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
If we’re lucky, we’re stuck in our houses, fantasizing about walking unmasked down the aisles of the library, or walking up to an author and (gasp!) shaking their hand after a reading. But we’ll have to wait a while for those in-person literary dreams to come true. Instead, on these chilly spring days, take a walk over to YouTube, and check out a few The Writing Life episodes.
Or if you’re in for the long haul (and who among us isn’t binging television shows nowadays?), Howard Community College’s Dragon Digital Television will show a 24-hour marathon of HoCoPoLitSo’s writer-to-writer interview shows. The Writing Life will air from 6 a.m. May 3 to 6 a.m. May 4. http://carousel.howardcc.edu/cablecastapi/live?channel_id=1&use_cdn=true
Check the schedule below, which features a showing of our hour-long show with Seamus Heaney, for which HoCoPoLitSo recently acquired the rights. Heaney talks about the politics and poetics of Northern Ireland, laughs a lot, recites “Digging” when Ellen Kennedy requests it, and answers questions from a Smith Theatre audience. Truly something to lift your spirits.
6 a.m. Theo Dorgan and Paula Meehan. Meehan and Dorgan, a married couple of Irish poets, talk about Seamus Heaney, read their own works dedicated to Heaney, and talk about cultural exchange in poetry. “My own sense is that poets are made, not out of fluency, but out of the fractures in a culture,” Meehan says.
6:30 a.m. Taylor Branch hosted by Timothy Jenkins. In 2000, at the time of this show’s recording with host and historian Timothy Jenkins, Branch had written two of his trilogy of books, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Parting the Waters: American in the King Years 1954-1963, and the award-winning Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-1965. These stories, Branch said, are “quintessentially American.”
7 a.m. The Poetry of Sterling Brown. In this 1994 edition of The Writing Life, poet Roland Flint speaks with Michael S. Harper, a Brown University professor of English and the Rhode Island poet laureate. The two poets discuss the influential poet and Howard University professor Sterling Brown, considered the dean of African-American poetry. Harper reads many of Brown’s poems, including “After Winter.”
7:30 a.m. Poetry Quartet. Henry Taylor, E. Ethelbert Miller, Ann Darr, and Hilary Tham, four Washington, D.C., area poets who started with publishing their work in small presses, talk about the value of that enterprise to keep literature alive. They also discuss the value of poetry slams, divulge the inspirations for their work, and read many of their own poems.
8 a.m. Seamus Heaney hosted by George O’Brien. Recorded in 1988, this interview with Seamus Heaney touches on his childhood in rural Ireland, the politics of Northern Ireland, his poetic craft and the natural world’s influence on his work. With his arm slung over the back of the chair onstage, Heaney talks, reads, recites, and laughs.
9 a.m. Carolyn Forché hosted by Grace Cavalieri. In this 2016 edition of HoCoPoLitSo’s The Writing Life, poet Grace Cavalieri talks with Carolyn Forché, the writer and anthologist who coined the term “poetry of witness.” They speak about Forché’s Czechoslovakian grandmother, her beginnings in the world of human rights and poetry, and working to anthologize poetry of witness.
9:30 a.m. Edith Pearlman hosted by Carrie Brown. In this edition of HoCoPoLitSo’s The Writing Life, novelist Carrie Brown talks with short story writer Edith Pearlman, who won the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award for her collection Binocular Vision.
10 a.m. Emma Donoghue hosted by Mary Kay Zuravleff. Emma Donoghue talks with fellow novelist Mary Kay Zuravleff about the role of music and history in her work, as well as writing the screenplay of Room. She reads from both Room and Frog Music.
10:30 a.m. Four Poets Laureate. Roland Flint, then serving as the Maryland Poet Laureate, hosts past poets laureate Lucille Clifton, Linda Pastan, and Reed Whittemore. All friends, the poets discuss the role and possibilities of the poet laureate position, as well as the craft of writing poetry, in a half-hour of good conversation and great poetry.
