Vittoria Colonna: A Renaissance Woman

Never heard of her, you say? Well, she was born a long time ago, in 1490, engaged at the age of three to a Spaniard, Fernando Francesco d’Ávalos, and married to him at age 15. They had no children and she saw little of him during their marriage, as he was off fighting for the Holy Roman Emperor. He died when she was 35.

Now a widow, with her parents also dead, Vittoria was her own boss, and she became the first woman poet published in Italy. At first she wrote love sonnets to her husband. It seems she adored him—who conspicuously did not love her—more after his death than during life. She wanted to become a nun, but Pope Clement refused—needing her to control the whims of her troublesome brother. Because of her wealthy background, she knew all the important people of her age.

Vittoria was a friend of the intellectual Marguerite de Navarre, became perhaps the closest friend of Michelangelo and fell into platonic love with Cardinal Pole, another neglected Renaissance character. Reginald Pole was an Englishman, exiled by Henry VIII because he opposed The Divorce. Pole was only two votes away from becoming Pope  in the mid-1500s and became the last Roman Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury after Henry’s death.

Vittoria’s later poems were devotional, not romantic, and it’s ironic that Michelangelo, also a skilled poet, wrote love poems to her, while she did not write them to him. She died in 1547.

Her story was especially interesting because of a course I took last winter about the importance of the few highly educated women in the Renaissance and Enlightenment to the cultural lives of Italy and France, despite the strength of those patriarchical societies. They may not have had many rights, but they figured out a way to have influence. Vittoria herself inspired many women poets, who credited her with paving the way for them. The result was that, by 1599, Italy had 200 published women poets, compared to, say, England, with 12.

This is based on a presentation by Brandeis professor Ramie Targoff in Princeton last night. She’s the author of Renaissance Woman: The Life of Vittoria Colonna. Writing in the New York Times, author Sarah Dunant said, “What could have been the story of a religious good girl becomes instead the study of a passionate, complex woman with formidable poetic talents: someone who, while embedded in her own age, emerges as a thinker and seeker in tune with a modern audience.” Certainly the audience that heard her story last night in Princeton would agree.

Chrome and Steel Poetics

Ford Rouge plant, Dearborn

Last Saturday was Michigan Statehood Day, and to answer the kind of question my young daughter would ask, no, I was not around for those festivities back in 1837. A few days before the anniversary, I learned something new about my home state that is another cause for celebration.

Emily Temple at lithub compiled a state-by-state list of winners of America’s three major literary awards: the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Michigan, tenth in total population, ranked seventh in the list with 15 of these top prizes. New York was first, of course with 71, followed by California (29), Illinois (28), Pennsylvania (24), Massachusetts (20), and New Jersey (17), a function of population size and the location of the country’s cultural epicenters. New Jersey slips in by grasping the coattails of Manhattan and Philadelphia.

Detroit’s population peaked at 1.85 million in 1950, the year Detroit native Nelson Algren won the National Book Award for The Man with the Golden Arm. After that, the city’s population numbers went into a precipitous decline, coming to rest at 673,000 in 2017. Though the city’s prospects appear to be looking up lately, its downward economic spiral had statewide effects. Yet a dozen of the state’s literary awards occurred in the post-apogee.

We Michiganders can thank the poets for keeping our state in the award limelight, up to and including Jess Tyehimba, who won the 2017 Pulitzer for Olio. Poet Philip Levine is responsible for four of the awards, two for the same book, Ashes, and poet Theodore Roethke for three. Levine worked in the auto factories from the time he was 14 and was committed to giving a voice to the anonymous workers there—a Diego Rivera of words. Not all the poets are Detroiters, of course. Roethke’s work hearkened back to his childhood among Saginaw’s fruit orchards. One of my favorite poets, Marge Piercy, titled one of her poetry collections Made in Detroit, and a scrap of paper with an excerpt of  her “In praise of joe” flutters next to my computer (and coffee cup). She’s not on the list of prizewinners, but she auto be.

photo, top, the Ford Rouge plant, Wikimedia, creative commons license


Notes from the Dark Side

raven

Here’s news I like to hear from an anthology editor.

