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alone in a zooming crowd

a blog post by Laura Yoo

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

In the time before quarantine – do you remember? – people used to sit in a room together for readings. We shared a physical space and we were there not only in mind but also in body. When a poem was read, we reacted. We observed the small changes in each other’s bodies: tilting of the head, rigorous nodding, maybe a rolling tear, or uncrossing then recrossing of the legs. Maybe a faint smile or an uncomfortable cough. Maybe a small sound – like “oof” or “whew” or “wow” – escaping our mouths involuntarily. Maybe two strangers’ eyes would meet – and maybe they’d smile or raise an eyebrow in agreement. Then, having experienced the reading together, friends or strangers might stand around the refreshments table or stand in line for the book-signing and debrief: What did you think? I didn’t expect that! I loved that one poem about… I am thinking about that line…

In the time of COVID, attending readings is a very different experience. I’m alone in the bedroom with a glass of wine. That’s it: me, wine, and computer screen. Most of these virtual events show only the author and the moderator (for a good reason) and there is little or no interaction. If I make faces or a gasp escapes my mouth, it’s just for me. Sometimes I cry alone. Other times I laugh and snort all to myself. I might hop online to order a copy of the author’s book even as they’re still reading. I might text my husband to please bring me more wine. It’s a solitary experience.

If a friend is also joining the reading from the comfort of her own home with her own glass of wine, we might text each other. Instead of exchanging looks, we exchange emojis, maybe a “WTF” or an “OMG”. But this isn’t always possible – sometimes it’s work, sometimes it’s kids’ meal times or bed times, and sometimes it’s just that there is nothing left to give at the end of a COVID-day.

Purdue Creative Writing Program: Franny Choi and Cameron Awkwrd-Rich reading (September 3, 2020)

Recently I was in a virtual open mic reading when a debate arose: one of the poets read a poem in which he uses the n-word and one person in the audience shared in the chat that they were offended. The moderators responded, then the poet addressed the issue – about how and why he’s using the word. I wished I could hear that audience member’s voice and see their face. What would I have heard or seen? Anger? Sadness? Pain? I also wished I could turn to a friend or a stranger and look for a reaction. I wished I could stand by the refreshments table and ask, “So what did you make of that?” Instead, I emailed a few friends about it and we met a couple of days later on Zoom to chat about it. That led to an important conversation about who, what, where, when, why, and how of the n-word in poetry. And that was good. Still. What I missed was the opportunity to commune with others spontaneously, the chance to exchange looks and ideas with each other as it was unfolding.

In the “before time,” why did people even go to poetry readings? We can find an endless supply of videos of writers’ readings, talks, performances, and lectures online. Still, we got tickets, we got babysitters, we drove, we got ourselves to places on time, we found our seats, and we sat with others to listen. We made dinner reservations or post-reading drinking plans. What was all that for? For the community. For the shared sound of language. For the faces. For the movement of bodies. For the physical proximity to the creators of art. For the reaction from and discussions with other patrons of art.

I miss people. I miss sharing space with people. But I realize it’s a trade off. And I have a feeling that even when we “go back” we may never go back to the way we used to do things, including literary readings. And maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Books in Bloom: Frances Cha (left) and Eun Yang (August 14, 2020)

I am grateful that we could eavesdrop on Eula Biss’s (Having and Being Had) conversation with Cathy Hong Park (Minor Feelings). What an incredible opportunity it was to listen to Ibram X. Kendi (How to be an Antiracist) along with 1000 other people. When Claudia Rankine and Robin DiAngelo had a conversation about Just Us for New York’s 92Y, everyone with a link (and $15) could watch. How cool that Purdue Creative Writing presented Cameron Awkward-Rich (Dispatch) and Franny Choi (Soft Science) and made the registration open to the public and free. Even though Frances Cha, the author of If I Had Your Face, was at her home in Korea, she could have a conversation with Eun Yang (NBC news anchor in Washington, D.C.) at 7 p.m. on a Friday evening (EST). It was 8 a.m. in Korea.

In this time of stress and uncertainty, having access to art virtually significantly improves the quality of my life. And I am grateful for that.

So, I hope you will join me at some of these virtual events that are coming up.