11 a.m. Patricia Smith hosted by Joseph Ross. Poet Joseph Ross speaks with poet Patricia Smith, a spoken word poet who found success with her book Blood Dazzler, a collection of poems chronicling Hurricane Katrina. Smith reads “8 a.m., Sunday, August 28, 2005,” a poem in the hurricane’s voice.
11:30 a.m. Stanley Plumly interviews Rita Dove. Rita Dove, a Pulitzer Prize-winner and former National Poet Laureate, speaks with Maryland Poet Laureate Stanley Plumly about her latest book, Sonata Mulattico. The book tells the story, through multiple narrative poems in different voices, of George Bridgetower, an Afro-Polish child prodigy violinist who studied with Haydn.
12 p.m. Israeli Poems of War and Peace. Poet and professor Michael Collier talks with poets Moshe Dor and Barbara Goldberg about their 1997 book of Israeli poems and translations, After the First Rain: Israeli Poems on War and Peace.
12:30 p.m. Tribute to Josephine Jacobsen. In this edition of HoCoPoLitSo’s The Writing Life, poets Michael Collier, Lucille Clifton, and Elizabeth Spires talk about their friend and colleague, the late Josephine Jacobsen (1908 – 2003), a remarkable poet and short story writer from Baltimore.
1 p.m. Mark Doty hosted by Sue Ellen Thompson. Poet Sue Ellen Thompson speaks with poet and memoirist Mark Doty about memory, mackerel, AIDS, Labradors, and the challenge of writing about all of those topics. Doty, the author of nine books of poetry and three memoirs, is known for his descriptive power.
1:30 p.m. Taylor Mali hosted by Chris August. In this 2015 rapid-fire edition of The Writing Life, performance poet Chris August talks with slam poet champion and education activist Taylor Mali about his poetic beginnings, his father’s influence, the strategies of slams, and white male privilege.
2 p.m. Mary O’Malley hosted by Jean Nordhaus. Irish poet Mary O’Malley speaks with Jean Nordhaus, and opens with her mythological-based poem “The Boning Hall,” from her collection of the same name, which addresses Adrienne Rich’s classic poem “Diving into the Wreck.” The eldest daughter of a Connemara fisherman, with nine younger siblings, O’Malley is focused not only on “the mythos of the sea,” she says, but “the purity of the language.”
2:30 p.m. Lucille Clifton hosted by Roland Flint. Former Maryland poet laureate Roland Flint hosts Lucille Clifton, who won the National Book Award for her book Blessing the Boats. Clifton reads many of her iconic early poems, including “Good Times”, “The 1st”, “flowers”; “lucy one eye”, “forgiving my father”, and “carved on a gravestone in a southern baptist churchyard.”
3 p.m. “Sunset Baby”. Dramaturg Khalid Long and Rep Stage director Joseph Ritsch talk about playwright Dominique Morisseau. The two theater experts talk about how her play “Sunset Baby” addresses the generational divide in families in this play, the role of fathers and the centrality of forgiveness.
3:30 p.m. E. Ethelbert Miller hosts Joseph Ross. In this edition of HoCoPoLitSo’s The Writing Life, poet Joseph Ross speaks with host and fellow poet E. Ethelbert Miller about the role of writers as activists and memory keepers, the ideas of faith and storytelling through poetry, and the craft of putting together a manuscript.
4 p.m. Joseph Ross hosts E. Ethelbert Miller. Poet Joseph Ross talks to “the dean of D.C. poets,” E. Ethelbert Miller, author of several poetry collections, memoirs and anthologies, and co-editor of Poet Lore. Miller discusses the origin and span of his newest book of collected poems.
4:30 p.m. Marilyn Chin hosted by Joseph Ross. Marilyn Chin, a Chinese-American poet, speaks with poet and teacher Joseph Ross about her poems of the body, protest, and family. Chin begins by reading “Beijing Spring,” written to the young man who held up his hand to fend off the tanks on Tiananmen Square, as an invocation for all youth around the world to speak up.
5 p.m. Li-Young Lee hosted by Michael Collier. Poet Michael Collier speaks with Li-Young Lee in 1995 about poetry, prayerful attitudes, and unconscious states. Lee reads his poem “Epistle” to start off the show.
