Today – September 6th – is National Read a Book Day. And on this occasion, I’m sharing with you 30 books that changed me.
These are the books that exposed me to new things (like about racial passing in Nella Larsen’s Passing), changed the way I felt about a subject or what I knew about the subject (like about death and dying in Ann Lamott’s Hard Laughter), or seemed to push the conventions of literature (like the way Laurence Stern’s Tristram Shandy experiments with structure and narrative voice). These are the books that made me say, “What? A book a can do THAT?!?!”
For most of these works, though, I don’t remember the exact plot or the details that made them so impressive. For some of these books, I bet the timing was what mattered. When I read Crime and Punishment, for example, it was right after high school. And I read it for fun. I think I was pretty proud of myself for reading a Dostoevsky for leisure. That made me an official adult.
Though I don’t remember the details, I remember the sensation. I remember the sense of awe inspired by Waiting for Godot and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. These books blew me away with their deep investigations of humans – about who we are, what we want, what we believe, what we lack, and what we could be (both beautiful and hideous).
I remember feeling very grown up after reading books like The Laramie Project and Middlesex. These books introduced me to the things that happen in the world to real people that I might otherwise have been shielded from.
I remember feeling envious when reading works like Playing in the Dark and Between the World and Me. These are the books that showed me what a human mind can think through and what a human mind can then articulate into language. The envy comes from recognizing these writers’ genius as well as the fact that I will never achieve that.
I remember the labor that went into studying Paradise Lost and Macbeth. So much to excavate and discover – again and again – in pouring over works like those. And the sense of accomplishment that comes from cracking the code in some small way to understand the text.
I also remember specific lines from these books that stay with me. Like “There is no story that is not true” from Thing Fall Apart. Like “A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe” from The Things They Carried. And these unforgettable words: “Let me imagine … what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say” from A Room of One’s Own – and I never forgot about Judith Shakespeare.
Oh, and of course – I remember the laughing and the crying. Really laughing out loud while reading Me Talk Pretty One Day. And really sobbing while reading The Kite Runner.
My literature students are writing this week about why we read and study literature. As for me, I read because I want to be changed. Even in some small way. By the time I read the last page of the book I want to feel a little different and be a little better than when I started the book.
Why do you read?
By Laura Yoo
April is National Poetry Month, and Saturday, April 22nd is Earth Day. And I have a book recommendation that can help celebrate both: Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature edited by Camille T. Dungy.
Black Nature offers a different perspective through which we might read, understand, and talk about the 93 black poets and their 180 poems included in this anthology. Dungy writes a compelling introduction in which she describes the noticeable absence of black writers from anthologies and discussions in ecocriticism and ecopoetics. She reminds us of the complex and unique connection that African Americans have to “land, animal, and vegetation in American culture”.
Despite all these connections to America’s soil, we don’t see much African American poetry in nature-related anthologies because, regardless of their presence, blacks have not been recognized in their poetic attempts to affix themselves to the landscape. They haven’t been seen, or when they have it is not as people who are rightful stewards of the land. They are accidentally or invisibly or dangerously or temporarily or inappropriately on/in the landscape. The majority of the works in this collection incorporate treatments of the natural world that are historicized or politicized and are expressed through the African American perspective, which inclines readers to consider these texts as political poems, historical poems, protest poems, socioeconomic commentary, anything but nature poems.
I want to test this new perspective, and with this in mind I turn to the poetry of Tyehimba Jess, the newly minted 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry winner, who is coming to headline HoCoPoLitSo and Howard Community College’s annual Blackbird Poetry Festival on Thursday, April 27th. He will be reading and speaking with E. Ethelbert Miller during the Sunbird Reading. Notably, Miller’s “I am Black and the Trees are Green” is included in Dungy’s anthology.
Much of Jess’s acclaimed body of work illuminates on the African American experience. About Olio, Wave Books says, “Part fact, part fiction, Jess’s much anticipated second book weaves sonnet, song, and narrative to examine the lives of mostly unrecorded African American performers directly before and after the Civil War up to World War I.”
In an interview with LitHub about Olio, Jess spoke about the power and the politics of song: “To be able to sing under that kind of oppression I think, in a lot of ways, is the very essence of survival, of a people, of the ability to have to the hope to make something beautiful amongst so much wretchedness. That’s critical to the concept of human survival. And in this particular context, of African Americans working through slavery… that’s what we had.”
But in the context of Dungy’s Black Nature, I turn to Jess’s leadbelly with a different ear.
In “john wesley ledbetter,” Jess writes,
singing a crusade of axe and machete i take virgin texas territory by force, clear it of timber and trouble. each eastern twilight, i till top soil ’til sun plants itself back into that western horizon. i keep struggling against a brooding moon’s skyline until dark sleep is my friend again, a place where i can dream drought into rain, pray storm could out of spotless sky.
