Poetry scares some people. Climate change scares a lot of people. Combine them – exponential existential terror, right?
Join HoCoPoLitSo’s Susan Thornton Hobby, environmental activist and writer Julie Dunlap, and the Howard County Library for a virtual climate poetry discussion on May 28, 7 p.m. Register here.
We’ll talk about the poems, listed below, that come at climate change from all different angles. Lots of people have thoughts about climate change, but poets have faceted and polished those thoughts into little gems about our planet and the problems it faces.
“Poetry is moving and touching in a way that dry facts are not,” says Elizabeth J. Coleman, editor of Here: Poems for the Planet. “You can reach people’s hearts. If you tell someone about the hell we’re heading towards, people just despair. They become indifferent. It’s too big. It seems very different when you talk about ‘the polar bear drifting out of history on a wedge of melting ice,’ as a poem by Paul Guest puts it.”
The poems we’ll be discussing in our group on May 28 aren’t bleak, but they do tell the truth, though they might tell it slant, as Emily Dickinson wrote. They’re clever these poets, and deliver messages that both inspire and incite.
Ordinarily, our discussions for An Inconvenient Book Club (the clever name Dunlap devised for our climate fiction book club) take place at the Miller branch of the Howard County Library. We usually talk about cli-fi, the shorthand for climate change fiction. We’ve discussed The History of Bees, American War, and Radio Free Vermont, among other titles. But because we can’t meet at the library, nor get our books from their shelves, An Inconvenient Book Club becomes a little more convenient for you.
Just read the poetry below and ponder the verses. These poems will illuminate the environment, open a window into images about the climate, and offer nudges toward mindfulness.
In our talk together on May 28, we won’t be dissecting these poems as your junior English class splayed out Robert Frost like a frog in biology. Instead, we’ll be appreciating these poems, and thinking about how they respond to climate change.
“Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul,” the philosopher Malebranche said. And while most things are closed in a pandemic, nature is wide open.
Read these poems, then go outside and pay attention to nature. Pick one poem that moved or resonated with you most, and then join us May 28 to talk about the ideas.
But register first, so you can receive the link to the video book club. http://host.evanced.info/hclibrary/lib/eventsignup.asp?ID=145052&ret=http://host.evanced.info/hclibrary/lib/eventcalendar.asp?ln=ALL
And if you’re a convert, if you decide that poetry, after all, really doesn’t suck, here are a few more things to read.
- Here: Poems for the Planet, Elizabeth J. Campbell. https://bookshop.org/books/here-poems-for-the-planet/9781556595417
- Black Nature: Four Centuries of African-American Nature Poetry, edited by Camille Dungy.
- Losing Miami, by Gabriel Ojeda-Sagué
- Casting Deep Shade, by C. D. Wright
And if you need a little guidance, try this helpful article: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69955/how-to-read-a-poem
If all else fails, try having some celebrities reading climate change poetry: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/ng-interactive/2015/nov/20/our-melting-shifting-liquid-world-celebrities-read-poems-on-climate-change
Susan Thornton Hobby
When HoCoPoLitSo and the Columbia Art Center thought up the theme in December 2019 for the annual poetry and visual art collaboration and contest, Blossoms of Hope, we didn’t really understand how much hope we were going to need.
Now we know.
The poetry that emerged from that contest offers solace to those who are grieving and anxious about cancer; the proceeds of the exhibit were supposed to benefit the Claudia Mayer/Tina Broccolino Cancer Resource Center of Howard county General Hospital.
But reading over these poems now, the words seem to apply to a general grief and worry, and certainly to our reaction to the coronavirus pandemic and its many types of fall-out – economic, social, political, cultural.
Planned in collaboration with the Blossoms of Hope Committee, Columbia Art Center, and HoCoPoLitSo, the April exhibit would have shown the work of artists and poets. But when stay-at-home orders arrived, the direction of this project changed and the physical exhibit was canceled.
Instead, we’re showing the work here on HoCoPoLitSo’s site. Some of the writers read their work at an on-line poetry reading May 12.
Thank you to the Blossoms of Hope Committee, Columbia Art Center staff, HoCoPoLitSo, and Wilde Readings for the opportunity to share the work of some amazing writers. Thank you too to all who submitted their work for presentation.
