Sunday, March 30, 2008

From the Virginia Festival of the Book, In Honor of National Poetry Month

Anthologies are strange creatures. How do you decide the focus? How do you choose content? How do you secure rights to the materials? And how in the world do you get this work into print? Anthology editors offered perspective and insight into the craft of a collected work, and it was a delightful conversation in the University of Virginia Bookstore.

Nickole Brown, who works at Sarabande Books and is the editor of a number of anthologies, was very concise in the series of steps anthologizers must take. With Saraband, a non-profit publisher (which leads most poets to group all poetry publishers in that category), successful anthologies require much forethought, effort during the process and energy after the finished product hits the shelves.

Brown identified two different types of anthologies: theme-based or collective anthologies. “Each anthology presents its own set of issues,” she noted. She had done both, including a collection of her own poems. Choose a theme-based anthology cautiously she warned: “You think you like the topic, but by the end you might not, so you have to really, really like it.”

Her advice? “Create the anthology you can’t find.”

Gathering the materials is the next challenge. Soliciting poems is different than “open-call” submissions found in many writing magazines. Some editors have poets create pieces for specific anthologies, which sounds more like a slam-dunk than it is — anthologies take on lives of their own, and content or focus can change in the process.

Heather McHugh, editor of Best American Poetry 2007, said the selection process changed when she found “poems started making decisions for me.” Her idea of making "a book of poems I liked" evolved when poems “started with grabbing my ear like a grandmother in the Balkans, then grabbing my heart.”

The selection process also does something to the editor, she noted: “Your taste is corrupted or perverted by reading that much poetry.” Inundation alters a reader’s ability to read and pass judgment. However, that inundation also allows for exposure to incredible work and connects it to other excellent poems in a number of ways: style, sound, theme, title andmore.

What happens to the poet contracted for a poem that winds up not making the anthology? This kind of thing enters into academia when publishers want outrageous prices for printing excerpts in scholarly essays, McHugh said. Authors “can’t afford to buy the permission,” she said, “so they don’t read closely and quote” extensively or thoroughly. This skimming affects scholarship, she noted.

Technology limits bad poetry and affords the inexpensive publishing of good poetry, the panel agreed. “Quality and the making of print books self-limits bad poems,” Brown noted.

McHugh agreed, noting, “I think there are too many poems, but I’ve been teaching for 35 years.” She also pointed out, “There’s great stuff online and not in print. The Web allows for flexibility and exposure.”

I enjoy thumbing through anthologies of many different types of literature — poetry, stories about time travel or horror, horror stories, essays, even Chicken Soup collections from time to time — and I’ve often wondered how they got that way. This panel presented some interesting information on the challenges and rewards of gathering materials for anthologies.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Happy Birthday, Robert Frost!

In honor of this great American poet's birthday, I will share two of his poems: one he wrote for the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, and the one he actually read that day.

Frost wrote a new poem for the new president. However, the sun was reflecting too brightly on the snowy ground of the Capitol for the elderly poet to read the poem, so he instead read a poem he wrote nearly 20 years before.

This was his poem for the new president:

