Radio, Rhythm & Rhyme

Tying together poetry, parenting, and advertising in a neat little package

Archive for the month “August, 2012”

Poetry Friday: some hard acts to follow…

If you’ve been following Poetry at Play (the website/blog for Poetry Advocates for Children & Young Adults), you’ve recently had the opportunity to read some remarkable poetry from some of the luminaries in the world of children’s literature.

Poet, author, and film producer Steven Withrow, who founded PACYA last year, has been featuring a different poet each week.  The series kicked off August 2 with a fantastic new poem, “Instructions Found After the Flood,” by U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate J. Patrick Lewis, from the new poetry anthology, The National Geographic Book of Animal Poetry, due out in September.  Jane Yolen followed with a “Summer Sijo,” by which David L. Harrison was then inspired to write “The Acrobat”…and last week, Kate Coombs offered up “Code Name Lizard,” from her book Earth Bones.

So where is this all leading?

Strangely…to me!

I’m still trying to figure out how I ended up being the 5th person in this series – these are, indeed, some very tough acts to follow – but I do hope you like it.  Like last week’s post, this is part of the manuscript for my winter-themed collection, which I’m still working on.  Here’s the link:  http://poetryatplay.org/

And here’s the link for all the other folks who are taking part in Poetry Friday today:  http://poetryforchildren.blogspot.com/

Have a safe and happy Labor Day weekend!

Intricate Plot or Convoluted Scheme?

The idea for this post came to me about a week ago while I was watching TV.  While the main focus is on broadcast advertising, hopefully others – especially those who write novels, picture books, or short stories – can glean something from it as well.

Before we go any further, please watch this:

I had seen this commercial several times and always wondered, what the heck is going on??

Michael Symon and Eva Longoria spend the entire commercial getting bombarded with flavor suggestions by random strangers…ok.  So why does everyone want to throw a pie at them?  And why don’t they throw the pies at them?  And why is everyone dancing at the end?

And by the way…what is it you can win?  (Wait, wait!  Don’t replay it…just read on.)

It’s a short drive from intricate to convoluted…

When it comes to your plot, it’s very easy to go from one to the other.  In advertising, in an effort to make their commercials stand out from the pack, agencies always feel a need to be as wild and crazy as they can be.  Agencies love what they call the “Wow” factor…whether it makes sense or not.

Likewise, in creative writing, an author may have an urge to bring in too many odd characters or feature strange or unlikely events.  That’s why we have critique groups, mentors, and editors.  Agencies should be so lucky.

Now, I’m not putting down agencies; I’ve done quite a bit of commercial voicework for a number of agencies around the country, and there are a lot of great ones out there being run by some wonderful people.  Admittedly, they have a tough job.  They need to satisfy their clients (the business they’re advertising), impress their peers, and still try to put together an effective commercial that makes viewers or listeners respond to the ‘call to action.’  (That’s an industry term which refers to the action you want the viewer to take – maybe it’s calling an 800 number, perhaps it’s showing up at an Open House, or, in this case, logging onto their Facebook page)

Unfortunately with this commercial, the call to action was clear, but I still couldn’t figure out what the deal was with the pies – or why New York’s Flat Iron District suddenly turned into Dance Party, USA.

Even my 17-year-old daughter, who is probably part of the commercial’s targeted demographic, looked at me after watching it and said, “What the heck was that??

Don’t bury the message!

Let’s briefly analyze the structure of the spot, shall we?

First, Symon tells you what Lay’s is doing.  Then he tells you what the winner gets.  Five seconds before the commercial ends, the off-camera announcer tells you how to enter the contest and reminds you what you could win.  In between all of this, a motley crowd of potato chip devotees shout out – sometimes rather agressively - their suggestions for a new flavor.

Oh, and what is that prize?

ONE MILLION DOLLARS!

If you submit the winning new flavor, you could pay off that mortgage…take that dream vacation you’ve always wanted…maybe even retire early!   Think of all the ways your life could be better, easier, more comfortable…with ONE MILLION DOLLARS!!

It’s a shame they just gloss over that fact, wouldn’t you say?

Appeal to the viewer’s concerns!

