a blog post by Laura Yoo
When I was growing up or even when I went to college and graduate school to study literature, I did not have exposure or access to Asian or Asian-American writers, thinkers, or scholars. My literary repertoire was almost exclusively white British and American writers. My area of focus was the 18th century British novel.
In graduate school, I started taking courses in African-American literature, so my education in race came through writers like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and James Baldwin. Later, I turned to contemporary writers like Tyehimba Jess, Claudia Rankine, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. These powerful voices of African-American writers were my introduction to thinking through my own racial identity, about being a person of color in America.
Maybe it was the getting-older and becoming more aware of my identity and my place in the world, but I realized that I wanted a more focused, specialized language to think about being Asian in America – our history, culture, and language. Of course there is diversity in Asianness, for “Asian” is not homogeneous. And so my reading list has been drilling down to more specific voices: from Asian-American, to Korean-American, to Korean-American women. I am craving voices that sound as much like me as possible.
Meeting poet Marilyn Chin changed everything for me. I saw her read on that big NJPAC stage at the Dodge Poetry Festival in 2017 and met her at the Blackbird Poetry Festival at Howard Community College in 2018. Her poetry and my conversations with her (yes, I had conversations with her – that’s right – and she called me “my sister!” and hugged me) opened my ears to that Asian-American literary voice that I didn’t know I craved. I said to my friend after meeting Chin: “She’s so brazenly Asian-American.” I had never read literature like Ms. Chin’s Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen. Like, what? Who gave you permission to write like this? She did, of course. She gave herself permission and she did it. And her poetry dared me to be Asian too.
More recently, I came across another writer who is brazenly Asian in her writing: Cathy Park Hong. Her book, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, is like nothing I have ever read. In this book, she covers a lot of different topics from history, art, cultural commentary, gender, language, poetry, friendship, family, and love – all through a perspective and voice that are brazenly Asian. Some of it so Korean. It seems like the book is written for me and to me. Hong’s book explains to me why I’m drawn to African American literature, why I feel so hyper-visible and invisible at the same time, why I’m connected to Korea though I haven’t set foot in that country since 1989, and why I feel the way I do toward my mother. As Hong asks, “Does an Asian American narrative always have to return to the mother?” Apparently so.
Hong says, at the end of Minor Feelings, “I want to destroy the universal. I want to rip it down.” And this explains why I want to read books about my people. I’m now reading to learn about myself, not just about how other people live or what other people think. I want to read writers who know me, my family, my language, and my experiences as a Korean and an Asian-American. I want to read works that reflect back to me who I am. I want to read books that explain to me things that happened to me and are happening to me. Specifically.
Ned Balbo and Jane Satterfield are the feature writers at the May Wilde Readings, a monthly community open mic supported by HoCoPoLitSo. Join Ned and Jane as well as other open mic readers for a free, virtual reading on Tuesday, May 11th at 7:00 pm. Register here. Get to know Ned and Jane with our Six Questions.
Q: Who is the person in your life (past or present) that shows up most often in your writing?
Ned: I haven’t counted, but Betty & Carmine, my adoptive parents, have racked up quite a few appearances… as have my birth parents, Elaine (Betty’s much-younger sister) & her belated husband Don.
Jane: It would be interesting to take an inventory… my parents (and their parents) show up in my recent book, Apocalypse Mix, in the context of poems about war’s generational impact on soldiers and civilians, and I’m pretty sure that the presence of other women writers and artists—present and past—is strong.
Q: Where is your favorite place to write?
Ned: My home office where files, books, knick-knacks, Golden Guides, drafts & memorabilia are all in easy reach & my lap is available to Wyatt, our affectionate polydactyl cat.
Jane: My second-floor study has plenty of books within reach; I work near a window that offers the welcome distractions of suburban wildlife—the crows, foxes, squirrels, and assorted birds that sometimes make their way into poems.
Q: Do you have consistent pre-writing rituals?
Ned: Nothing consistent. Sometimes I wander the Internet: musing on pop culture trivia that’s crossed my path while thinking about the poem I’m working on, or gathering background information in PDF form for research purposes. Lately, if I’m in the mood for music, I’ll call up Eno via iTunes (Ambient 1, Harold Budd collaborations, Thursday Afternoon, Neroli, Compact Forest Proposal), Sufjan Stevens’ Planetarium, or maybe Andrew Bird’s Echolocations.
