Yes, I know. Poets write. But surely they don’t write all day, every day. They do other stuff.
As a HoCoPoLitSo board member and Howard Community College’s faculty, sometimes I get to see (somewhat) up close what writers do when they’re working away from their desks. On April 28th, HCC and HoCoPoLitSo celebrated Blackbird Poetry Festival with poets Marie Howe and Sandra Beasley, and I got to see Ms. Howe and Sandra at work.
The poets came to HCC campus for morning workshops with students. While Ms. Howe visited a literature class, Sandra came to my 11 am composition class to talk about voice and revision. The talk was spot on. She was enthusiastic and attentive to the students. She worked hard during those 80 minutes.
After the morning workshops, the poets attended an informal lunch with some friends of poetry. In the mid-afternoon, from 2:30 to 4:30, they were the feature poets at the Blackbird Poetry Festival’s day reading where they shared the stage with Maryland Poetry Out Loud winners and other student- and faculty-poets. Both Ms. Howe and Sandra went on stage two different times and read several works each. They engaged with the student poets, coached them, and talked to them about the work of poetry and the performance of poetry. When the afternoon reading ended, the poets went to tape The Writing Life interview, where Sandra interviewed Ms. Howe.
At 7:30 pm, our evening event, Nightbird, began. Ms. Howe gave another beautiful reading and Sandra was in the front row listening with the rest of us. And after the reading, Ms. Howe signed books. At this point, it was almost 9 pm. Nonetheless, when I went up to Ms. Howe with a book, she engaged me in a conversation about my own work at HCC. She did the same with the others who approached with books clutched to their chests. She was kind, thoughtful, and engaged with her fans. So gracious. Sandra, too, stayed to chat with the audience in the lobby, and I couldn’t help but smile when I saw her get in line to get Ms. Howe’s book signed.
Poets work hard. I know that much.
I suppose some work harder than others. And I imagine there are writing divas (and divos?) out there who demand only green M&Ms in their “dressing rooms,” but most of the writers that I have met through events like the Blackbird Poetry Festival work hard from morning til late into the evening to read, talk, meet, greet, and shake hands. They take photos, they answer questions, they sign books with personal messages, they ask questions of their fans, they tell stories, and they joke. Most importantly, they connect. They connect themselves to the readers, the poetry to the poet, and poetry to life. Real life.
They say writing is a lonely task, much of it done in solitude. The labor of writing takes discipline, craft, and hard work. But then there is the work that many poets do away from their desks and sometimes very far from home. Sandra Beasley, for example, was off to Massachusetts the day after her performance at Blackbird. Sometimes HoCoPoLitSo’s Irish Evening writers fly in from Ireland just for a few days for a reading or two. So, it seems to me, that so much of the writer’s work is also the people-work.
At readings, I see them scribbling, flipping through their works, and making changes to their reading list. I see them taking notes, listening to the others, and observing what is going on in the room and who showed up. The best poet-performers listen and watch. They don’t stand up and read the words on the page in a vacuum. Never. These poets – the good ones, anyway – make the reading unique to that moment for that group of people. And what they create during that reading cannot be recreated.
They interview each other like they do for HoCoPoLitSo’s The Writing Life series: E. Ethelbert Miller interviewing Amiri Baraka, Roland Flint interviewing Lucille Clifton, or Naomi Ayala interviewing Martin Espada. And they also collaborate with other artists like when Steven Levya performed his poetry with Josh Soto on drums, when Rita Dove shared the stage with violinist Joshua Coyne, and when Patricia Smith performed her poetry with a string quartet.
So, I think that the work of the poet is not so isolated or so esoteric. As Susan Hobby wrote about Ms. Smith’s performance, “An artist works alone in a garret, her solitary room the site of revelation. Or not.”
And if you care to read/see more: Just for fun – here’s a catalog of some of what I have witnessed writers doing (with photos):
- In college, I went to a Maya Angelou reading and she came onto the stage singing. So, sometimes they sing.
- When I met Grace Paley she sat in a circle with 15 college students to read and talk about her stories. And changed lives.
- Derek Walcott had dinner with English graduate students and entertained their very silly questions.
- Lucille Clifton attended HoCoPoLitSPo board meetings on Saturdays.
- Julie Otsuka had lunch with students and told stories about her craft. And later, after her reading, she spoke with community members about her book, When the Emperor was Divine.
- I’ve seen David Mura stand on stage and inspire HCC faculty and staff with his talk on the Hero’s Journey.
- I saw E. Ethelbert Miller stand at a podium in the lobby of Columbia Art Center and command a crowd on a cold, snowy February night.
- Emma Donoghue wrote the screenplay for novel-turned-movie Room and got nominated for an Oscar. But, more importantly, she came to Columbia for an Irish Evening reading in 2015.
- I’ve seen Martin Espada, a former tenant lawyer, make small talk about the weather in the car ride between the hotel and HCC, then getting on stage to deliver “Imagine the Angels of Bread” and send goosebumps on the arms of the many in the audience, including me.
