Friday, April 25, 2008

Janet Wong and the License Plate Game

On this date in 1901, New York became the first state to require license plates for cars. Each plate carried the initials of the car’s owner and cost $1. In honor of this occasion, I have a not-yet-published poem by Janet Wong to share with her permission. She was kind enough to write the following poem for my “Everyday Poetry” column for Book Links magazine scheduled to be published in July. When I asked her if I could post it, she suggested I share some of the different versions she went through as she revised the poem and we dialogued back and forth about it. What a great idea and such a generous gesture! So, this is for all of you who work with children—who, in my experience, are often shocked and surprised to see that adults don’t create perfect poems in single drafts. Showing them the PROCESS of writing can be helpful and eye-opening. Here are SEVEN, count ‘em, seven versions of Janet’s poem about the age-old favorite car game, the License Plate Game.

First version:
(Notice the couplets with some end rhyme)

THE LICENSE PLATE GAME
by Janet S. Wong


Take the letters

in a license plate—


RSN

MST


And see what you can say.

Play with words:


Rest Stop Now!
Milk Shake Time!


Find words to steer

the driver’s mind

to places where

you want to go—


You can use

The License Plate Game


to disengage
the cruise control.


Second version:
(Notice the new title)

THE LICENSE PLATE LETTERS GAME
by Janet S. Wong


1RBT296 could mean

one Really Boring Trip.


Or if you’re hungry, just think quick:
say, it’s Really Burger Time!

The license plate letters game

lets you steer the driver’s mind.


Nothing jams a driver’s ear

more than asking, “Are we there?”


Find some letters, play things smart,

use your words to take aim:


Master
the License Plate Letters Game.



Third version:
(Back to the old title; notice fewer words, the tighter structure)

THE LICENSE PLATE GAME
by Janet S. Wong


1RBT296 could be

one Really Boring Trip.


So brainstorm silly things,

think quick:


Root Beer - Thirsty?

Rest - Burger Time!


Use words to steer

the driver's mind

to the destinations

that you name:


you control the cruise

with the License Plate Game.



Two fourth versions:
(Notice the shift from couplets to tercets in the first option)

THE LICENSE PLATE GAME
by Janet S. Wong


When you’re aching

to complain,

when the drive is driving you insane,


play with the letters

in a license plate.

Think silly things, concentrate.


If the plate says
RSN 225,

you might suggest the family drive

to a nearby ReStauraNt.
Or what about a Rest Stop Now?

It really doesn’t matter how


you play the game.

Just try to find

words to steer the driver’s mind.


When you’re aching to complain,

and your legs are numb and your seat’s aflame,
why not try The License Plate Game?


Or

THE LICENSE PLATE GAME

by Janet S. Wong


Take the letters in a license plate—


RSN

MST


and see what you can say.

Play the License Plate Game!


All three letters in one word:


RaiSiN, ReStauraNt, gingeRSNap

MuSTard, MySTery, druMSTick


Or choose a string of three:

Rest Stop Now

Milk Shake Time


The trick is, you have got to find

words to steer the driver’s mind.


When you’re aching to complain,

it’s time to try the License Plate Game.



Fifth version:
(Notice the tercet form prevails, but the end lines come from the second version)

THE LICENSE PLATE GAME

by Janet S. Wong


When you're aching

to complain,

when the drive is driving you insane,


play with the letters

in a license plate.

Think silly things, concentrate.


Suppose you see

RSN 325.

You might suggest the family drive


to a nearby ReStauraNt.

Or what about a Rest Stop Now?
It really doesn't matter how


you play. Three words? OK.

Or use just one.

The thing is, try to have some fun


and search

and search until you find

words to steer the driver's mind.


When you're aching to complain,

all numb feet and seat aflame,
don't forget: The License Plate Game.


Final version:
(Notice the new ending stanza)

THE LICENSE PLATE GAME
by Janet S. Wong


When you’re aching

to complain,

when the drive is driving you insane,


play with the letters

in a license plate.

Think silly things. Concentrate.


Suppose you see

RSN 325.

You might suggest the family drive


to a nearby ReStauraNt.

Or what about a Rest Stop Now?

It really doesn’t matter how


you play. Three words? OK.

Or use just one.

The thing is, try to have some fun


and search

and search until you find

words to steer the driver’s mind.


When your toes are numb

and your bottom’s blue,

the LPG will rescue you!


Thank you, Janet, for writing and sharing your poem and your poetry writing process!

For more poetry gems, check out the Poetry Friday Round Up at The Miss Rumphius Effect.


Picture credit: www.euro-sign.com

23 comments:

Emily said...

