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Susan Thornton Hobby
His Excellency Daniel Mulhall, the Irish Ambassador to America, drew a hearty laugh from the audience at Friday night’s Irish Evening of Music and Poetry.
As a daily counterbalance to the insanity on Twitter, Mulhall sends out a few lines of Irish poetry every morning.
To the audience at the poetry reading last week, Mulhall joked that he’s starting a campaign: “It’s time to Make Poetry Great Again.”
After the laughter died down, HoCoPoLitSo board members could be heard muttering amongst themselves, “Poetry was always great.”
But timeline quibbles aside, HoCoPoLitSo was thrilled to welcome the ambassador and sterling poet Vona Groarke to the forty-first Irish Evening.
Last Friday morning, in tribute to Irish Evening, Mulhall sent into the Twitterverse a few lines from Groarke’s beautiful poetry:
Anyway, the leaves were almost on the turn
And the roses, such as they were, had gone too far.
It was snow in summer. It was love in a mist.
It was what do you call it, and what is its name
And how does it go when it comes to be gone?
There’s at least one thing that Mulhall and U.S. President Donald Trump share – they like to start the day with a Tweet. But oh, there’s a world of difference between them.
The poems Groarke read on Friday night were both tender and fierce. Her “Pier,” was well applauded for its verve in chronicling the leap from a pier into the Atlantic on Spittel beach, on the West coast of Ireland. Though Groarke confessed that she hasn’t yet made the leap herself, she’s watched it done, she said, a bit sheepishly. And the poem proves she can feel it.
Many in the audience commended Groarke’s translation from the Irish – the first by a woman poet – of “The Lament for Art O’Leary.” This poem chronicles the mourning and protest of a wife, keening over the body of her Catholic husband, killed by the Protestants, ostensibly for having too fine a horse. And Groarke’s translation was both sensual and sorrowful.
The selections of prose Groarke read from Four Sides Full, her book of prose about art frames, were illuminating, particularly the anecdote about the show of empty frames in the Hermitage in Leningrad, signifying the hiding of artwork to preserve it.
Poetry and music brought some 300 people together last Friday night. Perhaps verse can heal divisions in countries, between people, if we only open our hearts to others’ stories.
Susan Thornton Hobby
By Laura Yoo
A popular image of book clubs is that it’s an “excuse” for women to get together to drink wine. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that. But my book club, which I joined two years ago, is actually a book club. The 14 member group is super organized, and we actually read the books that we choose as a group (done very democratically). There is wine and a good amount of talking politics, but overall it is a reading club. There is always robust literary discourse.
Book clubs and the battle of the sexes
Pew Research reports that 11% of Americans are involved in some kind of a reading circle or a book club. But in general book clubs are seen as something women do. Men have poker nights. Women have book clubs.
It turns out that it actually has a historical beginning as a female activity. Audra Otto, writing for MinnPost, reports 1634 as the first known instance of an organized reading group in (or on the way to) America:
On a ship headed for the Massachusetts Bay Colony, religious renegade Anne Hutchinson organizes a female discussion group to examine sermons given at weekly services. Eventually condemned by the Bay Colony’s general assembly, the gatherings inaugurated a tradition of women’s analytical discussion of serious texts.
The banning of this organization signals that a gathering of women to share ideas was seen as dangerous or maybe even evil. But, women continued to organize elsewhere. Hannah Adams formed a reading circle in the late 1760s and Hannah Mathers Crocker in 1778. Adams’ and Crocker’s reading circles are revolutionary in that they created opportunities for women to form communities of intellectual development when women couldn’t go to school or college.
Another example of such revolutionary gatherings is the Friends in Council formed by Sarah Atwater Denman, the oldest continuous women’s literary club in America.
In November of 1866, Denman invited 11 ladies to her home to create a study plan. She wanted each member of her book club to develop a philosophical point of view for herself, and a study plan was an excellent place to begin. Over time, Friends in Council consumed great works of history and philosophy, spending two years on Plato alone.
So, historically speaking, the book club has been a female act of subversion.