- Joseph Ross is a high school teacher, and I’ve read his wonderful blogs capturing his experience of teaching as a Poet-in-Residence for HoCoPoLitSo. Here’s one about River Hill High School.
- Ann Bracken facilitated poetry workshops for prisoners at a correctional facility in Jessup, Maryland.
- Laura Shovan, Sandra Beasley, and Derrick Weston Brown also worked as Poet-in-Residence for HoCoPoLitSo and worked with Howard County high school students.
- Taylor Mali speaks about and for the teachers and advocates for the profession of teaching – and he poses for silly photos with students (see below). I’ve seen him speak to community college English professors. I’ve also seen him coach a Poetry Out Loud competitor on how to improve his performance.
- When Eamon Grennan came to read for Irish Evening this year, he fought a terrible cold and probably exhaustion from traveling to not disappoint his fans. And indeed we were not disappointed.
- Steven Leyva is the editor of The Little Patuxent Review and teaches at the University of Baltimore. He also did professional development workshops for Howard County Schools teachers and gave us a little taste of New Orleans in the coolest poetry reading with a drummer.
- Naoko Fujimoto, a poet I mentioned in my last blog, included a personal note with my book order (and special tea).
One of my favorite poems is Marge Piercy’s “To be of Use”. It’s a poem that reminds us to make ourselves useful, and its last stanza includes one of my favorite lines from poetry.
The work of the world is common as mud.Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.But the thing worth doing well donehas a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.Greek amphoras for wine or oil,Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museumsbut you know they were made to be used.The pitcher cries for water to carryand a person for work that is real.
Piercy’s emphasis on “work that is real” reminds me of a magazine clipping that I see on the refrigerator door at work. It’s a photo of a child with a teacher and the caption reads: “Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” These are words by Theodore Roosevelt in a 1903 speech. I am comforted by this because clearly I am doing “work worth doing.”
But if you’re not a teacher, how might you define “work that is real”? What is “thing worth doing”? What does “work worth doing” do? And what does it look like? How does one find such work? How we value or devalue (or over value or undervalue) different types of work? And, really, how much do we pay for such work?
About the poet’s work, Lorine Niedecker says this in her poem “Poet’s Work”:
Grandfatheradvised me:Learn a tradeI learnedto sit at deskand condenseNo layofffrom thiscondensery
$460 for a 36-line poem: The New Yorker
$75 a poem: The Paris Review
$25 a page: Plough-shares
$10 a line: Poetry Magazine
I never knew the number of lines had anything to do with being paid for working in poetry. That’s another “unit of measure” that I had not considered.
What about the book sales? Billy Collins sold more than 18,000 copies of his book which paid him a little over $44,000 in 2011. We’re talking about Billy Collins here; he’s a bestselling poet, if not THE bestselling poet, in America. I’d imagine that Billy Collins’ speaking/reading fees are pretty high, but most poets do not command such fees. So, according to New York Magazine, basically there is one way to really be paid for poetry:
WINNING THE NOBEL LOTTERY
Approximate number of books sold by Tranströmer in America in the ten years before he won the Nobel: 12,300.
Number of copies of Tranströmer books that have been scheduled for printing since he won the prize: at least 50,000.
Monetary reward for winning Nobel Prize: $1,480,000
No wonder. In a recent class discussion about work in my composition class, we were talking about how we categorize work into blue collar, pink collar, and white collar. One student asked, “Where do musicians or writers and other artists fit in?” One student responded, “No collar.” Another student said, “Unemployed.” The class laughed and I laughed along but it’s not too far from the truth for many people who want to do work in the arts. I meet many young people in my classrooms who dream of being musicians, artists, DJs, and chefs but give it up for more “practical” and “marketable” jobs. I have also seen people find their way back to their dream after many “practical” detours. And that’s a tough road.
Too many artists, including poets, cannot make a living doing their work, and for this reason some even give it up. Many poets work various jobs during the day and write at night (or vice versa). They ought to live like Piercy’s Greek amphora carrying wine or Hopi vase carrying corn – doing what they were made to do – but often they have to work as a purchasing associate at a Japanese tool company (if you’re Naoko Fujimoto). Of course, poets can do other jobs that are meaningful and fulfilling to them; I don’t mean they should only sit in a chair and write 9 to 5. But I do want to talk about how we count the value of not just their work (product) but also their labor (process) that they do as poets.
There is a prevailing misconception about the work of being a poet in this world, which influences how we value (or devalue) the poet’s labor. They are assumed to get up late in the morning, drink coffee, look out their windows to connect with nature, and pour out the natural creative genius into words onto that white paper. Boom. Done. Poetry. No labor. Just product in the form of a beautiful work of art.
