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W. S. Merwin, a fellow pacifist, writer, and gardener, was a hero in all things to me.
The poet died this weekend at the age of 91 in his Hawaiian home. He was one of the first authors who wrote verse about the catastrophes of the Vietnam War and its effects not just on the American soldiers, but on the devastated Vietnamese countryside and people. He refused to accept his Pulitzer Prize for his book The Carrier of Ladders in 1971 because of the tragedies occurring in southeast Asia centering on the Vietnam War.
Merwin reclaimed his “garden,” nineteen acres of Hawaiian pineapple plantation land that had been wrecked by agricultural abuse. Over forty years, he hand-planted the dirt with 3,000 palm seedlings and transformed barren fields into a native rainforest. That land is now in permanent conservation.
But most of all, I admire Merwin for his gem-like poems of sheer beauty. What this writer could do with words – both his own and with those of French, Spanish, Latin and Italian poets that he translated – was astonishing.
Merwin visited HoCoPoLitSo in 1994, just after he had won the first Tanning Poetry Prize, which was awarded to a master American poet, but before he won his second Pulitzer in 2009. He spoke to a small group of 50 people about the craft of writing, then read his poetry to the audience that crowded the ballroom, lobby and stairways of Oakland Manor.
Earlier that day, he taped an episode of The Writing Life, HoCoPoLitSo’s writer-to-writer talk show. On that show, he spoke with poet Roland Flint about a coming environmental crisis in the world: “What is happening to the great forests in the world, I feel it like an illness,” Merwin said, thumping his fist into his belly. Because people have cut themselves off from the world outside their windows and screens, “we find ourselves in a place that is false and dangerous, and increasingly destructive.”
To watch him read his exquisite verse, “Late Spring,” “West Wall,” and “The Solstice” from The Rain in the Trees, and two poems from Travels, “Witness” and “Place” watch The Writing Life episode.
In the unmade light I can see the world
as the leaves brighten I see the air
the shadows melt and the apricots appear
now that the branches vanish I see the apricots
from a thousand trees ripening in the air
they are ripening in the sun along the west wall
apricots beyond number are ripening in the daylight
Whatever was there
I never saw those apricots swaying in the light
I might have stood in orchards forever
without beholding the day in the apricots
or knowing the ripeness of the lucid air
or touching the apricots in your skin
or tasting in your mouth the sun in the apricots
Susan Thornton Hobby
His Excellency Daniel Mulhall, the Irish Ambassador to America, drew a hearty laugh from the audience at Friday night’s Irish Evening of Music and Poetry.
As a daily counterbalance to the insanity on Twitter, Mulhall sends out a few lines of Irish poetry every morning.
To the audience at the poetry reading last week, Mulhall joked that he’s starting a campaign: “It’s time to Make Poetry Great Again.”
After the laughter died down, HoCoPoLitSo board members could be heard muttering amongst themselves, “Poetry was always great.”
But timeline quibbles aside, HoCoPoLitSo was thrilled to welcome the ambassador and sterling poet Vona Groarke to the forty-first Irish Evening.
Last Friday morning, in tribute to Irish Evening, Mulhall sent into the Twitterverse a few lines from Groarke’s beautiful poetry:
Anyway, the leaves were almost on the turn
And the roses, such as they were, had gone too far.
It was snow in summer. It was love in a mist.
It was what do you call it, and what is its name
And how does it go when it comes to be gone?
There’s at least one thing that Mulhall and U.S. President Donald Trump share – they like to start the day with a Tweet. But oh, there’s a world of difference between them.
The poems Groarke read on Friday night were both tender and fierce. Her “Pier,” was well applauded for its verve in chronicling the leap from a pier into the Atlantic on Spittel beach, on the West coast of Ireland. Though Groarke confessed that she hasn’t yet made the leap herself, she’s watched it done, she said, a bit sheepishly. And the poem proves she can feel it.
Many in the audience commended Groarke’s translation from the Irish – the first by a woman poet – of “The Lament for Art O’Leary.” This poem chronicles the mourning and protest of a wife, keening over the body of her Catholic husband, killed by the Protestants, ostensibly for having too fine a horse. And Groarke’s translation was both sensual and sorrowful.
The selections of prose Groarke read from Four Sides Full, her book of prose about art frames, were illuminating, particularly the anecdote about the show of empty frames in the Hermitage in Leningrad, signifying the hiding of artwork to preserve it.
