Wednesday, April 6, 2011

“Reptile, Turtle, Taps a Poem”: A Literary Aside

The turtle in the illustration is a male ornate box turtle, father of five of the turtles in our bale of turtles in the Chelonian Connection lab. Yes, “bale” is the collective noun for a bunch of turtles, though it’s hard to imagine their being wrapped together like a bale of hay.

The poem associated with the picture, like most of my writing, has a turtle topic. (A note to anyone who writes prose, whether it’s about turtles or anything else: Writing poetry, with its concentration, imagery, sound relationships, and attention to rhythm, can improve your prose writing.)
Early in the year BluePrintReview, an established online literary journal coming out of Germany, put out a call for collaborative works including verbal and visual media: “Synergetic Transformations.” I was intrigued, for the poem "Haunted Garden" was already completed as a collaborative work with one of my students; the theme was a natural, and I sent it in, along with an illustration (above) and notes about the ancient form and the way we’d adapted it.
One of our Last Monday Poetry events, for which I’m a codirector, had been an introduction to the Japanese form renga (similar to renku) by Brad Wolthers. The workshop participants wrote a round of stanzas, recreating renga as the collaborative party game it has been for centuries, leading the next week to an e-mail renga with eighteen participants, then to our “Haunted Garden,” written in the trade-off process: three lines in the voice of a turtle, two lines in response.
Our collaboration was accepted. Dorothee Lang, BluePrintReview editor, soon learned that two pairs of collaborators accepted for the issue lived in the Portland, Oregon, metro area and that poet John Sibley Williams, who recently presented at Last Monday Poetry, was already a friend; she suggested entries on our blogs. If, before our work was accepted, we’d discussed BluePrintReview, we wouldn't have been so surprised when we discovered we four were about to be published in the same journal, the same issue, in far-off Germany. The explanation? Our ideas to submit came from the same source: a mutual friend, practitioner of poetry and multiple arts Anatoly Molotkov, who kindly posted the journal information on Facebook.
The “Haunted Garden” collaboration is online now at, a happy resident in a beautiful issue. Here is the poem’s ending, suitable for a blue-sky day in an Oregon spring, bright with cherry blossoms and, yes, the masses of white bell-like blooms sprawling out in the sun from our Pieri japonica, outside the turtles’ garden window.

Season of fear leaves.
Silent shoots sign early spring,
garden smiles again.

Violas, pieri survive.
Turtle smiles, taps his poem.

Thanks to A. Molotkov for sharing the journal information; Brad Wolthers, whose renga, haiku, and other poems in the Japanese tradition are published in several books; and to Margaret Chula, much-honored Portland poet and specialist in Japanese poetry, who influenced my notes by identifying the ways in which our hybrid style differed from the strict practice of renga and renku.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Are Socialized Turtles Capable of Play?

Look at this photo of a Chelonian Connection tortoise and see what you think. Now animate it with the tortoise on a strong forward trajectory.

Here, pancake tortoise Wafford is pushing against my hands and canoeing forward to smack the hanging balloon. Sometimes the turtles turn themselves turtle and hit it upside down; sometimes they thrust out their front feet and hit it, but they don’t get the timing right every time. Usually they pivot after they’ve hit the balloon, steering me into a turn. Then they come at it from the other direction—over and over. The games tend to go on until the balloon gets old and unresponsive. The turtles then go on to other things, such as hitting the wind chimes with the same techniques: beak, foot, and—a new technique for these hard surfaces—the flat of the plastron, the bottom part of the shell—to take the impact.

Last year Wafford’s brother Toot, the youngest, slimmest, and most agile of the turtles, demonstrated the game for an audience at OMSI (Oregon Museum of Science and Industry). In that case, we tied the string to the ceiling struts. That works, too, and without holes in the museum.

As our lab no longer has an open doorway, but rather a temporary door to separate the room from the cooler part of the building, the new game is to try to hit a balloon attached to the moving ceiling fan. That wild balloon, careening every which way as soon as it’s hit, is almost as likely to bounce back and hit the turtle—or me—as for the turtle to connect with it. The fan, even on the low setting, is faster than most fans, and the game is much more difficult. (However, you may try this at home.)

In a later post, we’ll show other lab photos of what we can only term turtle play, including Wafford’s father’s self-powered ride on a low cart, and introduce you to Pigface, a Nile soft-shelled turtle, whose water play with a ball has been documented by Gordon M. Burkhardt of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. 

Note: “Turtle” equals “chelonian” as the most general word for all of the shelled reptiles, as well, at a more specific level, for aquatic turtles, semiaquatic turtles, and sea turtles. “Tortoise” is used for the turtle species adapted to arid conditions.