  • Sunday, September 27, 2020: The Creative Process
    Wednesday, September 30, 2020: Inclusion
    Sunday, October 4, 2020: Representation
  • Time(s): 7:00pm – 8:30pm
  • Hosted by Howard Community College’s Arts Collective and Howard County Poetry and Literature Society
  • Friday, October 2, 2020
  • Time: 7:30pm
  • Jose Ross reads from his new work Raising King 
  • Introduction by E. Ethelbert Miller
  • Hosted by Howard County Poetry and Literature Society

Conversation with Lisa See (The Island of Sea Women)

  • Tuesday, October 6, 2020
  • Time: 11:00 am
  • Conversation host: Laura Yoo (yeah, that’s me!)
  • Hosted by Maryland Humanities One Maryland One Book and Howard County Library System in partnership with Howard County Poetry and Literature Society

Add a single goal to the pandemic to-do list: Read more

We all have such lofty goals for our pandemic selves–learn Chinese, perfect sourdough, tone those arms, finish making photo albums, and clean out the closet that spawns candles, wrapping paper, vases, and packing tape.

I, personally, have done only one of those “to do’s.” I will not divulge which one. But adding “read more books” to our list should be an absolute. We have time, we need to escape our four walls, and heaven knows, we’re done talking to our families. Burying one’s nose in a book is a great excuse to sit somewhere cool and cocoon.

That’s where the trusted voice of Ron Charles comes in. An editor and book critic for the Washington Post, Charles was gracious enough to answer my questions and talk with his fans for more than an hour last week through the Howard County Library.


We talked about his background (English teacher that hated grading papers), his process (read the book, scribble in margins and on the back pages notes about specifics for his reviews), and his costumes. Yes, costumes—sexy nurse, Rocky Horror vamp, Tigger, cowboy, astronaut, android—that he puts on to film his hilarious and tongue-in-cheek Totally Hip Video Book Reviews.

Silliness aside, Charles did talk about his belief that books shouldn’t just be items that gather dust on a shelf. Literature can speak to a cultural moment, can provide wisdom and transformation, and can broaden our worlds.

“Books are repositories of real thoughtful consideration of an issue in a way that doesn’t happen much outside of books,” Charles said. “Books are a unique cultural object for us. I think they have a kind of wisdom, and they serve as guides of where we were and where we are now. … Books don’t just sit on the shelf. They’re not like old cups and saucers. They speak to us and they’re rich, and they should inform us and help us think more deeply about what’s going on in the world.”

As a bonus at the end of his talk, Charles gave readers a pre-screened, critic-vetted summer list of books, which I can now share with you. Most of these titles are available through the county library.

  • Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell
  • Inland, by Tea Obreht
  • Make Russia Great Again, by Christopher Buckley
  • Friends and Strangers, by L. Courtney Sullivan
  • Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid
  • A Children’s Bible, by Lydia Millet
  • Rodham, by Curtis Sittenfeld
  • Writers and Lovers, by Lily King

Now get reading. We’ll work on the closets in September, right?

— Susan Thornton Hobby
Recording secretary, HoCoPoLitSo

Binge on literature with The Writing Life marathon

If we’re lucky, we’re stuck in our houses, fantasizing about walking unmasked down the aisles of the library, or walking up to an author and (gasp!) shaking their hand after a reading. But we’ll have to wait a while for those in-person literary dreams to come true. Instead, on these chilly spring days, take a walk over to YouTube, and check out a few The Writing Life episodes.

Or if you’re in for the long haul (and who among us isn’t binging television shows nowadays?), Howard Community College’s Dragon Digital Television will show a 24-hour marathon of HoCoPoLitSo’s writer-to-writer interview shows. The Writing Life will air from 6 a.m. May 3 to 6 a.m. May 4. http://carousel.howardcc.edu/cablecastapi/live?channel_id=1&use_cdn=true

Check the schedule below, which features a showing of our hour-long show with Seamus Heaney, for which HoCoPoLitSo recently acquired the rights. Heaney talks about the politics and poetics of Northern Ireland, laughs a lot, recites “Digging” when Ellen Kennedy requests it, and answers questions from a Smith Theatre audience. Truly something to lift your spirits.

May 3

6 a.m. Theo Dorgan and Paula Meehan. Meehan and Dorgan, a married couple of Irish poets, talk about Seamus Heaney, read their own works dedicated to Heaney, and talk about cultural exchange in poetry. “My own sense is that poets are made, not out of fluency, but out of the fractures in a culture,” Meehan says.

6:30 a.m. Taylor Branch hosted by Timothy Jenkins. In 2000, at the time of this show’s recording with host and historian Timothy Jenkins, Branch had written two of his trilogy of books, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Parting the Waters: American in the King Years 1954-1963, and the award-winning Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-1965. These stories, Branch said, are “quintessentially American.”

7 a.m. The Poetry of Sterling Brown. In this 1994 edition of The Writing Life, poet Roland Flint speaks with Michael S. Harper, a Brown University professor of English and the Rhode Island poet laureate. The two poets discuss the influential poet and Howard University professor Sterling Brown, considered the dean of African-American poetry. Harper reads many of Brown’s poems, including “After Winter.”

