Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Guilty Covers

http://www.readingrevels.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Gilt-KatherineLongshore-201x300.jpg When I was in eighth grade, I got a year's subscription to my first (and only) teen magazine: YM. I remember how cool I felt to find it waiting for me when I got home from school, like I had entered into the secret world of teens in the know. (Which was exactly how they wanted me to feel.) Especially when the front cover advertised a special sealed section all about sex. I went to my room and tore it open.

Of course, the most titillating part was the packaging. The special sealed section, as I recall, largely encouraged waiting. It focused more on the question of "how do you know you're in love?" and offered such teen-appropriate answers as "when he's seen you when you're sick" and "without make-up" and is still unswerving in his affection. I might even be blending that section with something else from the magazine--I can't remember. Years later, my mom confessed that she'd considered opening or tearing out that section before I got the magazine, but had decided to trust me. "There really wasn't anything in there," I told her. Jazzed-up health class.

The same hype is true for the cover of Katherine Longshore's "Gilt." The cover promises an R rating for writing that's actually PG-13. Written for a YA audience, it's the story of Catherine Howard, fifth wife of King Henry VIII, as told by her best friend and lady-in-waiting, Kitty Tilney. There is sex in the book, yes, but always very much off-screen: those who know their history will recall that wifey #5 was executed for adultery. Cat Howard, were she in modern high school, would be known as the girl who sleeps around, the girl your parents would warn you about (if you had parents, which Kitty doesn't) because she'll try to get you to join in. But this is, ultimately, a book about friendship. We're on the edge of our seats from chapter one, wondering how just far Kitty will follow her charismatic, bullying best friend Cat as she rises all the way to the top--even while pursuing actions that can only lead her all the way back down. Despite what you might guess from the over-the-top cover, the book is beautifully written and historically accurate. It's difficult to put down.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Split This Rock Poem of the Week

Poem of the Week: Emily K. Bright

  Emily Bright  

It is nearly midnight and I'm
scrubbing at the grout.
The dishes, washed,
are put away. This is how I love
the people in my house,
with baking soda and a sponge.
We build our community
from the kitchen out,
knowing eggs or cornbread
stretch a meal to feed
the neighbor boys, who come
when we sit down to supper.
They always join us
when we offer, always ask
to use the phone to talk to girls.
They claw through adolescence
and such obstacles I never had to face:
gangs and constant relocations,
Michael's father half-way through
his fifteen years for selling. I learn,
I learn from them. Outside, sirens
flash their blue and red again.
I sweep footprints in a pile,
fill the bucket for the mop.
So much is beyond my circle of control.
But this house, this place of gathering,
it shines, if only for a few to see,
if only through the morning.
-Emily K. Bright

From Glances Back (Pudding House Press, 2007).
Used by permission.

Emily K. Bright
holds a BA in English from Williams College and an MFA in poetry from the University of Minnesota. Her chapbook Glances Back was published by Pudding House Press, and she has had individual poems appear in such literary journals and anthologies as Other Voices International, North American Review, Come Together: Imagine Peace, and Beloved on the Earth: 150 Poems of Grief and Gratitude.

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If you are interested in reading past poems of the week, feel free to visit the blog archive.   

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Reviewing Ophelia

by Lisa M. Klein
Bloomsbury USA Children’s, 2007

At first glance, it’s a fantastic idea: the untold story of Ophelia’s Hamlet. Behind-the-scenes stories of wives and sisters, both modern and historical, are a popular trend, and they’re hard to resist. What kind of woman would love the melancholy (and possibly mad) Hamlet?

At second glance, challenges arise. Number one: Ophelia kills herself in Shakespeare’s play, mad with grief at Hamlet’s rejection. Number two: Hamlet is commonly taught during senior year of high school. Given that Young Adult literature is aimed at readers aged 14-25, Ophelia’s story may not appeal to the youngest third of this readership. This is particularly true because (number three) Shakespeare’s characters spoke Shakespearean English. Challenging stuff.

Lisa M. Klein tackles the challenge head-on in her debut YA novel Ophelia. She dispatches issue #1 in the prologue, implying that Ophelia only fakes her death and piquing our interest to learn how and why. As for #2 Klein deftly walks the middle road, writing Ophelia’s story in a language that feels fitting with the time period but clear to readers. When the conversation does become more elevated, as in scenes that align with scenes in the play, Klein is careful to clarify the motive and meaning of each line of dialogue in modern English.

Ophelia is a witty and well-educated modern young woman, able to match Hamlet toe-to-toe and devise her own plans when things in Denmark start to go rotten. Ophelia’s neglectful father allowed her to study alongside her brother Laertes as he was tutored as a child. As a lady-in-waiting to Queen Gertrude, Ophelia adds to her education in the realm of love, through the bawdy stories Queen Gertrude secretly admires. She also discovers a love of plants, and her knowledge of their  medicinal properties make her a useful addition to the queen’s court. (Readers familiar with Romeo and Juliet will quickly be able to guess how her knowledge of plant-lore comes in handy in order to avert a tragic end.)  

Ophelia is a book that revels in wit but leaves plenty of room for the pleasures and uncertainties of new love. Disguised as a shepherd and shepherdess from one of Gertrude’s stories, Ophelia and Hamlet meet and carry out their love away from the constantly prying eyes of the palace. The castle Elsinor is a dark place, filled with watchers and schemers—Ophelia’s father being key among them—replete with nooks and crannies in which young lovers can meet. It’s interesting to watch Ophelia work her way behind-the-scenes, first to forward her courtship with the alluring young Hamlet, and then to preserve her own life.