The poem goes on with, “there’s only one way out of slave time dues: hump this land down till it shrieks up a crop of cancelled debt into your wagon.” In this poem, we see an illustration of what Dungy describes as African Americans’ “complex relationship to land, animals, and vegetation.” She says, “African Americans are tied up in the toil and soil involved in working the land into the country we know today,” and she reminds us how they were “viewed once as chattel, part of a farm’s livestock or asset in a bank’s ledger.”
In “leadbelly: runagate,” Jess writes,
where water and land meet is shore, and on shore is iron in fists of jailers in sun of texas swamp. i wade into bubble and blue ink of red river, my head is shaven, bobbing, brown island of shine. […]
i want to let the water take me, i want to surrender to this river’s rock and swirl, come up clean and white as death itself, but the black in me breaks into blues, and i feel the coffle of their claws. i am stepping toward dry land, the dance of ankle chains, where i scream history into song that works itself into blood, sweat, memory.
The water in this poem reminds me of Dungy’s description of the “river” in Rita Dove’s “Three Days of forest, a River, Free”: it is “more than a moving body of water. It is a biblical allusion, a historical reality, a geographical boundary, a legal boundary, a decoy, the center of emotional and personal change, an aspiration, a metaphor: all these things at once.”
As I re-see the poems in leadbelly with a different framework, I am reminded how the way we group, categorize, thematically arrange, and shelf literature can limit or expand our experiences of literature. We put the poems under one category or another, and it’s hard to imagine what else it can be.
Dungy’s Black Nature is important, because it acknowledges the African American perspective these 93 poets highlight while introducing what else their work is – and how that “what else” amplifies our understanding of their works. As Dungy says, Black Nature “encourage[s] readers to divert their gaze into new directions, demanding they notice new aspects of the world and accept alternative modes of description.”
To put it another way, a book like Black Nature is like a hearing aid. It can give us that extra power to hear poetry in an even more powerful way. It can help us turn up the volume on that work – perhaps turn up the bass or the treble and experience the poem in a myriad of ways.
It was my first time. I was nervous. I was excited. I felt better that a friend was going to be there with me the whole time, a friend who had done it before.
My first Dodge Poetry Festival.
I had two goals and I had 24 hours (if I didn’t sleep) to achieve them. First, hear Claudia Rankine, my new literary hero whose formidable poetic and intellectual power show us what a real-life super hero looks like. Move over, Captain America! Second, discover one new poet – someone I’ve never read or heard
The first event I attended was called “American Poetries” with Brenda Hillman, Khaled Mattawa, Claudia Rankine, and Anne Waldman – all Chancellors of Academy of American Poets. While I would have loved to hear these poets read from their own impressive repertoire of works, it was also wonderful to hear the poems they’re reading and who they recommend for us to discover.
Khaled Mattawa read a poem by Hayan Charara called “Animals,” a haunting story about the violence we commit against each other. The poem, Mattawa reminded us, exposes the horrors that we’re not allowed to speak of. I immediately ordered a copy of Charara’s book, Something Sinister.
Claudia Rankine told us about a poet named Mark Nowak and his book, Shut Up Shut Down. In referring to Nowak, Rankine brought to the foreground a voice that is sometimes ignored in our discussions about race – the working white class. This voice is essential to Rankine’s new project of studying whiteness.
Much of this forum’s discussion on “America’s Poetries” highlighted the diversity of voices, experiences, and perspectives. The takeaway for me was that poets feel a deep sense of responsibility in their roles not only as artists but also as people who speak for, about, and on behalf of American lives. Their poetry gives us language with which we can speak of our world in ways that are creative and enlightening.
That evening, I experienced one of the most special poetry performances I’ve ever attended at “Poetry like Bread – Poems of Social and Political Consciousness.” The lineup included Marilyn Chin, Robert Hass, Martín Espada, Juan Felipe Herrera, Brenda Hillman, Claudia Rankine, Vijay Seshadri, and Gary Snyder. I know, right? Yes, let that list sink in.
I rediscovered Robert Hass. Though I had read his works and studied them in school, experiencing his poetry live on stage sparked a new interest. His reading of what can only be called an epic poem titled “Dancing” – about human history of violence and weapons – brought people to a standing ovation.
That same evening, I discovered Marilyn Chin. I don’t know many poets who look like me – an Asian American woman. And there is something powerful about seeing someone who looks like you speaking of an experience, a perspective, a history, a family, or a value that you are personally familiar with. She is a cool performer with a bit of an attitude and spunk. I like that.
So within hours of arriving at the festival, I met both of my goals.
But it’s not just the poets and the poetry that made this overnight trip to Newark deeply moving. Conversations with my friend about language, education, art, race, politics – those conversations had me doing mental gymnastics. My ideas were both validated and challenged. My mind stretched.
I learned that the community of poets and poetry is a thing of beauty and power. Dodge got me hooked. I can’t wait to go back in two years.
This is a story of a prodigal daughter.