7:30 a.m. Poetry Quartet. Henry Taylor, E. Ethelbert Miller, Ann Darr, and Hilary Tham, four Washington, D.C., area poets who started with publishing their work in small presses, talk about the value of that enterprise to keep literature alive. They also discuss the value of poetry slams, divulge the inspirations for their work, and read many of their own poems.

8 a.m. Seamus Heaney hosted by George O’Brien. Recorded in 1988, this interview with Seamus Heaney touches on his childhood in rural Ireland, the politics of Northern Ireland, his poetic craft and the natural world’s influence on his work. With his arm slung over the back of the chair onstage, Heaney talks, reads, recites, and laughs.

9 a.m. Carolyn Forché hosted by Grace Cavalieri. In this 2016 edition of HoCoPoLitSo’s The Writing Life, poet Grace Cavalieri talks with Carolyn Forché, the writer and anthologist who coined the term “poetry of witness.” They speak about Forché’s Czechoslovakian grandmother, her beginnings in the world of human rights and poetry, and working to anthologize poetry of witness.

9:30 a.m. Edith Pearlman hosted by Carrie Brown. In this edition of HoCoPoLitSo’s The Writing Life, novelist Carrie Brown talks with short story writer Edith Pearlman, who won the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award for her collection Binocular Vision.

10 a.m. Emma Donoghue hosted by Mary Kay Zuravleff. Emma Donoghue talks with fellow novelist Mary Kay Zuravleff about the role of music and history in her work, as well as writing the screenplay of Room. She reads from both Room and Frog Music.

10:30 a.m. Four Poets Laureate. Roland Flint, then serving as the Maryland Poet Laureate, hosts past poets laureate Lucille Clifton, Linda Pastan, and Reed Whittemore. All friends, the poets discuss the role and possibilities of the poet laureate position, as well as the craft of writing poetry, in a half-hour of good conversation and great poetry.

11 a.m. Patricia Smith hosted by Joseph Ross. Poet Joseph Ross speaks with poet Patricia Smith, a spoken word poet who found success with her book Blood Dazzler, a collection of poems chronicling Hurricane Katrina. Smith reads “8 a.m., Sunday, August 28, 2005,” a poem in the hurricane’s voice.

11:30 a.m. Stanley Plumly interviews Rita Dove. Rita Dove, a Pulitzer Prize-winner and former National Poet Laureate, speaks with Maryland Poet Laureate Stanley Plumly about her latest book, Sonata Mulattico. The book tells the story, through multiple narrative poems in different voices, of George Bridgetower, an Afro-Polish child prodigy violinist who studied with Haydn.

12 p.m. Israeli Poems of War and Peace. Poet and professor Michael Collier talks with poets Moshe Dor and Barbara Goldberg about their 1997 book of Israeli poems and translations, After the First Rain: Israeli Poems on War and Peace.

12:30 p.m. Tribute to Josephine Jacobsen. In this edition of HoCoPoLitSo’s The Writing Life, poets Michael Collier, Lucille Clifton, and Elizabeth Spires talk about their friend and colleague, the late Josephine Jacobsen (1908 – 2003), a remarkable poet and short story writer from Baltimore.

1 p.m. Mark Doty hosted by Sue Ellen Thompson. Poet Sue Ellen Thompson speaks with poet and memoirist Mark Doty about memory, mackerel, AIDS, Labradors, and the challenge of writing about all of those topics. Doty, the author of nine books of poetry and three memoirs, is known for his descriptive power.

1:30 p.m. Taylor Mali hosted by Chris August. In this 2015 rapid-fire edition of The Writing Life, performance poet Chris August talks with slam poet champion and education activist Taylor Mali about his poetic beginnings, his father’s influence, the strategies of slams, and white male privilege.

2 p.m. Mary O’Malley hosted by Jean Nordhaus. Irish poet Mary O’Malley speaks with Jean Nordhaus, and opens with her mythological-based poem “The Boning Hall,” from her collection of the same name, which addresses Adrienne Rich’s classic poem “Diving into the Wreck.” The eldest daughter of a Connemara fisherman, with nine younger siblings, O’Malley is focused not only on “the mythos of the sea,” she says, but “the purity of the language.”

2:30 p.m. Lucille Clifton hosted by Roland Flint. Former Maryland poet laureate Roland Flint hosts Lucille Clifton, who won the National Book Award for her book Blessing the Boats. Clifton reads many of her iconic early poems, including “Good Times”, “The 1st”, “flowers”; “lucy one eye”, “forgiving my father”, and “carved on a gravestone in a southern baptist churchyard.”

