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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
“Wait! What? Frank O’Hara lived in Baltimore?! When? Where?”
That ‘Where?’ wasn’t really the question I had in mind as I had the address in front of me – 2044 Linden Avenue, not that I knew where it was off the top of my head. I did want to know when he had lived there and why and quickly found the answers to those questions from what I was reading – he was born at Maryland General and lived in Baltimore for the first year or so of his life. But where? I wanted visual connection. So I did what has since become reflex for this reader, I turned to google, typed in the address, and took a look. The map showed the location of Linden Avenue just off North Avenue. I’ve driven by there before; I never knew. I hit Street View and there it is, the childhood street of Frank O’Hara. Pretty cool, I thought.
I love it when the literary world and the everyday world meet. It brings literature to life, makes you think about what you read in a different way, and often deepens your understanding of both.
Another time I was reading the absolutely delightful New York Walks, Six Intimate Walking Tours of New York’s Most Historic Neighborhoods , editor). The 92nd Street Y put it out a while back, soliciting the expertise of their Talks and Tours program guides. These walks around the Big Apple are legend. The book is broken up into tours of different sections of NY/NY and a reader gets to worm their way along and learn about the place without taking a step if they are on some out-of-town couch. That is a nice feat in itself, but it is such a good book that makes you wish you were on the streets with each sentence. “Hey, wait a minute,” I thought and reached for google Street View once again. Pretty magic. There I was in lower Manhattan or in one of the carriage alleys near Washington Square. Click. Click. Look around. Click. Visual connection with what the page was sharing. Here’s a sample:
Return across Fifth Avenue (carefully! — you are mid block) for a glimpse of Washington Mews. Your view may be restricted by a closed gate, since the mews is privately owned, both the houses and the alley itself.
This cobblestone alley, built in 1831, provided Washington Square’s elegant houses with access to their private stables or carriage houses. With the rise of the automobile at the beginning of this century, these un-heated one- and two-story structures fell into disuse. Many were rented to artists who were willing to endure cold and any lingering equine scent, simple because the rent was cheap.
I found this trick works for novels, too. I was reading Colm Toibin’s The Blackwater Lightship and was so struck by the idea of the place that I hopped in someone’s google Street View car and took off for County Wexford to have a look for myself. Quaint, kind of stark, beautiful. Here are two shots from the road:
Can you imagine growing up there young and full of ambition?
In real life I associate my own experiences with what I am reading. I supply the picture that goes along with the author’s words. We all do it. It is one of the ways that we can get into a book and it can get into us. Reading is a shared effort between the projection of an author and the a reader’s ability to understand through their own experience-driven interpretation. I have found that I can enhance what I bring to my part of that task with a tool like Street View. It often gives me a sense of place that adds to the text something I might not otherwise be able to contribute. Landscape, architecture, the bustle of a place, the emptiness — these are some of the things you can see for yourself with the tool. It can be very helpful. I encourage my students to use it to enhance their own work with a text. It can help deepen their understanding. So, while you are making a list of supplies for the school year ahead, make sure to jot down google Street View. You’ll be one click away from anywhere you might want to check out for yourself.
HoCoPoLitSo, Board Co-chair
Recently, the siblings went through the home we grew up in. It was time to move on, that is to say, pack it all up and send it in new directions – keepsakes and sales. It is a task I wasn’t quite prepared for, a lot of work, certainly, but also an un-anticipatable rite of passage. Mom’s recently gone and dad has moved into a new place, size-suitable for one and already a wonderful nest of books with him heart and center. It is decorated with a number of precious memories, artifacts of the place that was, the life that is, time unstuck as it moves on, backwards and forwards in the present moment.
The sibling task, as you might imagine, was full of stories. Every single object had history. Our individual histories, our parent’s history, the family history. The six of us latched on to things that particularly resonated with our own hindsight, collected things that in an instant can take us back to the special place that is the family, that is growing into the world, gaining a sense of being from within the nestle of love and care and the forward tromp of formative years. Some of these stories we shared out loud. Some we let resonate in the silence within us, awed and full of emotion.