At the beginning of the summer, I made big plans. A long list of books I wanted to read. Big goals. Ambitious. I would read, read, and read some more. I had books to read. And I had the time to read them.
Instead, all through July and August, I watched TV. A lot of it. Game of Thrones, Orange is the New Black, Stranger Things, Master Chef, and endless episodes of Chopped. And all these hours that were committed to watching means I haven’t been reading. There is the still-not-finished Fates and Furies on my night stand. I’m about 50 pages into Wilde Lake by Laura Lippman. Though Pride and Prejudice and Zombies intrigued me at the bookstore, I haven’t even opened it yet. Though I made good progress on Claudia Rankin’s Citizen: An American Lyric, it is not finished. (Though, you might argue, one simply does not plow through a work like Citizen.)
This summer, the room we call the “reading room” in my house was used to get away from the children to watch stuff on Netflix on my tablet with earphones shoved into my ears.
I am ashamed. Fail. Major fail.
So, clearly, I needed help.
And help came on September 13th in the form of a very wild Wilde Reading. Organized by Laura Shovan, Ann Bracken, and LindaJoy Burke, Wilde Readings launched its first open mic night with featured readers Jen Grow and Le Hinton. An audience of about 30 gathered in one of the art studio spaces at the Columbia Art Center, the same space where my son had art summer camp. It was comfortable, friendly, and intimate.
As Laura told us, though there are many wonderful literary organizations, publications, and events in Howard County, a place for writers to come together and share freely and informally had been lacking for many years. And Wilde Reading’s inaugural event demonstrated the very reason such gatherings are needed: it created a collage of unique, diverse literary voices. Each time a reader went up to the podium, you just didn’t know what you were gonna get.
Jen Grow’s short story about a daughter and her dying mother just about killed me. Before she read, Jen promised to go for the jugular – her words – and she didn’t miss. I was relieved and astonished at the same time when Jen ended by reassuring us that her mother is still living, that the story is indeed fictional. I thought, how can one create a story like that – so moving, so real, and so visceral – without actually having lived it? Even if one had experienced it, telling it in such a powerful way would be a difficult task. I suppose that’s why poets are artists, creators.
Le Hinton’s reading was enhanced by a tactile experience he created for the audience. He passed around cotton blooms for us to feel between our fingers while he read his poems on the motif of cotton. When he read an autobiographical poem about doing math lessons with his father, he passed around Tootsie Rolls for us to enjoy. The taste of chocolate in our mouths transported us to that room with that little boy, his father, math lessons, and Tootsie Rolls for reward.
The open mic readers included Jan Bowman and Michael Ratcliffe, two writers who will be featured in future Wilde Reading events. The open mic evening ended with a powerful performance by Analysis the Poet.
While the voices of the evening were divergent and their subject matter so varied, together these writer-performers created a one-of-kind literary sound. And that sound, that experience can never be recreated again. I feel lucky to have been there to witness it.
This Wilde Reading invited me back to the written word. It pushed me around a bit – from one emotion to another and yet another – and left me wanting more. And more I shall get – on October 4th with Jan Bowman and Derrick Weston Brown as featured readers at the second Wilde Reading.
Inspired by this Wilde Reading, I did something different today. During my son’s 45-minute swim practice, instead of browsing my Facebook page or taking quizzes on Buzzfeed, I opened a book: Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist. And I’m in love with the written word again.
Thank you, Wilde, for welcoming back this prodigal daughter.
During my last visit to Antique Depot in Old Ellicott City (if you’ve been reading this blog, you know I LOVE this place), I picked up several paperback copies of Agatha Christie’s mysteries.
My memories of reading Agatha Christie are also memories of growing up. On my parents’ bookshelves, I found Korean novels, histories, and poetry. But also there were the classics like Dostoevsky and Don Quixote as well as detective novels by Agatha Christie and thrillers by Sidney Sheldon. All in Korean. In middle school, I read my first Christie, And Then There Were None, in Korean.
So it was with a bit of nostalgia that I began reading The Secret of Chimneys, one of my finds at Antique Depot. Right away I noticed in her writing something dramatically different from the mystery novels of today. Novels like Girl on the Train and Gone Girl which were wildly popular recently (and made into movies) have character development (some better than others) and complicated plot twists, a mix of whodunit and exploration of various themes. Compared to these, Christie’s mystery seemed rather… plain. Instead of sex, drugs, infidelity, violence, and blood, we find witty dialogue and a slow building of a puzzle.
This re-introduction to Christie made me want to learn more about the mystery genre, so I turned to my friend Jean Sonntag with some questions. Jean is an adjunct instructor of English at Howard Community College as well as a mystery enthusiast. Here’s what she had to say about Christie and the development of the mystery genre.
Laura: How would you describe Christie’s kind of mystery-telling and our contemporary mystery-telling?