Book clubs in the 21st century
A 2016 The New York Times article caused some stir when it profiled The Man Book Club, the International Ultra Manly Book Club, and the NYC Gay Guys’ Book Club. The article mentioned that the The Man Book Club in California has a “No books by women about women” rule. This and other details about these men’s book clubs suggested chauvinism and sexism. The backlash was so strong that The Man Book Club issued An Apologia on their website, in which they explain how they arrived at their group name (think the Man Booker Prize) and how they select their books (which does include books by women). It seems that because book clubs are pegged as “female” activity, these men hyper-emphasize the “man” part of their book club. While many criticized these men clubs, others like Slate’s L.V. Anderson came to their defense, saying,
We shouldn’t see all-male book clubs as a reactionary backlash against female book clubs, or an attempt to co-opt a traditionally female space, but as a way for men to enjoy the social and intellectual benefits of book clubs without destroying the homosocial camaraderie of all-female book clubs.
Today, book clubs go beyond groups of friends getting together to read and chat. Websites like Meetup.com and other social media tools help us organize or join groups with strangers. The NYC Gay Guy’s Book Club, for instance, has 120 members on Meetup.com and anywhere between 10 to 60 members show up for a meeting at a public library. The search results for book clubs in my area include The Girly Book Club of Baltimore, Intersectional LGBTQ+ Allies Book Club for Women of DMV, and the Silent Reading Club (of Rockville). I am particularly loving this idea of gathering in a group to read silently.
Recently, I was invited to attend another friend’s book club gathering to talk about Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming. This was a much smaller group – there were only four of us that night. We got comfy on the couch, drank wine, talked about the book a little, then talked mostly about our families, our kids, education and schools, about how we grew up, and even some politics. It was a lovely evening.
Book clubs are not about the books (only)
I think we can see that the book club is not always (only) about books. For many, the book club is a way to see friends and form meaningful bonds, as both the Man Book Club and the International Ultra Manly Book Club report. For others, the book club is a way to meet new people. As Jon Tomlinson, founder of the NYC Gay Guys’ Book Club says, “People come to connect, to find their place in a new city, to fall in love.”
For Scarlett Cayford, the book club was a way to meet people when she moved to London – four years later, she was still going to the same book club. As Cayford says, book clubs are not about books – they are “about bonding, and they’re about conversation, and they’re about sharing secrets. I can’t speak for all, of course, but the book clubs I‘ve attended usually end up involving about 30 minutes of intense book discussion […] and nigh on three hours on the subject of different sexual proclivities.”
Well, my book club does not discuss sexual proclivities. Nonetheless, I look forward to my monthly book club gatherings for two reasons. First is that I have time built into my schedule to see my friends. We take turns hosting at our homes and facilitating the discussion. I enjoy the company of these women who are my colleagues, mentors, and friends – and I cherish the opportunities to see them regularly.
The second is that the book club makes me read. Sometimes – like my students – I cram my reading just a few days before the gathering. Recently, I’ve had to admit to myself that I watch more than I read. I’m much more likely to pick up my tablet or turn the TV on to binge-watch something deliciously useless. After a long day at work and shuttling the kids around, it’s a relief to change into pajamas and cozy up in my “reading chair” to watch the outrageously handsome Hyun Bin in a Korean drama or ass-kicking Keri Russell in The Americans. I used to actually read in that reading chair. After a long day at work and shuttling kids around, it was a relief to get lost in a good book. But the ease of accessing television shows on mobile devices is oh-so-tempting. So, my book club is my antidote to binge-watching.
This month, our book club is reading Word by Word by Kory Stamper. I am not sure what my book club members are feeling about it – we haven’t met yet – but I am loving every page of this book. I am a word-nerd, and I am savoring the juicy details of how the dictionary is written and how we may be in the middle of a seismic shift in the meaning of “of” (as suggested by the newfangled phrase “bored of” as opposed to “bored from” and “bored with”). I’m giddy about exchanging tweets with Stamper about her use of the word “goddamned” which I found amusing. I’m enjoying the book, for sure. But I’m REALLY going to enjoy talking about it with my friends this week.