Wrote Lyn Worthen, “I am proud to announce that Quoth the Raven, which was recently named the Best Anthology of 2018 by the Critters Workshop/Preditors and Editors Annual Reader’s Poll, is now on the 2018 Bram Stoker Awards Preliminary Ballot.”

In Quoth the Raven, poets and short story authors tell a contemporary tale, riffing on the style and sensibility of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s “Berenice” inspired my story, “Tooth and Nail,” and now some of my family members hesitate to be in a room alone with me . . . Nevertheless.

Why Dark Fiction?

My fellow QtR author, Tiffany Michelle Brown interviewed several of the collection’s 32 authors on why they are attracted to dark fiction. “Why do you think we like to read about the things that terrify us?” she asked.

Emerian Rich, author of the story “My Annabel” says, “Horror addicts like to be scared in a safe, non-harmful way. Creep me out, test my limits, push me over the edge as long as in reality I am safe in my warm bed, able to switch on the light and see the monsters are just in my head.”

Can this predilection be traced to the fight or flight instincts developed over millennia? Susan McCAuley, author of “The Cask,” thinks so. Our world today is relatively safe, she says, and “going to scary movies, reading scary stories, and going on scary rides, helps fulfill a part of us that isn’t being used very often, at least in countries where all our major survival needs are met.”

Her theory may get some support from Donea Lee Weaver, author of “The Ca(t)sualty,” who admits that, for her, the attraction of dark fiction is “the adrenalin rush.” She says she may be covering her eyes, “but I’m still peeking through my fingers, because I just have to know what happens next.”

The stories that Sonora Taylor, author of “Hearts are Just ‘Likes’” says she’s most drawn to aren’t just about a dark force, but how someone’s responding to that darkness” and is possibly unhinged by it. Understandably, the Poe work that inspired her story was “The Tell-Tale Heart.”

My own answer to Tiffany’s question is that “sometimes reading about—exposing oneself to—supremely terrifying things makes it easier to deal with the fearful events encountered in everyday life. Some experts suggest this accounts for the popularity among women of a certain kind of thriller. Reading about sexual violence helps readers contemplate not just the terror of such an event, but also its survivability. Maybe.”

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Raven artwork by rebeccarawrr, creative commons license.

Be Very Scared . . .

raven

drawing, rebeccarawrr, creative commons license

Credited with inventing detective fiction and contributing to the popularity of the then-new genre of science fiction, Edgar Allan Poe was one of America’s earliest authors to devote energies to the short story—as he defined it, a composition that could be read in a single sitting. Yet, his heart’s desire was to be a poet. Had he not died so young—at age 40—he might have been a great one.

This year, around the 169th anniversary of Poe’s mysterious death in Baltimore, Camden Park Press published Quoth the Raven, an anthology of poems and stories inspired by Poe’s work and sensibility, reimagined for the twenty-first century. Lyn Worthen was the collection’s hard-working editor. One of the short story authors, Tiffany Michelle Brown, interviewed seven of the collection’s 32 authors about their inspiration.

Brown: Imagine you’re in an old-timey elevator, a rickety one that boasts a well-worn, rusty cage. There’s a man in all black in the elevator with you, and he asks what your poem or story is about. What do you tell him?

Poet Tony Kalouria said she was inspired by the notion that unsolicited, unwanted advice is “for the birds.” Menacing, nay-saying birds, the spawn of Poe’s Raven.

Story-writer Susan McCauley used “The Cask of Amontillado” to inspire her story of murder and revenge, whereas my story sprung from Poe’s “Berenice.” In it, a woman sees her twin brother as the other half of herself and will stop at nothing to keep him close. In “My Annabel,” Emerian Rice told the story of two surgeons caught in a pandemic and their fight to stay alive for one another, and Sonora Taylor propelled Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” into the maelstrom of social media with “Hearts are Just ‘Likes.’”

“Considering the rust on this rickety cage,” said Stephen R. Southard, “I’m not sure we’ll even make it to our floors.” His story sprang from Poe’s tale about a balloon trip to the moon, which, naturally, left many unanswered questions. Poe intended future installments, but never completed them. “Someone had to write the sequel, so I did.”

