A guest post by Ryna May, Professor of English at Howard Community College:
October is LGBTQ History Month. When I think about LGBTQ history, I am of two minds and the poems included in the LGBTQ collection on Poets.org perfectly reflect that split. Some of the poems are so absolutely ordinary in their subjects, like the poem, “our happiness” by Eileen Miles, and on one hand, I think, that’s progress: the lives of LGBTQ people are written and expressed in the same way as other lives. That’s equality, right? Being a gay poet doesn’t mean that you have to write every poem about the experience of being gay.
But if we’re really talking about history, the conversation is incomplete unless we acknowledge that nothing is really the same. Some might say, hey, you won the right to get married, so what are you complaining about? That reminds me of the poem, “On Marriage” by Marilyn Hacker (1942) where the poet talks about the way in which LGBTQ people “must choose, and choose, and choose / momently, daily” to affirm their commitment to one another, “Call it anything we want” when society doesn’t quite know how to accept or handle this kind of “covenant.”
We talk a lot about “White Privilege” in cultural discourse, but we don’t talk a lot about “Mainstream Heterosexual Cisgender Privilege.” It exists. MHCP allows folks to do very ordinary things like hold hands in public without having to do a quick check of their surroundings. Put it this way: there are times when showing affection to my wife in public – just a peck on the cheek – feels like a dangerous political act.
If we’re talking about history, we have to acknowledge that being an LGBTQ person is a unique and still unequal experience in this country. There are subtle and unsubtle ways that society is set up to exclude and marginalize us. And some of the poems I browsed on Poets.org do address that fact. I find myself drawn more powerfully to these poems because I do want to acknowledge the difference that exits. A great example of this is “A Woman Is Talking to Death” by Judy Grahn. The poem was written in 1940, and the lines that jump out to me are:
this woman is a lesbian, be careful.
When I was arrested and being thrown out
of the military, the order went out: don’t anybody
speak to this woman, and for those three
long months, almost nobody did: the dayroom, when
I entered it, fell silent til I had gone; they
were afraid, they knew the wind would blow
them over the rail, the cops would come,
the water would run into their lungs.
Everything I touched
was spoiled. They were my lovers, those
women, but nobody had taught us how to swim.
I drowned, I took 3 or 4 others down
when I signed the confession of what we
had done together.
No one will ever speak to me again.
A friend of mine, Rob, hid the fact that he was gay the entire time he was in the Navy – it wasn’t just that he feared for his job, he also feared for his life, that other soldiers might threaten or harass him for being openly gay. He hid it until he completed his tour of duty, and then he came out to all of his friends. You might think that passing a law abolishing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would end this discrimination, but you would be wrong. This discrimination still exists in the military – though now the target has shifted from being gay or lesbian to being transgender. Grahn’s poem was written in 1940; it is 77 years later, and we are not there yet. And because we live in the age of vindictive executive orders, we are too afraid that the next step in the movement will be a step backward.
If we’re talking about history, we have to acknowledge that we’re still in the middle of the story right now. What started with Alan Turing, Barbara Gittings, Christine Jorgenson, Alan Ginsberg, Walt Whitman, the Stonewall riots, James Baldwin, and Harvey Milk has led us to the defeat of DOMA, Proposition 8, the victory of Edith Windsor, the success of Tammy Baldwin. But this complicated history also continues with events like the shooting in the Pulse nightclub and pronouncements that threaten the rights of transgender soldiers and that reinterpret Civil Rights laws to exclude protections for LGBTQ employees. Current events are going to write these poems, and I want to read those poems too, not just the ones that try to normalize our experience.
One of the happiest days in my life was November 6th, 2012. That was the day that voters in my home state of Maryland affirmed the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry, and I knew that I would marry my wife. Then, on June 26th, 2015, the United States Supreme Court ruled that we should be seen as equal under the law. In a stunning closing paragraph, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.” To read that, you’d think that we are living in a new era, but in reality, it isn’t quite true.
In “Love Song for Love Songs,” Rafael Campo writes that it is “A golden age of love songs and we still / can’t get it right.” That’s what I think: If we’re going to talk about LGBTQ history and celebrate equality, we have to admit that, despite so much progress in the last few years, the last ten months have shown us that we still have so far to go. Sharpen your pencils – there is so much more to come.