3 p.m. “Sunset Baby”. Dramaturg Khalid Long and Rep Stage director Joseph Ritsch talk about playwright Dominique Morisseau. The two theater experts talk about how her play “Sunset Baby” addresses the generational divide in families in this play, the role of fathers and the centrality of forgiveness.

3:30 p.m. E. Ethelbert Miller hosts Joseph Ross. In this edition of HoCoPoLitSo’s The Writing Life, poet Joseph Ross speaks with host and fellow poet E. Ethelbert Miller about the role of writers as activists and memory keepers, the ideas of faith and storytelling through poetry, and the craft of putting together a manuscript.

4 p.m. Joseph Ross hosts E. Ethelbert Miller. Poet Joseph Ross talks to “the dean of D.C. poets,” E. Ethelbert Miller, author of several poetry collections, memoirs and anthologies, and co-editor of Poet Lore. Miller discusses the origin and span of his newest book of collected poems.

4:30 p.m. Marilyn Chin hosted by Joseph Ross. Marilyn Chin, a Chinese-American poet, speaks with poet and teacher Joseph Ross about her poems of the body, protest, and family. Chin begins by reading “Beijing Spring,” written to the young man who held up his hand to fend off the tanks on Tiananmen Square, as an invocation for all youth around the world to speak up.

5 p.m. Li-Young Lee hosted by Michael Collier. Poet Michael Collier speaks with Li-Young Lee in 1995 about poetry, prayerful attitudes, and unconscious states. Lee reads his poem “Epistle” to start off the show.

5:30 p.m. Mike McCormack hosted by Cóilín Parsons. Novelist Mike McCormack speaks with Georgetown University professor Cóilín Parsons about his craft, especially his novel in one breath, Solar Bones. A devoted experimentalist, McCormack resists the label of surrealist: “I’m holding this side of the surrealist’s line. I’m too structurally minded to give myself over to it, but I’ll bring it right up to the doorstep.”

Take it from the top again, band! Starting at 6 p.m., the whole line-up repeats.

Enjoy these talks, learn a bit about writing and reading, then you can go back to Tiger King.

Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life Producer

Back away from the pantry, pick up a book.

Libraries are closed. Readings are canceled. Thriftbooks is backed up. Heck, even Busboys & Poets is closed, except for delivery. For writers and readers, all distractions have been eliminated, besides the refrigerator and your family members.

You have weeks in your four walls to write that novel, nail down your collection of poems, or finish your fat book of essays.

You have piles of books on nightstands, shelves, and stacked on the floor (mea culpa) and now have time to read them all.

Ah, but the motivation. Where did you put that? Under the stacks of toilet paper? Behind the boxes of pasta?

Don’t worry, we’ve kept some in the back for you.

Below is a list of resources for those who want to capitalize on this time. And for those of us who usually exist like they’re living in a pandemic (yes, all you freelance writers and editors in your sweatpants, I’m talking to you), here’s a refresher list.

For readers:

  • Howard County Library offers electronic versions of books, audiobooks, even eMagazines. (They have on-line every version of National Geographic from 1888 to the present, that should keep you busy.) Library patrons can even learn a language.: https://hclibrary.org/research/
  • The library is even hosting virtual book clubs, only two so far, their Global Reads and Mystery clubs: http://hclibrary.org/classes-events/
  • A number of electronic reading sites are offering 30 days free, including Scribd: https://www.scribd.com/?lohp=2
  • And Overdrive and Libby, through the library, are always free. Hop on those waiting lists: https://www.overdrive.com/apps/libby/
  • The Library of Congress has a huge cache of resources. They offer tons of classics on-line, and if now isn’t a time to catch up on Jane Austen, I don’t know when would be better: http://read.gov/books/index.html#adults
  • The LoC also has videos of author visits, and suggested book lists by genre.
  • Enoch Pratt is offering live chats with a librarian, and who wouldn’t want to do that? https://www.prattlibrary.org/ask/

For writers:

Back away from the pantry and the television. Read and write. Literature eases the mind in times of trouble. There’s a reason that the Greeks inscribed above the library in Thebes that this place was a “healing place for the soul.” Books can take you places outside your own experience (and four walls), and reading increases empathy, according to brain science. We’re going to need it.

If all else fails, and you simply cannot imagine an end to this confinement, try reading letters from people who were living through the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918: https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/influenza-epidemic/records-list.html

on writing together

blog post by Laura Yoo

Often we portray writing as a lonely endeavor and we imagine writers cooped up in their writing rooms, alone, toiling away. This part of the writing process may well be true and writing does demand quietness and solitude. But writing also takes place in community with other writers, sometimes virtually, sometimes through conversation over the phone or email, and sometimes in real life at a coffee shop.

