Carolyn Forche: Lest We Forget


On October 30th at 4 pm, HoCoPoLitSo hosts Carolyn Forche for the Annual Lucille Clifton Reading. 

Here is a reflection by Sama Bellomo who is a rehabilitation technologist who writes accessible curricula to help individuals with disabilities gain employable skills on their way into the workforce. Sama has previously contributed to this blog with a letter to HoCoPoLitSo after attending the 2014 Lucille Clifton Reading event with Michael Glaser.


When it is not possible to stop the suffering of others the decent thing to do is listen and bear witness. When we validate someone by hearing and retelling their story we help them carry the heaviest bricks of the human condition to a new space where their suffering can be built into something meaningful.

By devoting years of her life to the protection of human dignity in war-torn places Carolyn Forché gives people’s pain a way to connect, to rest. First she collects the writings of devastated people. She listens, empathizes, and surely cries.  Next, she connects the works with those of others who endure similar horrors, breaking their isolation by organizing and cataloguing their grief. Perhaps she reunites neighbours, lovers, or siblings among the pages. Maybe the loneliest are finally in good company.  Wars ruin lives – but poets like Forche give that tremendous sense of loss a new purpose, a community, a voice.

I’ve been revisiting my studies of Carolyn Forché, whose book, “Against Forgetting,” has a permanent spot in my living room.  I keep it in plain sight so that it’s a ready tool when I need to share an example of ordinary people who do extraordinary things on the worst and last days of their lives.  The book is so thick and yet it was pared down from thousands of poems for whose inclusion Forché fought individually.  Forché wrote an introduction to every single author, giving their poetry context, finding what the poem needed to say and clearing space for it in the reader’s mind.  I flip through it to remind myself to keep ownership of my responsibility to improve the human condition where I can.  I use the dog-eared pages to empower budding self-advocates.  I harvest the hope and earnestness that Forché writes into each author’s leading biography to play my part in suicide prevention, which I spend a great deal of time doing, with no regrets, and with great thanks to for training me to do without fear.

I gratefully tip my hat to Professor Jean Sonntag at Howard Community College who had a profound impact on the way I view myself and the world around me, through the lens of others’ written voices.  She supported my investigation into the Japanese Internment further by giving me an Incomplete grade at the end of the semester which gave me time to catch up on the coursework I’d set aside.  She was teaching me that I could and should make time to grow as a decent human being when there was something I really needed to understand.  Because she taught me that making time was possible I got my first good look at how delicate we are, at how quickly we will treat each other poorly if we are not careful.  The work I did to assimilate E.O. 9066 into my prior knowledge of “Great Man History” changed my sense of what it means to be proud of American History.  But even then, the most gruesome inhumanities had yet to hit me because there are so few first-hand accounts and even fewer images from the Japanese Internment Camps.  First-hand accounts have a unique way of haunting a reader’s conscience about what cruel acts people can commit against each other in deeply evil times, when just yesterday they had been neighbours.

Also at Howard Community College, Professor Lee Hartman first introduced me to Carolyn Forché. In a Creative Writing class Professor Hartman played a video where Forché spoke with HoCoPoLitSo. Forché told me in that recording what it was going to take for me to become a force to ease human suffering: I would have to listen, and it was going to hurt.

Of course I’d known what the Holocaust was, and of course I was sorry about it – for as sorry as a then-twenty-something could be about what public high school had said about it.  Forché told me through her talk that I knew too little and could not be sorry if I did not truly know how the Holocaust had undone an entire people.

Fanni Radnoti published “The Borscht Notebook,” a posthumous final volume of her late husband, the Hungarian poet and writer Miklos Radnoti.  To get the book she had sifted through a mass grave, through more than twenty bodies’ worth of human remains.  Hoping and dreading that one of those bodies belonged to her beloved, whom she had not seen in more than two years since they had been separated by the Nazis, she found him.  The book was in his pocket.  Forché dutifully told these details to my Creative Writing class through her video recording session with HoCoPoLitSo and I was no longer just sorry.  Sorry was no longer enough, and it never will be again.

My two neighbours at the time had been Holocaust survivors from Poland, who had been devoting their lives to recovering artifacts and human remains for proper burial, remains that had been turned into decorations such as tattooed skin lampshades and shrunken, sand-packed heads.  After I saw Forché speak in that video I knocked on my neighbours’ door and asked them humbly about their experiences.  They spent the next six hours showing me what they had recovered, articles and letters they had written, denials they had gotten from museums and private collections for items that had no hallowed ground.

It puts a strain on their marriage.  They lose sleep.  Their basement is a fully devoted workshop of recovery.  They write home.  They live modestly.  They carry themselves happily despite the torture that continues in their histories, in their daily life.  I was able to provide some technical support, a modest kindness to help their heroic efforts.  We have lost touch but not a day passes that they are not in my heart, a part of who I am now, determined to help with activism, closure, and rehabilitation, using any skills I have.

As a member of the LGBTQ. community I am still trying to assimilate the confusing and overwhelming truth that I myself would not have survived the Holocaust, nor would much of my community, had I lived in Eastern Europe, where part of my family is from the former Yugoslavia.  Forché’s works brought up the question in me: what do I have yet to learn about LGBTQ history, what should I be against forgetting?  I have grown to raise awareness of genocide and to resist cultural eliminativism, be the acts overt or covert.