Many, many things.
This past week, we celebrated the National Friends of Libraries Week and these wonderful folks shared their memories of libraries and what the library means to them. Thanks to Tara, Darby, Sandra, Susan, Jocelyn, Sharon, Kristine, Ale, Liz, Annette, Trudie, Kaitlyn, and Lorraine for sharing your memories with all of us. In these stories, we see that the library is a place that offered solace, growth, independence, and of course knowledge for many.
My parents, immigrants from Korea, also found comfort at the Central Library in Columbia because they could borrow Korean books there. For them, borrowing these books allowed them to remember and connect with their homeland. For me, it was a place where I could continue my journey to becoming proficient in English. I devoured the Nancy Drew books, the Hardy Boys books, The Babysitters’ Club, and the Boxcar Children. I also borrowed many cassette tapes and later CDs of Debbie Gibson, Tiffany, Sheena Easton, and the New Kids on the Block. We borrowed movies. The library granted access to these materials – books, CDs, and movies – that were otherwise not available to me.
But it’s not just these things that the library gives us. It’s also the space it provides. When the time came for me to study for the SATs, I went to the Central Library to study. When I needed a computer, I went to the library. Many years later, when I had to study for the GREs, I went there to study in one of the study carrels on the second floor of the Central Library. Now, I take my own children there to borrow books, trying to hunt down the elusive and long-awaited copy of a Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and to sign up for summer reading programs. When we are about to go on a long road trip, we go there to borrow DVDs.
The library may have changed over the years to keep up with the changing times, especially with the changes in technology. Still, the library continues to provide space and access that many of us need and crave.
Read on to see what the library has meant for so many of us.
I have vivid memories of my small hometown library in the 1970s and can recall every section, specific places where favorite books lived, the smells of leather and hot mimeographed paper, even the words on the tiny bathroom wall.
My love of books was born when I was a child, and to me, going into a library conjures up memories of me, twelve years old, digging through bookshelves for something new to feed my imagination. I remember the somehow comforting strain of trying to get my arms around a large stack of books, and the feeling of resting my chin on top of the stack as I hauled it to the front desk. Even today as a college student, I feel peaceful in a library, and standing between shelves, surrounded by old books, is something wonderful to me.
– Darby J.
In fifth grade summer, shortly after we immigrated to the States in the early 90s, my parents decided this summer break thing, unheard of in South Korea, was ridiculous. They dropped my younger sister and me off at the White Oak library in the morning and picked us up close to dinner time every single working days of the week for a while (around the third day or so, they decided we should have lunch and packed us something to eat). We did EVERYTHING in that children’s section in the library from eating, napping, getting to know the two very lazy hamsters we saw for the first time in our life, learning checkers from strangers to list a few. We didn’t speak or read much English at all, so when we discovered comic books, it was as if we had uncovered hidden treasures. There were two kinds, Garfield and Calvin and Hobbes. Naturally, we went with shorter plots, bigger letters, and easier expressions to guess (his eyes said it all): Garfield. I hadn’t realized then, but I was living a dream. As an English professor now, how I wish I could just roll around on the library floor without a care, rummaging through shelves after shelves and chatting away with my sister as if we were the only two in the world.
– Sandra Lee
I would visit our community public library everyday because it was the midpoint between my junior high school and my sister’s elementary school. We spent hours reading in the quiet corners of the library! I believe that my love for reading was fostered by my parents and the wonderful librarians.
– Susan Y. Williams
There was this feeling of a borderland for me as a young teenager in the library. I was able to be older, to be smarter somehow among the stacks. A Stephen King READ poster, a microfiche machine, a wide staircase, and low windows brushed with leaves. In the library, I was studious in wooden study carols, while the names of the Grateful Dead danced in my sight line, etched in pen years ago. In the library, I did my research with the help of those titans of knowledge behind the tall desks, their faces blooming with joy at my questions. In the library, I saw homeless men sit and read the newspapers with dignity. In the library, I saw my life stretch out before me, echoed over time, echoed under the hanging lights, layers of books and memories forever in the same borderlands of my old heart today.