I love the license plate game! The version I know, however, is the "out of state license plate game" where you get to smack your siblings (or any other innocent bystander) when you see a plate from a different state. I like the game idea that Janet Wong introduces and I think it makes for a great poem. I only wish the "cruise control" metaphor had made it into the final draft!

Cloudscome said...

Great post. It's nice to share this process - thanks!

Sylvia Vardell said...

Thanks for stopping by. I think it's fascinating to see the revision process at work-- especially for kids and aspiring poets!

Linda said...

Sylvia,

Thanks for sharing Janet Wong's revisions. I plan to use it with my eighth graders who ALWAYS think their poem is "done" after the first draft. Boy, do they resist revision.
Great blog! I read it at least once a week.
Linda

Linda said...

Sylvia,
I can't wait to show Janet Wong's revisions to my eighth graders. They are certain their poems are "done" after the first draft.

Thanks for the great blog!
Linda

Linda said...

Great post! I can't wait to show Janet's revisions to my eighth graders who are ALWAYS certain their poems are "done" after the first draft. : )

I enjoy reading your blog.

Sylvia Vardell said...

Linda,
You're so welcome. When I taught sixth grade, I know my students were resistant to revision, too. UNTIL we shared, posted, and published their work. When they had a real audience, they were more motivated to "get it right," so hang in there!
And thanks for your kind words--
Sylvia

Janet Wong said...

Emily: you identified my biggest worry. I often wonder if I've chosen the best draft (or the best elements of the different drafts) for a piece of writing.

All: Just for fun, I've just now asked several of my poet-friends to vote for their favorite draft. I'm very curious to know which they prefer. If I hear from them, I'll let you know. I'm hoping that some of them will post a comment here. In the meantime, perhaps you can hold a vote among your friends or students?

J Patrick Lewis said...

I'm from the Less is More School so my favorite is the first version, though I must say that the fourth and fifth versions add a new level of interest and intrigue to a game that will surely captivate a young reader. Very clever, Janet. Brava!
xo, Pat

readergirlz said...

How awesome of Janet to share her process with everyone. Although I'm not surprised. It's absolutely her character to be so giving.

The license plate game for our family is finding different plates from different states on the road. So, I really needed Janet's latter versions to grasp the concept.

As you go through each poem, the text does tighten, and she collects the strongest words and images. I love the final stanza of the final poem! It's perfect! So, my favorite poem is the final.

I do miss the words cruise control in the final though. Yet, Janet does speak of controlling the driver's mind. I just miss the earlier stanzas like:

"to disengage the cruise control"
"you control the cruise"

I have to love that alliteration!

Thanks so much for this great post, Sylvia! I enjoyed reading every one of Janet's poems.

Off to play the LPG!

Lorie Ann Grover ~readergirlz diva/verse novelist

Rebecca Kai Dotlich said...

Hey Janet, I almost hate to admit it, but I like the first draft!
Appreciate the clean/crisp look and read of it. Enjoy the references to REST STOP NOW and MILK SHAKE TIME...
also, prefer title as is, without the addition of the word 'letters.'
The License Plate Game is the right title. (Bossy, eh?)
I tried to like a different version better,
(because of all your revisional hours; ha)
but I'm sticking with the first. xR

Marilyn Singer said...

Hey, Janet,
What a cool thing you did! And brave, too!

I would never critique a poem without being asked and you didn't exactly ask for a critique, so I hope you take this in the friendly spirit in which it's intended, especially since I'm such an admirer of your work.

So here goes. I like the very first version of the poem best because it's clean, crisp, and gets right to the game (some of the other versions do, too, but I get confused by the license plate with all the digits--I don't see the letters for the numbers), except for the end--"You can use/ The License Plate Game/to disengage/ the cruise control," which strikes me too adult and not quite lyrical or snappy enough. The other thing that feels not quite on point is the idea that the player can really use the game to steer the driver. It sounds like telepathy. Isn't the player maybe trying or wishing to do that, rather than actually doing so? For me, the resolution might work better with a question such as "Can you use/ the license plate game/ to control the cruise?"

I do also like your final version of the poem, but again not so much the end. There's that mental telepathy question again. And the numb toes and blue bottom sound like being out in the cold rather than in a car.

You really are a marvel--and a hard-working one--and you're showing those readers a valuable lesson in the job of revision!
Love,
Marilyn

Marilyn Singer said...

This is fascinating--I hadn't read Pat and Rebecca's comments before writing mine, and yet we all liked Version 1 for similar reasons, and Rebecca and I even used the same words--"clean, crisp."

Are we sharing a brain?

Marilyn

Marilyn Singer said...

This is fascinating--I wrote my comments before reading Pat's and Rebecca's, and it turns out we all prefer Version 1 for similar reasons. Rebecca and I even used the same words, "crisp, clean."