Poetry and music brought some 300 people together last Friday night. Perhaps verse can heal divisions in countries, between people, if we only open our hearts to others’ stories.
Susan Thornton Hobby
By Laura Yoo
A popular image of book clubs is that it’s an “excuse” for women to get together to drink wine. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that. But my book club, which I joined two years ago, is actually a book club. The 14 member group is super organized, and we actually read the books that we choose as a group (done very democratically). There is wine and a good amount of talking politics, but overall it is a reading club. There is always robust literary discourse.
Book clubs and the battle of the sexes
Pew Research reports that 11% of Americans are involved in some kind of a reading circle or a book club. But in general book clubs are seen as something women do. Men have poker nights. Women have book clubs.
It turns out that it actually has a historical beginning as a female activity. Audra Otto, writing for MinnPost, reports 1634 as the first known instance of an organized reading group in (or on the way to) America:
On a ship headed for the Massachusetts Bay Colony, religious renegade Anne Hutchinson organizes a female discussion group to examine sermons given at weekly services. Eventually condemned by the Bay Colony’s general assembly, the gatherings inaugurated a tradition of women’s analytical discussion of serious texts.
The banning of this organization signals that a gathering of women to share ideas was seen as dangerous or maybe even evil. But, women continued to organize elsewhere. Hannah Adams formed a reading circle in the late 1760s and Hannah Mathers Crocker in 1778. Adams’ and Crocker’s reading circles are revolutionary in that they created opportunities for women to form communities of intellectual development when women couldn’t go to school or college.
Another example of such revolutionary gatherings is the Friends in Council formed by Sarah Atwater Denman, the oldest continuous women’s literary club in America.
In November of 1866, Denman invited 11 ladies to her home to create a study plan. She wanted each member of her book club to develop a philosophical point of view for herself, and a study plan was an excellent place to begin. Over time, Friends in Council consumed great works of history and philosophy, spending two years on Plato alone.
So, historically speaking, the book club has been a female act of subversion.
Book clubs in the 21st century
A 2016 The New York Times article caused some stir when it profiled The Man Book Club, the International Ultra Manly Book Club, and the NYC Gay Guys’ Book Club. The article mentioned that the The Man Book Club in California has a “No books by women about women” rule. This and other details about these men’s book clubs suggested chauvinism and sexism. The backlash was so strong that The Man Book Club issued An Apologia on their website, in which they explain how they arrived at their group name (think the Man Booker Prize) and how they select their books (which does include books by women). It seems that because book clubs are pegged as “female” activity, these men hyper-emphasize the “man” part of their book club. While many criticized these men clubs, others like Slate’s L.V. Anderson came to their defense, saying,
We shouldn’t see all-male book clubs as a reactionary backlash against female book clubs, or an attempt to co-opt a traditionally female space, but as a way for men to enjoy the social and intellectual benefits of book clubs without destroying the homosocial camaraderie of all-female book clubs.
Today, book clubs go beyond groups of friends getting together to read and chat. Websites like Meetup.com and other social media tools help us organize or join groups with strangers. The NYC Gay Guy’s Book Club, for instance, has 120 members on Meetup.com and anywhere between 10 to 60 members show up for a meeting at a public library. The search results for book clubs in my area include The Girly Book Club of Baltimore, Intersectional LGBTQ+ Allies Book Club for Women of DMV, and the Silent Reading Club (of Rockville). I am particularly loving this idea of gathering in a group to read silently.
Recently, I was invited to attend another friend’s book club gathering to talk about Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming. This was a much smaller group – there were only four of us that night. We got comfy on the couch, drank wine, talked about the book a little, then talked mostly about our families, our kids, education and schools, about how we grew up, and even some politics. It was a lovely evening.
Book clubs are not about the books (only)
I think we can see that the book club is not always (only) about books. For many, the book club is a way to see friends and form meaningful bonds, as both the Man Book Club and the International Ultra Manly Book Club report. For others, the book club is a way to meet new people. As Jon Tomlinson, founder of the NYC Gay Guys’ Book Club says, “People come to connect, to find their place in a new city, to fall in love.”
