Wednesday, December 3, 2014

New to the P&PC Library: Little Herder in Spring, Little Herder in Summer, Little Herder in Autumn, and Little Herder in Winter

Check out the new addition to P&PC's library—a set of four paperback children's books (Little Herder in Spring, Little Herder in Summer, Little Herder in Autumn, and Little Herder in Winter) written by Ann Nolan Clark (1896-1995) and first published by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1940. According to Wiki, Clark was born in Las Vegas, New Mexico, and in the early 1920s began teaching children to read at Bureau of Indian Affairs schools.

At the Tesuque School in New Mexico, Clark discovered that there weren't enough funds for sufficient instructional materials at the one-room schoolhouse she led—let alone materials that spoke to her Indian students' lives, experiences, and language—so she started writing her own. Thus, the Little Herder series. (The version of the series shown here is English-only, though bilingual versions were published too.) Clark would go on to write over thirty books including Secret of the Andes, which came out of a five-year stay training native teachers in South and Central America, and which would receive the 1935 Newbery Medal. For her work and her advocacy on behalf of Native American peoples, she received the Bureau of Indian Affairs Distinguished Service Award in 1962.

Each saddle-stitched, 64-page book in the Little Herder series pairs poems with black and white drawings by Navajo artist Hoke Denetsosie. (The University of Southern Mississippi reports that Clark regularly partnered with native peoples to do the translation, illustration, printing, and binding of these books.) The drawing pictured here—which I like for how it represents and records the textiles, architecture, and culinary aspects of daily life—accompanies "Supper." "Supper" is the last in a sequence of poems about hunger that begins with "Pawn," in which Little Herder's father and mother pawn a concho belt and turquoise ring:

Pawn to the trader
that we may eat.

Our hard goods
our possessions
we give them
for salt
and for flour.

They are for pawn.

Who knows when we can buy them back.

The snow water drops
from the smoke hole
like tears.

In "Morning," Little Herder's father leaves for the trading post. While he is gone, Little Herder and her mother shovel snow, and Little Herder's grandmother visits to play Cat's Cradle games while Little Herder thinks:

I look at my mother's finger.

One finger looks bare
without its turquoise ring.

I pull my sleeve down
over my bracelet.

I should have given it
to my father.

When Little Herder's father eventually returns with food, her mother goes to work, starting a fire, putting meat on to cook, and—in a passage that reads a little bit like a recipe for nut roll that my own Pennsylvania-Dutch grandmother once wrote out for me—making fry bread:

She mixes flour and water,
a little ball of lard,
a little pinch of salt,
in our round tin bowl.

She takes some out
and pats it flat,
and pats it round,
and pats it thin,
and throws it in
a kettle full of boiling fat.

The hunger pain inside me
is bigger now than I am.

Not all the poems in the Little Herder series are so dark, but the P&PC interns suggested this sequence stood out from the children's literature of their own youth for its refusal to look away from the realities of lived experience. No Horton Hears a Who!, Clark's books (that's Clark pictured here) don't distract the child from the lived experience of his or her life as a Navajo child but record and reflect and thus legitimize it. There are also joy, beauty, handcrafts, and even "sheep dipping" (a husbandry process meant to kill lice and ticks). These days, we oftentimes think of documentary poetics as a turn taking place in literary spheres, but Clark reminds us that its roots aren't just in the 1930s-era world of Muriel Rukeyser and Langston Hughes. They go much deeper in the curriculum as well.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Twenty Years of Johnny Cash Covering Edna St. Vincent Millay's Poem "The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver"

In Box 66, Folder 13, of the Edna St. Vincent Millay Papers at the Library of Congress, there is a letter from B. Starr of Johnny Cash Music, Inc. to Millay's sister Norma, to whom the control of Millay's estate had passed upon Millay's death in 1950. Dated December 17, 1959, Starr's letter accompanies a copy of Cash's recording (not included in Box 66, Folder 13) of Vincent's 1922 poem "The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver," which, Starr explains, Columbia Records was planning to release.

