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Rachel Eliza Griffiths is obsessed with beauty. Not in the way that Vanity Fair or Hollywood are fixated on the way a person’s body or face looks.
Instead, she says, her relationship with beauty is “complicated.”
One of her favorite quotes is from Bohemian-Austrian poet Ranier Maria Rilke: “For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror that we are still able to bear, and we revere it so, because it calmly disdains to destroy us.”
Griffiths’s poetry, her photography, even her film-making and visual art circles around the idea of beauty warily, both drawn to it, and shy of its terror.
“For me, beautiful things involve asymmetrical words and language,” Griffiths said. “I interrogate [beauty], I ask questions. Particularly as a photographer, I’m quite adamant and vigilant about constant questioning and revising and expanding of what it means to invoke the word, and also the practice of it, and the way that it works in language and visuals will be a lifelong trial, I think.”
This Poetry Moment features an excerpt from her longer poem, “According to Beauty.” The poem is dotted with imagery not usually associated with the beautiful, and with words such as “crawled and staggered,” “shattered,” and “splattered.” Pretty is not the same as beautiful. And in Griffiths’ poem, the beautiful is equally terrifying and gorgeous.
Her poem even interrogates the random distribution of beauty: “Luck fell silently/ through the earth. / Luck crawled wherever beautiful things lived.”
With her line, “the burden of the I within/ a flawless landscape,” the poet questions even the validity of beauty.
Featured in a fashion shoot for O Magazine in 2011, Griffiths wore a canary yellow ruffled blouse and salmon-colored pencil skirt and smiled while she mimed painting words on a wall with a javelin-sized brush.
“Gazelle you are mine. Your corpse pounds into me like music,” the words on the wall read, from her poem “Ode to a Gazelle While I Bathe on Sunday Evenings.” Beautiful and terrible, just like Rilke said.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer, The Writing Life
For Reference only:
According to Beauty
Under midnights you came, a hunter through memory.
It was memory that could please and betray. It was memory
that crawled and staggered, staging the deaths of beautiful words.
It was memory, distressed as a mirror, which shattered smoke. Face.
It was memory that bewildered the alchemy of the real.
I could never escape midnights or the remembering.
It was memory, a voice said. The voice belonged to everyone,
which made it into thunder. It was memory waiting in a corner
like a riff of selves in the dark. I am an outlaw woman
shadow-dancing. My life too quick to bruise. What is the name for those who collect the beautiful.
My life too fast to burn. It was memory
that killed my loves, my children, shamed the old country.
The moon was involved wherever wolves hunted.
Stars were gathered. Arrows piercing my shoulder. Luck fell silently
through the earth. Luck crawled wherever beautiful things lived.
Through fields of water I wandered. Ishmael,
as I fled the whale-skull. What salt gave me at dawn.
There were colors, textures. Under the hood of irreparable delight,
adorned in moths, I arrived. What is the name
for those who collect the beautiful?
The word for the gesture of seeing
but not possessing eyes? Sight ghosted or exorcised. An eye
that blurs as the selves, the burden of the I within
a flawless landscape.
Starlings, from a dark cluster.
I stare at the way bars lengthen in moonlight
upon my bedroom floor where I danced in a wind
for your lungs. You held solace, a small yellow bird,
to my cheek until it stopped breathing.
Whispers uttered between memorize and believe.
It was memory that gave me faith then unleashed termites
in my house, my body. It was memory that held
the faces quiet. It was memory that marched and saluted
my useless authority, mocking my splattered skin.
It was memory that cried for blood
and vengeance. Against the midnights
where the shutters of the law remained latched.
And it was impossible to know whether God was
I told you once about the woman
I met, huddled by a river. Stained yet polished
by rain and music. I always wondered why
she waited for the moonlight to disappear
before she revealed her face,
pronouncing our name.
Miracle Arrhythmia, 2010.
Stanley Kunitz, the lauded poet who read and wrote and gardened until he was 100 years old, spoke truth about the world—that while we’re in the midst of being alive, we’re also on the path to our graves.
“The deepest thing I know is that I am living and dying at once, and my conviction is to report that self-dialogue,” Kunitz wrote.
This week’s Poetry Moment captures Kunitz, at age 88, reading “The Long Boat,” his poem about a Viking funeral ritual of setting the dead on a boat and sending it adrift. He visited HoCoPoLitSo audiences during the term of his second national poet laureate appointment and recorded an interview and reading.
In Norse mythology, boats represented the Vikings’ life at sea, so the dead were sometimes placed on ships and sent out to sea, or buried in grave mounds shaped like ships, outlined in stones.
At the end of a year replete with mourning, this poem seems apropos.