I don’t know about subversion and rebellion and all that, but I know I enjoy the company of my friends, books, and wine – that’s a powerful combination.
Save the Date! HoCoPoLitSo is sponsoring a book club of cli-fi, climate fiction, at the Miller Library, one book each season. The first book, Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, will be discussed April 4, 7 to 8 p.m. Discussion will be led by Susan Thornton Hobby, a consultant to HoCoPoLitSo, and Julie Dunlap, a writer and environmental educator. More details to come!
I swoon at a good love poem. Here’s a quick introduction to two that have me dizzy on my feet.
Both are by Vona Groarke, HoCoPoLitSo’s guest for this year’s evening of Irish writing and music – it’s this Friday, don’t just mark your calendar, get your ticket. I offer these poems here as foreshadowing for the event, a beloved favorite annual occurrence that’s been going on for more than forty years now. Both poems I discovered while reading up in advance of her visit. Each has me in its own way a little breathless, smitten, staring newly in love at their marvel.
“What leaves us trembling…”
“Shale” is just a great little love poem, I think. It left me trembling. Read the the length of the poem here, it’s not long, but I am only sharing a few stanzas in this piece. It starts and ends by a ‘not telling’ device, meanders nicely in-between, but what it ends up saying along the way.
What leaves us trembling in an empty house
is not the moon, my moon-eyed lover.
Say instead there was no moon
though for nine nights we stood
on the brow of the hill at midnight
and saw nothing that was not
contained in darkness, in the pier light,
our hands, and our lost house.
I described it to a friend as perhaps opaque while trying to be translucent, but opalescent all the while. It’s that opalescent surface that’s dazzling and intriguing, then you peer through the shimmer into what the poem’s lovers share as example of us all. There’s the narrator relating a contemplative monologue, a scenario that is part plot, part seeming. I am not sure what is actually moment and what is shared mind, but it doesn’t matter, the poem’s lovers seem to find themselves at that point of realization and action that comes when two bodies/souls make that moment out of circumstance and each other that is a fusing. And that ending, wow, an unsayable understanding just left there. You know what I’m saying?
The sea is breaking and unbreaking on the pier.
You and I are making love
in the lighthouse-keeper’s house,
my moon-eyed, dark-eyed, fire-eyed lover.
What leaves us trembling in an empty room
is not the swell of darkness in our hands,
or the necklace of shale I made for you
that has grown warm between us.
That warming of such a tangible object is quite a making. What a poem. I’ll go back and read it again and again, wanting that answer, finding that stone.
“Let the worst I ever do to you be die.”
An aubade is a first-thing-in-the-morning poem lovers share to each other. Think of the nightingale and the lark in Romeo and Juliet. In that case, the debate was about which bird’s song was determining the moment over, the day begun, and the time together over, or not, one being the voice of morning, the other of night. A clever quartet for the two still in bed.
The poem “Aubade” from Spindthrift takes on a different sort of in-between-lovers morning scenario. As readers, we are on the sickbed where the caretaker of the couple narrates understanding and affection while tending the beloved. It is hardly a place for a love poem, one would think, but oh how it is. The poem is pictured here in its entirety, so have read.
It’s a way more transparent read that the previous piece, but you do gain a sense of Ms. Groarke’s way of presenting the world through her observations and language. Transparent, but the glass is beautifully etched with fern and foam.
And there’s one line that just dropped me:
Let the worst I ever do to you be die.
Such a sober realization of the inevitable, that we will die on those we love and that is quite a thing should we be the first to go. There’s a dearness and commitment in that line that is quite a realization. Ideally, it is the worst we’ll do. Is love ever ideal? And then that last, true-love line, pure presence, able and ideal, and love in action.
I am here, blessed, capable of more.
Beautiful. Love poems aren’t just for the young, the beautiful, the wooing. They are for the lifelong and every moment.
It’s time for you to fall in love… with Irish Evening.
Mentioned above, Vona Groarke will be reading from her work followed by a concert of Irish music and championship step-dancing at HoCoPoLitSo’s 41st Irish Evening on Friday, February 8, 2019 at Smith Theatre in the Horowitz Center for Visual Performing Arts on the campus of Howard Community College in Columbia, Maryland.