About this time it just so happened that I had picked up John Berger’s book Here is Where We Meet from one of my own shelves to have another go at reading. Grabbed it from a store when it came out and, for some reason, didn’t settle into it. The narrator visits/re-visits places important to his life and within those places re-meets those now dead who were once key to his own being. “The dead don’t stay where they are buried,” says his long-dead mother as she meets up with him in Lisbon for the first chapter. Pertinent; this time I was bewitched. Towards that chapter’s conclusion, she says, “Do us the courtesy of noticing us.” I love how a book casually picked up can provide such a parallel framework to where one is off the page. It is a breathtaking magic. My world was full of notice waiting to be noticed.
There’s a fork my Mother gave me a few years before she died. It is something that charmed me from the first time I saw it. There’s a curve to its tines, shaped over the decades and generations by vigorous beating against the side of mixing bowls, its mettle not full up to the task. When young, it was the curve that struck me – how cool – and I took in the science of the story: friction, hardness, softness. [Many years later, Mom would give me a copy of the The Dalkey Archive (Flan O’Brien) and I was amused by the bicycle-stealing policeman who was only being protective of the citizenry – you see, he understood the danger of friction and the exchange of molecules, bike riders and bikes shedding themselves into each other; he wanted to protect people from becoming bicycles. Hard to explain in a referentially clear way without the book in hand. Track it down, it’s a good read and will start you thinking. The fork, for us, was a perfect illustration of how this crazy idea was a truth.]
Later on I came to understand using that fork was a way the generations could hold hands across time, the gone and the present meeting in the mixed handle of effort. I’ll take it out and use it once in a while, though these days it is mostly artifact and talisman. All I have to do is look at it to reach back and hold on.
Going through the homestead I grabbed the copy of Wilkie Collins’ Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, a Dover Paperback. It reminded me of those Dover catalogues we’d pour through once the mailman brought them to us (see how memory spills out of things?). Opening it, a note in one of the end pages reminded me I had given it to her as a Christmas present in 1984. It is one I hadn’t read, so I set to the task. By the looseness of the pages, it seems like it had been read a couple of times and that comforted me. It seemed a way to share the space and mind of this person now physically gone from the place of living, a way to hold on to a connective something and pass time together again. I imagined how she would have taken to the stories, thrilling in parts, tedious in others, ever so English and of their time throughout.
Books are on the way out, or so I hear. Maybe I’ll be one of the last to hang on to them, especially the keepsakes from the childhood home, the ones the parents once held up to their faces. For me, they are part mirror/window still reflecting/looking on that time and person, a way to reach out and hold on to what was and what is as we all pass through living and linger in the stories of our interconnected lives, a way of noticing and perpetuating each other.
Tim Singleton, board co-chair
Recently, Tyehimba Jess posted an article on his Facebook that caught my attention. The TSA is starting to have people open up their carry on baggage and thumb through any books they might have brought along for the flight. The practice is being modeled in Missouri and California and expected to be expanded into airports across the country.
This idea struck me as problematic, not just because of the invasions of individual privacy – WHAT ARE YOU READING! WHY? – with the probing, but because, well, I tend to pack a lot of books.
Off to somewhere for a week? First, there are the travel books that detail things to see and do. I like the old Eyewitness series full of cut-away illustrations that point out picture perfect details. I’ll also pack a smaller, more efficient guide that shares the speedy info of top ten lists of Things To Do, or Eats, or Watering Holes. That’s mandatory. And maybe another kind because I like the way it’s written, you know, one of those with no pictures or just uninteresting line drawings, but sentences loaded with information. Maybe there’s a novel about the destination that I should have already read, or there’s some other work that’s just good travel writing on the locale. Except for the novel, this batch of must-have-along tomes is for the suitcase. Well, maybe not the smaller one, especially if it has a map to muse over through the flight.
Usually, when I am traveling I’ll take a book (or two) that I am just about to finish. Maybe I’ve saved the last stretch for just such an occasion. Maybe one of these books gets finished on the plane and the reading journey starts out on a high. One book down. These are perfect for the carry on. Maybe two. One down, reach for the next and you are done two books before landing. The vacation is already a success.