Laura Shovan, the author of a children’s book Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary and a collection of poetry Mountain, Log, Salt, and Stone, started what she hopes will become a regular event: a write-in at the Common Kitchen in Clarksville, Maryland.

The first one took place on January 28th. In one corner of the Common Kitchen, tables were reserved for “Writers Corner.” As each person came in from the cold and joined the group, Laura introduced everyone. We sat together, each with his or her laptop or notebook, and worked quietly. Poet Patricia VanAmburg, who was at the write-in, shared with me how important it is for her to have a writing partner. She and author Ann Bracken are longtime critique partners who meet on a weekly basis to share their writings and give each other feedback. So, Patricia welcomed this new gathering of writers. Laura says 8 people attended this first write-in, including a few members of the he MD-DE-WV chapter of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators) and Mel Beatty who is a bookseller at the Curious Iguana bookstore in Frederick, Maryland. HoCoPoLitSo’s Tim Singleton (who worked on this piece in the session) and Susan Thornton Hobby also joined the writing fun.

Laura Shovan, Patricia VanAmburg, and Tim Singleton at the Write-In at the Common Kitchen on January 28, 2020

Laura Shovan is no stranger to “writing together.” She co-authored A Place at the Table with Saadia Faruqi, and she will be sharing that experience at the Maryland Writers Association Conference in March.  Laura also brings writers together virtually through her February Poetry Project. She invites group members (usually no more than 40 people) to write a poem a day on a specific theme. For instance, last year’s theme was food and this year’s theme is is water. Group members sign up to come up with the daily prompt, and then they each write and post their drafts in a private Facebook group that same day.

Creative writing instructor and poet Tara Hart says that all students in her class at Howard Community College share their drafts in online discussion boards, but many find it daunting to provide specific feedback on each other’s writing – they may feel tentative, unqualified, or nervous of giving offense – and need a strong template to help them craft comments that are insightful and truly helpful to the writers.  She encourages them to first identify what “shines” for them in a piece in order to discern a notable strength, and then to think creatively by generating a series of “what if?” questions – what if the story were told in the first person instead of the third? What if the poem ended a stanza earlier? What if the first line were the last line? In mastering peer review, they become better writers, more able to recognize the strengths to retain in their own work and to generate more possibilities for improvement, and, she hopes, more likely to seek supportive writing communities in the future.

All local writers (and anyone willing to make a drive!) are invited to the next write-in at the Common Kitchen on February 25th 9:30 am to 12:30 pm.

Writers and readers alike can also find community of lovers of writing at the next Wilde Readings With Pantea A. Tofangchi & Rissa Miller on February 11th 7 pm at the Columbia Art Center and at HoCoPoLitSo’s 42nd Annual Irish Evening with Alice McDermott on February 21st 7:30 pm at the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center in Columbia.

Books And The Stories They Tell: The Bletchley Park Recreational Library.

The other day when I was visiting my dad, he handed me a book and told me to read the last paragraph aloud.

As Smith recrossed the bridge, he stopped and stood in one of the recesses to meditate on his immaturity, and to look upon the beauty of the still expanses of white moonlight and black shadow which lay before him. At last he shook his head negatively, and went home.

“That’s how they wrote back then,” he said, listening to the air the paragraph left behind. I admired the sentiment, and probably agreed that it was, indeed, something, the way they wrote back then. The book was a Bernard Shaw novel that I had not heard about, Immaturity. I was holding a 1931 edition. Where was this going?

It didn’t take a moment longer to realize the paragraph and the way they wrote wasn’t why I was handed the book. He started telling me a story about the inside cover, the markings there, and a bit of history I might otherwise have never come across, something called Bletchley Park.

Bletchley Park

Who knew? At the time and until the 1970s, only those that were supposed to, thanks to the Official Secrets Act. For me, a mystery was unraveling. Bletchley Park was a mansion in Buckinghamshire, England that housed a secret code-breaking operation during the second world war. I was instantly intrigued. Paraphrasing my dad, men were off fighting the war and women were tapped to translate Axis messages encoded by Enigma machines, contributing the secrets of intercepted messages to the war effort, and helping beat the Nazis ‘two years early’.

At its start, the operation at Bletchley incorporated a few hundred — you will have heard of Alan Turing and maybe Gordon Welshman and the Bombe machines that figured out the daily codes the Germans incorporated as fast as they could — and grew to an effort of thousands, all working on decoding daily messages of the Germans. The following six minute clip provides a better introduction. (While it is a video, it is more a slide show of 360 degree images that you can move around in using the tool in the top left of the frame. Have a listen and look around.)