Brown: What’s a story or poem – by any author – that has truly creeped you out (in the best way possible, of course)?

  • The Exorcist — book and movie! “I was considering therapy for almost a week, I was so traumatized. And pea soup was definitely off-menu for a very long time” (Tony Kalouria). Frankenstein. “It’s terrifying and heart-breaking at the same time. And the way it plays with ideas of gods and monsters is really quite genius.” (Donea Lee Weaver)
  • Emerian Rich chose The Woman in Black by Susan Hill. “I read it after watching the movie because I just adored the film. The book has this underlying chill that scared me more.” He said the house (or the bog) seemed to mesmerize characters into doing strange things or paralyze their thought process in some insurmountable way.
  • The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, said Susan McCauley. “I first read it in my early twenties and had to sleep with the lights on for several nights.”
  • Sonora Taylor picked the short story “Shadder” by Neil Gaiman. “ I read it in bed (having learned nothing since reading Poe’s “Hop Frog” in bed years before). Even though it’s short, even though I knew it was fiction, even though I had all the lights on, and even though my bed is up against the wall, I still felt the urge to look behind me at the end.”
  • Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow, said Steven Southard. “It’s a re-telling, and update, of George Orwell’s 1984 and a chilling tale of how easy it may be to slip into totalitarianism.
  • My pick was The Silence of the Lambs, the first modern “thriller” I ever read. The scariest film would have to be Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. It was decades before I didn’t think of it when in the shower. Or the deeply disturbing ending of George Sluizer’s The Vanishing. Nightmares.

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****Quoth the Raven

raven

drawing, rebeccarawrr, creative commons license

Edgar Allan Poe, king of 19th century mystery and the gothic horror tales, is credited with inventing the modern detective story, wrote stories about inventions, science, and adventure, and, as people may remember him best, was a master of the macabre. The 169th anniversary of his own mysterious death in Baltimore was this month. To mark the occasion, Camden Park Press published a notable anthology of short stories and poems inspired by Poe’s works, reimagined for contemporary times.

Lyn Worthen edited the collection and—beyond amazing—the submissions were due August 30, and the book became available in early October! In her introduction, she says “I believe it is the evocative imagery he paints in sometimes hypnotic lines of pen and ink that have captured our imaginations; the sensations of fear, loathing, grief, and despair that have bound his characters to our souls. . . .those same elements that the authors in Quoth the Raven have so thoroughly captured.”

Just in time for Halloween ordering and reading, here are some of my favorites:

  • “My Love, in Pieces,” by Tiffany Michelle Brown, inspired by Poe’s “Berenice.” The experience of writing it, she says, was “both thrilling and terrifying.”
  • “Marcela,” by Penelope Paling. As in Poe’s “Liegeia,” Marcela is more than happy to continue the tradition of haunting her husband’s subsequent loves.
  • There’s “The Cask of Amontillado” and other diabolical death traps. Then there’s Hugh J. O’Donnell’s “The Montressor Method.”
  • If you’re an ailurophobic with a special horror of black cats, this volume will give you nightmares! Perhaps you should read “The Ca(t)sualty” by Donea Lee Weaver and “The Black, Long-Haired Domestic” by John Kiste in the daytime.
  • And Kenneth C. Goldman’s funny tale, “Get the Door for Me, Will You, Edgar?” about the trials of a high school English teacher. A more horrifying situation would be hard to come by.

My own story in the collection, “Tooth and Nail” also is inspired by “Berenice,” and concerns a young woman’s obsession with her twin brother. She’s developed a bad case of meth mouth and fixates on the blindingly white teeth of her brother’s new fiancée. No good comes of this. The villain of the tale is “the red-haired Wil Griswold,” a name and description inspired by Rufus Wilmot Griswold, who bore a grudge against Poe. After Poe’s death, Griswold wrote a scathing biography that started many of the rumors about the author’s depravity, drunkenness, and dissipation—which later scholarship proved to be false.
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American Writers Museum: Chicago

book coversOn the lookout for something new and interesting to do in Chicago? Try the American Writers Museum, the first U.S. museum devoted to authors. If you are a writer, you may find it’s a tangible uplift. It both celebrates American writers and shows their pervasive influence on “our history, our identity, and our daily lives.”

