Michael’s Monsters | Laura Shovan

The last flight I took before the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown was a trip to Tallahassee, Florida. I spent a few days with my friends Michael Rothenberg and Terri Carrion, the founders of 100 Thousand Poets for Change and the Read a Poem to a Child initiative.

We didn’t know then, in January 2020, that the dark shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic was about to overtake us. Michael and I sat talking at a wooden picnic table outside Wakulla Springs State Park, one of his favorite places. Decades ago, the classic monster movie Creature from the Black Lagoon filmed scenes in the springs’ pristine water. But we had our own shadows and monsters to deal with. Michael had recently lost his only son, Cosmos, to addiction. My own college-aged son was clawing his way out of a years-long depression.

Michael Rothenberg and Laura Shovan
Wakulla Springs State Park, 2020

As we ate brown bag sandwiches and drank old-fashioned phosphate sodas from the park’s historic lodge, we shared the hurt and confusion of grief. After Cosmos’ death, Michael had been unable to write for a time. In need of a creative outlet, he began working with art therapist Annie McFarland on a series of colorful abstract illustrations.

Then, two days after I returned home, Michael sent me an image that marked a departure in his work. Here was a blue-jean colored monster with six pink feet, blowing green bubbles. I drafted a poem about a child who is surprised to see a monster moving into the house next door. As a gift for Michael, I recorded the poem and sent it, hoping it would bring some lightness to his day.

The next day, Michael sent a sketch of a monster with balloons hovering in the background. I wrote “Monsters Don’t Have Birthdays,” and messaged Michael, “The second monster has such a sweet expression. It inspired the last line of the poem,” in which a monster is surprised at his human friends’ empathy toward him.

Almost immediately, a concept began to take shape. This was one of Michael’s great gifts. When creative inspiration struck, he ran with it, whether that it led him to draw whimsical creatures, or to form a global network of poets committed to social justice.

Monster after monster showed up in our message thread. I scrambled to keep up with Michael’s creative energy. My response poems described children interacting with the monsters, most of whom represented—to my mind, Michael hated to interpret his own drawings—an emotion or state of being: fear, curiosity, self-love, sadness. “I like the idea of encouraging readers to sit with a feeling and then let it evolve,” I told Michael about a poem entitled “When I Cry.” “Not to brush the sadness away or deny it, but to see it as part of the whole range of emotions.”

In the initial shock of the pandemic, when our normal lives came to a sudden halt, working on Welcome to Monsterville shook us both out of our habitual worries, anxieties, and ways of thinking. It gave Michael and me a way to befriend the unexpected, to make art out of the monstrous unknown.

Both of us suffered new losses. My mother-in-law passed away, and Michael’s brother Bruce. And yet, we had this playful, wonderful collaboration to turn to. There was a joy when we dug into human emotions through the process of creative play. We helped each other when one of us got stuck, all the while engaging in a side conversation, writing messages back and forth about the nature of creativity. We talked about art as a necessary outlet, a grounding force when we’re feeling overwhelmed by emotion

I just let the ideas come. No judgement,” I told Michael when he complimented a poem draft. He replied, “It is the only way for me. The imagination stays flowing that way.” He likened our process to performing his poetry accompanied by live music. “It’s all about my relationship with [the] musicians,” Michael said. “We’re in it together.”

Ours was a two year conversation about the creative process, whether Michael was adding layers of watercolor to an inked drawing, or I was revising a poem, line by line. Reading through our message thread again after Michael’s recent death, I’m reminded of the sense of delight my dear friend and I felt at embarking on this creative conversation together.

Although I am sitting with my grief—alongside Michael’s vast community of friends, poets, and activists—it is with the knowledge that the creative conversations Michael began with so many of us are still ongoing. This spring, when our book Welcome to Monsterville is published by Apprentice House Press, I will be introducing children to Michael’s monsters, inviting them to play with art and words inspired by his work.

I like the idea of a child’s wildest, monstrous impulses being beautiful—to be witnessed instead of shunned or corrected,” I once told Michael.

“We are all monsters,” he said.

©2022 Laura Shovan
All rights reserved

Laura Shovan…

…is an author, educator, and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet. Her chapbook, Mountain, Log, Salt, and Stone won the Harriss Poetry Prize. Laura’s award-winning children’s novels include The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, Takedown, and Sydney Taylor Notable A Place at the Table, written with Saadia Faruqi. She teaches writing at Vermont College of Fine. Welcome to Monsterville, her poetry collection for children, was illustrated by poet Michael Rothenberg.


