Margaret Atwood was hitting me over the head.
Well, not really hitting, like in her cameo in “The Handmaid’s Tale” television series, in which she smacks Elizabeth Moss in the head.
No, the subject of Margaret Atwood – not the actual Margaret Atwood — has been clubbing me for the last seven months. Here’s why:
- In January, the sign from the Women’s March: “Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again.”
- The profile in The New Yorker, describing Atwood as a “buoyant doomsayer,” recounting her penchant for reading palms, and explaining how, since she doesn’t drive, she often drags a cart loaded with used books through Toronto to donate to the library.
- The aforementioned, terrifying television series based on The Handmaid’s Tale.
- The copy of her Booker Prize-winning novel, The Blind Assassin, which was balanced on top of the growing pile on my nightstand, then cascaded onto the mound under my bed. I heard the Canadian novelist calling me through the mattress.
So when I went on vacation this summer, I took Atwood with me.
I started reading The Blind Assassin on my last day in Colorado, and it delayed our hike a bit because I had to finish a chapter. The story starts with the suicide of the protagonist’s sister, who drives off a bridge without slowing down, her white-gloved hands gripping the steering wheel. What would be a climax for any other writer is just the beginning for Atwood.
Since I’m trying to write fiction, after years of telling the truth as a journalist, I’m having to make stuff up. It’s hard going – I can turn a phrase and describe a scene, but plot? It proves elusive. Atwood is teaching me to read like a writer, and, I hope, write like a reader. Her plots – the hateful girls and their tormented protagonist in The Cat’s Eye, the dystopian, reproductively challenged theocracy in The Handmaid’s Tale, the nineteenth-century murder tale in Alias Grace – are masterful.
The Blind Assassin sounds complicated, but in Atwood’s deft hands, the reader spins along quickly in the book, flashing back and forth in time, into and out of the world of the science fiction novel within a novel. Iris, whose sister, husband and daughter all die untimely deaths, tells the story from her silver years, writing herself back in time to her privileged childhood and her young marriage to her father’s competitor to save the family fortune. But interspersed in Iris’s tale is her sister’s novel, about an illicit affair in which the man, to entertain the woman in bed with him, tells a story about a blind assassin and his lover, on a faraway, violence-torn planet.
About halfway through, this reader thought she had it figured out. Then, by two-thirds through, I had it figured out a different way. By the end, though, Margaret had blindsided me again, her plotting twists and turns slapping me around like I was the punk in the fight.
I marvel at her imagination, her structuring, the control that Ms. Atwood had over me. The Blind Assassin’s protagonist and narrator – writing her own story – explains:
The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.
Impossible of course.
I pay out my line, I pay out my line, this black thread I’m spinning across the page.
All the while the protagonist is teasing us, telling us half-truths and outright lies mixed in with reality. The voice, the plot, the book, they hit you like a ton of bricks.Thanks for schooling me, Professor Atwood. This writer – slightly more black and blue – will get back to work now.
Recently, the siblings went through the home we grew up in. It was time to move on, that is to say, pack it all up and send it in new directions – keepsakes and sales. It is a task I wasn’t quite prepared for, a lot of work, certainly, but also an un-anticipatable rite of passage. Mom’s recently gone and dad has moved into a new place, size-suitable for one and already a wonderful nest of books with him heart and center. It is decorated with a number of precious memories, artifacts of the place that was, the life that is, time unstuck as it moves on, backwards and forwards in the present moment.
The sibling task, as you might imagine, was full of stories. Every single object had history. Our individual histories, our parent’s history, the family history. The six of us latched on to things that particularly resonated with our own hindsight, collected things that in an instant can take us back to the special place that is the family, that is growing into the world, gaining a sense of being from within the nestle of love and care and the forward tromp of formative years. Some of these stories we shared out loud. Some we let resonate in the silence within us, awed and full of emotion.