Which is a stronger line:  “The winner will receive a million dollars!” or “You could win a million dollars!”

The second line is much more powerful, because it speaks directly to the viewer/listener.  The announcer uses this line at the end, but it’s too bad that the message of winning is secondary to a list of kooky flavors, odd characters, and a potentially bizarre cream pie incident.

I always tell my clients to approach their advertising from the listeners’ or viewers’ point of view, and try to appeal to their emotions, interests, or concerns.  I hate to admit it, but commercials are viewed as interruptions, plain and simple – and if the message is muddled, it’s going to get lost.  Buried.

I’m sure Lay’s and their agency wanted something fun and eye-catching – and really, when ISN’T Eva Longoria eye-catching?  Throw in a bunch of bright colors and music, add Michael Symon for some gravitas, and boom!  You’ve got a :30 commercial.

Oh, yes…I would definitely try these!

Breakfast-flavored potato chips??

I’m sure the promotion will be successful; it was in the UK, where the winning flavor was (are you ready?) “Breakfast.”  Heck, I’m trying to come up with some good flavors, myself.  And social media being what it is, Lay’s will get plenty of mileage out of the spot and the promotion.  I just think the commercial itself could have been more effective if the style hadn’t overpowered the substance.

But we’re all guilty of doing that now and then, aren’t we?

One other question: their Facebook page features a fake bag of bearclaw-flavored chips, just like the police officer suggested, but the graphic on the ‘bag’ is of two donuts!  Donuts are NOT bearclaws, people!  Can we get a little quality control here, please?

Or am I way too sensitive about my pastries?

Poetry Friday: “Private Snowfall”

“Hold on, there, Matt!  It’s not even Labor Day yet, don’t rush the season!  What the @#*! are you doing?? “

Sorry.

I’ve had winter on my mind quite a bit lately; not because I necessarily miss the freezing cold temperatures, tear-duct-stinging winds, or thick, heavy blizzards that cause everyone to either slow down to a snail’s pace while driving, or come to a complete stop when they drive off the road into an embankment.

On the contrary, I love summer.

I love the sun beating down on me, whether I’m working in the garden, cutting trees for firewood, or lying on the beach.  I love the fact that there is rarely a summer rain shower that is too cold to enjoy running around in.  And I love the fact that women’s clothing becomes more and more optional the higher the mercury rises.

(Hey, I’m just a guy.  Sue me.)

“It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.”

You know how people love to say that?  With me, I’ll take either or both.  It’s not that I dislike the other seasons – but spring is muddy, fall means wearing layers, and winter brings freezing cold temperatures, tear-duct-stinging winds, and– well, you know.

So imagine my surprise when I discovered I was in the process of writing a winter-themed poetry collection!

To those who don’t consider themselves writers, it would seem impossible to write something, yet not realize you’re writing it.  To those of us who do consider ourselves writers, it happens way too often.

In this particular case, I was simply looking for a common theme to some of the children’s poems I had already written, when I started realizing how many had to do with winter.  Usually, I write poems first, then figure out what to do with them afterward; but I wanted to create a more tightly-focused manuscript than the loose-knit ‘generic children’s poetry’ collection I had already assembled.  Once I counted a half-dozen winter-related pieces sitting there waiting to be published, I figured I’d best get cracking and give these poems some brothers and sisters.

Hot off the press…

Unlike the previous children’s poems I’ve posted here, which were written one, four, and 10 years ago, this is my most recent one.  And when I say ‘recent,’ I mean I just completed it a few days ago – it’s very new.

I like to say, the ‘think’ is still wet.

It’s a bit different from the other poems of mine you’ve read, but I like to write in all sorts of styles and forms; it not only keeps things interesting for the reader, but it keeps a writer sharp when they force themselves out of their comfort zone (more on that in a later blog post).

So far, I’m happy with the way things have been going, too – I think I’ve written a half-dozen new poems just in the past couple of months!

Apparently, summer loves me, too.

Private Snowfall

School bus,
morning
window seat,
peering through the frosted glass,

winter world
is waking up;
signs and streetlights quickly pass.

