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Tara Betts’s poem “Switch” is old school.
Betts has been reciting a version of the poem for twenty years, first at Chicago and then national poetry slams.
Two decades later, she still reads a version of the verse. The poem was the only one from second chapbook, Switch (2003), that made the cut into her first full-length collection, Arc & Hue.
The poem’s protagonist, a young woman with a metronomic pelvis and glossed-up lips, secretly studies the periodic table to get an A in chemistry.
The poem begins with a quote from Nas’s song “Black Girl Lost”: “Typical day that a black girl sees/ coming home wanting more than a college degree.”
Betts worked closely with young women through GirlSpeak, a weekly writing and leadership workshop she founded in Chicago. So she knows the pressures that Black girls are under in America, and the poem speaks to those issues.
The poem’s form is even more old school.
In the early 2000s, Betts met poet Lucille Clifton at Cave Canem (Latin for “Beware the dog”), the retreat and advocacy organization for African-American writers. A few days later, after reading Clifton’s poem “Move,” Betts wrote “Switch,” using the same form, with two-word refrain that changes at the end.
In an interview with Mosaic Magazine, Betts explained, “ ’Switch’ marked the transition where I knew I was going to cling more tightly to a forceful sense of sound and imagery to talk about issues I feel need to be articulated.”
Betts, who appears in this video with poet Terrance Hayes, has published two books of poetry, Break the Habit, and Arc & Hue, and her book Refuse to Disappear will be published soon. She’s a co-editor of The Beiging of America: Personal Narratives about Being Mixed Race in the 21st Century.
In an interview with The Rumpus, Betts explained that she seeks to speak honestly in her poetry: “That’s what I’m aiming for more often than not: How do I create an emotional truth that will ring true to what someone else has experienced?”
Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer, The Writing Life
Experiencing Tyehimba Jess read his verse at the Blackbird Poetry Festival in April 2017 was like watching Cirque de Soleil with words.
Jess, who had won the Pulitzer Prize a few weeks before he arrived to read for HoCoPoLitSo, stood at the front of Smith Theatre and flashed on-screen his poems and pictures of the minstrel musicians that were the subjects of his compositions. In a demonstration of poetic acrobatics, Jess then proceeded to read his works forwards, backwards, diagonally, and circularly.
His collection, Olio, speaks in the voices of the Black musicians from the minstrel tradition, the main form of theater in America from 1830 until 1910. White actors and singers put on blackface and performed degrading caricatures of Black people.
But some Black artists made their creative living in minstrel shows. In Olio, Jess writes their stories: Henry Box Brown, Edmonia Lewis, Sissieretta Jones, Scott Joplin, Williams and Walker, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the McCoy twins–talented performers who worked in the only venues available to them.
Jess seeks to give full voice to the artists’ stories, instead of making insulting, two-dimensional representations of the performers, as the shows did. The pages in his book Olio can be ripped out, Jess explained.
“The reader is invited to deconstruct the book,” Jess told E. Ethelbert Miller in the edition of The Writing Life they filmed together. “The pages are perforated so the pages easily tear out of the books. So you can use the poems in their form to manipulate them. You’re going from a two-dimensional form to a three-dimensional composition, in much the same way that many of the performers were working in a two-dimensional strata and had to take the received instrument and bend it.”
In this week’s HoCoPoLitSo Poetry Moment, Jess reads “Blind Tom Plays On,” the last in a sonnet series about Tom Wiggins, born blind, a slave, and autistic. By age 4, he had become a savant piano player. With uncanny talent, Wiggins could imitate sounds, repeat reams of speech, and compose and play music. One of his “tricks” was to perform three pieces of music–playing one song with one hand, another with his second hand, and singing a third song. James Bethune and his family owned Tom most of his life, and profited to the tune of nearly a million dollars from his talents, with Tom receiving only subsistence from them.
