Werd Recommends: POET LORE Magazine

This summer, I was lucky enough to work for Poet Lore as an intern with the official title of Editorial Assistant (you can imagine how werdily excited I was!).  However, I would not write this recommendation if I did not wholeheartedly love the magazine and its staff, who are kind, generous, and completely dedicated to their work and to the poets they publish.Image

Poet Lore is the longest-running poetry magazine in the country.  It was started in 1889 by Charlotte Porter and Helen A. Clarke, partners in life as well as work–which means that the magazine will be celebrating its 125th year in 2014!  The magazine began with a focus on Shakespeare, and particularly Browning.  As the website says, they

soon opened their pages to new world writers—featuring more drama than poetry at first, and moving, over time, beyond North America and Europe to Asia, South America, and the Middle East. They published many of the great poets and playwrights of their era, often presenting them in English to American readers who’d never heard their names.  

Those names include Tagore, Gorky, Mistral, Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov.  For more about the history of the magazine, click here.    

Today, the magazine is published by The Writers Center in Bethesda.  Although it looks very different from when it began, Poet Lore still publishes both well-known poets and new writers, taking pride in often discovering new poets–even publishing some of Natasha Trethewey’s early work.  The magazine comes out twice yearly, containing works by around 80 poets between its glossy covers.  In addition, Poet Lore contributes to the greater Washington D.C. community by hosting readings.  My first job was to assist with a reading at the Turkish Embassy.

To learn more about the magazine, the poets it publishes, and to read re-publications of poems that first appeared in the magazine, be sure to check out and “like” the magazine’s Facebook page!  

WHY YOU SHOULD SUBSCRIBE TODAY!

Poet Lore appeals to a broad range of readers.  The poetry it publishes is primarily lyrical, finely crafted, and accessible, carefully arranged to follow a loose thematic arc that skillfully draws the reader through the pages.  Features include translations and work by up-and-coming poets chosen and introduced by well-established poets (I’m very excited about the one coming up!).  Each issue also includes essays and book reviews.  Subscriptions make fantastic gifts for werds–I have already bought one for a friend!    

 

Beasts and Butterflies : Werd’s Review of “The Wolverine” (2013)

Warning: this post contains spoilers

ImageLet’s get straight to the point:  “The Wolverine” is a basic action flick, complete with predictable plot, banal one-liners, and boring and predictable love story.  It starts off pretty strong–I was enjoying myself there for a while!–but takes a turn about halfway through and never recovers, to the point where I caught myself rolling my eyes multiple times towards the end.  Oh, and it’s full of racial stereotypes.

The movie is set primarily in Japan.  Wolverine, living alone in the woods somewhere in the American northwest, plagued by nightmares and memories, is summoned to that country to say goodbye to Yashida, whose life he saved during the bombing of Nagasaki.  Once there, Wolverine becomes embroiled in Yashida’s family drama.  He fights gang members, ninjas, and a blonde mutant named Viper, who slinks around in shiny, skin-tight clothing and impossibly high heels.

Along the way, Asian men in the movie are portrayed as the weaklings and/or the villains, who either must be protected by the virile White Male Hetero American Hero or vanquished by him.  The villains wield guns, swords, bows-and-arrows, or robots, while all Wolverine needs is his muscular, half-naked, (albeit scientifically enhanced) body.

Wolverine easily wins the love of the beautiful, delicate butterfly Mariko, whom he decides to protect without knowing the slightest thing about her.  She, in turn, falls for him mostly because of stories her grandfather, Yashida, used to tell her of how Wolverine was going to protect her one day (anyone else find this incredibly creepy?).  Thankfully for Wolverine, Mariko’s as innocent, sweet, and harmless as she appears—and besides that, she’s sexually available and a great cook.  Mariko has agreed to an arranged marriage and tells Wolverine that he wouldn’t understand, because it’s “about honor” and “he’s not Japanese.”  Furthermore, Mariko really just serves to help Wolverine get over his dead love, Jean—she’s a re-bound and, in the end, not a lasting partner.

