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Sunday, June 18, 2017

(1) MY NUDGE BROUGHT ON AN AVALANCHE.

December 15, 2013 
Bite ti vusutirs   [That should be Note to visitors, but see how blind I am getting?  I am ready to give up any day now]   
February 1, 2014: Never give up if help is available. Laser treatment yesterday restored my sight immediately, leaving me delirious with joy, tears and laughter.  The treatment also left me with a crossed eye.  I'm wearing lavender-tinted glasses so I won't scare the great-grandchildren. 
     When I was a girl 200 years ago, I remember rushing into the sun room after school to see what pages Mom had added to a story she was writing.  It was called Hildarella,, Hildarella being Cinderella’s daughter. Mother was sitting at her desk, typing away on her Vintage Royal Portable, and I eagerly read the pages I hadn’t seen yet, then stood behind her to see what new developments were flowing from her fingertips.  
    In my opinion, the only flaws in the story were the poems she kept inserting about characters such as Bluffit, the butler.  I didn’t like having the plot interrupted, and being a pain-in-the-neck pre-teen, didn't hesitate to voice my objections.  
     Many years later I found a copy of a letter Ernestine had written to a friend, Florence Atwater, expressing her disappointment in my lack of appreciation for poetry.   Atwater, who was a published poet and author herself, replied, “Barbara will come to poetry.”         
      I did come to poetry and only wish my mother had lived 15 years longer, so she could have seen Poetry with a Purpose welcomed everywhere by children, teachers, and parents. When editor Jerry Aten retired, he wrote and thanked me for contributing to the success of his publishing company, Good Apple.          
     Personally, I’m still thanking the poet who attracted all those delighted readers, my gifted mother. Ernestine said toward the end of her life that she knew her poetry would live on.  It is my mission, toward the end of mine, to facilitate that prediction with the help of my early rising assistant, Jeeves, Jr.
     The Perilous Path to Publication [How pleased I was with the alliteration. "You and a dozen other writers," says killjoy Google.]
     "Sorry, but poetry doesn't sell."  That's what publishers repeatedly told me.  In the cover letter for my mother's verses, I had written: 
    "Ernestine Cobern Beyer was the author of several books for children and a popular contributor to children's magazines.  Now, eleven years after her death, I am hoping to introduce her to a new generation of young readers.  Enclosed are sample pages from one book possibility.   If you are interested, I can send you many more."
     I received a chorus of rejections, echoing similar refrains:
     "You are quite right that it is fine material, but our list is very full and the amount of poetry we can cope with is very limited."  "I am sorry to say that despite the fun and whimsy in the verses, we do not see these as something we could successfully publish."  "Although all of these verses are charming, we feel it would be too difficult to market them successfully in today's depressed economy."  "The collections of your mother's work are indeed clever and amusing, but I am afraid they are not right for our list."  
     One spring day in 1984 I was playing golf with my friend Fran Allen, an elementary school teacher and an admirer of my mother's poetry.  We were halfway around the course when I complained of the rejection slips I kept getting for what I knew was exceptional material.      
     "Let's put together a teacher's workbook," Fran said promptly.  "And let's schedule some meetings, or it will never get done."  
SHE CHARMED THE KING COMPLETELY
     We met once a week in North Scituate at Ed Malley's pool. (An ex-husband like Ed is hard to find. He even supplied lemonade to go with our sandwiches.)  I learned from my mentor what a "comprehension check" was.  I learned that multiple choice questions could be humorous.  In "Meranda," for example, Ernestine describes how a mermaid sang her song into a shell while King Neptune listened.   "She charmed the king completely with the tune she sang so sweetly, and the shell retained it neatly in its iridescent heart."
     Children are asked if Meranda saved her song by (a) taping it, (b) singing it into a shell, or (c) writing it in the sand.  If you find a shell and listen well, you will hear" (a) "The Star‑Spangled Banner," (b) a whistling sound, or (c) a murmuring whisper.    
     "A Remarkable Happening" recounts Santa's dilemma after overeating one Christmas Eve.  Question:  As he started down the chimney, Santa was annoyed to find (a) a fire in the fireplace, (b) he was stuck, or (c) he had forgotten the presents.
       "The Remedy" is about a king who saw everything upside-down.  Hoping to cure him, a doctor (a) prescribed two aspirin before meals, (b) poured red pepper in his shoes, or (c) told him he needed more sleep. A wizard cured the king by (a) giving him artificial respiration, (b) standing him on his head, or (c) giving him a strong pair of glasses.
     When Fran and I cracked up over our jokes, Ed would come out to the pool and ask what was so funny.  "You'll see when our book is published," we said.