The museum is huge in heart, if not in size, and, unless you’re one of those people who must read every word of every exhibit (in which case you’d better set aside a day or two), you can probably explore it in under two hours. Although it doesn’t claim to be exhaustive, the museum nevertheless includes authors and works from throughout the nation’s literary history—poetry, song lyrics, speeches, drama, fiction, nonfiction, journalism,and more. The displays are well designed and captivating.

So many iconic American writers are associated with Chicago—from Studs Terkel to Nelson Algren to Gwendolyn Brooks, from Carl Sandburg to Sandra Cisneros—it’s fitting that there’s currently a special exhibition on the talent nurtured there, complemented by an exhibit of photographs by Art Shay of writers at work (and play).

When I visited, a school group was there, and it was amusing to hear the teacher explain the operation of a typewriter. “There’s this ribbon thing, see, and there’s ink on it . . . And then when that bell rings, you move the carriage back.” Numerous hands-on exhibits let museum-goers experiment and play with words. Poetry construction. Where words come from. Where writers come from.

You can vote for your favorite novel. To Kill a Mockingbird leads the list, followed by The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath. My guess is the “voters” feel less confident about 21st century books and fall back on what they studied in school. That process needs an infusion of more recent stellar work. I’d like to see Jennifer Egan’s Black Box there. Kids could relate to a novel in tweets.

The museum isn’t just about the already-written, though. It also has an extensive educational program, including the Write In Youth Education program for students in middle and high school. And series of panels gave good advice about craft and process for writers of any age.

The AWM, which opened only nine months ago, has been chosen in a USA Today Reader’s Choice poll as “Best Illinois Attraction” and by Fodor’s Travel as one of “the World’s 10 Best New Museums.” Find it at 180 N. Michigan Avenue, Second Floor, Chicago, IL 60601.

Paterson

Paterson, Adam DriverOppressed (or freaked out) by the news? Here’s a calming and rewarding way to spend two hours in a movie theater cocoon. Writer/director Jim Jarmusch’s movie Paterson (trailer) doesn’t travel far, but it’s a pleasant journey. Adam Driver plays a New Jersey Transit bus driver (possibly he was cast based on his name alone) named Paterson, who drives a bus in—you knew it!—Paterson, New Jersey.

He lives there with his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and their English bulldog, Marvin (Nellie). Though he follows the same routine and drives the same bus route every day, Paterson is not bored, because his creative imagination is fully engaged. A basement poet, he polishes his creations on the job, and they scroll gently across the screen as he makes his rounds or studies the Passaic River’s Great Falls.

He carries his books of poetry—especially that of William Carlos Williams—and listens to the small talk of his passengers, the rhythm of their language as much as the words. It’s “a movie that’s filled with poetry and that is a poem in itself. The movie’s very being is based in echoes and patterns,” said Richard Brody in The New Yorker.

Laura bursts forth with her own creative endeavors, the only common thread of which is their black-and-white color scheme. Black-and-white frosted cupcakes—a big hit at the farmer’s market—which she hopes will make them rich; a black and white harlequin guitar, which she hopes will launch her career as a country singer. She’s a charming dabbler and Paterson’s muse.

Every night when he returns home, it seems some other part of their house or Laura’s wardrobe has been reconceived in her favorite non-color combination. I couldn’t help believing that at some point she’ll recognize that her immense talent with fabric would be an awesome career direction. Meanwhile, her patterns fill Paterson with visual interest, “creating a vibrant visual punctuation to the otherwise relaxed storytelling,” said Manohla Dargis in the New York Times.

Paterson the driver, or perhaps I should say, Driver as Paterson, has one extracurricular activity, a visit to a neighborhood tavern every evening. Lots happens during that one nightly beer. Most of it hilarious. The décor of the tavern, replete with articles about Paterson greats—especially Lou Costello—further ties the man and the story to a circumscribed geography, the launchpad for his words.