By the time the deadline arrived on March 2, HoCoPoLitSo had received 15 manuscripts based on the inspiring words of poets Lucille Clifton, Emily Dickinson, Joy Harjo, Tiffany Higgins, and Walt Whitman.
Local poets were charged to include lines from the nationally known poets, including Clifton’s line “what did I see to be except myself” from “won’t you celebrate with me”; “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” from Whitman; “’Hope’ is the thing with feathers” from Dickinson; the line from Joy Harjo’s “A Map to the Next World” that reads “Crucial to finding the way is this: there is no beginning or end”; and Tiffany Higgins’s line “I’d dance my last dance to rescue the hive,” from “Dance, Dance While the Hive Collapses.”
Submissions were reviewed by HoCoPoLitSo board members Susan Thornton Hobby, editor and writer; and Laura Yoo, HCC professor of English.
In keeping with the spirit of the exhibit and inspiration, HoCoPoLitSo, in cooperation with its Wilde Reading series, would like to recognize all the writers who submitted their work.
Hope, like toilet paper, yeast, and hand sanitizer, is a treasured commodity nowadays. Read these poems to stock up on a little light at the end of the tunnel.
If we’re lucky, we’re stuck in our houses, fantasizing about walking unmasked down the aisles of the library, or walking up to an author and (gasp!) shaking their hand after a reading. But we’ll have to wait a while for those in-person literary dreams to come true. Instead, on these chilly spring days, take a walk over to YouTube, and check out a few The Writing Life episodes.
Or if you’re in for the long haul (and who among us isn’t binging television shows nowadays?), Howard Community College’s Dragon Digital Television will show a 24-hour marathon of HoCoPoLitSo’s writer-to-writer interview shows. The Writing Life will air from 6 a.m. May 3 to 6 a.m. May 4. http://carousel.howardcc.edu/cablecastapi/live?channel_id=1&use_cdn=true
Check the schedule below, which features a showing of our hour-long show with Seamus Heaney, for which HoCoPoLitSo recently acquired the rights. Heaney talks about the politics and poetics of Northern Ireland, laughs a lot, recites “Digging” when Ellen Kennedy requests it, and answers questions from a Smith Theatre audience. Truly something to lift your spirits.
6 a.m. Theo Dorgan and Paula Meehan. Meehan and Dorgan, a married couple of Irish poets, talk about Seamus Heaney, read their own works dedicated to Heaney, and talk about cultural exchange in poetry. “My own sense is that poets are made, not out of fluency, but out of the fractures in a culture,” Meehan says.
6:30 a.m. Taylor Branch hosted by Timothy Jenkins. In 2000, at the time of this show’s recording with host and historian Timothy Jenkins, Branch had written two of his trilogy of books, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Parting the Waters: American in the King Years 1954-1963, and the award-winning Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-1965. These stories, Branch said, are “quintessentially American.”
7 a.m. The Poetry of Sterling Brown. In this 1994 edition of The Writing Life, poet Roland Flint speaks with Michael S. Harper, a Brown University professor of English and the Rhode Island poet laureate. The two poets discuss the influential poet and Howard University professor Sterling Brown, considered the dean of African-American poetry. Harper reads many of Brown’s poems, including “After Winter.”
7:30 a.m. Poetry Quartet. Henry Taylor, E. Ethelbert Miller, Ann Darr, and Hilary Tham, four Washington, D.C., area poets who started with publishing their work in small presses, talk about the value of that enterprise to keep literature alive. They also discuss the value of poetry slams, divulge the inspirations for their work, and read many of their own poems.
8 a.m. Seamus Heaney hosted by George O’Brien. Recorded in 1988, this interview with Seamus Heaney touches on his childhood in rural Ireland, the politics of Northern Ireland, his poetic craft and the natural world’s influence on his work. With his arm slung over the back of the chair onstage, Heaney talks, reads, recites, and laughs.
9 a.m. Carolyn Forché hosted by Grace Cavalieri. In this 2016 edition of HoCoPoLitSo’s The Writing Life, poet Grace Cavalieri talks with Carolyn Forché, the writer and anthologist who coined the term “poetry of witness.” They speak about Forché’s Czechoslovakian grandmother, her beginnings in the world of human rights and poetry, and working to anthologize poetry of witness.