Jean: There is a huge difference. The key thing is the emphasis in Christie on solving a puzzle to the subordination of characterization, psychological analysis, or any larger themes. Christie was part of a group called The Detection Club who had a quite elaborate set of rules for writers of detective stories in the 30’s. In short, everything should be there so the reader could solve the puzzle. Writers, of course, violated these rules at times. The tradition of ratiocination (Poe’s word) and very often an eccentric detective were part of the development of this 30’s Golden Age and Christie fits this tradition, particularly with Hercule Poirot.
Today’s detective story leaves room for more in-depth characterization and is minus the formulaic considerations of the detective stories of Christie’s era. Thus, someone like Elizabeth George’s Inspector Thomas Lynley and P.D. James’ Adam Dalgleish have a history that unfolds throughout the works while they are solving crimes committed by complex characters in complex situations. The modern detective story tends to be longer, more in depth, with more sophisticated style in many cases. And some have themes; P.D. James has pointed out that she sets out to write a detective story as any one would a novel, where the plot is a natural outgrowth of plot and setting.
Laura: Beyond the experience of thrill or curiosity, what do you think draws people to mysteries like Christie’s?
Jean: Reading Christie is a thinking (not feeling) exercise. Her works are not exceptionally long and her style is relatively simple, with pretty good dialogue. Those attracted to puzzle solving or who are reading strictly for entertainment love her. All of us have times we’d like to read like that – consider that layover in an airport or the need for pure escape. Interestingly enough, many of my friends who are Christie fans cut their teeth on her as middle or high schoolers. I came to Christie late, so the meatier mystery appeals more to me unless I need that strictly lighter entertainment option.
In addition, Christie and the other Golden Age writers got their start between the two world wars. I think this really supported their popularity as it was a time when readers badly needed stories where everything was tied up neatly at the end. Even today, one school of thought says we read mysteries because we like to have that sense of closure. More modern detective or crime novels sometimes leave us with more modern senses of ambiguity or disquiet, but I still think the solving of the crime still meets that need today.
Laura: What are your thoughts on Agatha Christie? How would you describe her influence in the mystery genre?
Jean: Although Christie is part of that rational puzzle approach to the mystery, she has had incredible success for a variety of reasons. One is the sheer number of works she produced – over 80 detective (or thriller) novels, and over 90 novels total over a 50-year career. The second is the fact that she escapes a bit of the label of formula fiction because of the variety of her detectives, the ingeniousness of her puzzles and the variety in settings. The relative simplicity of her style also made it easier to translate her works into other languages. At one point, she was second to the Bible in the number of languages in which her books have appeared.
Laura: Is there a writer writing now (or recently) that you’d compare to Christie?
Jean: Someone more expert than I might have a candidate for this comparison. I don’t think there is anyone who compares because the nature of the detective story has changed so much, and because I doubt anyone will come close to her huge output.
I do see influences, however. One is what we now call the “cozy mystery” – a set of writers who minimize the goriness of the crime and focus more heavily on solving the mystery but also provide more character development. Someone once said that in Agatha Christie, the representation of the crime itself is nothing more than a bloodstain left on the floor, so the cozies are in this tradition.
The other influence is the tradition brought to perfection in Miss Marple, a detective whom no one suspects of being involved and therefore one who can pick up clues where others couldn’t. This sort of detective, always an amateur, is also usually a feature of the cozy mystery. One of my favorites that fits this bill is Alan Bradley’s series (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is the first one) with a precocious child detective Flavia de Luce. No one suspects her as she solves crimes.
Jean calls herself an enthusiast rather than an expert, but certainly I learned a great deal from this crash course in mystery. I think my reading of Christie and other detective novels, crime novels, mysteries, and thrillers will be a bit richer for it. Jean is hoping to teach a continuing education course on the topic sometime in the near future, and I bet the mystery enthusiasts of Howard County will thoroughly enjoy it.
Books aren’t for just reading. They’re for taking off the shelf, stacking, rearranging, and creating. (Click on the photo for a clearer and prettier view.)
back when we were grown ups
we stood on such a full sea
to count the waves
blessing the boats
and we journeyed to the center of the universe
to find a room of one’s own
under the tuscan sun
or where the sidewalk ends
under the unbearable lightness of being
things fall apart
for everything that rises must converge
but the spirit catches you and you fall down
with your crooked little heart
the things they carried
under the warmth of other suns:
the secret history
of fates and furies –
and so now you know when the men are gone
Now, your turn.
Yes, I know. Poets write. But surely they don’t write all day, every day. They do other stuff.
As a HoCoPoLitSo board member and Howard Community College’s faculty, sometimes I get to see (somewhat) up close what writers do when they’re working away from their desks. On April 28th, HCC and HoCoPoLitSo celebrated Blackbird Poetry Festival with poets Marie Howe and Sandra Beasley, and I got to see Ms. Howe and Sandra at work.
The poets came to HCC campus for morning workshops with students. While Ms. Howe visited a literature class, Sandra came to my 11 am composition class to talk about voice and revision. The talk was spot on. She was enthusiastic and attentive to the students. She worked hard during those 80 minutes.