But I usually don’t jump right into the second almost-finished book in the air. My tactic is to start something new, get into it as the miles go by so that when the ground comes under my feet again, my mind is firmly settled into the read, ready to integrate it into the days and activities ahead. Since it is the beginning of the vaca, it will probably be something heady, something that will take a day or two to plunder, deep but maybe not quite out and out philosophy with frustratingly chewy sentences. Only enough to make me think, not work — this is vacation after all. The perfect book would be a tool to keep attention from when the wheels touch down through the bovine stand-still of disembarkation, however purposelessly long that might take. That’s three or four books so far. Not bad, certainly nothing too much to worry about.
I always have trouble deciding which books to pack in the suitcase, you know, the ones that will take me all the way through the length of the week. That’s five days worth of pages or maybe seven, depending on the trip. My mind says about twenty books should cover it. I’ve never read that many in a week and I never will, but I like to pack on the safe side. It gives me options.
Truth be told, I probably get out twenty books to take (the travel ones don’t count) and lay them out on the bed while I am packing. I will put a few back. Not really going to get to this one or that. A thousand pages? Who am I kidding? Certainly not me. Not this trip.
I’ll aim to get the suitcase load down to ten. Or eight. But then it might go back up when I remember poetry. Those volumes are thin and shouldn’t count as whole books, right?
Inevitably, I’ll finish the suitcase, having remembered clothes and toiletries at some point, zip it up, and start to wonder about my selection. If it didn’t zip up nicely, I might have to subtract a title or two, but I tend not to take books out of the suitcase once they are in, well, not usually. A week of clothing must factor in and, sigh, maybe some book gets saved for the next trip. If it strikes me that I have left out a particular subject, I’ll throw another book or two into the carry on. I need to be prepared.
Come time to board… actually, come time to go through this new security procedure, I may have seven or so books in the carry on, throw the Kindle on top. Maybe ten. Add a magazine. That should do it. (How many books am I traveling with overall? Don’t ask.)
What this all boils down to is an apology. If you find yourself late for a flight in the future and some jerk is holding up the security line, it might be me. I am so sorry. Inevitably, I’ll want to share all the reasons why each book was chosen with whoever it is that has been assigned to be curious about my reading. It might take a while. I like to gush. I like to ambassador reading. I’ll be talking to them about David Foster Wallace or James Baldwin or Mary Oliver or Zachary Lazar or the Nibelungenlied or….
Co-chair, HoCoPoLitSo Board
p.s. Packing for the return trip is slightly more problematic. You see, every destination has its own book stores.
One of the rites of Memorial Day Weekend is the opening of public and private pools. The weekend, while not an entrance into summer proper, does set us thinking forward to a more leisurely pace in the days ahead, the cheer of those at waterplay, and, if you are like me, of summer reading. Who doesn’t like an hour or so poolside with a good book?
But pools aren’t just fun, games, or the odd hour with a novel in proximity. They do need their maintenance and the start of the season has me thinking back a few years where I loved being the one to volunteer for the weekly tasks of skimming and filter cleaning the communal family pool at the in-laws. I’d look forward to the Saturday morning activity, put on my shorts and bare feet, plug in the iPod headphones, and head on over to the task where I could use the forty minutes or so to catch up on poetry podcasts. I had discovered the Poetry Foundation’s Poetry Lecture series, thinking a touch of lesson with my work wouldn’t be bad, and found this opportunity for dedicated listening time. It was perfect: an outside activity, knocking off a chore, getting smarter in the process. That there is summer for me.
So, with the odd peeper, dragonfly, or spicebush swallowtail for company, I’d get at the task with Elizabeth Bishop, Kwame Dawes, Simon Oritz, or Dunya Mikhail in my head. Wow, what a joy. The work was mindless: scooping crepe myrtle blossoms, half pink, half beginning to brown, from the surface of the water, emptying the scuppers of that soup of older blossoms and twigs and maybe the bloated last bit of a frog that left its voice behind in its invisible, but ever so loud kin, and the sweeping of other debris from around the pool to keep it from becoming next week’s filter stew: I’d fill my mind with these voices and their work and what others had to say about it. That’s how I discovered the brilliant Ilya Kaminsky, who at the time orchestrated the series, often himself in conversation with the featured writers. I’d look at the lacework of light on the pool’s surface and delight in the mixture of activity and education, musing on what I was hearing. I’d be in awe of the skill and wisdom of those I was listening to: Eavan Boland, Rita Dove, Gary Snyder, Gwendolyn Brooks….