– Jocelyn Hieatzman
1. My childhood library was a big stone building with stone lions guarding the front door. It made the institution impressive and important . As a child, we couldn’t borrow “adult” books, and it seemed like they must hold some secret knowledge. 2. The bookmobile came to our neighborhood every Monday afternoon. We were allowed to take 7 books, and it was air-conditioned. It was the 1960’s.
– Sharon O’Neill
I love the library. It’s a quiet place to work or explore new authors! I love the creativity with displays.
I moved to the United States when I was 13 years old. In Mexico libraries were not an everyday thing for me. If we went, they were usually surrounded by homeless people or too far from our home. However, once I moved to the U.S, libraries became my escape from a place I did not understand. At first I hated the library. Mostly because of my limited English and low reading level. I felt embarrassed when my teacher told me all I could read were elementary level books. It wasn’t until a lunch monitor saw me with one these books, The Ugly Duckling, that I learned the value of reading. She told me that the fastest and best way to improve my pronunciation and understanding was by reading out-loud to myself. After that day, I visited the public library and read as much as I could. I read through all the R.L Stine, Goosebumps, romances, mysteries, and many others until I was finally able to challenge myself and read the Harry Potter series. Thanks to the welcoming environment of my public and school libraries, I went from reading picture books at the age of 13 to 1000 pg Stephen King books by the time I was 16.
– Ale M.
I grew up in Ellicott City, MD, so I went to the (old) Miller Branch library when I was young quite often. My first memories are borrowing toys from the kids’ section, which was directly to your right when you entered the library. My mom loved that she could borrow toys for my sister and me since kids can be so fickle; I’m sure my family saved a lot of money by not having to buy us as many toys! In elementary school, I remember creating my own fantasy story about the small enclosed garden area directly across from the circulation desk (although I don’t remember what the story was now). In middle school, R.L. Stine novels engrossed me. I remember spending many weekends searching through the R.L. Stine books directly to the left when you entered the library, at the back. I also bought some of his books from the area to the left of the circulation desk at something like 25 or 50 cents per book. I loved that I had enough money to buy my own books! I didn’t care that they had clearly been read many times before. Finally, I remember doing a couple of research projects at Miller Branch and Central Branch. Unfortunately, I moved to another state before high school started and didn’t have such a fabulous library nearby anymore. I’m so glad to be back in Howard County with a renovated Miller Branch and an almost-ready renovated Elkridge branch within walking distance of my new house!
– Liz Campbell
Every Saturday when I was growing up, my dad and I would drop my mother off at the grocery store and walk over to the Randallstown Branch of BCPL which was in the same parking lot. While she shopped, my father and I would return the books we signed out the week before and take out new ones. We would walk back to the store and find my mom in one of the aisles and help her finish up. This is one of the fondest memories of my childhood and I remember many wonderful chats with my dad before curling up in an easy chair to read my newest treasures!
– Annette Kuperman
When I was a little girl, I lived in a small blue collar town just north (on the mainland) of Galveston, Texas. Hitchcock had a grocery store, a small bank, a doughnut shop, Mr. Charburger, a drug store and some other small local businesses! We also had a book mobile every three weeks or so, that parked in the bank’s parking lot. A large trailer with books, books and more books! I didn’t even know “libraries” existed, until one day Mother took all of us four little girls to Galveston Island to THE library. It was beautiful; with what I remember to be massive, dark-stained, ornate rails leading up the many steps to the magnificent entryway of the building. And books! Who knew there were that many books in the world? What pure, giddy joy I felt that day.
– Trudie Myers
When I was in late elementary school, I loved going to the Central Library with my mom. I loved the weird shape of the building and the nooks and crannies of the library. The library was also the first space I was allowed to be “alone” in a public space. I would look for my books while my mom would look for hers. We would meet at the check out line, her with her reasonable amount of books and me struggling to balance a stack that piled to my nose.
– Kaitlyn Curtis
I remember the Book Mobile routinely coming through our military Navy Housing in Bremerton, WA when I was in 6th grade. My two younger brothers and I so looked forward to the Book Mobile! It was such a different experience to walk-in to a library on wheels. It was a pleasurable experience I will not forget.