“The Long Boat” hovers on the perimeter between life and death, touching on what is precious about life and also what is inevitable, even peaceful, about death. By beginning with the boat leaving the shore, and speaking in the voice of the dead man, the poem allows readers to feel great nostalgia and reluctance on leaving the world of the living, but also the contentment of slipping into death. The Viking’s burial ship is also his cradle, rocked by the waves.
Kunitz, who won the Pulitzer at age 54 and a National Book Award for work published when he was 90, said he believed the secrets to his longevity were writing poetry, being curious, digging in his garden, and drinking martinis. But it’s through his writing that readers understand the deep beliefs he held about the importance of poetry, but also the sacred nature of life.
“The poem comes in the form of a blessing—‘like rapture breaking on the mind,’ as I tried to phrase it in my youth,” Kunitz wrote in his preface to Through: Later Poems, New and Selected. “Through the years I have found this gift of poetry to be life-sustaining, life-enhancing, and absolutely unpredictable. Does one live, therefore, for the sake of poetry? No, the reverse is true: poetry is for the sake of the life.”
Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer, The Writing Life
For reference only:
The Long Boat
by Stanley Kunitz
When his boat snapped loose
from its mooring, under
the screaking of the gulls,
he tried at first to wave
to his dear ones on shore,
but in the rolling fog
they had already lost their faces.
Too tired even to choose
between jumping and calling,
somehow he felt absolved and free
of his burdens, those mottoes
stamped on his name-tag:
conscience, ambition, and all
that caring.He was content to lie down
with the family ghosts
in the slop of his cradle,
buffeted by the storm,
To be rocked by the Infinite!
As if it didn’t matter
which way was home;
as if he didn’t know
he loved the earth so much
he wanted to stay forever.
From Passing Through, 1995.
“Oseberg Ship III” by A.Davey
Caption: In 1904, just a year before poet Stanley Kunitz was born, this Viking burial ship was discovered in a burial mound with two female skeletons and ritual funeral goods on board. It dates from before the year 800. The oak ship is displayed at the Viking Ship Museum in Norway.
“On Stanley Kunitz” by ChrisL_AK is licensed under Creative Commons.
Whenever winter shakes itself awake and sheds the first snowflakes, the myth of Persephone comes to mind.
Kidnapped by Hades and imprisoned in hell, Persephone is pursued by her mother, who searches ceaselessly until she finally finds her daughter.
Though she has tried to refuse, the hungry Persephone has eaten six seeds of the pomegranate Hades has given her. The rules of hell say that if you eat or drink of the underworld’s produce, you must remain underground. But Persephone’s mother, called Demeter or Ceres, negotiates with Hades so that for half the year, her daughter emerges to stroll through the fields of flowers with her mom on Earth, and spends six months as Hades’ wife below ground, when nature sleeps and the Earth is cold. And that Greek myth explains the seasons.
But who could blame Persephone? Who could resist the gift of a pomegranate? Assertively red and juicy, almost the antithesis of winter, a pomegranate stores up all that delicious summer into a beautiful package. Greeks still hold pomegranates in high esteem, hanging them above their doors for the twelve days of Christmas, and cut the fruit for the Christmas feast table.
Eavan Boland’s poem, “The Pomegranate,” is built on the heart-breaking myth of Persephone and her mother, and the choices that teenage girls make that their mothers have to stand by and watch.
“This poem is just to register my surprise at having a child who turned into a teenager,” Boland said during the full interview with Linda Pastan.
At first, Boland’s speaker in the poem enters the myth as a daughter, but when she becomes a mother and loses a daughter at twilight, her frantic search recalls Ceres’ hunt for Persephone. “When she came running I was ready/ to make any bargain to keep her” the poem explains.
Then, when her daughter grows into a teenager, Boland’s speaker focuses on how the daughter will enter a different world as an adult, just as her mother did. These “rifts in time” allow a woman to remember what it was like to be both a daughter and a mother, gripped by the ineffable love and fear for a daughter. And by the end of the poem, readers understand what the mother has grown to know, that she cannot protect her daughter with bargains or gifts, or even words.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer, The Writing Life
Girl with a Pomegranate, By William-Adolphe Bouguereau, in Wikimedia Commons
An Opened Pomegranate: by Fir0002, in Wikimedia Commons
Tara recommends Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell.
“I loved this informed, insightful journey of imagination, underpinned by a respect for historical fact, into the intimate, inner life of the Bard as seen by those closest to him. This 360 degree family perspective is a fresh, masterfully designed, and moving vehicle to further our delight in and fascination with Shakespeare.”
Pam recommends The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott.
“The story reminded me of the role/value religious play(ed) in our community, that no one is immune from ethical decisions and our actions can have long-lasting ripple effects. The ‘best’ action(s) is not always the ‘approved’ action.”
Kathy L. recommends Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell.
“Along with an analysis of how often we make wrong assumptions about people due to unacknowledged biases, it includes a good discussion on effective policing.”
Susan recommends The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett.