Jane: Music and meditation are often helpful, but I don’t have any consistent pre-writing routines. I am, however, a notebook fanatic—I like to collect images, ideas, research notes, opening lines so I never have to face a blank page.
Q: Who always gets the first read?
Ned: Jane. She has a way of just asking questions gently that point me in the right direction if a poem isn’t quite right. I also listen for the degree of enthusiasm she conveys in her always supportive way. If it’s less than I’d like, I know I have more work to do.
Jane: Ned. He has a perfect ear for the soundscape of a poem and asks all the right questions that encourage me to return to the page. I’m lucky beyond belief that his listening also turns my attention to subjects I’ve overlooked, written off, or avoided…
Q: What is a book you’ve read twice and would read again?
Ned: Prose – Jane Austen, Mansfield Park; Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Poetry – Denis Johnson, The Incognito Lounge; Elizabeth Spires, Globe; Andrew Hudgins, Saints & Strangers; Tracy K. Smith, Life on Mars.
Jane: I’ve cracked the spine of copies of Plath’s Ariel, Shapcott’s Her Book, and Levis’ Winter Stars. I’ll probably do the same with recent favorites like Erika Meitner’s Holy Moly Carry Me and Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Oceanic. I’ve revisited Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway more summers than I can count.
Q: What is the most memorable reading you’ve attended?
Ned: A.E. Stallings at Loyola University Maryland in 2019: not only was she gracious & her poems brilliant but she shared extensive footage, photos & anecdotes on her work in support of Syrian refugee families who’ve fled to Athens, Greece (where Stallings lives) – their children especially, whose poems & artwork reflect both hardship & hope.
Jane: I attended a Simon Armitage reading in a pub in Huddersfield back in 1994 that had all the fabulous energy of a football match — Armitage recited his poems and, since Huddersfield is his hometown, there was a palpable sense of poetry’s connection to the community. Several years ago, I hosted Paisley Rekdal in Loyola’s Modern Masters Series the day Guggenheim winners were announced. Paisley read a sequence of Mae West poems that would later appear in Imaginary Vessels — an amazing mini-seminar in the sonnet.
HoCoPoLitSo and the Bauder Writer-in-Residence, poet Steven Leyva, will add a little lyricism to the Howard County Library System’s summer reading kickoff.
On Wednesday, June 23, 1 to 2 p.m. Leyva, an award-winning poet and professor, will offer a writing workshop and pep talk, The Poetics of Anime and Transformation.
Like the way Goku reinvents himself to save the day in Dragon Ball Z, or how Studio Ghibli turns out inventive, true-to-life but also bizarro anime? Learn how the techniques of anime – invention, creativity, and transformation—can ignite your writer’s imagination.
Anime enthusiast (his children are named after Naruto characters, so he’s all-in) Leyva wants people to see poetry as an experience to be had, like watching anime, not a riddle to be solved.
Besides his anime and manga fan status, Leyva is also an award-winning poet, an assistant professor at the University of Baltimore, and a former English teacher in Baltimore City public schools. His newest book, The Understudy’s Handbook, was chosen as the winner of the 2020 Jean Feldman Poetry Award by Washington Writers’ Publishing House.
Register in advance to receive the link to the virtual workshop.
blog post by Laura Yoo
About one month before the publication of Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic in 2019, The New Yorker published a multimedia poetry project with a selection of poems from Kaminsky’s collection. This wonderful project by The New Yorker, with an introduction by poet Kevin Young, pushes the boundaries of alphabetic text on paper and creates a “reading” experience that is textual, visual, and auditory. Deaf Republic is so much about language and communication, about seeing and witnessing, and about sound and silence; and this project offers a multi-faceted way of interacting with Kaminsky’s poetry.
First, you can hear an audio of Kaminsky’s reading of each poem, starting with “Dramatis Personae,” which introduces the cast of characters of Deaf Republic. (You can listen to and watch Ilya Kaminsky’s live reading at the Blackbird Poetry Festival on April 29th!)
Second, this multimedia poetry project includes a set of moving illustrations that represent signing. At the very top of the webpage, we see two hands in bluish purple color. The index finger of one hand is pointing at the open palm of the other hand. This illustration represents “match.” In Deaf Republic, this sign for “match” accompanies two poems.
In “Arrival”: “In the nursery, quiet hisses like a match dropped in water.”
In “Theatre Nights”: “In the center of the stage Momma Galya strikes a match.”
As we scroll The New Yorker webpage, we see other movements that represent “town,” “the town watches,” “army convoy,” “hide,” and “story”. Some of these signs are based on various sign languages while “Other signs might have been made up by citizens, as they tried to create a language not known to authorities” (Deaf Republic).