For Scarlett Cayford, the book club was a way to meet people when she moved to London – four years later, she was still going to the same book club. As Cayford says, book clubs are not about books – they are “about bonding, and they’re about conversation, and they’re about sharing secrets. I can’t speak for all, of course, but the book clubs I‘ve attended usually end up involving about 30 minutes of intense book discussion […] and nigh on three hours on the subject of different sexual proclivities.”
Well, my book club does not discuss sexual proclivities. Nonetheless, I look forward to my monthly book club gatherings for two reasons. First is that I have time built into my schedule to see my friends. We take turns hosting at our homes and facilitating the discussion. I enjoy the company of these women who are my colleagues, mentors, and friends – and I cherish the opportunities to see them regularly.
The second is that the book club makes me read. Sometimes – like my students – I cram my reading just a few days before the gathering. Recently, I’ve had to admit to myself that I watch more than I read. I’m much more likely to pick up my tablet or turn the TV on to binge-watch something deliciously useless. After a long day at work and shuttling the kids around, it’s a relief to change into pajamas and cozy up in my “reading chair” to watch the outrageously handsome Hyun Bin in a Korean drama or ass-kicking Keri Russell in The Americans. I used to actually read in that reading chair. After a long day at work and shuttling kids around, it was a relief to get lost in a good book. But the ease of accessing television shows on mobile devices is oh-so-tempting. So, my book club is my antidote to binge-watching.
This month, our book club is reading Word by Word by Kory Stamper. I am not sure what my book club members are feeling about it – we haven’t met yet – but I am loving every page of this book. I am a word-nerd, and I am savoring the juicy details of how the dictionary is written and how we may be in the middle of a seismic shift in the meaning of “of” (as suggested by the newfangled phrase “bored of” as opposed to “bored from” and “bored with”). I’m giddy about exchanging tweets with Stamper about her use of the word “goddamned” which I found amusing. I’m enjoying the book, for sure. But I’m REALLY going to enjoy talking about it with my friends this week.
I don’t know about subversion and rebellion and all that, but I know I enjoy the company of my friends, books, and wine – that’s a powerful combination.
Save the Date! HoCoPoLitSo is sponsoring a book club of cli-fi, climate fiction, at the Miller Library, one book each season. The first book, Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, will be discussed April 4, 7 to 8 p.m. Discussion will be led by Susan Thornton Hobby, a consultant to HoCoPoLitSo, and Julie Dunlap, a writer and environmental educator. More details to come!
I swoon at a good love poem. Here’s a quick introduction to two that have me dizzy on my feet.
Both are by Vona Groarke, HoCoPoLitSo’s guest for this year’s evening of Irish writing and music – it’s this Friday, don’t just mark your calendar, get your ticket. I offer these poems here as foreshadowing for the event, a beloved favorite annual occurrence that’s been going on for more than forty years now. Both poems I discovered while reading up in advance of her visit. Each has me in its own way a little breathless, smitten, staring newly in love at their marvel.
“What leaves us trembling…”
“Shale” is just a great little love poem, I think. It left me trembling. Read the the length of the poem here, it’s not long, but I am only sharing a few stanzas in this piece. It starts and ends by a ‘not telling’ device, meanders nicely in-between, but what it ends up saying along the way.
What leaves us trembling in an empty house
is not the moon, my moon-eyed lover.
Say instead there was no moon
though for nine nights we stood
on the brow of the hill at midnight
and saw nothing that was not
contained in darkness, in the pier light,
our hands, and our lost house.
I described it to a friend as perhaps opaque while trying to be translucent, but opalescent all the while. It’s that opalescent surface that’s dazzling and intriguing, then you peer through the shimmer into what the poem’s lovers share as example of us all. There’s the narrator relating a contemplative monologue, a scenario that is part plot, part seeming. I am not sure what is actually moment and what is shared mind, but it doesn’t matter, the poem’s lovers seem to find themselves at that point of realization and action that comes when two bodies/souls make that moment out of circumstance and each other that is a fusing. And that ending, wow, an unsayable understanding just left there. You know what I’m saying?
The sea is breaking and unbreaking on the pier.
You and I are making love
in the lighthouse-keeper’s house,
my moon-eyed, dark-eyed, fire-eyed lover.
What leaves us trembling in an empty room
is not the swell of darkness in our hands,
or the necklace of shale I made for you
that has grown warm between us.
That warming of such a tangible object is quite a making. What a poem. I’ll go back and read it again and again, wanting that answer, finding that stone.
“Let the worst I ever do to you be die.”