The book “‘starts with a pair of light-skinned Black twins growing up in a tiny Louisiana town. They run away from home, are separated, and one of the sisters ‘passes’ as white. Their daughters’ lives eventually intersect. This novel explores the idea of recreating a self different from the one you’re born into – changing genders, races, social classes – in really interesting ways. Bennett’s book makes you think about who we are, and what defines the self, as well as leads us through forty years of American history.”
Kathy S. recommends 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak.
“A captivating exploration of the beauty and brutality of Istanbul through the last thoughts of a murdered woman and the response from her small community of outcast friends.”
Laura recommends The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories by Caroline Kim.
“This collection of short stories skillfully manages to be specific to Korean and Korean-American experience/perspective and at the same time universal in its exploration of love, loss, family, resilience, belonging, and crossing borders/boundaries.”
- Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (Howard County Book Connection Book)
- A Particular Kind of Black Man by Tope Folarin
- If I Had Your Face by Frances Ha
- The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
- The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson
- The Book of Delights by Ross Gay
- Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe
- The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy
- Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language by Gretchen McCulloch
- Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong
- Obit by Victoria Chang
- Be Recorder: Poems by Carmen Gimenez Smith
- Deaf Republic: Poems by Ilya Kaminsky (The Blackbird Poetry Festival poet 2021)
- The Understudy’s Handbook by Steven Leyva (Current HoCoPoLitSo Writer-in-Residence 2020-2021)
- Raising King by Joseph Ross (Former HoCoPoLitSo Writer-in-Residence 2014-2015)
Poets write a particular kind of history. While they might cite dates and names, as normal history books do, what poets record is an essence, their personal and political stories distilled into lines that evoke eras.
Poet Carolyn Forché, known for her own poems about civil war atrocities in El Salvador, spent more than thirteen years collecting work from poets around the world who had endured imprisonment, exile, repression, censorship, war.
In the 816 pages of Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, Forché anthologized more than 140 poets from five continents, spanning history from the Armenian genocide to the massacre in Tiananmen Square. And when it was published in 1993, she coined the term poetry of witness, to denote the method of describing history that poets under extreme conditions developed.
“I was interested in what these experiences had done to the poets’ imaginations and to their language,” Forché explained. “And whether or not, regardless of the subject matter, whether one could feel this suffering and the extremity in the poems.”
The work in this week’s Poetry Moment is a tiny excerpt of a longer poem, “Requiem,” read by Forché, but penned by Anna Akhmatova. Forché remembers being captured by this poem as a student, she says, it is perhaps the reason that her anthology exists.
Akhmatova was a Russian poet and translator who survived the Great Purge and Stalinist terror, more than fifteen years of her books being banned and suppressed, grinding poverty, harassment, and threats from the state police.
While the government restricted her, Akhmatova composed her poem “Requiem.” Subject to constant danger of search and arrest, Akhmatova told the long narrative poem, line by line, to her closest friends to memorize, then burned in an ashtray the scraps of paper on which she had written her poetry.
She conceived of the poem while standing in line with hundreds of other women outside Leningrad’s prison. All carrying baskets of food they hoped to smuggle or bribe their way into their beloved prisoners, the women were waiting, like Akhmatova, to hear news of their families. One day, another woman heard that she was a poet, and asked her to get out the news about their vigil.
Akhmatova began writing. Her son was dragged from home in the middle of the night by state police because Akhmatova and his father, another subversive poet, spoke against the government. His father died in prison. Akhmatova waited outside the Leningrad prison for the seventeen months he was imprisoned there, and then at home when he was sent to a forced-labor camp. For decades she wrote in secret and hoped to see again her son, who after twenty years was eventually released and became a historian and translator.
Akhmatova chose not to emigrate, instead staying in the Soviet Union to act as a witness to the horrors around her. Because of its criticism of the purges, “Requiem” was not published in the USSR until 1987.
The Antioch Review wrote that the poems of Akhmatova, as well as the other poets that Forché collected, provide “irrefutable and copious evidence of the human ability to record, to write, to speak in the face of those atrocities.”
Forché said her anthology takes its impulse from the words of Bertolt Brecht: “In the dark times, will there be singing? /Yes, there will be singing./About the dark times.”
Especially in dark times, poets must sing.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer, The Writing Life
Portrait of Anna Akhmatova by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (The painting is located in the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16605586)
This repression order by the Soviet government condemned those speaking against the government. People placed into Category I were executed by shooting, people placed in Category II were sent to gulag forced-labor camps.
Poetry scares some people. Climate change scares a lot of people. Combine them – exponential existential terror, right?
Join HoCoPoLitSo’s Susan Thornton Hobby, environmental activist and writer Julie Dunlap, and the Howard County Library for a virtual climate poetry discussion on May 28, 7 p.m. Register here.