Miwon Yoon is the artist who created the moving illustrations for The New Yorker, based on original drawings by Jennifer Whitten. (Read our interview with Jennifer Whitten here.) HoCoPoLitSo reached out to Miwon, an artist in Korea, to share with us about her work for this project.
Miwon says she she still hesitates at being called an “artist” for it’s a hard term to define, but she began imagining her life as a “self-employed artist” ever since she was in art school. She feels lucky that she can make a living doing her art. You can find two collections of her art – “everyday repetition” and “window collector” – on her website. Here’s what she had to say about her art and about working with Deaf Republic for The New Yorker.
How would you describe your art?
I explore how image works between moving and still. Looped animation explores how the viewer spectates the image as a moving or still image. It has movements but time doesn’t flow. It comes back in a few seconds so the viewers are more free than when watching non-looped moving images. Recently I collected windows or created imaginary windows, with the window frame capturing space and certain time. Capturing the moment but at the same time the scene remains in its movement.
What was your approach to creating the animations for Deaf Republic which are based on Jennifer Whitten’s drawings?
I tried to include a surreal part in the movement, little movement that cannot exist in real life, like flesh stretching or flame rising shapes. But at the same time I was asked not to go too conceptual and to be figurative because it had to look like sign language.
How do you think your animations contribute to the meaning of the poems?
Written words give you the possibility to imagine your own picture in your head (which I love about writing), but giving a certain image with words sometimes helps you narrow down from your imaginary thoughts from getting too big and hard to control. At the same time I never wanted to destroy the ambiguity of words, so that is why I created movements that cannot exist in the real world. When the movement is surreal, you can keep the image as an unfamiliar experience rather than connecting to a certain memory of your own.
I love your series of moving images titled “#everydayrepetition 사건아닌사건” which is similar to the style of the signs in The New Yorker article. Can you tell us more about that collection?
Yes, I think the art director for The New Yorker project commissioned me after seeing those animations. I make animation with looped movement based on daily routines that you have to repeat endlessly. When I was staying abroad outside Korea, taking shoes on and off every time I hopped in bed or took a shower got me into compulsive thinking. It seemed like movement that has to be done unconsciously has become such a big incident. I started making those incidents as looped animation as a way of reducing the stress from it.
blog post by Laura Yoo
Ilya Kaminksy’s poetry collection Deaf Republic (2019) is a book that should be studied from cover to cover. Start with the brick wall of an ear against the black and white background. On the very first page inside, read the praises for Deaf Republic. Back of the inside cover page – note the names of all the artists who contributed to the book: the cover designer, the cover artist, and the artist of the interior illustrations. Read the “Notes” at the end of the book for the poet’s comments on signs and silence. Read the “Acknowledgements” page for the poet’s dedication of certain poems for fellow poets like Jericho Brown, Brian Turner, and Patricia Smith. You can see that it took a village.
Turn to the back cover: “What happens when the citizens of a country no longer hear one another?”
Deaf Republic tells the story of a town that goes deaf in the face of brutality and oppression, and the collection includes drawings of hands that represent signing. The first image is a sign for “town” – two hands held up facing each other, tips of fingers touching, making a tent-like shape. Later, we see signs for “town watches”, “army convoy,” “hide,” “match,” “curtain,” “the town watches,” “story,” “kiss,” “be good,” “earth,” and “the crowd watches.” At the end of the book, the poet writes that the “In Vasenka, the townspeople invented their own sign language. Some of the signs are derived from various traditions (Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, American Sign Language, etc.) Other signs might have been made up by citizens, as they tried to create a language not known to authorities.”
In appreciation for the visual art of Deaf Republic, HoCoPoLitSo invited Jennifer Whitten, the artist responsible for the hand drawings in the collection, to share her experience of working with Ilya Kaminsky and his poetry as well as her vision for the project. We invite you to visit Jennifer’s Instagram page for examples of her art and to take a look at the videos of Jennifer at work (at the end of this article).
For those who are new to your art, how would you explain your aesthetic?