Jess’s poems pay tribute to Wiggins’ strange genius, and to the mother that protected him as much as she could, from slavery, and from the people that sought to exploit him. One of Jess’s other sonnets in the series ends with the following lines, starting with the metaphor of teeth as piano keys:
Jangle up its teeth until it can tell
our story the way you would tell your own:
the way you take darkness and make it moan.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer of The Writing Life
In 1985, Gwendolyn Brooks arrived from Chicago in Washington D.C., to become America’s first Black person to hold the position of Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress.
Early in her term, she read at the Howard Woodson High School in D.C. As she began to recite her signature poem, “We Real Cool,” students popped up around the library, chanting her lines and snapping their fingers.
“I loved that,” she told the Library of Congress’s Alan Jabbour and poet E. Ethelbert Miller, who were interviewing her for HoCoPoLitSo’s first author interview show, which would become The Writing Life. “Young people like it because it has a kind of insouciance and a staccato effect that they enjoy.”
More than thirty years before, she had won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, but by the mid 1980s, Brooks had reached the pinnacle of her success. The very young poet and activist Miller and Jabbour interviewed Brooks in 1986 in a small room at the Library of Congress, supervised and produced by HoCoPoLitSo founder Ellen Conroy Kennedy. Here is that interview in full.
Brooks had also recited “We Real Cool” September 30, 1985, in front of a packed audience, after 300 people had been turned away from the Library of Congress’s auditorium. Her most anthologized work, the poem had become one that audiences would request.
The Library of Congress, just this past April, digitized and uploaded the recording of that reading, during which Brooks says, “At this point I better recite ‘We Real Cool’ before I forget. I know some of you are sick and tired of this poem, because if you see my name, you see it. It’s been published in a good many school textbooks, but it has also been banned here and there—chiefly because, I understand, the word ‘jazz’ has been considered a sexual reference. That was not my intention, though I have no objection if it helps anybody—but I was thinking of music when I used the word ‘jazz.’ ”
In the HoCoPoLitSo interview, Brooks explains the short poem’s origin, which still speaks volumes to the nation’s treatment of young black people.
“I wrote it because I was passing by a pool hall in my neighborhood in Chicago one afternoon. And I saw, as I said in the poem, seven boys shooting pool,” Brooks said during the episode. “I wondered what they felt about themselves. I decided they felt not quite valid, certainly they were insecure, not cherished by the society, therefore, they would feel that they should, well, spit in the face of the establishment. I used the month of June as an establishment symbol. Whereas the rest of us love and respect June and wait for it to come so we can enjoy it. They would “jazz June,” derange it, scratch at it, do anything that would annoy the establishment.”
When Brooks recites the poem, she drops her voice at the end of the lines on the word “we.” She told interviewer George Stavros in 1969 that she does so because the protagonists are questioning their own validity.
“I say it rather softly because I want to represent their basic uncertainty, which they don’t bother to question every day, of course,” Brooks explained.
— Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer of The Writing Life
Here’s how I began my recent interview with E. Ethelbert Miller for this summer’s issue of Little Patuxent Review: “Interviewing E. Ethelbert Miller is like trying to keep track of everyone’s names at a crowded cocktail party after downing a couple of glasses of something potent. Miller’s fifty-year immersion in the poetry world means that he befriended and interviewed people like Sterling Brown and Amiri Baraka (and does spot-on imitations of them) and gave a boost to writers such as Elizabeth Alexander, Ta Nehisi Coates, Charles Johnson, Dwayne Betts, and Cornelius Eady. Faster than one can jot them on a soggy napkin, Miller throws out names and titles and conferences and institutions and acronyms, punctuated with his trademark giggles.”
Watching Miller read his poem, “Is Eric Dolphy Coming or Going?” in this week’s episode of HoCoPoLitSo’s Poetry Moment is a similar experience, a poetic party that he guides his audience through, throwing out names and ideas thick and heavy. Miller is such a polymath that it helps to have a glossary to his poetry, since there are so many references to his fifty-two year history in the poetry world, as well as his lifelong devotion to jazz, Black culture, and baseball.
