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
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
Google started with a good motto: “Don’t be evil.”
A new policy on the Google-owned YouTube channel though, seems like a teeny bit of corporate evil to thousands of small, independent channels.
The new policy, announced this week, forbids smaller channels to monetize their videos – earning pennies per view – because they don’t have enough subscribers or time that viewers watch their videos.
YouTube sent HoCoPoLitSo an email Jan. 17 that read as follows:
Under the new eligibility requirements announced today, your YouTube channel, hocopolitso, is no longer eligible for monetization because it doesn’t meet the new threshold of 4,000 hours of watchtime within the past 12 months and 1,000 subscribers. As a result, your channel will lose access to all monetization tools and features associated with the YouTube Partner Program on February 20, 2018 unless you surpass this threshold in the next 30 days. Accordingly, this email serves as 30 days notice that your YouTube Partner Program terms are terminated.
Grammatical errors aside – and those truly bother us literary types – the announcement is another cut that the arts cannot afford.
HoCoPoLitSo uses its YouTube channel to show editions of its writer-to-writer talk show, The Writing Life, featuring conversations with Nobel and Pulitzer winners, with local poets made good, with beloved authors like Lucille Clifton and Frank McCourt and Amiri Baraka who have died. Often, we have the most extensive interviews with writers like Gwendolyn Brooks; that’s because HoCoPoLitSo’s founder Ellen Conroy Kennedy had the foresight to begin recording the show to preserve – in a kind of literary time capsule – the moments of writers talking about their craft. Here is a smallest sample, the wonderful Stanley Kunitz talking about the value of poetry:
In a little more than a month, HoCoPoLitSo will be removed from the possibility of making tiny amounts of money on these shows that help fund the taping of new shows, like the one just uploaded featuring Laurie Frankel, and the digitization of archived shows, such as the Michael Longley and Edna O’Brien vintage gems that hit YouTube this week. HoCoPoLitSo usually makes only a few pennies per view, but in this current climate of reduced funding for the arts, HoCoPoLitSo needs every penny. YouTube revenues added a few hundred dollars a year to the budget; that amount could fund a visit by HoCoPoLitSo’s writer-in-residence to a high school.
What can literary lovers do? It’s not too hard. Help us reach the goal of 1,000 subscribers – the channel has 890 now – and 4,000 hours of watch time in a year. Subscribe. Try one episode of The Writing Life while you’re folding laundry or doing your New Year’s resolution sit-ups; Frank McCourt will make you laugh with stories of his Irish childhood, Tyehimba Jess will cause a brain explosion explaining and reading his three-dimensional poetry from Olio, dear Lucille Clifton will warm your heart and put a fire in your gut on five different episodes. Think of the time as a creative respite from the chaos of business and politics. And, as always, donate to help our small nonprofit bring literature to this capitalistic world, which sorely needs it.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Recording secretary and
YouTube channel manager
To subscribe to HoCoPoLitSo’s YouTube channel, click here and then click on subscribe (it’s free).
A little kindness goes a long way in a writer’s life
We don’t ask much.
Twenty minutes quiet.
A red pen.
Writers and editors — and I count myself in both those groups — are fairly undemanding types. Unobtrusive, even. We’d much rather observe than be observed. We just need a little space and time to be alone with our mortal struggle with the writing gods. Though we wouldn’t say no to a cup of tea.
September was named Be Kind to Editors and Writers month by a low-rent Texas publishing house in 1984. Gentleman Vampire is one of their titles, and whew, that bloodsucker sure is handsome on the book cover! How that itty-bitty publisher got to name a month, I don’t know, but I guess they fall into the same category as the group that named February as Sweet Potato Month and May as Good Car Keeping Month. The editor in me wants to lower-case all those words, because they’re really not worthy of a whole month’s worth of honor, not to mention capitalization.
But we’re into marketing here at HoCoPoLitSo, and so we are wholeheartedly behind Be Kind to Editors and Writers Month. In fact, we’re kind to writers all year here at Let There be Lit headquarters; we’re known for our warm treatment of the ink-stained masses. There are clots of Irish authors, apparently, who sit around in pubs, drinking warm beer and raving about HoCoPoLitSo’s welcome. (Make sure you save the date for our fortieth celebration of Irish poetry and literature, the Irish Evening on Feb. 9, 2018.)