I began my career as a student of medicine, and though I made the difficult decision to pursue my passion for art over what many called the ‘sensible’ path of a doctor, science still colors my aesthetic. I’ve been called a hyperrealist painter, but my dogged attention to detail has very little to do with a metric for skill; after a great deal of reflection, I realized that my meticulousness was my response to a chaotic and troubled upbringing, one riddled with tragic death and loss. In this sense, I relate very deeply to Deaf Republic, insomuch that it serves, as a work of art, to process the past, and, to connect with others, even if their experiences aren’t facsimiles of our own. When you’re entranced by the process, you can tune out the external cacophony over which you have no control. So I make that process as difficult and all-consuming as possible; to make a reverse glass painting, not only do you have to contend with an incredibly slick and disobedient surface, the image is painted both backwards, and flipped. I first discovered reverse-glass painting in a private collection in Lake Como; while teaching myself the process, I grappled for information, anything that could help me navigate such difficult and uncharted territory, but learned that there are only a handful of other people in the world mad enough to take it on and they aren’t very vocal about their methods. Treading water in the deep-end left me a little more open to error and exploration than I had ever been before, which led to more ambitious installations and the incorporation of 3D, even 4D (time-based) media, like live music and video, into the 2D medium of painting. I think this experience prepped me in how to understand sign language illustrations as 2D representations of a 4D gesture.
How did you come to do the artwork for Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic? Can you tell us about the process of working with the poet and/or the poetry?
In 2017, I did a residency at the Vermont Studio Center. VSC has a unique advantage in that they bring in established writers and artists to offer the residents mentorship. Enter Ilya Kaminsky. The whole cohort was buzzing with talk of him and I confess that at that stage, I didn’t know who he was. But boy, did I find out, crammed into a main hall packed with people eagerly awaiting his reading. How can I describe what it was like to hear Ilya read, other than to say it was like keening, preaching and crooning all at once? The room was riveted, people were in tears. I only realized that I wasn’t breathing when he paused. And then, it was like the séance ended and the medium was back to his smiling, affable self. At some point during the week, VSC conducted Open Studio, where we would wander through each other’s workspaces to reflect on what we’d made so far; Ilya and his agent joined in. The next day, in the lunch line, he approached me and said he’d been quite taken with what he’d seen in my studio and asked if I’d be interested in collaborating, in illustrating his upcoming book of poetry. I was so flabbergasted, I nearly dropped my tray, while somehow managing to blurt out a resounding ‘yes’.
What was your approach to creating the drawings for Deaf Republic? Are the drawings a representation of American Sign Language or another sign language?
What Ilya had seen during Open Studio that night were the line drawings I do in preparation for the paintings on glass […]; although minimal and unfinished, these lines were the aesthetic Ilya had had in mind. From what I gather, some of the signs are actually ASL (I recognized “Kiss” for example), while others were invented by Ilya. It was a challenge to distil my usual aesthetic, turning what normally serves as preparatory into a finished work (people often misinterpret simplicity for ease, but distillation is difficult!). The reference images provided to me were very sparse, so I relied on verbal descriptions for guidance—luckily, Ilya is a poet (and a damn good one)! This highlighted the intersection between the verbal and the visual for me. There was a bit of back and forth, particularly with “Hide”, where Ilya asked me to conceal the thumb behind the fingers a bit more, as though it were hiding. This made me hyper-aware of how creatively illustrative sign language can be. I saw my hands in a new light, anthropomorphized. To use my own as reference was so meaningful and it’s an honor to literally have had a hand in Ilya’s masterpiece. To form the signs with my fingers as I read meant that I wasn’t a passive reader, but rather one actively and corporeally engaged.
How do you think your drawings contribute to the meaning of the poems?
In Ilya’s words to me, “the image and the narrative are so connected, their moods often depending on each other”; it was important to me to capture the simultaneous blunt force and tender intimacy of Ilya’s poetry visually. Again, in Ilya’s words, “the lines [in your drawings] create their own continuum among the signs, how they present themselves eloquently, assertively, yet intimately.” Hearing readers are conditioned to associate the written word with sound, which is a part of language that is inaccessible and therefore meaningless/superfluous to a Deaf or Hard of Hearing individual. The written word was originally created as a representation of linguistic sound; my illustrations serve to question that automatic association in Hearing readers. I hope that my images reinforce what poetry, what sign language do in their own right, which is to remind readers that the written word has a visual component, both in terms of its morphology, but also in terms of its placement on a page and the negative space with which it interacts (I see a strong link in the way in which the naked glass in my painted works relate to the negative space on Ilya’s pages, both communicating absence, loss and silence). Blocks of text in prose do not use the visual aspect of language to drive the narrative—not in the way poetry can, or illustration can. The creativity behind sign language compels us to linger on individual words, the visual asking us to pause and consider what a word means at its core. Which is what poetry does. It’s a beautiful experience, like knowing that the German word for “lightbulb” is “glow pear”.