Though I’m sure I’ve missed many references he’s made, below is an attempt at a glossary of his poem, in order of appearance. Listen to the poem, read some of these notes, listen to the poem again, drown in Eric Dolphy’s music, marvel at some photos of Roberto Clemente sliding home, then listen to the poem again.
- Frank O’Hara, leader of the New York School of Poets, wrote personal, conversational, and abstract poems about New York Life, though he was born in Baltimore. A curator at the Museum of Modern Art, O’Hara was immersed in the worlds of poetry, music, and art. He died young and gorgeous.
- Billy Strayhorn spent nearly thirty years composing, arranging, and playing with Duke Ellington. With compositions that included “Take the A Train,” “Lush Life” (as a teenager), and “Chelsea Bridge,” Strayhorn was a classically trained pianist who died at age 51, also gorgeous.
- August Wilson was awarded two Pulitzer Prizes and a Tony for his plays. He wrote a series of ten plays — The Pittsburgh Cycle – set one in each of ten decades, which included works such as “Fences,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” and “The Piano Lesson.”
- Roberto Clemente was born in Puerto Rico and died in a plane crash delivering supplies to Nicaragua. In between he collected 3,000 career hits and played for years for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He won twelve consecutive Golden Glove awards, and after his death, he became the first Latin American ballplayer to be elected to the Hall of Fame.
- John Ashbery is generally regarded as one of the greatest 20th-century American poets, winning prizes such as the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Yale Younger Poets Prize and a MacArthur “Genius” grant.
- Eric Dolphy played the bass clarinet, flute, piccolo, and the alto saxophone, for which he is best known. Before he died at age 36, he put out his album “Out to Lunch,” about which the Penguin Guide to Jazz wrote, “If it is a masterpiece, then it is not so much a flawed as a slightly tentative masterpiece.”
- “In a Sentimental Mood” by John Coltrane and Duke Ellington, needs no other explanation besides listening to it.
— Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer of The Writing Life
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.
Howard County’s monthly free reading series continues on the second Tuesday of each month. In April, the reading will feature poets Bruce Jacobs, Naomi Thiers, and an open mic — that means you, bring your work.
Wilde Readings is sponsored by HoCoPoLitSo and coordinated by Laura Shovan, Ann Bracken, Linda Joy Burke, and Faye McCray.
All are welcome, and everyone is encouraged to participate in the open mic. Please prepare no more than five minutes of performance time/two poems. Sign up in advance by calling the Columbia Arts Center, or on the sign-in sheet when you arrive. The number for the Arts Center is 410-730-0075.
Light refreshments will be served. Books by both featured authors and open mic readers will be available for sale.
Poets Bruce Jacobs, Naomi Thiers and you.
Hosted by Linda Joy Burke.
April 9, 2019 • 7:00 p.m.
Columbia Association Arts Center
Bruce A. Jacobs is a poet, author, and musician. He has appeared on NPR, C-SPAN, and elsewhere. His two books of poems are Speaking Through My Skin (MSU Press), which won the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award, and Cathode Ray Blues (Tropos Press). His most recent nonfiction book is Race Manners for the 21st Century (Arcade/Skyhorse). His work has been published by dozens of literary journals and sites, including Beloit Poetry Journal, Gwarlingo, Truthout, and the 180 More anthology edited by U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins. He lives in Washington, DC.
Naomi Thiers grew up in California and Pittsburgh, but her chosen home is Washington-DC/ Northern Virginia. She is the author of three poetry collections: Only The Raw Hands Are Heaven(which won the Washington Writers Publishing House award), In Yolo County, and She Was a Cathedral(both from Finishing Line Press.) Her poems, fiction, and essays have been published in Virginia Quarterly Review, Poet Lore, Colorado Review, Grist, Sojourners, and other magazines and anthologies. Former poetry editor of Phoebe, she works as an editor for Educational Leadership magazine and lives in a condo on the banks of Four Mile Run in Arlington, Virginia.