We’ll talk about the poems, listed below, that come at climate change from all different angles. Lots of people have thoughts about climate change, but poets have faceted and polished those thoughts into little gems about our planet and the problems it faces.
“Poetry is moving and touching in a way that dry facts are not,” says Elizabeth J. Coleman, editor of Here: Poems for the Planet. “You can reach people’s hearts. If you tell someone about the hell we’re heading towards, people just despair. They become indifferent. It’s too big. It seems very different when you talk about ‘the polar bear drifting out of history on a wedge of melting ice,’ as a poem by Paul Guest puts it.”
The poems we’ll be discussing in our group on May 28 aren’t bleak, but they do tell the truth, though they might tell it slant, as Emily Dickinson wrote. They’re clever these poets, and deliver messages that both inspire and incite.
Ordinarily, our discussions for An Inconvenient Book Club (the clever name Dunlap devised for our climate fiction book club) take place at the Miller branch of the Howard County Library. We usually talk about cli-fi, the shorthand for climate change fiction. We’ve discussed The History of Bees, American War, and Radio Free Vermont, among other titles. But because we can’t meet at the library, nor get our books from their shelves, An Inconvenient Book Club becomes a little more convenient for you.
Just read the poetry below and ponder the verses. These poems will illuminate the environment, open a window into images about the climate, and offer nudges toward mindfulness.
In our talk together on May 28, we won’t be dissecting these poems as your junior English class splayed out Robert Frost like a frog in biology. Instead, we’ll be appreciating these poems, and thinking about how they respond to climate change.
“Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul,” the philosopher Malebranche said. And while most things are closed in a pandemic, nature is wide open.
Read these poems, then go outside and pay attention to nature. Pick one poem that moved or resonated with you most, and then join us May 28 to talk about the ideas.
But register first, so you can receive the link to the video book club. http://host.evanced.info/hclibrary/lib/eventsignup.asp?ID=145052&ret=http://host.evanced.info/hclibrary/lib/eventcalendar.asp?ln=ALL
And if you’re a convert, if you decide that poetry, after all, really doesn’t suck, here are a few more things to read.
- Here: Poems for the Planet, Elizabeth J. Campbell. https://bookshop.org/books/here-poems-for-the-planet/9781556595417
- Black Nature: Four Centuries of African-American Nature Poetry, edited by Camille Dungy.
- Losing Miami, by Gabriel Ojeda-Sagué
- Casting Deep Shade, by C. D. Wright
And if you need a little guidance, try this helpful article: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69955/how-to-read-a-poem
If all else fails, try having some celebrities reading climate change poetry: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/ng-interactive/2015/nov/20/our-melting-shifting-liquid-world-celebrities-read-poems-on-climate-change
Susan Thornton Hobby
When HoCoPoLitSo and the Columbia Art Center thought up the theme in December 2019 for the annual poetry and visual art collaboration and contest, Blossoms of Hope, we didn’t really understand how much hope we were going to need.
Now we know.
The poetry that emerged from that contest offers solace to those who are grieving and anxious about cancer; the proceeds of the exhibit were supposed to benefit the Claudia Mayer/Tina Broccolino Cancer Resource Center of Howard county General Hospital.
But reading over these poems now, the words seem to apply to a general grief and worry, and certainly to our reaction to the coronavirus pandemic and its many types of fall-out – economic, social, political, cultural.
Planned in collaboration with the Blossoms of Hope Committee, Columbia Art Center, and HoCoPoLitSo, the April exhibit would have shown the work of artists and poets. But when stay-at-home orders arrived, the direction of this project changed and the physical exhibit was canceled.
Instead, we’re showing the work here on HoCoPoLitSo’s site. Some of the writers read their work at an on-line poetry reading May 12.
Thank you to the Blossoms of Hope Committee, Columbia Art Center staff, HoCoPoLitSo, and Wilde Readings for the opportunity to share the work of some amazing writers. Thank you too to all who submitted their work for presentation.
By the time the deadline arrived on March 2, HoCoPoLitSo had received 15 manuscripts based on the inspiring words of poets Lucille Clifton, Emily Dickinson, Joy Harjo, Tiffany Higgins, and Walt Whitman.
Local poets were charged to include lines from the nationally known poets, including Clifton’s line “what did I see to be except myself” from “won’t you celebrate with me”; “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” from Whitman; “’Hope’ is the thing with feathers” from Dickinson; the line from Joy Harjo’s “A Map to the Next World” that reads “Crucial to finding the way is this: there is no beginning or end”; and Tiffany Higgins’s line “I’d dance my last dance to rescue the hive,” from “Dance, Dance While the Hive Collapses.”
Submissions were reviewed by HoCoPoLitSo board members Susan Thornton Hobby, editor and writer; and Laura Yoo, HCC professor of English.