I’m a little bit offended by the tone of an article called “How Much Money Do Poets Make.” It refers to the New York Magazine article that I mention above and says in a tone that is somewhere between encouraging and condescending,
Still, keep at it, poets. After all, money isn’t the reason you’re writing. But who knows? Maybe one day you, too, can win what New York Magazine refers to in its piece as the Nobel Lottery.
Poets, I’d like to know: What IS the reason you’re writing? [Maybe that’s the next blog post.]
Well, it’s not like they sell Nobel Lottery tickets at your neighborhood liquor store or gas station, so the internet is full of money-making opportunities for poets. A website called Writer’s Relief suggests 5 ways to make money as a poet: write greeting cards, teach, start your own business, write songs, and look for “appropriate spin-offs of the poetry publishing biz” (like arts organizations). I’m not sure how I feel about this. Why shouldn’t poets make a living doing their craft, their trade, their “real work” (Piercy) and “work worth doing” (Roosevelt)?
How do we count the worth of any work in a capitalist society? How do we know that one work deserves $7.25 an hour (federal minimum wage) while another deserves $75 (per poem for The Paris Review) and yet another deserves $725 an hour (hourly billing rate for top lawyers and advertising creatives)?
If not by dollars, by what other measure do we count the worth of our work?
March 21st is United Nation’s World Poetry Day.
Poetry reaffirms our common humanity by revealing to us that individuals, everywhere in the world, share the same questions and feelings. Poetry is the mainstay of oral tradition and, over centuries, can communicate the innermost values of diverse cultures. In celebrating World Poetry Day, March 21, UNESCO recognizes the unique ability of poetry to capture the creative spirit of the human mind.
Maya Angelou wrote and read “Brave and Startling Truth” to commemorate UN’s 50th anniversary in 1995. She says she wrote this poem “for every human being on this earth” – “We, this people,” she says.
So, to celebrate World Poetry Day on March 21st, I shared my favorite poem, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” by William Butler Yeats on Facebook.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore; While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey, I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
I also asked friends to share a poem, and the response was overwhelming. This anthology of poetry created by my friends was too good to just sit on my Facebook page. It had to be shared with more people. So here it is. [Friends, I hope you don’t mind my sharing.]
Please enjoy my friends’ favorite poems – and go on a poem-hunt and discoveries of your own.
And with my pen I wrote the same
I wrote in both hast and speed
and left it here for fools to read
–Abraham Lincoln’s poem (didn’t know Lincoln write poems!)
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I bathed int he Euphrates when dawns were young.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
O you whom I often and silently come where you are, that I may be with you;
As I walk by your side, or sit near, or remain in the same room with you,
Little you know the subtle electric fire that for your sake is playing within me.
Away from me so hurriedly my reason must allow
That I have wooed not as I should a creature made of clay –
When the angel woos the clay he’d lose his wings at the dawn of day.
they need space to
move around in.
they don’t fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
How soon my Lucy’s race was run!
She died, and left to me
This heath, this calm and quiet scene;
The memory of what has been,
And never more will be.
it has taken me
all of sixty years
that water is the finest drink,
and bread the most delicious food,
and that art is worthless
unless it plants
a measure of splendor in people’s hearts.
He would do it by gently stroking my forehead, not
by tearing away the blanket.
and silence settles forever
the vacancy of this cheap city room.
In the wine darkness my cigarette coal
tints my face with Geronimo’s rage
and I’m in the dry hills with a Winchester
waiting to shoot the lean, learned fools
who taught me to live-think in English.
Make collections of both, and observe the battles and songs of birds.
Watch for the eggs of Phoebe about the middle of the month.
Study the circulation of the blood in a frogs’s foot.
Take up mental hygiene;
because it is much needed now.
I can see the moon.
takes us together like a violin’s bow,
which draws one voice out of two separate strings.
And in the morning glow,
You walked a way beside me
To make me sad to go.
Do you know me in the gloaming,
Gaunt and dusty grey with roaming?
Are you dumb because you know me not,
Or dumb because you know?
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
HoCoPoLitSo’s guest for its eighth annual Blackbird Poetry Festival is former New York State Poet Laureate and acclaimed author Marie Howe.
The Blackbird Poetry Festival, to be held April 28, 2016, on the campus of Howard Community College, is a day devoted to verse, with student workshops, book sales, readings and patrols by the poetry police. The Sunbird poetry reading, featuring Ms. Howe, as well as Washington, D.C., poet Sandra Beasley and Howard Community College students, will start at 2:30 p.m. Ms. Howe will read from and discuss her most recent work, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, as well as new, unpublished poems, during the Nightbird Poetry Reading, starting at 7:30 p.m. in the Smith Theatre of the Horowitz Center for Visual and Performing Arts. Nightbird general admission tickets are $20 each (students and seniors are $15) available on-line at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2476204 or by sending a self-addressed envelope and check payable and mailed to HoCoPoLitSo, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Horowitz Center 200, Columbia, MD 21044.