Summoning artists to participate
In the august occasions of the state
Seems something artists ought to celebrate.
Today is for my cause a day of days.
And his be poetry's old-fashioned praise
Who was the first to think of such a thing.
This verse that in acknowledgement I bring
Goes back to the beginning of the end
Of what had been for centuries the trend;
A turning point in modern history.
Colonial had been the thing to be
As long as the great issue was to see
What country'd be the one to dominate
By character, by tongue, by native trait,
The new world Christopher Columbus found.
The French, the Spanish, and the Dutch were downed
And counted out. Heroic deeds were done.
Elizabeth the First and England won.
Now came on a new order of the ages
That in the Latin of our founding sages
(Is it not written on the dollar bill
We carry in our purse and pocket still?)
God nodded his approval of as good.
So much those heroes knew and understood,
I mean the great four, Washington,
John Adams, Jefferson, and Madison
So much they saw as consecrated seers
They must have seen ahead what not appears,
They would bring empires down about our ears
And by the example of our Declaration
Make everybody want to be a nation.
And this is no aristocratic joke
At the expense of negligible folk.
We see how seriously the races swarm
In their attempts at sovereignty and form.
They are our wards we think to some extent
For the time being and with their consent,
To teach them how Democracy is meant.
"New order of the ages" did they say?
If it looks none too orderly today,
'Tis a confusion it was ours to start
So in it have to take courageous part.
No one of honest feeling would approve
A ruler who pretended not to love
A turbulence he had the better of.
Everyone knows the glory of the twain
Who gave America the aeroplane
To ride the whirlwind and the hurricane.
Some poor fool has been saying in his heart
Glory is out of date in life and art.
Our venture in revolution and outlawry
Has justified itself in freedom's story
Right down to now in glory upon glory.
Come fresh from an election like the last,
The greatest vote a people ever cast,
So close yet sure to be abided by,
It is no miracle our mood is high.
Courage is in the air in bracing whiffs
Better than all the stalemate an's and ifs.
There was the book of profile tales declaring
For the emboldened politicians daring
To break with followers when in the wrong,
A healthy independence of the throng,
A democratic form of right devine
To rule first answerable to high design.
There is a call to life a little sterner,
And braver for the earner, learner, yearner.
Less criticism of the field and court
And more preoccupation with the sport.
It makes the prophet in us all presage
The glory of a next Augustan age
Of a power leading from its strength and pride,
Of young amibition eager to be tried,
Firm in our free beliefs without dismay,
In any game the nations want to play.
A golden age of poetry and power
Of which this noonday's the beginning hour.
(Courtesy of the St. Lawrence University Archives, with thanks to PBS)

This was the poem he actually read, originally published in 1945:

The Gift Outright
The land was ours before we were the land's.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England's, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.
(Courtesy of Rice University)

National Poetry Month begins in mere days! Get ready to pooooooeeeeeem!

Monday, March 24, 2008

Bumper Stickers and Ketchup

A friend told me years ago about her experience with personal expression on a Los Angeles freeway. She was driving along, minding her own business, when she saw it: The Bumper Sticker Against Something (In Which She Strongly Believed).

This bumper sticker was, in her mind, obnoxious and infuriating. She actually followed the driver for a while, trying to figure out why this bumper sticker was on the car, who was driving it and why he or she would have something so infuriating on the car bumper.

The desire to know more was short-lived and, after a couple of minutes, she turned off on the next exit and continued on her way.

That story stuck with me. My friend was a reasonable person, but that slogan miffed her enough to make her react. A few years later, when people were shooting each other on the California freeway system, I didn't really need to know why. My friend enlightened me years before.

As a result, I told myself I would not put bumper stickers on my car. I'm not a huge slogan kinda person anyway, and most of what I believe can't be summarized in a pithy catchphrase on a strip of paper. I have to admit, though, if I did put a bumper sticker on my car, it would be the one that reads:
Do not meddle in the affairs of dragons,
for you are crunchy and taste good with ketchup.

I am not for bumper stickers because they, for the most part, seem to be against a notion or practice. Very seldom do I actually find a clever bumper sticker that is not anti-something (with the exception of the clever ditty above).

Most of the ones I've seen lately are religion-based and against something the driver's god apparently abhors — which amuses me because from all I've read, few deities demonstrate that level of brevity. For example, the Hebrew god took 10 commandments to flesh out the basics of his philosophy. Most gods usually take a book to explain themselves. I doubt they'd be pleased by being reduced to a dozen words.

And those are the readable ones. Everyone else takes what I call the PowerPoint Approach: jam as much information on the darned slide — er, bumper sticker — as space permits. Is the lettering too small to read? Heck, the faithful or curious will find a way, and their lives will be changed. Mix that up with a few well-placed symbols that can mimic letters and bingo! Epiphany on the hoof.

The problem is, that never happens. I never met a soul who "saw the light" because they drove behind someone with such a bumper sticker. Add to that the irony of drivers sporting religious phrases containing words like "patience" and "love" who are cutting off other drivers, tailgating and running red lights. Let's hope the illegal driver is "forgiven" in traffic court as well.

That's the irony of the bumper sticker: drivers set themselves up for ridicule. We all have met drivers who need help from their "star" or honor roll student to read directional or traffic signs. Big red sign, four letters: S-T-O-P. Too tough? How about the arrow in a single direction? No need to even read letters. Ask your kid. At least someone in that family can read, and thank heavens for the bumper sticker to tell us that!

Finally, spin-offs on popular bumper stickers aren't any more amusing or enlightening than the original. I don't care whose kid can beat up whom and no one can figure out the letters that mimic European country codes (FX? MNT? OBX? BGDL!).