In keeping with the spirit of the exhibit and inspiration, HoCoPoLitSo, in cooperation with its Wilde Reading series, would like to recognize all the writers who submitted their work.
Hope, like toilet paper, yeast, and hand sanitizer, is a treasured commodity nowadays. Read these poems to stock up on a little light at the end of the tunnel.
If we’re lucky, we’re stuck in our houses, fantasizing about walking unmasked down the aisles of the library, or walking up to an author and (gasp!) shaking their hand after a reading. But we’ll have to wait a while for those in-person literary dreams to come true. Instead, on these chilly spring days, take a walk over to YouTube, and check out a few The Writing Life episodes.
Or if you’re in for the long haul (and who among us isn’t binging television shows nowadays?), Howard Community College’s Dragon Digital Television will show a 24-hour marathon of HoCoPoLitSo’s writer-to-writer interview shows. The Writing Life will air from 6 a.m. May 3 to 6 a.m. May 4. http://carousel.howardcc.edu/cablecastapi/live?channel_id=1&use_cdn=true
Check the schedule below, which features a showing of our hour-long show with Seamus Heaney, for which HoCoPoLitSo recently acquired the rights. Heaney talks about the politics and poetics of Northern Ireland, laughs a lot, recites “Digging” when Ellen Kennedy requests it, and answers questions from a Smith Theatre audience. Truly something to lift your spirits.
6 a.m. Theo Dorgan and Paula Meehan. Meehan and Dorgan, a married couple of Irish poets, talk about Seamus Heaney, read their own works dedicated to Heaney, and talk about cultural exchange in poetry. “My own sense is that poets are made, not out of fluency, but out of the fractures in a culture,” Meehan says.
6:30 a.m. Taylor Branch hosted by Timothy Jenkins. In 2000, at the time of this show’s recording with host and historian Timothy Jenkins, Branch had written two of his trilogy of books, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Parting the Waters: American in the King Years 1954-1963, and the award-winning Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-1965. These stories, Branch said, are “quintessentially American.”
7 a.m. The Poetry of Sterling Brown. In this 1994 edition of The Writing Life, poet Roland Flint speaks with Michael S. Harper, a Brown University professor of English and the Rhode Island poet laureate. The two poets discuss the influential poet and Howard University professor Sterling Brown, considered the dean of African-American poetry. Harper reads many of Brown’s poems, including “After Winter.”
7:30 a.m. Poetry Quartet. Henry Taylor, E. Ethelbert Miller, Ann Darr, and Hilary Tham, four Washington, D.C., area poets who started with publishing their work in small presses, talk about the value of that enterprise to keep literature alive. They also discuss the value of poetry slams, divulge the inspirations for their work, and read many of their own poems.
8 a.m. Seamus Heaney hosted by George O’Brien. Recorded in 1988, this interview with Seamus Heaney touches on his childhood in rural Ireland, the politics of Northern Ireland, his poetic craft and the natural world’s influence on his work. With his arm slung over the back of the chair onstage, Heaney talks, reads, recites, and laughs.
9 a.m. Carolyn Forché hosted by Grace Cavalieri. In this 2016 edition of HoCoPoLitSo’s The Writing Life, poet Grace Cavalieri talks with Carolyn Forché, the writer and anthologist who coined the term “poetry of witness.” They speak about Forché’s Czechoslovakian grandmother, her beginnings in the world of human rights and poetry, and working to anthologize poetry of witness.
9:30 a.m. Edith Pearlman hosted by Carrie Brown. In this edition of HoCoPoLitSo’s The Writing Life, novelist Carrie Brown talks with short story writer Edith Pearlman, who won the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award for her collection Binocular Vision.
10 a.m. Emma Donoghue hosted by Mary Kay Zuravleff. Emma Donoghue talks with fellow novelist Mary Kay Zuravleff about the role of music and history in her work, as well as writing the screenplay of Room. She reads from both Room and Frog Music.
10:30 a.m. Four Poets Laureate. Roland Flint, then serving as the Maryland Poet Laureate, hosts past poets laureate Lucille Clifton, Linda Pastan, and Reed Whittemore. All friends, the poets discuss the role and possibilities of the poet laureate position, as well as the craft of writing poetry, in a half-hour of good conversation and great poetry.
11 a.m. Patricia Smith hosted by Joseph Ross. Poet Joseph Ross speaks with poet Patricia Smith, a spoken word poet who found success with her book Blood Dazzler, a collection of poems chronicling Hurricane Katrina. Smith reads “8 a.m., Sunday, August 28, 2005,” a poem in the hurricane’s voice.
11:30 a.m. Stanley Plumly interviews Rita Dove. Rita Dove, a Pulitzer Prize-winner and former National Poet Laureate, speaks with Maryland Poet Laureate Stanley Plumly about her latest book, Sonata Mulattico. The book tells the story, through multiple narrative poems in different voices, of George Bridgetower, an Afro-Polish child prodigy violinist who studied with Haydn.
