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This short novel is from Europa Editions, a publisher I’ve praised on the blog many times for bringing terrific international fiction to American readers. When I ordered The Red Collar for my library’s collection I tagged it as a book I was especially looking forward to and it was just as I’d hoped. If you had to explain to someone what it means to be human you could give them this book.

Jean-Christophe Rufin is one of the founders of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières. He’s also a diplomat, who served as France’s ambassador to Senegal and an accomplished novelist who has twice won the Prix Goncourt, one of France’s major literary awards. I’ve never read his work before.

The Red Collar is about Wilhelm, a briard sheepdog mix, who followed Jacques Morlac when he was mobilized to fight in the French army in 1915. When the book opens, Morlac is in prison and Whilhelm is outside “baying relentlessly.” Major Hugues Lantier du Grez is the officer investigating Morlac’s case. When he arrives in the village to question Morlac and determine his fate, Lantier is taken with the dog’s loyalty.

Through his interviews with Morlac, we learn that Lantier witnessed an extreme act of canine bravery and loyalty in his childhood, that predisposed him to admire Wilhelm. Rufin writes of Lantier, “He had joined the army to defend order against barbary. . . .It wasn’t long before war came along and showed him that the opposite was true, that order feeds off human beings, that it consumes them and crushes them. But deep down and in spite of everything, he was still bound to his vocation. And that vocation had its origins in the actions of a dog.”

We also learn that Morlac feels respect for Wilhelm but no particular affection, even though the dog followed him all the way to Macedonia and is responsible for the events that led to Morlac’s Legion of Honor, the highest military commendation in France. Lantier finds out that Valentin, Morlac’s pre-war love and the mother of his child, has not seen him since his return from the war, and has a connection to Wilhelm as well. Through these three lives, and Wilhelm’s, Rufin compares human and animal nature, explores the hopes and disillusionment of the people sent to fight in WWI and the civilians they left behind, and most of all, dissects the concepts of faithfulness and pride.

This compact, beautifully written book is a gem. Rufin manages, in a very entertaining story, to distill the human heart. He gets to the essence of human experience as manifested in philosophy, politics, and love. And he pays tribute to dogs’ faithfulness. All in 150 pages. A terrific read.

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So after reading Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore I decided to spend a little more reading time in San Francisco and chose a book Boston Bibliophile mentioned recently, San Francisco Poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Marie wrote about this line from “Challenges to Young Poets:” “Don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out.” Good advice.

This little volume is the first in the San Francisco Poet Laureate series published by City Lights Foundation. I’m not a Ferlinghetti aficionado and I’ve never read a full collection of his work but I enjoyed this brief book. It opens with his inaugural address as the city’s poet laureate, a post he held from 1998-2000. It’s interesting that Ferlinghetti sees a city gentrifying and losing its culture, whereas Robin Sloan portrays San Francisco in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore as plenty off-beat, artsy, & funky (albeit well-off).

The poems in this volume are like postcards, giving the reader small, intimate sketches of the city Ferlinghetti loves, and which has been his muse. I especially liked “The Changing Light,” about the beauty of the sun and fog and sea light in San Francisco; and “Dog,” in which a dog takes the reader on a tour of the city’s streets, “investigating everything/ without benefit of perjury/a real realist/with a real tale to tell/and a real tail to tell it with . . . .”

“Baseball Canto,” is probably the best baseball poem I’ve read and is also about race and class and the American Dream and the giving way of the old guard in literature to new voices that aren’t all male and white. Really. Read it, you’ll see what I mean. And “A North Beach Scene” is a painting in a poem, so vivid.

I got to wondering whether there are other book series devoted to poets laureate and I couldn’t find any. Nor did I find a consolidated list of cities with a poet laureate. I did learn on Wikipedia that not all U.S. states have one. And now I need to finish my lunchtime musings and get on with the rest of the day here in the bookconscious household. If anyone knows of links to poets laureate of cities please leave a comment.

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After the reading at Gibson’s, I was primed for another evening of extraordinary poetry, an event I mentioned in last month’s bookconscious post — Dog’s Night Out. Mike Pride, the retired Concord Monitor editor and a poetry lover, organized this event and wrote about the three poets who graced the stage: Philip Schultz, Wesley McNair, and Sharon Olds.  You read that right — three blockbuster poets. Last year’s reading, Poets Three, featured Maxine Kumin, Donald Hall, and Charles Simic. Paradise, I am telling you, is right here in the Granite State.

The Computer Scientist and I decided to attend Dogs’ Night Out on a date, sans kids. We had a wonderful time. Concord is a small city, and you tend to see people you know whenever you go out. I ran into several fellow Songweavers (singing, one could argue, is musical poetry), a handful of Concord Reads pals, and other book-minded folks as we waited for the doors to open.

The Computer Scientist is a logistical and spatial genius, and he figured out the optimal spot for a height challenged person (me) to see the stage.  He is also a kind husband who is unembarrassed that his poetry geek wife had a notebook on her lap and took copious notes during the reading. As we settled into our seats we took in the art gracing the stage — a number of large wire sculptures of dogs.

