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Archive for January, 2008

Last week the bookconscious family was privileged to attend a historic poetry reading. Mike Pride, editor of the Concord Monitor, brought together the three U.S. poets laureate from New Hampshire — Maxine Kumin, who served in 1981-82; Donald Hall, who served in 2006-07; and Charles Simic, the current poet laureate — for a reading at the Concord Auditorium. Here’s the article from the paper about the event, which benefited the NH Writers’ Project.

Steve and I had both heard rumors of the event and we bought our tickets the day they went on sale — imagine, hearing such literary giants in one place! When Charles Simic was named to the post in August, many reports noted the interesting fact that our small state has produced three poets laureate. Maxine Kumin speculated playfully that there’s something in the water. I sincerely hope so, and I am drinking plenty of water.

The evening began with Mike Pride explaining that he planned the reading not only in honor of having three poets laureate in NH, but also because after the heavy campaigning leading up to the presidential primary, we are all in need of poetry. Political rhetoric, Pride explained, sounds pretty but is designed to stretch the truth or distract us from it, while poetry tries to tell the truth as beautifully as possible. After hearing Mitt Romney announce to Michigan voters that he has the auto industry in his veins, Pride said, he knew the poetry event couldn’t happen at a better time. The audience responded very enthusiastically to this observation!

Next Pride announced that the poets would read in the order they’d been poet laureate, and that in honor of Simic, Kumin and Hall would each read one of his poems before reading their own.

Maxine Kumin read first. I was fortunate to meet Kumin at her reading in December at Main Street Bookends in Warner. Despite being one of the most lauded writers in American literature today, Kumin is also warm, down-to-earth, and accessible. Meeting her in a small venue like that was terrific. Many of the poems she read that day were from her newest collection, Still to Mow, but she also read some old favorites. She also took time to tell us about each poem, and to chat with the audience a bit. It felt like a discussion among neighbors in a small town.

At Poets Three, she opened with Simic’s Paradise Motel. Then she read thirteen of her own poems, spanning her career. Presence was one of my daughter’s favorites of the evening, because of the interesting animal imagery at the beginning. Anyone who has looked up at a movement seen from the corner of one’s eye and wondered what, exactly, just passed by, will chuckle over this poem’s opening lines.

Some of her newer poems, including Mulching and a villanelle called Entering Houses at Night, deal with Kumin’s distress over current events like the war and the use of torture. Although many of her poems are set in or around her New Hampshire farm and the surrounding woodlands, Kumin is not just a pastoral poet. She’s long dealt with themes of relationship, between people privately and among the larger human family.

I love Mulching, from the new book. It’s about the frustration and helplessness she feels spreading out a year’s worth of bad news in her garden, in the form of old newspapers. I learned this mulching technique from one of Kumin’s essays and I can attest to the feeling: you lay out all the papers and think, “What a mess we’re in.”

Kumin also read Jack, which is the title poem of an earlier collection. She introduced it by saying it is a sad poem — it’s a story of regret. Another emotional, yearning poem she read, The Sunday Phone Call, imagines the poet’s father calling from the beyond, asking about her near fatal accident. Both of these poems are set on her farm, as is Seven Caveats In May. The children enjoyed this far more light-hearted poem. She closed with introspective poems, Looking Back in My 81st Year, which reflects on her life decisions as a young woman, and Morning Swim, which she recited from memory.

Donald Hall is also known for his artful evoking of New Hampshire’s countryside and people; one of his most famous poems, Ox Cart Man, became a Caldecott winning picture book with illustrations by Barbara Cooney. My children were more familiar with Hall’s work; in addition to Ox Cart Man, he has written several other children’s books that bring New Hampshire’s past alive, including Lucy’s Summer and Lucy’s Christmas (which are about Hall’s mother’s childhood), Old Home Day (a NH tradition), and The Milkman’s Boy (about his family’s dairy business in the early 1900’s), The Man Who Lived Alone, and When Willard Met Babe Ruth. They also heard him read at the Monitor‘s event celebrating the book The New Hampshire Century back in 2000.

Hall opened with one of Simic’s poems as well (I wrote the title down as “I’ve Had My Little Stroll”), and then told the audience he’d recently come out of a period of about two and a half years during which he couldn’t work on poems. In over sixty years of writing daily, Hall said, he’d never had such a time before. Before he read five new poems written after this time, he explained that they came out of depression, although he wasn’t sure which caused the other: the dry spell bringing on depression or vice versa.