12 p.m. Israeli Poems of War and Peace. Poet and professor Michael Collier talks with poets Moshe Dor and Barbara Goldberg about their 1997 book of Israeli poems and translations, After the First Rain: Israeli Poems on War and Peace.
12:30 p.m. Tribute to Josephine Jacobsen. In this edition of HoCoPoLitSo’s The Writing Life, poets Michael Collier, Lucille Clifton, and Elizabeth Spires talk about their friend and colleague, the late Josephine Jacobsen (1908 – 2003), a remarkable poet and short story writer from Baltimore.
1 p.m. Mark Doty hosted by Sue Ellen Thompson. Poet Sue Ellen Thompson speaks with poet and memoirist Mark Doty about memory, mackerel, AIDS, Labradors, and the challenge of writing about all of those topics. Doty, the author of nine books of poetry and three memoirs, is known for his descriptive power.
1:30 p.m. Taylor Mali hosted by Chris August. In this 2015 rapid-fire edition of The Writing Life, performance poet Chris August talks with slam poet champion and education activist Taylor Mali about his poetic beginnings, his father’s influence, the strategies of slams, and white male privilege.
2 p.m. Mary O’Malley hosted by Jean Nordhaus. Irish poet Mary O’Malley speaks with Jean Nordhaus, and opens with her mythological-based poem “The Boning Hall,” from her collection of the same name, which addresses Adrienne Rich’s classic poem “Diving into the Wreck.” The eldest daughter of a Connemara fisherman, with nine younger siblings, O’Malley is focused not only on “the mythos of the sea,” she says, but “the purity of the language.”
2:30 p.m. Lucille Clifton hosted by Roland Flint. Former Maryland poet laureate Roland Flint hosts Lucille Clifton, who won the National Book Award for her book Blessing the Boats. Clifton reads many of her iconic early poems, including “Good Times”, “The 1st”, “flowers”; “lucy one eye”, “forgiving my father”, and “carved on a gravestone in a southern baptist churchyard.”
3 p.m. “Sunset Baby”. Dramaturg Khalid Long and Rep Stage director Joseph Ritsch talk about playwright Dominique Morisseau. The two theater experts talk about how her play “Sunset Baby” addresses the generational divide in families in this play, the role of fathers and the centrality of forgiveness.
3:30 p.m. E. Ethelbert Miller hosts Joseph Ross. In this edition of HoCoPoLitSo’s The Writing Life, poet Joseph Ross speaks with host and fellow poet E. Ethelbert Miller about the role of writers as activists and memory keepers, the ideas of faith and storytelling through poetry, and the craft of putting together a manuscript.
4 p.m. Joseph Ross hosts E. Ethelbert Miller. Poet Joseph Ross talks to “the dean of D.C. poets,” E. Ethelbert Miller, author of several poetry collections, memoirs and anthologies, and co-editor of Poet Lore. Miller discusses the origin and span of his newest book of collected poems.
4:30 p.m. Marilyn Chin hosted by Joseph Ross. Marilyn Chin, a Chinese-American poet, speaks with poet and teacher Joseph Ross about her poems of the body, protest, and family. Chin begins by reading “Beijing Spring,” written to the young man who held up his hand to fend off the tanks on Tiananmen Square, as an invocation for all youth around the world to speak up.
5 p.m. Li-Young Lee hosted by Michael Collier. Poet Michael Collier speaks with Li-Young Lee in 1995 about poetry, prayerful attitudes, and unconscious states. Lee reads his poem “Epistle” to start off the show.
5:30 p.m. Mike McCormack hosted by Cóilín Parsons. Novelist Mike McCormack speaks with Georgetown University professor Cóilín Parsons about his craft, especially his novel in one breath, Solar Bones. A devoted experimentalist, McCormack resists the label of surrealist: “I’m holding this side of the surrealist’s line. I’m too structurally minded to give myself over to it, but I’ll bring it right up to the doorstep.”
Take it from the top again, band! Starting at 6 p.m., the whole line-up repeats.
Enjoy these talks, learn a bit about writing and reading, then you can go back to Tiger King.
Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life Producer
The other day when I was visiting my dad, he handed me a book and told me to read the last paragraph aloud.
As Smith recrossed the bridge, he stopped and stood in one of the recesses to meditate on his immaturity, and to look upon the beauty of the still expanses of white moonlight and black shadow which lay before him. At last he shook his head negatively, and went home.
“That’s how they wrote back then,” he said, listening to the air the paragraph left behind. I admired the sentiment, and probably agreed that it was, indeed, something, the way they wrote back then. The book was a Bernard Shaw novel that I had not heard about, Immaturity. I was holding a 1931 edition. Where was this going?