“Marie Howe’s poetry is luminous, intense, and eloquent, rooted in an abundant inner life.
Her long, deep-breathing lines address the mysteries of flesh and spirit, in terms accessible
only to a woman who is very much of our time and yet still in touch with the sacred.”—Stanley Kunitz
Acclaimed poet and teacher Marie Howe served as the Poet Laureate of New York State from 2012 to 2014. Her mentor and former U.S. Poet Laureate Stanley Kuntz said: “Marie Howe’s poetry is luminous, intense, and eloquent, rooted in an abundant inner life. Her long, deep-breathing lines address the mysteries of flesh and spirit, in terms accessible only to a woman who is very much of our time and yet still in touch with the sacred.”
I own a strange collection of books that were handed down to me from my aunt and uncle many years ago. They had bought the set for their children, but the books appear untouched, unopened – like a well-preserved archaeological artifact. They are big, bulky, heavy books that take up precious real estate on the bookshelf. Finally, this week, I pulled a few off the shelf to study them – and boy am I glad I did not give into my usual Marie Kondo-tendency to chuck and declutter.
This 54 book collection, which includes 443 works by 74 authors, is called Great Books and was published by Britannica in 1952. Mine is a 1980 print. The first volume in the collection is called The Great Conversation: The Substance of a Liberal Education by Robert M. Hutchins, and it explains the origin and the purpose of the collection. The tone of the Preface is notable.
[T]he disappearance of great books from education and from reading of adults constitutes a calamity. In this view education in the West has been steadily deteriorating; the rising generation has been deprived of its birthright; the mess of pottage it has received in exchange has not been nutritious; adults have come to lead lives comparatively rich in materials comforts and very poor in moral, intellectual, and spiritual tone.
And since we’re in the middle of what has now become a never-ending election season (like Macy’s one-day-sales), allow me to also include this long excerpt.
We believe that the reduction of the citizen to an object of propaganda, private and public, is one of the greatest dangers to democracy. A prevalent notion is that the great mass of the people cannot understand and cannot form an independent judgment upon any matter; they cannot be educated, in the sense of the developing their intellectual powers, but they can be bamboozled. The reiteration of slogans, the distortion of the news, the great storm of propaganda that beats upon the citizen twenty-four hours a day all his life long means either that democracy must fall a pretty to the loudest and most persistent propagandists or that the people must save themselves by strengthening their minds so that they can appraise the issues for themselves.
It is true that every generation has words of warning for the “rising generation.” And these words of warning ring true today, two “rising generation[s]” later.
The rest of this volume contains essays with titles like “Education and Economics” and “The Disappearance of Liberal Education”. In “A Letter to the Reader,” Hutchins reminds us that the editors are “not interested in general propositions about the desirability of reading the books; they want them read. They did not produce them as furniture for public or private libraries.” [see footnote] They see this as being near-panacea to alleviating the deteriorating condition of the modern mind.
The real bibliographic achievement of this collection of books, though, is The Great Ideas: A Syntopicon, which are volumes 2 and 3 in the set (written by Mortimer J. Adler, also a philosopher). “Syntopicon” is a word that was invented to describe the indexing of big ideas and themes that are discussed in Great Books. Take “Citizen” for example. There is an overview/introduction essay which is followed by an outline of subtopics and the comprehensive listing of all “citizen” references from all of the works in the Great Books. [See photos in the gallery below.] So, truly, this is quite a feat. There is no doubt about that.
When I sat down to write about this Great Books collection, though, my intention was not to celebrate the work of Hutchins and team. What I really wanted to do was complain about the lack of women in the collection. What – women didn’t write great books? In Great Books, there are no women. None. Nada. Nesunna. Aucun. Keiner. Not. A. Single. One. Nope.
You see, I’ve been culturally conditioned to celebrate women’s history and achievements during the month of March so this was on my mind when I approached the collection on my shelf. (Had this been February, I might have been thinking about the lack of racial diversity in the collection.) Thankfully, the second edition of Great Books which was published in 1980s added 59 writers, bringing the total number of women represented in the collection to – drum roll, please! – 4: Jane Austen, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and Willa Cather. This collection was made by men for men.
So, before I start hyperventilating, I remind myself that this collection is a cultural and historical artifact – that it represents a specific time of a particular place among a particular group of people with specific values. Sure, I get that. And, to be fair, Britannica continued to edit and add more works to each subsequent printings, by including more works not just from the twentieth century but also from earlier periods.
As a snapshot in history, the original collection by Hutchins and Adler (two philosophers) tells an important story about inclusion and exclusion. Hutchins writes a detailed explanation about the selection process. For instance, he explains why the Bible was not included (it’s already in every American home), why the collection ends with Freud (did “great conversation” stop after 1900?), and how each epoch or nation/language was represented (or not). I can’t help but to pause at these words: “I omitted Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, and Mark Twain, all very great writers, because I felt that, important as they were, they did not measure up to the other books in the set.” What a strange thing to say about Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, and Mark Twain. What would a debate about the merits of Emerson versus Pascal sound like? Mark Twain against Tolstoy?