When Les Murray bubbled up in the news a few years ago, I went looking for him and found this gem and bubbled it up poolside into my ears. I loved listening to stories about Frank O’Hara — did I almost fall in? yup — and, then, there is this series of international poets in conversation that is just marvelous, a window into another part of the world that only poets and their work can seem to provide – here’s an example, and another. I might have stopped and rested my arms on the broom handle not to miss a word of some of those. There were so many treasures to discover. One of my all time favorites is when I learned that Elizabeth Bishop in her college days was picked up by the police under the suspicion of solicitation. OK. Listen for yourself in the link above.
Find yourself a pleasant chore to do, one that might last forty minutes or an hour, put on some headphones, and invite these great conversations to join you. You won’t be disappointed and you’ll find you might even be looking forward to that chore the next time it comes round. Happy listening.
Board Co-chair, HoCoPoLitSo
If you have your own list of literary podcasts to listen to, add it below in the comments and I’ll catch up with them. Another favorite of mine is the New Yorker series where one writer introduces another writer’s short story which they then read to you.
If video is your thing, check out HoCoPoLitSo’s own work of recording writers in conversation on our YouTube Channel where you will find a growing collection of episodes of The Writing Life. Here’s E.Ethelbert Miller to tell you a little about that:
I am trying to remember those first attempts. They had to be failures. Probably middle school home economics class where the disaster was no fault of the effort, but – and I can still taste this clearly – a bad ingredient from the classroom cabinet that had been there who knows how long before we read the recipe and reached for it. Bleck. Fortunately, we were graded on the effort and not the ingredient.
That probably wasn’t the first time I cooked, or helped out in a kitchen, but it probably was the first time I took a recipe, printed words on a page, read it and followed its instruction in an attempt to cook something into being. I wasn’t in on the secret then, but it wouldn’t have been long before I was smitten with the practice: cooking is an act of reading.
I would have first learned how to cook standing by my mother’s side, watching and helping here and there, marveling at what came out of her mind and hands. She knew her way along. Or so it seemed to me at the time. I now know there was a box of index cards in a container on the fridge top, and, of course, a book case along the wall that grew from time to time as a new series subscription began, expanding the family menu beyond the basics.
It is probably there that something really took hold, that bookcase and the words it held. I can remember Saturday afternoons, probably winter and gray with not much to do: I’d open the pages of one of the books in the Time Life series Foods Of The World and dig in.
Spellbound, I was traveling. I was delving into cultures. I was imagining creations and thinking they were just a listing of words away from appearing in the very room I was in. Actually, at first I was probably just looking at the pictures and wholly captivated, whether it was in consideration of a beautiful landscape from a far away place, a joyous collection of people being who they were wherever it was they lived, a collection of ingredients from what seemed like it had to have been another planet, not a part of the world I lived in (decades on, the grocery stores have caught up), and, of course, the food exactingly prepared and brightly photographed, though, looking back, nothing compared to the food porn poses of many a modern day Instagram account. I was smitten indeed. Eventually, probably after a year or two or three of drooling over images, maybe after having started to work in a local restaurant as a day cook, I reached for the picture book’s companion recipe volume and had a go. Such reading has been a life long endeavor since.
These days, I reach less for those quaint Time Life books, though there are recipes still in the repertoire (and, I’ll admit, they also take me time traveling back to childhood and the family kitchen, or at least lazy, dreamy Saturday afternoons). Over the years, they have given me the confidence and the inclination to pick up cookbooks and have a go at whatever I am looking at. My work in the kitchen won’t be masterly, but it often is enough to have taken words on a page and turned it into bright and happy taste.
Lately, I am enjoying reading and bringing to life the words of the Thug Kitchen series, and I want to make every recipe in Ottolenghi’s Plenty, a gift received from a friend after a visit – I’ll have perfected a few things for the next time they drop by. Moosewood’s books are go to favorites – I remember going to their restaurant once, ordering something and then, after that first taste, exclaiming too loudly, “I made this!” as if I had made that particular batch. At least that was the look on the faces of those around me. I had to explain that I had made the recipe before and it tasted as right proper from my hands as from the Moosewood kitchen itself.