Index finger’s
steady nail
carves a path through icy land,

leaves behind
a scrawling trail,

little flurry
in my hand.

-Matt Forrest Esenwine

Two magic words that can change EVERYTHING

It’s a question author/futurist Arthur C. Clarke, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs probably asked themselves all the time.

It’s a question we often ask ourselves when learning something new, like a computer program or video game.

And it’s a question subconsciously uttered in the mind of a 2-year-old, discovering how his or her world works.

Two words…that not only help us in our day-to-day lives, but can help us create anything from a groundbreaking piece of technology to a children’s poem.  Two words that might steel our resolve - or completely change our persepctive.

What if?”

How many times have you tried to get your smartphone to do what you want, or couldn’t figure out why your spouse’s laptop keeps doing that annoying ‘thing?’  You experiment, you troubleshoot.  You think to yourself, “What if…I press Shift-Alt-Ctrl-Tab-Insert?”  And when that doesn’t work, you think, “What if…I just walk away and act like this never happened?”  We’re constantly debating choices day in and day out.

“What if Obama loses?”

“What if I take the ‘A’ train instead of the ‘B’ train?”

“What if we run out of hamburger buns?”

We ask ourselves this question all the time, so I’m really not telling you anything you don’t already know.  But ask yourself another question:  when was the last time you used these two words to help you create?

What if…you changed your story?

Certainly, the concept of asking this question can be used in any environment, whether you are an inventor, politician, or salesperson.  Where it gets really cool – at least from my vantage point - is in the realm of creation; specifically, creative writing.

Asking this question, especially when you get stuck on a character, a rhyme or a plot detail, opens up worlds (notice the plural!) of possibilities…

“What if…my main character was the opposite sex?”

“What if…this story was set in another time?”

“What if…I swapped these two lines/stanzas/paragraphs?”

“What if…I could see things from a different viewpoint?”

Ask yourself all kinds of ‘what if” questions, and don’t just think about the answers…write them down!  It doesn’t matter whether you plan to use your ‘what if’ scenario or not; writing down a few lines or even a few paragraphs can help you see things from a different persepective, and that’s what you want.  How many times has a person reading your material suggested to you an idea you never thought of?  Quite often?  That’s because it’s being viewed in a different light; this ‘what if’ exercise can help you critique, inspire, or edit yourself.

Even if you have no intention of turning Lucinda, your novel’s half-human, half-lizard bisexual alien heroine, into a half-human, half-nematode bisexual alien heroine, go ahead and get those thoughts on paper; play it out and see where it goes!  Odds are, it’ll go nowhere – but there’s a good chance that you’ll learn something about your character, his/her situation, or how to develop them.

Perhaps you’ll come up with another plot.

Perhaps you’ll come up with an idea for an entirely different project!

But without questioning yourself on these things, you’ll never know.  Heck, Marvel Comics even created an entire series based on this premise!

WARNING:  Moralizing tone ahead!

Well, ok, hopefully it won’t be too moralizing – that’s not my intention – but it just occurred to me how many of the problems we face in this country (and this world, for that matter) could be solved or at least be addressed in a meaningful way if we all asked that two-word question more often:

“What if…that person has a legitimate medical condition?”

“What if…one of the people in this checkout line suddenly needed me?

“What if…that guy who cut me off just lost his father?”

Did one of those questions catch you off-guard?  Would you be able to ask yourself a question like one of these if the situation presented itself?  Asking “What if” not only opens up that wide world of a different perspective, but can help stop us from jumping into defense mode as soon as something we don’t like pops up.  It’s all about thinking outside of yourself.  By considering the feelings, circumstances, and history of others, we’re slower to anger and quicker to understanding.

Final question:

“What if…I gave everyone a second chance?”

I’ll let you think about that one on your own.

Poetry Friday: “I Can’t Fall Asleep Now!”

I started off my Poetry Friday posts a couple weeks ago with a sonnet dedicated to my wife.  I then followed that with a two-stanza poem inspired by my two daughters.  I suppose it’s only fitting that I now feature something I wrote for my 2-year-old son!

