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.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Halloween Week 2014: From the P&PC Vault: The Book of the Undead, Part Two: Ce Rosenow Reviews Ryan Mecum's Vampire Haiku (Originally Posted on June 22, 2010)

In April 2010, P&PC turned to haiku expert Ce Rosenow to get her take on Ryan Mecum's 2008 collection Zombie Haiku. Then—and just in time for the season three premiere of a little HBO series called True Blood—Rosenow returned with a review of Mecum's follow-up volume, Vampire Haiku (2009). What's her verdict on the 400-year love story and bloody romp through American history featuring cameos by Emily Dickinson and J.D. Salinger? It's something to hang a fang in—but not for the reasons you think.

Part II: Vampire Haiku

Vampire Haiku, the second book in Ryan Mecum’s Horror Haiku series, basically follows the same recipe as his earlier volume, Zombie Haiku. The humor, book design, and references to popular culture adapt the basic formula of Zombie Haiku to accommodate the experiences of Vampire Haiku's main vampire, William Butten. Also like the first book, the poems in Vampire Haiku sustain a narrative and are presented as entries in the protagonist’s haiku journal. Unlike the first book in the series, however, Vampire Haiku has a serious subtext that distinguishes it from Zombie Haiku and perhaps gives the reader something more to, well, sink her teeth into. It suggests that American history and culture, from colonial times on, is inextricably linked to violence.

The narrative begins in 1620 England with young William composing in his haiku journal: “red sunlight burns through / with the approaching new dawn. / Time for me to go.” This anachronistic opening—the haiku only became a poetic form decades later with the work of Matsuo Basho and others, and the form itself didn’t find its way from Japan to England until the 19th century—emphasizes that Mecum isn’t interested in creating an accurate version of haiku history. In addition, as discussed in my review of Zombie Haiku, he isn’t interested in maintaining the formal characteristics of literary haiku either. Instead, Mecum is interested in using a love story to comment on American history.

First, the love story. William Butten and Katherine Carver were English travelers on the Mayflower. Vampire Haiku imagines that they meet on board, a la Kate and Leo in Titanic, and locates their love story in the New World. Using the names of actual passengers on the Mayflower for these vampire characters begins the book’s critique because it suggests a lack of essential humanity in America’s founders. Katherine turns William into a vampire, and William then kills Katherine’s vampire husband (John Carver, the Governor at Plymouth) so that nothing impedes the blossoming relationship: “If you are in love / with a married vampire girl, / make her a widow.” Unfortunately for the new couple, the murder brings too much attention. Katherine leaves to spend several centuries evading capture, while William searches through those centuries for his lost beloved: “I know she was here. / The paper had a story / about some odd deaths.” Although Katherine occasionally resurfaces, she always disappears again.

During William’s quest to find Katherine, he participates in—and feasts at—an array of significant historical events, including the Revolutionary and Civil Wars:

A revolution
that leads to war and bloodshed
is like one long meal.

My country at war:
When 600,000 die,
eating gets easy.

William also participates in the Battle of the Alamo, turning Davy Crockett into a vampire who later returns as David Koresh of the Branch Davidian religious sect, and he appears at the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Massacre at Wounded Knee, as well. William’s presence at these events helps sustain the synchronicity between American history and violence that runs throughout the book. Certainly vampires would show up at events with significant carnage; however, constructing an American history comprised largely of events that create such carnage also characterizes that history as one rife with brutality.

In addition to historical events, William also encounters many famous historical figures during his quest. Some, like Amelia Earhart, are already vampires; others, such as Emily Dickinson and J. D. Salinger, are turned by William. These cameos are typically humorous: “It wasn’t the crash. / Amelia Earhart was killed / because of sunlight.” Nevertheless, they also suggest that America’s icons were, beneath their famous personae, monsters; the best writers and adventurers that America can produce are inhuman, which signals—or so Mecum's logic goes—an inherent lack of humanity within America itself.