I try to not get riled by these things, but from time to time, I rant in my car. "Support the troops by bringing 'em home, Chucko! You know, chances are, you'll have that car long after you chose the wrong horse in that race. Oh, no, not another ribbon! I can't keep the colors straight anyway. Choosy mothers choose WHAT — oh, Jif, though I'm a Skippy gal. Where's a Sharpie when I need one?" Life and its trials and choices are too complex for a vehicle bumper.

Now, I do have a personalized license plate, which I suppose is not a lot different, really. License plates have fewer letters (and sometimes are more puzzling than interesting). I also happen to live in the midst of them, with more personalized plates per capita than, well, everyone else.

Unlike "educational" or "saving" bumper stickers, I chose my plate because it amused me. It amused quite a few other people, including one particular police officer at Cape May and at least a few other strangers who have felt compelled to chat me up about it as we stood in line at the post office or the bagel shop. How people interpret it is far more amusing than the plate itself, really.

However, I am waiting for the person who feels compelled to "fix" me because they don't like my plate. And when it happens, I might just have to go incognito again (and confuse the poor soul behind me trying to figure out what "NTA 916" really means).

Aside from my fave quote listed above, the only other sticker I'd put on my car would read simply, "Live your politics. Don't wear them." The irony is that I couldn't put it on my car.

Life is complex. Eschew bumper stickers.

(By George, I think I've got it: a cool bumper sticker! Oh, the irony!)

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

It's All About Me — Or, At Least, It Should Be

Yesterday I remained stationary at a green light after other traffic began moving. I knew why, and it cheesed me: a driver in my lane decided the rules of the road didn't apply to her. As she edged her car's front end into oncoming traffic, hoping to create an opportunity for her illegal left turn, I marveled at her chutzpah.

After all, it's all about me.

Maybe when she got the memo, she misread it and thought it was all about her. Silly creature.

The two people going in the wrong direction on the one-way lane in the shopping center mere minutes later must not have gotten the memo at all. Instead of pulling back into the parking space to turn around and begin traveling in the legal direction, one driver insisted on nearly mating his car with mine. He had gray hair, dark eyes and made a polite gesture showing me the direction in which he was traveling. The other motorist thought driving her minivan over the painted "island" and into the other lane of oncoming traffic was sufficient response.

Don't get me wrong: I've been known from time to time to block an intersection quite by accident or, if Rachael is in the car, nearly go through a red light. (Conversation with Rachael is that riveting — though I'm sure she's going to insist on driving to lunch next time.) I make apologetic gestures to other drivers and over-correct myself at the next opportunity. However, since it's all about me, I am automatically forgiven.

Next, I need to make sure my place of employment gets the "All About Me" memo. It seems the Powers That Be think it's all about the customer. (What are they thinking?) Then the local Noodles & Co., followed by the DMV. By the time I need to renew my driver's license, the new "Chris-Friendly" policy should be in place. David says it's already all about me. Now we just have to get the word out.

Don't waste money or energy on applause signs or spotlights. Simply following the rules is enough: wait your turn, follow the rules, obey traffic signs and signals, clean up after yourself and be civil.

Hey, it's not too outrageous. If so many other people seem to think the world is their oyster, shouldn't it be my turn soon for a vegetarian version of that shellfish?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Poem in Your Pocket from

April is National Poetry Month, and I'm sure you're perusing your tomes for those special poems to share with me and the other poetry lovers in your life.

Well, don't forget the great resources on the Web — including, which has just launched Poem in Your Pocket. Not only can you carry a single poem (like the one you have stored in your wallet right now) (wait, that's me!), but also can sign up for Poem-a-Day to receive a poem daily by e-mail.

For those with BlackBerrys or iPhones, that literally is a poem in your pocket.

Thank you to Rob for sharing this news flash with me. His poem would be The Who song "In My Head." (Yes, lyrics count; think "Frankie and Johnny.")

To whet your appetite, enjoy this poem -- it makes me happy -- and a bonus haiku below.

Words from the Front

We don’t look as young
as we used to
except in the dim light
especially in
the soft warmth of candlelight
when we say
in all sincerity
You’re so cute
You’re my cutie.
two old people
behaving like this.
It’s enough
to make you happy.

by Ron Padgett
From How to Be Perfect © 2007

and a bonus haiku....

the morning paper
harbinger of good and ill
- - I step over it

by Mike McCroskey

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Who's Paying? And How?