Knowing better leaves no excuse for not doing better, and then-twenty-something me was learning that in my college years.  Somewhere in the world starvation, murder, and torture have happened today.  They happened yesterday.  They have happened since time immemorial.  They have never happened to me, and they likely never will.  That means I am in a position to do something about it.   Knowing better leaves no excuse for not doing better: what can I do for my part to move the world forward?

Forché is featured in “Voices in Wartime,” another anthology volume that portrays exactly what one would imagine it does.  A video documentary bearing the same title accompanies the book on my shelf and bears witness to the fact that Forché is not alone in her work.  There are others concerned with trying to put words on the unspeakable, to educate, an appeal for peace, a chorus of humanitarian voices.

Regretfully, I’ve read comparatively little of Forché’s own poetry.  Am I worried about what else she is going to teach me?  Am I afraid my own conscience will become too heavy a boulder, that I won’t have the strength or won’t summon the will, to push it up the mountain?  Am I afraid she will have a lighter side, and I’ll then have to find my own ways to lighten up?

Forché is so big a force in my life that it is not possible to count all the places in which her efforts have propped me up when I have stood up for myself or others, and my legs wobbled.  Lest we forget, Carolyn Forché chronicles what we need to know about human suffering if we truly wish to end it.


To reserve your ticket for the Lucille Clifton Reading to hear Carolyn Forche and her Poetry of Witness at Monteabaro Hall at Howard Community College, please visit: 

mana’s musing: where the wilde things are

Laura Yoo HoCoPoLitSo Board member and Associate Professor of English at Howard Community College.

Laura Yoo is a HoCoPoLitSo Board member and Associate Professor of English at Howard Community College.

This is a story of a prodigal daughter.

At the beginning of the summer, I made big plans.  A long list of books I wanted to read.  Big goals.  Ambitious.  I would read, read, and read some more. I had books to read. And I had the time to read them.

Instead, all through July and August, I watched TV.  A lot of it. Game of Thrones, Orange is the New Black, Stranger Things, Master Chef, and endless episodes of Chopped.  And all these hours that were committed to watching means I haven’t been reading.  There is the still-not-finished Fates and Furies on my night stand. I’m about 50 pages into Wilde Lake by Laura Lippman. Though Pride and Prejudice and Zombies intrigued me at the bookstore, I haven’t even opened it yet. Though I made good progress on Claudia Rankin’s Citizen: An American Lyric, it is not finished. (Though, you might argue, one simply does not plow through a work like Citizen.)

This summer, the room we call the “reading room” in my house was used to get away from the children to watch stuff on Netflix on my tablet with earphones shoved into my ears.

I am ashamed. Fail. Major fail.

So, clearly, I needed help.

And help came on September 13th in the form of a very wild Wilde Reading.  Organized by Laura Shovan, Ann Bracken, and LindaJoy Burke, Wilde Readings launched its first open mic night with featured readers Jen Grow and Le Hinton. An audience of about 30 gathered in one of the art studio spaces at the Columbia Art Center, the same space where my son had art summer camp. It was comfortable, friendly, and intimate.

As Laura told us, though there are many wonderful literary organizations, publications, and events in Howard County, a place for writers to come together and share freely and informally had been lacking for many years.  And Wilde Reading’s inaugural event demonstrated the very reason such gatherings are needed: it created a collage of unique, diverse literary voices.  Each time a reader went up to the podium, you just didn’t know what you were gonna get.

Jen Grow’s short story about a daughter and her dying mother just about killed me. Before she read, Jen promised to go for the jugular – her words – and she didn’t miss.  I was relieved and astonished at the same time when Jen ended by reassuring us that her mother is still living, that the story is indeed fictional.  I thought, how can one create a story like that – so moving, so real, and so visceral – without actually having lived it?  Even if one had experienced it, telling it in such a powerful way would be a difficult task.  I suppose that’s why poets are artists, creators.

Le Hinton’s reading was enhanced by a tactile experience he created for the audience.  He passed around cotton blooms for us to feel between our fingers while he read his poems on the motif of cotton.  When he read an autobiographical poem about doing math lessons with his father, he passed around Tootsie Rolls for us to enjoy.  The taste of chocolate in our mouths transported us to that room with that little boy, his father, math lessons, and Tootsie Rolls for reward.

The open mic readers included Jan Bowman and Michael Ratcliffe, two writers who will be featured in future Wilde Reading events. The open mic evening ended with a powerful performance by Analysis the Poet.

While the voices of the evening were divergent and their subject matter so varied, together these writer-performers created a one-of-kind literary sound.  And that sound, that experience can never be recreated again.  I feel lucky to have been there to witness it.

This Wilde Reading invited me back to the written word.  It pushed me around a bit – from one emotion to another and yet another – and left me wanting more.  And more I shall get – on October 4th with Jan Bowman and Derrick Weston Brown as featured readers at the second Wilde Reading.

Inspired by this Wilde Reading, I did something different today. During my son’s 45-minute swim practice, instead of browsing my Facebook page or taking quizzes on Buzzfeed, I opened a book: Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist.  And I’m in love with the written word again.

