done you wrong.

by Susan Todd

As I sat skimming through my copy of Poetry International 13/14 searching, I felt futilely, for a poem that would catch my interest and keep it, I found, much to my surprise, not just a poem, but pages of poetry that did just that. This most recent edition of Poetry International contains within its bindings works that even the most unenthusiastic reader of poetry can enjoy. There are poems that speak to all types of people, to all experiences great and small, from the bite of a mosquito to a couple making love. I enjoyed what I read, and could not have been more surprised because of it. I chose this poem to share with you because, of them all, this one fits in with a genre of fiction I readily admit I enjoy, romance.

It’s Cool

By Lauren Wattel

We were driving each other mad again, so

we left the highway and found an empty space

by the ruins of a house. I stroked your chest

and straddled your lap; you kissed me with a low

moan, your skin gold in the light; I cupped your face

between my palms like an artifact; you moved

my hips; and when you pressed your lips to my breast

you gasped. There was a man outside the window.

“Its cool,” the man said, “just find another place

to do it.” Then he tipped his hat, unimpressed

with the exhibition. Our mood now improved

dramatically, we waved to the man and drove

back to the highway feeling restored, well-loved,

glistening like two jewels in a secret trove.

Poetry spans all genres. It can be dramatic or funny. It can tell a story of love or hate, be mysterious and suspenseful, or mythical and mystical. Poetry has romance and danger and adventure. I have often said that poetry was of no interest to me. I told people I hated poetry and I believed it, but how can you hate what you don’t really know? The answer is, you can’t. So poetry, I admit it, I owe you an apology… and here it is.


I have wronged you. All these years I have neglected you, belittled you, and maligned you to all my friends. You were like that kid who was different from everybody else. The misunderstood one that I never tried to get to know, that I never spoke with to see if maybe, possibly, we had some common interest. I rejected you before I really knew you and for that I am truly sorry. I feel as though I’ve missed out on what could’ve been years of great friendship, for you see, I’ve learned the error of my ways. We do have a common interest. You do have something to say that I want to hear. I was wrong to judge you by form alone. It’s what’s inside that counts and in your work I found something to connect to. I hope that you can forgive my reprehensible behavior, and if so, I look forward to a long and happy friendship with you.

Repentantly Yours,

Susan Todd

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