An aubade is a first-thing-in-the-morning poem lovers share to each other. Think of the nightingale and the lark in Romeo and Juliet. In that case, the debate was about which bird’s song was determining the moment over, the day begun, and the time together over, or not, one being the voice of morning, the other of night. A clever quartet for the two still in bed.
The poem “Aubade” from Spindthrift takes on a different sort of in-between-lovers morning scenario. As readers, we are on the sickbed where the caretaker of the couple narrates understanding and affection while tending the beloved. It is hardly a place for a love poem, one would think, but oh how it is. The poem is pictured here in its entirety, so have read.
It’s a way more transparent read that the previous piece, but you do gain a sense of Ms. Groarke’s way of presenting the world through her observations and language. Transparent, but the glass is beautifully etched with fern and foam.
And there’s one line that just dropped me:
Let the worst I ever do to you be die.
Such a sober realization of the inevitable, that we will die on those we love and that is quite a thing should we be the first to go. There’s a dearness and commitment in that line that is quite a realization. Ideally, it is the worst we’ll do. Is love ever ideal? And then that last, true-love line, pure presence, able and ideal, and love in action.
I am here, blessed, capable of more.
Beautiful. Love poems aren’t just for the young, the beautiful, the wooing. They are for the lifelong and every moment.
It’s time for you to fall in love… with Irish Evening.
Mentioned above, Vona Groarke will be reading from her work followed by a concert of Irish music and championship step-dancing at HoCoPoLitSo’s 41st Irish Evening on Friday, February 8, 2019 at Smith Theatre in the Horowitz Center for Visual Performing Arts on the campus of Howard Community College in Columbia, Maryland.
For this year’s Irish Evening, music will be performed by The Hedge Band, featuring Laura Byrne on flute, NEA National Heritage Fellowship winner Billy McComiskey on box accordion, Donna Long on piano, and Jim Eagan on fiddle. Traditional Irish Dancing will be performed by Teelin Irish Dance, featuring owner and director Maureen Berry and the 2016 World Champion Saoirse DeBoy.
It’s going to be a special evening. You are going to fall in love with Irish Evening.
The program begins at 7:30 p.m. Click here for tickets.
When young adult bestselling author Jason Reynolds heard that HoCoPoLitSo’s archive of The Writing Life shows featured episodes with Amiri Baraka and Lucille Clifton, he shook his head in wonder. When he heard that HoCoPoLitSo’s web site had more than one hundred taped shows with literature’s rock stars, he said, “Oh, I’m going down that rabbit hole!”
And indeed, YouTube has offered scholars, readers, and writers an amazing opportunity – to learn about craft from contemporary literature’s greatest writers. Since 1985, HoCoPoLitSo has been preserving on video a series of half-hour conversations between diverse authors. Many of those writers have recently gone to afterlife rooms of one’s own: Baraka, Clifton, Richard Wilbur, Donald Hall, Gwendolyn Brooks, Frank McCourt.
No one has to set their DVR to catch the cable replays of these shows – just log onto YouTube.com/hocopolitso anytime. HoCoPoLitSo has spent more than ten years digitizing the brittle and fragile archival tapes to preserve those shows. The YouTube channel has garnered more than 1,100 subscribers and 400,000 views. And our latest upload, the show recorded with young adult author and poet Laura Shovan speaking with Reynolds, is already gathering raves.
One school administrator, after watching the show with Jason Reynolds, wrote, “This is a great conversation about author’s craft and decisions in a book (Long Way Down) that many of our students have read! Sharing with all my teachers.”
And a student reader wrote: “My language arts teacher met him a year ago and he signed two books for her and my teacher always pointed out the heart he put in the book and she always brags and says that this is going to be our favorite author and so far yes, he has these great books that give me feelings and before the Spider Man book came out, my teacher knew too.”
Reynolds is converting readers, just like HoCoPoLitSo wants to do.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Executive producer of The Writing Life
Recently, I posted the Columbia Flier cover story about local bookstores to our Facebook page. The article post, featuring the likes of Books With A Past and the new Barnes & Noble at the Columbia Mall, got lots of attention. It is inspiring to see the love of the local store through thumbs up, hearts, and shares, and it has me thinking of the section of my own bookshelves that features books on books and bookstores, and writers on reading and writing. I thought I would share a few of the treasures there and recommend they find their way to your shelves.