Thank you, Wilde, for welcoming back this prodigal daughter.



mana’s musing: unfolding the mystery with Jean Sonntag

2016-06-23 08.34.48During my last visit to Antique Depot in Old Ellicott City (if you’ve been reading this blog, you know I LOVE this place), I picked up several paperback copies of Agatha Christie’s mysteries.

My memories of reading Agatha Christie are also memories of growing up. On my parents’ bookshelves, I found Korean novels, histories, and poetry.  But also there were the classics like Dostoevsky and Don Quixote as well as detective novels by Agatha Christie and thrillers by Sidney Sheldon.  All in Korean.  In middle school, I read my first Christie, And Then There Were None, in Korean.

So it was with a bit of nostalgia that I began reading The Secret of Chimneys, one of my finds at Antique Depot.  Right away I noticed in her writing something dramatically different from the mystery novels of today. Novels like Girl on the Train and Gone Girl which were wildly popular recently (and made into movies) have character development (some better than others) and complicated plot twists, a mix of whodunit and exploration of various themes. Compared to these, Christie’s mystery seemed rather… plain.  Instead of sex, drugs, infidelity, violence, and blood, we find witty dialogue and a slow building of a puzzle.

Jean Sonntag - with her husband at Edith Whartons home, The Mount, in the Berkshires.

Jean Sonntag with her husband Bill at Edith Wharton’s home, The Mount, in the Berkshires.

This re-introduction to Christie made me want to learn more about the mystery genre, so I turned to my friend Jean Sonntag with some questions. Jean is an adjunct instructor of English at Howard Community College as well as a mystery enthusiast.  Here’s what she had to say about Christie and the development of the mystery genre.

Laura: How would you describe Christie’s kind of mystery-telling and our contemporary mystery-telling?

Jean: There is a huge difference. The key thing is the emphasis in Christie on solving a puzzle to the subordination of characterization, psychological analysis, or any larger themes.  Christie was part of a group called The Detection Club who had a quite elaborate set of rules for writers of detective stories in the 30’s. In short, everything should be there so the reader could solve the puzzle. Writers, of course, violated these rules at times. The tradition of ratiocination (Poe’s word) and very often an eccentric detective were part of the development of this 30’s Golden Age and Christie fits this tradition, particularly with Hercule Poirot. 

Today’s detective story leaves room for more in-depth characterization and is minus the formulaic considerations of the detective stories of Christie’s era.  Thus, someone like Elizabeth George’s Inspector Thomas Lynley and P.D. James’ Adam Dalgleish have a history that unfolds throughout the works while they are solving crimes committed by complex characters in complex situations. The modern detective story tends to be longer, more in depth, with more sophisticated style in many cases.  And some have themes; P.D. James has pointed out that she sets out to write a detective story as any one would a novel, where the plot is a natural outgrowth of plot and setting. 

Laura: Beyond the experience of thrill or curiosity, what do you think draws people to mysteries like Christie’s?

Jean: Reading Christie is a thinking (not feeling) exercise.  Her works are not exceptionally long and her style is relatively simple, with pretty good dialogue.  Those attracted to puzzle solving or who are reading strictly for entertainment love her.  All of us have times we’d like to read like that – consider that layover in an airport or the need for pure escape. Interestingly enough, many of my friends who are Christie fans cut their teeth on her as middle or high schoolers.  I came to Christie late, so the meatier mystery appeals more to me unless I need that strictly lighter entertainment option. 

In addition, Christie and the other Golden Age writers got their start between the two world wars.  I think this really supported their popularity as it was a time when readers badly needed stories where everything was tied up neatly at the end.  Even today, one school of thought says we read mysteries because we like to have that sense of closure.  More modern detective or crime novels sometimes leave us with more modern senses of ambiguity or disquiet, but I still think the solving of the crime still meets that need today.

Laura: What are your thoughts on Agatha Christie? How would you describe her influence in the mystery genre?

Jean: Although Christie is part of that rational puzzle approach to the mystery, she has had incredible success for a variety of reasons.  One is the sheer number of works she produced – over 80 detective (or thriller) novels, and over 90 novels total over a 50-year career.  The second is the fact that she escapes a bit of the label of formula fiction because of the variety of her detectives, the ingeniousness of her puzzles and the variety in settings.  The relative simplicity of her style also made it easier to translate her works into other languages. At one point, she was second to the Bible in the number of languages in which her books have appeared.

Laura: Is there a writer writing now (or recently) that you’d compare to Christie?

Jean: Someone more expert than I might have a candidate for this comparison.  I don’t think there is anyone who compares because the nature of the detective story has changed so much, and because I doubt anyone will come close to her huge output. 

I do see influences, however.  One is what we now call the “cozy mystery” – a set of writers who minimize the goriness of the crime and focus more heavily on solving the mystery but also provide more character development.  Someone once said that in Agatha Christie, the representation of the crime itself is nothing more than a bloodstain left on the floor, so the cozies are in this tradition. 