When I heard Hall read in 2000, he shared a new poem, and I remember thinking how remarkable this is, in an era where most literature is slickly packaged and marketed, to hear an artist discuss work that hadn’t even been published yet. The five recent poems Hall read were full of his sadness and grief; as with many earlier poems, the death of his wife, poet Jane Kenyon, featured prominently.

After this very serious start, Hall turned to some poems written before his dry spell. These included Mr Wakeville on Interstate 90, (scroll down to find the poem) which Hall read because E.L. Doctorow recently published a story in The New Yorker which had its inspiration from the same Hawthorne short story that inspired this poem. It’s about a man who disappears and goes on to lead a new life as someone else in another place.

Hall also read Old Roses, a favorite of mine for its sense of the timelessness of life’s most beautiful things, and Affirmation, one of the more upbeat of his grief poems. Hall’s poetic powers are strong enough to squeeze a bit of affirmation from the most distressing human experiences: loss of friendship and love. He shakes his fist at fate and yet embraces whatever it throws at him. For his last poem, Hall told the audience that many poets have written on their birthdays, but none were like his birthday poem, On Reaching the Age of 200. My son admired this absurdist piece.

As part of our life learning, we post a “poem of the week” for the family to enjoy. Most weeks I pick a poem, but the kids have both taken turns choosing. In my experience with both younger kids and teens in workshops, children tend to respond positively to poetry that not only engages the reader with the language of comparison, but also does so in a forthright or humorous way. I think this explains why my daughter liked “The Presence,” where Kumin imagines seeing “a porcupine carrying a tennis racket,” and my son liked the Hall poem about a man’s 200th birthday.

Most kids relate to poetic language — children naturally make comparisons as they acquire language and sort out the world around them. But kids are often turned off by poems that seem too deep or impenetrable. Frankly, most adults feel that way, too. No one likes to read something and feel clueless — we want to feel we get what the poet means and it doesn’t give us a headache to figure it out.

My grandmother, a former English teacher, tells me that good poetry shows readers the poet’s way of looking at the world differently; I would add that it has to offer the reader a way of seeing for themselves. A poem doesn’t have much of an audience if it requires some kind of insider information to understand it. A really good poem is accessible from the first reading, but has more to offer beneath the surface.

Charles Simic’s work definitely fits that description. When I began sharing his work with my children, they really enjoyed Watermelons and Stone. I am partial to two others, one I read in the Monitor, In the Library, and another Simic read Tuesday night, The Clocks of the Dead. He introduced that poem by telling the audience he wrote it some time in the 80’s or 90’s when he noticed that clocks no longer tick, because they are battery operated.

Similarly, he introduced Unmade Beds by noting that if you walk along the corridor of a hotel when doors are open for cleaning, you see that unmade beds all have a unique character. You do, if you are a poet. If you are Simic, you then get this down in a poem that seems somewhat absurd at first, but ends a mere 18 lines later with an observation of the human condition.

Another poem he read on Tuesday that makes me smile every time I read it is My Turn to Confess. I’m not a fan of really in-your-face confessional poetry, for the same reason I don’t like novels that include graphically sexual or violent passages. Too much information, as the saying goes. Simic said he is sometimes asked if he’s a confessional poet, and this poem is his answer. In my view, it’s always a bonus when a brilliant writer is also able to laugh at him or herself. But Simic’s humor is unique, his imagery sometimes a bit bizarre, and his poems don’t let the reader off easily — you may find yourself smiling but also asking, “what did he say?” and reading them over. You won’t be sorry you did.

As a writer, I am interested in hearing about how other writers work. You can drive yourself crazy if you take all the various approaches to heart and try to emulate every great writer’s model, but what I’ve read of Simic’s method appeals to me. He touched on his way of working a bit when he introduced That Little Something, which he said he had for 20-30 years before he “found” the ending. He told editor Mike Pride something of his process in an interview for the Concord Monitor after he was named poet laureate.

What I find interesting is that he doesn’t worry about finishing a poem in a timely fashion; workshop leaders and writing teachers often tell students that the most important thing is to work on a piece while it’s fresh, get through the drafts and try to nail it while you’re still in the throes of the idea. Simic seems to see writing as more of a lifetime commitment, with old ideas safely set down in notebooks to return to and draw from. I like the idea of this well of images and thoughts, there to sip or dip into.

Depending on the poem, there may be some benefit to getting a draft finished and revising it while it’s new, but I think going back to revisit a poem after getting some distance can be useful, too. Maxine Kumin said something similar in an interview printed in a book called To Make a Prairie, but instead of notebooks she keeps a box of abandoned poems she calls her bone pile, and looks through it for what can be taken and used anew. Renewing a conversation with old ideas seems like a good practice, to see what might evolve, as Simic says, from this raw material. Looking over what was important at another point in one’s writing life could lead to new connections.