On your Instagram page, I love the astrology series, which are hand-painted backwards on glass. (I’m an Aries, and the image of the ram is stunning!) Can you tell us more about that collection?
The Zodiac series has a bit in common with the images I did for Deaf Republic, in that both have semiotics at their core. But honestly, it began as a break from the scholastic, theory-laden vantage point I’d developed during my Masters program. I just wanted to reconnect with paint itself, to relish in the feel of it sliding over glass and in the satisfaction of creating the illusion of a variety of textures using only black and white. Working with the imagery of the Zodiac let me indulge in the exquisite differences between wool and scales, tentacles and horn, a butterfly’s wings and a crab’s claws. However, given the fact that a painting takes me not hours, but months to complete, I found myself, before long, listening to scholarly podcasts about astrology while at the easel. Some of my favorites were about Jung and archetype and I learned that astrology itself is a language, a system of intricate geometry and symbol.
Moreover, I realized that this incredibly rich, cultural mine has been largely left out of art historical discourse and scholarship, despite its prominence, and has been entirely rejected by the Science it originated. This is something astrology has the misfortune of sharing with glass painting, which, though once esteemed enough to be considered holy, devolved into a decorative/utilitarian craft over time. Though I hadn’t taken the Zodiac seriously at the outset, I’ve since been thoroughly moved by how it has captured the imaginations of civilizations all over the world and by how it’s a way for human beings to systematically apply meaning to the patterns we seek and find in chaos.
This is something that the Zodiac shares with language and music as well (how humans are able to apply pattern to random sounds and call it musical); my Zodiac paintings are part of a larger installation for which I developed an algorithm to translate the Zodiacal constellations (upon which the animals are based) into notes for cello. As a whole, it’s a translation from literal to abstract and calls attention to the impulse to do this, which is uniquely human.
We are profoundly saddened and outraged by the recent violence against Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) people and by the ongoing systemic lack of accountability. We stand in solidarity with all those seeking to create long-lasting change in our communities.
HoCoPoLitSo was founded to celebrate diverse literary heritages and to foster literary appreciation in diverse populations, including varying gender, ethnic and cultural identities, age groups, and income levels. We believe that opening a book, reading a poem, or attending a literary event can be a powerful humanistic journey of exploration, education, and enlightenment.
To this end, over the years HoCoPoLitSo has hosted an inclusive list of authors, and our video series reflects that diversity. We are committed to the ongoing collaborative process of inclusion. As a way to address, extend, and deepen these crucial conversations about the AAPI experience, audiences can watch featured authors reading their work, with introductions by local actors.
Poetry Moment and Writing Life videos by HoCoPoLitSo include:
Though this list is not exhaustive, HoCoPoLitSo also recommends these works by AAPI writers. Look for these titles on Bookshop.org to support independent booksellers around the country.
- Go Home! edited by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan
- Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Asian American Writers edited by Frank Chin, Jeffrey Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada and Shawn Wong
- We Gon’ Be Alright by Jeff Chang
- How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee
- All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung
- Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong
- The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East West Culture Gap by Gish Jen
- The Magical Language of Others by EJ Koh
- The Making of Asian America by Erika Lee
- Fairest by Meredith Talusan
- Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White by Frank H. Wu
- Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner
- White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
- The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata by Gina Apostol
- Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha
- Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang
- Edinburgh by Alexander Chee
- The Resisters by Gish Jen
- East Goes West by Younghill Kang
- The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories by Caroline Kim
- The Interpreter by Suki Kim
- The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
- Drifting House by Krys Lee
- Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
- Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by Yiyun Li
- Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
- The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
- No No Boy by John Okada
- The God of Small Things by Arundati Roy
- The Death of Vishnu by Manil Suri
- On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
- Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang
- Pilgrim Bell: Poems by Kaveh Akbar
- The Twenty-Ninth Year by Hala Alyan
- Hybrida by Tina Chang
- Obit by Victoria Chang
- A Portrait of the Self as a Nation by Marilyn Chin
- DMZ Colony by Don Mee Choi
- Soft Science by Franny Choi
- Bodega: Poems by Su Hwang
- A Lesser Love: Poems by EJ Koh
- The Last Incantation by David Mura
- Lucky Fish by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
- Nightingale by Paisley Rekdal
- 3 Sections by Vijay Seshandri
- A Nail the Evening Hangs On by Monica Sok
- Peach State: Poems by Adrienne Su
- A Cruelty Special to Our Species by Emily Jungmin Yoon
HoCoPoLitSo and Howard Community College Present
The Thirteenth Annual Blackbird Poetry Festival
Russian-born poet Ilya Kaminsky headlines the Blackbird Poetry Festival to be held virtually on April 29, 2021. The festival is a day devoted to verse, with student workshops, readings, and HCC Poetry Ambassadors on social media.