After the morning workshops, the poets attended an informal lunch with some friends of poetry. In the mid-afternoon, from 2:30 to 4:30, they were the feature poets at the Blackbird Poetry Festival’s day reading where they shared the stage with Maryland Poetry Out Loud winners and other student- and faculty-poets. Both Ms. Howe and Sandra went on stage two different times and read several works each. They engaged with the student poets, coached them, and talked to them about the work of poetry and the performance of poetry. When the afternoon reading ended, the poets went to tape The Writing Life interview, where Sandra interviewed Ms. Howe.
At 7:30 pm, our evening event, Nightbird, began. Ms. Howe gave another beautiful reading and Sandra was in the front row listening with the rest of us. And after the reading, Ms. Howe signed books. At this point, it was almost 9 pm. Nonetheless, when I went up to Ms. Howe with a book, she engaged me in a conversation about my own work at HCC. She did the same with the others who approached with books clutched to their chests. She was kind, thoughtful, and engaged with her fans. So gracious. Sandra, too, stayed to chat with the audience in the lobby, and I couldn’t help but smile when I saw her get in line to get Ms. Howe’s book signed.
Poets work hard. I know that much.
I suppose some work harder than others. And I imagine there are writing divas (and divos?) out there who demand only green M&Ms in their “dressing rooms,” but most of the writers that I have met through events like the Blackbird Poetry Festival work hard from morning til late into the evening to read, talk, meet, greet, and shake hands. They take photos, they answer questions, they sign books with personal messages, they ask questions of their fans, they tell stories, and they joke. Most importantly, they connect. They connect themselves to the readers, the poetry to the poet, and poetry to life. Real life.
They say writing is a lonely task, much of it done in solitude. The labor of writing takes discipline, craft, and hard work. But then there is the work that many poets do away from their desks and sometimes very far from home. Sandra Beasley, for example, was off to Massachusetts the day after her performance at Blackbird. Sometimes HoCoPoLitSo’s Irish Evening writers fly in from Ireland just for a few days for a reading or two. So, it seems to me, that so much of the writer’s work is also the people-work.
At readings, I see them scribbling, flipping through their works, and making changes to their reading list. I see them taking notes, listening to the others, and observing what is going on in the room and who showed up. The best poet-performers listen and watch. They don’t stand up and read the words on the page in a vacuum. Never. These poets – the good ones, anyway – make the reading unique to that moment for that group of people. And what they create during that reading cannot be recreated.
They interview each other like they do for HoCoPoLitSo’s The Writing Life series: E. Ethelbert Miller interviewing Amiri Baraka, Roland Flint interviewing Lucille Clifton, or Naomi Ayala interviewing Martin Espada. And they also collaborate with other artists like when Steven Levya performed his poetry with Josh Soto on drums, when Rita Dove shared the stage with violinist Joshua Coyne, and when Patricia Smith performed her poetry with a string quartet.
So, I think that the work of the poet is not so isolated or so esoteric. As Susan Hobby wrote about Ms. Smith’s performance, “An artist works alone in a garret, her solitary room the site of revelation. Or not.”
And if you care to read/see more: Just for fun – here’s a catalog of some of what I have witnessed writers doing (with photos):
- In college, I went to a Maya Angelou reading and she came onto the stage singing. So, sometimes they sing.
- When I met Grace Paley she sat in a circle with 15 college students to read and talk about her stories. And changed lives.
- Derek Walcott had dinner with English graduate students and entertained their very silly questions.
- Lucille Clifton attended HoCoPoLitSPo board meetings on Saturdays.
- Julie Otsuka had lunch with students and told stories about her craft. And later, after her reading, she spoke with community members about her book, When the Emperor was Divine.
- I’ve seen David Mura stand on stage and inspire HCC faculty and staff with his talk on the Hero’s Journey.
- I saw E. Ethelbert Miller stand at a podium in the lobby of Columbia Art Center and command a crowd on a cold, snowy February night.
- Emma Donoghue wrote the screenplay for novel-turned-movie Room and got nominated for an Oscar. But, more importantly, she came to Columbia for an Irish Evening reading in 2015.
- I’ve seen Martin Espada, a former tenant lawyer, make small talk about the weather in the car ride between the hotel and HCC, then getting on stage to deliver “Imagine the Angels of Bread” and send goosebumps on the arms of the many in the audience, including me.
- Joseph Ross is a high school teacher, and I’ve read his wonderful blogs capturing his experience of teaching as a Poet-in-Residence for HoCoPoLitSo. Here’s one about River Hill High School.
- Ann Bracken facilitated poetry workshops for prisoners at a correctional facility in Jessup, Maryland.
- Laura Shovan, Sandra Beasley, and Derrick Weston Brown also worked as Poet-in-Residence for HoCoPoLitSo and worked with Howard County high school students.