Greyson was only about 4 months old when he started sleeping through the night,; however, up until that point, he was like most babies, crying every couple of hours for milk or comfort or both.  One evening, while mom was breastfeeding, I was at the computer thinking about all the reasons why a little boy might not want to go to sleep.  With the kind of imagination I have, it didn’t take long to start coming up with the most preposterous of circumstances – and so I began writing them down and seeing if I could come up with a narrative for a poem.  I completed almost three verses that night!

It was a very late night.

Over the course of the next few of weeks, I revised those three and added one more, then took it to my SCBWI critique group where I was told it might make a good bedtime picture book, if I could add another couple of verses.  So I sat down and worked on it…and worked on it…and worked on it.  I came up with a completed poem/manuscript that is long enough for a heavily-illustrated picture book, but may still need one more stanza.

And if I can ever figure out how to write that stanza, I will.  ;)

Here’s to you, my little dude!

“I Can’t Fall Asleep Now!”

If I fall asleep now, I might miss something good,
Like a giant parade in our small neighborhood
With free candy and loud bands, like all parades should.
I can’t fall asleep now – I might miss something good!

If I fall asleep now, I might miss something cool
Like a pink-spotted platypus out in our pool
Or a UFO landing on top of the school!
I can’t fall asleep now – I might miss something cool!

If I fall sleep now, I might miss something neat
Like a two-headed tiger with seventeen feet
And a licorice tail, heading right down our street!
I can’t fall asleep now – I might miss something neat!

If I fall asleep now, I might miss something fun
Like a tap-dancing elf on a cinnamon bun
Or a rainbow-striped dinosaur dressed like a nun!
I can’t fall asleep now – I might miss something fun!

If I fall asleep now, I might miss something wild!
Hey, who knows…I could be a werewolf-dragon-child –
Sporting fangs, flames and wings (and hair slightly re-styled).
I can’t fall asleep now – I might miss something wild!

If I fall asleep now, I might miss something weird –
What if Dad sprouts some antlers or Mom grows a beard?
If I’m snoring, I’d miss out – just like I had feared!
I can’t fall asleep now – I might miss something weird!

Then again…if I did start to fall asleep now,
When I dream, things get even more crazy, and how!
They’re way cooler and neater and weirder and –
Wow…
Guess I wouldn’t miss much, if I fell asleep now…

- Matt Forrest Esenwine

Poetry Friday: “Downtown at Taylor Park”

Last Friday, I kicked off my participation in Poetry Friday with an Elizabethan sonnet I wrote for my wife as part of my wedding vows.  She has been so helpful and supportive to me in my quest for publication in the world of children’s literature, I felt it was the perfect poem to get things rolling.  Today (our anniversary, ironically), I’m spotlighting a poem I wrote for two other people to whom I owe the deepest gratitude for not only supporting me, but constantly inspiring me:  my two daughters.  Interestingly, it was actually written long before I even knew I wanted to be published in the world of children’s literature.

Now, it may be comprised of only two stanzas, but this poem was a long time coming.  I originally wrote it in the spring of 1999 while watching the girls (ages 7 and 4 at the time) playing at Taylor Park in St. Albans, Vermont.  Taylor Park is the quintessential New England town square, full of lush green grass, tall maple trees, and a big water fountain.  It so happened that, on this day, as I watched my daughters running around being kids, the first stanza just came to me.

I had already had a few adult poems published independently at this point, so writing poetry was nothing foreign to me; writing children’s poetry, though, was unfamiliar.  Not knowing what to do with these two little couplets, I wrote them down when I got home and read it to the girls and their mom.  They liked it, but I felt like I was giving Lauren, my eldest, the spotlight and leaving poor Katie out of it.  I wasn’t sure how to include her, but I kept thinking about it, figuring something would eventually hit me.

It did.

A little over a year later, we were at the park again and I was mulling lines and phrases over in my head…when it dawned on me that even though Katie was playing with her older sister nicely, she was playing differently and seemed to have a different frame of mind.  That was all it took to figure out the angle I needed and bang out the second stanza.

But because no poem is ever good enough, I went back to it a couple years ago and tweaked a couple words here and there.  That’s what writers are supposed to do, right?  Revise, revise, revise??