There is nothing like a favorite restaurant’s cookbook, especially if the restaurant exists out of town: I have both the Vedge and Vstreet books as well as Zahav’s. Both bring tastes from far away to the kitchen table. There’s a cookie recipe from one of Emeril’s books that I have made a hundred times. I am not good at cakes, yet. Perhaps I need to start reading more dessert.
Some of my mother’s cookbooks have made it to my collection. They are cherished, though I am reading them differently than I once did. While there’s the personal nostalgia of the Time Life ones and the connection to my mother throughout, there are books in the collection I wasn’t as clued into at the time, particularly the ones generated by the women’s magazines of the day. They gave us some of the everyday recipes, more easy, economic fuel than edible taste, like tuna casserole — I would have never learned to love reading recipes into being had I started there. They also share a window on the culture in America back not that long ago, sexism and racism steaming off the pages in places. But that is a subject for a future post. For now, go grab yourself a cookbook and feast your eyes.
Recently, I reached for something hopeful to read. I wanted to get out of the funky funk current affairs has had me in. I wanted a bigger picture, something that might observe, teach, and inspire. Basically, a tonic for these blues I have been dwelling in. I reached for Diane Ackerman’s The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us.
Open your imagination to how we began – as semi-upright apes which spent some of their time in trees; next as ragtag bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers; then as purposeful custodians of favorite grains, chosen with mind-bending slowness, over thousands of years; and in time as intrepid farmers and clearers of forests with fixed roofs over our heads and a more reliable food supply; afterward as builders of villages and towns dwarfed by furrowed, well-tilled farmlands; then as makers, fed by such inventions as the steam engine (a lavish power source unlike horses, oxen, or water power, and not subject to health or weather, not limited by location); later as industry’s operators, drudges and tycoons who moved closer to the factories that arose in honey-combed cities beside endless fields of staple crops (like corn, wheat, and rice) and giant herds of key species (mainly cows, sheep, or pigs); and finally as builders of big buzzing metropolises, ringed by suburbs on whose fringes lay shrinking farms and forests; and then, as if magnetized by a fierce urge to coalesce, fleeing en mass into these mountainous hope-scented cities.
That’s about as big picture as you can get, the 150 thousand or so years of Homo sapiens developing like a Polaroid right in front of your eyes. It is the kind of scope that shares what a grand thing life is and what we on the now end of existence should consider as we take on the seemingly insurmountable troubles of our own day. The tribe can survive, adapt, invent.
The book doesn’t pose a pretty picture — our current environmental concerns weigh heavy within it. But it doesn’t look at just the real, rough edges of how we live on Earth and how we treat our home. It also looks at ways we are currently taking on our challenges through imagination, ingenuity, persistence, care, action, and number – the world’s problems are not to be taken on individually, though that is often where engagement starts, but with a growing collective effort and resource. Some lead by expertise and example, others take it from there. In that light, it is inspiring. One reads as an individual, but as the pages turn, one realizes that they describe the efforts of your kin and kind hard at work to do the right thing and mind this wonderful home for all of us, making better today so that our story will carry on into the future.
Ackerman’s sentences are beautiful, full of words that touch up to each other perfectly as they flow into informative paragraphs and chapter-length essays. She has a wonderful sense of observation and detail. The way she names species specifically like the pearls they are, or identifies the detail of cultures or individuals she is describing are testament to her expertise on what she is writing about. It deepens one’s understanding of the world. It is clear and full of insight, compassion, and, yes, hope. I don’t know if it was an odd choice or not to reach for on a whim, but I am loving it and it is mending me.
Board Co-chair, HoCoPoLitSo
So we are at the end of one year and the beginning of another. For many, it’s the time to make a few resolutions. For me, I like to take a look back at what I have read and ponder what to read next. I don’t know which is more of a treat: looking backward at the cache or looking forward, ambitiously. Here’s a bit of both.