        I learned some unusual facts that summer, such as the strange name for the upside down "e" in phonetic spelling:  a schwa.  A schwa symbolizes the indeterminate sound in unstressed syllables, if anyone wants to know.  I discovered that different dictionaries use different symbols for phonetic spelling.  I couldn't consult mine for one group of Key Words and Ed's for the next.  You can't switch your schwas in midstream.  I found that inventing sentences for the vocabulary pages was the most time consuming task (three or four hours for each of the 20 poems), but challenging.  The examples needed to be brief, express the word's meaning precisely, and avoid the use of other difficult words.
      We had completed 16 of the 20 comprehension checks when Fran had to return to teaching in September.  "You're on your own, "were her parting words.   "You'll need some poetry exercises and a section on haiku and -- oh, you'll write a preface, of course."
     "Who, me?"  
     "Call me if you have any questions," Fran said cheerily over her shoulder.  And there I was, high and dry at the poolside.  I had never written a preface in my life.  What on earth could I find to say about poetry?
     I read and reread several pages of notes Fran and I had gleaned from the poetry shelves of our respective libraries.   Then I plunged into the preface, not at all sure whether I'd sink or make it to the other side.
     With a few of Mother's shorter verses to buoy me up, I found it wasn't that difficult to illustrate elements of poetic style like similes, metaphors (see second sentence in above paragraph), sibilance, alliteration, personification, imagery, onomatopoeia, and hyperbole.  Ernestine knew her stuff.   She had a particular affection for hyperbole.  
    In "Birthington's  Washday," for example, we are told that Bertie disliked  bathing so much,  he was finally stopped in his track.  "Just one final cinder, just one speck of dust/ Had at last overburdened the weight of his crust." 
      When the preface was finished, I submitted it to my co‑editor, pacing the floor of her sun porch while she read it.  Was it acceptable, or had I floundered about to no avail?  Fran gave the pages her approval.      
      I ventured to show the preface to my high school English teacher, Floyd Rinker. He had liked my compositions of 45 years ago.  For my part, I had worshiped this blue‑eyed tyrant of a teacher and still did. He made a suggestion that I incorporated into the text.
      Fran applauded my mentor's input and was also pleased with the exercises I'd completed.  That left the haiku section.   Floyd had familiarized his students with this ancient Japanese form of verse.  A haiku expresses in 17 syllables a thought, usually connected with nature, which has moved the poet. 
      I dreamed up a few modern haiku that I hoped would interest youngsters enough to try their own.  My subconscious mind would give me a shove at 3:00 in the morning.  I would groan, groggily turn on the light, scribble the haiku, then flop back on my pillow.
      Mother’s Jeeves used to let her sleep until morning.  To this day I wish Jeeves Jr. would learn to synchronize his clock with mine.   
      During the next year, one publisher after another rejected the workbook with faint praise like, "Although creative, the project does not meet our needs," or "While your material looks most interesting, unfortunately it does not fit  into our publishing plans."  One prospect, however, kept our book for several months -- surely a good sign. 
     I called Good Apple, Inc. in September of 1984, spoke to editor Jerry Aten, and learned he had never heard of me or my activity book.   I offered to send him another copy of the lost manuscript.  On October third, the editor wrote:
     "I can understand now why you were so insistent that I not only receive your work but also read it.  In short, it's excellent!  I'm sure you're quite proud of your mother's poetry, as it is not only well written, but also clever and sprinkled with wit and humor.  I also like the format and design of the activity book.  . . ."
     Jerry went on to say there was no way possible to place the book on the coming season’s production list and explained why with a profusion of ifs, ands, and  howevers.  "I'll be most happy to try to work it into our 1986 schedule if I can.  However, if this isn't good enough (and I would understand if it isn't) kindly let me know and I'll return your manuscript.  Thank you for your persistence and for your continued interest in Good Apple."
     Persistence -- ah, there was a Key Word.  I was going to need as much persistence, it turned out, as Sisyphus laboring uphill with his backsliding stone.
     "Since you were pleased with our sample pages," I answered, "I am taking the liberty of sending you the complete activity book.  I won't expect a reply day after tomorrow, but Fran and I look forward to hearing your opinion when you have time to write."
     Three months went by with no word.  I had a bright idea.  I had read that publishers particularly liked books that could lead to a series.  I would send Jerry 20 more of my mother's verses, explaining that they could be the basis for a book for younger children. 