Other figures are even more disturbing in their connections to real-life acts of violence. Consider this haiku about the serial killer, Son of Sam:

So he worked for me.
I didn’t tell him my name
but he called me Sam.

And again the cult leader, David Koresh:

He felt safe in forts.
This one was Alamo-like,
except filled with girls.

While it might be amusing to think about Amelia Earhart as a vampire, the two instances above reference individuals charged with serial murder, child abuse, and statutory rape. Such references suggest that the brutality of American history exists not only in large-scale events like colonization or war, but also in the American individual.

As a vampire, William consistently treats human tragedies with irreverent humor which lessens the sense that these experiences are in any way lamentable in a violent culture. Note his response to the difficult years of the Great Depression:

The Great Depression.
Great for making more homeless;
not too depressing.

Flimsy little homes,
which some folks call Hoovervilles,
I call lunchboxes.

William also views mining disasters as a chance for feasting:

Sometimes I would cause
coal mining caves to collapse;
me inside with them.

To time it just right,
drink your last dying miner
as help shovels through.

William’s irreverence emphasizes that these events are less preventable or avoidable calamities than simply characteristics of human existence and opportunities for (in)human predators.

A haiku about MySpace, takes William’s indifference for human life one step further. The poem itself is funny: “Checking the menu, / officially called MySpace, / for a bite to eat.” When read against the accompanying illustration of a MySpace page filled with young girls, one of whom is circled in pen, it becomes much more disturbing. The reader moves away from associating the poem and image with a fictional vampire and toward the reality of young girls falling victim to predators they meet online.

In the end, the relationship between vampire and human violence is the book’s most interesting achievement. Overlapping the fictional realm of vampires with the brutality of war or the deprivations of the Great Depression, and weaving together the acts of American serial killers, cult leaders, and online sexual predators with the vampire identities of famous people, undercuts the belief that instances of shocking individual cruelty belong to a small group of extremists. Anyone, Vampire Haiku suggests, can become a monster, including the average citizen and America’s revered icons.

Reading vampire violence against American violence suggests that the inhuman actions of the vampire are actually all too human and ultimately American. Mecum's narrative does not abandon this suggestion as it concludes its love story with a reference to American television history. A vampire slayer (not Buffy, but I won’t spoil the surprise) kills Katherine, and William must endure eternity without her. At first he contemplates suicide-by-sunlight but then realizes, “She created me / and her creation will live / with her memory.” He discards his haiku journal and moves from America’s past into America’s present with the same haiku that begins the narrative: “Red sunlight burns through / with the approaching new dawn. / Time for me to go.” In other words, the bloodshed will continue.

Ce Rosenow founded Mountains and Rivers Press in Eugene, Oregon, and is current president of the Haiku Society of America. For a recent interview with her, check out "Fast Five with Ce Rosenow."

Monday, October 27, 2014

Halloween Week 2014: From the P&PC Vault: The Book of the Undead, Part One: Ce Rosenow Reviews Ryan Mecum's Zombie Haiku (Originally Posted April 9, 2010)

Jane Austen has met the zombie. So has Abraham Lincoln. The Poetry & Popular Culture Office has been nearly, uh, dying to know what happens when zombies meet poetry as well. And so, when we discovered Ryan Mecum's two books, Zombie Haiku (2008) and Vampire Haiku (2009), we turned to haiku expert Ce Rosenow (pictured here), hoping to, well, pick her brain about what happens when the living dead (pictured below) turn to seventeen syllables for self-expression. Here, in the first installment of a two-part review of what we can only call Mecum's re-animated body of work, Rosenow fleshes out the hunger for poetry and horror that seems to run (where else?) in our blood.

Part I: Zombie Haiku

Zombie Haiku's blood-spattered pages and zombie photos will resonate with readers who are familiar with typical visual representations of zombies—the lurching gait, outstretched arms and vacant eyes are all present here. In addition to that nod toward iconic zombie imagery, Zombie Haiku also acknowledges the cinematic and literary genre of which it is part. Night of the Living Dead, for example, is present, if understated, in the farmhouse and cornfield sequences that show up in Mecum’s narrative. 