5:30 p.m. Mike McCormack hosted by Cóilín Parsons. Novelist Mike McCormack speaks with Georgetown University professor Cóilín Parsons about his craft, especially his novel in one breath, Solar Bones. A devoted experimentalist, McCormack resists the label of surrealist: “I’m holding this side of the surrealist’s line. I’m too structurally minded to give myself over to it, but I’ll bring it right up to the doorstep.”
Take it from the top again, band! Starting at 6 p.m., the whole line-up repeats.
Enjoy these talks, learn a bit about writing and reading, then you can go back to Tiger King.
Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life Producer
Libraries are closed. Readings are canceled. Thriftbooks is backed up. Heck, even Busboys & Poets is closed, except for delivery. For writers and readers, all distractions have been eliminated, besides the refrigerator and your family members.
You have weeks in your four walls to write that novel, nail down your collection of poems, or finish your fat book of essays.
You have piles of books on nightstands, shelves, and stacked on the floor (mea culpa) and now have time to read them all.
Ah, but the motivation. Where did you put that? Under the stacks of toilet paper? Behind the boxes of pasta?
Don’t worry, we’ve kept some in the back for you.
Below is a list of resources for those who want to capitalize on this time. And for those of us who usually exist like they’re living in a pandemic (yes, all you freelance writers and editors in your sweatpants, I’m talking to you), here’s a refresher list.
- Howard County Library offers electronic versions of books, audiobooks, even eMagazines. (They have on-line every version of National Geographic from 1888 to the present, that should keep you busy.) Library patrons can even learn a language.: https://hclibrary.org/research/
- The library is even hosting virtual book clubs, only two so far, their Global Reads and Mystery clubs: http://hclibrary.org/classes-events/
- A number of electronic reading sites are offering 30 days free, including Scribd: https://www.scribd.com/?lohp=2
- And Overdrive and Libby, through the library, are always free. Hop on those waiting lists: https://www.overdrive.com/apps/libby/
- The Library of Congress has a huge cache of resources. They offer tons of classics on-line, and if now isn’t a time to catch up on Jane Austen, I don’t know when would be better: http://read.gov/books/index.html#adults
- The LoC also has videos of author visits, and suggested book lists by genre.
- Enoch Pratt is offering live chats with a librarian, and who wouldn’t want to do that? https://www.prattlibrary.org/ask/
- •NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is moving its focus from just November and summer camp to launch StayHomeWriMo, which offers coping strategies, motivational speeches, writing tips and more: https://nanowrimo.org/stayhomewrimo?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=HQ%2020%20-%20StayHomeWriMo&utm_content=HQ%2020%20-%20StayHomeWriMo+CID_c5c73afc9fc4af274a8d991c0fa1f2fe&utm_source=Email%20marketi
- And Maryland’s own Writer’s Center is offering all its classes online now: https://www.writer.org/
- Just need a jump start? How about some writing prompts:
Back away from the pantry and the television. Read and write. Literature eases the mind in times of trouble. There’s a reason that the Greeks inscribed above the library in Thebes that this place was a “healing place for the soul.” Books can take you places outside your own experience (and four walls), and reading increases empathy, according to brain science. We’re going to need it.
If all else fails, and you simply cannot imagine an end to this confinement, try reading letters from people who were living through the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918: https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/influenza-epidemic/records-list.html
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.
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.
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.
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.
A micro-memoir in the style of Beth Ann Fennelly, written by Susan Thornton Hobby, Executive Producer of the Writing Life
Beth Ann Fennelly showed up at the Blackbird Poetry Festival last week in a skirt printed with rows of books of many colors, lime-green and fuchsia shoes, a brown sweater dotted with green flowers and a vintage chartreuse Canada Dry T-shirt that I coveted. Fennelly, who was at the festival to give a workshop, and give two readings, is the author, most recently, of Heating and Cooling: 52 micro-memoirs.