- Taylor Mali speaks about and for the teachers and advocates for the profession of teaching – and he poses for silly photos with students (see below). I’ve seen him speak to community college English professors. I’ve also seen him coach a Poetry Out Loud competitor on how to improve his performance.
- When Eamon Grennan came to read for Irish Evening this year, he fought a terrible cold and probably exhaustion from traveling to not disappoint his fans. And indeed we were not disappointed.
- Steven Leyva is the editor of The Little Patuxent Review and teaches at the University of Baltimore. He also did professional development workshops for Howard County Schools teachers and gave us a little taste of New Orleans in the coolest poetry reading with a drummer.
- Naoko Fujimoto, a poet I mentioned in my last blog, included a personal note with my book order (and special tea).
One of my favorite poems is Marge Piercy’s “To be of Use”. It’s a poem that reminds us to make ourselves useful, and its last stanza includes one of my favorite lines from poetry.
The work of the world is common as mud.Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.But the thing worth doing well donehas a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.Greek amphoras for wine or oil,Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museumsbut you know they were made to be used.The pitcher cries for water to carryand a person for work that is real.
Piercy’s emphasis on “work that is real” reminds me of a magazine clipping that I see on the refrigerator door at work. It’s a photo of a child with a teacher and the caption reads: “Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” These are words by Theodore Roosevelt in a 1903 speech. I am comforted by this because clearly I am doing “work worth doing.”
But if you’re not a teacher, how might you define “work that is real”? What is “thing worth doing”? What does “work worth doing” do? And what does it look like? How does one find such work? How we value or devalue (or over value or undervalue) different types of work? And, really, how much do we pay for such work?
About the poet’s work, Lorine Niedecker says this in her poem “Poet’s Work”:
Grandfatheradvised me:Learn a tradeI learnedto sit at deskand condenseNo layofffrom thiscondensery
$460 for a 36-line poem: The New Yorker
$75 a poem: The Paris Review
$25 a page: Plough-shares
$10 a line: Poetry Magazine
I never knew the number of lines had anything to do with being paid for working in poetry. That’s another “unit of measure” that I had not considered.
What about the book sales? Billy Collins sold more than 18,000 copies of his book which paid him a little over $44,000 in 2011. We’re talking about Billy Collins here; he’s a bestselling poet, if not THE bestselling poet, in America. I’d imagine that Billy Collins’ speaking/reading fees are pretty high, but most poets do not command such fees. So, according to New York Magazine, basically there is one way to really be paid for poetry:
WINNING THE NOBEL LOTTERY
Approximate number of books sold by Tranströmer in America in the ten years before he won the Nobel: 12,300.
Number of copies of Tranströmer books that have been scheduled for printing since he won the prize: at least 50,000.
Monetary reward for winning Nobel Prize: $1,480,000
No wonder. In a recent class discussion about work in my composition class, we were talking about how we categorize work into blue collar, pink collar, and white collar. One student asked, “Where do musicians or writers and other artists fit in?” One student responded, “No collar.” Another student said, “Unemployed.” The class laughed and I laughed along but it’s not too far from the truth for many people who want to do work in the arts. I meet many young people in my classrooms who dream of being musicians, artists, DJs, and chefs but give it up for more “practical” and “marketable” jobs. I have also seen people find their way back to their dream after many “practical” detours. And that’s a tough road.
Too many artists, including poets, cannot make a living doing their work, and for this reason some even give it up. Many poets work various jobs during the day and write at night (or vice versa). They ought to live like Piercy’s Greek amphora carrying wine or Hopi vase carrying corn – doing what they were made to do – but often they have to work as a purchasing associate at a Japanese tool company (if you’re Naoko Fujimoto). Of course, poets can do other jobs that are meaningful and fulfilling to them; I don’t mean they should only sit in a chair and write 9 to 5. But I do want to talk about how we count the value of not just their work (product) but also their labor (process) that they do as poets.
There is a prevailing misconception about the work of being a poet in this world, which influences how we value (or devalue) the poet’s labor. They are assumed to get up late in the morning, drink coffee, look out their windows to connect with nature, and pour out the natural creative genius into words onto that white paper. Boom. Done. Poetry. No labor. Just product in the form of a beautiful work of art.
I’m a little bit offended by the tone of an article called “How Much Money Do Poets Make.” It refers to the New York Magazine article that I mention above and says in a tone that is somewhere between encouraging and condescending,
Still, keep at it, poets. After all, money isn’t the reason you’re writing. But who knows? Maybe one day you, too, can win what New York Magazine refers to in its piece as the Nobel Lottery.
Poets, I’d like to know: What IS the reason you’re writing? [Maybe that’s the next blog post.]
Well, it’s not like they sell Nobel Lottery tickets at your neighborhood liquor store or gas station, so the internet is full of money-making opportunities for poets. A website called Writer’s Relief suggests 5 ways to make money as a poet: write greeting cards, teach, start your own business, write songs, and look for “appropriate spin-offs of the poetry publishing biz” (like arts organizations). I’m not sure how I feel about this. Why shouldn’t poets make a living doing their craft, their trade, their “real work” (Piercy) and “work worth doing” (Roosevelt)?