And as for editors – we are necessary nitpickers. It’s hard to be nice to someone who slashes away at your precious words. In fact, William Faulkner once wrote: “Only Southerners have taken horsewhips and pistols to editors about the treatment or maltreatment of their manuscript. This–the actual pistols–was in the old days, of course, we no longer succumb to the impulse. But it is still there, within us.” But sometimes, editors make good writing great.
So here’s to a month of kindness to editors and writers. Send us good thoughts of inspiration and hope. Buy your favorite editor a new pen. Watch the kids while we go to the Baltimore Book Festival (starting Sept. 22); they have terrific panel discussions (on the historical novel, and science fiction romance, and finding an agent, for example) and great readings (the Black Ladies Brunch Collective is reading from its new, hilarious and moving Not Without Our Laughter on Sunday, Sept. 24).
And this month – maybe not all year – give the editor or writer in your life a little respect.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Recording secretary, writer, and editor
Like the moths that flit thickly around their outdoor lights in rural Virginia, the words must fly around Carrie Brown and John Gregory Brown’s house on the campus of Sweet Briar College. Because not only Carrie and John are writers, but so is their daughter Molly McCully Brown.
Family lore holds that a tiny Molly used to wake in the middle of the night and call for her mother or father because a poem was waiting and she couldn’t yet write well enough to capture it. And she had two parental examples of how to live an adult life: Catch those words swooping around and write them down.
Molly’s first book of poetry won the 2016 Lexi Rudnitsky Prize, and starting in September, she’ll work as the inaugural Jeff Baskins Fellow at the Oxford American magazine.
John Gregory and Carrie Brown are returning to Columbia, the town where their family story started, for a reading to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of this town. The pair of novelists met while working at the storied Columbia Flier, and then began their family and their careers as authors.
They’ll read together at an event June 4 at Slayton House that HoCoPoLitSo is calling “Of Stars and Hurricanes: Two Columbia Novelists Return.” Carrie Brown’s newest novel, The Stargazer’s Sister, centers on the life of eighteenth-century astronomer Caroline Herschel, while John Gregory Brown’s 2016 book A Thousand Miles from Nowhere follows a man fleeing the wreckage of his life in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Both authors’ main characters, while living in different centuries and countries, seek redemption, for a way to save themselves.
In her opening chapter, Carrie Brown writes that Caroline thinks “a girl was not taught anything that could save her in the larger world.” Desperate to escape an abusive mother and repressive poverty, Caroline is rescued by her elder brother, William Herschel, an astronomer who, with Caroline’s help, discovers Uranus and myriad comets. Carrie explains that the relationship of the siblings – in which Caroline so closely cares for her brother that she sometimes feeds him bits of bread and cheese while he keeps both hands and his eyes on the telescopes he manufactures – was “fertile material” for a novel.
The Boston Globe writes, “Carrie Brown takes up the real life saga of the Herschels and breathes fresh life into it in her lyrical and riveting new novel … .”
“Historical fiction fills in the spaces where history is silent,” Carrie explained at a recent reading in Baltimore. Carrie tells the Herschels’ story, massaging it into the arc of fiction, to “tell the other truth of their story.”
John Gregory Brown’s fiction is based in history – the horrible story of Hurricane Katrina – but is invented whole cloth. A former New Orleans professor loses his way, buys a store that becomes a gathering spot and exchange depot, then flees north ahead of the hurricane winds. “I am a wrecked ship,” the protagonist says in the novel. He winds up at a rural Virginia hotel owned by an East Indian widow, then discovers a community willing to lend him aid and an epic poem that might save his soul. The Boston Globe calls his book “…a tale of redemption that is both believably prosaic and incredibly, quietly moving … .”
The two novelists will read together and answer questions at this event, which also honors Ellen Conroy Kennedy, the founder and longtime executive director of HoCoPoLitSo, and her husband and longtime supporter and board member of HoCoPoLitSo, for their decades of contributions to Columbia’s cultural life.
For tickets, visit http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2725249.
For more information about Carrie Brown, visit http://authorcarriebrown.com/
For more information about John Gregory Brown, visit http://jgb.blog.sbc.edu/about/
For more information about Molly McCully Brown, visit https://mollymccullybrown.com/
— Susan Thornton Hobby
Science people and literature people don’t usually mix. We use different languages – dew and anguish for the lit types, water vapor and comorbid anxiety disorder for the science folks.