Mike Pride opened the evening by explaining that the sculptures are the work of Monica Banks, who is married to Philip Schultz, and that he had first seen one of her dog pieces at an exhibition at the Fells here in New Hampshire in 2007.  When he met Schultz at the Pulitzer prize dinner last year, and invited him to read here, the theme of the evening — Dogs’ Night Out — took shape in Pride’s mind, because of Banks’ sculpture and several poems in Schultz’s Pulitzer prize winning book, failure.

Pride introduced Wesley McNair first, who I had the privilege to meet and speak with at the 2008 NH Writers’ Project Writers’ Day (quick aside: I also said hello after Dogs’ Night Out, thanked him for some advice he offered while signing a book for me last year, and introduced the Computer Scientist. McNair was warm and encouraging — what a joy, to talk with a gifted person who is so down to earth, and so willing to share his time with fans and students). Pride also pointed out that just as with the Poets Three reading, he asked each poet to read one poem by one of the others, and that each poet would be reading something about dogs, in keeping with the theme.

McNair opened with one of his own poems, “The One Who Will Save You,” which is a superb narrative piece set in central Maine, featuring a large mongrel dog. Next he read Sharon Olds’ “First Thanksgiving,” a lovely poem about anticipating a child’s return from college. McNair went on to say he became a poet to “talk about a broken family in a broken world,” and explained that his first poem was one word: “Wanted,” which he wrote beneath a picture he drew of his father. Then he read “How I Became a Poet,” which describes this first effort to create meaning, to transform ordinary experience with words.

McNair read other personal and family poems, including “The Good Boy Suit,” “The Book of A,” and “As I Am,” a poem that perfectly describes the state of absorbed distraction my family frequently notes in me. I sometimes worry that this is evidence of my lack of mindfulness, but McNair’s poem helped me see it as a different sort of mindfulness, in which one is present in that open space between the inner and outer worlds that Diana Durham mentioned in her talk at the Kalevala conference.

McNair also read a number of what I think of as his observational poems, such as “Smoking,” “Hymn to the Comb-Over,” and “An Executive’s Afterlife,” which he wrote years ago about an executive in hell. A timely topic, perhaps. These are not just poems, but cultural sketches, art work that is utterly accessible, that fit McNair’s own stated goal of writing “poems for the back pockets of Americans.” He closed with “It,” a poem that pokes fun at the way most of us are linguistically unspecific in our everyday speech.

Next Mike Pride introduced Sharon Olds. Through his introductions, it was clear that these poets came together to read because Pride is their common denominator — and McNair called attention to the fact that Pride is a wonderful advocate for the arts, and especially poetry, and his Monitor pieces bring poetry to a wide audience. He met McNair many years ago, and met Philip Schultz at the Pulitzer dinner. Pride drives Donald Hall to Harvard every year where he gives a talk with another poet, and one year that was Sharon Olds. In talking with her, they learned she was living in New Hampshire. Paradise, that is.

Olds opened with three poems by other poets: “The Garden,” by Schultz; and then two poems with dogs in them, “Dog Biscuits,” by Chase Twichell; and “Love,” by Ethan Stebbins. Then Olds began to read her own poems, opening with the delightful “Diagnosis,” a poem both humorous and profound in this age of experts. She continued with two other family poems, “High School Senior,” and “The Last Evening,” about being with her dying mother.

Reading poems set along the spectrum of female life, from babyhood to the death bed, Olds showed her evocative power. With a few words she conjures the enormity of human emotions, and sometimes probes the tender places nearly to the point of pain. If you’re a child or a parent, read Sharon Olds and you’ll shiver with recognition.

Olds also read “April, New Hampshire,” which is the most devastatingly beautiful funeral poem I’ve ever heard, and also a poignant tribute to Jane Kenyon and Donald Hall, and “Ode to a Composting Toilet,” which is hilarious, but like her other work, more philosophical than you might think if you just glance the surface. The poem set at Kenyon’s funeral also mentioned Hall’s dog. As we drove home later, the Computer Scientist remarked that her description of Hall looking eagle-like was eerie, and also really accurate.

Last, Pride introduced Philip Schultz, who opened with Wesley McNair’s “The Man He Turned Into,” praising McNair for the vulnerability in his poems — a characteristic of Schultz’s own work.  He went on to read the opening poem from failure, “It’s Sunday Morning in Early November,”  and other poems featuring his family, including “The Magic Kingdom,” a mindful poem about gratitude, and “My Dog,” a sad and wise pet elegy, as well as several parts of his long 9/11 poem from failure, “The Wandering Wingless,” whose protagonist is a dog walker. Schultz closed with two newer poems, “The Sweet Under Taste,” and “The God of Loneliness,” which the Computer Scientist said perfectly evokes being a dad.