Part of my dad’s version of the story was personal history, working in England years later, and having associates who dated back to the war. I’ll skip all the details, but so-and-so knew so-and-so-and-so and the narrative found its way to explaining the book I had in my hand. Inside the front cover was an oval stamp “B. P. Recreational Library Club”, and, on the facing page, an oddly glued-in, folded-over piece of paper with dates from the forties stamped onto it. Under that was a listing of hand-written month/day dates, all crossed out.

I had no idea what I was holding. He explained the book was part of a lending library created to provide recreation to workers when they weren’t putting in 15 hour days decoding.

The agency itself also tried to facilitate off-duty leisure activities for the staff in addition to amenities to provide for their general welfare. As such, the agency made buildings available for various leisure and educational activities. Hut 2 initially served as a tea room, providing hot beverages, sandwiches and lunch vouchers. The hut also contained a lending library and was the home of the Bletchley Park Recreational club from its formation in October 1940.

The Hidden History of Bletchley Park, Christopher Smith, 2015

My dad explained the book had passed into my mother’s hands from the wife of someone he had worked with. It was actually part of the Bletchley Park collection during the Second World War – WOW! (The dates suggest just after, though the style of tracking due dates on the inside pages might have started after the war?) Over the years, the library had collected more books than needed, so this was one of eight or nine that had been decommissioned and given to my mother for keeps — he wanted to make sure I knew possession was legit. The other books in the collection were from Eastgate and Cheltenham, new locations for codebreaking during the war and after as effort, capabilities, and need grew.

Unbelievable, really, that such secrecy should have prevailed.

Jane Fawcett, Veteran, Hut 6

Obviously, I grew up in the house with these books and knew nothing of their secret past, that being the way of those who can keep secrets.

Now the story is out and I hold this book in my hands in awe. What a connection to the way they did things back when. We tend to obtain a book for the story written within, but sometimes the book is the story itself, a thing to learn from as it moves from the reaches of history into our moment. Here it is today, a treasure that is monument to heroes of the past, the women of Bletchley Park.

Tim Singleton
HoCoPoLitSo, Board Co-chair

Resources:

  • Bletchley Park is now a museum. Visit the webiste here online. Next time you are in England, visit the secret itself. It is on my To Do list.
  • Click here for an extended documentary on Bletchley Park via YouTube.
  • More on the codebreaking efforts of the Allies during World War II can be found Stephen Budiansky’s book Battle of Wits.
  • Christopher Smith’s Hidden History of Bletchley Park is also fascinating.
  • The Bletchley Circle — what do you do after the war if you were one of the super-smart Bletchley women? Well, back into the normal every day humdrum of ironing clothes and feeding children. This short-lived British mystery series has a few of them getting together to use their wits to solve murders, though. It is an interesting way to share the story.

young men preparing for battle

blog post by Laura Yoo

The Story Studs.  These are five guys – Keegan, Will, Nate, Sammy, and Julien – who are preparing for the biggest battle of their lives.  It will be the one of the nerdiest and the coolest (at the same time, yes) things they do together: They will fight in Howard County’s Battle of Books.

Battle of Books is Howard County Library System’s impressive reading program that encourages elementary school students to read a same set of books and come together to compete. On April 17th, fifth graders from all over the county will show up at various high school gyms to battle in teams.  They will have read and studied 12 books to answer questions about those books. They will have awesome team names – like the Story Studs – and decked out in costumes.

The coaches and the team members have been diligently working our way through the 12 books:

  • The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
  • Lucky Broken Girl and Ruth Behar
  • Me, Frida, and the Secrets of the Peacock Ring by Angela Cervantes
  • Forest World by Margarita Engle
  • Sharks: Nature’s Perfect Hunter by Joe Flood
  • Ban This Book by Alan Gratz
  • Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
  • Dara Palmer’s Major Drama by Emma Shevah
  • The Real McCoys by Matthew Swanson
  • Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier
  • Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library by Carole Boston Weatherford
  • Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan

As the assistant coach, I have been enjoying the books, too.  So far,  Ban This Book, Ghosts, and Save Me a Seat have really impressed me.  These books range in their topics, characters, and settings. Each book, however, touches on a theme or a topic that I’d love for all children to think about: how to welcome strangers, bullying, not judging a book by its cover, death, family, culture, friendship, family life, freedom of speech, censorship, and reading. Yes, just in these three books, the little readers are exposed to all these topics.  I think Ban This Book ought to be made into a kids’ movie.  The multicultural elements in Save Me a Seat and Ghosts show just how thoughtfully the library is choosing these books – books like these can be windows through which children can see and learn about other cultures.