However, Zombie Haiku requires that readers overcome two obstacles. First, they must suspend a certain amount of disbelief—and it’s not disbelief about zombies’ existence. No, the disbelief that arises when reading this collection stems from the book's central premise: a reanimated dead person insatiably hungry for human brains and other body parts who chooses to document the search for said parts using, of all things, a poetic form that requires counting syllables. This counting can’t come easy for the zombie. After all, as he becomes increasingly driven in his search for human flesh, he admits in neat, seventeen-syllable sound bites that he has trouble remembering things:

I can't remember
how to open this window
so I'll just stand here.

They are so lucky
that I cannot remember
how to use doorknobs.

Regardless of the character’s poetic impulses when he was human, the zombie’s existence is all about brains: his own doesn’t work and he’s hungry for others, yet he writes haiku.

Fortunately, such apparent contradictions are easily overlooked in literature. Consider, for example, Samuel Richardson’s heroine in Pamela who ostensibly composed the letters that comprise this 18th-century novel even as she locked herself behind various doors to avoid her employer's sexual advances. Clearly people—even the living dead—will document their lives regardless of trying circumstances. And with the zombie, whose body parts become damaged and sometimes fall off altogether, these circumstances tend to grow increasingly difficult:

My fingernail snaps
ripping off that light switch.
Now I’m down to six.

Looking at my hand,
somehow I lost a finger
and gained some maggots.

Filling the pages of his journal with poems and drawings representing his experiences clearly takes dedication.

After getting past this first obstacle, the reader confronts yet another: zombie haiku are not haiku. Just as a zombie is a shell of a human being without a soul, so the poems in this book replicate the syllabic structure of haiku but lack the content of haiku. Most haiku include some combination of the following: seasonal references, two images, internal comparisons, and a pivot line. While traditional, avant-garde, horror, and science fiction haiku writers typically maintain some connection to the standard characteristics of haiku in their poems, Mecum does not. Additionally, the syllabic structure diligently adhered to by Mecum's zombie is usually not followed by the majority of English-language haiku poets nor by most contemporary Japanese haiku poets.

Haiku, however, are as trendy as zombies, and so the idea to bring the two together is not surprising. Haiku have, for the last three decades at least, been used repeatedly to address popular topics—sports, business, movies, teen angst—and to suggest a cutting edge approach to these topics. They typically ignore most characteristics of literary haiku and focus only on the 5-7-5 syllable count. Mecum’s haiku fit well into this new tradition but raise a question about this new approach in general: why choose haiku at all? In Mecum’s case, why not zombie limericks, zombie sonnets, an occasional zombie sestina? Why reanimate the haiku form yet again for something so far afield from the form’s actual purpose?

Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that haiku entered American literature as a way to make non-haiku poetry more innovative. In the early 20th century, poets such as Ezra Pound incorporated aspects of haiku into non-haiku poems. As modernists, these poets searched for ways to reinvigorate conventional poetry, and haiku became one means to that end. Contemporary, non-literary uses of haiku may not be intended to reinvigorate poetry, but they might be designed to “make new” the treatment of their various topics nonetheless.

Another possibility is that haiku is still heavily identified with Japanese culture, so it always adds a sense of difference to its subject matter—often by suggesting the exotic and the foreign. When this approach merges with a lack of seriousness about the form, however, it risks replicating the imperialist point of view of certain American and British writers in the 19th century. W.G. Aston, for example, felt that Japanese poetry had very little value as literature, and his opinion was informed by the perspective that Japan was not a fully developed culture and therefore could not have a fully developed literature.

Finally, if seventeen syllables is all it takes to make a haiku, another possible answer might be that the form is simply an amusing, undemanding way to write. It also matches the ever-decreasing attention span of many readers and accommodates a wide range of topics.

