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.
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
…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.