The week of September 25th, we celebrate our RIGHT TO READ! In celebration of Banned Books Week 2017, we asked several educators and librarians about their favorite banned books. Here’s what they said.
To Kill a Mockingbird has influenced me as a reader and a teacher. As a young reader it brought me into a world I knew nothing about. As a teacher it has opened the same door for hundreds of students. It is only controversial because it depicts an ugly truth- which is also its value. – (a Howard County high school English teacher)
“It depicts an ugly truth – which is also its value.” Agreed. For my own part, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has had a similar impact for me, both as a teacher and as a reader. Our literature is our history. Regardless of genre, our literature reflects who we were, are, and could be. I have always found myself drawn to those authors who have been willing to paint in honest brushstrokes, an image of humanity that requires taking stock in the complexities and contradictions, pressing us to face the mirror. Often lost in the controversy surrounding “Huck” is the wink of hopefulness gained from the novel’s final passage. – (a Howard County middle school English teacher)
My daughter read Al Capone Does My Shirts last year as a 5th grader and it was her first experience of being “hooked” by a book and rushing to read the next book and the next in the series. It totally changed her from being a reluctant reader to being someone who devours books! Having taught it in the past I do not see why it would be controversial. Many books have characters with huge flaws. But having characters that possess both positive and negative qualities is what makes them multi-dimensional, interesting, and realistic. – (Howard County secondary literacy coach)
As a middle school teacher, I would have to choose The Giver and The Outsiders, two books that really touched kids and elicited deep and honest discussions. I loved teaching those books. – Beth S. (Howard County middle school English teacher)
Favorites to teach and/or read: Hunger Games, To Kill a Mockingbird, Fahrenheit 451, In Cold Blood, Leaves of Grass. Favorites to read to my kids: And Tango Makes Three, The Paper Bag Princess, The Lorax, Where the Wild Things Are. – Amy P. (High School English teacher in Hudson, MA)
Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo and All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. Both novels are stories of the horror and dehumanizing effects of war (WWI, to be precise), and the relentless pursuit of an ill-defined victory at all costs. Reading these books in high school caused me to question a lot of the assumptions I had about politics, war, religion, and conflict more broadly defined than I had before. Or since, for that matter. They literally changed my outlook on life in a span of a few weeks, and I continue to wrestle with these ideas to this day. – Jeffrey M. (English Professor at Howard Community College)
And Tango Makes Three. My two children enjoyed this book when they were just 3-4 years old. It’s a book about penguins! But here’s the thing – now that my older son is 8 year old I am wondering how he might experience and “hear” the book today. That’s the thing about books (good books), right? They challenge us to these questions – and this book forces me to be thoughtful about how I would teach my children about family diversity and help them become accepting, welcoming people in the world. In the Night Kitchen was a gift from our friend and neighbor (Tim!) – of course the children just love that Mickey is naked – butt and penis and all – in the illustration and they giggle and laugh. But they also enjoy Mickey’s adventure. It’s fun. For my kids – who like to tell fart jokes all day long – this book delights them. And I’m really, really good with that. – Laura Y. (English Professor at Howard Community College)
Strega Nona is one of my favorite books of all times. This book has been challenged and banned due to the magical or witch-like abilities of a magic pasta pot. Strega Nona’s objective is not to be a book about witchcraft, rather a book that is full of whimsy, allowing children to engage their imagination. Challenging or banning books can stifle creativity and imagination. When a book is challenged or banned because one person feels that it is against their morals, it can lead to an entire community of readers having restricted or no access to a book. – Christina P. (Librarian at Howard Community College)
The Things They Carried: it challenges ideas of morality, truth, courage, and patriotism. I come from a military family (going back generations), so this really resonates with me. The narratives never stop feeling relevant. O’Brien creates a web of fiction, memoir, history, and memory that always ensnares us us readers, leaving us in the best possible state: uncertainty. That is where all good inquiry comes from. – Ryna M. (English Professor at Howard Community College)
It was much more banned in the past, but definitely The Handmaid’s Tale! Even when I read it in the 8th grade (?), I remember being shocked at the story–not because of content, but because of so many similarities and so much truth. I thought how not so unrealistic this society was, and I still think that now. – Sylvia L. (English Professor at Howard Community College)
For my kids… Hop on Pop!! This is such a great book to start children reading on their own. The simple rhyming text is perfect.