The Great Books is a celebration of Western thought. For sure. Yet, the sturdy binds of these 54 heavy-duty, pristine books from 1952 (via 1980) seem so permanent and inflexible, the opposite of what these Great Books teach us to do with our minds. It has not escaped me that my reaction reflects my own cultural experiences in an age of digital books and “knowledge” that is constantly edited and updated, not to mention knowledge that has become democratized so there is no clear line between producers and consumers of knowledge. I get it.
I am completely fascinated by what Hutchins and team achieved in hopes of encouraging a strong liberal education in America. I have learned just a little bit about Great Books here, and I’m eager to dig deeper and learn more about Hutchins and team’s project. I might even go ahead and read their collection! What intellectual work and discussions must have gone on among the faculty of University of Chicago who put this collection together! Oh to have been a fly on the wall! And as a fly, I might have buzzed about their ears and whispered,
How about something from Hypathia the mathematician and philosopher? The letters of Heloise to Abelard? Julian of Norwich – presumed to be the first book written in English by a woman? Queen Elizabeth? Some of those letters and speeches she gave are worth noting, no? Christina Rossetti? No poetry? Okay, fine. How about a bit of Aphra Behn? Oroonoko is a very short novel. Mary Wollstonecraft? What about her daughter, Mary Shelley? No? Not even Frankenstein? Wow. Okay. Then, Kate Chopin? I guess it’s still 1952 and The Awakening has not made its comeback yet. Never mind.
But here comes the fly swatter –
 Speaking of furniture… Given the nature of information-creation and -exchange today, folks like Farhad Manjoo think Britannica was “exploitative.” And today in the age of Google, Siri, and Wikipedia, the Britannica seems completely irrelevant. Even back then, in the 50s or the 80s, I wonder if these books were ever really used. And even as I’m writing this, I can’t help but to look up “Great Books Britannica” in Wikipedia. There, I find that Hutchins started the project with a 2 million dollar budget but when the books didn’t sell, the company turned to door-to-door sales, which Hutchins had feared. Wikipedia also informed me that the Federal Trade Commission found Encyclopedia Britannica guilty of deceptive advertising and sales tactics. So not only were they exploitative but also deceptive and guilty of breaking the law.
Eamon Grennan’s voice from the stage was low, intimate and slightly scratchy, as if he were whispering his poems into your ear. It was a lovely effect, one which the audience quickly took a shine to, but induced by Grennan’s terrible respiratory affliction.
Sick as a dog, Grennan traveled to Columbia anyway, and read at HoCoPoLitSo’s 38th Annual Irish Evening of Music and Poetry last Friday. He knew, as a small organization with little fat in our budget, that HoCoPoLitSo would be floored if he didn’t read. So he coughed backstage, and before and after taping his appearance on The Writing Life (HoCoPoLitSo’s literary talk show), popped cough drops, mopped his nose and soldiered on.
HoCoPoLitSo, and its audience Feb. 19, was grateful, for his reading, his gentle humor and his poems about his native country and ours, the one he adopted fifty years ago. He still migrates every year between Poughkeepsie, where he taught for forty years at Vassar, and the west of Ireland.
Her Excellency Anne Anderson, the Irish ambassador, introduced Grennan as “deeply rooted in Ireland, yet totally versed in the international tradition.” Grennan, she said from the stage, “finds the extraordinary in the ordinary, and sacredness in the small moment.”
Judges agree. Poet Robert Wrigley noted, on awarding Grennan the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, that “Grennan would have us know—no, would have us see, feel, hear, taste and smell—that the world, moment by ordinary or agonizing moment, lies chock-full with its own clarifications and rewards.”
Grennan has a special way with poems about the natural world; several in the audience commented afterwards how much they loved “Listen,” a ruminative poem about cow conversation. Friday night’s audience laughed and clapped for his preamble to his disquieting poem, “Rats,”: “I’m usually kind to animals,” he said, with a wry smile.
At the last heartfelt line, “Come back and wish on us,” from his poem “Ladybird and Mother,” the audience burst into spontaneous applause. His superstitious mother, he said fondly, always wished on the tiny red and yellow spotted beetles that the Irish call “ladybirds,” and we call “ladybugs.”
Many in the audience nodded sadly when hearing his elegy to the late, great Irish poet Seamus Heaney (Nobel winner and HoCoPoLitSo guest three times). The poem “Sudden Dark” describes how Seamus himself would have found the sharp shards of light in the dark of mourning.
“Pulling light out of dark,” Grennan explained, “poetry is about recognizing both sides constantly.”
Grennan even read from William Butler Yeats’ controversial and beautiful poem, “Easter, 1916,” about the Easter uprising 100 years ago this April, and called it “the most responsible political poem in English.”