Surprise of the year was Jen Grow’s book of stories My Life as a Mermaid. Not sure I have been as excited reading a collection of stories for the first time since Edith Pearlman. Get it; read it. Can’t wait for her next collection. The pressure is on, Jen, the pressure is on.
There were many things I expected to be great and they were. Pearlman’s Honeydew, Toibin’s Elizabeth Bishop, a number of works translated by Ted Hughes (magnificent), The Odyssey (Fitzgerald trans.). There were surprises, things that I wasn’t really expecting to have in my hands, but did and was thankful for them: Zachary Lazar’s first novel Aaron, Approximately, Dinaw Mengestu’s The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears, Edmundo Paz Soldan’s The Matter of Desire, to name a few.
This was the year I finally finished Elizabeth Bishop and the New Yorker. It had been sitting bedside for dip-ins every now and then since it was published. It’s been replaced with Words In Air. Wonderful stuff. Thank goodness she was a prolific letter writer – years of joy ahead.
As you would expect for a HoCoPoLitSo-er, I do try to fill they year with a good selection of poetry. I’ll only name drop here as I tend to binge read, going through what I have on the shelf for a particular writer (if you see your name here, time to start publishing a few next books [hint hint Patricia Smith]). Patricia Smith, Bruce Ross, Saigyo, Marie Howe (she’s coming to Columbia in April), Eamon Grennan (he’s here in February), lots and lots of Maxine Kumin, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Breyton Breytonbach, Grace Paley, a Rilke revisit… I’ll stop there or you’ll stop reading as it’s just a list of names.
On to that year ahead: Susan Sontag suggests one should read a book a day. That is a mighty goal, completely unrealistic for a mortal. In fact, I’d find two books a week and a day job to put a roof over those books unattainable. A book and a half a week: more realistic, though probably just as dreamy. (I bet I might bring books into the house some years at one a day on average — I’ll not stop to figure that out, it might get me in trouble – does that count for anything?)
There are a few things already in the pile to read next-ish. I have already started Rebecca Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away. A couple of years ago I started reading the works of Agatha Christie. In order. All of them. There’s always one to read next-ish. (Why? The story is for a future post.) I know I’ll be reading more Grennon and Howe in advance of their visits. James Hillman’s A Terrible Love of War awaits with its insights into our bellicose behavior. Julian Barnes Keeping An Eye Open was a Christmas gift that won’t be waiting long, as is Rahael Jerusalamy’s The Brotherhood of the Book Hunters. And I do aim to have Jane Kenyon’s A Hundred White Daffodils in the mind soon, long overdue to do. Sontag is also on the list.
The treat I have been saving to start the year is Belinda McKeon’s Tender, though. So looking forward to it. I had wanted to read the copy that crossed the Atlantic for me as summer ended, but I started teaching a semester of Philosophy 101 and that had me reading other things. Lots and lots of other things (Helen Buss Mitchel’s textbook Roots of Wisdom is excellent). I’ll start reading the McKeon after I put down Patti Smith’s delightful M Train. I think it is time to go back to that now. Happy reading, everyone, and Happy New Year!
Co-chair, HoCoPoLitSo Board
The other day a poem caught my eye because it wanted to catch my ear. I had spied or sort of spied Eamon Grennan’s “Oystercatchers in Flight” in my inbox, Poets.org’s Poem-A-Day offering.
Sea’s stony greenblue shatters to white…
To be honest, most of the time, the Poem-A-Day missives fall by the wayside, especially if, at a glance, they look long – I save them for ‘later’ and off they disappear, most likely not to be looked at again. This time, the word ‘oystercatchers’ caught my eye and then the brevity of the poem. I could take a look.
With the next glance and I saw the words looked pure sound and begged to be read aloud. I did. One. Two. And three times. The sound was a pleasure. It took something to work the line rhythms into the air. It was a roil of words. Something was going on here. I liked the way the words abutted each other, almost fighting for space and identity amidst the rockiness of the lines. [Listen to a reading of this poem in the clip at the bottom of this post — you can tell I am still working out the rhythm, sound and breath in the recording. Click on the image at the right to read the text of the poem.]
Up till then, I had just been saying the sounds of the poem. I was almost at the point of saying, “What is going on here? What is the meaning?” and some distraction reclaimed me to the busy tasks of the workday; the poem went by the wayside.
