Thursday, November 27, 2008

"Thankful for What?": A Scrapbook for Thanksgiving 2008

Between the Civil War and World War II, Americans were fanatical scrapbookers, cutting and pasting their way through all of print culture—magazines, newspapers, trade cards, advertisements, greeting cards, playbills, almanacs, broadsides, booklets, brochures and the like—and archiving any and all material of interest or even potential interest. Families sat down to scrapbook together. Louisa May Alcott said she read "with a pair of scissors in my hand," and her literary brothers and sisters kept pace: Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Willa Cather, Jack London, Marianne Moore, Gertrude Stein, H.D., Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Amy Lowell, Lillian Hellman, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Carl Sandburg, Carl Van Vechten, and Vachel Lindsay all kept scrapbooks of various sizes, stripes and sophistication.

Of course, less celebrated Americans kept scrapbooks as well, and one of the more surprising things to learn about American scrapbooking is that it very often included poetry. Not just included, but centered around, focused on, and devoted itself to good, bad and ugly verse of all kinds. Americans sometimes maintained these personal anthologies for years, sometimes from generation to generation, sometimes working in concert with other scrapbookers. The resulting albums are fascinating artifacts from America's literary past.

Over the past several years, I've managed to collect about 100 such poetry scrapbooks, some of which are beautiful, some of which are falling apart, some of which are 200 or 300 pages long, and some of which I've been able to post online for your viewing pleasure at Poetry Scrapbooks: An Online Archive. As Thanksgiving approaches, however, I thought I'd shine an autumnal light on one poetry scrapbook in particular, a veritable cornucopia of clippings which was likely assembled during the Depression or World War II and which contains the page pictured to to the left and the two pages which follow. (Just click on the images for larger, more readable versions.)

This scrapbook takes the months of the year as its organizing rubric, perhaps borrowing that structure from the farmer's almanacs that had been a regular part of American life since the 1800s. (Think of the almanac in Elizabeth Bishop's poem "Sestina," for example.) It begins with poems about Valentine's Day, then features a page spread on March which is followed by poems about April and a short illustrated narrative in verse titled "An Easter Eggs-ploit." The section on Thanksgiving consists of seven illustrated poems spread out over the space of the three pages seen here.

Even taken out of context, these pages display many of the hallmarks of poetry scrapbooks more broadly speaking. For starters, the material included here crosses literary "brow" lines, ranging from apparently trite or sentimental popular verse to "A Tribute to the Pilgrims," written by then-Poet Laureate of England, John Masefield. Also, poems that appear to be unpolitical or not at all socially engaged oftentimes acquire a degree of social engagement by virtue of their relation to other poems: the piece by Masefield, for example—in which the settling of New England is described as "the sowing of the seed from which the crop of modern America has grown"—pulls the surrrounding poems about farming and nature (such as "Harvest Time," "Sumac," and "Flight South") into a larger discourse about U.S. history and identity. Lastly, as with many scrapbooks put together during the Depression, certain financially-oriented figures of speech such as

Flowers and sunrises, stars and rainbows,
Health and strength and friendship's ties,
Join in balancing life's budget,
For that Roll Call in the skies.

invite particular speculation about how inspirational or sentimental poetry functioned during times of economic crisis to both help people process the nature of that crisis and identify value systems other than capital by which they could orient their lives.

Scrapbooking is undoubtedly a nineteenth- and twentieth-century version of commonplace book-keeping—a literary activity in which people hand-copied passages from books into their own personal journals or ledgers. Over the years, the word "commonplace" has changed in meaning, going from a term that suggested a particular, even extraordinary value to a term that now usually means "ordinary" or even "trivial." At times, the popular verse in poetry scrapbooks—and especially Depression-era poetry scrapbooks—uncannily performs this etymological history in reverse: seizing on the ordinary and promoting it as extraordinary. The poem "Thankful for What?," for example, is a litany of thanks "just for little things" and concludes:

[Let me be thankful] For little friendly days that slip away,
With only meals and bed and work and play,
A rocking-chair and kindly firelight—
For little things let me be glad tonight.

In a sense, this poem asks for the power to be thankful for the commonplaces in life, not just in literature—for the valuable parts of living that have become, like their literary antecedents, ordinary or trivial over time. That is, in a sense, this poem wishes to extend the literacy practice of commonplacing or scrapbooking into a sort of philosophy of living in which the apparent scraps of life have unanticipated or unrecognized value. That's not a bad thing to think about this November 27 as we teeter on the edge of another depression and wonder where, oh where, the next bailout will come from.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

"Put Readings on YouTube"

Here's the skinny on what's been happening literature-wise in Iowa City of late. After several years of application-making, bell-ringing, and horn-tooting, Iowa City was named a UNESCO "world city of literature," joining Edinburgh, Scotland, and Melbourne, Australia as the only other cities in the world with that designation. Check out the press release yourself here. Way to go, Iowa City.

