Listen Louder Than You Sing

It’s hard to believe that just two and a half months ago I was still substitute teaching. I feel so at home in my new classroom and so involved in the lives and lessons of my seventh graders that I sometimes forget I didn’t start the year with them. They feel like mine now. My kids. And that feels really good.

The truth, though, is that ten short weeks ago I was still spending my days with other people’s kids, and I was reminded of that today when I found something in one of my notebooks.

Subbing can be a hard job. That probably doesn’t surprise anyone. But it can also be a really fun job, a really inspiring job. There are so many amazing teachers in Austin, and once in a while, as a sub, you get to see those teachers in action.

On September 2nd, I “subbed” a girls’ choir class at Bowie High School in south Austin. I put the word in quotes because sitting in a chair and listening to beautiful music for an hour and a half does not count as work. The class I was in was co-taught, so, as the sub for one teacher, I just had to sit by and watch while the other teacher– Randy Cantu— flawlessly and fearlessly taught/encouraged/conducted/coached 50+ high school singers.

I was mesmerized.

The girls were so talented, the class flowed so smoothly, and Mr. Cantu worked so hard every minute to make them better singers, better students, better people.

For an hour and a half, I listened, and I wrote what I heard. Words, phrases, advice, small admonishments, questions, answers, lyrics, and laughs. I filled my page and then some with the language of the lesson. Later that day, I sat down with my notes and wrote a found poem from the list.

I’m so grateful that I had the pleasure of watching this teacher do his job. His enthusiasm and work ethic and joy has stayed with me and, I hope, carried into my own classroom.

Here’s the poem I wrote from the words of Mr. Cantu and his students:

Listen Louder Than You Sing

1, 2, 3, ready and
so fa me fa
let me hear the la
big beautiful brave sound
tall vowels, lots of space
make sure you travel
sing what you see
la ti la so la me re do
tone, posture, contour
now we are here

ma meh me mo mu
think about that for 30 seconds
ma meh me mo mu
sing it in your head
ma meh me mo mu

Do it again from the same place
so me re me do
it gets more complicated
it’s breathy, uncomfortable
don’t give up
this business—it’ll get better over time
keep singing
from the beginning
starting from scratch and it’s ok
1, 2, 3, ready, be brave

– Carie Juettner

[found poem composed of phrases heard while observing Randy Cantu’s choir class at Bowie High School in Austin, Texas, on September 2, 2016]


(Take a moment this week and thank a teacher!)



Inspiration Only Gets You So Far

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Austin is such an amazing town for writers. Independent book stores, author events, poetry readings, book festivals, literary archives, professional organizations, classes, workshops, meet-ups, indie presses, conferences—we have it all. I gushed about some of my favorite local literary highlights in this post, and I stand by everything I said.

I have friends in other parts of the state/country/globe that don’t live on such fertile writing ground, and I feel a little sorry for them. They can’t even imagine the number of opportunities I have for networking, listening, and learning. There’s just so much inspiration here!

This summer alone, I participated in a writing conference and an online workshop, attended a panel discussion and an author interview, led a write-away day at The Writing Barn and met up with various writer friends to drink coffee, share ideas, and bond over this strange and wonderful writing life. All of it was excellent.

But… (Yeah, there’s a but.)

This may sound a bit blasphemous, but I’m actually starting to envy those writers who DON’T live in a thriving writing community because, well, I bet they get a lot of work done.

The thing is, inspiration only gets you so far. Eventually, you have to actually sit down and WRITE. Otherwise, all those techniques you learned and exercises you practiced and great advice you heard and connections you made don’t matter. You have to put the inspiration to use or it doesn’t mean anything. The writing is the key.


I recently went back to work full time-ish. (I’m a substitute teacher, so my job is pretty flexible, meaning random and confusing and literally all over the place, but I’m trying to book a job every day because I like having money to buy things.) All of a sudden, my available hours have shrunk and my available hours that I am awake and running on at least 70% brain power have shrunk even more.

This weekend, I looked at my calendar for the month and—man, oh, man—it is full of so many amazing things! Volunteering for one writing organization and monthly meetings with two more. Two book launches at my favorite local book store and one poetry reading followed by an open mic. An author interview, and a meet-up with writer friends, and a panel discussion, and a poetry festival, and one event that even has free wine. Yes! Yes! Yes! Wait… Noooooo! When am I supposed to write???

I sat down, put my head in my hands, and wished I lived out in the country or possibly in a city of illiterates. I found myself envying those friends who don’t live in thriving literary communities.

Which is silly. Utterly and completely silly. Because, obviously I don’t have to go to all these things. There is literally ONE event on my calendar that I have to go to because I’m assisting at it. The rest? I can just say no. Remember that, kids of the eighties? JUST SAY NO.

But it’s not that easy, because I WANT to go. The book launches are both for friends of mine, and of course I want to celebrate their amazing successes. The poetry festival is always so much fun and all my poet friends will be there. The author interview is with someone really interesting who I’ve been wanting to meet. And free wine? Come on!

Sadly, though, I can’t attend everything. I will have to pick and choose. I will have to say no. I will have to live vicariously through others when it comes to some of these events because I am a writer, so what I have to do is write. There’s no point bottling up all that inspiration if I don’t make time to let it out.