9:30 a.m. Edith Pearlman hosted by Carrie Brown. In this edition of HoCoPoLitSo’s The Writing Life, novelist Carrie Brown talks with short story writer Edith Pearlman, who won the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award for her collection Binocular Vision.
10 a.m. Emma Donoghue hosted by Mary Kay Zuravleff. Emma Donoghue talks with fellow novelist Mary Kay Zuravleff about the role of music and history in her work, as well as writing the screenplay of Room. She reads from both Room and Frog Music.
10:30 a.m. Four Poets Laureate. Roland Flint, then serving as the Maryland Poet Laureate, hosts past poets laureate Lucille Clifton, Linda Pastan, and Reed Whittemore. All friends, the poets discuss the role and possibilities of the poet laureate position, as well as the craft of writing poetry, in a half-hour of good conversation and great poetry.
11 a.m. Patricia Smith hosted by Joseph Ross. Poet Joseph Ross speaks with poet Patricia Smith, a spoken word poet who found success with her book Blood Dazzler, a collection of poems chronicling Hurricane Katrina. Smith reads “8 a.m., Sunday, August 28, 2005,” a poem in the hurricane’s voice.
11:30 a.m. Stanley Plumly interviews Rita Dove. Rita Dove, a Pulitzer Prize-winner and former National Poet Laureate, speaks with Maryland Poet Laureate Stanley Plumly about her latest book, Sonata Mulattico. The book tells the story, through multiple narrative poems in different voices, of George Bridgetower, an Afro-Polish child prodigy violinist who studied with Haydn.
12 p.m. Israeli Poems of War and Peace. Poet and professor Michael Collier talks with poets Moshe Dor and Barbara Goldberg about their 1997 book of Israeli poems and translations, After the First Rain: Israeli Poems on War and Peace.
12:30 p.m. Tribute to Josephine Jacobsen. In this edition of HoCoPoLitSo’s The Writing Life, poets Michael Collier, Lucille Clifton, and Elizabeth Spires talk about their friend and colleague, the late Josephine Jacobsen (1908 – 2003), a remarkable poet and short story writer from Baltimore.
1 p.m. Mark Doty hosted by Sue Ellen Thompson. Poet Sue Ellen Thompson speaks with poet and memoirist Mark Doty about memory, mackerel, AIDS, Labradors, and the challenge of writing about all of those topics. Doty, the author of nine books of poetry and three memoirs, is known for his descriptive power.
1:30 p.m. Taylor Mali hosted by Chris August. In this 2015 rapid-fire edition of The Writing Life, performance poet Chris August talks with slam poet champion and education activist Taylor Mali about his poetic beginnings, his father’s influence, the strategies of slams, and white male privilege.
2 p.m. Mary O’Malley hosted by Jean Nordhaus. Irish poet Mary O’Malley speaks with Jean Nordhaus, and opens with her mythological-based poem “The Boning Hall,” from her collection of the same name, which addresses Adrienne Rich’s classic poem “Diving into the Wreck.” The eldest daughter of a Connemara fisherman, with nine younger siblings, O’Malley is focused not only on “the mythos of the sea,” she says, but “the purity of the language.”
2:30 p.m. Lucille Clifton hosted by Roland Flint. Former Maryland poet laureate Roland Flint hosts Lucille Clifton, who won the National Book Award for her book Blessing the Boats. Clifton reads many of her iconic early poems, including “Good Times”, “The 1st”, “flowers”; “lucy one eye”, “forgiving my father”, and “carved on a gravestone in a southern baptist churchyard.”
3 p.m. “Sunset Baby”. Dramaturg Khalid Long and Rep Stage director Joseph Ritsch talk about playwright Dominique Morisseau. The two theater experts talk about how her play “Sunset Baby” addresses the generational divide in families in this play, the role of fathers and the centrality of forgiveness.
3:30 p.m. E. Ethelbert Miller hosts Joseph Ross. In this edition of HoCoPoLitSo’s The Writing Life, poet Joseph Ross speaks with host and fellow poet E. Ethelbert Miller about the role of writers as activists and memory keepers, the ideas of faith and storytelling through poetry, and the craft of putting together a manuscript.
4 p.m. Joseph Ross hosts E. Ethelbert Miller. Poet Joseph Ross talks to “the dean of D.C. poets,” E. Ethelbert Miller, author of several poetry collections, memoirs and anthologies, and co-editor of Poet Lore. Miller discusses the origin and span of his newest book of collected poems.