About this time it just so happened that I had picked up John Berger’s book Here is Where We Meet from one of my own shelves to have another go at reading. Grabbed it from a store when it came out and, for some reason, didn’t settle into it. The narrator visits/re-visits places important to his life and within those places re-meets those now dead who were once key to his own being. “The dead don’t stay where they are buried,” says his long-dead mother as she meets up with him in Lisbon for the first chapter. Pertinent, this time I was bewitched. Towards that chapter’s conclusion, she says, “Do us the courtesy of noticing us.” I love how a book casually picked up can provide such a parallel framework to where one is off the page. It is a breathtaking magic. My world was full of notice waiting to be noticed.
There’s a fork my Mother gave me a few years before she died. It is something that charmed me from the first time I saw it. There’s a curve to its tines, shaped over the decades and generations by vigorous beating against the side of mixing bowls, its mettle not full up to the task. When young, it was the curve that struck me – how cool – and I took in the science of the story: friction, hardness, softness. [Many years later, Mom would give me a copy of the The Dalkey Archive (Flan O’Brien) and I was amused by the bicycle-stealing policeman who was only being protective of the citizenry – you see, he understood the danger of friction and the exchange of molecules, bike riders and bikes shedding themselves into each other; he wanted to protect people from becoming bicycles. Hard to explain in a referentially clear way without the book in hand. Track it down, it’s a good read and will start you thinking. The fork, for us, was a perfect illustration of how this crazy idea was a truth.]
Later on I came to understand using that fork was a way the generations could hold hands across time, the gone and the present meeting in the mixed handle of effort. I’ll take it out and use it once in a while, though these days it is mostly artifact and talisman. All I have to do is look at it to reach back and hold on.
Going through the homestead I grabbed the copy of Wilkie Collins’ Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, a Dover Paperback. It reminded me of those Dover catalogues we’d pour through once the mailman brought them to us (see how memory spills out of things?). Opening it, a note in one of the end pages reminded me I had given it to her as a Christmas present in 1984. It is one I hadn’t read, so I set to the task. By the looseness of the pages, it seems like it had been read a couple of times and that comforted me. It seemed a way to share the space and mind of this person now physically gone from the place of living, a way to hold on to a connective something and pass time together again. I imagined how she would have taken to the stories, thrilling in parts, tedious in others, ever so English and of their time throughout.
Books are on the way out, or so I hear. Maybe I’ll be one of the last to hang on to them, especially the keepsakes from the childhood home, the ones the parents once held up to their faces. For me, they are part mirror/window still reflecting/looking on that time and person, a way to reach out and hold on to what was and what is as we all pass through living and linger in the stories of our interconnected lives, a way of noticing and perpetuating each other.
Tim Singleton, board co-chair
A guest post by Kathy Stowe (HoCoPoLitSo’s Program Coordinator)
Searching for authors to take me through the rabbit hole into a new world has been an unending but rewarding task since I was old enough to walk the mile to the local library, the summer after third grade. When I saw the movie Winter’s Bone, I knew I had to seek out Daniel Woodrell. Rarely have I been so rewarded. Woodrell conveys in just a sentence an entire world, an unfamiliar but believable territory that exists somewhere frighteningly close. It’s Neil Gaiman without the alternative universe.
William Boyle, in a review of the recently released movie Tomato Red, also based on one of his novels, called Woodrell “the battle-hardened bard of meth county.” An apt description for a man described as a “lady stinger of a writer” by E. Annie Proulx on the book jacket review of Woodrell’s 1996 Give Us a Kiss: A Country Noir. Even the book’s title gives you a little shiver, conjuring up images of a perverted uncle. The lady stinger, a “little black thirty-two” tucked into a blue pillowcase that held his traveling clothes, accompanies Doyle Redmond on his family errand into the Ozarks to convince his older brother, Smokes, to turn himself into the law even though “us Redmonds have never been the sort of bloodline who’ll give up our kin easy to the penitentiary.”
In Give Us a Kiss, this particular Redmond, Doyle, has just one true love, “following his fantasies out and scribbling them down … telling stories … big wet whoppers” that “ … eventually … shade toward truth.” Having escaped the academic world in a stagnant pond-green Volvo listed on the hot sheets as yellow, Doyle has left behind the world of four published novels nobody much had read. He’s also left behind the Volvo’s owner, his two-timing wife who had “been in a frenzy to be a poet both revered and lusted after … . A hybrid of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Carolyn Forché, and Gypsy Rose Lee.”
