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?


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?

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 minutiae 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!