Well, I think it’s pretty well set now.  I hope you like it!  And if you ever find yourself in northwestern Vermont, take a drive through downtown St. Albans…and maybe you’ll find inspiration, too!


Downtown at Taylor Park

Lovely Lauren, little daughter,
Fishing in the fountain water,
Looking for a leafy fin –
Leaned too far and tumbled in.

Katie-Bea was fishing, too,
Doing what her sister do;
Closed her eyes and made a wish –
Don’t know how, but caught a fish!

- Matt Forrest Esenwine

The Boy and the Bushmaster

“It was at that point, I just knew I wanted to be a phlebotomist!”

We all have our dreams.  But how many of us know from whence those dreams came?  How often do we take the time to look back on our life to see what spurred our desire to become a nurse, or a teacher, or a truck driver?

If I asked you to single out the one event in your past that had the most influence on your career path, what would it be?

It’s easy to say, “I’ve always known I wanted to be a hairdresser.”  Or, “Ever since I was a kid, I dreamed of working in a meat-packing facility.”   What’s not always so easy is to dig deeply into your memory bank and try to point to one defining moment that set you on your current journey.

Personally, there were several things I experienced as a child that I can point to now as pushing me in the direction of writing, acting, and audio production.  Some of these I touched upon in my very first blog post.  But there is one thing that I always remember as having a lasting effect on both of my career choices (radio production and writing).

The Bushmaster, one of the world’s largest and deadliest snakes.

“Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes??”

OK, technically, it was a story about a bushmaster snake, but the reptile was the star and the title character – so I’m more than happy to give it all the credit it deserves or wants.  When the longest viper in the Western Hemisphere demands its Evian, you jump up and get it.  Allow me to explain…

My Introduction to Theatre of the Mind:

It was the mid-’70′s, and my father, who had grown up during the Golden Age of Radio and was a big fan of classic shows like “Lux Radio Theater” and “The Lone Ranger,” purchased a record collection featuring all sorts of these programs.  There were comedies, dramas, even some musical-variety productions.  And he couldn’t wait to play them for me.

I had my reservations.

Only 10-years-old or so at the time but already quite familiar with this thing called a ‘television,’ I couldn’t imagine how anyone could just sit and listen to a bunch of people ‘talk’ while acting out a story.  There were no pictures!  No TV screen!  No visuals of any kind, except a flat, black vinyl disc spinning around and around and around, lulling oneself into a near-hypnosis…how could anyone call that entertainment??  My father assured me I’d enjoy them; however, I was pretty confident that he had no idea what he was talking about.  This was going to be boring.

As you’ve probably guessed, it turned out I loved them.  I was amazed at how much my imagination filled in the “visual gaps” that came from not seeing the pictures!  I wasn’t consciously aware this was happening, of course - I was simply enjoying the stories and voices and sound effects.  It really was enormously different from anything I had experienced.  But it was nothing compared to the experience that scared – and scarred – me for life.

Click the graphic for more info on “Shipment of Mute Fate” as well as the complete audio drama!

The Boy and the Bushmaster

One of the programs on this record collection was an episode of CBS Radio’s “Escape” anthology series.  With its big, bold musical introduction using “Night on Bald Mountain” and the voices of legends like William Conrad and Paul Frees, it was a show that demanded to be listened to.  This particularly tense episode was titled “Shipment of Mute Fate,” and was about a Bushmaster snake (genus name, Lachesis, refers to The Three Fates of Greek mythology – get it, “Mute Fate?”) that gets loose on a cargo ship headed from Venezuela to New York City.

The entire action is confined to this ship; the main cast of characters consists of not much more than the captain, the sailor who brought the snake onboard, and the snake itself, along with some crew members and one other important person (sorry, can’t say who – potential spoiler!)  So as far as radio dramas go, this was pretty basic as far as production values.  But after just one listen, I couldn’t stop.