For me one of my favorite books growing up was Are you There God, It’s me Margaret. It’s one of the first books I could relate too. – Melissa P. (Preschool teacher at the Children’s Learning Center)
A guest blog by Claudia Dugan
Sipping coffee at my desk last week, I tried to gather a list of favorite Latin American or Spanish books and I felt raptured into a labyrinth.
Should I go this way, or that? Which of the intricate paths should I take first? Should I do it in chronological order? But then again, the themes, like the paths in a maze, seem to meet each other, reoccur, and from time to time, give an opportunity to skip to another side… Chale! Is there an actual exit to this? Is it the task or is it me who, in an attempt to reflect about the books I love, often enter an identity labyrinth, similar to the one Octavio Paz describes?
I thought about The Broken Spears which invites the reader to be immersed into those ancient stories on the cosmology of the Aztecs, and to understand how ancient philosophies played an important role in the Spanish occupation of México, and in its current syncretism. Then, I thought that maybe Malinche by Laura Esquivel could be a better choice since it is written more like a love story, and who doesn’t love love.
But a different title kept knocking at the door of my thoughts. The one that most of us who have taken a class that requires Latin American Literature had to read: Gabriel García Márquez’s Cien Años de Soledad.
The first time I read it in high school, it almost took me cien años to finish reading it, but the magic was worth it. You see, my classmates and I had transformed the book into a scavenger hunt. Our whiskers were wet. We looked for clues inside the book that would lead us to the next book to read. How excited I was to discover Artemio Cruz in Cien Años de Soledad, and I shared it with my friends. That served as a launching point to the next author, Carlos Fuentes, who believed that history would always provide revolutionary characters like Artemio Cruz.
But if you think such findings sparked enthusiasm and idealism inside us, you have not read much of Latin American literature. My goodness, just when your hopes get high, it begins to rain – in almost every single darn book. Fuentes, who introduced us to Artemio Cruz, reminded us in “Old Gringo” to be aware of the ugly-self-interest-seeking-human that lurks inside of each one of us, idealistic or not.
Another of my favorite on the subject of revolution is Mariano Azuela’s Los de Abajo written in the early 1900’s and centered in the Mexican Civil War. In English, the title is The Underdogs but it really does not evoke the same images that the Spanish title Los de Abajo does. Los de Abajo refers to “those who are at the bottom of the pyramidal structure of so many human social configurations throughout history.
When reading Latin American literature, you will always find those comedic chapters on the absurd, such as Capitan Pantoja and the Special Service by Mario Vargas Llosa, which provide much needed relief during raining seasons.
And of course in reading Latin American literature, there is the important question of language and translation. When I read the book Malinche in English, I noted that the culturally-rich word “temazcal” was merely translated as “hot-bath” (jacuzzi). If you knew what a Temazcal represented for Mezoamerican cultures, and its role in new-births, in healing, in cathartic ceremonies, then you would understand its significance in that chapter in which Malinali and Cortez bathe their fusing souls in it. I am sure you would be able to smell the copal and other aromatic fresh herbs when reading about it. Or, if you have studied Latin American history, you would notice the weaving of the threads that joined the voice of Oscar to the authors’ footnotes in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz, or the universe in the word Quetzalcóatl, in Juan Felipe Herrera’s Half of the World in Light.
So, during this Hispanic/Latino Heritage Month, connect with a book by a Latin American writer, maybe one from my list.
But more importantly, connect with a person of Hispanic or Latin heritage. What you might learn from them about the cultural values and practices, history, and character will enrich your reading experience. And of course that could lead to enriched relationships with your neighbors of Hispanic or Latin heritage as you hear their stories. After all, as Jonathan Gottschall points out in The Storytelling Animal, it is stories that make us human.
~ Claudia Dugan is an Associate Professor of Spanish at Howard Community College in Columbia, Maryland.
A little kindness goes a long way in a writer’s life
We don’t ask much.
Twenty minutes quiet.
A red pen.