The other influence is the tradition brought to perfection in Miss Marple, a detective whom no one suspects of being involved and therefore one who can pick up clues where others couldn’t.  This sort of detective, always an amateur, is also usually a feature of the cozy mystery.  One of my favorites that fits this bill is Alan Bradley’s series (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is the first one) with a precocious child detective Flavia de Luce.  No one suspects her as she solves crimes.  

Jean calls herself an enthusiast rather than an expert, but certainly I learned a great deal from this crash course in mystery. I think my reading of Christie and other detective novels, crime novels, mysteries, and thrillers will be a bit richer for it.  Jean is hoping to teach a continuing education course on the topic sometime in the near future, and I bet the mystery enthusiasts of Howard County will thoroughly enjoy it.

Laura Yoo HoCoPoLitSo Board member and Associate Professor of English at Howard Community College.

Laura Yoo
HoCoPoLitSo Board member and Associate Professor of English at Howard Community College.

mana’s musing: experimenting with book spine poetry

Books aren’t for just reading. They’re for taking off the shelf, stacking, rearranging, and creating. (Click on the photo for a clearer and prettier view.)


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back when we were grown ups

we stood on such a full sea

to count the waves

blessing the boats

daring greatly 

and we journeyed to the center of the universe 

to find a room of one’s own

under the tuscan sun

or where the sidewalk ends 


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under the unbearable lightness of being

things fall apart

for everything that rises must converge

but the spirit catches you and you fall down

into quicksand


into paradise 

with your crooked little heart


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the things they carried

under the warmth of other suns:



earthly possessions

hard laughter



laughable loves


the secret history

of fates and furies

and so now you know when the men are gone 


Now, your turn.

Laura Yoo HoCoPoLitSo Board member and Associate Professor of English at Howard Community College.

HoCoPoLitSo Recognizes Howard County Students for Literary Achievement

For thirty-five years the HOward COunty POetry and LITerature SOciety (HoCoPoLitSo) has awarded book prizes to the winners of its All County Writing Contest, and recognized students nominated by their teachers for Promise and Achievement in Language Arts. To foster lifelong reading and a love of literature, HoCoPoLitSo presents book awards with personalized bookplates. The tradition continued this year as HoCoPoLitSo board members made presentations at all Howard County public high school senior award assemblies and the Homewood Center.

Books were presented to nine creative writing winners: Nadine Eloseily (Centennial), Angelina Zater (Howard), and Kasmita Mirani (Glenelg) in the personal essay category; Christian Salazar (Oakland Mills) Ben Yodzis (Hammond), Alexa Marquis (River Hill), Erin Hill (River Hill) and Lawrence Qiu (River Hill) in the short story category; and Xin He (River Hill), Kasmita Mirani (Glenelg) and Kiara Bell (Oakland Mills) in the poetry category. This year’s judges were Sama Bellomo, rehabilitation technologist; Joelle Biele, poet and editor, Patricia Van Amburg, poet and professor, Howard Community College; and Nsikan Akpan, HoCoPoLitSo board member and Former Promise and Achievement in Language Arts Award Winner.

In addition, twenty-four students were chosen by their English Departments to receive HoCoPoLitSo’s Promise and Achievement Award in Language Arts.  The honorees were: Amanda Etcheberrigaray, Connor Gallant (Atholton), Jessie Kwon, Teresa Whittemore (Centennial), Tiffany Nguyen, Zoe Read (Glenelg), Emily Carter, Matthew Sinnott (Hammond), Mia Dubin, Emilee Melton (Homewood Center), Hunter Hensley, Rachel Walter (Howard), Naomi Yang, Theo Yang (Long Reach), Devon Carberry, Grace Yi (Marriotts Ridge), Casey Kindall, Cory Weller (Mt. Hebron), Kiara Bell (Oakland Mills), Joseph Smith, Marya Topina (Reservoir), Alexa Marquis (River Hill), Yazunat Guta, and Sara Shemali, (Wilde Lake).

Thirty-one students in all received books by such outstanding poets and writers as Lucille Clifton, Sandra Beasley, Michael Collier, Billy Collins, Emma Donoghue, Rita Dove, Eamon Grennan, Josephine Hart, Robert Hass, Colum McCann, and Richard Wilbur.  HoCoPoLitSo is dedicated to enlarging the audience for contemporary poetry and literature through public readings, special events, writer-in-residence visits, and The Writing Life, a cable television series produced at Howard Community College, now available on YouTube, for more than 40 years.

Presenting Novelist Nadia Hashimi on June 26

Here are some numbers about Afghan refugees:

  • 2 million Afghan citizens were displaced by violence in 2015.
  • 5 million are awaiting repatriation or citizenship in Pakistan, but the government there is starting to force the refugees back to Afghanistan.
  • 1 million wait in Iran and are enduring increasingly rough treatment and deportation.

And here’s why we can read those sentences and glaze over: because our brains can’t comprehend the millions of stories in the refugee crisis.

That’s why one photograph, of one drowned toddler and his two tiny shoes sparked more outrage than the daily tally of refugees. That photo told a story that had been incomprehensible.

WhentheMoonisLow HC CNovelist Nadia Hashimi, who is of Afghan descent but grew up in New York and New Jersey, wanted to tell one family’s story, to show the humanity in the humanitarian crisis that is the migrant emergency.