My Bookstore – edited by Ronald Rice and Booksellers Across America and with an introduction by Richard Russo – It’s hard to put this down, but then it is hard not to put it down. It is a collection of an array of writer recollections of their favorite bookstores, and features towards eighty writers (Isabel Allende, Dave Eggers, Edith Perlman, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and so on) each providing a few pages of personal vantage and appreciation. Now, why would you want to put that down? To get in your car and head out to your own favorite local and live your own experience first hand, silly.
“I still own books that have remained alive and dear in my thoughts since I was a boy, and a part of the life of each one is my memory of the bookstore where I bought it and of the bookseller who sold it to me.” — Wendel Berry in My Bookstore
84, Charing Cross Road – Helen Hanff – I think this was the first bookstore book I ever read and, if I remember correctly, it might have been my dad or mom that gave me the copy (or maybe it was my mother-in-law, we are an extended book reading family and all love this one). Can’t quite remember. I do remember it being absolutely delightful, an epistolary tale of a dutiful reader’s cross-Atlantic relationship with a bookstore that kept her in all the titles her mind wanted to pursue, no matter the whimsy or rarity. Short and sweet and I am thinking I should read it again. So delightful the story and characters, they made a movie. Trying to remember now if there was a sequel book. Hmm.
My Reading Life and A Lowcountry Heart – Pat Conroy – These are another introduction and gift from my dad. They chronicle the writer of The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides reading and writing life. I have only come to them in the last so many years, but am very happy to not have missed either. I binged the both. If you go on a Conroy binge – recommended – make sure to add The Water is Wide to the list. It adds bio of his development as a caring teacher to the reading and writing.
Sixpence House – Paul Collins – It was my mom that gave me this treat: imagine a whole town of bookstores. It exists, and this is the book about it. Well, it is actually the story about the author moving out of his American life and into Hay-on-Wye in Wales to run a bookstore in the town of bookstores. Any sane person would wonder Hay-on-What? Wonder through the pages of this book and you’ll add to your bucket list the desire to have a wander through the place itself one day.
“It really is an APPALLING thing to think of the people who have no books…It is only by books that most men and women can lift themselves above the sordidness of life. No books! Yet for the greater part of humanity that is the common lot. We may, in fact, divide our fellow-creatures into two branches – those who read books and those who do not.” — Paul Collins in Sixpence House
The Bookshop At 10 Curzon Street and A Spy In The Bookshop – Letters between Nancy Mitford and Heywood Hill. You shouldn’t need more of an introduction than that. I am pretty sure that is what had me pulling these two volumes off of a used bookstore shelf in Chicago a while back. I think it was Chicago. Dig in, they are delightful. (Note: in my mind all the good bookstores tend to blend into one epic thing, a sort of heaven of a place that just drifts shelf to shelf.)
Books and Literary Life – both memoirs by Larry McMurtry. Oh no. I can’t find my copy of Books. Now, would I have lent it out? Hope not. Or did I borrow a copy to read? There’s more than this that makes me mad about these memoirs from the very famous Larry McMurtry. You see, he used to run a bookstore just down the way in Washington, D.C. and I was never clued in enough to the world at the time to know, to go. I never went. I never saw/met him as he worked behind the counter, easy as it would have been. That is a thing I will always regret. Fortunately, I have these two books to stew over, and I love that.
Of course there’s more (who/what would you add to the list? – in the comments, please). But that is enough for a blog post.
Notice that I haven’t linked you to any online opportunities to track down these things? When you are done reading in a sentence or so, get yourself in a car and head out to Books With A Past, Attic Books, Gramps Attic Books, Second Edition Books, or even the new Barnes and Noble outside at The Mall (we want all the brick and mortar books sellers to be successful, stocked and ready for us) or the older one at Long Gate. If you can’t find what you are looking for on the shelves, ask. They’ll track it down for you. It’s the bookstore way.
HoCoPoLitSo Board Co-Chair
BY LAURA YOO
All day Saturday, I was cocooned inside the warmth and protection of poetry at the 17th Biennial Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark, New Jersey. So I didn’t know what was going on out in the world and I didn’t know what would happen the next day. I didn’t know that another terrible news story was brewing. But maybe the poetry knew.
My friend and I left Columbia at 6:30 in the morning and arrived in Newark by 10:00. We planned to stay for 6 hours of poetry and head back home that night. We were ambitious.