Mecum’s poems revel in the speed and playfulness afforded by the 5-7-5 format and seem to lack any imperialistic impulses—at least at the level of content. True, the zombies are taking over and imposing a new culture of sorts, but there is no collective force or motivation at work. Each zombie follows only one motivational drive: hunger for human brains and human flesh. Mecum’s zombie is so single-minded that, “Walking in the dark / with a stomach full of meat,” he still searches “for meat.” Even when another zombie enters the picture, there is little coordinated effort:

Smelling the same meal,
another of one us joins me
into the darkness.

The other dead guy
stares at me with a blank look
as we softly moan.

Each zombie eventually ends up with his own victim but not through any form of teamwork, and, afterwards, each zombie continues on his own individual quest for more food.

Mecum’s book is also filled with humor and irreverence, and both characteristics depend largely on the incongruous use of haiku to convey a zombie’s narrative:

I loved my momma.
I eat her with my mouth closed,
how she would want it.

It is hard to tell
who is food and who isn’t
in the nursing home.

The book parades this incongruity throughout the text. The most notable instance occurs in the following depiction of the zombie’s obsession with brains and syllables:

brains, brains, brains, brains, brains
brains, brains, brains, brains, brains, brains, brains
brains, brains, brains, brains, brains.

Ultimately, Zombie Haiku is an innovative book that will appeal to anyone interested in all things zombie. As a graphic novel in which short poems propel the narrative, it is also a unique addition to zombie fiction and to the ever-expanding number of popular uses for haiku.

Coming Soon: Part II of the "The Book of the Undead" when Rosenow sinks her teeth into the world of Mecum's Vampire Haiku. If you have a moment in the meantime, check out Rosenow's Mountains and Rivers Press located in Eugene, Oregon.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Friday, October 3, 2014

In D.C. with Edna St. Vincent Millay, Langston Hughes, and the Writers' War Board

This week, P&C is blogcasting to you from Washington, D.C., where we're in the process of wrapping up a short research trip to the Library of Congress and enjoying getting to know the city. We've been here twice previously—once for a couple of days back in the late 1990s for an AWP conference, and once around 2003 when we were visiting friends in Baltimore and took the train to the National Gallery of Art one afternoon—so we don't know the city very well. Suffice it to say, though, that we're totally lovin' it. Every day we get up early and head to the Library to do research on Edna St. Vincent Millay's relationship to the Writers' War Board. Then, come evening, we pack things up, return to our one-bedroom pad in Capitol Hill, change our socks and mindset, and head out for the night. We've enjoyed walking the H Street Corridor, the Eastern Market area of Capitol Hill, Dupont Circle, Foggy Bottom, the National Mall, the Shaw neighborhood, and Columbia Heights where we came across the section of V Street (pictured above) named "Langston Hughes Way."

So, here's the gist of our research. During World War II, the Office of War Information operated an outfit called the Writers' War Board, which was charged with recruiting American writers of all stripes for domestic propaganda efforts. Poets. Playwrights. Fiction writers. Journalists. Editors. Radio writers. Speech writers. Song writers. Cartoonists. Screenwriters. You get the idea. A propaganda campaign of one sort or the other—More Nurses Needed! Conserve Oil and Gas! Use V-Mail! Don't Waste Food! Join the Merchant Marines!—would come down the pike, and the WWB would find writers to help make it go. Need a fifteen-minute radio play pitching the way your average American can contribute to the war effort? Well, the WWB's got not just one but fifteen for you to choose from. But get this. Not all writers working for the WWB wrote explicit propaganda. The WWB archives show that office staff wrote to poets and pulp writers encouraging them to take up particular topics that would tie in with—and thus bolster the credibility and appeal of—current campaigns. When the WWB was tasked with encouraging Americans to do volunteer work on farms and orchards and thus increase food supplies, for example, it wrote to Berton Braley, Ira Gershwin, Edgar Guest, Oscar Hammerstein, Phyllis McGinley, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Ogden Nash, Cole Porter, E.B. White and others asking them to write about food and farming. "Will you spare the time," the WWB asked, "to turn out something on the joys of farm labor, of what you get from working with the green growing things of earth?"