At the same time, as it was becoming clear that Iowa City would indeed achieve "world city of literature" status, Iowa Public Radio announced that it would be dropping "Live From Prairie Lights" from its programming schedule. For as long as most people remember, "Live From Prairie Lights" has broadcast visiting poets and fiction writers reading, well, live from Prairie Lights Bookstore in downtown Iowa City. Apparently, though, a number of forces conspired to drive listeners away. The show's host was boring. The readers (like many readers) didn't perform their work with any particular flair. And the show ran once or twice on air which, as you and I both know, simply ain't gonna fly in an age of YouTube and podcasts. Are you gonna rearrange your schedule, wait until 8 pm, then tune in your crystal set to listen to a boring reading followed by an even more boring set of questions? "Poetry & Popular Culture" sure isn't.

But the old-time codgers here in Iowa City—many of whom haven't listened to "Live From Prairie Lights" in ages (and many of whom would privately admit that the show actually is pretty boring)—have been lamenting the passing of the wireless torch and the demise of the radio show. How horrid, they say, that on the eve of being designated the world's third city of literature Iowa City should strip away its literary radio programming. Some heavies like former Iowa Poet Laureate and Writers' Workshop teacher Marvin Bell and current Iowa Poet Laureate Robert Dana have weighed in on the controversy.

And what follows is Mike Chasar's take on the topic, a view officially endorsed by "Poetry & Popular Culture."

Appeared in the Press-Citizen on November 25, 2008

Put Readings On YouTube

Congratulations, Iowa City, for being designated UNESCO's third City of Literature. Via the Iowa Writers' Workshop, the International Writing Program and other innovative and historically significant literary efforts, you have changed the way writing happens in the United States and around the world.

It is now time to remember that history, stop lamenting the disappearance of "Live from Prairie Lights" from Iowa Public Radio and seize on that disappearance as an opportunity to reimagine what such broadcasts might look and sound like in a digital age where podcasts and YouTube reach a much larger audience than WSUI and Julie Englander ever could.

Radio poetry history

Literature has long been a part of public and commercial radio programming. In the 1920s, poetry radio shows emerged as popular parts of the media landscape. Some shows -- like Ted Malone's "Between the Bookends" and Tony Wons's "R Yuh Listenin'?" -- were broadcast nationwide and had large, avid audiences who not only waited by their sets to hear poems read aloud to live organ music, but who flooded the studios with fan mail as well.

At the height of his popularity in the 1930s, Malone's show received more than 20,000 fan letters per month. Much as I hesitate to mention that other state university north of Ames, you can go there and read some of these fan letters yourself, which are now in the Arthur B. Church Papers in the Special Collections Department of that university's Parks Library.

Malone and Wons weren't the only ones to dazzle first generation radio audiences with poetry. A.M. Sullivan's "New Poetry Hour" on WOR (New York) strove to broadcast poetry of only the highest literary quality. Eve Merriam's Out of the Ivory Tower on WQXR (New York) featured Leftist poets reading their work. Ted Malone was known for showcasing "amateur" poetry sent in by his listeners, but he also read poetry by Shakespeare, Keats, W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot.

And on the eve of World War II -- when radio was the major source of up-to-the-moment news for many Americans -- NBC broadcast Edna St. Vincent Millay's book-length propaganda poem "The Murder of Lidice" to a nationwide audience of millions. It was performed by Hollywood actor and two-time Academy Award nominee Basil Rathbone and was accompanied by a chorus of singers. Not only was that broadcast shortwaved to England and Europe, but the poem was translated into Spanish and Portuguese and beamed to South America as well.

Finding today's audiences

Those days may be over, but audiences still await -- though they're not sitting in Prairie Lights, nor, apparently, are they sitting by their radios diligently tuning in to Iowa Public Radio.

Instead, they are online watching "The Daily Show" and Tina Fey impersonate Sarah Palin on YouTube. They are downloading podcasts. They tune in at their convenience, but they do so in enormous numbers.

"Live from Prairie Lights" should find a model in President-elect Barack Obama, who recently gave the weekly Democratic radio address not just on radio, but also for the first time on YouTube.

If, as one university official claimed, "Live from Praire Lights" is a "standard-bearer" for Iowa City's literary culture, then it should not be constrained by the time tables of either a bookstore or a public radio schedule. It should be recorded in video and audio formats. It should be posted online for listeners to access at their convenience -- at a coffee shop, at work, or even (anachronistic as it might sound) at a fireside.

The readings of Iowa City's writers and visiting writers should be posted on YouTube where people not just in Iowa City, but around the world, can access them. Imagine the global audiences who might tune in to hear participants in the International Writing Program read from their work.

If "Live from Prairie Lights" really is the "gem" that people say it is, then why not share that wealth with as many people as possible? That would not only be a move in keeping with Iowa City's leadership and innovation in arts and letters, but the mark of a true world city of literature as well.