4:30 p.m. Marilyn Chin hosted by Joseph Ross. Marilyn Chin, a Chinese-American poet, speaks with poet and teacher Joseph Ross about her poems of the body, protest, and family. Chin begins by reading “Beijing Spring,” written to the young man who held up his hand to fend off the tanks on Tiananmen Square, as an invocation for all youth around the world to speak up.
5 p.m. Li-Young Lee hosted by Michael Collier. Poet Michael Collier speaks with Li-Young Lee in 1995 about poetry, prayerful attitudes, and unconscious states. Lee reads his poem “Epistle” to start off the show.
5:30 p.m. Mike McCormack hosted by Cóilín Parsons. Novelist Mike McCormack speaks with Georgetown University professor Cóilín Parsons about his craft, especially his novel in one breath, Solar Bones. A devoted experimentalist, McCormack resists the label of surrealist: “I’m holding this side of the surrealist’s line. I’m too structurally minded to give myself over to it, but I’ll bring it right up to the doorstep.”
Take it from the top again, band! Starting at 6 p.m., the whole line-up repeats.
Enjoy these talks, learn a bit about writing and reading, then you can go back to Tiger King.
Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life Producer
Libraries are closed. Readings are canceled. Thriftbooks is backed up. Heck, even Busboys & Poets is closed, except for delivery. For writers and readers, all distractions have been eliminated, besides the refrigerator and your family members.
You have weeks in your four walls to write that novel, nail down your collection of poems, or finish your fat book of essays.
You have piles of books on nightstands, shelves, and stacked on the floor (mea culpa) and now have time to read them all.
Ah, but the motivation. Where did you put that? Under the stacks of toilet paper? Behind the boxes of pasta?
Don’t worry, we’ve kept some in the back for you.
Below is a list of resources for those who want to capitalize on this time. And for those of us who usually exist like they’re living in a pandemic (yes, all you freelance writers and editors in your sweatpants, I’m talking to you), here’s a refresher list.
- Howard County Library offers electronic versions of books, audiobooks, even eMagazines. (They have on-line every version of National Geographic from 1888 to the present, that should keep you busy.) Library patrons can even learn a language.: https://hclibrary.org/research/
- The library is even hosting virtual book clubs, only two so far, their Global Reads and Mystery clubs: http://hclibrary.org/classes-events/
- A number of electronic reading sites are offering 30 days free, including Scribd: https://www.scribd.com/?lohp=2
- And Overdrive and Libby, through the library, are always free. Hop on those waiting lists: https://www.overdrive.com/apps/libby/
- The Library of Congress has a huge cache of resources. They offer tons of classics on-line, and if now isn’t a time to catch up on Jane Austen, I don’t know when would be better: http://read.gov/books/index.html#adults
- The LoC also has videos of author visits, and suggested book lists by genre.
- Enoch Pratt is offering live chats with a librarian, and who wouldn’t want to do that? https://www.prattlibrary.org/ask/
- •NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is moving its focus from just November and summer camp to launch StayHomeWriMo, which offers coping strategies, motivational speeches, writing tips and more: https://nanowrimo.org/stayhomewrimo?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=HQ%2020%20-%20StayHomeWriMo&utm_content=HQ%2020%20-%20StayHomeWriMo+CID_c5c73afc9fc4af274a8d991c0fa1f2fe&utm_source=Email%20marketi
- And Maryland’s own Writer’s Center is offering all its classes online now: https://www.writer.org/
- Just need a jump start? How about some writing prompts:
Back away from the pantry and the television. Read and write. Literature eases the mind in times of trouble. There’s a reason that the Greeks inscribed above the library in Thebes that this place was a “healing place for the soul.” Books can take you places outside your own experience (and four walls), and reading increases empathy, according to brain science. We’re going to need it.
If all else fails, and you simply cannot imagine an end to this confinement, try reading letters from people who were living through the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918: https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/influenza-epidemic/records-list.html
Regretfully, this year’s Blackbird Poetry Festival is now cancelled due to the public health crisis.