I played it again.  And again.  And again and again and again.  I have no idea how many times I picked up the needle and dropped it back to the beginning of the track (also known as “hitting repeat,” for you younger readers), but it made such an impression on me and created such vivid imagery in my mind that I became literally scared to death that reptiles – snakes, alligators, take your pick – were going to mysteriously materialize under my bed and attack me as soon as I climbed in.  None of this “they’re going to get me while I’m sleeping” business…I knew they were ready to go as soon as my foot was off the floor and under the covers.  Consequently, I slept with those covers over my head for years.  I got so used to sleeping that way, as a matter of fact, that I was still covering my entire head when I got married, even though the threat of spontaneous croc attacks was fairly minimal on the 2nd-floor of our St. Albans, Vermont apartment.

So as I think about this experience, it’s no wonder that, consciously or subconsciously, I eventually got into acting, especially voice-acting.  I started reading more.  I started writing stories.  I started writing and recording my own little radio dramas, complete with my own sound effects!  And to this day I am still creating stories, whether they are poems, commercials, or picture books.

And, I’m happy to report, my home is currently reptile-free and I’m sleeping comfortably.

Have you remembered that one defining moment yet? 

Don’t just go with the first thing that pops into your head, either.  Spend some time ruminating on it.  Perhaps, in doing so, you’ll learn something about yourself, your past, or even your loved ones.  After all, they obviously like you for some reason…even if you don’t know what that reason is.  And once you have that event in your mind, think about how your life might be different now if something else had occurred instead.  You may find an answer you’ve been searching for.  You may find an answer to a question you didn’t even know had been asked.

You may also discover something about your character – why you like certain things, why you behave the way you do, why you always do that certain ‘thing’ when you get nervous.

And if you’re a writer, you may even discover a NEW character!  How cool would that be?

And so it begins…

Why a blog?

There are already quite a few out there.  There are blogs, but then there are websites about blogs, experts on blogs, providers of blogging domains and templates…in fact, if you Google the word “blog,” you’ll get nearly 13 BILLION results in just .17 seconds.  It’s a big, blogoshperical world out there, with blogs on every topic, every interest, every bit of minutae known to humankind.

And here’s little ol’ me.  With the myriad of blogs already dedicated to writing, poetry, and radio & advertising, what could I possibly add??

I thought about this for quite awhile.

I’ve been writing ‘stuff’ nearly all my life.  When I was a child, my father introduced me to some of the classic radio programs of the Golden Age, like “Lux Radio Theatre,” “Fibber McGee & Molly,” and “The Shadow.”  At barely 10 years old, I became a fan of entertainer/comedy writer/satirist/advertising mad man Stan Freberg and the voicework of his cohorts, Daws Butler and June Foray.  All of this, along with my love of reading, got me started writing short stories and skits that I would record onto dad’s old Panasonic cassette recorder, sound effects and all.   I suppose it was only natural that I’d eventually fall in love with live theatre and acting.

And now here I am today.  I’ve spent 25+ years writing, voicing, and producing radio commercials, on-hold messages, and other voiceover projects.  I’ve shown up on-camera a few times as well, in corporate videos.  And ever since I discovered iambic pentameter in my 9th grade English class (thank you, Ms. Jencks!), I’ve been writing poetry.

I feel I have a unique perspective on children’s poetry, having devoted so much time doing radio production and voiceover work.  The two are not entirely disparate subjects, really.  Both need to draw the listener or reader into the message or story, both need to keep the listener or reader interested by telling a compelling message in a compelling way, and each needs to provide a payoff – whether that’s a solution to a problem with a call to action (in the case of the advertisement), or a satisfying ending to a poem that is neither contrived nor cliche.  And as the father of three, I have a near-endless stream of inspiration for said poetry.

The way I envision it, I’ll post new entries at least twice a week, probably on Tuesdays and Fridays; some days will be dedicated to radio advertising and sales, some days will focus on creative writing, specifically children’s poetry.  I especially hope to support Poetry Friday  and all the poets and readers that enjoy it so much.

So I thought it was about time to get this blog up and running.  If all goes according to plan, you’ll find jewels of wisdom, humour and insight in every post, and won’t be able to wait to share it, link it, and tweet it with everyone you know.

Or, at the very least, you’ll come back in a month or two and see if anything’s improved.

What can I possibly add to what’s already out there?

I guess that remains to be seen!

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