For this year’s Irish Evening, music will be performed by The Hedge Band, featuring Laura Byrne on flute, NEA National Heritage Fellowship winner Billy McComiskey on box accordion, Donna Long on piano, and Jim Eagan on fiddle. Traditional Irish Dancing will be performed by Teelin Irish Dance, featuring owner and director Maureen Berry and the 2016 World Champion Saoirse DeBoy.
It’s going to be a special evening. You are going to fall in love with Irish Evening.
The program begins at 7:30 p.m. Click here for tickets.
When young adult bestselling author Jason Reynolds heard that HoCoPoLitSo’s archive of The Writing Life shows featured episodes with Amiri Baraka and Lucille Clifton, he shook his head in wonder. When he heard that HoCoPoLitSo’s web site had more than one hundred taped shows with literature’s rock stars, he said, “Oh, I’m going down that rabbit hole!”
And indeed, YouTube has offered scholars, readers, and writers an amazing opportunity – to learn about craft from contemporary literature’s greatest writers. Since 1985, HoCoPoLitSo has been preserving on video a series of half-hour conversations between diverse authors. Many of those writers have recently gone to afterlife rooms of one’s own: Baraka, Clifton, Richard Wilbur, Donald Hall, Gwendolyn Brooks, Frank McCourt.
No one has to set their DVR to catch the cable replays of these shows – just log onto YouTube.com/hocopolitso anytime. HoCoPoLitSo has spent more than ten years digitizing the brittle and fragile archival tapes to preserve those shows. The YouTube channel has garnered more than 1,100 subscribers and 400,000 views. And our latest upload, the show recorded with young adult author and poet Laura Shovan speaking with Reynolds, is already gathering raves.
One school administrator, after watching the show with Jason Reynolds, wrote, “This is a great conversation about author’s craft and decisions in a book (Long Way Down) that many of our students have read! Sharing with all my teachers.”
And a student reader wrote: “My language arts teacher met him a year ago and he signed two books for her and my teacher always pointed out the heart he put in the book and she always brags and says that this is going to be our favorite author and so far yes, he has these great books that give me feelings and before the Spider Man book came out, my teacher knew too.”
Reynolds is converting readers, just like HoCoPoLitSo wants to do.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Executive producer of The Writing Life
Before the Columbia Festival of the Arts box office even opened in 1996, tickets for the reading by Mary Oliver were long sold out.
Word had spread like wildfire about her appearance, and the famous Oliver, a quiet soul who didn’t travel much from her home in Massachusetts, read once, and only once, for HoCoPoLitSo. We tried for years to lure her back, but failed. Oliver died January 17, 2019, from lymphoma.
Before that June day in 1996, ninety writers sent in poems for a workshop, which Oliver conducted in the Slayton House dance studio. If you were one of those poets, we want to hear what Oliver said about your work. We hope you kept her notes.
After the workshop, Oliver packed Slayton House’s auditorium with 250 people. The late Lucille Clifton, another poet who is now no longer with us, introduced Oliver, the Pulitzer winner, this way, “To call her a nature poet is like calling Pavarotti a singer.”
Afterwards, Oliver, who is “reclusive, but not shy,” says HoCoPoLitSo founder Ellen Kennedy, chatted over chicken salad and fruit kebabs at the Kennedy home.
“I am trying in my poems to vanish and have the reader be the experiencer. I do not want to be there. It is not even a walk we take together,” Oliver explained about her work.
She’s become an Instagrammable poet, an inspirational poet. She asked her readers, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?” (link to “The Summer Day”)
But her work reaches people because it’s authentic, it’s true. Above all, she is a masterful poet.
Her images – of the grasshopper’s jaws moving sideways to mouth the sugar that Oliver fed her, of the lights going out behind her as journeys away from her home, of the wild geese streaking the sky – remain with me. I am always hoping that I can live like she did, “from day to day from/ one golden page to another.” (link to “Forty Years”)
by Susan Thornton Hobby
HCPLS Recording secretary
Wilde Readings is a free monthly literary reading series that provides local writers — poets, fiction, non-fiction — a chance to share their work with the community. The format showcases featured authors, as well as an open mic for interested audience members.