A quick check reveals Woodrell lists four published novels, meaning another tendency of mine, rummaging about in favored authors’ lives, might get a satisfying scratch. Lists of books carried in a box along with the pillowcase of clothes and the lady stinger, and references to authors, music and Doyle’s own writing process offer possibly slightly veiled autobiographical insight into the rather reclusive, fascinating mind of Daniel Woodrell. I too take great joy in looking under rocks to imagine, examine and describe the “dashingly scuzzy dudes,” just for the joyride of it.
Oh, and as in other Woodrell novels, sex and the Dollys are involved. The newest novel released as a film, Tomato Red (2017), and Winter’s Bone (2010) also feature the Dollys, a legendary clan of criminal persuasion, another backwoods family tribe who aren’t nearest and dearest to the Redmonds. Sex in the form of Doyle’s attraction to Niagra, Smokes’ girlfriend’s (Big Annie) 19-year-old daughter who tells him, “I believe we got the makings of a dream that’ll burn mighty hot, Doyle, you’n me.”
Woodrell’s ability to transport the reader to another world includes transforming words to smells and taste. Squirrel meat soaked in buttermilk doesn’t make my mouth water until he describes the old Folger’s can of bacon grease, burger leavings and whatever “from a United Nations of edible critters” that Big Annie cooks it in.
Woodrell, an author who is “…not the type who can exclude people socially just because they operate under some bad habits,” creates a world of memorable characters. He describes a neighborhood where “Some old boy across the road and down a few houses kept up a racket trying to cut the grass of his entire yard with a Weedwhacker. He stopped and dragged an ice chest along behind him after every five or six paces of whacking.” His evokes a believable world with unbelievable skill. This post aimed to give the reader enough of a taste to want to check out one of our best American writers. Start with Give Us A Kiss … .
Recently, Tyehimba Jess posted an article on his Facebook that caught my attention. The TSA is starting to have people open up their carry on baggage and thumb through any books they might have brought along for the flight. The practice is being modeled in Missouri and California and expected to be expanded into airports across the country.
This idea struck me as problematic, not just because of the invasions of individual privacy – WHAT ARE YOU READING! WHY? – with the probing, but because, well, I tend to pack a lot of books.
Off to somewhere for a week? First, there are the travel books that detail things to see and do. I like the old Eyewitness series full of cut-away illustrations that point out picture perfect details. I’ll also pack a smaller, more efficient guide that shares the speedy info of top ten lists of Things To Do, or Eats, or Watering Holes. That’s mandatory. And maybe another kind because I like the way it’s written, you know, one of those with no pictures or just uninteresting line drawings, but sentences loaded with information. Maybe there’s a novel about the destination that I should have already read, or there’s some other work that’s just good travel writing on the locale. Except for the novel, this batch of must-have-along tomes is for the suitcase. Well, maybe not the smaller one, especially if it has a map to muse over through the flight.
Usually, when I am traveling I’ll take a book (or two) that I am just about to finish. Maybe I’ve saved the last stretch for just such an occasion. Maybe one of these books gets finished on the plane and the reading journey starts out on a high. One book down. These are perfect for the carry on. Maybe two. One down, reach for the next and you are done two books before landing. The vacation is already a success.
But I usually don’t jump right into the second almost-finished book in the air. My tactic is to start something new, get into it as the miles go by so that when the ground comes under my feet again, my mind is firmly settled into the read, ready to integrate it into the days and activities ahead. Since it is the beginning of the vaca, it will probably be something heady, something that will take a day or two to plunder, deep but maybe not quite out and out philosophy with frustratingly chewy sentences. Only enough to make me think, not work — this is vacation after all. The perfect book would be a tool to keep attention from when the wheels touch down through the bovine stand-still of disembarkation, however purposelessly long that might take. That’s three or four books so far. Not bad, certainly nothing too much to worry about.
I always have trouble deciding which books to pack in the suitcase, you know, the ones that will take me all the way through the length of the week. That’s five days worth of pages or maybe seven, depending on the trip. My mind says about twenty books should cover it. I’ve never read that many in a week and I never will, but I like to pack on the safe side. It gives me options.