And he stayed late, signing every last seeker’s book, especially his latest, There Now, and chatting with Irish, American and English alike in the lobby. Finally, about 10:15 p.m., he gave up the ghost, and asked for a ride to his hotel. Unflaggingly grateful and polite, he chatted in the car about the crowd, migrating back and forth to Dublin, and his daughter’s career as a visual artist before he and his cough disappeared into the lobby.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Bonus: Below you can enjoy the episode of HoCoPoLitSo’s The Writing Life that Mr. Grennan recorded in 1995 when he last visited Howard County. In the video, he is in conversation with Terence Winch.
There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love. – Washington Irving
Thank you, Washington Irving.
I cry. A lot. Often. I am a crier. I have no problem crying in front of people. I do an impressive ugly cry, too.
Sometimes I cry because I’m overwhelmed or happy or sad or angry. But often I’m crying for other people, real and fictional. Any time an emotional scene unfolds on the screen, for instance, my husband and my son automatically turn to look at me with “Are you crying?” The old Folgers Coffee commercial with the brother and the sister and Christmas morning – I can’t even. Also, any stories of under-privileged or disenfranchised people getting hard-earned scholarships to go to college – hands down, those just destroy me.
Poetry readings are no exception since poems are often charged with emotions. I will admit, though, sometimes all the crying is a bit embarrassing. It feels like a shortcoming to not be able to experience poetry with just a meaningful nod or a thoughtful “hmm.” Such responses seem more intellectual and sophisticated. For me, it’s almost as if my body reacts to the poetry by immediately turning on the faucet, and I feel betrayed by the body.
For example, at a recent poetry event with Steven Leyva and Josh Soto (“Beans with No Salt” hosted by HoCoPoLitSo for the Columbia Festival of Arts), just one word set me off. One tiny, little 4-letter word had me bawling. So embarrassing.
Leyva read a poem called “Tsunade, I’m afraid” and his performance was a brilliant illustration of how the “white space,” the silence, the pauses, and the breaks are crucial to the task of the poem. I held my breath during his short pause. Then, when he finally uttered the word, immediately my eyes watered. That was not the word I expected to hear. Then, the poem ended. On that word. I won’t tell you the magic word. You’ll have to wait ’til Leyva’s next book is published. And it will destroy you, too.
At the January 30th launch reading of Little Patuxent Review (Myth) at Oliver Carriage House, however, I wasn’t the only one crying.
Amanda Miska came from Philadelphia to read her poem, “Missed Connections for My Self.” Her poem follows the conventions of a Craigslist section called “Missed Connections” where people post messages looking for strangers they almost met and now want to find to re-connect. In her introduction, Miska explained that she had been struggling to re-connect with her self and her new, different body after becoming a mother. There are 6 sections to the poem, which she says she wrote on her iPhone, with titles like “I Know You Were Doing the Best You Could – w4w (XSport Fitness)” and “I Want to Show you the Delicious Side of Life – w4w (Dunkin’ Donuts).”
Miska couldn’t help but cry a little as she read her poem. The poems were deeply personal. And needless to say, I cried. Like a baby. No, that’s not true. I cried like a grown woman who knew exactly what Miska was talking about, who could feel her words, who lived (and still lives) those emotions.
Later on in the reading, Edgar Gabriel Silex read several poems, but it was “Demeter” that made the poet himself fight back the tears. The last stanza of the poem reads, “and saints and angels were all gone he came into my room / one day trying to harm me and I hit my father threw him down / and stood over him crying […]” Well, when the poet chokes up, what chance do I have? None. Out poured the tears.
As Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”
In school, we are taught to differentiate the poet from the speaker of the poem. Of course many poems speak in the voice of persona or character created by the poet. But sometimes poems speak for the poet, the poet’s experiences, the poet’s life, the poet’s memories, and the poet’s knowledge – sometimes directly and other times indirectly. Whatever “Demeter” is as a work of literary art – fiction or nonfiction – it’s one of what Silex calls “the ninety-plus essential human stories” that are believed to be out there. He says, “our libraries are filled with variations of these stories, told over and over through history, culture, and time. What changes in them, of course, is the Time-the-Teller.”
Perhaps this is why we cry. We know these stories. We know all of these stories, that is. But instead of making us dull or our lives mundane, they make us understand one another, draw us closer.
In the words of James Baldwin…
You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.
It’s not the intellectual understanding or the cognitive awareness of the feeling – like pain, hunger, fear, hurt and so on – but the ability to imagine how someone felt it – that’s what triggers my empathy. Empathy requires imagination. Without imagination, we cannot put ourselves in the shoes of another.
I can imagine, for example, the shame that the speaker of Miska’s poem must have felt when she almost fell while trying to walk inconspicuously out of Dunkin’ Donuts. I can imagine, again, the anger (fear? hope? triumph? sadness? regret?) that the speaker in “Demeter” must have felt as he fought back his father and ran away. And when he says, “I ran / and still run from anything stinking of heaven or hell” I can picture this person who is haunted and even hunted by these memories and emotional bruises. Maybe Paulo Coelho is right – “tears are words waiting to be written.”
