Monday, March 25, 2013

Jericho Brown

Poem of the Week: Jericho Brown

Jericho Brown   
They said to say goodnight
And not goodbye, unplugged
The TV when it rained. They hid
Money in mattresses
So to sleep on decisions.
Some of their children
Were not their children. Some
Of their parents had no birthdates.
They could sweat a cold out
Of you. They'd wake without
An alarm telling them to.
Even the short ones reached
Certain shelves. Even the skinny
Cooked animals too quick
To get caught. And I don't care
How ugly one of them arrived,
That one got married
To somebody fine. They fed
Families with change and wiped
Their kitchens clean.
Then another century came.
People like me forgot their names. 
-Jericho Brown 
Used by permission.
Jericho Brown was born in Shreveport, Louisiana and once worked as the speechwriter for the Mayor of New Orleans. The recipient of the Whiting Writers Award and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, Brown is an Assistant Professor at Emory University. His poems have appeared in journals and anthologies including The American Poetry ReviewjubilatOxford AmericanPloughsharesTin House, The Best American Poetry, and 100 Best African American Poems. His first book, PLEASE, won the American Book Award.
Please feel free to forward Split This Rock Poem of the Week widely. We just ask you to include all of the information in this email, including this request. Thanks!
If you are interested in reading past poems of the week, feel free to visit the blog archive

Thursday, March 21, 2013

poetry helps POWs endure

This story of poetry helping people endure impossible situations comes courtesy of NPR.

In A North Vietnamese Prison, Sharing Poems With 'Taps On The Walls'

Taps on the Walls: Poems from the Hanoi Hilton
Taps on the Walls
Poems from the Hanoi Hilton
The United States was fresh off signing the peace accords to end the long and bloody war in Vietnam when, on Feb. 12, 1973, more than 140 American prisoners of war were set free.
Among the men to start a long journey back home that day was John Borling.
An Air Force fighter pilot, Borling was shot down on his 97th mission over Vietnam on the night of June 1, 1966. He spent the next six years and eight months in a notorious North Vietnamese prison.
Sarcastically called the "Hanoi Hilton" by American POWs, it was a place of torture, deprivation and often solitary confinement.
Borling spent much of his time there just trying to survive. He also composed poetry — in his head, without benefit of pencil or paper.
He is now out with a book of poems he wrote and memorized during those years, Taps on the Walls: Poems from the Hanoi Hilton. It's a tribute, as he puts it, to the "power of the unwritten word."
Borling, now retired from the Air Force, joined NPR's Morning Edition host Renee Montagne to talk about the book.

Interview Highlights

On the harsh conditions at the Hanoi Hilton
"The first years there was a great brutality, a great infliction of pain and punishment. And then, as time went on, although this is hardly a universal thought, the conditions tended to ameliorate somewhat. But for all that, where you can make a case on one hand that the North Vietnamese were lenient just to let us live, you could also make a case that they were too cruel to let us die.
Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. John Borling is a native Chicagoan and an Air Force Academy graduate.
L. Matiasko/Courtesy Greenleaf Book Group, LLC
"We were in a room, maybe 6-by-7 for a period of three-and-a-half years in this one case, with no windows, no ventilation. You've got nothing, you don't get outside, maybe see the sun 20 seconds a day if you're lucky; you've got an overflowing bucket for a toilet, you've got a mat that you sleep on, and you're subject to very harsh treatment."
On enduring the interminable days
"We're battling the endless day where you just have to mount up, and you have to fight the endless, empty days. ... There's a poem later in the book called 'Sonnet 4 45 43.' ... If you tap four, forty-five, forty-three, that's 'Sonnet for Us':
The world without, within our weathered walls,
Remote, like useless windows, small and barred.
Here, months and years run quickly down dim halls,
But days, the daze, the empty days come hard."
On the mechanics and importance of "Tap Code"
"Divide the alphabet into five rows and five columns. A through E in the first row, if you will, F through J in the second, and so on. And then you tap first the row that it's in. Like, A would be one, one. B would be one, one-two. C would be one, one-two-three. D: one, one-two-three-four. And we would sign off at night, 'G.B.U.' or 'God bless you,' so G is two, two, B is one, one-two ... To go to U, you'd go down four ... and over five.