Truth be told, I probably get out twenty books to take (the travel ones don’t count) and lay them out on the bed while I am packing. I will put a few back. Not really going to get to this one or that. A thousand pages? Who am I kidding? Certainly not me. Not this trip.
I’ll aim to get the suitcase load down to ten. Or eight. But then it might go back up when I remember poetry. Those volumes are thin and shouldn’t count as whole books, right?
Inevitably, I’ll finish the suitcase, having remembered clothes and toiletries at some point, zip it up, and start to wonder about my selection. If it didn’t zip up nicely, I might have to subtract a title or two, but I tend not to take books out of the suitcase once they are in, well, not usually. A week of clothing must factor in and, sigh, maybe some book gets saved for the next trip. If it strikes me that I have left out a particular subject, I’ll throw another book or two into the carry on. I need to be prepared.
Come time to board… actually, come time to go through this new security procedure, I may have seven or so books in the carry on, throw the Kindle on top. Maybe ten. Add a magazine. That should do it. (How many books am I traveling with overall? Don’t ask.)
What this all boils down to is an apology. If you find yourself late for a flight in the future and some jerk is holding up the security line, it might be me. I am so sorry. Inevitably, I’ll want to share all the reasons why each book was chosen with whoever it is that has been assigned to be curious about my reading. It might take a while. I like to gush. I like to ambassador reading. I’ll be talking to them about David Foster Wallace or James Baldwin or Mary Oliver or Zachary Lazar or the Nibelungenlied or….
Co-chair, HoCoPoLitSo Board
p.s. Packing for the return trip is slightly more problematic. You see, every destination has its own book stores.
One of the rites of Memorial Day Weekend is the opening of public and private pools. The weekend, while not an entrance into summer proper, does set us thinking forward to a more leisurely pace in the days ahead, the cheer of those at waterplay, and, if you are like me, of summer reading. Who doesn’t like an hour or so poolside with a good book?
But pools aren’t just fun, games, or the odd hour with a novel in proximity. They do need their maintenance and the start of the season has me thinking back a few years where I loved being the one to volunteer for the weekly tasks of skimming and filter cleaning the communal family pool at the in-laws. I’d look forward to the Saturday morning activity, put on my shorts and bare feet, plug in the iPod headphones, and head on over to the task where I could use the forty minutes or so to catch up on poetry podcasts. I had discovered the Poetry Foundation’s Poetry Lecture series, thinking a touch of lesson with my work wouldn’t be bad, and found this opportunity for dedicated listening time. It was perfect: an outside activity, knocking off a chore, getting smarter in the process. That there is summer for me.
So, with the odd peeper, dragonfly, or spicebush swallowtail for company, I’d get at the task with Elizabeth Bishop, Kwame Dawes, Simon Oritz, or Dunya Mikhail in my head. Wow, what a joy. The work was mindless: scooping crepe myrtle blossoms, half pink, half beginning to brown, from the surface of the water, emptying the scuppers of that soup of older blossoms and twigs and maybe the bloated last bit of a frog that left its voice behind in its invisible, but ever so loud kin, and the sweeping of other debris from around the pool to keep it from becoming next week’s filter stew: I’d fill my mind with these voices and their work and what others had to say about it. That’s how I discovered the brilliant Ilya Kaminsky, who at the time orchestrated the series, often himself in conversation with the featured writers. I’d look at the lacework of light on the pool’s surface and delight in the mixture of activity and education, musing on what I was hearing. I’d be in awe of the skill and wisdom of those I was listening to: Eavan Boland, Rita Dove, Gary Snyder, Gwendolyn Brooks….
When Les Murray bubbled up in the news a few years ago, I went looking for him and found this gem and bubbled it up poolside into my ears. I loved listening to stories about Frank O’Hara — did I almost fall in? yup — and, then, there is this series of international poets in conversation that is just marvelous, a window into another part of the world that only poets and their work can seem to provide – here’s an example, and another. I might have stopped and rested my arms on the broom handle not to miss a word of some of those. There were so many treasures to discover. One of my all time favorites is when I learned that Elizabeth Bishop in her college days was picked up by the police under the suspicion of solicitation. OK. Listen for yourself in the link above.