"I feel sure you will agree that the talents of Johnny Cash are well suited to a recording of 'The Harp Weaver,' and that the recording which I am enclosing is a dignified one," Starr writes. "As I told you in our telephone conversation, we would like to make an agreement for 'The Harp Weaver' as a musical composition upon the customary royalties of four cents per copy and 50% of the mechanical fees for records manufactures and sold of recordings of this song."

As we soon discovered, the P&PC office interns knew only the Johnny Cash of the iconic upraised middle finger and the cover of "Hurt" by Nine Inch Nails, so we sent them on a scavenger hunt for Cash's softer side. Here—nearly twenty years of Cash reciting "Harp Weaver"—is what they found.

1960 1970 1979

Monday, November 17, 2014

"Why Women's Poetry Now?": P&PC at the 2014 Modernist Studies Association Conference in Pittsburgh

P&PC spent November 6-9 at the Modernist Studies Association's annual conference, held this year in Pittsburgh and hosted in all of its Iron City glory by Duquesne University with the co-sponsorship of the University of Pittsburgh. We had a chance to catch up with P&PC favorites like Marsha Bryant, Melissa Girard, and Erin Kappeler. We went to the exquisite Andy Warhol Museum where, among other things, we discovered Warhol's rhyming alphabet book ("A was a lady who went shopping at Sacks / ... C was her coat styled well front and back") as well as Warhol's childhood fondness for Ogden Nash. And we presented with Bryant, Steve Evans, Elisabeth Frost, Jeanne Heuving, and Lisa Sewell as part of a roundtable panel discussion titled "Why Women's Poetry Now?" Since most of you weren't able to join us in The 'Burgh, we thought you might like to hear the "position paper" we gave as part of that panel—the 5-7-minute talk that each invited panel member was asked to deliver as fodder for a larger discussion between panelists and audience members. Here, then, is the two cents that we had to add:

I’ve been thinking and writing about a trio of modern women poets that most people here today probably do not recognize: Anne Campbell, Evelyn Ryan, and Ethel Romig Fuller. All were amazingly prolific. All had huge audiences. All had careers writing poetry. All made money with poetry. And all to some extent suggest some answers to “Why women’s poetry now?”

Anne Campbell published a poem a day in the Detroit News for twenty-five years straight, serving as that newspaper’s answer to the Detroit Free Press poet Edgar Guest, who published a poem a day in the Free Press for thirty years. Campbell was born on a Michigan farm in 1888 and married a guy who also wrote for the News. She wrote from home in order to be near her children, and over the course of her career published more than 7,000 poems, at one point making $10,000 per year—well over $100,000 when adjusted for inflation—from her national syndication and speaking engagements. She was probably the most successful and well-known woman newspaper poet in the United States.

The subject of Terry Ryan’s memoir The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less, Evelyn Ryan may have been the most successful freelance advertising poetry writer, like, ever. Enduring an abusive alcoholic husband who spent the lion’s share of his paycheck on booze, Evelyn was a high school valedictorian. She wrote at her ironing board and made beaucoup bucks by entering and winning jingle-writing contests. She won a Triumph sports car, a jukebox, coffeemakers, frying pans, a deep freeze, refrigerator, washer, dryer, blenders, toasters, radios, roller skates, basketballs, footballs, a bicycle, sleeping bags, blankets, televisions, shoes, tools, and a shopping spree that netted $400 worth of groceries (the equivalent of about $5,000 today). When the landlord didn’t renew the lease on the house the family was renting, Evelyn won $5,000 that allowed them to purchase a home. And when the bank later threatened to repossess that house because her husband failed to keep up with payments on a second mortgage he took out without her knowledge, she won another contest—writing the fifth line of a limerick advertising Dr. Pepper—that awarded nearly $3,500 plus a new Mustang and a trip to Switzerland, both of which she sold in order to keep the house.