At the very first session, Jan Beatty, Tina Chang, Cortney Lamar Charleston, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, and Danez Smith blew us away. Their poetry tore me apart with its heartache, beauty, hope, violence, and revelation. Somehow, I felt like each poem was about me or for me. How could that be? How could every poem be about fathers or about being a mother? Of course, that’s not really true. Poems are about lots of things. But what I realized is that poems touch you and maybe even hurt you where you are most vulnerable. For me, I am most vulnerable in my identity as a mother to two boys and I am most sensitive about the loss of my father who died eight years ago. Those are the two places that are the softest and yet the toughest because that’s where I hold so much fear, joy, sadness, regrets, and hope.
At a session called “Crossing Boundaries,” I heard tenderness in Joy Ladin‘s reading, defiance in Natalie Scenters-Zapico‘s, and anger in Paul Tran‘s. The discussion that followed made me think about the complexity of boundaries – about how they work both ways. They mark inclusion and exclusion. They protect but also they reject. Barriers between English and Spanish; between man and woman; between gay and straight. As if there are these solid lines of boundary that can really contain us and separate us from one another. On the other hand, the poets reminded us, there are boundaries that we need, like privacy and the inner self.
In “Poetry and the News,” Tina Chang, Aaron Coleman, Safia Elhillo, and J.C. Todd, read their poems about how poems may be an antidote to the news even as they simultaneously speak of the news. Elhillo, who is Sudanese and Muslim, talked about being tired of being the subject of the news and of being asked to speak for “her people.” Her poems, which experiment with the form of the interview, made me think of a kind of subjugation through interrogation. Chang’s poems wove together the personal and the political, our own stories and news stories.
At the last session of the day, I got to hear Hieu Minh Nguyen, Nancy Reddy, sam sax, and J.C. Todd. And as Todd read the last line of the last poem for the session, the room went completely dark and silent – the power had gone out due to manhole covers blowing out in front of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center down the street. It seemed like a totally appropriate response to the powerful readings of these poets.
As Newark was burning below, green and black smoke oozing out from underground, and losing its power – literally but not literarily – my friend and I left and drove three hours back to Columbia. We talked nonstop during that ride about all that we had seen, heard, and felt. When we got home, we had more to say, so we continued our talk over 막걸리 (rice wine) and 부대찌개 (Korean “army stew”). There was poetry in those Korean soul foods, too.
The next day, I was still reeling from the trip when I saw many posts on Facebook and Instagram supporting the LGBTQ+ people. I thought, “What now? What’s going on?” I googled “transgender in the news” and saw the following headlines:
“The Trauma of the Trump Administration’s Attacks on Transgender People”
“Trump administration considers elimination of transgender recognition”
Dodge must have seen it coming. It was like the poets were predicting dire situations with their panels about boundaries, identities, bodies, and the news. With sessions like “Who Is It Can Tell Me Who I Am: Poetry and Identity” and “Whose Body?” Dodge Poetry Festival was preparing us, giving us the energy and the ammunition we would need to engage in the political (and emotional) fight against moves that take away rights, take away protection, and take away personhood.
And I know, too, that all the poetry in the world cannot fix what needs to be fixed if we don’t vote.
Read poetry. Vote. That’s what I will do.
I had never heard of Marilyn Chin. But there I sat in the hazy Smith Theatre, listening to the petite, flip-flop-clad lady unfold her Chinese heritage, her voice’s rich resonance baptizing life into her words. Peppered with rhetorical questions and salted with snark, Marilyn Chin’s poetry invited the audience into conversation. As she discussed her experience with assimilation, I thought back to my years of insecurity with my Nigerian identity.
During my childhood, I tugged at my belly, my hair, my skin. I hunched in over myself. But I remember watching a spoken word from YouTube during youth group, the same lines which had echoed through my house the entire week prior because my mom, the youth leader, had been so fascinated by the video. Ears straining to keep up with the whiplash tempo, the laughing cadence, I snapped my fingers, riveted by the rain of spitfire, desperately beckoning the words barked out of the poets’ lips to be mine.
Slam poetry was alive.
A tandem of voice and pulse, spoken word went beyond sonnets and “thou”s and lofty declarations of love; it playfully teased out slant-rhymes and sidestepped the conventions of language. Poetry, I discovered, could be as unorthodox as I wished, and listening to the crowd of adroit artists (cough-SarahKay-PatrickRoche-BlytheBaird-OmarHolmon-cough) has since stirred a hunger.