P&PC has a specific story it's looking for—the story behind Edna St. Vincent Millay's long poem The Murder of Lidice that Millay wrote at the bequest of the WWB, that was published (in two different abridged forms) in the Saturday Review of Literature and Life magazine, that was broadcast nationally on NBC radio and translated into Spanish and Portuguese for shortwave broadcast to Europe and South America, that was issued in "pamphlet" form by Millay's publisher Harper & Brothers, and that was eventually put on vinyl as part of a three-disc set. After a week of looking through the WWB archives and Millay's own papers, we've now got scads of material to return home with and coax into some sort of coherent, white-knuckle story of how The Murder of Lidice came into being and unexpectedly went on to became what might have been up to that point the most widely circulated American poem of the century. Stay tuned, dear readers. You likely haven't heard the last from us on this topic.

As you can imagine, though, we're running across all sorts of other goodies. When the WWB wrote to George Bernard Shaw asking him to join the "Lidice Lives" campaign for which Millay wrote her poem, he replied, "No. I am not such a mischievous fool as to waste time in preserving the memory of atrocities of which we are all equally guilty." There are materials pertaining to Thurgood Marshall (then at the NAACP), Margaret Mead, Upton Sinclair, Archibald MacLeish, Arthur Miller, H.L. Mencken, Bernard Malamud, and more. One of our favorites? The letter from Langston Hughes pictured here. Based on what we've seen in the WWB archives, we think that by the time he wrote this, Hughes had been involved with the WWB in other capacities as well, as he's listed as author of two radio plays ("Brothers" and "In the Service of My Country") in a lot of fifty such plays being circulated at one point by the WWB. (Other plays, btw, were contributed by Stephen Vincent Benet, Margaret Sangster, and Pearl Buck.) We love the idea that Hughes was collaborating with W.C. Handy, and wouldn't you have loved to have been there when the Benny Goodman Quintet introduced the "Go-and-Get-the-Enemy-Blues" and Jimmy Rushing of the Count Basie Band let 'er rip?

It's an interesting little letter, too, isn't it? Consider how Hughes makes sure that the WWB's Clifton Fadiman knows the difference between a concert baritone and a blues singer. Even more interesting is how Hughes skews the letter away from the subject of race and toward both "folk" and U.S. national identities. Indeed, he mentions the "folk quality" of Joe Turner in paragraph one, and the "folk manner" of "That Eagle" which he pitches to Fadiman in paragraph two. And is that "Theme for English B" we hear echoing in the background of the second paragraph? Whereas "Theme for English B" (which wouldn't be written until after the war, we believe) concludes
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you're older—and white—
and somewhat more free
the rhetoric in this letter focuses on "how that eagle of the U.S.A. has got his wings over you and me." The poem makes race a constitutive part of the relationship between "you" and "me," but, as with Hughes's use of "folk," the letter to Fadiman elides explicit mention of race in favor of an American folk identity as the common ground of the WW II effort.

Of course, Hughes's willingness to contribute to the WWB can't but be made ironic by the fact that over a decade later (in 1953), Hughes would be called to testify before Senator Joseph McCarthy—testimony that Hughes began with the sentence, "I was born a Negro." As we all know, Hughes's interest in communism stemmed in part from the color-blind view of the world it promised—a color blindness that Hughes also imagines in his letter to Fadiman about the "folk-ness" of American identity out of which his song lyrics emerge and to which they appeal. As the beginning of Hughes's speech before the Senate suggests, the crime Hughes was called to account for may not in fact have been his affiliation with communism but of imagining a color blind America. Indeed, in his speech to McCarthy's Senate subcommittee, Hughes doesn't begin by explaining his connection to the WWB or his activities working on behalf of U.S. interests in WW II—both of which could have been used (in theory) to demonstrate his red-blooded American-ness. Rather, he begins ("I was born a Negro") by acknowledging race as central to American identity, inserting himself back into the dominant rubric of American culture and effectively renouncing or repudiating his former views, his dreams of a color-blind nation.