Poet and PBS Senior Correspondent Jeffrey Brown headlines the festival, April 30, 2020, on the campus of Howard Community College, a day devoted to verse, with workshops, book sales, readings, and patrols by the Poetry Police. The Sunbird poetry reading, featuring Mr. Brown, local writers, and Howard Community College faculty and students, starts at 2:30 p.m. and is free. Mr. Brown will read from and discuss his poetry during the Nightbird Poetry Reading, starting at 7:30 p.m. in the Monteabaro Hall of the Horowitz Center for Visual and Performing Arts.
Brown’s 2015 volume of poetry, The News, was selected as one of best poetry books of May 2015 by The Washington Post. In the forward, Robert Pinsky notes “The News is more than a venture into art by someone prominent in another field. In these poems, an unconventional subject for poetry is dealt with from within, by a real poet.” In the afterward, Brown says “I got hooked as a reader long ago. But why write poetry? Why write these experiences through poetry? To explore what happened from another angle, to see beyond the camera, to imagine what might be there, to use the language in a different way. Like the news, poetry seeks to inform our lives and helps us to reflect upon who we are and the conditions, disastrous or delightful, of the world in which we live. Here it is — I am talking to myself, again — your day.”
Workshops, open to the public, will take place in the Kittleman Room of Duncan Hall at 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. Ann Bracken, the author of two collections of poetry, No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom (2017) and The Altar of Innocence (2015), will offer a workshop on poetry as a way of reporting your life as part of the festival. Bracken, twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, will hold her free workshop at 9:30 a.m. in the Kittleman Room.
Nightbird admission tickets are $15 each (seniors and students $10) available on-line here: GET TICKETS. For tickets by mail, send a self-addressed envelope and check payable to HoCoPoLitSo, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Horowitz Center 200, Columbia, MD 21044.
Occasionally, the writers who read at the Wilde Readings will answer our six burning questions about their craft and literary favorites. This month, Rissa Miller, who read at Wilde Readings on February 11th, answers our questions. Ms. Miller is hosting a free poetry workshop at the Nest in Clarksville on February 12th at 7 pm.
Who is the person in your life (past or present) that shows up most often in your writing?
I’d like to say something more honorable or romantic, but if poets seek truth, I must confess – it’s myself. All things I write, whether poetry, fiction, article, or essay have some part of me in them. Many people have influenced my writing. There are high school English teachers whose voices still echo in my mind as I write; a particularly tough professor will always be with me. She didn’t allow me to use the word “that.” Of course, my friends, family, husband, animal companions – each life that has held my heart, as well as enemies and those who hurt me, will always show up in my writing. They are the souls that formed my voice.r
Where is your favorite place to write?
Anywhere quiet. Home, work, libraries, coffee shops, laundromats. I’m not particular. I’ve written on napkins in cafes, walked out of meetings to write poems in the bathroom at jobs, and scrawled in ballpoint pen up my own arm at stoplights in the car.
Do you have any consistent pre-writing rituals?
Hot green tea. It’s more of a life ritual, I always have hot green tea, even when working out. But writing almost cannot happen without a mug besides me, gently filling the air with steam and subtle verdant aroma.
Who always gets a first read?
My husband, Nathaniel. Well, sometimes our dog, The Dude, hears me read aloud first. After them, my critique group, Ali, Melisa and Robin, see things in early stages.
What is a book you’ve read more than twice (and would read again)?
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston; The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho; in poetry, Residence on Earth by Pablo Neruda. Each one I’ve read several times; each I am confident I will read again.
What is the most memorable reading you have attended?
Allen Ginsberg. Hearing the master himself read Kaddish, the epic poem about the life and death of his mother, literally gave me chills. At the time I was working as a journalist and had the incredible opportunity to interview him afterwards. Though I rarely get nervous and was never star struck around celebrities, Ginsberg made me break out in a cold sweat and stutter through me questions. Not just a famous personality, he was a true influence on the history poetry and writing, as well as a moment in American Society. It was such an honor.
Rissa Miller is hosting a free poetry workshop at the Nest in Clarksville, Maryland on February 12th at 7 pm. No experience required.
The next Wilde Readings is on March 10th at the Columbia Art Center and will feature authors Reuben Jackson & Edgar Silex.
blog post by Laura Yoo
Often we portray writing as a lonely endeavor and we imagine writers cooped up in their writing rooms, alone, toiling away. This part of the writing process may well be true and writing does demand quietness and solitude. But writing also takes place in community with other writers, sometimes virtually, sometimes through conversation over the phone or email, and sometimes in real life at a coffee shop.