Hashimi centered her 2015 novel, When the Moon is Low, around a schoolteacher, Fereiba, who lives with her family in Kabul until the Taliban imprison and kill her husband. She and her children escape the violence of Afghan’s capital and endure boat trips in the dead of night, border crossings, predatory smugglers, hunger, cold and exhaustion in their quest to reach family in London.

In the prologue, Hashimi writes in the voice of Fereiba, who is lying in a hotel bed with her children: “One day, we will not look over our shoulders in fear or sleep on borrowed land with one eye open or shudder at the sight of a uniform. One day we will have a place to call home. I will carry these children — my husband’s children — as far as I can and pray that we will reach that place where, in the quiet of their slumber, I, too, will rest.”

Hashimi will read from that novel June 26 as part of a program HoCoPoLitSo is producing with the Columbia Festival of the Arts’ summer festival. The Toronto Star wrote of When the Moon is Low: “A heartfelt story of courage amidst a world short on compassion.”


Novelist Nadia Hashimi

Hashimi’s own story is compelling. Her mother grew up in the 1960s and ’70s in a modern Kabul, going to college, wearing mini skirts, listening to music with her friends. When the Soviet invasion was imminent, her mother migrated to the Europe, then got her master’s degree in engineering. Her father emigrated to the U.S. to seek his own education. Afghanistan, under the influence of the Taliban and extremist warlords, forced women to cover, divided families, reinstituted child marriage and outlawed women’s education.

Now a pediatrician from Potomac with four children, Hashimi has written three novels in four years. When she traveled to Afghanistan after the publication of her first two novels, she found it much changed from her parents’ stories. The years have not been kind to her parents’ home country, she told an audience at the Miller Library earlier in April. Since 1970, life in Afghanistan has become especially hard for women — who were for years forbidden to work, go to school or walk unaccompanied — and she wanted to tell those stories.

When the Moon is Low is particularly topical now, in the midst of the ongoing wave of migrants seeking a better life than in their turbulent, violent native land.

Foreign Policy, in a fascinating piece about the responsibility of America in the twisted history of Afghanistan, wrote, “The case of the Afghans, one of the world’s largest refugee communities and the second-largest group – behind Syrians – to arrive in Europe recently, should serve as a reminder that the origins of today’s predicament are neither recent nor confined to the refugees’ home countries.” (Full article.)

America and its policies bear responsibility for the refugees struggling to reach a peaceful place. We should not ignore the crisis, neither its numbers, its images nor its stories. Join HoCoPoLitSo and the Columbia Festival of the Arts on June 26 to hear Hashimi read from When the Moon is Low, and a sneak peek at her upcoming book about the stories in a women’s prison in Afghanistan, House Without Windows (August 2016).

— Susan Thornton Hobby

HoCoPoLitSo board member
and recording secretary

mana’s musing: what do poets do all day?

Yes, I know. Poets write. But surely they don’t write all day, every day. They do other stuff.

As a HoCoPoLitSo board member and Howard Community College’s faculty, sometimes I get to see (somewhat) up close what writers do when they’re working away from their desks. On April 28th, HCC and HoCoPoLitSo celebrated Blackbird Poetry Festival with poets Marie Howe and Sandra Beasley, and I got to see Ms. Howe and Sandra at work.

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Sandra Beasley visited my composition class on April 28th

The poets came to HCC campus for morning workshops with students. While Ms. Howe visited a literature class, Sandra came to my 11 am composition class to talk about voice and revision. The talk was spot on. She was enthusiastic and attentive to the students. She worked hard during those 80 minutes.

After the morning workshops, the poets attended an informal lunch with some friends of poetry. In the mid-afternoon, from 2:30 to 4:30, they were the feature poets at the Blackbird Poetry Festival’s day reading where they shared the stage with Maryland Poetry Out Loud winners and other student- and faculty-poets. Both Ms. Howe and Sandra went on stage two different times and read several works each. They engaged with the student poets, coached them, and talked to them about the work of poetry and the performance of poetry. When the afternoon reading ended, the poets went to tape The Writing Life interview, where Sandra interviewed Ms. Howe.

At 7:30 pm, our evening event, Nightbird, began. Ms. Howe gave another beautiful reading and Sandra was in the front row listening with the rest of us. And after the reading, Ms. Howe signed books. At this point, it was almost 9 pm. Nonetheless, when I went up to Ms. Howe with a book, she engaged me in a conversation about my own work at HCC. She did the same with the others who approached with books clutched to their chests. She was kind, thoughtful, and engaged with her fans. So gracious. Sandra, too, stayed to chat with the audience in the lobby, and I couldn’t help but smile when I saw her get in line to get Ms. Howe’s book signed.

Poets work hard. I know that much.

I suppose some work harder than others. And I imagine there are writing divas (and divos?) out there who demand only green M&Ms in their “dressing rooms,” but most of the writers that I have met through events like the Blackbird Poetry Festival work hard from morning til late into the evening to read, talk, meet, greet, and shake hands. They take photos, they answer questions, they sign books with personal messages, they ask questions of their fans, they tell stories, and they joke.  Most importantly, they connect. They connect themselves to the readers, the poetry to the poet, and poetry to life. Real life.