I’d say the reading had a deeper theme than dogs, and these poets have more in common than knowing Mike Pride and being some of the greatest poets writing in America today.  McNair, Olds, and Schultz take the power of raw human emotions — straight out of everyday ordinary experiences like loving your partner, child, or parent, making your way in the world, doing work, or noticing what’s going on around you —  and hone those emotions and experiences into works of art. These are poems of the real world, poems with dirt and sweat and fear and pain, and yes, shit, in them. And they’re dead gorgeous, often witty, and incredibly wise.

I went to bed that night on a poetry high, only to wake up early to go to Writers’ Day, the spring conference of the New Hampshire Writers’ Project. If you write in NH and you don’t belong, join. The NH Writer newsletter, edited by Martha Carlson-Bradley, is excellent, and the events NHWP puts on are always well done. I signed up early for Writers’ Day, both to take advantage of the early bird price, and to get into my first choice workshops. I ran into a friend who said even though she registered early bird, many of her top choices were full.

This year’s keynote speaker was Meredith Hall, author of Without A Map. Her talk was inspiring, because her wildly successful writing career didn’t blossom until she was in her fifties. After a series of setbacks earlier in her life, Hall won a $50,000 grant, wrote a moving memoir (which she says came out as is — no revision needed!), watched it become a best seller, and heard from scores of people who wrote to tell her she’d changed their lives. It was hard to make any kind of practical take home notes for myself from this remarkable story. Hall herself admits her sudden success has been beyond her wildest expectations. The excerpts she read from Without a Map were lovely. I’ve put it on the long term “to read” list.

My first workshop session was “Writing In Open Forms,”  led by Jeff Friedman. We did two exercises, one on writing a poem about a color using all of the senses except vision, and the other on alliteration.  Despite having close to thirty people in the workshop, Friedman was able to have everyone read one of the two poems. He made some kind of positive comment about every piece, which is always nice in a one-off workshop where you don’t know any of your fellow poets and it’s excruciating to read a completely unpolished piece. He also gave us another exercise to do at home, which is a great way to end a workshop, with people eager to go out and keep writing.

“Mining Memory,” with Joseph Hurka, was my second session. Hurka writes fiction and memoir, and his books are on my “to read” list as well. I like to wait until after I’ve had a workshop with someone before I read their work, so I don’t form too many preconceived notions. Hurka talked about his belief that we all have profound stories in us, and that writers just need to work at figuring out the way to tell our own stories uniquely. He also talked about focusing on writing, not on what *may* happen later — publication, reviews, renown, fame. A grounding and important message.

Like Friedman, Hurka had us write a couple of exercises in the workshop, and left us with more to take home. I ended up with some interesting raw material for a project I’ve got in mind to combine poems and prose in a hybrid memoir. The exercises were short but really generated a burst of writing — people all around me cranked out a couple of pages in the brief time allotted. Hurka’s practical advice about what to do with these “mined memories” in terms of creating stories was helpful as well.

At my lunch break, I sat down at a table where I didn’t recognize anyone except Jeff Friedman. We talked a bit more about the poetry workshop. Several people at the table were talking about MFA’s, and I nearly felt brave enough to bring up my “independent MFA,” but then chickened out. After all, I was in their territory — most of the people at my table had MFA’s or taught in MFA programs. I spent the rest of the break networking, making sure I chatted with people I’d met at the Kalevala conference, readings, or other events. I also bought Friedman’s Taking Down the Angel, asked him to sign it.

My afternoon session was the most intriguing of the day. The exercises in the earlier sessions exceeded my expectations, and both Friedman and Hurka gave practical, helpful, encouraging writing advice. But this last session, “Getting Abroad,’ with Jim Kates, was a chance for me to try something entirely new and thought-provoking: literary translation.  I expected to just get an overview, but we actually tried it, and I’m hooked.

Kates, who is president of the American Literary Translators Association,  is clearly passionate about literary translation and that really made the workshop fun — his joy in this work was palpable. After reading some examples, and talking about the problems and issues literary translators face and what sets their work apart from literal translation, we split into two groups, one to work on a prose poem, and one to work on verse. My group had the verse, and the four of us each took a stanza of Rene Villard’s “Le Cemetiere De Saint-Nic.” Everyone in my group had at least a passing knowledge of French, but to make our work easier, Kates gave us a literal translation as well as the original French.

Literary translation brings together so many of my interests — reading, writing, the universality of human experience, the joy of discovering what’s unique in different cultures, the deep meaning of art, the creation of connections, knowing oneself and the world, relating one thing to another, contacting the space between the inner and outer worlds — it’s all there. Taking this workshop, with such an enthusiastic and accomplished person leading the way, was a fantastic finish to a couple of really intense weeks of thinking about writing.

I hung around for NH Literary Idol, which was a fun conclusion to the day, and went home full of thoughts and ideas. I had a great week of writing, and made a point of following up with some of the people I saw at the conference, which was one of my goals — to work on networking. All week, I also looked forward to the next book related event of the month, held last weekend: The Five Colleges Book Sale.

If you love buying books, check out the next post. The Five Colleges Book Sale is definitely a shopping paradise!

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