Jailbird Mustache Hearing | Laura Shovan

by Ray Materson


After Ray Materson
by Ray Materson
He unraveled worn out socks
to make thread, begged a needle 
from a guard, embroidered life 
outside these walls.
Five thousand stitches to sew
a Mickey Mantle baseball card
from memory, five thousand stitches
to shrink his mother’s parlor down,
make it playing card size. In his palm
he holds the portrait
of a seagull attempting flight,
wing-tips gray as stone,
one claw caught in barbed wire.
by Ray Materson

The Alcoholic’s Mustache

My father-in-law’s brain was down to its last trick—comatose for days, but his throat still knew to swallow. We argued with the cardiologist. A nun explained that the doctor’s religion precluded him from letting the body die, and this was a Catholic hospital. The ventilator rose and fell. I studied my father-in-law, the growing stubble, greasy hair, ragged mustache. A hospice center finally took him in, turned off the machines. There, the nurse washed his hair, shaved his cheeks, his chin. He would have been grateful, we told her. He'd always kept himself neat. She said it would be awhile, that we should go eat at the diner around the corner. Before the burgers came, we got the call.

brass plaque, the poet
William Carlos Williams
treated patients here


The future Justice sits at a paneled desk,
spits into the mic about beer, about 
being young and summer, his surprise 
anyone would ruin him like this.

The room tilts. It has the paneled walls 
of my parents’ house. 
Are those my brothers’ muted voices 
or have I muted CNN? 

They are thirteen and eight,
watching horror movies again,
our mother in the kitchen, unpacking
videotapes and groceries. 

I ask my brother, 
“How can you want to see this?” 
He shrugs. “It’s not as if 
we’re watching a snuff film.”

Which are illegal, he tells me, 
but you can get the tapes 
if you want them bad enough. 
I peer into the room. Is there a third boy,

a kid from the neighborhood, 
from the country club? He nods
at my brother. If you want it bad enough
you can get a girl upstairs, 

on the floor, on the bed. And years later, 
when you’re called on the carpet, 
you can say she might have been assaulted,
at some point, by someone, 

but unless it’s on film, it wasn’t you.

And All the Ships at Sea
©2022 JJ Stick

Poems ©2022 Laura Shovan
All rights reserved

Laura Shovan…

…is a children’s author, educator, and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet whose chapbook, Mountain, Log, Salt, and Stone, won the inaugural Harriss Poetry Prize. Laura has written several award-winning middle grade novels, including The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, Takedown, and the Sydney Taylor Notable A Place at the Table, co-written with Saadia Faruqi. She teaches for Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults.


So Thirsty —poem

I am almost back perhaps. The long summer ordeal
of stress, rockets, war, death, killing has moved off
into Syria and Iraq and left us barren for a moment.
A bit of rain falling today hints at winter being
wet. We need water. We always need water. So thirsty.

The brown hills will green again, and the dry beds
recently run with blood water will wash thoroughly
so flowers may wave their red-yellow-white-purple
cacophony of emotions in winter’s permissive grace.
We need the water. We always need water. So thirsty.

Since between last-summer’s war and the next,
whenever it might fall upon us, this brief moment
flickers—a satellite-pretense of being a star gliding
across black night—a mere reflection of sunlight.
We want water, we always need more water. So thirsty.

The desert will preserve these battles, mummify
the narratives, and wait as scorpions and seeds wait.
And to this I return. Almost. Maybe. Turned back
from the sea and step-by-step making my way to sweet
water. Always water. Like the night sky, I am so thirsty.

—Michael Dickel

The Evolution of Music by Jerry Ingeman

This poem will be read at Baltimore’s Writers Resist event (Jan 15 2017) by Maryland poet Laura Shovan, author of  The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, a novel in poem form. Michael wrote this poem a while after the 2014 Hamas-Israel War—other poems, from the war, appear in his book War Surrounds Us.

Posted in Michael Dickel

CONTRIBUTING EDITOR MICHAEL DICKEL, featured at poetry reading in St. Cloud, MN


If you live in or around St. Cloud, MN, don’t miss the opportunity to see and talk with Michael Dickel tomorrow night.  Michael is visiting the U.S. but he’ll be headed back to Israel soon.