They say writing is a lonely task, much of it done in solitude.  The labor of writing takes discipline, craft, and hard work.  But then there is the work that many poets do away from their desks and sometimes very far from home. Sandra Beasley, for example, was off to Massachusetts the day after her performance at Blackbird. Sometimes HoCoPoLitSo’s Irish Evening writers fly in from Ireland just for a few days for a reading or two. So, it seems to me, that so much of the writer’s work is also the people-work.

At readings, I see them scribbling, flipping through their works, and making changes to their reading list.  I see them taking notes, listening to the others, and observing what is going on in the room and who showed up. The best poet-performers listen and watch.  They don’t stand up and read the words on the page in a vacuum. Never.  These poets – the good ones, anyway – make the reading unique to that moment for that group of people. And what they create during that reading cannot be recreated.

They interview each other like they do for HoCoPoLitSo’s The Writing Life series: E. Ethelbert Miller interviewing Amiri Baraka, Roland Flint interviewing Lucille Clifton, or Naomi Ayala interviewing Martin Espada. And they also collaborate with other artists like when Steven Levya performed his poetry with Josh Soto on drums, when Rita Dove shared the stage with violinist Joshua Coyne, and when Patricia Smith performed her poetry with a string quartet.

So, I think that the work of the poet is not so isolated or so esoteric. As Susan Hobby wrote about Ms. Smith’s performance, “An artist works alone in a garret, her solitary room the site of revelation. Or not.”

And if you care to read/see more: Just for fun – here’s a catalog of some of what I have witnessed writers doing (with photos):

  • In college, I went to a Maya Angelou reading and she came onto the stage singing. So, sometimes they sing.
  • When I met Grace Paley she sat in a circle with 15 college students to read and talk about her stories. And changed lives.
  • Derek Walcott had dinner with English graduate students and entertained their very silly questions.
  • Lucille Clifton attended HoCoPoLitSPo board meetings on Saturdays.
  • Julie Otsuka had lunch with students and told stories about her craft. And later, after her reading, she spoke with community members about her book, When the Emperor was Divine.


    Julie Otsuka’s HCC visit 2009

  • I’ve seen David Mura stand on stage and inspire HCC faculty and staff with his talk on the Hero’s Journey.
  • I saw E. Ethelbert Miller stand at a podium in the lobby of Columbia Art Center and command a crowd on a cold, snowy February night.
  • Emma Donoghue wrote the screenplay for novel-turned-movie Room and got nominated for an Oscar. But, more importantly, she came to Columbia for an Irish Evening reading in 2015.
  • I’ve seen Martin Espada, a former tenant lawyer, make small talk about the weather in the car ride between the hotel and HCC, then getting on stage to deliver “Imagine the Angels of Bread” and send goosebumps on the arms of the many in the audience, including me.
  • Joseph Ross is a high school teacher, and I’ve read his wonderful blogs capturing his experience of teaching as a Poet-in-Residence for HoCoPoLitSo. Here’s one about River Hill High School.
  • Ann Bracken facilitated poetry workshops for prisoners at a correctional facility in Jessup, Maryland.

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    Special Delivery! Home No Home by Naoko Fujimoto (and tea!)

  • Laura Shovan, Sandra Beasley, and Derrick Weston Brown also worked as Poet-in-Residence for HoCoPoLitSo and worked with Howard County high school students.
  • Taylor Mali speaks about and for the teachers and advocates for the profession of teaching – and he poses for silly photos with students (see below). I’ve seen him speak to community college English professors. I’ve also seen him coach a Poetry Out Loud competitor on how to improve his performance.

    Who says poets can't be silly?

    Who says poets can’t be silly? In 2015, Taylor Mali poses with Nsikan Akpan

  • When Eamon Grennan came to read for Irish Evening this year, he fought a terrible cold and probably exhaustion from traveling to not disappoint his fans. And indeed we were not disappointed.
  • Steven Leyva is the editor of The Little Patuxent Review and teaches at the University of Baltimore. He also did professional development workshops for Howard County Schools teachers and gave us a little taste of New Orleans in the coolest poetry reading with a drummer.
  • Naoko Fujimoto, a poet I mentioned in my last blog, included a personal note with my book order (and special tea).
  • Student Katy Day taking a selfie with Billy Collins at Blackbird Poetry Festival 2014.

    Student Katy Day taking a selfie with Billy Collins at Blackbird Poetry Festival 2014.

    Billy Collins does really cool stuff like creating animation for his poetry and reading at Blackbird Poetry Festival – and he poses for silly photos with students.

    Poet Derrick Weston Brown speaks with students at Atholton High School. (Photo by Paige Feilhauer)

    Poet Derrick Weston Brown speaks with students at Atholton High School. (Photo by Paige Feilhauer)

mana’s musing: what is work? and what do poets make?

Laura Yoo, HoCoPoLitSo Board Member and Associate Professor of English at Howard Community College

Laura Yoo, HoCoPoLitSo Board Member and Associate Professor of English at Howard Community College

One of my favorite poems is Marge Piercy’s “To be of Use”. It’s a poem that reminds us to make ourselves useful, and its last stanza includes one of my favorite lines from poetry.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

Piercy’s emphasis on “work that is real” reminds me of a magazine clipping that I see on the refrigerator door at work. It’s a photo of a child with a teacher and the caption reads: “Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” These are words by Theodore Roosevelt in a 1903 speech. I am comforted by this because clearly I am doing “work worth doing.”