The Story Studs will now meet about every other week to catch up with each other about the books they’re reading. At each meeting, the readers update each other on their reading progress and share one story map they’ve completed (this helps them take notes about each book). They play games to learn and memorize the titles and the author names.  They have also begun drafting their own sample questions to use to prepare for battle. It’s fun, but it’a also serious learning business.

The beauty of this Battle of Books – at least for the Story Studs – is that it brings together these close friends to share more quality time outside of school.  They arrive at one of our homes after school, eat snacks, and run around for a few minutes. Then, they sit and work diligently for a good 45 minutes.  Then off they go again to release more of that 10-year old energy. I absolutely love it.

I will report back on how the real battle goes on April 17th.  Now – where to find leather jackets for 10 year old boys…

At long last, an hour with poet Seamus Heaney.

Seamus Heaney was a force of nature who visited Howard County an unbelievable three times.

Heaney, who won a Nobel Prize and was called the greatest Irish poet since Yeats, died in 2013. HoCoPoLitSo, the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society, was lucky enough to host Heaney for three readings — in 1982, in 1988, and in 1994. His 1994 visit many HoCoPoLitSo veterans remember as the ice storm visit, when everything else was cancelled because the city was encased in a good half-inch of ice, but stalwarts trudged through the storm to see Heaney read.

On the last two of his readings, HoCoPoLitSo’s founder, Ellen Conroy Kennedy, wisely taped interviews with Heaney, first with a noted scholar George O’Brien, and then with a fellow poet, Roland Flint, posing questions.

During his long and amiable correspondence with Kennedy, Heaney decided that he did not want the taped interviews to be sold as part of HoCoPoLitSo’s television talk show series, The Writing Life. In one letter from the 1990s, he writes: “As I have said often before, there are already too many interviews by me, going over the same ground. There is nothing new in the material on your transcript.” In the margin, in his long, looping handwriting, Heaney wrote: “(tho’ I do like the Yeats riff at the end)!” Since that time, the world has changed immensely. Heaney is no longer around to conduct interviews, and HoCoPoLitSo no longer sells DVDs or taped versions of the interviews.

But the society does have a YouTube channel where these formerly hidden gems – featuring writers such as Donald Hall, Frank McCourt, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Lucille Clifton — are now available for free to students, writers, and scholars.

For ten years, HoCoPoLitSo sought permission from the estate to upload the interviews to our channel on YouTube. Finally, Faber & Faber Ltd. granted permission, HoCoPoLitSo received a donation to cover the rights fee, and the video is finally seeing the light of day on HoCoPoLitSo’s YouTube channel.

All sixty minutes of the video are available, as well as a transcript, upon request, for scholars and readers and fans of Heaney’s work. In the video, Heaney sits on a stage, with his arm slung around the back of his chair, and takes questions from Georgetown professor O’Brien, and from the audience. He speaks about his life as a boy on his family’s small farm, his time in boarding school, the parallel between the rise of his life as a writer and the rise of the rebellion and unrest in Northern Ireland.

He says in the interview, “Politics in Northern Ireland, and politics in El Salvador and politics in Iran and politics in Israel, it’s all spectator sport for most people. Of course, it’s necessary for us outside to be concerned, but the real energy is intimate. Writing has to concern itself with the first circle, with the intimate place where everything is exact, rather than the second or third circle where the big part is writing, is publicity.”

He recites “Digging,” at Ellen Kennedy’s request, and reads, “Alphabets”, and “From the Republic of Conscience”, as well as sonnets dedicated to his mother, “Clearances”. The program ends with the story about writing a poem to celebrate his niece’s birth because he hadn’t any present for the family, then the triumphant reading of the charming poem, “A Peacock’s Feather for Daisy Garrett.”

HoCoPoLitSo has a forty-five year history of providing epiphany-inducing programs with literary greats. But those programs are ephemeral, seared in many people’s memories, but gone when the event is over.

The Writing Life series captures those unbelievable literary moments; seeing, after all, is believing.
Donations to support The Writing Life are welcomed and tax-deductible.

 

Susan Thornton Hobby
Recording secretary and The Writing Life producer

 


HoCoPoLitSo’s 42 Annual Evening of Irish Writing and Music is on Friday, February 21, 2020, featuring Alice McDermott, music by O’Malley’s March, and traditional Irish dancing with the Teelin Dance Company. Click here to learn more.

Butter Beans and Poems: A Harvest Reading

There’s something primal about harvest, something deeper, more resonant than a pumpkin spice latte when the leaves start to fall.