Laura Shovan, the author of a children’s book Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary and a collection of poetry Mountain, Log, Salt, and Stone, started what she hopes will become a regular event: a write-in at the Common Kitchen in Clarksville, Maryland.
The first one took place on January 28th. In one corner of the Common Kitchen, tables were reserved for “Writers Corner.” As each person came in from the cold and joined the group, Laura introduced everyone. We sat together, each with his or her laptop or notebook, and worked quietly. Poet Patricia VanAmburg, who was at the write-in, shared with me how important it is for her to have a writing partner. She and author Ann Bracken are longtime critique partners who meet on a weekly basis to share their writings and give each other feedback. So, Patricia welcomed this new gathering of writers. Laura says 8 people attended this first write-in, including a few members of the he MD-DE-WV chapter of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators) and Mel Beatty who is a bookseller at the Curious Iguana bookstore in Frederick, Maryland. HoCoPoLitSo’s Tim Singleton (who worked on this piece in the session) and Susan Thornton Hobby also joined the writing fun.
Laura Shovan is no stranger to “writing together.” She co-authored A Place at the Table with Saadia Faruqi, and she will be sharing that experience at the Maryland Writers Association Conference in March. Laura also brings writers together virtually through her February Poetry Project. She invites group members (usually no more than 40 people) to write a poem a day on a specific theme. For instance, last year’s theme was food and this year’s theme is is water. Group members sign up to come up with the daily prompt, and then they each write and post their drafts in a private Facebook group that same day.
Creative writing instructor and poet Tara Hart says that all students in her class at Howard Community College share their drafts in online discussion boards, but many find it daunting to provide specific feedback on each other’s writing – they may feel tentative, unqualified, or nervous of giving offense – and need a strong template to help them craft comments that are insightful and truly helpful to the writers. She encourages them to first identify what “shines” for them in a piece in order to discern a notable strength, and then to think creatively by generating a series of “what if?” questions – what if the story were told in the first person instead of the third? What if the poem ended a stanza earlier? What if the first line were the last line? In mastering peer review, they become better writers, more able to recognize the strengths to retain in their own work and to generate more possibilities for improvement, and, she hopes, more likely to seek supportive writing communities in the future.
All local writers (and anyone willing to make a drive!) are invited to the next write-in at the Common Kitchen on February 25th 9:30 am to 12:30 pm.
Writers and readers alike can also find community of lovers of writing at the next Wilde Readings With Pantea A. Tofangchi & Rissa Miller on February 11th 7 pm at the Columbia Art Center and at HoCoPoLitSo’s 42nd Annual Irish Evening with Alice McDermott on February 21st 7:30 pm at the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center in Columbia.
The other day when I was visiting my dad, he handed me a book and told me to read the last paragraph aloud.
As Smith recrossed the bridge, he stopped and stood in one of the recesses to meditate on his immaturity, and to look upon the beauty of the still expanses of white moonlight and black shadow which lay before him. At last he shook his head negatively, and went home.
“That’s how they wrote back then,” he said, listening to the air the paragraph left behind. I admired the sentiment, and probably agreed that it was, indeed, something, the way they wrote back then. The book was a Bernard Shaw novel that I had not heard about, Immaturity. I was holding a 1931 edition. Where was this going?
It didn’t take a moment longer to realize the paragraph and the way they wrote wasn’t why I was handed the book. He started telling me a story about the inside cover, the markings there, and a bit of history I might otherwise have never come across, something called Bletchley Park.
Who knew? At the time and until the 1970s, only those that were supposed to, thanks to the Official Secrets Act. For me, a mystery was unraveling. Bletchley Park was a mansion in Buckinghamshire, England that housed a secret code-breaking operation during the second world war. I was instantly intrigued. Paraphrasing my dad, men were off fighting the war and women were tapped to translate Axis messages encoded by Enigma machines, contributing the secrets of intercepted messages to the war effort, and helping beat the Nazis ‘two years early’.
At its start, the operation at Bletchley incorporated a few hundred — you will have heard of Alan Turing and maybe Gordon Welshman and the Bombe machines that figured out the daily codes the Germans incorporated as fast as they could — and grew to an effort of thousands, all working on decoding daily messages of the Germans. The following six minute clip provides a better introduction. (While it is a video, it is more a slide show of 360 degree images that you can move around in using the tool in the top left of the frame. Have a listen and look around.)