Anyone looking at both of us together could tell immediately who the poet was – I was in a white T-shirt, black pants and gray jacket. I did put on my red shoes, but other than that, I was as neutral as Switzerland.
Danielle Maloney, television director extraordinaire of The Writing Life, explained that because we use a green screen with a computer-generated set when taping the show, Fennelly’s torso would disappear – literally melt into the electronic background.
Fennelly would be not the headless horseman but the torso-less poet. She and I locked eyes. Then we both looked at my chest. The white T-shirt.
As she later told the audience at the Nightbird reading, “my host gave me the shirt off her back.”
But in the television studio, Beth Ann moaned, “I need color,” gazing forlornly at my boring shirt.
HoCoPoLitSo’s managing director Pam Simonson, the ultimate problem-solver, donated her butter-yellow jacket, which matched a few books on the skirt, and Beth Ann had a new outfit. I wore a Dragon Digital Television polo that the director found in a box in her office.
After a deep and hilarious thirty-minute conversation on The Writing Life, lead by poet Teri Ellen Cross Davis, Fennelly and I rushed to the car so she could grab some dinner and change before the evening reading. I was carrying books, a few remaining cookies from the dozen I baked to fuel the student camera operators, my jacket, Pam’s jacket, and the white T-shirt.
After I had dropped Fennelly at her hotel, I wanted to change back into my white shirt for the reading. I searched my car’s back seat, front seat, floorboards. It was gone.
I realized I must have dropped it. No time to find another shirt – I just threw my jacket on top of my black Dragon Digital polo and picked up the poet to reach the reading on time.
Just as we were turning into the parking garage, I told Beth Ann I needed to go search the hallways of Howard Community College for my T-shirt. And then then headlights hit it – a crumpled puddle of white on the parking garage floor.
“I’ll get it!” Beth Ann shrieked, and jumped out, the rhinestones on her vintage dress flashing in the headlights as she triumphantly held the shirt over her head. The shirt was criss-crossed with tire tracks. It smelled of damp cement, Michelin radials, and Beth Ann Fennelly.
I’ll never wash it.
blog post by Susan Thornton Hobby
An open and shut case at Blackbird Poetry workshop…
Only Beth Ann Fennelly could urge more than 150 people gathered for a writing workshop during the Blackbird Poetry Festival to stick their fingers in their mouths and repeat: “Bet, butt, bet, butt, bet, butt,” until they had figured out how their tongues were making the words.
It also could have been the threat of interpretive dance (their own, if they did not participate).
Either way, Fennelly clearly illustrated her point – the shape of our mouths influences the connotations certain sounds retain, in languages around the world. And therefore, the sounds bring meaning to poetry.
Here’s her quiz.
Carl Sandberg wrote: “The voice of the last cricket/ across the first frost/ is one kind of goodbye.”
The next line, Fennelly asked, is it “so thin a splinter, so meager a morsel or so small an atom?” “Thin a splinter,” someone called from the back of the room. “Yes,” Fennelly said. “That short ‘i’ sound – the sound of small, a vulnerable feeling. “
Poets use sound to make meaning with words that suggest meanings, through their brevity or length of sound (“pup” and “bark” are the same number of syllables, but they take longer to say), the pleasure or discomfort of the sounds in our mouths (“melodious” versus “sticky”), and by setting up and displacing a metrical scheme.
“I’m hedonistic about feeling the sound of words, there’s a pleasure of sound,” Fennelly told the group.
She lead them through poems by Robert Herrick (“melting, melodious words to lutes of amber,” and by Robert Frost, (“The Span of Life” – “the saddest poem in the English language,” Fennelly said.) She talked about how sounds of words can move the poem faster or slower, how a change in sound and rhyme and rhythm can surprise the reader in a good or unpleasant way.
By the end of the workshop, Fennelly gave dark chocolate bars to the students who scored the best on the quiz that tested their ear for poetry’s sounds. Because it was all about the mouth.
P.S. A week after her visit to Columbia, Fennelly was awarded The Excellence in Graduate Teaching & Mentoring Award by the University of Mississippi where she teaches.
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