Writers and editors — and I count myself in both those groups — are fairly undemanding types. Unobtrusive, even. We’d much rather observe than be observed. We just need a little space and time to be alone with our mortal struggle with the writing gods. Though we wouldn’t say no to a cup of tea.
September was named Be Kind to Editors and Writers month by a low-rent Texas publishing house in 1984. Gentleman Vampire is one of their titles, and whew, that bloodsucker sure is handsome on the book cover! How that itty-bitty publisher got to name a month, I don’t know, but I guess they fall into the same category as the group that named February as Sweet Potato Month and May as Good Car Keeping Month. The editor in me wants to lower-case all those words, because they’re really not worthy of a whole month’s worth of honor, not to mention capitalization.
But we’re into marketing here at HoCoPoLitSo, and so we are wholeheartedly behind Be Kind to Editors and Writers Month. In fact, we’re kind to writers all year here at Let There be Lit headquarters; we’re known for our warm treatment of the ink-stained masses. There are clots of Irish authors, apparently, who sit around in pubs, drinking warm beer and raving about HoCoPoLitSo’s welcome. (Make sure you save the date for our fortieth celebration of Irish poetry and literature, the Irish Evening on Feb. 9, 2018.)
And as for editors – we are necessary nitpickers. It’s hard to be nice to someone who slashes away at your precious words. In fact, William Faulkner once wrote: “Only Southerners have taken horsewhips and pistols to editors about the treatment or maltreatment of their manuscript. This–the actual pistols–was in the old days, of course, we no longer succumb to the impulse. But it is still there, within us.” But sometimes, editors make good writing great.
So here’s to a month of kindness to editors and writers. Send us good thoughts of inspiration and hope. Buy your favorite editor a new pen. Watch the kids while we go to the Baltimore Book Festival (starting Sept. 22); they have terrific panel discussions (on the historical novel, and science fiction romance, and finding an agent, for example) and great readings (the Black Ladies Brunch Collective is reading from its new, hilarious and moving Not Without Our Laughter on Sunday, Sept. 24).
And this month – maybe not all year – give the editor or writer in your life a little respect.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Recording secretary, writer, and editor
Laurie Frankel’s Goodbye For Now
A Howard County Book Connection Event
Wednesday, November 1, 2017 • 1 p.m.
Rouse Community Foundation Student Services Hall, Room 400
Howard Community College
10901 Little Patuxent Parkway
Columbia, MD 21044
If you could connect with your beloved dead through technology, would you? Laurie Frankel’s novel, Goodbye for Now, is a love story with technology at its heart. Join us to hear Frankel read from her ground-breaking book at HoCoPoLitSo’s series celebrating ground-breaking poet and HoCoPoLitSo artistic advisor Lucille Clifton. Gather with a group of curious minds for this intriguing discussion. The New York Times said Frankel’s book, “extends the reach of technology just beyond our fingertips, where it feels possible.” This program is brought to you by the Howard County Book Connection; a partnership between Howard Community College, the Howard County Public Library System, and the Howard County Poetry & Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo). A book signing will follow. Tickets not required.
Seniors can request transportation by calling 410.715.3087. For other accommodations, call 443.518.4568 by October 16
This event is free. Click here to register and let us know you are coming.
Wilde Readings, Columbia’s literary reading and open mic series, eagerly launches season two on September 12th at the Columbia Art Center. When poet and author Laura Shovan approached Linda Joy Burke and myself about starting a reading series in Columbia, we offered our full support. Because Wilde Readings is funded through private donations and a generous grant from HoCoPoLitSo and is housed in the Columbia Art Center in Long Reach, any concerns about funding and a venue disappeared. Before the three of us could begin the daunting yet exciting task of selecting authors for our first year’s lineup, we first solicited naming ideas from several of our friends in the writing community. While there were many names we liked, we selected Patricia VanAmburg’s suggestion to use Wilde Readings—a dual homage to Wilde Lake, Columbia’s first village, and Oscar Wilde, a writer known for both his wit and his bravery. His words, which appear as a tagline on our promotional materials, “A writer is a person who has taught his mind to misbehave,” capture the spirit of what we hope good writing encourages.