Part of my dad’s version of the story was personal history, working in England years later, and having associates who dated back to the war. I’ll skip all the details, but so-and-so knew so-and-so-and-so and the narrative found its way to explaining the book I had in my hand. Inside the front cover was an oval stamp “B. P. Recreational Library Club”, and, on the facing page, an oddly glued-in, folded-over piece of paper with dates from the forties stamped onto it. Under that was a listing of hand-written month/day dates, all crossed out.
I had no idea what I was holding. He explained the book was part of a lending library created to provide recreation to workers when they weren’t putting in 15 hour days decoding.
The agency itself also tried to facilitate off-duty leisure activities for the staff in addition to amenities to provide for their general welfare. As such, the agency made buildings available for various leisure and educational activities. Hut 2 initially served as a tea room, providing hot beverages, sandwiches and lunch vouchers. The hut also contained a lending library and was the home of the Bletchley Park Recreational club from its formation in October 1940.The Hidden History of Bletchley Park, Christopher Smith, 2015
My dad explained the book had passed into my mother’s hands from the wife of someone he had worked with. It was actually part of the Bletchley Park collection during the Second World War – WOW! (The dates suggest just after, though the style of tracking due dates on the inside pages might have started after the war?) Over the years, the library had collected more books than needed, so this was one of eight or nine that had been decommissioned and given to my mother for keeps — he wanted to make sure I knew possession was legit. The other books in the collection were from Eastgate and Cheltenham, new locations for codebreaking during the war and after as effort, capabilities, and need grew.
Unbelievable, really, that such secrecy should have prevailed.Jane Fawcett, Veteran, Hut 6
Obviously, I grew up in the house with these books and knew nothing of their secret past, that being the way of those who can keep secrets.
Now the story is out and I hold this book in my hands in awe. What a connection to the way they did things back when. We tend to obtain a book for the story written within, but sometimes the book is the story itself, a thing to learn from as it moves from the reaches of history into our moment. Here it is today, a treasure that is monument to heroes of the past, the women of Bletchley Park.
HoCoPoLitSo, Board Co-chair
- Bletchley Park is now a museum. Visit the webiste here online. Next time you are in England, visit the secret itself. It is on my To Do list.
- Click here for an extended documentary on Bletchley Park via YouTube.
- More on the codebreaking efforts of the Allies during World War II can be found Stephen Budiansky’s book Battle of Wits.
- Christopher Smith’s Hidden History of Bletchley Park is also fascinating.
- The Bletchley Circle — what do you do after the war if you were one of the super-smart Bletchley women? Well, back into the normal every day humdrum of ironing clothes and feeding children. This short-lived British mystery series has a few of them getting together to use their wits to solve murders, though. It is an interesting way to share the story.
blog post by Laura Yoo
The Story Studs. These are five guys – Keegan, Will, Nate, Sammy, and Julien – who are preparing for the biggest battle of their lives. It will be the one of the nerdiest and the coolest (at the same time, yes) things they do together: They will fight in Howard County’s Battle of Books.
Battle of Books is Howard County Library System’s impressive reading program that encourages elementary school students to read a same set of books and come together to compete. On April 17th, fifth graders from all over the county will show up at various high school gyms to battle in teams. They will have read and studied 12 books to answer questions about those books. They will have awesome team names – like the Story Studs – and decked out in costumes.
The coaches and the team members have been diligently working our way through the 12 books:
- The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
- Lucky Broken Girl and Ruth Behar
- Me, Frida, and the Secrets of the Peacock Ring by Angela Cervantes
- Forest World by Margarita Engle
- Sharks: Nature’s Perfect Hunter by Joe Flood
- Ban This Book by Alan Gratz
- Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
- Dara Palmer’s Major Drama by Emma Shevah
- The Real McCoys by Matthew Swanson
- Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier
- Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library by Carole Boston Weatherford
- Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan
As the assistant coach, I have been enjoying the books, too. So far, Ban This Book, Ghosts, and Save Me a Seat have really impressed me. These books range in their topics, characters, and settings. Each book, however, touches on a theme or a topic that I’d love for all children to think about: how to welcome strangers, bullying, not judging a book by its cover, death, family, culture, friendship, family life, freedom of speech, censorship, and reading. Yes, just in these three books, the little readers are exposed to all these topics. I think Ban This Book ought to be made into a kids’ movie. The multicultural elements in Save Me a Seat and Ghosts show just how thoughtfully the library is choosing these books – books like these can be windows through which children can see and learn about other cultures.