The open mic session offers a safe and supportive environment for teens and adults to share writing of all different forms. Open mic presenters are asked to keep their readings to five minutes or less. Come explore how a range of creativity can inspire and fuel the imagination and nurture one’s one craft and well-being.
Wilde Readings is sponsored by HoCoPoLitSo and coordinated by Laura Shovan, Ann Bracken, Linda Joy Burke, and Faye McCray.
Second Tuesdays at the Columbia Association Art Center in Long Reach. Starts at 7 p.m.
Featured Reader Line-up:
JANUARY 8, 2019
Danuta Hinc and Luther Jett
Host: Ann Bracken
Danuta Hinc’s essays and short fiction have appeared in Washingtonian Magazine, Literary Hub, Popula, Consequence Magazine, The Word Riot, Litteraria, among others. She holds an M.A. in Philology from Gdansk University in Poland, and an M.F.A. in Writing and Literature from Bennington College, VT. She is the recipient of the Barry Hannah Fiction Award, and the author of the novel, To Kill the Other. Hinc is a Senior Lecturer at University of Maryland at College Park where she teaches writing.
Luther Jett is a native of Montgomery County, Maryland and a retired special educator. His poetry has been published in numerous journals,as well as several anthologies. His poetry performance piece, Flying to America, debuted during the 2009 Capital Fringe Festival in Washington D.C. He is the author of two poetry chapbooks: “Not Quite: Poems Written in Search of My Father” (Finishing Line Press, 2015), and “Our Situation” (Prolific Press, 2018).
FEBRUARY 12, 2019
Dr. Dorothy Adamsnon and Gregory Luce
Host: Faye McCray
Dr. Dorothy Adamson Holley, aka Drum Dr. Dot, is a Developmental Psychologist and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She is the co-founder of Nyame Nti Cultural Healing Arts Therapy, a nonprofit organization that integrates mental health and the arts to promote healing. Dr. Holley is the creator of Drumetry™, an art form that integrates two of her passions, drumming and poetry, and she is a proud member the Baltimore band, Roses n Rust.
Gregory Luce, author of Signs of Small Grace (Pudding House Publications), Drinking Weather (Finishing Line Press), Memory and Desire (Sweatshoppe Publications), and Tile (Finishing Line Press), has published widely in print and online. He is the 2014 Larry Neal Award winner for adult poetry, given by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. He is retired from National Geographic, works as a volunteer writing tutor/mentor for 826DC, and lives in Arlington, VA.
MARCH 12, 2019
Andrea Nacina Cole and Lisa Vihos
Host: Linda Joy Burke
Andria Nacina Cole’s short stories have appeared in The Feminist Wire, Baltimore City Paper, and Ploughshares, among others. She has received multiple grants from the Maryland State Arts Council, including the organization’s top prize for fiction. She is the 2010 recipient of the Cohen Award, a Rubys Award grantee and Baltimore’s Best Storyteller (2017). She co-founded A Revolutionary Summer in 2015 in response to the murder of Freddie Carlos Gray.
Lisa Vihos is the Poetry and Arts Editor at Stoneboat Literary Journal and an occasional guest blogger for The Best American Poetry. Along with two chapbooks, A Brief History of Mail (Pebblebrook Press, 2011) and The Accidental Present (Finishing Line Press, 2012), her poems have appeared in numerous print and online journals. She has two Pushcart Prize nominations and received first place recognition in the 2015 Wisconsin People and Ideas poetry contest for her poem, “Lesson at the Checkpoint.” She is active in the 100 Thousand Poets for Change global movement and recently returned home from the group’s first world conference in Salerno, Italy. Visit her blog at Frying the Onion.
Recently, I posted the Columbia Flier cover story about local bookstores to our Facebook page. The article post, featuring the likes of Books With A Past and the new Barnes & Noble at the Columbia Mall, got lots of attention. It is inspiring to see the love of the local store through thumbs up, hearts, and shares, and it has me thinking of the section of my own bookshelves that features books on books and bookstores, and writers on reading and writing. I thought I would share a few of the treasures there and recommend they find their way to your shelves.