How do we count the worth of any work in a capitalist society? How do we know that one work deserves $7.25 an hour (federal minimum wage) while another deserves $75 (per poem for The Paris Review) and yet another deserves $725 an hour (hourly billing rate for top lawyers and advertising creatives)?
If not by dollars, by what other measure do we count the worth of our work?
March 21st is United Nation’s World Poetry Day.
Poetry reaffirms our common humanity by revealing to us that individuals, everywhere in the world, share the same questions and feelings. Poetry is the mainstay of oral tradition and, over centuries, can communicate the innermost values of diverse cultures. In celebrating World Poetry Day, March 21, UNESCO recognizes the unique ability of poetry to capture the creative spirit of the human mind.
Maya Angelou wrote and read “Brave and Startling Truth” to commemorate UN’s 50th anniversary in 1995. She says she wrote this poem “for every human being on this earth” – “We, this people,” she says.
So, to celebrate World Poetry Day on March 21st, I shared my favorite poem, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” by William Butler Yeats on Facebook.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore; While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey, I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
I also asked friends to share a poem, and the response was overwhelming. This anthology of poetry created by my friends was too good to just sit on my Facebook page. It had to be shared with more people. So here it is. [Friends, I hope you don’t mind my sharing.]
Please enjoy my friends’ favorite poems – and go on a poem-hunt and discoveries of your own.
And with my pen I wrote the same
I wrote in both hast and speed
and left it here for fools to read
–Abraham Lincoln’s poem (didn’t know Lincoln write poems!)
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I bathed int he Euphrates when dawns were young.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
O you whom I often and silently come where you are, that I may be with you;
As I walk by your side, or sit near, or remain in the same room with you,
Little you know the subtle electric fire that for your sake is playing within me.
Away from me so hurriedly my reason must allow
That I have wooed not as I should a creature made of clay –
When the angel woos the clay he’d lose his wings at the dawn of day.
they need space to
move around in.
they don’t fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
How soon my Lucy’s race was run!
She died, and left to me
This heath, this calm and quiet scene;
The memory of what has been,
And never more will be.
it has taken me
all of sixty years
that water is the finest drink,
and bread the most delicious food,
and that art is worthless
unless it plants
a measure of splendor in people’s hearts.
He would do it by gently stroking my forehead, not
by tearing away the blanket.
and silence settles forever
the vacancy of this cheap city room.
In the wine darkness my cigarette coal
tints my face with Geronimo’s rage
and I’m in the dry hills with a Winchester
waiting to shoot the lean, learned fools
who taught me to live-think in English.
Make collections of both, and observe the battles and songs of birds.
Watch for the eggs of Phoebe about the middle of the month.
Study the circulation of the blood in a frogs’s foot.
Take up mental hygiene;
because it is much needed now.
I can see the moon.
takes us together like a violin’s bow,
which draws one voice out of two separate strings.
And in the morning glow,
You walked a way beside me
To make me sad to go.
Do you know me in the gloaming,
Gaunt and dusty grey with roaming?
Are you dumb because you know me not,
Or dumb because you know?
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
I own a strange collection of books that were handed down to me from my aunt and uncle many years ago. They had bought the set for their children, but the books appear untouched, unopened – like a well-preserved archaeological artifact. They are big, bulky, heavy books that take up precious real estate on the bookshelf. Finally, this week, I pulled a few off the shelf to study them – and boy am I glad I did not give into my usual Marie Kondo-tendency to chuck and declutter.
This 54 book collection, which includes 443 works by 74 authors, is called Great Books and was published by Britannica in 1952. Mine is a 1980 print. The first volume in the collection is called The Great Conversation: The Substance of a Liberal Education by Robert M. Hutchins, and it explains the origin and the purpose of the collection. The tone of the Preface is notable.
[T]he disappearance of great books from education and from reading of adults constitutes a calamity. In this view education in the West has been steadily deteriorating; the rising generation has been deprived of its birthright; the mess of pottage it has received in exchange has not been nutritious; adults have come to lead lives comparatively rich in materials comforts and very poor in moral, intellectual, and spiritual tone.
And since we’re in the middle of what has now become a never-ending election season (like Macy’s one-day-sales), allow me to also include this long excerpt.
We believe that the reduction of the citizen to an object of propaganda, private and public, is one of the greatest dangers to democracy. A prevalent notion is that the great mass of the people cannot understand and cannot form an independent judgment upon any matter; they cannot be educated, in the sense of the developing their intellectual powers, but they can be bamboozled. The reiteration of slogans, the distortion of the news, the great storm of propaganda that beats upon the citizen twenty-four hours a day all his life long means either that democracy must fall a pretty to the loudest and most persistent propagandists or that the people must save themselves by strengthening their minds so that they can appraise the issues for themselves.