Wednesday, October 5 at 6:30 PM – 8 PM in CDT
Cream City Tattoo Gallery, 11 6th Ave N, St Cloud, MN 56303-4746, United States

Music— 6:30 Dean Severson doing guitar
Words—7:00 Michael Dickel doing poetry

American-Israeli poet Michael Dickel will read from his collection of poetry, War Surrounds Us, while surrounded by the Surreal Deal show of artist Jerry Ingeman —whose work graces the cover of the collection and will be on display. Jerry and Michael might chat a bit about art, poetry, and the meaning of life. Or not. Book will be available for purchase and autograph. Michael will also read one or two works from his forthcoming book, The Palm Reading after The Toad’s Garden.

• Poem and analysis by Vivian Eden: Haaretz, Israel. Poem of the Week Recycled Violence: The World Has Gone Mad Again. (online: http://bit.ly/1NwUf6R)
Review and interview by Jamie Dedes: The Poet by Day— The Poet As Witness: “War Surrounds Us,” an interview with American-Israeli Poet, Michael Dickel (text: http://bit.ly/1IcMLyj)
• Interview by Laura Shovan: Author Amok: World Poetry Series (text: http://bit.ly/1JeOMe7)
• Interview by Laura LaMarca: Johntext United Kingdom (text: http://bit.ly/1GdJxjC)
• Interview by Ilene Prusher, Let’s Get Lit: “War Surrounds Us” on TLV1.FM (podcast: http://bit.ly/1JQJb25)

EDUCATING THE TEACHER: Poet to Poet, Ann Bracken & Michael Dickel

NOTE: This was originally published at Ann Bracken: Poet, Author, Creator of Possibilities. It is shared here with permission.

Ann Bracken
Ann Bracken

I had the pleasure of meeting Michael in Salerno, Italy, last summer when we both participated in the 100Thousand Poets for Change Conference. Michael joined me, along with Laura Shovan and Debby Rippey, my travel companions, in sharing a gourmet Salerno lunch in a wonderful ristorante. Michael also served as the emcee for one of our poetry nights. His work speaks of struggle and peace, and he is committed to using the arts for social change.

Ann: Welcome, Michael.

Does teaching have to contribute to the status quo? Must it be dominated by business models that value efficiency over humanity and greed over compassion?

MICHAEL: Yes and no. But, it doesn’t have to be this way.

This is my story. It just happened. And it’s been happening for years.

Michael Dickel
Michael Dickel

I’m letting go of teaching. I’m kicking and screaming, hanging on with my fingernails, letting go.

I’m sixty. I’m “outside faculty” (literally translated from the Hebrew, adjunct in plain English). One of my bread-and-butter teaching gigs will evaporate with a just-launched Ministry of Education, free, online, self-study English reading course.

And things are not working so well at a new gig this semester, where an administrator seems to have taken a dislike for me. I don’t want this constant battle in my life anymore, the struggle to make a living doing something I believe should have value.

After three months teaching, a group of us who are “hourly” teachers this semester saw a contract for the first time. It was dated Monday, the 18th of January. It begins three months before, 18th October. And, the contract expires this Friday, the 22nd. Four-days after they presented it to us. That’s, not coincidentally, the last day of classes for the semester.

One of the many problems with this end date is that we had been told to be present at the final exams on Monday, the 25th. Please note, that is after the contract ends. And, in addition to the paragraph that say, “you are hired from this date to that date,” paragraph seven also says something that loosely translates as: to be very clear, after the end date above, you are no longer an employee of the university, unless you are explicitly given an extension in writing. There is no extension of the dates.

This attitude toward those of us who teach is as destructive to education (and, by extension, society) as almost any other force other than war.

I hate having to fight for employment rights, like getting paid. The constant battling leaves me feeling like a failure. I am letting go of this work, which is no longer teaching, but a form of war.

I am hanging on to a lot of anger. I felt it as I left campus today. Boiling under the virus, feeding its fever. I am seething. And I need to find something else to hold on to.

I teach English as a Foreign Language reading comprehension to international students, Israelis, and Palestinians, in a post-high school prep program, called in Hebrew a mechina. (Yes, these students study together in the same classroom.) I love my students. I want to hold on to those marvelous relationships with students we teachers have the honor of sharing with them, where we learn together.