It didn’t take a moment longer to realize the paragraph and the way they wrote wasn’t why I was handed the book. He started telling me a story about the inside cover, the markings there, and a bit of history I might otherwise have never come across, something called Bletchley Park.
Who knew? At the time and until the 1970s, only those that were supposed to, thanks to the Official Secrets Act. For me, a mystery was unraveling. Bletchley Park was a mansion in Buckinghamshire, England that housed a secret code-breaking operation during the second world war. I was instantly intrigued. Paraphrasing my dad, men were off fighting the war and women were tapped to translate Axis messages encoded by Enigma machines, contributing the secrets of intercepted messages to the war effort, and helping beat the Nazis ‘two years early’.
At its start, the operation at Bletchley incorporated a few hundred — you will have heard of Alan Turing and maybe Gordon Welshman and the Bombe machines that figured out the daily codes the Germans incorporated as fast as they could — and grew to an effort of thousands, all working on decoding daily messages of the Germans. The following six minute clip provides a better introduction. (While it is a video, it is more a slide show of 360 degree images that you can move around in using the tool in the top left of the frame. Have a listen and look around.)
Part of my dad’s version of the story was personal history, working in England years later, and having associates who dated back to the war. I’ll skip all the details, but so-and-so knew so-and-so-and-so and the narrative found its way to explaining the book I had in my hand. Inside the front cover was an oval stamp “B. P. Recreational Library Club”, and, on the facing page, an oddly glued-in, folded-over piece of paper with dates from the forties stamped onto it. Under that was a listing of hand-written month/day dates, all crossed out.
I had no idea what I was holding. He explained the book was part of a lending library created to provide recreation to workers when they weren’t putting in 15 hour days decoding.
The agency itself also tried to facilitate off-duty leisure activities for the staff in addition to amenities to provide for their general welfare. As such, the agency made buildings available for various leisure and educational activities. Hut 2 initially served as a tea room, providing hot beverages, sandwiches and lunch vouchers. The hut also contained a lending library and was the home of the Bletchley Park Recreational club from its formation in October 1940.The Hidden History of Bletchley Park, Christopher Smith, 2015
My dad explained the book had passed into my mother’s hands from the wife of someone he had worked with. It was actually part of the Bletchley Park collection during the Second World War – WOW! (The dates suggest just after, though the style of tracking due dates on the inside pages might have started after the war?) Over the years, the library had collected more books than needed, so this was one of eight or nine that had been decommissioned and given to my mother for keeps — he wanted to make sure I knew possession was legit. The other books in the collection were from Eastgate and Cheltenham, new locations for codebreaking during the war and after as effort, capabilities, and need grew.
Unbelievable, really, that such secrecy should have prevailed.Jane Fawcett, Veteran, Hut 6
Obviously, I grew up in the house with these books and knew nothing of their secret past, that being the way of those who can keep secrets.
Now the story is out and I hold this book in my hands in awe. What a connection to the way they did things back when. We tend to obtain a book for the story written within, but sometimes the book is the story itself, a thing to learn from as it moves from the reaches of history into our moment. Here it is today, a treasure that is monument to heroes of the past, the women of Bletchley Park.
HoCoPoLitSo, Board Co-chair
- Bletchley Park is now a museum. Visit the webiste here online. Next time you are in England, visit the secret itself. It is on my To Do list.
- Click here for an extended documentary on Bletchley Park via YouTube.
- More on the codebreaking efforts of the Allies during World War II can be found Stephen Budiansky’s book Battle of Wits.
- Christopher Smith’s Hidden History of Bletchley Park is also fascinating.
- The Bletchley Circle — what do you do after the war if you were one of the super-smart Bletchley women? Well, back into the normal every day humdrum of ironing clothes and feeding children. This short-lived British mystery series has a few of them getting together to use their wits to solve murders, though. It is an interesting way to share the story.
[a guest blog by poet Linda Dove written for HoCoPoLitSo]
Stanley Plumly died on April 11, 2019, in the most poetic month of the year. He was a poet’s poet and a teacher’s teacher. He authored ten volumes of poetry and four works of nonfiction, several of them award-winners, including a finalist for the National Book Award. He read for HoCoPoLitSo audiences twice – once in 1988 and once in 2010, and served as the Poet Laureate for the state of Maryland for most of the past decade. Since 1985, Plumly taught at the University of Maryland College Park, where he founded the MFA program and mentored students in poetics for more than 30 years.
In the fall of 1990, I took a poetry workshop with him at UMCP, where I was—at the time—pursuing a master’s degree in American literature. I was not a poet—instead, I was training to be a scholar of other people’s poetry. But I knew the chance to study with Stan Plumly was not something you passed up, and I, somewhat timidly, filed into the light-filled room every week. It would be years before I would produce a poem that I’d consider good enough to submit to a journal, but I soaked in the lessons nonetheless. For instance, when Stan praised a poem written by a classmate that was an ode to a woman’s areola, it reinforced for me that nothing was off-limits in poetry. Nightingales and Grecian urns might seem more the stuff of poetry, but they were only one means to one end—although, as odes go, those of John Keats were a pretty good bet for what Stan might consider great writing.