2016-04-20 13.31.49

But if you’re not a teacher, how might you define “work that is real”? What is “thing worth doing”?  What does “work worth doing” do?  And what does it look like? How does one find such work? How we value or devalue (or over value or undervalue) different types of work? And, really, how much do we pay for such work?

About the poet’s work, Lorine Niedecker says this in her poem “Poet’s Work”:

   advised me:
         Learn a trade
I learned
   to sit at desk
         and condense
No layoff
   from this
I suppose whether the second stanza could start with “so” or “but” determines whether or not poetry is a trade advised by Grandfather. Like the foundry or the tannery where things are made.  Indeed, we often refer to the work of writers as craft, and for this craft of “condensery” what does a poet make?  I should probably answer that question in the fashion of Taylor Mali’s “What Teachers Make,” but right now I am curious about the actual dollar amount, so I search for “what poets make.” An interesting New York Magazine’s 2011 articled called “Livelihoods of the Poets” tells us quite iterally (no, not metaphorically), this is what poetry pays:
$460 for a 36-line poem: The New Yorker
$75 a poem: The Paris Review
$25 a page: Plough-shares
$10 a line: Poetry Magazine

I never knew the number of lines had anything to do with being paid for working in poetry. That’s another “unit of measure” that I had not considered.

What about the book sales? Billy Collins sold more than 18,000 copies of his book which paid him a little over $44,000 in 2011. We’re talking about Billy Collins here; he’s a bestselling poet, if not THE bestselling poet, in America. I’d imagine that Billy Collins’ speaking/reading fees are pretty high, but most poets do not command such fees.  So, according to New York Magazine, basically there is one way to really be paid for poetry:

Approximate number of books sold by Tranströmer in America in the ten years before he won the Nobel: 12,300.
Number of copies of Tranströmer books that have been scheduled for printing since he won the prize:
at least 50,000.
Monetary reward for winning Nobel Prize:

No wonder. In a recent class discussion about work in my composition class, we were talking about how we categorize work into blue collar, pink collar, and white collar.  One student asked, “Where do musicians or writers and other artists fit in?”  One student responded, “No collar.” Another student said, “Unemployed.” The class laughed and I laughed along but it’s not too far from the truth for many people who want to do work in the arts. I meet many young people in my classrooms who dream of being musicians, artists, DJs, and chefs but give it up for more “practical” and “marketable” jobs. I have also seen people find their way back to their dream after many “practical” detours. And that’s a tough road.

Too many artists, including poets, cannot make a living doing their work, and for this reason some even give it up. Many poets work various jobs during the day and write at night (or vice versa). They ought to live like Piercy’s Greek amphora carrying wine or Hopi vase carrying corn – doing what they were made to do – but often they have to work as a purchasing associate at a Japanese tool company (if you’re Naoko Fujimoto). Of course, poets can do other jobs that are meaningful and fulfilling to them; I don’t mean they should only sit in a chair and write 9 to 5. But I do want to talk about how we count the value of not just their work (product) but also their labor (process) that they do as poets.

There is a prevailing misconception about the work of being a poet in this world, which influences how we value (or devalue) the poet’s labor. They are assumed to get up late in the morning, drink coffee, look out their windows to connect with nature, and pour out the natural creative genius into words onto that white paper. Boom. Done. Poetry. No labor. Just product in the form of a beautiful work of art.

I’m a little bit offended by the tone of an article called “How Much Money Do Poets Make.” It refers to the New York Magazine article that I mention above and says in a tone that is somewhere between encouraging and condescending,

Still, keep at it, poets. After all, money isn’t the reason you’re writing. But who knows? Maybe one day you, too, can win what New York Magazine refers to in its piece as the Nobel Lottery.

Poets, I’d like to know: What IS the reason you’re writing? [Maybe that’s the next blog post.]

Well, it’s not like they sell Nobel Lottery tickets at your neighborhood liquor store or gas station, so the internet is full of money-making opportunities for poets. A website called Writer’s Relief suggests 5 ways to make money as a poet: write greeting cards, teach, start your own business, write songs, and look for “appropriate spin-offs of the poetry publishing biz” (like arts organizations). I’m not sure how I feel about this. Why shouldn’t poets make a living doing their craft, their trade, their “real work” (Piercy) and “work worth doing” (Roosevelt)?

How do we count the worth of any work in a capitalist society? How do we know that one work deserves $7.25 an hour (federal minimum wage) while another deserves $75 (per poem for The Paris Review) and yet another deserves $725 an hour (hourly billing rate for top lawyers and advertising creatives)?

If not by dollars, by what other measure do we count the worth of our work?


mana’s musing: how to celebrate world poetry day – with friends

Laura Yoo, HoCoPoLitSo Board Member and Associate Professor of English at Howard Community College

Laura Yoo, HoCoPoLitSo Board Member and Associate Professor of English at Howard Community College

March 21st is United Nation’s World Poetry Day.