My Bookstore – edited by Ronald Rice and Booksellers Across America and with an introduction by Richard Russo – It’s hard to put this down, but then it is hard not to put it down. It is a collection of an array of writer recollections of their favorite bookstores, and features towards eighty writers (Isabel Allende, Dave Eggers, Edith Perlman, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and so on) each providing a few pages of personal vantage and appreciation. Now, why would you want to put that down? To get in your car and head out to your own favorite local and live your own experience first hand, silly.
“I still own books that have remained alive and dear in my thoughts since I was a boy, and a part of the life of each one is my memory of the bookstore where I bought it and of the bookseller who sold it to me.” — Wendel Berry in My Bookstore
84, Charing Cross Road – Helen Hanff – I think this was the first bookstore book I ever read and, if I remember correctly, it might have been my dad or mom that gave me the copy (or maybe it was my mother-in-law, we are an extended book reading family and all love this one). Can’t quite remember. I do remember it being absolutely delightful, an epistolary tale of a dutiful reader’s cross-Atlantic relationship with a bookstore that kept her in all the titles her mind wanted to pursue, no matter the whimsy or rarity. Short and sweet and I am thinking I should read it again. So delightful the story and characters, they made a movie. Trying to remember now if there was a sequel book. Hmm.
My Reading Life and A Lowcountry Heart – Pat Conroy – These are another introduction and gift from my dad. They chronicle the writer of The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides reading and writing life. I have only come to them in the last so many years, but am very happy to not have missed either. I binged the both. If you go on a Conroy binge – recommended – make sure to add The Water is Wide to the list. It adds bio of his development as a caring teacher to the reading and writing.
Sixpence House – Paul Collins – It was my mom that gave me this treat: imagine a whole town of bookstores. It exists, and this is the book about it. Well, it is actually the story about the author moving out of his American life and into Hay-on-Wye in Wales to run a bookstore in the town of bookstores. Any sane person would wonder Hay-on-What? Wonder through the pages of this book and you’ll add to your bucket list the desire to have a wander through the place itself one day.
“It really is an APPALLING thing to think of the people who have no books…It is only by books that most men and women can lift themselves above the sordidness of life. No books! Yet for the greater part of humanity that is the common lot. We may, in fact, divide our fellow-creatures into two branches – those who read books and those who do not.” — Paul Collins in Sixpence House
The Bookshop At 10 Curzon Street and A Spy In The Bookshop – Letters between Nancy Mitford and Heywood Hill. You shouldn’t need more of an introduction than that. I am pretty sure that is what had me pulling these two volumes off of a used bookstore shelf in Chicago a while back. I think it was Chicago. Dig in, they are delightful. (Note: in my mind all the good bookstores tend to blend into one epic thing, a sort of heaven of a place that just drifts shelf to shelf.)
Books and Literary Life – both memoirs by Larry McMurtry. Oh no. I can’t find my copy of Books. Now, would I have lent it out? Hope not. Or did I borrow a copy to read? There’s more than this that makes me mad about these memoirs from the very famous Larry McMurtry. You see, he used to run a bookstore just down the way in Washington, D.C. and I was never clued in enough to the world at the time to know, to go. I never went. I never saw/met him as he worked behind the counter, easy as it would have been. That is a thing I will always regret. Fortunately, I have these two books to stew over, and I love that.
Of course there’s more (who/what would you add to the list? – in the comments, please). But that is enough for a blog post.
Notice that I haven’t linked you to any online opportunities to track down these things? When you are done reading in a sentence or so, get yourself in a car and head out to Books With A Past, Attic Books, Gramps Attic Books, Second Edition Books, or even the new Barnes and Noble outside at The Mall (we want all the brick and mortar books sellers to be successful, stocked and ready for us) or the older one at Long Gate. If you can’t find what you are looking for on the shelves, ask. They’ll track it down for you. It’s the bookstore way.