So here I sit, erasing some events from my calendar. I’ll miss you, friends! But if you don’t see me at a meeting or a workshop or a festival in the coming weeks, don’t fret. If I’m not there, it means I’m writing. And that’s a good thing.

After It Rains

Rain is an event here in Austin. We tweet about it, talk about it, marvel at it, and sometimes dance in it. At times, we get more than we need, as happened during the terrible Memorial Day weekend floods earlier this year. But more often than not, we go so long without rain that its presence is cause for celebration.

And it’s not just the humans that celebrate.

One of my favorite things about the rain is how it brings the frogs back. On nights after the city has been washed clean by thundershowers, my husband and I take the dog out for a walk at dusk and play the game of who-will-spot-the-frog-first? It’s not always easy, in the dark, to distinguish between frog and leaf. You can’t tell for sure until it hops.

Things get really exciting when our lab-mix sees one before we do. Then the frog is hopping and the dog is hopping and we’re tugging at the leash saying, “No, Uno! No!” and laughing all at once. Luckily, there have yet to be any casualties in this game.

[If you’re thinking, Isn’t this supposed to be a poetry post?, scroll down. The poem is at the end.]


Toad in potted plant

The most amazing thing to me is how many frogs suddenly appear. (After this week’s rain, we ran into seven on one walk.) It’s hard to imagine that they’re here, all the time, burrowed down into the ground, waiting out the summer heat. It reminds me of one of my favorite parts of Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli:

In the Sonoran Desert there are ponds. You could be standing in the middle of one and not know it, because the ponds are usually dry. Nor would you know that inches below your feet, frogs are sleeping, their heartbeats down to once or twice per minute. They lie dormant and waiting, these mud frogs, for without water their lives are incomplete, they are not fully themselves. For many months they sleep like this within the earth. And then the rain comes. And a hundred pairs of eyes pop out of the mud, and at night a hundred voices call across the moonlit water.

It was wonderful to see, wonderful to be in the middle of: we mud frogs awakening all around… It was a rebellion she led, a rebellion for rather than against. For ourselves. For the dormant mud frogs we had been for so long.

I love that book.

The frogs (or toads—I’m still a little unclear about the difference, but these critters are probably actually toads) aren’t the only creatures who celebrate the rain. I spend morning walks after stormy nights helping displaced earthworms out of the street and back into the grass. (Some are more grateful than others.) And anytime the sidewalks are wet, we have to watch our steps so as not to squish the snails sliming their way along the concrete.

Where I live now, we mostly have the small snails with the long spiral shells, rather than the big round ones that lived at my previous home. I miss those snails. There’s only one house in my current neighborhood that has them, and no one has lived there for years. (Except the snails.) I miss those snails so much that one night last March, after a rain, I decided to carry two of them home with me.

Here’s an email I sent to my family about the encounter: (My family members email each other about strange things.)

Tonight I decided to kidnap a couple of big snails from the empty house down the street and bring them home. I don’t know if they’re good for the yard or bad for the yard or if my yard has what they like to eat or not, but they’re pretty and I like them so I decided to grab a couple. I’ve picked up snails before. What happens is, they immediately hide inside their shells. Then you put them down again and they come back out. No problem. So I picked up a giant snail in each hand– for some reason I had a glove on my left hand and no glove on my right– and they dutifully tucked themselves inside their shells and we continued our walk.

BUT… (you knew there was a but)… after a few steps, they came back out! They were completely unbothered by the fact that I was snail-napping them and they came FAR out of their shells (more than an inch– these were big guys) and started trying to slime around on me! AAA! I spent the rest of the walk squealing and slowly twirling the snail in my bare right fingers to keep it from getting a grasp on my skin and slithering up my hand. I ignored the one in my left hand, and he happily oozed himself onto my gloved thumb and sucked on it until I dislodged them both (gently) in our flower bed. The whole thing was sort of disturbing.

Anyway, the great snail saga reminded me of a horror story by Patricia Highsmith about giant man-eating snails called “Quest for the Blank Claveringi” which you should all read at some point. The end. Goodnight.

Well, I never said it was as good as Jerry Spinelli.

One of the snails, at least, survived the great migration. We see it now and then happily sliming its way along the fence.

To me, post-rain evenings are filled with poetry. Everything’s fresh and clean and good-smelling. Life wakes up. Creatures stir. Even the sunsets are better. I’ve got several poem drafts in the making that were inspired by damp earth and wet sidewalks and colorful, cloud-scattered skies. But since those aren’t ready yet, I’ll end by sharing one that I wrote a few years ago, just after I moved into this house. It’s about the snails.

This poem was originally published in di-verse-city in 2011 and then reprinted in A Texas Garden of Verses in 2013. I hope you enjoy it.


Snail on pumpkin

Something I’ll Miss About My House on Ramsey

The snails
in their smooth spiral shells
the size of hazelnuts
that came out
after it rained

inching their way up
the glass door
sliding across the porch steps
leaving shiny trails
on the sidewalk

and the way I tippy-toed
to the garbage can
trying to avoid
that sickening

© Carie Juettner, 2010.