Mariko has two potential male Japanese romantic partners, but of course neither of them is suitable.  One, a childhood love, turns evil and then sacrifices himself for her, thus removing himself as a potential threat to her union with the White Male Hetero American Hero.   (Usually, as in “Madame Butterfly,” the Asian female love interest must sacrifice herself so that the WMHAH can return to America and be with his “proper,” white, female partner).  The other, Mariko’s fiancé , obsessed with money and power, portrays the stereotype of the overly sexualized, lascivious Asian male, playing around with prostitutes.

The one saving grace for me was the kick-arse Yukio, the mutant sent to bring Wolverine to Japan.  With her bright red hair, punk style, and skill at fighting with swords and staves, she is actually pretty effective (of course, she’s not as effective as the WMHAH).  And she makes a pretty awesome entrance.  Still, she’s basically a side-kick to both Wolverine and the “true” female protagonist, Mariko—Yukio was adopted into the family and is constantly reminded that she should be grateful, that she’s not really one of them.

I’m not sure how much of this movie comes from the original comic books, but honestly, I don’t really care.  Plots and characters can be updated.  Instead, this movie is stuck in the past, reproducing the same stale stereotypes that have been staples of Western movies for ages–the same staples that led someone close to me (who happens to be Asian-American) recently to say “These days, I basically don’t want to see Asians in American movies, because I can guarantee they’re going to die first, or be the villain, or be the comic relief.”  It’s high time we have the Jeremy Lin of American film.

WERD RECOMMENDS INSTEAD

If you want a good action film with a strong female character, less of a silly, clichéd love story, and with more giant robots and interesting twists, go see “Pacific Rim.” That movie also features a Japanese female protagonist and a WMHAH—but they, at least, are (mostly) equals.

THE CUCKOO’S CALLING My Name: A Review of J.K. Rowlings’s Latest Novel

I love me a British mystery, in novel or on film.  I also love me some J.K. Rowlings.  So I obviously couldn’t resist a British mystery novel written by J.K. Rowlings—particularly a novel that has itself been involved in a wee mystery of its own.  (As a side note, a friend pointed out to me that Ken Jennings successfully guessed that one of Rowlings’s first novels for adults would be a mystery).  Image

The book is called The Cuckoo’s Calling, and it received great reviews but poor sales before its true author was revealed.  According to this article, Rowlings published the book under the name of Robert Galbraith, a supposed ex-British military police officer.  A leaked tweet, some sleuthing, and an analysis by two computer linguistic experts and Rowlings’s cover was blown, port-keying the book to the best-seller list.  I downloaded it to my Kindle and read all 449 pages within 24 hours.

Honestly, one doesn’t need to be a computer linguistic expert to realize that Rowlings must be the author.  So many of the things I love about Rowlings—her sense of humor, her delight in creating quirky, Dickens-esque characters with wacky names, and her well-paced, energetic storytelling all come out in this book.  For instance, this description, from Chapter 5, is right out of HP:

Mrs. Hook, divested of orange coat and purple beret, and wearing what looked like a flowery pottery smock over jeans, had thrown herself on Strike’s chest and was punching it, all the while making a noise like boiling kettle.  On and on the one-note scream went, until it seemed that she must draw breath or suffocate.  (page 80)

Do I think the novel will still be famous in a century?  Nope.  But dear me, what fun.

The novel follows temporary secretary Robin as she assists ex-British military police officer-turned private detective (and the illegitimate son to a 70’s rock musician) Cormoran Strike in investigating the supposed suicide of supermodel Lula Landry.  Along the way, we learn all about Strike’s sordid upbringing and tortured relationship with the beautiful Charlotte.  We also delve into the tortuous connections between Lula’s supermodel and designer friends and her wealthy family of bankers.  Suspense, violence, and lots of paparazzi later, we have a satisfying (if perhaps not so surprising) ending.