Much later in the day, someone else mentioned the poem and we brought it up on the computer to read together, trying to get out something we both had glimpsed, but didn’t really pay attention to at the time. What was going on in that poem? It looked neat. It sounded neat. But what?
Early, in my inattentive glancing, I had assumed humans for oystercatchers. Seemed romantic, appropriate for a poem and I was working at meaning through that misconception, trying to figure out the bit about orange and black and what. Then, eureka, oystercatchers are birds! a fact which google not only confirmed but also displayed and we all started appreciating what the poem was obviously saying. The poem and its colors started to make beautiful sense. Sometimes we readers of poetry just try too hard.
There is a complexity to what could just be obvious in this poem, though, which makes it delight, but it wants a bit of trying to get at. The first line gets things going so quickly and particularly with sound that meaning might not deeply render on a quick read; its not conveying in the way of obvious and ordinary everyday language where words rest on the ear starting with meaning, rather by a pay-attention-example of solid words that jump right away into the next sound, almost leaving things behind. (All the punctuation in this poem but the last mark is of a push-forward kind: colons, hyphens, even that first apostrophe which launches a reader from the first word breathlessly into the second, even the parens, which add a hastened phrase on top of the forward push.)
Just where the poem ‘turns’ there is ‘veronica’ as a verb, kind of delicious, kind of awkward, a little odd to my ear and eye. The flower is not an everyday appearance in the geography of my mind, so I am not quite guided to instant image or meaning. Or is it a reference to a Christ-imaged cloth? Or the bullfighter’s move? Not sure. Can’t tell. But then I think it could be just the sound in the word that is describing what the birds are up to, how they hang and move in the windy air: slow-slow-fastoff: verrrr-onnnnn-ica. I am still a little uncertain about what it specifically conjures, but it slows down the rhythm for a moment before the ‘then away’. Nice. It is a great sound to say, a comfort after the hard Ss, Ts and Ks of the earlier lines.
The way sound and rhythm works through all the lines is thrilling, physically manipulating when you read it out loud (do!). It’s not just because of the punctuation lack. You can hear clapping here: “tribe of black till you clap and their risen black” in the repeated slap-like ‘ack… ap… ack’ sound. And you can sense the rhythm/wind hold-shift-hold for a moment in the poem, too:
…and their risen black
as they veronica on wind and
then away with them (shrill-pitched as frighted
plovers only harsher more excited)
and riding the stiff wind like eager lovers straining
into its every last whim: its pulsing steady
The parenthetical phrase full of energy that stifles and speeds into the steady pulsing surrounding it, “harsher more excited” sending the tongue off and into the ploddingly slower single syllable words of “and riding the stiff wind like…” Grennan makes the wind of the breath match the wind of the wind. ‘Lovers’ brings back the stalling hold-in-place of ‘veronica’ with its V sound and something of a parallel image of wind fight. Then the final, almost exhaustive:
its pulsing steady
heart-push in every flesh-startling open-eyed
long-extended deepening sea-breath.
which you don’t get to without having said the whole of the poem in one long exhale. Bravo. You are breathing like the sea.
On the first few glances at this Poem-A-Day email I missed some obvious things, a now super obvious one being Grennan’s comments on the piece I would have seen if I had scrolled down a single screen from the poem:
“This poem is a fairly straightforward visual report on its title, the birds being a common sight on the coastline I live beside in Connemara, Ireland. I sought a contrast between their ‘abiding’ and the speed and dash of their taking off, their going. The lovers’ metaphor intends, I guess, a broadening or deepening of the natural facts. The absence of punctuation is a strategy to suggest the long-breath continuity and interconnectedness of things.“
I had gone straight to the sound and was quite happy for it, even blew past the title and its clue. I wasn’t worried about meaning at that point, letting words be sound for the sake of hearing what the poet was up to. I was fortunate that the poem came back to me later, grateful the time spent listening through the sound to get to the meaning: it’s quite an enjoyable observation, quite a re-livable observation shared via Grennan’s skill with the rhythm and sound in words and groups of words. I love the way this poem uses breath and sound to portray what its words observe. You’ll be missing things if you don’t read it out loud yourself.