The Sunbird Reading features Kaminsky, Teri Ellen Cross Davis, local authors, and Howard Community College faculty and students. This free daytime event starts at 2:30 p.m., with registration required — click here to register.
The Nightbird program, hosted on Zoom, begins with a pre-show at 7:20 p.m. Presented live, the evening features an introduction by Cross Davis, a reading by Kaminsky, and an audience question and answer session. A link to the online event will be emailed to ticketholders. Nightbird tickets, $15, are available on-line. If you need help with your order, the Horowitz Center Box Office (443.518.1500) has limited phone hours to answer your questions.
Kaminsky, hard of hearing since the age of four, is the author of Deaf Republic, a 2019 National Book Award finalist. In Poets & Writers Magazine, Garth Greenwell wrote “Deaf Republic is a dramatic masterwork, a parable-in-poems that confronts the darkness of war and terror with the blazing light of ‘a poet in love with the world.’ ” The BBC selected Kaminsky as “one of the 12 artists that changed the world” in 2019. Kaminsky is also an editor, translator, and professor at Georgia Tech, where he holds the Bourne Chair in Poetry.
Kaminsky authored an earlier poetry collection, Dancing In Odessa (Tupelo Press, 2004). Shortly after the release of that collection, Kaminsky won the Whiting Award and a Lannan Literary Fellowship. Carolyn Forché noted he was “more than a promising young poet; he is a poet of promise fulfilled. I am in awe of his gifts.”
Teri Ellen Cross Davis is the author of a more perfect Union (The 2019 Journal Charles B. Wheeler Poetry Prize) and Haint (2017 Ohioana Poetry Award). She is the 2020 Poetry Society of America’s Robert H. Winner Memorial Prize winner and the poetry coordinator for the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.
a blog post by Susan Thornton Hobby
Have lunch with the poets,
the library, and HoCoPoLitSo
during National Poetry Month
“I don’t write out of what I know; I write out of what I wonder. I think most artists create art in order to explore, not to give the answers. Poetry and art are not about answers to me: they are about questions.” — Lucille Clifton
Lots of people think they need to know what a poem means. Sometimes professors and experts dissect a poem so much that a poem dies before we allow it to live. But what if a poem was written not to answer questions, but to ask them?
Lucille Clifton, a National Book Award-winning poet, wrote from her home office in a townhouse in Columbia for decades until her death in 2010. And she never stopped asking questions with her poetry.
Soon after the Howard County Central Library opened in 1981, Clifton read her poetry with three other amazing poets, William Stafford, Roland Flint, and current Maryland Poet Laureate Grace Cavalieri. HoCoPoLitSo brought those poets and library patrons together forty years ago, and we’re still collaborating today.
Join HoCoPoLitSo and the library for their newest program, a lunch break of poetry every Tuesday in April.
The “Po” in HoCoPoLitSo stands for Poetry (the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society). But sometimes, when we talk about poetry, people’s eyes glaze over. Occasionally (or more often …) poetry just seems impenetrable.
But it doesn’t have to be. Clifton’s poetry is accessible, understood at a first reading, with meaning that grows deeper at second or third reading, prompting those questions that bring readers to her poetry over and over again.
Once we’ve hooked you with Clifton’s work, we have plenty of other ideas of where to start with poetry. Perhaps with Amanda Gorman’s performance at President Joe Biden’s inauguration and at the Super Bowl, more people are intrigued about poetry, but don’t really know where to go for good poetry beyond inspirational quotes on Instagram. We’ve got your poetry questions covered.
The library and HoCoPoLitSo have partnered for forty years to bring poetry and literature to Howard County audiences. Over those decades, we have together sponsored movies about Gwendolyn Brooks and Seamus Heaney, organized readings by poets such as Josephine Jacobsen and Stanley Kunitz, judged student poetry contests, and even staged a play about poet Emily Dickinson, “The Belle of Amherst.”