Driver, Farahani, and Nellie play their roles winningly, with a memorable, if small, supporting cast.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 95%; audiences, 73%. (Not enough happens for some audience members would be my guess.)

*****The Sellout

Elephant - Sam Felder

photo: Sam Felder, creative commons license

By Paul Beatty, narrated by Prentice Onayemi – I write, knowing this review cannot do justice to this stunning satire—winner of both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award—which tackles a tricky subject: U.S. race relations and the essential absurdity of the human species. I can only urge you to read it for yourself as a journey to important places, dark and light.

Near the end of the story, Beatty’s narrator, Bonbon Me comments on a black comic who m.c.’s the Dum Dum Donuts open mic nights. He says the comedian “did more than tell jokes; he plucked out your subconscious and beat you silly with it, not until you were unrecognizable, but until you were recognizable.” Beatty has just spent 285 pages doing exactly that with his readers’ every racial attitude and carefully buried prejudice, whether toward blacks, Mexicans, Chinese, or whites.

Perhaps the only way for Americans to approach this difficult subject is with the tools Beatty wields so well: wicked perceptiveness and devastating humor. He slaps them down like a bricklayer troweling thick mortar, building his case brick by brick.

At first I thought his approach was to come at racism obliquely, like an artist using negative space, rendering everything around an object, not the object itself. Draw all the plants and trees, the shape of the dirt patch, the rocks, the pond, the lines of fencing, and every other feature surrounding an elephant and, when you’re done—voilà—out pops the pachyderm.

His descriptions of his southwest Los Angeles neighborhood, his administratively erased home town of Dickens, his father and his friends, with their intellectual floundering and frustrations as members of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, “the local think tank.” All seemed designed to produce that elephant.

We meet unforgettable characters, not least Bonbon himself: erudite, fearless, hell-bent on offending and sure to succeed. Bonbon’s father was a psychologist who subjected his son to bizarre experiments growing up, which the boy’s psyche was lucky to survive. His slave (yes) Hominy Jenkins, was a minor celebrity in his youth as a member of the Little Rascals cast; on-again girlfriend and city bus driver, Marpessa, tries to talk sense to him. And more. Much.

However, as the story proceeds, Beatty brings the hammer down. As a joke, Bonbon puts a temporary sign inside a bus that reads “Priority Seating for Whites.” When it’s inadvertently left in place, behavior on the bus becomes exemplary. People are treated with respect. Marpessa says, “Crip, Blood, or cholo, they press the Stop Request button one time and one fucking time only. You know where the kids go do their homework? Not home, not the library, but the bus. That’s how safe it is.” The sign is just the start of a Bonbon crusade. If there’s a word for “this is sooo crazy, it just might work,” Bonbon must have had that word in mind.

The book’s Prologue at the U.S. Supreme Court was a little slow for me, but when Beatty starts to roll, you are in for an amazing, hilarious, heart-breaking ride. Bonbon never breaks character. But at some point, all the comedy flips and you see it for what it is, the mask of tragedy.

It’s also a feast for people who love language. Beatty’s talent as a poet shows up in the rhythm of his prose; in multi-meaning slant rhymes, like the name of his lawyer, Hamilton Fiske; in direct rhymes, like the reference to his father’s farm, “forty acres and a fool”; and his imagery, “he was unpaid-electricity-bill dark.”

I’m sure reading this book in print would be transformative, with the advantage of being able to go back and reread and pause to reflect. Yet, Prentice Onayemi’s narration of the audio version was pitch-perfect. His Hominy addresses Bonbon as “Massa,” with just the right combination of obsequiousness and insolence; Foy Cheshire and the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals bloviate convincingly; Marpessa keeps her wits about her. You see each of them in front of you, just like you cannot avoid seeing the elephant in the middle of our collective living room.

Paul Beatty is coming to Princeton on February 8, 2017, and will appear at the Berlind Theater, 4:30 p.m., sponsored by the Lewis Center for the Arts. Open to the public. Free.