It was especially important to all of us that we present a variety of voices and styles, as well as represent the demographics of our area and balance male and female voices. With those parameters in mind, I hope you’ll agree that our 2016-2017 inaugural series fulfilled those goals and provided our audience with ten evenings of engaging, thoughtful, and provocative voices. Fiction was well represented when Jen Grow, Jan Bowman, Austin Camacho, and Susan Muaddi Daraj shared short stories and novel excerpts. Poetry and spoken word performances, both with political undertones, captured our audience’s attention when Michael Rothenberg, Ron Kipling Williams, Ken “Analysis” Brown, Maritza Rivera, and Shelly “Says So” Washington performed. Le Hinton had a most unusual approach to his rendition of poems from his “Cotton” collection—he passed around real cotton bolls for the audiences to feel both the velvet smoothness of the white fiber and the contrasting prickles of the supporting stamen and leaves. The remaining readings featured the impressive and highly regarded poetic voices of Grace Cavalieri, Merrill Leffler, Sally Rosen Kindred, Michael Ratcliffe, Nancy Naomi Carlson, Sue Ellen Thompson, Virginia Crawford, Sam Schmidt, and City Lit’s own Carla Dupree.
Wilde Readings’ lineup of literary artists for the fall of 2017 promises to be as engaging and diverse as our opening season. We kick off the series with Debbi Mack, New York Times best-selling author of the Sam McRae Mystery Series and Pat Valdata, whose most recent work, Where No Man Can Touch, is a book of persona poems in the voices of female aviation pioneers. In October, Michael Salcman, poet, physician, and art historian, will speak about his latest work, A Prague Spring, Before and After, along with his photographer, Lynn Silverman, a professor of photography at MICA. In November, we will feature the work of D.C. poet Henry Crawford reading from his inaugural collection, American Software, and Susan Sonde, author of several books and a two-time Pushcart Nominee and winner of numerous prizes and awards. We close out 2017 with Doritt Carroll, D.C. native and author of a new chapbook entitled Sorry You Are Not an Instant Winner and poet Alan King, Bowie, Maryland, resident and author of Point Blank and Drift.
This year, in addition to lining up an exciting roster of literary guests for Wilde Readings, Laura, Linda Joy, and I plan to reach out to local teens who aspire to become writers. We’d love to put together a roster of interested writers to participate in a dedicated teen night as part of Wilde Readings. Last year, Mahitha Vijily, a teen writer from Marriotts Ridge High School, saw our event in the local papers and decided to bring her family and her book of poetry to the April Wilde Readings event. She blew us away with her provocative voice and skillful use of language and even sold a few copies of her book, Thoughts of a Wildflower. We hope to engage more voices in the coming year.
When we open the fall series on September 12, 2017, at the Columbia Art Center at 7pm, Laura, Linda Joy, and I will be there to welcome everyone, sign up open mic readers, and introduce our featured authors. We hope to see many attendees from last year and anticipate welcoming new folks as well.
By Ann Bracken
Today – September 6th – is National Read a Book Day. And on this occasion, I’m sharing with you 30 books that changed me.
These are the books that exposed me to new things (like about racial passing in Nella Larsen’s Passing), changed the way I felt about a subject or what I knew about the subject (like about death and dying in Ann Lamott’s Hard Laughter), or seemed to push the conventions of literature (like the way Laurence Stern’s Tristram Shandy experiments with structure and narrative voice). These are the books that made me say, “What? A book a can do THAT?!?!”
For most of these works, though, I don’t remember the exact plot or the details that made them so impressive. For some of these books, I bet the timing was what mattered. When I read Crime and Punishment, for example, it was right after high school. And I read it for fun. I think I was pretty proud of myself for reading a Dostoevsky for leisure. That made me an official adult.
Though I don’t remember the details, I remember the sensation. I remember the sense of awe inspired by Waiting for Godot and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. These books blew me away with their deep investigations of humans – about who we are, what we want, what we believe, what we lack, and what we could be (both beautiful and hideous).
I remember feeling very grown up after reading books like The Laramie Project and Middlesex. These books introduced me to the things that happen in the world to real people that I might otherwise have been shielded from.