     "We would be grateful if you would send us a word of advice, encouragement, or both," I nudged in my cover letter.  "True, it's only three months since you sent us your possibly‑maybe‑ perhaps letter, but for two ladies holding their breath, it seems longer.  We know you are busy, but could you just let us know you haven't forgotten us?
     They were even busier at Good Apple than I had imagined.  Jerry had indeed forgotten us.  On February 14, 1985, he wrote:  "I like the poems but can't tell you when (if ever) we could make use of them.  I feel it only fair to send them back and encourage you to seek their publication elsewhere."  I'd received prettier valentines in my day. 
      Back came not only the 20 poems, but also the activity book that had been so highly praised in October.  Clearly this over‑worked and harassed editor had no recollection of his earlier letters to me and had told his secretary to return whatever was in the Malley file.  My "nudge" had brought on an avalanche, tumbling me back to where I had started.  Oh, how I empathized with Sisyphus!
     So much for Publisher #9.  If at first you don't succeed, try #10.  And 11 and 12.  Number 13 was Opportunities for Learning, Inc.  The editor wrote on September 10, 1985, "Please accept my apology for the length of time we have taken to answer you.  After reviewing your product, we have concluded that we are unable to work with you on the project.  I would like to suggest two companies who might be interested. . ."  One was Spoken Arts, the other Good Apple.  Bad Apple, if anyone had asked me.
     I submitted my manuscript to publisher #14, Spoken Arts.  They kept it for six long months, then rejected it with the explanation that they focused on audio materials, "preferably with poets or writers reading their works."  
     Oh well, six months was only half a year, after all.  Persistence was still my middle name.  Casting about for publisher #15, I wondered if I should give Good Apple another shot.  The referral given me by Opportunities for Learning had mentioned the name Christopher Goetz in connection with Good Apple.  Could it be that Jerry Aten was no longer the editor?  I dialed the Carthage, Illinois, number and talked to Mr. Goetz.   He was sorry, but he couldn't help me; he was in the buying, not the editing end of the business.        
      "Is Jerry Aten still the editor?" 
      "Yes, would you like to talk to him?" 
      "Oh no!  There wouldn't be any point in that." 
      Mr. Goetz sounded friendly and sympathetic, so I found myself bewailing the misunderstandings Jerry and I had had over the past two years.  I described the joy Fran and I felt when he tentatively accepted the proposed book, although it was true he hadn't made any promises.  Unfortunately, I explained, when I sent him 20 new verses three months later, hoping to jog his memory, Jerry thought I was simply submitting a collection of my mother's poetry.  He not only rejected this submission but also told his secretary to return whatever else of mine they had on hand.   When Jerry had originally enthused over the sample pages, I told Mr. Goetz, I had sent him a copy of the complete workbook. Apparently he never saw it.  He didn't know what I was talking about when I called to ask for its return.  No doubt it was buried somewhere under tons of other manuscripts. 
     All this I babbled to long suffering Mr. Goetz before I finally said, "Thank you, anyway," and hung up.
     A couple of hours later I was reading the paper when the phone rang.  
     "Barbara Malley?  This is Jerry Aten."
     "Oh!!!  Hi, Jerry!"  My heart was leaping; it couldn't believe its ears.
     "I've been talking to Chris Goetz.  I understand you're angry with me."
     I hastened to assure him I wasn't angry, I was just frustrated over our failure to understand each other.  Jerry said things got pretty confusing out there; he had manuscripts piled so high in his office, he could spend the rest of his life trying to read them.
     "But it makes me unhappy," he said, "when I hear that I've caused distress to a writer.  I don't like to do that."
     "Jerry, I love you," I said.  He invited me to send him the complete workbook, advising me to print my name in big letters and circle it in red. 
     I was delirious with happiness.  I even confided to Jerry that I had just had an operation [a lumpectomy] that could have been disastrous but fortunately wasn't, and now that he had called I felt luckier than ever.  "I was so surprised when I picked up the phone, I almost fell off the couch."
     "Don't do that," he said.  "You might tear your stitches."
     I sent off the manuscript with a big red circle around my name.  I was tempted to put red hearts all over the envelope but managed to restrain myself.
     That evening, I finished reading the Boston Globe and almost fell off the couch again when I read my horoscope for April 21, 1986.  Maybe there was something to this astrology notion after all: 
     "Finish rather than initiate project.  What had `missed' recently is now due to hit the mark.  Know it, exude confidence, and reach for wider audiences.  Lunar emphasis on valid chance to hit financial jackpot. . . ."

