Friday, April 20, 2012

Poetry Friday: Allan Wolf

Last month, I participated in the March Madness Poetry Tournament organized and put on by Ed DeCaria. Sixty-four poets forged poems from words assigned and seeded by Ed's vicious imagination. I lost in round one to some guy named Allan Wolf. Check out the match up here. My word was "panic," Allan's was "kinkier." Like I said--vicious imagination. Okay, so thirty-one other people lost in round one, too. It's to be expected, right? Yeah, but who is this guy, anyway? And I know thumbnail photos are often not the best representation, but frankly, this guy looked just a little scary!

So, I went to his website, found his Facebook page, made a list of books and charged off to the library to see what I could find. And there in the Young Adult section, sitting out in the "Grab Me First" section by the computer stations, I found this beautiful book.

Aside from all the hoopla going on with the hundredth anniversary of Titanic's demise, I was intrigued by the fact that this book, unlike most poetry books (unless your name is Norton and you collect things), was nearly 500 pages long. I brought it home and plunged in. The deeper I got, the more I was enthralled.

We all know the story of Titanic. Everybody's seen the movie. How on earth does someone retell this story and make it riveting? Allan found the answer.

The Watch that Ends the Night is told in the voices of twenty-four people aboard the ship. Before the First Watch ended, I was invested in the lives of Jamila, the frightened refugee; Harold Bride, the spark--telegrapher par excellence; Thomas Andrews, the confident shipbuilder; John Jacob Astor, the millionaire who can find privacy nowhere; Frederick Fleet, the lookout who watches the world; and Frankie, the little boy who knows he can't replace his dead brother. There are others, but these are some of my favorites. And suddenly they are real people that I care about, and I don't know which ones will live and which ones will die. I even care about that stupid rat the baker chases.

The voice of the iceberg constantly reminds me that most of them won't survive.

The voice of the undertaker intrudes to count bodies, record their effects, and sew them into bags.

Who? Which ones? Always the question, and the end of each poem makes me wish helplessly for their safety.

The book received starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus Review, and Horn Book Magazine.

I wondered what more I could say about it. It's simply marvelous.

I love audio books and can't wait to get my hands on the audio version of this one. It has been nominated for an Audie Award.

And as for Allan Wolf, don't let the thumbnail fool you. He's not scary at all. Well, he might be if he was telling a ghost story. When I emailed him in the middle of an out of town trip to ask if he wanted to add a comment, he graciously lent me his very impressive voice.

From Allan:
The earliest draft of this book contained a family of 13 ship rats that became more and more human as the ship got farther out to sea.  These rats gave themselves names. They sang opera. They fell in love. They went on quests.  The book's editor, Elizabeth Bicknell at Candlewick Press, wisely convinced me that the rats were a distraction.  It was maybe a year of work and 150 pages of prose tossed overboard.  The single rat that scuttles about the pages of the book is all that is left of this merry band of rodents.  
Note on the Iceberg:  The Iceberg speaks in iambic pentameter for a very specific reason.  Visually this form looks monolithic on the page, as a chunk of ice might.  As the novel progresses, the Iceberg's poems become shorter and shorter.  And toward the very end, the line length shortens.  The iambic pentameter becomes iambic tetrameter.  Then trimeter.  And so on.  The rhythm of the "iamb" is the rhythm of the heart: lub DUB, lub DUB,  lub DUB, lub DUB, lub DUB.  And it is the human heart that so intrigues this holier-than-thou, ancient, existentialist villain.  Also the name, iamb, is a play on the mantra that the Iceberg uses throughout the book.  I am the ice.  I am the ice.  When the iceberg finally melts away, it's final poem is:  "I am."  One final heart beat.  And then it's gone.
If you would like to know more, read this excellent interview at The Fourth Musketeer. And here is a WLOS news interview with Allan reading the voice of the undertaker.

And I couldn't resist adding Allan's actual voice to this post.

Diane Mayr has the Round Up at Random Noodling. There's always something for everyone on Poetry Friday.


  1. Wow. HOw much do I love this post? First, because when my son was 4 years old, he was obsessed with the Titanic. That lasted about a year. We still buy every book or movie that comes along. Second, that you tracked down the poet who beat you in round one! That is SO AWESOME. Third, the way Allan wrote this book. Really fantastic.

    Side note: I read recently about a cat that was on board the Titanic, but when they made their first stop (in Ireland??), the cat was seen moving her kittens off the ship, one by one, as mama cats do. The cat was there because of the rats on the ship. But somehow she KNEW. She got herself and her babies to safety. It could be my most favorite Titanic story ever!
    Thanks for sharing, Doraine. xo

  2. Thanks, Irene. It's a marvelous book. I hadn't heard the cat story. Maybe that's why all those rats were having a free for all.

    I was sad that I couldn't get my comment to post on the round up yesterday. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Hi Doraine. I was on vacation last week and just catching up. As Irene said, this is a great post on Allan and I think it is awesome that you sized him up during the Madness. I wondered what people would do exactly when they found out who they were up against -- I'm going to bookmark this and refer to it in the run-up to next year's Madness! -Ed