Today was our last regular meeting as a class. As I often do, I invited them to keep in touch—they have my email. Use it, I said. I’m on Facebook, I added. Three have already sent friend requests. Two of them are Palestinian students.

And just before supper, a student sent me an email (uncorrected and shared with permission of the student):

Hi Michael, this is __________, from English.

I want to tell you that you are a awesome teacher. Since the first lesson, I want to stay in your class. When I heard that we have to redo the [placement] exam. It’s my first time that I started to worry about if I can still be in a specific class.

I love the way you teaching, although sometime it is a little bit boring. I still remember that you played guitar and singing with us. And you told us that the purpose of teaching us is teach us how to think, about critical thinking. Since that, I knew that I was in the right class.

This particular student comes from China. He wants to study in Israel. He knows English already, and has been learning Hebrew. He also takes math, history, physics…a full load of prep-courses that has most of the students studying from 8:30 to 5 or later.

What he wrote at the end of his email, I will hold onto forever:

And I mentioned that I have something to share with you, the topic is that the relationship between war and education.

I found that, if a country want to get strong, it must have to good education in the nation. And the way to show others that you are strong, is to show them you have high tech and strong military. I would like to say high tech in some way is for high tech weapons. So who will provide the nation researchers and scientists to make weapons? Education do.

So in this way. I can say education make this world worse not better. And it get worse after every year. I believe that one day this world will get destroyed by those weapons and war. So who cause this? Education.

What do you think about this?

We had a unit on comparative education. The students spent a couple of classes online, looking at websites for places like Summerhill School (Democratic education), reading articles about Tiger Mom’s and Finland’s education system, and listening to TED Talks on the need for more creativity in education.

We did not discuss war, or its connection to education. That came from an amazing student. It didn’t come from me. Yet, providing students a chance to think such thoughts and to ask such questions—that is why I teach. And a successful teacher is someone to whom a student could write: I have something to share with you…What do you think?

I will hang on to the memory of this email. And hanging on to it will allow me to let go of frustrations with the difficulties and unfairness of a system that is stacked against him more than it is me. Hanging on to what matters will help me let go of what doesn’t matter.

It will also help me let go of this form of the work.

I wrote this student a long reply, which allowed me to hang on to what I really value. And, paradoxically perhaps, to let go of the job. The end of what I wrote went something like this:

If education doesn’t ask the questions that need to be asked, or, more importantly, teach how to ask important and critical questions, then you are right, education is part of the problem. It becomes an accomplice, helping to build the structures of dominance and power. Then, it feeds the cycles of greed. All of these things threaten our world today. If education is about training workers and obedience to authority, if it teaches accepted facts and does not challenge students to think for themselves, we are in trouble.

I think that this is one of the reasons why the Humanities are under attack, politically and economically, in much of the world today. It is why many politicians attack education—not because it is “failing,” but because it challenges. And why “reforms” are regularly introduced that use over-simplified models of “manufacturing knowledge,” teaching doctrinal facts (in whatever discipline or doctrine)—serving a purpose of producing workers and even leaders who “fit,” but not inspiring thinkers who question.

We need to find ways to inspire students to think—as I see you have been doing—about our world, about how to make it better, about how to find reasonable and well-reasoned approaches to fixing the problems we see and providing a sustainable, healthy, and worthwhile future for our species.

I don’t have the answers. I hope that we will find the right approaches, or at least, good enough approaches. And I hope that education does not end up only serving the powerful, the military, and the greedy.

However, it is always about possibilities. We must look for and welcome new possibilities into our lives.

From the Jewish tradition, we have this teaching, too: “You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirke Avot 2:21).

I believe that we can stop the destruction you fear. I hope that we can. May we not desist (stop) from trying. May we continue to seek forms of truth, practice heartfelt communication, and learn compassion for each other. May we cooperate and share with each other solutions as we find them. And may we always look to improving the world, not simply existing, or, worse,“using up” the world.

I believe that you could be someone who makes a difference. Start with your questions. And then, look for those possible solutions. That is all I know to say to you as an answer to your question about whether education is causing the destruction of the world. Yes and no. And, it doesn’t have to be this way.

With respect and hope for your generation,
Michael Dickel

© 2016 Ann Bracken and Michael Dickel, text and photographs, All rights reserved