Up on Our Housetop

Naughty or Nice

photo: Mobilus in Mobili, creative commons license

What with new snow on the ground in parts of the country, there’s a remote possibility you can tolerate another morsel of Christmas. Below find the sum total of my non-culinary creative output for late December! I wrote it for the children in our family—Lincoln (age 8), Indiana (almost 7), and Irving (age 5), plus their mom, Alix (age redacted). Sing it to that familiar holiday tune!

“Up on Our Housetop”

First comes a present for Mr. Lincoln
A Chemistry Set? What was Santa thinkin’!
Next thing we know, a big explosion,
Police cars, fire trucks—what a commotion!
(Chorus: Ho ho ho, who wouldn’t go,
Ho ho ho, who wouldn’t go-o
Up on the housetop, click, click, click
Down through the chimney with good Saint Nick.

Next is a talking doll for Indie,
She’s so pretty she names her Cindy,
But all Cindy says is “Wash up!” and “Clean!”
And Indie says she’s just too mean!
(Chorus)

Then there’s a deck of cards for Irv,
Boy, that Santa’s really got some nerve,
Irv plays so well, he’s never beaten
And Lincoln says, “It’s ʼcause he’s cheatin’!”
(Chorus)

Last there’s a present for Alexandra,
Oh, what’s this? It’s a movie camera!
She films all the toys that have caused such tears
And writes Santa, “Please do better next year!”
(Chorus)

(Applause and pass the hot toddies.)

Santa Claus

photo: Bill McChesney, creative commons license

****Made in Detroit

moon

(photo: halfrain, creative commons license)

This is a review of two books with the same title and of the same re-readable excellence.

Made in Detroit, the memoir by Paul Clemens, is a tale of growing up in the 1970s in one of the Motor City’s last white neighborhoods. It’s fascinating to see the whole “minority status” issue turned on its head, and he comes out of it with decidedly mixed emotions. It’s a struggle, a worthy one, and following his evolving attitudes and understanding of both whites and blacks around him is a thought-provoking journey for readers, as well.

Clemens’s family is Catholic and he gets a Catholic education as parishes and schools close one by one. Meanwhile, the family’s economic stability is increasingly shaky due to the rapidly declining auto industry. Yet, the Church and his father’s love of cars were two constants in his life. He says his family members weren’t readers. “There was enough serious content, enough transcendence, in cars and Catholicism; it wasn’t necessary for them to concern themselves with ideas buried away in books.”

Made in Detroit, the book of Marge Piercy poetry, covers an enormous swath of emotional and physical territory. She uses the simplest language to express the deepest thoughts and makes it “poetic,” without superfluous lily-gilding. I was first drawn to her work by her poem “In Praise of Joe.” As a dedicated caffeine consumer, we recognized each other across the page. Here are the two lines that snared me forever: “It is you who make me human every dawn. All my books are written with your ink.” And here’s a bit from the title poem:

The night I was born the sky burned red
over Detroit and sirens sharpened their knives.
The elms made tents of solace over grimy
streets and alley cats purred me to sleep.

Clemens’s book takes place some decades after the night Piercy was born, yet the burning skies (steel mills then), sirens, and desolate streets were only more so in his youth. Despite all the city’s frustrations and conundrums that Clemens describes so well, despite a college education that could have taken him anywhere, he returned to the city. “At times, I feel like a failure in several directions simultaneously,” he writes. “That, with my education and reading, I should be more broad-minded than I am; and that, with the education I received from my father and Sal, I should be angrier about what the broad-minded morons have wrought. . . . Detroit, which drives people to extremes, has left me standing in the middle.”

Clemens’s book makes an interesting counterpoint to Angela Flournoy’s novel, The Turner House, describing the experience of a closeknit black family in Detroit and Susan Messer’s beautiful Grand River and Joy, about a Jewish businessman’s reluctance to flee to the suburbs around the time of the 1967 riots. Perhaps one family story at a time, it might be possible to assemble a picture sufficient to comprehend this fascinating, catastrophe-ridden American city.