You can tell that Rowling takes much of her descriptions of the rich and famous and their encounters with paparazzi from her own rise to stardom.  She moves easily from descriptions of Strike’s and other characters’ coping with utter poverty to deliciously scathing portraits of “plastic,” “well-bred,” gold-digging women to surprisingly sympathetic portrayals of designers and super models.  She manages to present accents believingly without being distracting, along with her natural dialogue and keen descriptions of locations and people.

In this passage, Rowlings describes an encounter with paparazzi:

Kolovas-Jones seemed to take an unconscionable amount of time to return to the car; Strike felt as though the Mercedes’ interior was a test tube, simultaneously enclosed and exposed as more and more flashes fired.  Lenses were pressed to the windows and windscreen; unfriendly faces floated in the darkness, and black figures darted back and forth in front of the stationary car.  Beyond the explosions of light, the shadowy crowd-queue surged, curious and excited. (p. 331)

One thing does bother me about the novel—and it’s a fairly large thing.  It makes sense for Rowlings to take a male pseudonym when writing a book about a male protagonist, and she has a history of masculinizing her name in order to sell her work (the reason, after all, that she goes by J.K. and not Joanne).  But couldn’t she focus on a strong female protagonist for once (and not, like Tonks or Hermione, as a side-kick)?  I know that male protagonists seem to reach a wider audience, gender-wise, as males are usually seen as the “neutral” gender in literature, with female protagonists being seen as solely for female readers.  But surely Rowlings is famous enough that she doesn’t need to worry about that to sell a book?  Surely she’d want to contribute to changing this perception?

The book is written in third person limited omniscient, following both Robin’s and Strike’s actions and thoughts.  And yet we find out so little about the prim blonde side-kick Robin (who is referred to by first name, while Strike is referred to by last) besides her excitement over her engagement to her rather judgmental finance and her obsession with her sparkly ring.  Her “practical” shoes for running all over London are kitten heels.  In one scene, Robin manages to glean some information by chatting with shop girls in a super fancy London boutique.  All of the other women in the novel are either flawlessly beautiful (and therefore air-headed and/or lying and manipulative) or extremely plain (and otherwise uninteresting or sympathetic).

I suspect that Rowlings wrote herself into the book as Robin, and that’s why she’s not as fleshed-out.  She’s the observer, the recorder, there to highlight the actions of the true protagonist, Strike.  But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t bother me that such a strong, intelligent woman failed to include an equally strong, intelligent female character in her novel.

Still, this one is worth a read.

–werd

P.S. For a depressing article about what Rowlings’s publishing stunt says about the publishing industry, click here.

UPDATE!  According to the NY Times, the tweet identifying Rowlings was not, in fact, a publicity stunt!

Werd’s Stupendous Summer Reading Recommendations

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Image from wikimedia.org

If you ask me what I’m reading this summer, I’ll tell you that I’m working my way through the fifth book of Game of Thrones.  If you ask me what you should read this summer (as multiple people have), I’ll probably tell you to go read Game of Thrones (I might be just a wee bit obsessed).  Ask me again, and I’ll tell you to read one of the books in the list below.  Now leave me alone and let me read, you young whippersnapper!

All of these books feature the intertwining of national and personal histories, the exploration of the act of story-telling and the creation of history, and non-linear structures that play with depictions and conceptions of time.  All of them are long and quite involved.  And all of them will punch you in the gut and leave you sprawled out, stunned by the intellectual and creative capacities of their authors, by the depths of their hearts and their wisdom.

1.  Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides.  This novel, which was published in 2002 and won the Pulitzer Prize, follows three generations of protagonist Cal Stephanides’s family history.  Cal’s grandparents move from Greece to Detroit, and Eugenides waxes poetic about the history of Greece and of his hometown.  The novel also explores the nature of love and physical relationships, and especially gender identity.  Eugenide’s prose is so brilliant and gorgeous, you’ll want to live in it forever.