Harvest is about food, of course, a storing away of all the energy and sunshine and hard work of summer for a slower, more contemplative time. Sure, there are pumpkins, but fall is also about the last tomatoes and corn, and the starchy parsnips and potatoes that last all winter long.

I think of poems and stories as a kind of harvest, storing up the ephemeral to be savored later.

The Between the Leaves Project is about linking writing with the food we grow and eat. HoCoPoLitSo and the Howard County Library have teamed up to put literature — about collard greens and zinnias and raspberries and butter beans — in the Enchanted Garden at the Miller Branch.

Signs, bearing excerpts from poems and novels that relate to the crops being grown, have been thrust into the garden plots, a lovely quarter-acre just outside the Ellicott City library branch. The vegetables and fruits grown in the garden by volunteers, from library teens to Master Gardeners, are harvested every week and donated to the Howard County Food Bank.

The signs offer a little taste of literature in the garden, but if you’d like a full serving, attend the harvest reading on Oct. 28. Authors, board members of HoCoPoLitSo, and staff and friends of the library will read poems that will leave us hungry. Hear works by Robert Frost, Lucille Clifton, Nikki Giovanni, Gary Snyder, Pablo Neruda, and other authors. Snacks will be served and books with the poems, as well as excerpts from novels and short stories, will be available for borrowing.

Join us at the drop-in reading 7 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 28, at the Miller Branch library in the garden under the twinkling lights, for an evening of poetry to savor.

Miller Branch Library Enchanted Garden

Over the moon for library’s read-alouds for adults

a blog post written by Susan Thornton Hobby (HoCoPoLitSo recording secretary)

I was primed for the Central Library’s short story program. Years of childhood bedtime stories read to me by my mother from what my brother and I called “the red books,” a sixteen-volume set published by The Spencer Press in 1953 made me first into a riveted listener, and then a devoted reader.

Those books, especially Best Loved Poems and First Story Book, included gems like “Wynken, Blinken, and Nod” and “The Velveteen Rabbit” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” And when I had children, I spent seventeen years reading out loud, from the red books and You Can Name One Hundred Trucks through all nine Harry Potters and into Something Wicked This Way Comes.

So when the Central Library started “Keep it Short: Adult Selections Read Aloud,” I was already on the “bedtime stories for adults” train. On July 16, library story-tellers Roy Ringel and Michael Toner read space-themed texts, since it was the 50th anniversary of the launching of the Apollo 11 rocket.

On July 16, 1969, the 363-foot-tall Saturn V rocket launches on the Apollo 11 mission from the Kennedy Space Center

Ringel read D.C. writer Amber Sparks’ short story “The Janitor in Space,” a haunting, quiet story about a wounded woman who finds a little solitary peace cleaning up after astronauts on the space station. The audience settled in, and we listened stock-still to Ringel: “She keeps the station clean and shiny as the future,” Ringel read, and “lonely is the only thing she owns.”

In a shirt embroidered with tiny parrots, Toner read “The Great Silence,” by Ted Chiang. The story is narrated by a parrot who laments that humans listen so intensely for extraterrestrial messages from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, but they ignore the brilliant language of the parrots all around them, the ones that are going extinct.

And Ringel finished the evening’s adult story-time with President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 speech at Rice University that many credit with Americans supporting space exploration. “The eyes of the world now look into space,” Ringel read, “We choose to go to the moon, and do the other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Caren Ferris explained that she is a regular attender at the short story readings: “it opens me to new ideas. You stumble across a writer you can connect with. You come across things you wouldn’t have seen yourself.” A story by Langston Hughes read during the library’s February “Keep it Short” program has stayed with Ferris all year, she says, and she always goes back and researches and reads more of the authors’ work. These stories, she says, “connect the dots.”

However literature can reach people, stretch their minds, and connect them with other humans (or parrots), HoCoPoLitSo is all for it. And so am I. I was so cozy after the stories. If only the library allowed sleepovers.

The library resumes adult read-aloud programs at the Central Branch in the fall. Sunday, Oct. 27, 2 p.m., is “Word Music: Poetry for Adults,” with Roy Ringel and Erin Frederic. The program spans English poetry’s history, starting in the 16th century and concluding with contemporary poets, and features the work of Shakespeare, Dickinson, Neruda, Hughes, and Angelou.  On Wednesday, Nov. 13, 7 p.m., Michael Toner reads Maile Meloy’s “Madame Lazarus,” and Roy Ringel presents “This Water,” by David Foster Wallace. Visit http://hclibrary.org/classes-events/ to register.

 

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