Find yourself a pleasant chore to do, one that might last forty minutes or an hour, put on some headphones, and invite these great conversations to join you. You won’t be disappointed and you’ll find you might even be looking forward to that chore the next time it comes round. Happy listening.
Board Co-chair, HoCoPoLitSo
If you have your own list of literary podcasts to listen to, add it below in the comments and I’ll catch up with them. Another favorite of mine is the New Yorker series where one writer introduces another writer’s short story which they then read to you.
If video is your thing, check out HoCoPoLitSo’s own work of recording writers in conversation on our YouTube Channel where you will find a growing collection of episodes of The Writing Life. Here’s E.Ethelbert Miller to tell you a little about that:
Like the moths that flit thickly around their outdoor lights in rural Virginia, the words must fly around Carrie Brown and John Gregory Brown’s house on the campus of Sweet Briar College. Because not only Carrie and John are writers, but so is their daughter Molly McCully Brown.
Family lore holds that a tiny Molly used to wake in the middle of the night and call for her mother or father because a poem was waiting and she couldn’t yet write well enough to capture it. And she had two parental examples of how to live an adult life: Catch those words swooping around and write them down.
Molly’s first book of poetry won the 2016 Lexi Rudnitsky Prize, and starting in September, she’ll work as the inaugural Jeff Baskins Fellow at the Oxford American magazine.
John Gregory and Carrie Brown are returning to Columbia, the town where their family story started, for a reading to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of this town. The pair of novelists met while working at the storied Columbia Flier, and then began their family and their careers as authors.
They’ll read together at an event June 4 at Slayton House that HoCoPoLitSo is calling “Of Stars and Hurricanes: Two Columbia Novelists Return.” Carrie Brown’s newest novel, The Stargazer’s Sister, centers on the life of eighteenth-century astronomer Caroline Herschel, while John Gregory Brown’s 2016 book A Thousand Miles from Nowhere follows a man fleeing the wreckage of his life in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Both authors’ main characters, while living in different centuries and countries, seek redemption, for a way to save themselves.
In her opening chapter, Carrie Brown writes that Caroline thinks “a girl was not taught anything that could save her in the larger world.” Desperate to escape an abusive mother and repressive poverty, Caroline is rescued by her elder brother, William Herschel, an astronomer who, with Caroline’s help, discovers Uranus and myriad comets. Carrie explains that the relationship of the siblings – in which Caroline so closely cares for her brother that she sometimes feeds him bits of bread and cheese while he keeps both hands and his eyes on the telescopes he manufactures – was “fertile material” for a novel.
The Boston Globe writes, “Carrie Brown takes up the real life saga of the Herschels and breathes fresh life into it in her lyrical and riveting new novel … .”
“Historical fiction fills in the spaces where history is silent,” Carrie explained at a recent reading in Baltimore. Carrie tells the Herschels’ story, massaging it into the arc of fiction, to “tell the other truth of their story.”
John Gregory Brown’s fiction is based in history – the horrible story of Hurricane Katrina – but is invented whole cloth. A former New Orleans professor loses his way, buys a store that becomes a gathering spot and exchange depot, then flees north ahead of the hurricane winds. “I am a wrecked ship,” the protagonist says in the novel. He winds up at a rural Virginia hotel owned by an East Indian widow, then discovers a community willing to lend him aid and an epic poem that might save his soul. The Boston Globe calls his book “…a tale of redemption that is both believably prosaic and incredibly, quietly moving … .”
The two novelists will read together and answer questions at this event, which also honors Ellen Conroy Kennedy, the founder and longtime executive director of HoCoPoLitSo, and her husband and longtime supporter and board member of HoCoPoLitSo, for their decades of contributions to Columbia’s cultural life.
For tickets, visit http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2725249.
For more information about Carrie Brown, visit http://authorcarriebrown.com/
For more information about John Gregory Brown, visit http://jgb.blog.sbc.edu/about/
For more information about Molly McCully Brown, visit https://mollymccullybrown.com/
— Susan Thornton Hobby
A Guest Post by Brandt Dirmeyer
Brandt Dirmeyer is an aspiring writer and poet who wants to use language to display the ecological relationship between people and place, with a focus on revealing individuals as parts of larger wholes. You can read this poem “You’re a Mad Cow” on FIVE:2:ONE and two other poems in his blog post for the Patapsco Heritage Greenway. Below is Brandt’s reflection on Tyehimba Jess’s reading at the 2017 Blackbird Poetry Festival.