It is true that every generation has words of warning for the “rising generation.” And these words of warning ring true today, two “rising generation[s]” later.
The rest of this volume contains essays with titles like “Education and Economics” and “The Disappearance of Liberal Education”. In “A Letter to the Reader,” Hutchins reminds us that the editors are “not interested in general propositions about the desirability of reading the books; they want them read. They did not produce them as furniture for public or private libraries.” [see footnote] They see this as being near-panacea to alleviating the deteriorating condition of the modern mind.
The real bibliographic achievement of this collection of books, though, is The Great Ideas: A Syntopicon, which are volumes 2 and 3 in the set (written by Mortimer J. Adler, also a philosopher). “Syntopicon” is a word that was invented to describe the indexing of big ideas and themes that are discussed in Great Books. Take “Citizen” for example. There is an overview/introduction essay which is followed by an outline of subtopics and the comprehensive listing of all “citizen” references from all of the works in the Great Books. [See photos in the gallery below.] So, truly, this is quite a feat. There is no doubt about that.
When I sat down to write about this Great Books collection, though, my intention was not to celebrate the work of Hutchins and team. What I really wanted to do was complain about the lack of women in the collection. What – women didn’t write great books? In Great Books, there are no women. None. Nada. Nesunna. Aucun. Keiner. Not. A. Single. One. Nope.
You see, I’ve been culturally conditioned to celebrate women’s history and achievements during the month of March so this was on my mind when I approached the collection on my shelf. (Had this been February, I might have been thinking about the lack of racial diversity in the collection.) Thankfully, the second edition of Great Books which was published in 1980s added 59 writers, bringing the total number of women represented in the collection to – drum roll, please! – 4: Jane Austen, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and Willa Cather. This collection was made by men for men.
So, before I start hyperventilating, I remind myself that this collection is a cultural and historical artifact – that it represents a specific time of a particular place among a particular group of people with specific values. Sure, I get that. And, to be fair, Britannica continued to edit and add more works to each subsequent printings, by including more works not just from the twentieth century but also from earlier periods.
As a snapshot in history, the original collection by Hutchins and Adler (two philosophers) tells an important story about inclusion and exclusion. Hutchins writes a detailed explanation about the selection process. For instance, he explains why the Bible was not included (it’s already in every American home), why the collection ends with Freud (did “great conversation” stop after 1900?), and how each epoch or nation/language was represented (or not). I can’t help but to pause at these words: “I omitted Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, and Mark Twain, all very great writers, because I felt that, important as they were, they did not measure up to the other books in the set.” What a strange thing to say about Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, and Mark Twain. What would a debate about the merits of Emerson versus Pascal sound like? Mark Twain against Tolstoy?
The Great Books is a celebration of Western thought. For sure. Yet, the sturdy binds of these 54 heavy-duty, pristine books from 1952 (via 1980) seem so permanent and inflexible, the opposite of what these Great Books teach us to do with our minds. It has not escaped me that my reaction reflects my own cultural experiences in an age of digital books and “knowledge” that is constantly edited and updated, not to mention knowledge that has become democratized so there is no clear line between producers and consumers of knowledge. I get it.
I am completely fascinated by what Hutchins and team achieved in hopes of encouraging a strong liberal education in America. I have learned just a little bit about Great Books here, and I’m eager to dig deeper and learn more about Hutchins and team’s project. I might even go ahead and read their collection! What intellectual work and discussions must have gone on among the faculty of University of Chicago who put this collection together! Oh to have been a fly on the wall! And as a fly, I might have buzzed about their ears and whispered,
How about something from Hypathia the mathematician and philosopher? The letters of Heloise to Abelard? Julian of Norwich – presumed to be the first book written in English by a woman? Queen Elizabeth? Some of those letters and speeches she gave are worth noting, no? Christina Rossetti? No poetry? Okay, fine. How about a bit of Aphra Behn? Oroonoko is a very short novel. Mary Wollstonecraft? What about her daughter, Mary Shelley? No? Not even Frankenstein? Wow. Okay. Then, Kate Chopin? I guess it’s still 1952 and The Awakening has not made its comeback yet. Never mind.
But here comes the fly swatter –
 Speaking of furniture… Given the nature of information-creation and -exchange today, folks like Farhad Manjoo think Britannica was “exploitative.” And today in the age of Google, Siri, and Wikipedia, the Britannica seems completely irrelevant. Even back then, in the 50s or the 80s, I wonder if these books were ever really used. And even as I’m writing this, I can’t help but to look up “Great Books Britannica” in Wikipedia. There, I find that Hutchins started the project with a 2 million dollar budget but when the books didn’t sell, the company turned to door-to-door sales, which Hutchins had feared. Wikipedia also informed me that the Federal Trade Commission found Encyclopedia Britannica guilty of deceptive advertising and sales tactics. So not only were they exploitative but also deceptive and guilty of breaking the law.