I remember feeling envious when reading works like Playing in the Dark and Between the World and Me. These are the books that showed me what a human mind can think through and what a human mind can then articulate into language. The envy comes from recognizing these writers’ genius as well as the fact that I will never achieve that.
I remember the labor that went into studying Paradise Lost and Macbeth. So much to excavate and discover – again and again – in pouring over works like those. And the sense of accomplishment that comes from cracking the code in some small way to understand the text.
I also remember specific lines from these books that stay with me. Like “There is no story that is not true” from Thing Fall Apart. Like “A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe” from The Things They Carried. And these unforgettable words: “Let me imagine … what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say” from A Room of One’s Own – and I never forgot about Judith Shakespeare.
Oh, and of course – I remember the laughing and the crying. Really laughing out loud while reading Me Talk Pretty One Day. And really sobbing while reading The Kite Runner.
My literature students are writing this week about why we read and study literature. As for me, I read because I want to be changed. Even in some small way. By the time I read the last page of the book I want to feel a little different and be a little better than when I started the book.
Why do you read?
“Wait! What? Frank O’Hara lived in Baltimore?! When? Where?”
That ‘Where?’ wasn’t really the question I had in mind as I had the address in front of me – 2044 Linden Avenue, not that I knew where it was off the top of my head. I did want to know when he had lived there and why and quickly found the answers to those questions from what I was reading – he was born at Maryland General and lived in Baltimore for the first year or so of his life. But where? I wanted visual connection. So I did what has since become reflex for this reader, I turned to google, typed in the address, and took a look. The map showed the location of Linden Avenue just off North Avenue. I’ve driven by there before; I never knew. I hit Street View and there it is, the childhood street of Frank O’Hara. Pretty cool, I thought.
I love it when the literary world and the everyday world meet. It brings literature to life, makes you think about what you read in a different way, and often deepens your understanding of both.
Another time I was reading the absolutely delightful New York Walks, Six Intimate Walking Tours of New York’s Most Historic Neighborhoods , editor). The 92nd Street Y put it out a while back, soliciting the expertise of their Talks and Tours program guides. These walks around the Big Apple are legend. The book is broken up into tours of different sections of NY/NY and a reader gets to worm their way along and learn about the place without taking a step if they are on some out-of-town couch. That is a nice feat in itself, but it is such a good book that makes you wish you were on the streets with each sentence. “Hey, wait a minute,” I thought and reached for google Street View once again. Pretty magic. There I was in lower Manhattan or in one of the carriage alleys near Washington Square. Click. Click. Look around. Click. Visual connection with what the page was sharing. Here’s a sample:
Return across Fifth Avenue (carefully! — you are mid block) for a glimpse of Washington Mews. Your view may be restricted by a closed gate, since the mews is privately owned, both the houses and the alley itself.
This cobblestone alley, built in 1831, provided Washington Square’s elegant houses with access to their private stables or carriage houses. With the rise of the automobile at the beginning of this century, these un-heated one- and two-story structures fell into disuse. Many were rented to artists who were willing to endure cold and any lingering equine scent, simple because the rent was cheap.
I found this trick works for novels, too. I was reading Colm Toibin’s The Blackwater Lightship and was so struck by the idea of the place that I hopped in someone’s google Street View car and took off for County Wexford to have a look for myself. Quaint, kind of stark, beautiful. Here are two shots from the road:
Can you imagine growing up there young and full of ambition?
In real life I associate my own experiences with what I am reading. I supply the picture that goes along with the author’s words. We all do it. It is one of the ways that we can get into a book and it can get into us. Reading is a shared effort between the projection of an author and the a reader’s ability to understand through their own experience-driven interpretation. I have found that I can enhance what I bring to my part of that task with a tool like Street View. It often gives me a sense of place that adds to the text something I might not otherwise be able to contribute. Landscape, architecture, the bustle of a place, the emptiness — these are some of the things you can see for yourself with the tool. It can be very helpful. I encourage my students to use it to enhance their own work with a text. It can help deepen their understanding. So, while you are making a list of supplies for the school year ahead, make sure to jot down google Street View. You’ll be one click away from anywhere you might want to check out for yourself.
HoCoPoLitSo, Board Co-chair
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.