On a warm April evening, I attended the main event of HoCoPoLitSo’s Blackbird Poetry Festival, which was a reading by the winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, Tyehimba Jess, from his newest book of poems, Olio, a collection of poems about miscellaneous African American performers who lived between the times of the Civil War and World War I. The crowd was in awe as Jess demonstrated that his poems could be read up and down, across, or in tangential patterns, which served to amplify our understanding about the personal depth of real people who played minstrel show caricatures in the 18th and 19th centuries.
As Jess read his poems about Millie and Christine, a pair of twins conjoined at the ribcage and pelvis, and Walker and Williams, famous minstrel comedians at the time, I couldn’t help but hear the voice of W.E.B. DuBois echo within my mind. During my undergraduate studies at Towson, I studied how DuBois’ concept of “double consciousness” manifested itself in Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man. In The Souls of Black Folk, DuBois wrote, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
Despite the hundred-plus year difference in time between when DuBois, Millie and Christine, and Walker and Williams were active, affective, and alive, I felt their connection to our current place. Listening to Jess speak, it was as if we had not only gone back in time to when Millie and Christine and Walker and Williams were heating up the stage with dance and song, but also into their minds to discover the multi-faceted exterior and interior forces that pressured them to dance and sing. I could feel DuBois’ words still alive as well, as there are similar exterior and interior forces currently at play in American society that find their origins in the time-periods of the minstrel show, the Gilded Age, and the Antebellum South.
In fact, we could go even further back in time. As soon as Captain John Smith sailed up the Chesapeake Bay looking for natural resources to exploit, these forces of subjugation, alienation, repression, misrepresentation, othering, and inequality that have been at play in human societies across the planet for thousands of years were once again amplified in the colonies of what was once called Turtle Island, now known as North America.
Millie and Christine were talented dancers and musicians who learned to harmonize with the piano and with their voices, understood five languages, and experienced the wider world while on international tours, even meeting Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace. Walker and Williams used their minstrel show to contest cultural ownership of racial representations to white audiences.
The poems written by Jess noted the feats of each pair, but they also asked us to look past their accomplishments and see the experiences and feelings that compelled them to swim upstream in such a torrential river. Either pair could have just as easily conformed to what society expected of them, floating with the current to save energy, but instead they used the minstrel show to simultaneously conform to the expectations of their audience, while separating themselves from other minstrel show acts by putting in effort to confront said expectations.
Like DuBois’ example of a black artisan (The Souls of Black Folk) who was conflicted between producing goods that reflect his personal perspective and producing goods that are marketable to the dominant society, Millie and Christine and Walker and Williams desired to balance themselves upon the fine line between having their performances watched and having their perspectives heard.
The characters in Jess’s poems used their work to subvert societal expectations while also playing the game that they were unfairly born into. Millie and Christine were pitied and Walker and Williams were laughed at by the audience, but they also wanted to be known for who they were. In his poetry, Jess gives these performers a humanitarian redemption by showcasing their individual inner psychological conflicts.
A blog post by Tara Hart, Co-Chair of HoCoPoLitso Board of Directors
Especially at this time, when the arts are so clearly at risk of losing national support, we are so grateful to live in a community composed of people who value what poet Marilyn Nelson calls “communal pondering” of meaning, who value spacious perspectives.
At the ninth annual Blackbird Poetry Festival, we were dazzled all day by the presence of two important master poets, E. Ethelbert Miller and Tyehimba Jess, who conducted student poetry workshops in the morning, charmed us over lunch, inspired a variety of eager new poets and poetry lovers in a free open reading of many voices, taped a TV interview for our show The Writing Life, and finally, after we squeezed them up into balls and rolled them towards overwhelming questions, we let them have a dinner break and catch their breath before Mr. Jess took the stage for the last time for the Nightbird Reading.