"It was ... our lifeline. It was how we kept a chain of command, which was verboten, how we passed information that would keep us all going, mentally. Here's a bunch of fighter pilots, but a fragment of poetry — some remembered lines, however abbreviated — would be useful."

On returning, via poetry, to the Hanoi Hilton
"Some of them [take me back] more than I would like. But, you know, time's a wonderful healing mechanism. ... Perhaps the impact and the poignancy is a bit more real. But that's OK. Again, I think the genuineness and the authenticity of the expression, and hopefully the artistic expression, should speak to the minds and hearts of folks out there. At least, I would hope so."

Monday, March 18, 2013

stumble-upon take time out from our regularly scheduled blogging to say...

How cool is this? An infinite jukebox! Now you can write to your favorite song, and that song will never stop...

Thursday, March 14, 2013

watch your language

The natives are restless.
They were on the war path.
It was a war party.
Get out the war paint.

The kids in play group today were nuts. Spring fever was in full swing, and what they lacked in numbers they made up for in decibels and in mileage tracked around the room. Everyone had fun and no one got hurt--success!--but the screeching was so persistent that many of us moms, sitting on the few adult-sized chairs to the side with our little ones tucked cautiously around us, felt the need to comment. Other than one reference to "banchees," all of the comments, like the ones above, referenced American Indians.  The thought struck me with a bit of horror at how casually such racists comments--linking Indians with wildness--tucked themselves into our language.

"How racist," I commented to a friend after I noticed the connection.

"No it's not," she said. "They could be natives of anywhere."

If not racist, let's go with "patronizingly colonialist," shall we?

So now I need a new description, because there's still plenty of snow on the ground and those kids won't be able to run outside any time soon. A mechanical metaphor, perhaps? Something to do with springs, slinkies, or wound-up gears?

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Amateur Love Poetry Contest

The Common Good Amateur Love Poem Contest

Garrison Keillor and Common Good Books are pleased to announce the first annual “Common Good Amateur Love Poem Contest." Unpublished poets (ie, those who have not yet published a book of poetry) are invited to submit poems poems of love or praise. Entries may be up to 14 lines or 200 words long. Entries are due by March 18. Mail poems to Limit one entry per person.
Finalists will be announced April 1, the start of Poetry Month. We will display copies of the poems in the store, and customers can vote for their favorites through the first two weeks of April. We'll announce the winner at our big poetry event--April 21, in the Weyerhaeuser Chapel. Copies of the winning poem will be printed and made available at Common Good Books. We'll also publish the poem in our newsletter.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Fine Print Part Two

In fifth grade, I remember playing slip 'n slide with my friend in her back yard. There wasn't much of a hill, so the slide part was rather a force of will, but still, slip 'n slides were cool. Her little brother thought so, too. Not only did he want to join in, but he whined and complained that he wanted to go first.

Okay, I said. Kim and I are going to just take one quick practice run, and then we'll start OFFICIALLY, and you can go first. Everyone was happy: kid brother because he got to go first, and me because we did, too. I remember being incredibly proud of tricking him with words.

Amazon seems to feel similarly. The more I hear back from lawyer friends in regards to the "license" agreement I printed here yesterday (which was just to sell a book on Amazon), the angrier I get at such a bully copyright approach. As far as I can tell, they're saying, "The copyright is yours, absolutely. You're just granting us permission to do whatever we want, whenever we want, forever, without asking you or compensating you, using your materials (which we're broadly defining--the definition of "your materials" includes the words "materials" in it.) But it's still your copyright, okay? You can go first.

No thanks. If you want to purchase my chapbook, you'll just have to get it here, on the right-hand side-bar. I charge 1/3 of the shipping cost, anyway.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

the fine print noticed that, at some point, someone has sold my chapbook on Amazon. (It wasn't the publisher, as they boycott mass media. As one friend put it, "that'll really stick it to 'em.") Amazon makes it easy enough for me to sell my own copies, so I started to go through the process.