At 73,000 items, the WWB Archives are pretty huge. They're disorganized. They're sometimes mislabeled. But we think that for people interested in the role of the writer working on what the WWB sometimes called the second cultural front during WWII, they're just waiting for someone with less of a targeted agenda than P&PC has to come along and make something big out of 'em. We'll be back here for certain, as there's more about Millay to explain. But who knows what other stories are also waiting to be told?

Monday, September 22, 2014

Guest Posting: "Searching for Edgar Guest," by Victor Hess

Editor's Note: The following posting—about one person's thirty-year-long quest for a single poem—comes from our old acquaintance Victor Hess (pictured here) of Slidell, Louisiana. Before you read about Hess's search, though, let us first fill you in on a little backstory. Nearly a decade ago, P&PC was an eBay junkie, buying up almost every old poetry scrapbook we could get our hands on as we went about assembling the archive that would form the basis for Chapter One of Everyday Reading. (You may remember some of our meditations on our purchases here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.) 

Back then, we were in graduate school, and we were poor. That was okay, though, because at the time no one was much interested in poetry scrapbooks, and we could land 'em easily with little or no competition and frequently for less than a five-spot—with one exception. Every now and again, the same someone would bid against us (this was back when eBay bidders were publicly identified by their user names), upping the bid beyond what a poor li'l ol' grad student could afford and leaving us sad and empty-handed but most of all curious. Who was this mysterious collector? Was there someone else writing about poetry scrapbooks? Had we found a potential new friend and colleague? So we did what any poor li'l ol' grad student would do. We sent an email asking who, why, and why not. Read on, dear readers, for the rest of the story.

Searching for Edgar Guest

by Victor Hess

My best friend Alan unfolded an old newspaper clipping in our seventh grade science class. "Read this," he said.

It was a poem. I read the title. "Stick to the Job."

"It was my Dad's favorite."

It was about never giving up, not compromising for the easy dollar. It was about finishing your work and working hard because there may be someone out there working harder. I liked the poem and handed it back to Alan. "That’s cool."

"Keep it. You should have it."

"Naww. This is yours. Your Dad gave this to you."

"It's okay. He gave me other stuff. You keep it."

I didn't have the first thing from my dad. He lived fifteen miles away from us and visited me all of twice a year. Here I was feeling special about a newspaper clipping some other dad gave his son who wasn't me. This poem was special.

I kept it in my billfold like a treasure. In the following years of my careers as a paper boy, a grocery clerk, a real estate clerk, a college student, and a poverty worker, it was there. Sometimes I even followed its advice.

But in 1969 Uncle Sam drafted me into the army, and my poem became missing in action. After the army, I became a realtor, married, had children, moved from Xenia, Ohio, to New Orleans, stayed in sales, watched my kids grow, and then moved to Dallas, and, for twenty years, the poem was out of my mind.

I can't tell you why, but when my sons were twelve and thirteen, I wanted to share that poem with them. I couldn't remember most of it. I could only remember how it made me feel when I was their age.

I did recall three lines: "Keep this in mind from day to day, / Success is just as close to you / As to some toiler far away." I couldn't remember the title any longer, but the poet was Edgar Guest. I stayed awake at night trying to recall the rest of the poem. It meant so much then, and now its absence was magnifying its worth. It had its hold on me. I needed to find that poem.

My search started at Half Price books where I found a small book written by Guest called Harbor Lights of Home. The store clerk told me Guest was syndicated in over 200 newspapers and had written over 11,000 poems. The book I bought had 129 poems in it—but not my poem.

"Good luck," he said.

During the next two decades, I purchased every Guest book I could find through book stores and eBay and Ex Libris and AbeBooks and then started buying people's scrapbooks if they included clippings of Guest's poetry.