So, the next time you see me crying at a poetry reading (most likely at Irish Evening on February 19th), pass me a Kleenex and join me in the crying.
Presenting Beans with No Salt: a Performance of Poetry and Percussion with Steven Leyva and Josh Soto
Kittleman Room of Duncan Hall
Howard Community College
February 6, 4-6 pm (Get Tickets)
Join HoCoPoLitSo for a coffeehouse afternoon of poetry and music, flavored with a bit of Zydeco as a warm-up for Mardi Gras.
Baltimore poet and Little Patuxent Review editor Steven Leyva reads from his work, centered around his tuneful hometown of New Orleans. He will be accompanied by drummer Josh Soto on congas and drum set. Coffee and snacks will be served before and during the performance, and a question and answer session follows.
In Créole the word Zydeco could translate to “Green Beans,” but colloquially a better approximation would be “Beans with no salt,” which is a sly way of expressing hard times. The reciprocal movement between lack and plenty, famine and feast, often inspires innovation in literature and music, making the borders of genres porous. Using improvisation, audience participation and a bit of luck, Leyva and Soto seek to carve out a space in the ear and imagination where hard times breed a new music for the heart, and percussion becomes the poet’s blank page.
This event is presented by HoCoPoLitSo in partnership with the Columbia Festival of the Arts winter performance series, “Beyond the Blues.” Join us for Poetry and Percussion at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016, at the Kittleman Room on the campus of Howard Community College. A book signing and reception will follow. Tickets are $15 general admission and $10 for students and seniors. They are available online through Brown Paper Tickets.
2015 was the year of binge-watching TV shows on Netflix. I’m ashamed to reveal the actual number of hours I’ve spent watching shows like House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Sherlock, Dexter, and so on. All good shows. Still. Shame on me.
When I look over my bookshelves, the night stand, the coffee tables, and really everywhere around the house I see many books that I haven’t read yet. This is because despite the fact that I was watching more than I was reading, I continued to purchase books. I am a avid shopper of books. I enjoy Amazon and second-hand book stores (online ones like Thrift Books and real ones like Second Edition Books and Music). My favorite is browsing yard sales, garage sales, antique shops, flea markets for books. I love shopping for books (almost?) as much as I love reading them. Remember my post about the physical life of books or the one about the journey of books?
I love going to the local library, especially with the kids, but I haven’t borrowed books in many years. The last time my kids borrowed a few books from the local library I ended up owing 20 bucks in late fees. For someone who is fairly organized, I can’t seem to return books to the library on time. Maybe I’ll give it a go again this year. There is another resolution.
So without buying any new books this year (although this excludes buying books at or for author readings), I am committing to reading at least 12 books, mostly from my own bookshelf and maybe a few from the library. This goal seems so wimpy given that Amy McLay Paterson read 164 books in 2015. But I gotta start where I can.
A friend tagged me in a 2016 Reading Challenge, and this may be a good way to get to my 12 books for the year. So, here’s the plan.
- new release: I’ll have to decide on a new release – but I won’t buy it – I’ll wait to get it at the library
- finish in a day: Blue Shoes and Happiness OR The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith – Thanks Tim!
- meaning to read: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
- recommended by librarian: I don’t know yet! I haven’t been to the library in ages!
- should have read in school: Black Boy by Richard Wright
- chosen by a BFF: The End of the Point by Elizabeth Graver – Thanks Sarah!
- published before born: The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron
- banned at some point: Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
- previously abandoned: Kings of Infinite Space by James Hynes – Thanks Ryna for the recommendation!
- own but never read: The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
- a book that intimidates: Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff – Thanks President Obama for the recommendation!
- a book I’ve already read: this one, I will leave blank for now – as a treat for myself later…
If you’re looking for some inspiration, a list of what to look for in 2016, here are some articles that will guide your reading journey this year.
- In a Dark Time The Eye Begins to See: A 2016 Poetry Preview (NPR)
- Books in 2016: A Literary Calendar (The Guardian)
- Book Releases in 2016 (International Business Times)
- Most Anticipated: The Great 2016 Book Previews (Millions)
- 12 Books You Need to Read Before They Become Movies in 2016 (MTV)
- Book SF/F Editors Want You To Read in 2016 (Barnes and Noble)
Happy new year of reading! Please let us know what you are planning to read this year!
As for me, if EVERYTHING works out, this is the year that I spend less money, read more books, and watch less TV. Oh, and become a Yogi. In other words, my new year’s resolution is to become a better human being.
Quality Poems: Offering a Window and a Voice
by Ann Bracken
So few of us ever visit a prison, yet many of us already have a vision of what it’s like, thanks to TV shows, such as the popular Orange is the New Black. On November 10, 2015, sponsored by the Howard County Poetry and Literary Society, I visited the Patuxent Institution to offer a writing and poetry workshop to some of the incarcerated men in the youth program. Pseudonyms have been used to protect the men’s identities.