Then I read the "Agreement" that you sign. Below is the license section (bolding mine)

You grant us a royalty-free, non-exclusive, worldwide, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use, reproduce, perform, display, distribute, adapt, modify, re-format, create derivative works of, and otherwise commercially or non-commercially exploit in any manner, any and all of Your Materials, and to sublicense the foregoing rights to our affiliates and operators of Amazon Associated Properties; provided, however, that we will not alter any of Your Trademarks from the form provided by you (except to re-size trademarks to the extent necessary for presentation, so long as the relative proportions of such trademarks remain the same) and will comply with your removal requests as to specific uses of Your Trademarks (provided you are unable to do so using standard functionality made available to you via the Amazon Site or Services); provided further, however, that nothing in this Agreement will prevent or impair our right to use Your Materials without your consent to the extent that such use is allowable without a license from you or your affiliates under applicable law (e.g., fair use under United States copyright law, referential use under trademark law, or valid license from a third party).

Anyone else find this super scary? I can't quite make out what it's saying.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Working hard for the money

dollar-signA while back, I went to the independent bookstore in town and asked if they would be interested in selling my chapbook, Glances Back. Sometimes, "local author" can be a nice draw. The manager looked at the book, did a cursory flip through, and said, "No thank you. Poetry doesn't sell well," she told me, "and it's pretty expensive."

I couldn't blame her (though I was annoyed). We've all looked at the length of a volume from time to time and debated whether it was worth the money, as though the written word could be judged the same way as a cheeseburger or a "now 25% more" bottle of shampoo. I'll skip the argument for the value of poetry and go, instead, straight to the numbers.

My chapbook is 30 pages long. It costs $10. I keep $5 of that; the other half goes to the publisher.
My chapbook contains 21 poems. That's less than 50 cents a poem. Heckuva deal ya got dere.
But wait, there's more.

Let's say that it took me an average of 10 hours to write and revise each poem. Let's say that I spent an additional 30 hours assembling the collection (moving poems around, considering themes and titles, writing additional poems that were cut from this collection) and working with the publisher (The book was immediately accepted by the first publisher I sent it to, which is rare and which spoiled my expectations for future publishing. Still, there was a discussion, reformatting, and proofing the galleys.)

21 poems x 10 hours = 210 hours
                                  +  30 hours
                                 = 240 hours

If you divide $10 by 240 hours, you learn that, with each chapbook I sell, I have been retroactively paid four cents an hour. That is not counting time spent doing readings or advertising the book in any way. All this would be fine if I were selling thousands of copies, but chapbooks tend to be in the limited-edition category. As in (very) few hundred. No wonder I got looks of pity from my classmates in my publishing course.

Why did I want to do this math, again?

Friday, March 1, 2013

Interchangeable Parts the Revolutionary War times, cotton-gin inventor Eli Whitney was commissioned to build a large number of rifles. He returned after the allotted time with only one.

Where are the rest of the guns, and what have you done with our money? I’m sure they asked. And then he showed them; the one gun he’d spent months making was a master copy. It was fitted together from interchangeable parts, which could be manufactured separately. Interchangeable parts revolutionized the industry. Good news for the American Revolution. Bad news for peace time, but I digress.

If Eli Whitney were alive today and watching modern television, I wonder (after he got over about seven layers of shock) if he would recognize his own invention at work?

Case-in-point, Thursday evening, I’m watching TV. We only get a few channels, so my choices for drama were Scandal, Person of Interest, and, I think, Beauty and the Beast (the series, not the Disney movie). Unimpressed but feeling too lazy to find my book (I claim sinus infection), I casually started watching Person of Interest. A poorly written mob boss was threatening to kill people for reasons known only to him, and the good guys on surveillance had to determine who the good guys were (a pretty young widow included) and save them.

Then baby wakes up, and I go in to change a soiled diaper. When I return 10 minutes later, I ask my husband, who is mostly attending to his computer, what I missed. He says, “the guy everyone thought was dead is actually alive. He was a CIA agent working under cover.” How contrived, I think, assuming he’s referring to the widow’s mob-guy husband. I turn to the TV, where there’s an awkward reunion going on. The widow’s face looks a little different, but she has the same beautiful dark hair.

And then I realize that it’s a different show. I’d channel surfed at the commercial, before I got up.

When the exciting plot twist could fit any one of three prime-time dramas, aired at the same hour, Oh dear. Oh Hollywood, what have you done with the art of storytelling?