HoCoPoLitSo Board Co-Chair
Tara Hart is a Co-Chair of HoCoPoLitSo, and she is known for her beautiful introductions to the guest authors that we host. Below is her introduction to Michael Collier, Elizabeth Spirs, and David Yezzi. These authors read at the Lucille Clifton Reading Series on October 26, 2018 at Howard Community College’s Monteabaro Recital Hall. The introduction has been edited for the blog.
HoCoPoLitSo’s autumn reading series is named for Lucille Clifton, our late artistic advisor, distinguished master poet, and dear friend. We seek to craft a fall event each year that honors the caliber of her poetry and contributions to poetry, but also honors her spirit of connection, inquiry, and social justice, and her love for life and learning. She always let us know if HoCoPoLitSo was up to the mark and we know we would have had her fullest approval and blessing for the season opening event with three master poets Michael Collier, Elizabeth Spires, and David Yezzi.
These poets each have quite distinctive rhythms, tones, and subjects. But when I read their work in proximity to each other, fascinating connections emerge and start to tell a compelling story of the wonder of ordinary experience. When I say “wonder,” I do not mean it is all wonderful. But there is wonder in how many shades a life can hold, how many complexities and contradictions and paradoxes, and yes, how much darkness can be present yet still allow for light. In the work of these poets, you see free verse, but also elegantly structured quatrains, villanelles, and sonnets; there are some explicit references to other contemporary poets but also to King Lear, Keats, Emily Dickinson. These poets include a lot of snow in their poems, a lot of birds and flowers, dreams and ghosts, but also Instagram, humblebrags, and hashtags, anxiety medication, soap operas, game shows, videogames, even Patrick Swayze. There are terrifyingly timely poems about being a 21st century man with terrifying impulses. About guns, plagues, and tragedies in daylight. About those who abuse others’ trust and those who enable abusers. About inadequate rulers, about resistance, about the need to “stay human” amidst the news, the smartphones, and the loneliness.
These poets help us understand both the timeless and contemporary purposes of poetry, this singing and where it might come from. Using some of their own words now, we can see how poetry is “Like the weather that is never one thing.” It might be about making “bright things from shadows.” Poems might be stacks of perfectly balanced rocks or cairns, with words like roaring shells you hold up to your ear that say neither yes nor no, but to which we listen. Poets might be beggars with empty bowls peddling “poems that were never ours though we wrote them”; poets might write from bruised places or from the “place where a night/bird sings.”
All three poets’ work is full of wings (birds, ghosts, leaves, moths, bees, oars) “drumming and drumming.” They drum of ordinary regrets: our missed turns, going away for too long, getting lost, doing things that can’t be undone. Our desires, our clutter. Our “wingless feet.” Our ordinary worries: about children, about loss, about dying. “The terror of all that could befall me, you.”
These poets show us the nature of inquiry: “here in this place, there are no names on the map. There is no map.” They ask “What does it mean to be alive?” Why is “happiness so fleet”? “What is our hate made of?” “What will be left when each thing goes?” “Is it enough? To rest in this moment? To turn our faces to the sun?”
Finally, in Elizabeth Spires’ poem “Starry Night,” she gives us faith that the light of artists keeps travelling like stars, never darkening, never dying. As we stumble, they still shine, so we should keep looking up to them, working wonders.
This essay originally appeared on Nerdy Book Club and has been reposted here for HoCoPoLitSo readers with the permission of the author and Nerdy Book Club. The original posting can be found here: https://nerdybookclub.wordpress.com/2018/11/15/a-long-way-to-go-on-gun-violence-by-laura-shovan/
We woke up on Thursday morning to news of another mass shooting in America, this time at a California bar. It was college night. As the mom of two college students, I was shaken once again. It had only been eleven days since Jews were gunned down in their Pittsburgh synagogue. Twelve since a man killed two people at a grocery store after he was unable enter a predominantly black church nearby.