5 comments:

  1. I love Poetry with a Purpose!

    I do sometimes wonder if Caroline Kennedy could help get your mother's work republished; she's compiled and published others' works of poetry before, and like you is an author herself...

    Hmm - I wonder if Jeeves, Jr. knows her...?

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    1. It's lovely to hear from one of Ernestine's most loyal fans. Jeeves, Jr. believes you made this suggestion a while back. How would you go about calling Ms. Kennedy's attention to Mother's poetry?
      A friend who has a copy of Poetry With a Purpose introduced the activity book to her granddaughers and reported that they loved it.

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  2. Barbara -

    Years ago I called the JFK Memorial Library in Boston on behalf of the Friends of the local public library, after having read that Caroline Kennedy was the President of the board there. I asked if I could request a signed copy of a book she had written for a silent auction we were holding for a fund raiser. They told me I could so I sent out a letter, and within a few weeeks we received the requested book - signed - in the mail!

    A few years ago I sent her - care of the library - copies of the wonderful books you had published, "Poetry with a Purpose" and "Read Me a Rhyme". However, I had not called or spoken to anyone beforehand, and as it was Christmas time - as my mother had mentioned to me - it might have been too busy a time of year, and perhaps she never received them.

    I suggest calling and maybe speaking to a reference librarian there, and asking how you might get copies to Caroline Kennedy - specifically. She was (and may still be) involved with the NYC schools (Wikipedia might have that information). Maybe you will be more fortunate than I was getting your mom's books to her.

    Please let me know!

    Love always, rhapsody

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  3. You are such a dear, loyal fan of Mom's poetry! I'll give your suggestion a try, but there is one problem with PWP -- it is not presented to a multi-cultural readership. It would be great, though, if Carolyn Kennedy were inspired to show it to another publisher for possible revising and re-publishing.
    As fir "Read Me a Rhyme, Please," whenever I look at it I see the mistakes made there: the poems ar difficult even for an adult to read aainst a dark gray backgound. And the artist depicted the little clown in "Topsy-Turvy Town as a huge, unattractive African American. He didn't intend to sabotage the book, but when a hundred copies were returned, I could see two reasons why.
    Love and gratitude always,
    Barbara

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  4. If you are given the information where you might send her the books, send along a letter of explanation. Perhaps you should include your email address and phone number, or you could ask the person you are requesting the information from if you should. But that's up to you. =)

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