2.  Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau.  In this novel, according to its back cover, “Chamoiseau produces nothing less than a mythic history of the Creole nation that arose from the forced marriage of French and African peoples in his native Martinique.”  Again, the novel, which is a major work from the Créolité movement in Martinique, focuses on multiple generations of the same family, up to Marie-Sophie Laborieux, the founder of the shantytown named Texaco.  The novel is rich with colors, sights, and smells, and it moves fluidly from speaker to speaker and back and forth between time periods.  Gorgeous–but you best have your wits about ye to keep up with this one.

3.  The Memory of Love, by Aminatta Forna.  This novel won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best Fiction and was a finalist for the Orange Prize for Fiction.  The Memory of Love is set in the aftermath of the civil war in Sierra Leone, as a young British psychologist and a local  surgeon learn the story of an older man who lived through the country’s early post-colonial years.  Yet, amid so much loss, the novel pivots around love in many forms.  Beautiful, wise, and heartbreaking.

4.  Jazz, by Toni Morrison.  One of my favorite books ever.  Pulitzer- and Nobel Prize-winning Morrison structures the novel as a jazz song, with a few main characters providing the underlying melody, each playing solo “riffs”.  Jazz music winds its way through the narrative as well, as the main protagonists and central story line occurs in Harlem in the 1920s, although the novel ranges back as far as the mid-18th century.  The gorgeously written story winds around and back on itself and ends with a twist.  Read it!

5.  The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obrecht.  In this winner of the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction, Obrecht weaves fantastical tales about a tiger and a “deathless man” through her story about Natalia, a doctor in an unnamed Balkan country, and her beloved grandfather, who has recently passed away.  Like many of the above novels, The Tiger’s Wife deals with themes of death and the aftermath of war (in this case, in the Balkans), and also of love and of knowing and healing through stories.  Although Obrecht was only 25 when the book was published, her writing displays sensitivity, elegance, and depth beyond her years.

What are you reading this summer?

The Start of a Werdy Summer

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Image from teens.icpl.org

Why hello, dear werds! It’s been far too long.  Much has happened in werdland since last I wrote.  For one, I have completed my first year as a Masters student in literature.  That’s right–I’m back for the summer and even werdier than ever!  

STARTING THE SUMMER WITH SHOUT-OUTS

My werdy friends are also achieving fabulous things, so I’m going to take a moment to brag about them.  Take a gander at their fun and thoughtful work!    

My friend Becky has created the wildly successful blog, “Diamonds in the Library.”  If you like books AND super sparkly bling, you will absolutely want to check it out (and follow her on Twitter, Pinterest, and Book Riot).  

A friend from High School, Joy Givens, has written an excellent young adult novel entitled Ugly Stick, available on Amazon.

For those of you who love Victorian literature, delicious recipes, and classic movies, a compatriot of mine in my Masters program writes a great blog entitled “Southern Bluestocking.”  

Finally, my friend Catherine has been working on a fantastic series about sexual violence in Christian communities for Sojourners online.  Absolutely worth a read.  

COMING SOON TO A BLOG NEAR YOU

This summer, werd will be bringing you more book, movie, and poetry reviews, information about literary events, interviews, guest posts, and more!  Questions, suggestions, and requests for posts are welcome.   

Happy werding!  

Werd Recommends: Songs from Yeats’ Bee-Loud Glade

Happy New Year, dear werds!  I hope you have had the best of times since I last wrote (without the accompanying worst of times).

Image from hearthmusic.com

I’m kicking off another year of blogging with a long overdue post.  Et voila…

Here’s the thing.  I’m not a huge fan of Yeats (with the exception of “When You Are Old” and “Adam’s Curse“).  A long time chorister, I have also sung a number of poems and verse set to music (notably Frost and Shakespeare), and I must say that I very rarely enjoy musical settings of poems, either.  However, I do like free swag, and so when Zach Hudson, author of the lovely blog New Poetry Review, contacted me with an offer of a free CD of Yeat’s poems set to music, I may have squealed a little with glee.  Free swag because of my silly little blog?  Yes, please!