Writers and publishers are producing a growing number of books for children and teens about gun violence. In This Is Where It Ends, by Marieke Nijkamp, readers witness a mass school shooting through the eyes of several narrators. Marisa Reichardt’s Underwater offers a thoughtful study of a school shooting survivor who suffers from PTSD. The Hate You Give, by Angie Thomas — in which a girl witnesses the police shooting her best friend, a black teen — is now a movie.
These are important books. Kids need these stories as they struggle to understand what we are all struggling with: gun violence is impacting their generation. But what they also need are books that carefully examine our culture’s relationship to violence.
Last weekend, a friend and I saw the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ production of Jason Reynold’s Long Way Down. The verse novel was adapted for the stage by Martine Kei Green-Rogers and directed by Timothy Douglas. The play follows the book’s plot: When his older brother Shawn is shot and killed, fifteen-year-old Will follows the rules handed down by the men in his family: “No crying. No snitching. Always seek revenge.” The story takes place as Will rides his building’s elevator – gun tucked into the back of his pants – down to the street, where he plans to shoot his brother’s killer. During that ride, the ghosts of past gun violence in Will’s life visit him, forcing him to look at how each loss has hardened him. He begins to question what he is about to do.
This production was, remarkably, a one-act, one-man show, with actor Justin Weaks playing not only Will, but also the people he has lost. That choice drives home an important point: Will carries each murdered friend and family member deep in his psyche. Each ghost’s visitation peels back a layer of Will’s armor, and we see him feeling emotions most boys are taught to hide: fear, grief, sadness. I won’t go into the wonders of the staging – how the coffin-like elevator was recreated, its mirrored walls reflecting the actor’s face as Will reflects on the people he’s lost.
I am still trying to piece together my reactions to Long Way Down after reading the book, experiencing this production, and interviewing Jason Reynolds for a local television series called “The Writing Life.” What sets this book apart is that act of peeling back layers of grief. Readers connect with Will’s first-person voice straight away. We are already rooting for him to make a different choice, even as we understand his in-the-moment decision to punish the person who took his brother’s life. However, as Reynolds introduces us to the ghosts, the reader or audience member begins to understand intergenerational violence and how traumatizing it is for children, especially children of color.
I was grateful that after the standing ovation, a facilitator was on hand to help people process what we had just witnessed. As audience members shared their stories – best friends, siblings lost to gun violence – I was in denial. “Gun violence hasn’t touched me directly,” I thought. But of course, it has. My friend was at our local mall in Columbia, Maryland, during a shooting in 2014. She sheltered in place in a cramped store-room for hours before the all-clear was given. On New Year’s Day, 2017, my neighbor’s fifteen-year-old daughter – my daughter’s friend – was shot and killed by a classmate who had stolen a gun and broken into their house.
Another act of violence in our community was one of the inspirations for my recent middle grade novel, Takedown. On a winter evening in 2007, an ongoing argument between two groups of teens escalated. They went to an empty high school parking lot for a rumble. One boy, a highly-ranked wrestler in the county, brought a bat. He killed another teen that night. I remember sitting down with my son, who was ten years old at the time and part of the county’s tight-knit wrestling community. As a family, we talked about the idea that at any point that evening, the teens involved could have made another choice and walked away from the fight. In Long Way Down, Will’s elevator ride is his moment to decide whether he is going to walk away and step out of the cycle of violence.
Although I decided to tone down the violent moment in my story of a middle school girl who joins an all-boys wrestling team, writing about a traditionally male combat sport gave me an opportunity to look at this issue. And this week, I am reminded that our society is paying the price for celebrating violence among boys and men, whether we actively teach them to seek revenge, or we subtly look the other way under the guise of “boys will be boys.”
Books like Long Way Down are necessary, because they can help us talk with children and teens about the cost of violence, and what it means to walk away.
Laura Shovan’s debut middle grade novel, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, won several awards, including NCTE 2017 Notable Verse Novel, Arnold Adoff Poetry Award for New Voices honor book, and a Nerdy Book Club award for poetry. Laura’s second children’s novel, Takedown, is a Junior Library Guild and PJ Library selection. Look for her next book, A Place at the Table, co-written with author/activist Saadia Faruqi, in 2020. Laura is a longtime poet-in-the-schools in her home state of Maryland.