Poet Tree: Revisiting the past

Most people use photos to remember the past. I do that, too. For example I remember asking my brother to take this photo of me in early July of 1979. I had just graduated from high school and I was going to be attending Syracuse University's College of Visual and Performing Arts the next fall. They had requested a photo for the Freshman "Face Book." (I don't actually remember what the thing was called, but now the only name for it is ubiquitous.) I look back at this photo all these years later and see the teen I was- a loner- a bit of a weirdo- always hiding behind my hair and my collection of hats. I wasn't very happy either. A photo can tell you some of that, but a journal or a poem tells you so much more.

Since April is poetry month, I decided to revisit my past- and to do that by reading poems that I've written over the years. Someday I'd love to create a collection of them and illustrate it. My working title is: "I Have a Little Poet Tree in Me." But here and now I want to share a trio of poems from a few different periods of my life. It's amazing how you can gauge your own feelings, emotions, life, and the very times around you by the things you write. So without much further ado, here we go:

I wrote this poem just before that photo of me was taken in 1979. Seventeen years old. Full of angst. A broken heart. A girl who loved boys, but also loved language and poetry even more.


If I see you in the present future
I know the past was not too perfect
You can correct me if I'm wrong
I'm feeling tense so I'll move along

Although there was a pause in our stanza
I think we left the line open
We can write more if you care
Or we can punctuate it there

We can have rhythm or flow smoothly
Or perhaps we can be spontaneous
It's hard for me to see
Just tell me if you want to be free.

©Nina Laden 1979

Then in May of 1993 I was very excited. My first children's book, "The Night I Followed the Dog" was about to be published by Chronicle Books. I was sharpening my mental pencils and coming up with new ideas, and the process became poetic... so I whipped out my IBM Selectric typewriter and wrote this:


Sometimes the world is a blank piece of paper and there is no ink in your pen.

Then gradually the clouds part, and in one corner of your mind, the sun gets in and a small shadow grows in the shape of something you've seen before, but never in this light.

As the light seeps in, warm and rosy, you see textures and shapes combining in new ways. The picture is hazy, but if you squint, you can see the edges.

Shapes, forms, colors, all swirling in an electric dance.

You start to recognize the place, the content. You find yourself drawn into the image. You have not seen it before, but you are comfortable and you know where you are.

You are happy, floating, enlightened by your discovery.

The light brightens, the edges define, the shadows lend weight. You feel a sense of solidity.

This feels good, honest, but you let a small cloud in the window.
It does not belong, but still you consider it. Maybe it was sent for a good reason.

You check the corners of your space. You must know it intimately.
You find a small crack. It is nothing, you assure yourself. This is still a fine place, you can fix it.

Meanwhile, the cloud is growing. It is casting a dark shadow.
The shadow dances around, and you are fascinated by it. You stand in the shadow wanting to feel its' motion.

But it takes your energy and grows bigger.

You realize that the light is leaving, the colors, the shapes, the textures, they are all disappearing, consumed by the shadow.

No, this cannot happen. You have allowed this. It is getting darker. You reach for the last glimmer of the light as it tries to take wing.

You catch it and hold it in your hand.
You realize that you must believe in it absolutely or it will not thrive.

You remember it was born in your mind.
It will grow by your hand.
But it will only survive if taken to heart.

You let go, and feel it in every pore of your body.
The light floods in. You embrace it, it embraces you.
The words flow like rivers.
The pictures speak a thousand words.
And there is music everywhere.

You have found the place.
The place in your mind.
The place where ideas come from.

And yet, your journey has just begun.

©Nina Laden 1993

Reading that one now makes me think I was in my New Age Sark phase. I think I was a little too serious about "the process" of creating. But by 2000 I was in a new delirious period. I had five books come out in 2000: I illustrated Walter Dean Myers' book, "The Blues of Flats Brown," then my books: "Bad Dog," "Roberto the Insect Architect," and "Peek-A Who?" and "Ready, Set, Go!" all were published. But the highlight of the year was when I was invited to speak in schools in Cherbourg, France. They used my book, "When Pigasso Met Mootisse" (in French) in their curriculum. My husband went with me and we were feasted and feted in Normandy. My book even won the Prix du Festival and I received a prize from the Mayor of Cherbourg, himself.

I was paid in francs for my speaking in Cherbourg, so my husband and I took the train to Paris after I was done, and we spent it all there. I wrote this poem in my journal on the flight home:

LA VIE DES CHIENS EN PARIS (The Life of Dogs in Paris)

It's the life of a dog in Paris.
You can go anywhere-
In the Metro, in the hotels...
And you can GO on the street.
That's right- do your "business"
-La Toilette-
Anywhere you desire.
La Champs Elysées?
That's okay!
The Eiffel Tower?
They'll follow and scour.
The streets of Paris
On each side of the Seine
Are veritable minefields
Of "Paté de Chien!"

You can take your dog
Who walks on all fours
To La Samaritaine,
Paris' huge department store.
But on the escalator
You cannot take her
Unless you embrace her,
And carry her up and down...
So don't buy a Great Dane,
It's really quite insane,
When there are so many poodles around.

©Nina Laden 2000

There are hundreds of poems in my journals from my past and present life. I find that they are more fun, and more telling than the traditional sort of journal entries- the descriptive narrative form, that most journals are written in. So give it a try. Maybe you have a little poet tree growing in you. Celebrate yourself and celebrate Poetry Month with a little verse.

If you want to share any of your moments of beauty, angst or just plain old playing around- add your poems to the comments.

With Love,


  1. excellent post, as always...though I didn't think you were a weirdo at all when we met around that time!

  2. Thanks, Paul! I'm glad you didn't think I was a weirdo... I definitely felt like an outcast- different. Now I see it as a positive attribute, but back then I knew I didn't quite fit in.

  3. I love the photo juxtaposed with a poem you wrote around the same time. So interesting. I looked back on a photo of myself just graduating from high school not too long ago, and was surprised by how much it told me about myself at that time too.


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