Ethel Romig Fuller began writing poetry at age thirty-eight when her two children were in their teens, renting office space in downtown Portland where she wrote every day. She made her first $10 (the equivalent of $130 today) selling a poem to Garden Magazine in 1924, and in the next five to six years published fifteen poems in Poetry magazine and many others in places like Out West Magazine, Life, College Humor, Good Housekeeping, Wee Wisdom, the American Mercury, the New York Times and other newspapers. Her New Verse poem “Proof?” was so widely reprinted after its 1927 appearance in Sunset magazine that the New York Times called it “the most quoted poem in contemporary English literature.”

The most successful woman newspaper poet. The most successful advertising poet. The author of the most quoted poem in contemporary English literature. These are only thumbnail sketches, yes, but they are compelling nonetheless. When we look at them from the perspective of gender, we see a number of things:
  • We see how gender affected access to authorship—when in their lives women came to write poetry, how they trained to do it, and the conditions under which they wrote. Those factors affected what poems they wrote and why. 
  • When we orient via women authors like these (Campbell, Ryan, and Fuller rather than, say, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Wallace Stevens), we see a very broad and different history of modern poetry: a history where poets made money from their writing, where audiences were large, where poetry was not a culturally marginalized genre, and where women were major players. 
  • We see how publication opportunities and the needs of those publications, their reward systems, and their audiences affected the types of verse women wrote. 
  • We see different economic factors affecting what got written and how. By writing for popular spheres, women could acquire a degree of financial independence or autonomy perhaps unavailable to them otherwise. Writing for the little magazines or publishing books was a privileged endeavor that not all people had; when we focus on the little magazine or the book in our scholarship, we are to no small extent replicating and reinforcing class and gender hierarchies of the era we study. 
  • That said, we also see, as with Fuller, that poets were writing for both literary and popular spheres and thus how the lines dividing those spheres were more porous than we tend to think. In the case of Fuller—had I time to go into it—we would see how the New Verse was written for and circulated in little magazines like Poetry but also newspapers and mass market magazines like Sunset. We would see how the New Verse was not solely or even primarily the invention or province of the literary, and we would see how women writing for popular venues extended the reach of the New Verse and how the New Verse thus owes some of its legacy to popular culture. 
  • We gain a more complex understanding of periodization—not one based on the features of poetry itself but on media, social conditions, market conditions, and so on. All these women wrote before the Cold War and are “modern” poets not by virtue of a shared aesthetic but by virtue of conditions external to their writing: how a woman could come to and train for poetry; what media were available to her; what motivational and reward systems were in place, and so on. 
If we better understand the gender-related conditions affecting poetry, we may be less likely to write off certain poetry as “bad” or uninteresting and may instead start employing or developing more diverse critical models for reading and assessing it. Those models will challenge many assumptions currently in place—how culturally marginalized poetry was, how economically viable it was, what the character of “modern” verse is, and whether a “close reading” is the only or even best endpoint of poetry scholarship. And those models will in turn open us up to unstudied authors, archives, media, and modes of writing, not to mention an expanded ethics of poetry scholarship, all of which has the potential to substantially reshape arguments about what poetry is and what it makes and has made happen.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Halloween 2014: From the P&PC Vault: An Interview with Ryan Mecum (Originally Posted September 18, 2010)

In September of 2010, Ryan Mecum's Werewolf Haiku—the third installment in a series of illustrated "horrorku" volumes including Zombie Haiku and Vampire Haiku—hit bookstores around the nation. Earlier in 2010, P&PC correspondent Ce Rosenow reviewed the first two collections which you can find here and here, but to mark the coming of Werewolf Haiku, we thought it about time to track down Mecum himself. Whether or not the new book is exactly to your lycan—er, liking—we think you'll find something to chew on in the following conversation.

Poetry & Popular Culture: How and when did you realize that horror haiku would be your metier?

Ryan Mecum: It all happened one bored and stupid night when I mixed a 5-7-5 syllable stanza with a voice moaning for brains and my wife rolled her eyes. At the very moment her eyes reached the height of their rolling, I knew I had evolved English literature to a new peak. Then came Jonathan Franzen and ruined everything.