The day was rainy and cool, and the gray skies nearly matched the gray walls and somber mood of the prison. Because I have worked with another writing group at the prison complexes in Jessup, I knew all I could take in were my art supplies, papers, and a book, in addition to my car keys and my license. The screening procedures are very much like going through the check-points of airport security, except that you must be patted down each time you enter the prison. I was not allowed to bring in my tote bag for the class supplies—instead, I was given a clear plastic bag.
Once I made it through security, Hillary Battle, a social worker who works with the youth program, escorted me to the education wing of the prison. I was curious about the designation of “youth program” because I knew the approximate ages of the men were between 25 and 35 years old. Ms. Battle explained the disconnect, “In order to be eligible for the Youth Program, the men must be sentenced under the age of 21. We could receive them at any time during their incarceration because the program distinction is based on when they were sentenced for their crimes.”
I’ve walked those long halls to the classrooms several times now, but I still shudder a little when I get on an elevator and the barred doors clank shut behind me. As Ms. Battle and I walk towards the classroom, many thoughts run through my head. Will the activity be beneficial for the men? What will they be like? Will they write and share? Do I have enough time for all I want to offer?
After discussing the men’s needs with Ms. Battle a few weeks earlier, we had both decided that my activity using J. Ruth Gendler’s book Quality Poems would provide a familiar starting point for the men to explore poetry. In her series of prose poems, Gendler personifies 100 character traits and invites us into their world—a world where “Commitment has kind eyes,” “Forgiveness is a strong woman,” and “Courage has roots.”
Dr. Cynthia Carter, the team leader for the youth program, greeted me with a warm smile and thanked me for coming when I arrived in the classroom. The men sat at their desks, quietly waiting for the lesson to start. As I surveyed the room, I noticed the standard furnishings: a large blackboard, several file cabinets, a few TVs, and about five computers. Nine men sat at desks arranged in rows. Because I’ve been a teacher for my whole career, the classroom felt familiar—even down to the four men who chose to sit in the back row. “We just feel safer here,” they told me and smiled. After I put my supplies on the desk, I walked up to each man, shook hands, and introduced myself. They smiled at me and thanked me for coming. In that moment I prayed that things would go well and that what I had planned would speak to their needs.
I began by reading the poem “Courage.” After a few moments of reflection, Claudio said, “Courage is quiet. He keeps to himself.” The other men chimed in, feeling more confident now that one of their friends had spoken. “Is Courage ever afraid?” Tony asked. My take? Yes, Courage is often fearful, but chooses to move ahead despite the fear. Tony shared his thoughts and said, “I like the line in the poem that goes, ‘Courage is not afraid to pray.’” I read another poem about “Forgiveness” and the men were visibly moved. As I read, they were nodding their heads. I knew they were ready to write when I heard Julio say, “Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself.”
All told, the men wrote two poems—one on a positive character trait they possessed and one on a trait they wanted to improve or change. When it was time to share their work, I invited all of them to form a circle with their desks so that we could all see and hear each other better. Here is a sample of the traits they wrote about and some lines from their poems; I found their words both powerful and beautiful.
Danny spoke up from the back row and offered to share first. He wrote about “Distrust” as if the character were a woman. “She lives within herself … I stood at the door of her heart … to let her know I understood, I called her by her name, Distrust.” For his other characteristic, Danny chose “Uncertainty”: “ … harsh forms like factory smoke … moist, unanswered questions.”
Claudio, with short-cropped hair, offered to share next. I had met Claudio during another visit, and I knew him to be a fine painter. He wrote these lines about intuition: “Like vapor in gulfless canyons, travels like a gadfly. Intuition chooses friends like a coal miner searches for diamonds.” As I listened to Claudio’s poem, I was struck by how he seemed to literally paint with words.
Armando, sitting in the front row, offered to read next. “Confidence is not arrogant. He takes responsibility. Confidence is a good trick to have.” All of us loved that last line—a real surprise.
Bernardo sat in the corner and raised his hand to share after his friends had read. He had this to say about creativity: “Creativity comes in every size. He recites rhymes for fun and lives in the forefront of my mind. Creativity has a humble hobby.”
The men’s poems were full of rhythm and memorable phrases. Even though I wanted copies of their work to share with HoCoPoLitSo, I didn’t feel right asking the men to give me the poems they had written that day. I encouraged them to keep writing more about the qualities they had chosen. I did ask them for permission to use some of their work and they all agreed, as long as I used pseudonyms to preserve their anonymity. Dr. Carter, Ms. Battle, and all of the men told me I was welcome to come again any time.
Once again, I could see that poetry had offered people two vital elements: a unique expression of their voices and a safe place to explore their lives.
Poet, certified poetry therapist, teacher