The Story Studs will now meet about every other week to catch up with each other about the books they’re reading. At each meeting, the readers update each other on their reading progress and share one story map they’ve completed (this helps them take notes about each book). They play games to learn and memorize the titles and the author names. They have also begun drafting their own sample questions to use to prepare for battle. It’s fun, but it’a also serious learning business.
The beauty of this Battle of Books – at least for the Story Studs – is that it brings together these close friends to share more quality time outside of school. They arrive at one of our homes after school, eat snacks, and run around for a few minutes. Then, they sit and work diligently for a good 45 minutes. Then off they go again to release more of that 10-year old energy. I absolutely love it.
I will report back on how the real battle goes on April 17th. Now – where to find leather jackets for 10 year old boys…
Seamus Heaney was a force of nature who visited Howard County an unbelievable three times.
Heaney, who won a Nobel Prize and was called the greatest Irish poet since Yeats, died in 2013. HoCoPoLitSo, the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society, was lucky enough to host Heaney for three readings — in 1982, in 1988, and in 1994. His 1994 visit many HoCoPoLitSo veterans remember as the ice storm visit, when everything else was cancelled because the city was encased in a good half-inch of ice, but stalwarts trudged through the storm to see Heaney read.
On the last two of his readings, HoCoPoLitSo’s founder, Ellen Conroy Kennedy, wisely taped interviews with Heaney, first with a noted scholar George O’Brien, and then with a fellow poet, Roland Flint, posing questions.
During his long and amiable correspondence with Kennedy, Heaney decided that he did not want the taped interviews to be sold as part of HoCoPoLitSo’s television talk show series, The Writing Life. In one letter from the 1990s, he writes: “As I have said often before, there are already too many interviews by me, going over the same ground. There is nothing new in the material on your transcript.” In the margin, in his long, looping handwriting, Heaney wrote: “(tho’ I do like the Yeats riff at the end)!” Since that time, the world has changed immensely. Heaney is no longer around to conduct interviews, and HoCoPoLitSo no longer sells DVDs or taped versions of the interviews.
But the society does have a YouTube channel where these formerly hidden gems – featuring writers such as Donald Hall, Frank McCourt, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Lucille Clifton — are now available for free to students, writers, and scholars.
For ten years, HoCoPoLitSo sought permission from the estate to upload the interviews to our channel on YouTube. Finally, Faber & Faber Ltd. granted permission, HoCoPoLitSo received a donation to cover the rights fee, and the video is finally seeing the light of day on HoCoPoLitSo’s YouTube channel.
All sixty minutes of the video are available, as well as a transcript, upon request, for scholars and readers and fans of Heaney’s work. In the video, Heaney sits on a stage, with his arm slung around the back of his chair, and takes questions from Georgetown professor O’Brien, and from the audience. He speaks about his life as a boy on his family’s small farm, his time in boarding school, the parallel between the rise of his life as a writer and the rise of the rebellion and unrest in Northern Ireland.
He says in the interview, “Politics in Northern Ireland, and politics in El Salvador and politics in Iran and politics in Israel, it’s all spectator sport for most people. Of course, it’s necessary for us outside to be concerned, but the real energy is intimate. Writing has to concern itself with the first circle, with the intimate place where everything is exact, rather than the second or third circle where the big part is writing, is publicity.”
He recites “Digging,” at Ellen Kennedy’s request, and reads, “Alphabets”, and “From the Republic of Conscience”, as well as sonnets dedicated to his mother, “Clearances”. The program ends with the story about writing a poem to celebrate his niece’s birth because he hadn’t any present for the family, then the triumphant reading of the charming poem, “A Peacock’s Feather for Daisy Garrett.”
HoCoPoLitSo has a forty-five year history of providing epiphany-inducing programs with literary greats. But those programs are ephemeral, seared in many people’s memories, but gone when the event is over.
The Writing Life series captures those unbelievable literary moments; seeing, after all, is believing.
Donations to support The Writing Life are welcomed and tax-deductible.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Recording secretary and The Writing Life producer