Simic closed with a poem I heard him read on a poetry podcast, In the Planetarium, another witty examination of modern life. He remarked before he read the poem that today, you don’t have to travel any farther than the nearest planetarium to see the stars from any earthly vantage point, and this seemed to tickle him. It’s this combination of close observation and humor, along with Simic’s spare, fresh imagery, that makes his poetry appealing even when you aren’t quite sure where it’s taking you.

Poets three, poets fascinating, poets brilliant — Kumin, Hall, and Simic, poets to read and savor, at different times and for different reasons, poets from the place that feels like home to me even though I am not “from” here. Perhaps another reason I enjoy these poets is that they each came to live in New Hampshire in adulthood, like I have. It’s a good place for writers. Now if you’ll excuse me, I am going to go drink a glass of water.

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After a hiatus during our move and the holidays, the bookconscious family has returned to our ongoing exploration of the countries of the world. We began enjoying a “country of the month” when the children were small, and over the years this has evolved into a regular part of our life learning together, in some variation.

Over New Year’s weekend I suggested we get back into our armchair tour of the world, (well, nearly armchair: in 2005 we took our learning on the road and visited Greece in what we billed the “Mother of All Field Trips”) and when even the teenager made signs of assent, I hurriedly consulted the world map hanging in our family room. We tag each country we’ve explored with a little arrow, and my eyes landed on unmarked territory in the Pacific: Indonesia.

When you hear that word, what comes to mind? Political unrest? Religious extremism? Natural disasters? Extreme poverty? Barack Obama as a school boy? Our impressions of the world are too often shaped by headlines and sound bites. Yet even these snippets remind us of our interconnectedness, the links that make everything relevant. My own reading of Eat, Pray, Love, as well as National Geographic’s recent feature on “volcano culture” had added to my images of Indonesia, so I was eager to dig deeper and learn more about this incredibly diverse nation.

Since the aforementioned teenager is interested in history and politics, as well as food, and his younger sister is a nature lover who wants to learn about the flora and fauna of each country we explore, both of them saw merit in my suggestion: Indonesia, to them, meant rice, current events, the Ring of Fire, and cool wildlife. Unfortunately, neither of them could remember the amazing Indonesian music we enjoyed during a family day at Benaroya Hall in Seattle several years ago (Katherine was probably only 2 or 3 at the time): a gamelan orchestra and Balinese monkey chant, with audience participation. If you ever get a chance to see or take part in either of these, do. The chant was the most fun I’ve ever had in a concert hall (ok, Sing Along Sound of Music comes close; U2 is on another plane altogether, and was in an arena).

Consensus formed, we dug out of the first snow of 2008, hit the library and the internet, and brought home appealing Indonesia materials for all: a curry cookbook, volumes on volcanoes and endangered species, “fact books” to give us an overview of the country, folktales, websites on the music and art of Indonesia, and more. For myself, I chose a book of Indonesian poetry (have I mentioned lately how much I love Concord and its library?), a history book, and a novel, The Girl from the Coast.

A quick Googling of the author, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, told me that he was Indonesia’s most prominent writer, and a member of the generation that brought Indonesia out of colonial rule (under the Dutch) and occupation (by the Japanese) through the painful transition to independence in the late 1940’s. Besides being a major literary figure, often mentioned as a Nobel contender, Pramoedya was also a political and social activist and as such, he irritated the governments of both Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president, and Suharto, who took over when the army ousted Sukarno in the sixties and remained in power until 1998. Pramoedya’s open criticism came at great personal cost.

Suharto jailed Pramoedya for 17 years; despite being beaten and mistreated, and despite having his books banned and manuscripts destroyed, Pramoedya continued to “write” in jail, telling the other prisoners the stories that would become his most famous work, a series of four novels called the “Buru Quartet,” for the prison where he wrote them. After his release in 1979, Pramoedya remained under house arrest until 1992.

During his house arrest he published The Girl from the Coast. It was meant to be the first book in a trilogy, but the other two novels were among the materials the Suharto government destroyed when he was arrested. Like many of Pramoedya’s books, The Girl from the Coast is based on real events — in this case, his own grandmother’s life. The novel deals not only with colonial power, but also with the feudalism of traditional Indonesian culture. Armed with this information, my enjoyment of the novel was even greater.

Rich in details that bring 19th century colonial Java alive even for a person safe in her armchair in New England, The Girl from the Coast is a finely written, emotionally provocative story. It resonated even more deeply with me, knowing Pramoedya’s own life story. I felt for the novel’s title character not only because her class and gender rendered her powerless but also because, were she to step from the pages of the book, our heroine would be proud of her flesh and blood grandson’s tireless struggle against oppression.