For some reason, I had the idea that the CD would entail a man with a deep voice reading the poetry over a score of melodramatic string music.  To my delight, I discovered that the CD instead consists of songwriter Kyle Alden singing in his slightly rough baritone, accompanied by his guitar, with Athena Tergis on fiddle and vocals and Mike Marshall on mandolin, in a mixture of folk, traditional Irish, and bluegrass sounds.  The instrumentation is clear, resonant, and lovely.  As he says in his introduction to the CD, Alden became inspired to set Yeats’s poems to music after visiting Coole Park and Thoor Ballylee while touring western Ireland with the traditional Irish band “The Gas Men.”  So he knows a bit about Ireland and its music.

RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN LYRICS AND MUSIC

For the most part, Alden picked some of Yeats’s shorter, more accessible, and “lighter” poems–poems that lend themselves well to musical arrangement, such as “Colonel Martin” which already reads like a folk ballad, due to its chorus at the end of every stanza (“The Colonel went out sailing”) and its meter.

Alden alters Yeats’s words in a few songs by repeating lines as a chorus, and adds a stanza to “The Cloak, The Boat, and The Shoes” to better round out the song.  In some songs, the phrasing is a bit awkward, as I find is often the case with poetry used as lyrics when it was not originally intended for such use.  He struggles with the last few lines of both stanzas of “The Well and the Tree,” for example.

My least favorite song on the CD is “The Valley of the Black Pig.”  The poem itself is contemplative and prayerful.  The music Alden sings to accompany it is upbeat, with a rocking rhythm.  He uses the title of the poem as a chorus, repeating it over and over in order to lengthen the two-stanza, eight-line poem.  I found a note Yeats wrote about the poem on the Norton Anthology of English Poetry online, which says, “All over Ireland there are prophecies of the coming rout of the enemies of Ireland, in a certain Valley of the Black Pig, and these prophecies are, no doubt…a political force.”  Later in the note, he says:

If one reads Rhys’ Celtic Heathendom by the light of Frazer’s Golden Bough, and puts together what one finds there about the boar that killed Diarmuid, and other old Celtic boars and sows, one sees that the battle is mythological, and that the Pig it is named from must be a type of cold and winter doing battle with the summer, or of death battling with life.

 So the poem itself, coming from Yeats’s obsession with mythology, is about a rather weighty subject and deserves more subtle treatment.

My favorite song is the first of the album: “Brown Penny.”  It has one of Alden’s best tunes, with some lovely harmonies.  The lyrics lend themselves well to song, as the third and fourth lines of the second stanza repeat in the fourth stanza and also contain repetition.  Alden then repeats the last words of the fourth line to resolve it: “Ah penny, brown penny, brown penny/ I am looped in the loops of her hair/ [The loops of her hair].”  Athena Tergis’s fiddle is a lovely vehicle for such a wistful poem.

SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION

If you like bluegrass, Irish music, and/or Yeats, I recommend this album.  Thank you to Zach Hudson and Kyle Alden for giving me the opportunity to review it!

You can buy the album here.

More about Yeats here.

Standing on the Rump of the English Canon: Paula Meehan and Theo Dorgan at the Folger Shakespeare Library

It’s fall again, dear Werds, and that means one very exciting thing–the O.B. Hardison poetry series at the Folger Shakespeare Library has started up again!  The series began on September 19th with a dual reading by Irish poets Paula Meehan, from Dublin, and Theo Dorgan, from Cork.

I did not attempt to take notes during this reading, deciding instead to let the evening wash over me and then frantically scribble away in my notebook on the metro.  And wash over me it did; the reading was a delightful example of the power of poetry when read aloud.

Paula Meehan read first.  A tiny woman with short grey hair, she charmed the audience immediately with jokes and smiles.  She seemed confident and comfortable, and spoke clearly and articulated well.  And then she launched into her reading, with the rhythm, energy, and skillful pitch variation of a bodhrán player.  It was mesmerizing.  She seemed awed to be reading in a place so infused with history, the vaults stories below us full of some of the English-speaking world’s most precious manuscripts.  It’s like standing, she said “on the rump of the English canon.”  Accordingly, she read several sonnets.