You can see that I am not the best at making the most out of the Poem-A-Day features as they visit my already overwhelmed emailbox. I pay attention only sometimes and then often just slightly. Still, I highly recommend signing up for the service and letting poems interject as they may. When they do, let them spend time with you. They have a way of making delightful your day.
- Click here to sign up to receive Poets.org’s Poem-A-Day in your own email.
- More on Eamon Grennan at The Poetry Foundation.
*”Oyster catcher by Dan Pancamo” by Dan Pancamo – Flickr: The world’s mine oyster. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Oyster_catcher_by_Dan_Pancamo.jpg#/media/File:Oyster_catcher_by_Dan_Pancamo.jpg
I have a lot of HoCoPoLitSo memories. They start from way back when I was in high school and I had no idea the organization existed or what it did. All I remember was that I was on a field trip that left me wanting to be Derek Walcott once I grew up. Though a favorite HoCoPoLitSo memory, that is another story. Today I want to share a few moments of writers coming to see writers and what an honor it is to be in the midst of such occasion.
Many stories start with Irish Evening for HoCoPoLitSo. It is a landmark event. I think my awareness of other writers coming to HoCoPoLitSo events to see our headliner started one such evening. Maybe it was the Guinness, but more probably it was Colm Tóibín that brought Colum McCann down to our neck of the woods from his Manhattan apartment for the 21st annual Irish Evening. At that point in the now world famous career of Tóibín, it was a rare thing to him to this side of the Atlantic. McCann took advantage and a train to visit Columbia a year after he himself had read for Irish Evening.
I remember little of the reading that night. I seldom remember Irish Evenings and that is not for the drinking that often followed. They are labor intensive occasions to produce and I tend to be tending to that aspect. Tóibín’s voice is still in my head and bits of The Heather Blazing from that reading; I did catch some of it. What I do remember is that there were a handful of folks, me lucky enough to be among them, that headed off into the night with a number of bottles to listen to Colm and Colum talk about writing once the event was done and packed away. What an honor.
Quite recently, Colum McCann, now many books into his fame, came to another Irish Evening to read from Transatlantic, just about to be published. It was his first reading of the work to an audience and a fascinating occasion as he caught a sentence he hadn’t right and promised us he would go back to the galleys to correct it. An honest moment in the creative process.
I spotted a number of Howard County writers in attendance that evening. They were joined by none other than Alice McDermott and, I am told, George Pelicanos. The two had come from Baltimore and Washington, respectively, to take in one of the masters of prose in suburban Columbia. If we are dropping names here, I’ll add that the Governor came from Annapolis and even joined in to play with the band. After the evening at the green room party, McCann himself joined in the singing of songs.
Perhaps my favorite coming together of writers to see a particularly treasured writer was for the poet Stanley Kunitz in 1993. We all knew Mr. Kunitz was old old, 88, and that this would be the last opportunity we would have to see him. In a space that no longer exists as a venue for readings – the lower Nursing Lounge on the campus of Howard Community College – Kunitz read to a standing room only crowd that adored each and every syllable. The audience well knew his work and you could tell that he could tell: he put on a commanding performance.
I remember crowded in that room with us were Carolyn Forché and Gregory Orr who had come up from the University of Virginia for the occasion. Afterwards at a reception, all whispered to each other in awe and confirmed how lucky we were to have shared this intimate occasion with the great Stanley Kunitz. I went on to hear him read a number of times since that occasion: our collective luck grew as he lived to be 100.
Why do writers come to see other writers? For the occasion of Kunitz, it was likely reverence and the notion of ‘this might be the last time’ and one not to miss. On other occasions, it is probably more outright a taking in of craft, an opportunity to learn and admire. I know I go see other writers to learn and affirm what common language can do in the hands of masters. Thank you for that, HoCoPoLitSo.
Co-chair, HoCoPoLitSo Board
Have a favorite HoCoPoLitSo memory? HoCoPoLitSo is currently celebrating its 4oth season and would love to hear from you. Visit the Share Your Memory page and share a favorite story or two with us. As we collect favorite memories, we’ll share them in a future blog posts.