Poetry reaffirms our common humanity by revealing to us that individuals, everywhere in the world, share the same questions and feelings. Poetry is the mainstay of oral tradition and, over centuries, can communicate the innermost values of diverse cultures. In celebrating World Poetry Day, March 21, UNESCO recognizes the unique ability of poetry to capture the creative spirit of the human mind.

Maya Angelou wrote and read “Brave and Startling Truth” to commemorate UN’s 50th anniversary in 1995.  She says she wrote this poem “for every human being on this earth” – “We, this people,” she says.

So, to celebrate World Poetry Day on March 21st, I shared my favorite poem, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” by William Butler Yeats on Facebook.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

I also asked friends to share a poem, and the response was overwhelming. This anthology of poetry created by my friends was too good to just sit on my Facebook page. It had to be shared with more people. So here it is. [Friends, I hope you don’t mind my sharing.]

Please enjoy my friends’ favorite poems – and go on a poem-hunt and discoveries of your own.

And if you’re inspired, come and experience poetry in real life with Marie Howe at 7th Annual Blackbird Poetry Festival on April 28th at Howard Community College.


And with my pen I wrote the same
I wrote in both hast and speed
and left it here for fools to read

Abraham Lincoln’s poem (didn’t know Lincoln write poems!)



Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,

strong legs, bones and teeth,

and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,

and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.

– Billy Collins’ “The Lanyard”



I say drop a mouse into a poem

and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room

and feel the walls for a light switch.

Billy Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry”



I bathed int he Euphrates when dawns were young.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.

I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.

I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.

I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln

went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy

bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”



O you whom I often and silently come where you are, that I may be with you;
As I walk by your side, or sit near, or remain in the same room with you,
Little you know the subtle electric fire that for your sake is playing within me.

Walt Whitman’s “O You Whom”



balloonMan          whistles


On a quiet street where old ghosts meet I see her walking now
Away from me so hurriedly my reason must allow
That I have wooed not as I should a creature made of clay –
When the angel woos the clay he’d lose his wings at the dawn of day.


these hips are big hips
they need space to
move around in.
they don’t fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.


Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)


You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That’s American.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!


Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise


Thus Nature spake—The work was done—
How soon my Lucy’s race was run!
She died, and left to me
This heath, this calm and quiet scene;
The memory of what has been,
And never more will be.


And so
it has taken me
all of sixty years
to understand
that water is the finest drink,
and bread the most delicious food,
and that art is worthless
unless it plants
a measure of splendor in people’s hearts.


I remember my father waking me for early prayers.
He would do it by gently stroking my forehead, not
by tearing away the blanket.


Here I am in the reservation of my mind
and silence settles forever
the vacancy of this cheap city room.
In the wine darkness my cigarette coal
tints my face with Geronimo’s rage
and I’m in the dry hills with a Winchester
waiting to shoot the lean, learned fools
who taught me to live-think in English.


Birds and flowers will keep one busy.
Make collections of both, and observe the battles and songs of birds.
Watch for the eggs of Phoebe about the middle of the month.
Study the circulation of the blood in a frogs’s foot.
Take up mental hygiene;
because it is much needed now.


Barn’s burnt down —
I can see the moon.


Yet everything that touches us, me and you,
takes us together like a violin’s bow,
which draws one voice out of two separate strings.


I LEFT you in the morning,
And in the morning glow,
You walked a way beside me
To make me sad to go.
Do you know me in the gloaming,
Gaunt and dusty grey with roaming?
Are you dumb because you know me not,
Or dumb because you know?


April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

Marie Howe to read at 8th Annual Blackbird Poetry Festival

HoCoPoLitSo’s guest for its eighth annual Blackbird Poetry Festival is former New York State Poet Laureate and acclaimed author Marie Howe.

The Blackbird Poetry Festival, to be held April 28, 2016, on the campus of Howard Community College, is a day devoted to verse, with student workshops, book sales, readings and patrols by the poetry police. The Sunbird poetry reading, featuring Ms. Howe, as well as Washington, D.C., poet Sandra Beasley and Howard Community College students, will start at 2:30 p.m.  Ms. Howe will read from and discuss her most recent work, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, as well as new, unpublished poems, during the Nightbird Poetry Reading, starting at 7:30 p.m. in the Smith Theatre of the Horowitz Center for Visual and Performing Arts.  Nightbird general admission tickets are $20 each (students and seniors are $15) available on-line at or by sending a self-addressed envelope and check payable and mailed to HoCoPoLitSo, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Horowitz Center 200, Columbia, MD 21044.

“Marie Howe’s poetry is luminous, intense, and eloquent, rooted in an abundant inner life.
Her long, deep-breathing lines address the mysteries of flesh and spirit, in terms accessible
only to a woman who is very much of our time and yet still in touch with the sacred.”
—Stanley Kunitz  

Acclaimed poet and teacher Marie Howe served as the Poet Laureate of New York State from 2012 to 2014.  Her mentor and former U.S. Poet Laureate Stanley Kuntz said: “Marie Howe’s poetry is luminous, intense, and eloquent, rooted in an abundant inner life. Her long, deep-breathing lines address the mysteries of flesh and spirit, in terms accessible only to a woman who is very much of our time and yet still in touch with the sacred.”

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