I would read some of the poems like "Success" or "Time" or "It Takes a Heap o' Livin' to Make a House a Home" at the dinner table. "That’s nice, Dad," the boys would say as they left the table rolling their eyes.

My wife Melva and I moved back to Louisiana once the kids were grown, and in 2006 I received an email from a guy bidding against me on one of the scrapbooks on eBay. "I don’t want the scrapbook," he wrote. "I just want to scan it. I'm studying how poetry has become embedded in everyday American life and culture."

I agreed to send him all my scrapbooks to scan. I told him the details of my twenty-year quest for this one particular poem, and he said he would keep a lookout for it.

When he returned the scrapbooks, he included a DVD full of scans of not just my scrapbooks but others he had managed to borrow or buy.

He had found so many scrapbooks that it took weeks for me to study his scans, but my poem was not there. It was hopeless. After all, who spends thirty years of his life looking for a stupid poem? I gave up.

Two years later, on November 20, 2008, I received another email from the guy who had scanned the scrapbooks: "Hi Vic, I'm still keeping a lookout for the poem you want to find. Recently I happened to ask a librarian in Cincinnati if he'd look for your poem. He did, and his results suggest the poem may have been published in the Lincoln Star in 1930 or the Connellsville Courier in 1964. Perhaps this is a lead you can use. Hoping you're well. Best, Mike Chasar." I had given up, but Mike had not.

Within minutes, I had subscribed to, and found my poem (see below). I sent an email back to Mike, thanking him. Then I sent one to my sons, who were in their 30s, repeating to them the story I've just told here.

My sons don’t keep that poem in their billfold, but maybe they passed it on to someone else—just like my friend Alan did over fifty years ago.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Poetry of Quirt Manly and The Beverly Hillbillies (January 1, 1964)

In this episode, Granny thinks that Quirt Manly—a rugged and heroic TV cowboy—would be a perfect match for her granddaughter Elly May, so she invites him for a visit, only to discover that the real-life Quirt is not the manly man he plays on TV. Nope. He's super short. He's scared of horses. He can't shoot. And what he likes to do, as he explains to Elly, is "make up poems for girls like you." Of particular note, Quirt is played by Henry Gibson, who had recited poetry on The Jack Paar Tonight Show and on The Dick Van Dyke Show and who appears here to be further fashioning the character of The Poet, which he would eventually play on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In.

If you want to skip right to Quirt's poems, start around 16:45.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Back to School with Anne Campbell

A little less than a year back, P&PC wrote a piece about Edgar Guest, the longtime poet of the Detroit Free Press who published a poem in that paper seven days a week for thirty years. The national syndication of his verse made Guest (pictured here) a household name, got him dubbed the "people's poet," turned him into a popular speaker, and made him a very rich man even if it didn't secure him a place in scholarly histories of American poetry. Indeed, after mentioning Guest as part of a Modernist Studies Association panel a few years back, a P&PC affiliate happened to run into a prominent poet-critic in the airport and, in making small talk about the panel while waiting for their flights, said poet-critic confessed that, until our affiliate's talk, he'd never even heard of Guest. (By contrast, our P&PC affiliate's mother-in-law owned several of Guest's books before she moved out of the family house and into a retirement home; when our affiliate opened them while helping with the move, other poems by Guest that she'd clipped from newspapers and magazines and stored between the pages came fluttering out.)

If the poet-critic just mentioned had never heard of Guest, it's probably safe to say that he's never heard of Anne Campbell either—the poet whom the Detroit News hired in 1922 to better compete with the Free Press. Called "Eddie Guest's Rival" by Time and "The Poet of the Home" by her publicity agents, Campbell would go on to write a poem a day six days a week for twenty-five years, producing over 7,500 poems whose international syndication reportedly earned her up to $10,000 per year (that's about $140,000 adjusted for inflation, folks), becoming a popular speaker in her own right, and proving that neither the Free Press nor Guest could corner the market on popular poetry. Indeed, a 1947 event marking her silver anniversary at the News drew 1,500 fans including Detroit's mayor and the president of Wayne State University.