Maybe I am looking for truth, naked and unholy. Maybe I write because I’m looking to sing what could be my gospel, to scream it in the shower, to spit it into the mic, to whisper it in an ear, to let it breathe ink and paper and dust.
While I write, I’ve knocked on Petrarch’s door, revisiting the poetry I once scoffed, imbibing in myself a greater appreciation for the art. Analyzing syntax and diction is what I love to do—maybe because I regularly eye my friends’ texts. (There’s a world of difference between “ok” and “Okay.”) While I am yet to be convinced that every inch of a poem is birthed from divine inspiration, I nevertheless believe that the spectrum of poetry—from spoken word to the coffee-stained margins—contains a delicateness that ought to be explored with careful hands and open eyes. As a writer, I wish to infuse electric vulnerability in my writing, inviting readers and listeners to unwind, to laugh, to have conversation.
Eunice Braimoh finds herself in a limbo between cultures: in her room hangs the Nigerian flag, while Maryland’s mosaic fusion has grafted itself into her heart. As a writer exploring vulnerable curiosity, she wishes to symphonize conversation regarding race, gender, and diversity. When not effusively fangirling over slam poetry and intricate word-play, Eunice can be found writing (and rewriting) her own poetry and fiction. Previously recognized with two Regional Keys from the D.C. Metro Region, Eunice recently received a Silver Key for her poem “in which icarus does not drown”. She will be attending University of Maryland, College Park as an English major starting this fall.
A blog post by Laura Yoo
“My favorite part of the book was when James’s parents died!” my 9-year old son Sammy yelled. And everyone around the table yelled back, “What? Oh my God! Why?” He had a perfectly reasonable response: “Because! That’s what made the whole story possible!”
Five 9-year old boys sat around the kitchen table at the home of Brooke Dalesio on a gorgeous, sunny April afternoon talking about Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach. School had gotten out three hours early, and the five boys were invited to the first installment of the Boys’ Book Club organized by Brooke for her son Nate and four of his friends. Brooke is a reading specialist who currently works with education majors at University of Maryland College Park, supervising their student teaching. She also works with the reading team as a Title 1 reading tutor at the five boys’ school, Longfellow Elementary in Howard County, Maryland.
Back in February, when Brooke texted me with, “I have a crazy idea that I thought we could do together,” I responded with, “I’m scared.” She proposed to host a book club for a few of Nate’s friends, including Sammy. After a few more text messages back and forth about the logistics, I answered the call with “What the hell! Let’s try it!”
At first, Sammy wasn’t so sure. I guess he just didn’t know what to expect. He asked, “Is it like school work? It sounds like school work.” I assured him that it’d be EVEN MORE FUN than school work. Brooke got the ball rolling by emailing the moms, and Sammy started reading James and the Giant Peach. He loved it right away. When he was finished, he handed it to me (I had not yet read the book) and moved onto Fantastic Mr. Fox. He was counting the days til the first book club meeting. (I cheated by listening to the audio book of James and the Giant Peach, which I highly recommend, by the way.)
For the first book club meeting, Brooke offered fresh peach slices and peach smoothies for snack. They also munched on peach flavored gummy snacks that Sammy and I found at Lotte. While the boys enjoyed their snacks, they started the meeting by sharing general impressions of the book. They kept raising their hands – just like in school – instead of having a conversation. But that was okay – they’d need practice.
They took turns picking discussion questions that Brooke had prepared. The boys got a kick out of the question asking them to find “juicy words” from the book. They loved “ghastly,” “mammoth,” “frantically,” “brute,” and “peculiar.” (Later, one of the boys used “peculiar” in his sentence, just casually throwing it in there as if he’d always known that word.) Brooke told them about British English versus American English, and we listened to a short clip of the audio book on my phone so we could hear the accent. Other questions asked about their favorite characters, how James changes throughout the book, and about the role of magic in this fantasy novel. My favorite question, though, asked the boys to imagine other ways that James and his friends could have gotten out of some of the sticky situations during their adventures, because it encouraged creative problem solving.
After the discussion, the boys created a storyboard of the novel using a long piece of paper Brooke had prepared. They had to decide how to break up the story and how they’d represent the important events in the book. This part got a little hairy and Brooke and I offered some suggestions, but we let them sort it out. (Brooke, by the way, is much better at letting them be than I am. I’m, shall we say, much more “hands on.”) And of course they did a fantastic job.