Lisa Klein explains on the book jacket that she was never content with traditional readings of Ophelia and, since Shakespeare is no longer around to write stronger female characters, she has taken up the task. A former English professor, her scholarship shows. As a fellow English instructor and writer of historical fiction, I loved the way she tucked in historical details: the name of an article of clothing or piece of architecture, the description of a book that would have been around at the time, a clever double-meaning in Shakespeare’s work. Such details ground the story but are not so overwhelming as to lose the attention of younger readers.

The pacing dragged a bit in the middle of the book, as Ophelia operates increasingly behind-the-scenes of Hamlet’s play. The habit of explaining meaning and motive after each line of Ophelia’s trickier dialogue grew tedious to this reader, but a teen reader might find it helpful. (Editorial direction, rather than the author’s ability, may have guided this writing style.) Still, the desire to see how Ophelia saves herself and directs her one life in a society that allows her few options is enough to keep us reading onward. And the final third of the book, which follows Ophelia after her faked suicide, is inventive and memorable, making the book worth a read.
Ms. Klein has since gone on to write Lady Macbeth’s Daughter, Two Girls of Gettysburg, and, most recently, Cate of the Lost Colony.

Monday, February 18, 2013

poetry and food

Thanks to Debbie for this fabulous stumble-upon: a website of recipes inspired by poetry, complete with the poems: http://www.eatthispoem.com/recipes/

I particularly recommend Colleen Michaels' "For the Buyer of Breakfasts in Salem," which begins "I wish for you a lifetime of eggs / sunny-side up."

If you happen to be reading this blog in the Northwoods area, come join us for tomorrow's peace cafe!

Friday, February 15, 2013

Narrative at the heart of human rights stories

Jonathan Groubert's teaching article "The Talkumentary", featured on Transom.org, simply blew me away today. Transom.org is a fantastic site in general, dedicated to encouraging narrative and bringing new voices to public radio. Jonathan Groubert, the host of the Radio Netherlands show "The State We're In," talks writers through the birth and death of a radio show. "The State We're In," which was also available in the U.S. for a while, was devoted to covering human rights stories. Here's what thrills my heart: the lesson they learned was that you cannot cut to the heart with a human rights story unless you understand how to tell a good story. The facts could be (and generally are) deeply moving, but at the very base you need a strong understanding of narrative. Groubert follows his own advice, structuring his article as a story. He offers an example of an early "terrible show," then shows examples of how they moved from bottom to highly effective.

Not interested in the writing know-how? Skip to the end for the most moving story I have heard in a while, "Two Enemies, One Heart."

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Dare to Educate Afghan Girls

"Behind most [Afghan girls] who succeed is a father who recognizes … that her success is his success.” (Shabana Basij-Rasikh)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Beautiful Poem

We discussed this poem in my class today. I was looking for a contemporary example of a poem that uses meter. This one is, more or less, in iambic pentameter, with a beautifully placed scattering of rhyme. I'm going to put Dubrow's poetry collection Stateside on my to-buy list.

Before the Deployment
by Jehanne Dubrow

He kisses me before he goes. While I,
still dozing, half-asleep, laugh and rub my face

against the sueded surface of the sheets,
thinking it’s him I touch, his skin beneath

my hands, my body curving in to meet
his body there. I never hear him leave.

But I believe he shuts the bedroom door,
as though unsure if he should change his mind,

pull off his boots, crawl beneath the blankets
left behind, his hand a heat against my breast,

our heart rates slowing into rest. Perhaps
all good-byes should whisper like a piece of silk—

and then the quick surprise of waking, alone
except for the citrus ghost of his cologne.

© 2013, Academy of American Poets. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, February 11, 2013

peacemaking poetry shout-out

I'd like to give a shout out to poet Philip Metres. In 2008 he edited a lovely anthology called Come Together: Imagine Peace (Bottom Dog Press). I'm biased because I have two poems in it, but it really is a neat selection of new and established names. The reason I'm mentioning him is that just today I stumbled across his fabulous blog, Behind the Lines Poetry. His blog features a poem a week that addresses peacemaking, as well as poetry reviews and other fascinating finds. It makes my heart happy to see people focused on poetry and justice.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Rejection Ratio

I had a poetry professor in grad school, a man who regularly receives national recognition, who taught himself to overcome the fear of rejection by scrapbooking all the rejection slips his poetry received. He stopped at 500.

Ask my family, and they will tell you I am almost obsessed with getting the mail. Most of the time, it's bills and ads for Kohls. But every so often, there's my handwriting on the envelope, and my heart leaps. A SASE! A response from a magazine! And for a moment, I think "Do I want to know?" I do not save my rejection slips, thought I do duly report the results on a spreadsheet. For a while, I went through a rash of kind rejections with handwritten notes from editors. In January, one editor was kind enough to tell me that a story was "totally publishable;" it just didn't fit with the overall collection.

And yet, 2013 is off to a good start. January saw two poems accepted and three rejections. One of those acceptances was my poem "Sunday's Theme," which appeared in this week's edition of America Magazine. February so far has seen one rejection (of the "we're totally inundated with limited need for poetry" variety) and one acceptance in Holy Cow!'s  October 2013 anthology The Heart of All That Is: Reflections on Home. Writing is such a solitary endeavor, often with little feedback; moments like these spur me on to send out more. And of course, every day I watch the mail.

Keep up the good writing, folks.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Upside Downton Abbey

Oh Sesame Street, how I love you. Your programs amuse parents while teaching children, as here in Upside Downton Abbey.