But there is a kinship.
Environmental activist and poet Jane Hirshfield, who knocked out crowds at a 2007 reading for HoCoPoLitSo at the Howard County Conservancy, showed that science and poetry should march hand in hand more often.
On April 22, Earth Day, at the rain-soaked March for Science in D.C. to support the scientific community, Hirshfield read a poem from the main stage (photo). Cheers and whoops broke from the crowd of hundreds of thousands who crammed the park below the Washington Monument and spilled over into Constitution Avenue.
She prefaced her poem with this statement: “On Jan. 25, when the federal scientists were told to be silent, this march was first conceived. By the afternoon, I began writing the poem I’m about to read you.”
“On the Fifth Day” begins:
“On the fifth day
the scientists who studied the rivers
were forbidden to speak
or to study the rivers.”
A few hundred yards from the main stage, through the crowds with their creative signs (Got Smallpox? Me neither! Thanks, science!), the March for Science community had set up tents to hold science teach-ins. Marchers crammed into sessions about the benefit of preserving nature in cities, about efforts to save the bees and manage stormwater. In a tent sponsored by #Poets for Science – a popular place on the rainy day – people popped in to write poems. The tent was surrounded by a collection of eight-foot-tall signs printed with verse by writers such as W.S. Merwin and Linda Pastan, each poem chosen by Hirshfield.
The activities inside the tent were directed by Kent State University’s Wick Poetry Center and its Traveling Stanzas program. As the rain pattered on the tent’s ceiling, hundreds of people created “emerge” poems, striking out some words in long paragraphs of scientific language. Copies of the speeches given on the stage that day were handed to anyone who came in – from four-year-olds to gray beards. Using markers, the authors crossed out blocks of words, leaving poems to emerge from the blackness.
The intrinsic value
of diverse and abundant plant and animal species
That value has been shared
The Wick Poetry Center site features more photos and emerge poems.
In Washington last Saturday, the crowd was exposed to the connections between poetry and science, demonstrating the ideas that many activist poets are trying to express — that art and science are not expendable, they are intrinsic to survival in the world.
As many signs read: “There is no Planet B.”
Hirshfield explains in her statement on the #Poets for Science site:
“Poetry and science are allies, not opposites. … Observation and imagination, the microscope and the metaphor, the sense of amazement— you need all of them to take the measure of a moment, of a life. Poetry and science each seek to ground our lives in both what exists and the sense of the large, of mystery and awe. Every scientist I know is grounded in curiosity, wonder, the spirit of exploration, the spirit of service. As is every poet.”
Many signs at the march were lettered with the March for Science’s slogan: “Science, not silence.” I would add, though the rhythm isn’t quite as sublime, “Poetry and science, not silence.”
Susan Thornton Hobby
When poetry lovers attended a Carolyn Forché reading Oct. 30, they probably expected gorgeous wordplay. But beyond the language, the world’s troubles — even those we didn’t know about — were laid bare.
Should we expect any less from the writer who coined the phrase “poetry of witness”?
At HoCoPoLitSo’s most recent event in the annual fall Lucille Clifton Reading Series, Forché gave HoCoPoLitSo audiences an exclusive — a reading from her yet-unpublished manuscript, In the Lateness of the World.
The whole world crept into the theater on the coattails of her words: the refugees fleeing Syria in flimsy rubber boats and her grandmother’s crossing of the Atlantic to reach Ellis Island, the siege of Sarajevo and the resistance of the Russian poet Pushkin.
Despite being thick into recovery from pneumonia, Forché delivered a forceful reading of her work, and answered questions for half an hour after the reading with the audience about how she helps translate poetry from Vietnamese, Bulgarian and Arabic, the tradition of oral poetry and human rights around the world. Even in the questions from the audience, in which one poetry lover talked about the thousands of annual deaths along the Rio Grande, the world’s woes were evident.
Author of two collections of poetry of witness, including the seminal Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (1993) and the more recent Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English, 1500 to 2001 (2014), Forché has always been both a human rights advocate and a poet.
During the afternoon’s taping of HoCoPoLitSo’s The Writing Life, a thirty-minute writer-to-writer talk show hosted by Grace Cavalieri (also the host of the Library of Congress’ The Poet and the Poem: https://www.loc.gov/poetry/media/poetpoem.html), Forché talked about her beginnings, and about “my poet’s responsibility.”