And since National Library Week (April 4-10) coincides with National Poetry Month in April, HoCoPoLitSo and the library system thought it would be the perfect time to launch a new program. Every Tuesday in April, HoCoPoLitSo and the library will collaborate to bring you a little lunchtime buffet of poetry, virtually. I’m Susan Thornton Hobby, a proud library volunteer and HoCoPoLitSo board member and consultant, and with the library’s support, I’ve coordinated this April poetry feast.
When the pandemic closed everyone’s doors, HoCoPoLitSo created a new video series, both to reach out to people at home who were hungry for the arts, and to amplify the voices of Black poets who have visited HoCoPoLitSo audiences since 1974. With the help of Howard Community College’s Arts Collective, and director Sue Kramer, we produced the Poetry Moment series. Local actors Chania Hudson, Shawn Sebastian Naar, and Sarah Luckadoo offer introductions, then famous poets like Clifton and Kunitz and Heaney and Brooks read their work, with selections extracted from archival video. Ellen Conroy Kennedy, the late founding director and heart and soul of HoCoPoLitSo, started this archive in 1986 when she began documenting the poetry and literature programs she was producing. The Writing Life resulted, with more than 100 full interviews with authors carried on HoCoPoLitSo’s YouTube page.
In April, every Tuesday at noon, we’ll gather virtually to talk poetry. We’ve grouped the poems by theme for each week, and will talk a little about poetry, then watch the videos together and discuss.
Here’s our poetry hit parade:
- Tuesday, April 6: We’ll talk about grief, something many people are dealing with this year. Poems we’ll be discussing include “Elegy” by Linda Pastan, “My Deepest Condiments” by Taylor Mali, and “The Long Boat” by Stanley Kunitz.
- Tuesday, April 13: History is this week’s theme, and we’ll talk about Sterling Allen Brown’s “Southern Road,” read by poet Toi Derricotte, “In the Tradition” by Amiri Baraka, and “Requiem” by Anna Akhmatova, read by poet Carolyn Forché.
- Tuesday, April 20: Many contemporary poets turn to their families as sources for poetry. The poems we’ll read this week are “good times” by Lucille Clifton, “The Pomegranate” by Eavan Boland, and “A Final Thing” by Li-Young Lee.
- Tuesday, April 27: Our last week is centered on pep talks in poetry, verse to lift us up and give us strength. We’ll discuss “The Solstice” by W. S. Merwin, “For Every One” by Jason Reynolds, and “I Give You Back” by Joy Harjo.
HoCoPoLitSo and the Howard County Library System are happy to collaborate in bringing poetry to all who ask questions, to any who believe, like we do, that words can change the world.
If we hook you on poetry, consider tuning in to the April 29 Blackbird Poetry Festival, featuring Ilya Kaminsky and sponsored by Howard Community College and HoCoPoLitSo.
Register for the library lunch poetry programs here.
a blog post by Suhani Khosla
As a reader, loving characters that are born from good writing is easy for me. I rooted for Frances Janvier in Radio Silence, mourned Lydia Lee from Everything I Never Told You, and laughed with Pip from Enid Blyton’s classics. I am awed that every tiny reaction of the hundreds of characters I’ve come across had the potential to alter their respective stories.
As a writer, though, it is always challenging to build admirable characters: either their initial personality is too shallow, or my descriptions veer helplessly into unnecessary ramblings.
At Friday Black Bauder Student Workshop on March 4th held by Howard Community College, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah and Tope Folarin taught me the ins-and-outs of characterization. By the end of the workshop, I saw how these strategies meshed and intertwined with Friday Black’s narratives: through the framework of Adjei-Brenyah’s characters, I was able to fully understand prejudice, such anger, and such resilience.
Adjei-Brenyah and Folarin first began with the different types of characterization, engaging the participants from the get-go with creative examples of each. As we went through the modes of characterization (expository, description, and action), the chat blew up with participant’s replies and examples. I saw the benefits of all methods, and some of the drawbacks: expository was a simple explanation, quick and to the point, but only an explanation; description almost forced a perception of the character, yet description called for artful word choice that would lift the passage; and through recording action readers could form a “nuanced view” without influence by the narrator’s voice, yet it could pose the threat of being too vague.
All avenues were used in the final activity, just as Adjei-Brenyah employs them in his writing. We were instructed to create a hero (or an anti-hero) with the following set of questions:
- What is their power/ability that makes them special? Why?
- How did they get the ability?
- What does your character want (initially)?
- Who might try to stop them?