In fact, last week, a new poem by the young, celebrated poet Kaveh Akbar, “The Palace,” appeared in The New Yorker and made its lightning-fast rounds on Twitter. When I read the poem, I had the immediate thought, I wonder what Stan Plumly would say about this?, as Akbar imagines the voice of Keats into being (“Hello, this is Keats speaking”). Keats was Stan’s self-described poet-hero, a figure he wrote about extensively in prose, including in his much-praised book, Posthumous Keats:
Keats’s best-known doctrine, Negative Capability, implies an engagement in the actual through imaginative identification that is simultaneously a kind of transcendence. The artist loses the Selfhood that demands a single perspective or “meaning,” identifies with the experience of his/her object, and lets that experience speak itself through him/her. Both the conscious soul and the world are transformed by a dynamic openness to each other.
What’s striking about Stan’s interpretation of the famous Keatsian concept here is his focus on humility—“The artist loses the Selfhood”—that also happened to define Stan as a person. He was warm and generous and down-to-earth, even as he was revered. As one of my fellow graduate students, Renée Curry, recently remembered, “Stan was always ‘present.’ As a teacher, he made us look at the deepest meanings of words, at how they could create fire in a poem. As a reader of our poems, he was always kind, yet firm in what our creations needed in order to grow. . . I am so happy to have spent five years as his student.”
Yet, despite how very human he was, he also commanded the spaces he moved through. As another one of Stan’s students, Valerie Macys, commented, “the room shook just a bit whenever he walked inside.” In fact, she reminded those of us who gathered on Facebook to mourn his passing of how charismatic he was, how he had that special sort of aura about him, despite his modest mannerisms: “do you remember his cowboy boots and his jean jacket? He used to come into the building like he rode in on a stallion.” Or her memory of yet another graduate student, Tim Skeen, on his way to meet Stan in his office hours, who remarked, “‘It’s time to prostrate myself before the Oracle’.” Stan Plumly was larger than life, even as he was unassuming. To paraphrase his own poem, “Wight”—he embodied the verb “to be”:
Is is the verb of being, I the noun—
or pronoun for the purists of being.
I was, I am, I looked within and saw
nothing very clearly: purest being.
Of course, most of Stan’s oracular charm existed because of the poetry itself. The words “amazing,” “stunning,” full of “wonder,” “extraordinary,” and “genius” are all superlatives I’ve seen other poets apply to his work in the wake of his death. He made my own poems more responsive to that finer layer of the world, the one you notice only if you’re not taking it for granted. He shared that observant posture with the British Romantic poets he so loved, as well as an attention to a life lived through emotion. Writing about that all-too-common subject of heartbreak, Stan makes it sing:
Love, too, a leveler, a dying all its own,
the parts left behind not to be replaced,
a loss ongoing, and every day increased,
like rising in the night, at 3:00 am,
to watch the snow or the dead leaf fall,
the rings around the streetlight in the rain,
and then the rain, the red fist in the heart
opening and closing almost without me.
(from “Variation on a Line from Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Five Flights Up’”)
Note the way that he makes the whole notion of lost love hinge on the word “almost.”
Poets are keenly aware that words outlive them. In Stan’s case, he left us with models of perfect pitch, imagery, and line. In “Ground Birds in Open Country,” he admits to letting the birds, the poems, go for us, anytime we might encounter his work in the future:
And in a hallway once,
a bird went mad, window by locked window,
the hollow echo length of a building.
I picked it up closed inside my hand.
I picked it up and tried to let it go.
They fly up so quickly in front of you,
without names, in the slurred shapes of wings.
Scatter as if shot from twelve-gauge guns.
Or they fly from room to room, from memory
past the future, having already gathered
in great numbers on the ground.
Another one of Stan’s students, Laura Dickinson, summed up his influence this way: “He made me a better poet. I can say nothing that is more significant about his impact on me than that,” to which Jeanne Griggs then added, “I think he also made me a better person, more conscious of things I’d overlooked before he insisted I look.” Truly, there can be no greater epitaph.
About the guest blogger:
Linda Dove grew up in Howard County and holds a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature from the University of Maryland. She teaches college writing and is an award-winning poet; her books include In Defense of Objects (2009), O Dear Deer, (2011), This Too (2017), Fearn (2019), and the scholarly collection of essays, Women, Writing, and the Reproduction of Culture in Tudor and Stuart Britain (2000). She lives with her human family, two Jack Russell terriers, and three backyard chickens in the foothills east of Los Angeles, where she serves as the faculty editor of MORIA Literary Magazine at Woodbury University.