She talked with Cavalieri about winning a Guggenheim, meeting someone in California who talked with her about El Salvador, and about voyaging to Central America to find out what was happening. Turns out, it was death squads, the military dictatorship’s brutality and an impending revolution. She began writing to Amnesty International, and putting poems on paper. Those experiences gave rise to her book The Country between Us (1981), which became that rarest of birds, a poetry bestseller.
At the tail end of the question session after her reading, a student asked, “What would you tell young poets of witness?”
“Stay open, stay awake,” Forché said, and don’t think you have to travel the world to find trouble. There’s plenty here at home. “Enlarge your capacity for empathy.”
“Poetry,” she told Cavalieri during The Writing Life taping, is “the natural prayer of the human soul,” and can work to heal the world.
— Susan Thornton Hobby,
Here are some numbers about Afghan refugees:
- 2 million Afghan citizens were displaced by violence in 2015.
- 5 million are awaiting repatriation or citizenship in Pakistan, but the government there is starting to force the refugees back to Afghanistan.
- 1 million wait in Iran and are enduring increasingly rough treatment and deportation.
And here’s why we can read those sentences and glaze over: because our brains can’t comprehend the millions of stories in the refugee crisis.
That’s why one photograph, of one drowned toddler and his two tiny shoes sparked more outrage than the daily tally of refugees. That photo told a story that had been incomprehensible.
Novelist Nadia Hashimi, who is of Afghan descent but grew up in New York and New Jersey, wanted to tell one family’s story, to show the humanity in the humanitarian crisis that is the migrant emergency.
Hashimi centered her 2015 novel, When the Moon is Low, around a schoolteacher, Fereiba, who lives with her family in Kabul until the Taliban imprison and kill her husband. She and her children escape the violence of Afghan’s capital and endure boat trips in the dead of night, border crossings, predatory smugglers, hunger, cold and exhaustion in their quest to reach family in London.
In the prologue, Hashimi writes in the voice of Fereiba, who is lying in a hotel bed with her children: “One day, we will not look over our shoulders in fear or sleep on borrowed land with one eye open or shudder at the sight of a uniform. One day we will have a place to call home. I will carry these children — my husband’s children — as far as I can and pray that we will reach that place where, in the quiet of their slumber, I, too, will rest.”
Hashimi will read from that novel June 26 as part of a program HoCoPoLitSo is producing with the Columbia Festival of the Arts’ summer festival. The Toronto Star wrote of When the Moon is Low: “A heartfelt story of courage amidst a world short on compassion.”
Hashimi’s own story is compelling. Her mother grew up in the 1960s and ’70s in a modern Kabul, going to college, wearing mini skirts, listening to music with her friends. When the Soviet invasion was imminent, her mother migrated to the Europe, then got her master’s degree in engineering. Her father emigrated to the U.S. to seek his own education. Afghanistan, under the influence of the Taliban and extremist warlords, forced women to cover, divided families, reinstituted child marriage and outlawed women’s education.
Now a pediatrician from Potomac with four children, Hashimi has written three novels in four years. When she traveled to Afghanistan after the publication of her first two novels, she found it much changed from her parents’ stories. The years have not been kind to her parents’ home country, she told an audience at the Miller Library earlier in April. Since 1970, life in Afghanistan has become especially hard for women — who were for years forbidden to work, go to school or walk unaccompanied — and she wanted to tell those stories.
When the Moon is Low is particularly topical now, in the midst of the ongoing wave of migrants seeking a better life than in their turbulent, violent native land.
Foreign Policy, in a fascinating piece about the responsibility of America in the twisted history of Afghanistan, wrote, “The case of the Afghans, one of the world’s largest refugee communities and the second-largest group – behind Syrians – to arrive in Europe recently, should serve as a reminder that the origins of today’s predicament are neither recent nor confined to the refugees’ home countries.” (Full article.)
America and its policies bear responsibility for the refugees struggling to reach a peaceful place. We should not ignore the crisis, neither its numbers, its images nor its stories. Join HoCoPoLitSo and the Columbia Festival of the Arts on June 26 to hear Hashimi read from When the Moon is Low, and a sneak peek at her upcoming book about the stories in a women’s prison in Afghanistan, House Without Windows (August 2016).
— Susan Thornton Hobby
HoCoPoLitSo board member
and recording secretary