We've been thinking a lot about Campbell lately. For starters, P&PC has been working on an essay about women's poetry and popular culture for the Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century American Women's Poetry, and Campbell's clearly a central part of that history. Then we had the awesomely good fortune of meeting Campbell's granddaughter, who's been very helpful in sketching out some of the details of Campbell's life. Anne was born in rural Michigan on June 19, 1888, possibly finished high school, married the Detroit News writer and future Detroit city historian George W. Stark when she was twenty-seven, had three children, performed and recorded regularly with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra doing readings during intermissions in the 1930s, read on local and national radio, was active with the March of Dimes, and with George was a fixture of Detroit's cultural life and friends, of course, with Guest. She published her first poem (where else, right?) in the Free Press when she was ten, won a state prize for a Memorial Day story and poem when she was fourteen, was first paid for her poetry when she was seventeen, gave a popular talk called "Everyday Poetry" on the Lyceum circuit, and published at least five books of poems (one co-written with George). (For a bunch of blurbs and publicity materials about her, check out the pamphlets here and here.) She died in 1984.

But we've also been thinking about Campbell because it's back-to-school season, and, along with a new Trapper Keeper, new gym shoes, and a spectacular new pencil box, we just purchased the card pictured here, which features Campbell's poem "Visitin' the School" and is identified as "A Souvenir of Anne Campbell's Visit to Your School, Compliments of The Detroit News." (The back of the card is blank, btw, but it has glue marks on its four corners, suggesting that someone saved it in his or her poetry scrapbook; in fact, we've seen entire poetry scrapbooks dedicated to collecting nothing but Campbell's poems.)

Here's "Visitin' the School":
Oh, dear, I feel like sich a fool
When folks come visitin' the school.
I never git my problems well,
An' jist can’t read an' write and spell.

When teacher asts me to recite,
Although I try with all my might,
I feel the red burn in my cheek,
An' my throat swells so I can't speak.

My both knees shake an' sweat rolls down.
An' nen when I see teacher's frown,
I git so scared, I wish fur fair
That I was any place but there.

When I git big an' have a boy
I' goin' to make his life all joy.
No matter what the teacher's rule,
I'll not go visitin' the school! 
It's an odd little poem, isn't it? It's kitschy in a way that Daniel Tiffany's recent book My Silver Planet: A Secret History of Poetry and Kitsch can help us to understand, and although the second and third stanzas don't disclose the exact content of the recitation, they nevertheless call most readily to our mind the history of poetry memorization and recitation that Catherine Robson takes up in Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem; seen this way, "Visitin' the School" is thus a poem about poetry.

But under the cover of innocence—the kitchiness, the schoolroom, the slightly baby-talk language, the rudimentary rhymes, etc.—we here in the P&PC Office think Campbell's poem's got something more going on. Noteworthy for how it doesn't assign a gender to teacher, student, or classroom visitor (thus making a role in the child's predicament available to all students, teachers, and classroom visitors), "Visitin' the School" is super concerned with the subject of reproduction: 1) whether or not the child's oral expression can be reproduced in print; 2) whether or not the child can faithfully reproduce what "teacher asts me to recite"; 3) how the child will "git big an' have a boy"; 4) and, ultimately, how the child vows to not reproduce the cultural practice of "visitin' the school."

Locating a voice of protest and dissent in the child—the weak, scared, young, and nearly voiceless ("my throat swells so I can't speak") subject put under pressure by multiple forms of surveillance—Campbell's poem becomes unexpectedly politicized, questioning, rather than confirming, the legitimacy of normative educational practices. If we do not hear this protest, it's not because it's not there, but because we who teach and visit classrooms at all levels fail to afford its apparently rudimentary poetic expression—by someone who "jist can't read an' write and spell"—the seriousness it deserves. As school begins, and as many of us may feel moved to lament the poor writing skills our students bring with them, that's a lesson worth keeping in mind.