It was my honor to introduce Pulitzer Prize winning poet Tyehimba Jess to the Howard County community. Years ago, at one of the wonderful Dodge Poetry Festivals held bi-annually in New Jersey, Tim Singleton and I and several other HoCoPoLitSo board members did our usual reconnaissance to see who we thought we should invite for you. During one debriefing, I remember Tim saying, “Tyehimba Jess, Tyehimba Jess!” and I said “Yes! I saw him too, he’s amazing. And his name sounds like a song, or a prayer.” And then when we finally did connect with Mr. Jess and he accepted our invitation to come, he said, “HoCoPoLitSo! It sounds like a dance!” So I think this music Jess and HoCoPoLitSo made that evening at Nightbird Reading was meant to be.
Tyehimba Jess is the author of two award-winning books Leadbelly and Olio, and their significance and groundbreaking nature are difficult to convey sufficiently. Olio, the collection of first generation freed voices from the post-Civil War era to World War I does, as those at Found Poetry Review said, “distract you from your preconceived notions about what poetry can be, what it can do, and, ultimately, what you think you know. More than a book (and many reviewers have commented at length about what a fantastic object the book is), Olio is an extended performance, a musical score, and an epic libretto…”
Olio is made up of poems that Mr. Jess directly invites us to read in our own way and in any order (you can read the lines straight across the page, or up one side and down the other). “Weave your own chosen way among these voices,” Jess invites. There are even instructions for turning some of the pages into a sort origami that allow you to make the poems and their meanings three-dimensional. You’ll find interviews, historical documents, lists, and hymns. He faces the chaos of truth, and of our own fickle, diverse, various ways of seeing and not-seeing, and makes it all sing. Truly it is both deconstructive, giving voices back to the silenced, the misunderstood, the invisible, the abducted and it is creative – weaving them back together into patterns and inviting the reader to weave them back in ways that they choose.
There are even other ways to read the poems – I think they also tell the story of what the poet himself is achieving. Even as the poet breathes life into these people from the past, his words illuminate the impact of his own art. I’m using his words now: They “show the world the gut meaning of grace.” They are “a hurricane of back and forth notes.” They are “the sound of one mallet against history’s pale fist.” They say, “listen to how we’re bound in unison, this is our story I want you to hear.”
In his poems, boxes and trunks packed long ago are opened up, and what we find makes us question everything we thought we knew.
In the collection Leadbelly, the poems ask, “how to weed graveyard from his garden of tongue? What rainbow of prayer to pull between teeth?” They ask how we might find “a place where I can dream drought into rain, pray storm cloud out of spotless sky” or find the hope that “our wondrous oneness exists”? They speak in the voices of women as well as men, and in the voices of the objects we tie our meaning to, like guitars, or streets.
Overall, I agree with Brigit Pegeen Kelly that “It is exhilarating to be invited into a world so large and muscular, so rooted in history, a world where so much is at stake.”
And, finally I must say that the work of Mr. Jess, as well as the Poetry Out Loud program itself, are the two best arguments I know of for sustaining the National Endowment of the Arts, if these tremendous artists and their work are the result of that small investment.
In this this month’s “What are you reading?” HoCoPoLitSo’s Board Member Kathy Larsen tells us about The Gentleman from Moscow by Amor Towels.
Although The Gentleman from Moscow by Amor Towles could be a quick read, it is so beautifully written that I chose to savor it.
The novel opens in 1922 Moscow with an interrogation between Count Rostov and a Bolshevik charged with sending aristocrats to the firing squad. Expecting to die, the Count gives flippant answers. Asked if he had written a poem seen as a “call to action” prior to the Russian Revolution, the Count replies that the poem was attributed to him. Surprisingly, his life is spared. Instead, he is exiled to the Metropole Hotel and shifted from his suite above the Bolshoi to what used to be the servants’ quarters in the attic.
With the interactions among these characters working and living in the hotel, the author builds a community of hope and friendship amidst a world of fear. The Count, always charming and always observant, befriends a small girl who teaches him the terrain of the hotel. He’s kept informed by the concierge stationed at the door and kept sane by the rooftop beekeeper. He is also challenged by his nemesis, a boorish waiter who becomes the Communist enforcer.