Brooke did the facilitating, and I enjoyed my peach smoothie and observed with fascination. I loved the level of energy in the room. The boys were excited to talk and to share their ideas. Sure, they all got a bit silly at times. Occasionally, one of them would get up and walk around the room – or dance. They talked on top of each other. Sometimes they got excited and yelled. Still, Brooke kept her cool and steered the group back to the table and back to the book. Other times, she just let them get their energy out for a minute or two. I was impressed. This was a serious level up from “playdate.”
The boys agreed on The BFG for their next book club meeting, which will be in June. After the official book club meeting was adjourned, the little literary scholars dashed outside to play basketball and soccer in the sun while enjoying peach flavored ice pops.
“It was awesome,” Sammy said to me as we left Nate’s house. He cannot wait til June. I joined my first book club when I was 38 years old, so clearly Sammy is getting a serious head start thanks to Ms. Brooke’s “crazy idea” that turned out to be quite awesome.
A guest blog post by Nsikan Akpan
Characters in stories are hardly given enough credit for their bravery of taking on the task of representing the idiosyncrasies and lifestyles that the public prefers to keep private. Clare and Irene in Nella Larsen’s Passing are appropriate examples. Irene’s complexion is light enough to pass for a white woman but makes the choice to side with her true community. On the other hand, Clare, Irene’s friend from childhood, is also light enough to pass for white and finesses this fact to marry Bellew, a white racist. As readers maneuver their way through the lonely, privileged lives of both Irene and Clare, we find that wealth and passing for the sake of wealth may not be worth one’s peace of mind. It can lead to a fatal end.
Passing by Nella Larsen examines themes of hypocrisy, physical (racial) as well as social “passing,” and the sacrifices made for the American dream. Passing is a form of pretending, and sometimes we cross boundaries when playing pretend. What makes Larsen’s work significant is that it displays passing as an example of natural human desire to survive. Judging Clare equates to judging anyone that has been put in a situation where the only way out is to be something they are not. Humankind has done worse for survival. Still, Clare’s life is a lesson: one can make it to the other side and realize there is nothing there for them.
I am reminded of O. J. Simpson’s story. Simpson, a black man, had been a supreme football player, the first to run over 2,000 yards in one season. He was an athletic mogul. He helped paved the way for athletes to not only play the sport of their choice, but to do so while starring in movies, commercials, and gaining fortune from various endorsements. He was treated as an American hero and embraced by white America. If Larsen’s Clare had her pale skin that allowed her to pass as white, Simpson had wealth and his white wife that made up for his chestnut skin color and allowed him to pass in white society. In 1978, Simpson starred in a famous Hertz commercial, running through an airport as people – notably, all white people – cheered him on. “Go Juice, go!” They hailed. Until they stopped. In 1994, Simpson was accused of murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ron Goldman. When Simpson was accused of murder, he became black again.
Passing is seductive. Joe Bell, a childhood friend, said of Simpson, “He is seduced by white society.” In Larsen’s novel, Clare was seduced enough to want to be a part of that society, so much so that she became a part of it. As examples of passing – physical and social – Clare and Simpson demonstrate that passing does not turn out well in fiction or in real life. In Larsen’s words, Clare “had been there, a vital glowing thing, like a flame of red and gold. The next thing she was gone.”
While reading Passing, I realized that there are many types of passing. I have come to recognize my own privilege of intellectual passing. I am an educated and cultured black woman who has sat next to distinguished authors and poets. These stimulating cerebral experiences allow me to go into spaces where my color is not considered because my ability to articulate trumps any stereotype that is connected to me. Or so it seemed. It turns out that intellectual passing connects very much with racial and social passing. We must put an end to associating intelligence with whiteness.
I have made a conscious choice not to give into passing. What Clare showed me is this: One can fool people with skin but not with soul. Throughout high school, despite my dark skin, I made myself “more palatable” for my white counterparts. Every time I had an opinion on something, I tried my best to express it very nicely, or sometimes I’d say nothing at all, knowing people might take it the wrong way. Fortunately, I have grown out of that nonsense. I am who I am. An exit is always available, but for me, passing is never an option. It’s too exhausting. In my own skin, I am at rest.