Thursday, May 4, 2017

Unfinished Business: The Story of Atrocious Poems A To Z

In Gestalt Psychology there is a clinical term called "unfinished business." Unfinished business is defined as the unexpressed feelings that are associated with distinct memories and fantasies. These feelings may be resentment, rage, hatred, pain, anxiety, grief , guilt, and abandonment that are not fully experienced in awareness, linger in the background, and are carried into the present life and cause preoccupations, compulsive behaviors, wariness, and other self- defeating behaviors. Unfinished business will persist until the person faces and deals with these denied or alienated feelings.

For me one source of unfinished business was always the children's book we were tasked with writing and illustrating in my fifth grade class at Mary Morgan Grade School in Byron, Illinois. One would think someone who later went on to become a writer and publisher out of love for the written and printed word would have been excited about such a project, but I was not. I do not know what all-important things I did to distract myself the weeks before the book came due, but two days from the deadline I had almost nothing written. Having almost no ideas at the time that didn't revolve around playing baseball or watching monster movies, I decided to do what I thought was easiest and most rudimentary concept: an A To Z book. Just fill in the empty spaces with whatever nonsense came to mind, right?

I set off to work, and a couple days later had finished my first book, The Monster Dictionary. Complete with illustrations that I put about as much effort into as the poems. And it showed. So much so that after being generous and giving me a B grade, my teacher penned this note, and this is where the Unfinished Business began...

"B. Not colored. Excellent ideas! if you would have put more effort into this project; the school could have sent this idea on to the Library of Congress."

I leave her misapplication of the semicolon in for historic authenticity.

Being lazy and unambitious is something I've always been good at, and it's never bothered me too much, but something about that note kept coming back to haunt me. It wasn't so much that I hadn't made an effort, it was more that I did eventually become a writer, and a publisher, and I felt like I owed it to myself to give this project the effort it deserved. 

The poems I felt like I could do on my own, but I needed an illustrator. By this time I was forty years old and the General Manager of a dive bar underneath a bridge in Rockford, Illinois called Castaways. A bar where three women had formed a roller derby league called the Rockford Rage in the bathroom one night. The paperwork to join the league was signed right there at the bar, and one of the earliest skaters to join is now my creative partner and real life mate Jenny Mathews, who is one of the finest illustrators in America.

I asked her if she'd be interested in collaborating on a children's book titled Atrocities From A To Z about things that kid hated. She said yes, and I sent her the first poem from the book, aptly titled "A."

A few weeks later she sent back this illustration.

It was perfect.

Then she moved to Texas.

Then we wrote a book titled The Toughskin Rhinoceros Wrangler Company long distance and Atrocities From A To Z was put on the backburner.

Then she came back from Texas and we became a couple. And a scant eight years later, almost forty years after I began it, Atrocious Poems A To Z went to the printer last week. 

Is the business finished now? Can I call up and tell Fritz Perls in the afterlife that we're good?


But there's one last order of business I feel like needs to be finished, and that is the business. I'd like to encourage you to order a copy of Atrocious Poems A To Z. In the poems I've tried to address issues that sometimes can seem trivial to adults, but cause great anxiety for children, like vegetables, inoculations, sharing, monsters under the bed, floors made of lava etc. I have tried to be light-hearted in the poems and provide a jumping off point to discuss some of these anxiety-producing situations. Also, it was important to me to try and incorporate some lessons on literary form, theme, and devices. 

Of course the best part of the book are the remarkable illustrations by Jenny Mathews, and getting to work with my soulmate. I think we've made a really fun and interesting book and I'd like to encourage you to order your copy now.

And, yes, I will be sending a copy to the Library of Congress


Update: Oh, here's the part I forgot to say: my book ended up on the walls of a major American museum. 

Photograph by the great Ryan Davis

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