Theo Dorgan was much more subdued, but also very comfortable on the stage.  It felt as if we were all meeting in a pub to have a nice chat about poetry.  He had a deep and raspy voice, and tended to go off on somewhat crotchety tangents about the destruction of the environment and, like a true Corkian, about the fight for independence from Britain.  Also like a true Corkian, he tended to mumble.

Both poets are very much Irish poets, even Dorgan, who uses a lot of ancient Greek literature and mythology in his work.  Both poets emphasized their belonging to the history and land of Ireland, and their sense of commitment to it and to the environment in general.  Meehan’s “Death of a Field,” the first poem in her book Painting Rain, is a perfect example of her themes of the environment, land, history, and culture of Ireland.  Dorgan’s first poem in his book What this Earth Cost Us, “Night Over the Mountain and the City,” merges a place and a person–descriptions of a landscape with remembrances of someone lost:  “Here where she laughed in the face of the wind/ not a rabbit darts, not a cloud rolls along the ridge” (lines 5-6).

After reading, the two took part in a short round-table discussion with Joseph M. Hassett, Folger Poetry Board member and author of W.B. Yeats and the Muses.  The two poets were again lively and intelligent and articulate; I could have listened to them talk all night about history, memory, the environment, and poetry.

One of the audience members, who grew up in Cork, asked the two poets what they thought about the practice in Irish education of making students memorize and recite poetry in class.  This practice, he said, made him and many of his classmates hate poetry for years.  While the two poets agreed that this is a common result, they both also agreed that if you look at memorizing poetry as “learning by heart,” rather than “learning by rote,” it can be a very powerful tool.  Once you have internalized the meters and rhymes and images, Meehan said, you can call them up and use them in your own writing.   There are poems, words, and phrases, she said, that become loadstones in our lives.  The best poetry, when we take it in, becomes part of us.

As one must at the Folger, Mr. Hassett asked the two poets what they thought of the “State of Poetry Today” and whether or not they were concerned about poetry going out of print, and about “Young Peoples’” supposed lack of interest in poetry.  If I hadn’t already been in love with the two, their answers would have done it.  Dorgan, the rebellious type, scoffed at the question.  “When we were younger, we were the ‘kids these days’ the adults were worrying about,” he said in his lovely Cork mumble.  “Kids these days” (I’m paraphrasing) “are going to be just fine.  They care.  You can tell that they care–about the environment, about politics…they’re all very wrapped up in it.  They’re going to be fine.”  Paula nodded and said (again, paraphrasing) “I think young people are very much engaged in poetry.  Maybe they’re moving away from print, but if you look at YouTube even, they’re uploading videos of their spoken [slam] poetry. They’re actually moving back towards the origin of poetry as a spoken form shared communally, back when poets were the keepers of history, memory, and culture.  Besides,” she said, “poetry is an integral part of human society and has been for thousands of years.  We [poets] are ineradicable!”

I bought two of Meehan’s books and one of Dorgan’s and managed to make it towards the head of the line for signing.  Dorgan was delighted when I told him I studied abroad in Cork, and signed my book “For a Brog survivor…It’s up to you now,” in reference both to my membership of that generation of “Young People” who care and also to the amount of time I spent in a terrible student bar in Cork–an act of which he, of course, approved.

In reading through a little of the two poets’ work on the page, my suspicions were confirmed.  I don’t find their poetry particularly compelling in print, although Meehan’s is a bit more so.  I do find them personal, dear, and full of heart, especially Dorgan’s.  But both poets’ work comes alive when read out loud and shared with others.  Meehan especially brings out and emphasizes rhythms, music, and humor in her poetry that is otherwise quite subtle.  These are poets of place and community and sharing, and I was honored to be invited into that community for an evening.