And based on our answers, we used the modes of characterization to create our heroes/anti-heroes. I found it easier and fun to craft a character succinctly, a character that, maybe one day, could stand with the famous and the infamous ones that shaped my life thus far.
Through workshops with engaging repartee among the hosts and participants, students like myself can gather the tools to add layers of depth to their writing. Crafting our individual narratives relies deeply on how we present ourselves and those around us, a process Adjei-Brenyah and Folarin taught us effortlessly. Happy writing!
To watch Adjei-Brenya’s Bauder lecture, make sure to visit https://vimeo.com/showcase/8082121?video=507368937
Suhani Khosla is a senior at Atholton High School. She likes to read, draw, and write during her free time. She is currently reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s biography on Jerusalem and Friday Black. Suhani loves working with HoCoPoLitSo as a Bauder Student On Board member, and she hopes to continue her interest in the arts in college.
a blog post by Laura Yoo
The Women I Don’t Know
Last year when I was writing the syllabus for my women’s literature course, I wondered about the “women” part of that course name. What is “woman” and who should be included in this reading list?
As I flipped through the textbook, The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: Traditions in English, I tried to compose a reading list that was diverse. Immediately I saw the gaps in the anthology. Among those missing or underrepresented were African women writers and transgender women writers. I recognized, too, that it’s not just Norton – there are gaps in my own encounter with women’s stories from diverse walks of life and backgrounds. I know so little about these women.
And when I don’t know something, I go and read. But what do I read? Who do I read?
Transgender Women Writers
In the opening of their article “Toward Creating Trans Literary Canon” RL Goldberg is in a situation similar to mine – teaching a course called “Masculinity in Literature” and wondering what we mean by masculine. Goldberg’s students are incarcerated twenty something men who are working toward a college degree. Interestingly, the debate among the students is not over words like “transgender, transsexual, agender, two-spirit, trans woman, bigender, trans man, FTM, MTF, boi, femme, soft butch, cisgender” – these, the students understood. However, “What was contentious: man and woman,” Goldberg shares. This makes complete sense. Of course, it’s words that we think we know, words that seem so clearly opposite, that we must grapple with because they evolve.
In keeping with defying or moving across the spectrum of categories, whether that’s genre or gender, Goldberg includes in their list of works for recommendation Freshwater (about being an obenje) by Akwaeke Emezi and Mucus in My Pineal Gland (“displacing or disregarding genre or gender”) by Juliana Huxtable.
In “12 of the Best Books by Trans Authors That You Need to Read” Torrey Peters (her own novel is called Detransition, Baby) includes these works that show a range in genre and themes: The Unkindness of Ghosts by River Solomon (a science fiction novel that explores structural racism) and Fairest by Meredith Talusan (memoir of Filipino boy with albinism coming to America who is mistaken for white and becomes a woman).
African Women Writers
When it comes to African women writers, we come across incredible diversity among them as Africa is a big place with long, complex histories – with many different languages and cultures. This article from The Guardian, “My year of reading African women, by Gary Youngue” is an excellent introduction for novice readers of African women writers. Youngue’s reading list includes the following:
- Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
- Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
- The Secret Lives of Baga Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin
- Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo
- The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif
- The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna
- We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
- Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
- Beneath the Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste
- The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami
And I recommend that you read Youngue’s article for his take on what these works offer us.
This article from Electric Literature, “10 Books by African Women Rewriting History” by Carey Baraka, includes these contemporary recommendations: Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo (set in 2008 Kenyan presidential election), The Hundred Wells of Salaga by Ayesha Harruna Attah (set in Northern Ghana during pre-colonial times), and The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell (focusing on a Zambian space program).
Expanding Our Sphere of Reading
I know these are incomplete lists, and lists like these reflect the personal as well as the cultural tastes of the one creating the list. And all these recommendations are limited to those authors writing in English. Also, I know that when I look for “transgender women writers” I may be excluding – or drawing lines that exclude – nonbinary and gender nonconforming writers.
As an Asian American woman, I have been diving into Asian American literature lately, particularly those by women. I recommend The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories by Caroline Kim (short story collection) and Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha (set against the 1992 LA Riots). It has been so exciting, after so many years of being a student and teacher of literature, to finally discover writers and read books by and about Asian Americans. To open a book and witness stories that I recognize is a certain kind of gift that representation brings.
However, we also turn to books to see the world through others’ eyes. So, if there’s a blind spot in your literary journey (and your blind spot will be different from mine), take a ride with some of the women writers you don’t yet know on this International Women’s Day.