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
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