In bringing the nameless girl, plucked from her village to be the “practice wife” of an aristocrat in the city, to life in these pages, Pramoedya ensures that no one can forget the marginalized poor, who suffer at the hands of the powerful and the religiously dominant. In his writing, Pramoedya recognized that not only does government have the potential to oppress, but also that religious dogma can reinforce power structures by creating a sense of divine sanction of the actions of corrupt rulers.

In The Girl from the Coast, Indonesia is stratified along economic, religious, and cultural lines. Some of the characters take comfort in this and some struggle with their lot in life, but all of them seem to accept that they are assigned a position and must carry out their role. As my family and I read about Indonesia we’ve learned that while the newly independent nation was founded on an idealist political philosophy of unity called Pancasila, the country has always been multi-ethnic, with hundreds of languages, and many indigenous and imported cultural influences.

It is also home to four of the major religions of the world: Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity, as well as other belief systems. According to a book I’m reading aloud to the kids, Cultures of the World: Indonesia, by Gouri Mirpuri and Robert Cooper, the many cultural and religious influences, combined with “adat” — an “unwritten code of traditional behavior,” govern all aspects of Indonesian life. Belief, ritual, custom, social position, conformity to one’s family and village expectations, and allegiance to religious, family, and political leadership are as important to Indonesians as the unity and tolerance of Pancasila.

So even in modern Indonesia, complex layers of religion and custom, with importance placed on adherence to social norms and domination of certain segments of society as well as fear of spiritual retribution not only from God but also ancestors and the spirits (of the sea, the mountains, and other natural forces), make the country’s political and economic structures challenging to navigate, especially for the lower classes or minorities. Add to this the economic and political disparity of colonialism during The Girl from the Coast, and you have a setting where people’s struggle to survive and thrive can bring out the worst in human nature.

But as with anyplace where people face hardship and adversity, the Indonesia of this novel is also a place where anyone, even an illiterate girl from a fishing village, a girl whose value in society is decided entirely by men, a girl who is no more than property, can act nobly. When she realizes she is about to be cast aside by her city husband, the girl decides she will act on behalf of her child rather than herself. She becomes an exile from both her old life and her new one, but she ensures that her daughter will have a better life, even as she struggles to decide what that means.

In an epilogue that Pramoedya and his translator added to the English edition of The Girl from the Coast, readers learn that the girl’s selfless concern for her child ultimately leads her out of her lonely misery. While I regret the loss of the rest of the trilogy, I am grateful that Pramoedya had the forethought to give readers closure, because he died in 2006, never having re-written the lost books.

As we’ve studied the history and culture of many countries around the world, my family and I have been able to see how certain themes (the power of mother love, the struggle between good and evil, and the wisdom of experience, for example) and certain character types (such as an evil overlord, wise old woman, pure-hearted young woman, and fool or jester) appear in literature and folklore everywhere. The Girl from the Coast contains these folkloric elements as well, and Pramoedya uses them to cast light on colonial Indonesia’s inequality and the ways in which people adapt to deal with it.

I was particularly impressed with the empathy with which he writes his female characters, all of whom are important to the outcome of the book. Perhaps his own experience with oppression helped him to describe the lot of colonial era Indonesian women; however, he also nails the innocence and inexperience of his protagonist, and I have rarely read such a poignant description of the heart wrenching, life changing love of a mother for her infant as that which Pramoedya renders in The Girl from the Coast‘s dramatic climax.

In his life and writing, this great writer fought oppression and hoped that with justice and good government (which for him meant one not influenced by the financial corruption he associated with capitalism, as well as one which upheld the human rights of all its citizens) people would finally get along and work together for a better world. When he died, he’d witnessed some of the goodness he knew was possible, in the humanitarian response to the 2004 tsunami, and he’d been able to travel and publish again. But he had also written critically of the Indonesian government in his last years, never ceasing to speak for freedom, and to defend the principles his nation’s founders codified in Pancasila.

In light of both history and current events, one can hope that transparency, tolerance, social justice, and respect for human rights will become the hallmarks of good government everywhere. It is thanks to people like Pramoedya, who are willing to speak up for what is right, that such changes can come about. Read Pramoedya for his humanity, his craft, and his social criticism — but also read his novels for a trip to another culture, right from your armchair, where the universal aspirations of people to live safe, secure, happy lives with their loved ones will remind you that despite our uniqueness and diversity, our flaws and mistakes, humans are one family.

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