I have a couple of friends who are looking at colleges they might like to attend. They and their parents have been looking at all of the options, and I consider their mother Carole one of the best-read and best-researched people on the subject.

So when I read "Brown Ends Tuition for Lower-Income Students," (New York Times, February 25, 2008) I wasn't sure whether to choke or cheer. So I called Carole instead.

This might have been my first exposure to tuition waiver, but it wasn't hers. She said parents find many schools offering more financing options. Brown, for example, is waiving the $37,000 annual tuition for students whose parents make $60,000 or less.

Harvard waives tuition for students whose parents make $60,000 or less and charges only a percentage of tuition to those whose parents make between $120,000 and $180,000 a year. (No word on waiting room and board cost of about $11,000 a year.)

I'm thrilled, and it makes me want to enroll at Harvard. Actually, Georgetown has a fabulous-sounding Ph.D. program in English literature, but because tuition would have cost twice the purchase price of my car -- per year-- I didn't apply.

As fabulous as that sounds, I began to wonder how schools could do that. How do schools fund the financing packages, grants, scholarships and other funding options for low-income students?

Maybe it's the endowments and other fundraising ("Wealth Gap Growing Bigger Among American Colleges," New York Times, February 20, 2008). Nope, Congress is trying to make the universities spend those funds. If Harvard could collect $614 million in a single year, maybe the university could afford to pay tuition for the deserving poor.

Of course, if enough people actually pay $37,000 to attend Brown or $45,000 to attend Harvard, I suppose the "paying" students could fund their fellow students' tuition.

I attended community colleges and state universities, none of which offer tuition absolution. (Of course, with these schools receiving less in funding from the state in every passing year, how could they?)

College is becoming a luxury for far too many people -- a luxury students and their families cannot afford to pass up. By the time I finished graduate school, the cost of in-state tuition was the same as it would have been for out-of-state tuition only five years before (and I took five years because I paid as I went and assume a couple of student loans).

There are too many horror stories of people going tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt for their college educations. These are not the wealthy who assumed student loans for "beer money." Now, with the credit "crisis," many financial institutions are not loaning to students ("Creidt Cirsis May Make College Loans More Costly," The Washington Post, March 3, 2008).

Unless you're one of the few Ivy Leaguers whose tuition is gratis, college may be moving out of reach. How in the world can we fix such a system?

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Read Across America!

In celebration of Read Across America, one of my local elementary schools held a Reading Day. For the second time since they launched this program, the school librarian asked me to read to a class. I was thrilled and immediately told her I would.

A couple of years ago, I read Hooway for Wodney Wat, one of my favorite books at the time. (It still is, but lately I've fallen in love with Olivia. Can you blame me?) The kids loved it and we talked about reading, bullies, rats and more.

This year, I let the librarian choose the book for me -- and I am glad I did. This year's book was new to me: Henry's Freedom Box. It is a true story about Henry "Box" Brown, who mailed himself to freedom after his wife and children were sold by his wife's owner. It was a fabulous book with great illustrations.

Lately, I have felt very personally the ravages of slavery. When I read about people being "owned" or "sold," I flinch. The horrific implications of slavery became very real to me when I realized the terrible limitations Phillis Wheatley experienced. This incredible poet and very intelligent woman was owned by other human beings. She was taught to read and write almost as an experiment. Otherwise, this woman would have been invisible. Slaves had no identity. They were property. The idea makes me reel in shock every time the reality of it settles into my mind.

And so I read this book to a roomful of fourth graders. At one point, as Henry watched his wife and children disappear down the road, I wanted to cry. I looked into the cluster of children at my feet and was thrilled that none of us experienced that horror and hoped none would feel that kind of pain.

The story was poignant, the illustrations beautiful and the book a wonderful read. We talked about the Underground Railroad, which they were studying, and Harriet Tubman. I enjoyed myself and I hope the children did, too.

I knew the all loved to read because I asked. Every child's hand shot up when I asked who loved to read. Their hands shot up in the air again when I asked who was reading a book that day. They loved the library (both school and private) and planned to visit soon.

Just the night before, my 3-year-old godson Conor and I read a couple of books together. He's learning words and letters, and I'm looking forward to that "light bulb moment" when he realizes the letters spell words on the page. I remember when I experienced that moment. It was a beautiful thing and everyone deserves it.

So celebrate reading and Dr. Seuss, and Read Across America, people!