Subtle changes in the Count’s situation reflect the changes in the greater Russian world during the 1920s and on. As Communism solidifies, the Count’s elitism and knowledge are discounted, even condemned. But when Stalin takes over and Russia returns to the world stage, the Count is asked to teach table manners to a potential ambassador.
Despite the turmoil, the love that Russians have for their homeland vibrates through the novel.
by Kathy Larsen
HoCoPoLitSo’s Board Member
I am trying to remember those first attempts. They had to be failures. Probably middle school home economics class where the disaster was no fault of the effort, but – and I can still taste this clearly – a bad ingredient from the classroom cabinet that had been there who knows how long before we read the recipe and reached for it. Bleck. Fortunately, we were graded on the effort and not the ingredient.
That probably wasn’t the first time I cooked, or helped out in a kitchen, but it probably was the first time I took a recipe, printed words on a page, read it and followed its instruction in an attempt to cook something into being. I wasn’t in on the secret then, but it wouldn’t have been long before I was smitten with the practice: cooking is an act of reading.
I would have first learned how to cook standing by my mother’s side, watching and helping here and there, marveling at what came out of her mind and hands. She knew her way along. Or so it seemed to me at the time. I now know there was a box of index cards in a container on the fridge top, and, of course, a book case along the wall that grew from time to time as a new series subscription began, expanding the family menu beyond the basics.
It is probably there that something really took hold, that bookcase and the words it held. I can remember Saturday afternoons, probably winter and gray with not much to do: I’d open the pages of one of the books in the Time Life series Foods Of The World and dig in.
Spellbound, I was traveling. I was delving into cultures. I was imagining creations and thinking they were just a listing of words away from appearing in the very room I was in. Actually, at first I was probably just looking at the pictures and wholly captivated, whether it was in consideration of a beautiful landscape from a far away place, a joyous collection of people being who they were wherever it was they lived, a collection of ingredients from what seemed like it had to have been another planet, not a part of the world I lived in (decades on, the grocery stores have caught up), and, of course, the food exactingly prepared and brightly photographed, though, looking back, nothing compared to the food porn poses of many a modern day Instagram account. I was smitten indeed. Eventually, probably after a year or two or three of drooling over images, maybe after having started to work in a local restaurant as a day cook, I reached for the picture book’s companion recipe volume and had a go. Such reading has been a life long endeavor since.
These days, I reach less for those quaint Time Life books, though there are recipes still in the repertoire (and, I’ll admit, they also take me time traveling back to childhood and the family kitchen, or at least lazy, dreamy Saturday afternoons). Over the years, they have given me the confidence and the inclination to pick up cookbooks and have a go at whatever I am looking at. My work in the kitchen won’t be masterly, but it often is enough to have taken words on a page and turned it into bright and happy taste.
Lately, I am enjoying reading and bringing to life the words of the Thug Kitchen series, and I want to make every recipe in Ottolenghi’s Plenty, a gift received from a friend after a visit – I’ll have perfected a few things for the next time they drop by. Moosewood’s books are go to favorites – I remember going to their restaurant once, ordering something and then, after that first taste, exclaiming too loudly, “I made this!” as if I had made that particular batch. At least that was the look on the faces of those around me. I had to explain that I had made the recipe before and it tasted as right proper from my hands as from the Moosewood kitchen itself.
There is nothing like a favorite restaurant’s cookbook, especially if the restaurant exists out of town: I have both the Vedge and Vstreet books as well as Zahav’s. Both bring tastes from far away to the kitchen table. There’s a cookie recipe from one of Emeril’s books that I have made a hundred times. I am not good at cakes, yet. Perhaps I need to start reading more dessert.
Some of my mother’s cookbooks have made it to my collection. They are cherished, though I am reading them differently than I once did. While there’s the personal nostalgia of the Time Life ones and the connection to my mother throughout, there are books in the collection I wasn’t as clued into at the time, particularly the ones generated by the women’s magazines of the day. They gave us some of the everyday recipes, more easy, economic fuel than edible taste, like tuna casserole — I would have never learned to love reading recipes into being had I started there. They also share a window on the culture in America back not that long ago, sexism and racism steaming off the pages in places. But that is a subject for a future post. For now, go grab yourself a cookbook and feast your eyes.