P&PC: Jonathan Franzen? What about Seth Grahame-Smith of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?

RM: Without a doubt, he upped the game of zombie fiction. I consider Seth Grahame- Smith to be my ultimate nemesis. I see his creativity as a direct threat to mine. I actually had the chance to attack him last summer at Comic-Con, but he escaped through the crowd. A bystander was able to snap a photo of the carnage (presented here). Seth Grahame-Smith, if you are reading this blog, consider this an OFFICIAL INVITE to fight to the death and then keep fighting until we are just nubs and stumps.

P&PC: What type of apprenticeship did you undergo to prepare for these books?

RM: My training was mainly a steady diet of zombie comics and Frankenberry cereal. I did study under some wonderful poetry professors while at the University of Cincinnati, but I'm sure they'd rather I not mention them by name (right, John Drury and Andrew Hudgins?). I'm sure they wouldn't remember me, but they were both highly influential on my falling for poetry. I grew up finding poetry difficult and annoying. These teachers both introduced me to poems that were instantly fun. So, to answer your question, none.

P&PC: Why haiku and not another form like scary sonnets or violent villanelles—or even goulish ghazals?

RM: I tried a werewolf sonnet once. It just about killed me. I respect Dylan Thomas too much to make a mockery of the villanelle, but I did once write a zombie haiku as if it were written by Thomas. "Do not go gentle / into that zombie plagued night. / And take the shotgun." Some people have suggested limericks, and I've wanted to punch them.

P&PC: Can you describe the process of putting the books together?

RM: Step one is picking a monster whose voice I think would be fun to narrate poetry. Once I've got that, I do a story outline and then try to connect the dots via haiku after haiku. I usually jump into the stories somewhat blind as to where I'm heading, with hopes that I can quickly get somewhere fun. And by "fun" I mean "gross."

P&PC: What are some classic influences that you'd recommend?

RM: For zombies, I'd recommend my wretched nemesis Seth Grahame-Smith for his genius Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. For vampires, Stoker's Dracula. For werewolves, Toby Barlow's epic werewolf poem/novel Sharp Teeth was mind-blowing. One poetry book I always recommend is After The Lost War, by Andrew Hudgins.

P&PC: How are audiences responding to all of this grossness?

RM: So far so good. Both books seemed to do well critically, which is nice. The books are selling, which is allowing me the opportunity to write more. People seem to enjoy their zombie poetry more than their vampire poetry (who knew?). Werewolf Haiku was just released, so it's a bit soon to know if that will find an audience, but I'm optimistic because it's disgusting.

Most of my friends and family are confused there is an audience at all for a book like Zombie Haiku. However, there are a devout few, like myself, who were confused that it took this long for a book of zombie haiku. There is one guy who has reviewed two of my books on Amazon who is NOT a fan because he doesn't think my books help the growing field of "horrorku." For some reason, that makes me smile.

P&PC: Why do you think people are so obsessed with zombies, vampires and werewolves at the current time?

RM: They are safely scary. Stories like The Road are so terrifying because deep down all of us think this might happen. Zombie and vampire stories push us far enough out of the realm of reality that they become a bit more fun. The Road was a zombie story without zombies, and that freaked me out. If Cormac McCarthy had added just one zombie, that book would have been a lot more fun and the movie would have been more popular than The Book Of Eli. Contemporary audiences would rather their horror be unrealistic. Enter zombies and vampires.

P&PC: So, what's the profit margin in horror haiku?

RM: I am richer than Edgar Allan Poe was when he died, so I must be doing something right.

P&PC: That probably also means you're not eating soap.

RM: Only when I cuss.

P&PC: Is the series, uh, dead, or is there another installment on the way?

RM: I'm currently at work on a whole new concept for a zombie-themed haiku book that is sure to both entertain and disgust.

P&PC: What could True Blood or the Twilight series have to learn from haiku?

RM: Step back from the big picture and focus on the smaller ones.