Poets sharing the same brain?

Marilyn

Janet Wong said...

Thank you, thank you all, for your fascinating comments! I'm looking forward to hearing more...and also results of any votes that were taken with kids.

A confession: Draft 1 was really not the first draft. It might've been the first draft that I sent to Sylvia, but it was at least Draft 3. I included "rest stop" because of a suggestion from Pat Lewis, whose advice I sometimes solicit when I am really stumped (and especially if I think my rhythm is off).

"Disengage the cruise control" came from my husband Glenn; before that, I was using something like "you control the cruise." As Glenn pointed out, what my speaker really wanted to do was to derail the determined driver, to turn off the cruise control.

About halfway through the drafts, Sylvia noted that her family's version of the license plate game forced the players to use all three letters in a single word, such as ReStauraNt (rather than my easier version, which permitted Rest Stop Now). This might've complicated things unnecessarily (in terms of poetry) but I felt it was important to convey that there are different ways to play the game.

Now that I know about this other way of playing, focusing on finding plates from different states, I might need to try a new final version. And I'll try somehow returning to "clean and crisp"!

Alice Schertle said...

Okay, you're just going to have to believe that I'm writing this before looking at the other responses. Incredible restraint required. I go with version #1. There are a number of reasons but the most important one is the impact of the conclusion. It gave me that little jolt, that inner grin, that wish that I'd thought of it myself. The disengaging of the cruise control: it takes my mind beyond a very tidy and enjoyable poem, and for me, it's worth the price of admission. Love it, Janet. Thanks for the opportunity, Sylvia.
Cheers--
Alice

Janet Wong said...

Well, not to complicate things, but here’s another draft. I think it might be the best, but...go ahead...be brutal. I can take it. As some have noted, I am (or at least can appear to be) brave.

Note: The ending was set; I HAD to use the last line somehow, after reading Alice's comment.


The License Plate Game
by Janet Wong

Spot a plate from another state
and you’ve got a game: the LPG.

How do you play?
Let’s say you see RSN 322.

Shout: ReStauraNt!
or Rest Stop Now!

Find words to steer the driver’s mind,
suggesting where you want to go.

You can use the LPG
to disengage the cruise control.

readergirlz said...

I like this version, Janet. I was hoping you'd do one more draft for everyone!

I'm going to stick to my view though. I miss the portions below. There's a light, familiar voice that's fun, and I miss it in the final. But it seems I'm the only one. Hm.

When you’re aching
to complain,
when the drive is driving you insane,

When your toes are numb
and your bottom’s blue,
the LPG will rescue you.

Lorie Ann Grover ~readergirlz diva/verse novelist

J. Patrick Lewis said...

There you go, Janet. Spot on.
10 lines of distilled magic. Much as I hate to use your hard work against you, I hope this goes a far piece to convince you of my side of the argument: Writing poetry is not easy! Now sit back and have a glass of wine. And I'll expect to see you chained to the desk at 7 a.m. tomorrow.

Janet Wong said...

Lorie Ann: I'm curious about how kids would vote. I'm guessing that many of them would vote with you.

Pat: If I were to measure a poem in calories (from potato chips and cheese gobbled between lines), that was a 25,000 calorie poem!

For those of you who don't know this, Pat is THE most disciplined of all the poets I know. No one can sit at a desk, slaving over a poem, longer than J. Patrick Lewis. We have a running joke/feud over the fact that I like to tell people it's easy to write poems. I push people to be fearless about writing 5-minute drafts, while Pat will spend an hour finding the right word.

But, Pat: I also talk about how I usually write at least 10 drafts...and this time I have proof!

rebecca said...

Janet, Better, better, best.
Spot a plate from another state ...
Very nice.
I like the additional rhyme you've infused in the poem.
Did you measure the hash brown calories, too? :)
Poetry is magical, blessed with the wand of the wizard. (Now
if only we could all stay sat like Pat.)

Alice Schertle said...

So very nice, Janet. Invites us in, says what you want to say, and still has that ending that says more than it seems to. I suppose poetry asks us all to disengage the cruise control, take a sudden turn, see what's around the corner.

Yep, Pat has the self discipline to put the hours in and work until it's right; no cruise control for him, he's always driving and he goes his own wonderful way.

Thanks for this conversation, Sylvia. I can get happily lost in your blog for hours. (During which time Pat will have found the ending for a poem and begun another, annoying man.)

xo
Alice

Sylvia Vardell said...

Thank you for that lovely compliment, Alice! And thank you all for this honest, thoughtful dialogue. What a window into the poetic process, and how fun to eavesdrop on a conversation among poets!
Sylvia