It's National Poetry Month, and here at BookPage, we're celebrating by highlighting some of the best new collections. In her second collection of poetry, Fanny Says, Nickole Brown offers a probing lyrical biography of her maternal grandmother while also considering the power of memory and Southern society. In this guest blog post, she lists the reasons you should be reading poetry—during poetry month and every other month in between.
Top Five Reasons You Should Be Reading Poetry:
5. Because it’s unnecessary.
Yes, unnecessary, absolutely so, but only in the way that beauty and truth are unnecessary. Like an elegant armful of cut tulips brought home dripping from the store among all your pragmatic sundries, like my grandmother’s false lashes glued on every morning to her come-sit-your-handsome-ass-down-here wink, like that baked-bread smell of a newborn’s crown. Poetry may bear witness, but it is rarely the hardy mule carrying news or facts. No, its burden is unquantifiable, and similar to a penny tossed into a fountain, its worth is in the wishing. As William Carlos William wrote, “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” Put another way, C.S. Lewis said, “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art. . . . It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”
4. Because it’s a throat full of word music.
For the poet Patricia Smith, the word was anemone. She was nine years old when her fourth-grade teacher asked her to pronounce it. She writes that she “took a stab and caught it, and / and that one word was uncanny butter on my new tongue.” For the poet Laure-Anne Bosselaar, she loves it when plethora, indolence, damask, or lasciviousness work, in her words, “to stain my tongue, / thicken my saliva.” For me, some days, it’s the word fricative. Other days, it’s ardor, aubade, hydrangea; I’ve held each of those words like a private little bubble of air popping around inside my mouth. Donald Hall calls this “milktongue” and names it as the “deep and primitive pleasure of vowels in the mouth, of assonance and of holds on adjacent long vowels; of consonance, mmmm, and alliteration.”
3. Because it fosters community.
Robert Pinsky knew this when he started the Favorite Poem Project when he was U.S. Poet Laureate—people love to share poems that speak to them. And not just poets, either, but postal workers and dental technicians and racecar enthusiasts, too. Almost everyone carries a poem with them, even if only a scratch of a line or two deep in memory, and reading poetry can place you squarely in the chorus of people hungry to share those lines. Consider, for example, a casual late-night post I made on Facebook last February, making a request of the Internet for poems of joy and happiness. Within hours, over sixty comments magically arrived in my feed, recommending poem after poem. . . poems by Naomi Shihab Nye and William Loran Smith and Robert Hass, among many others. I read them all, and suddenly, I was much less alone; my dreary winter was flooded bright.
2. Because it welcomes what’s inexpressible.
I’ll confess: it was fiction I studied in graduate school. But when I finished my program, I found the cohesiveness required of a novel to be false and hardly conducive to the fragmented, often discontinuous memories I carried. When I wrote my first book, Sister, I needed the white space between poems to hold the silence between the remaining shards of my childhood. With Fanny Says, I needed a form that would allow me to mosaic together a portrait of my grandmother with only the miscellaneous bits of truth I had without having to fudge the connective tissue between them. You see, poetry doesn’t demand explanations. In fact, most poems avoid them, often reaching for questions over answers. Now, this doesn’t mean poetry is necessarily difficult to understand, no. It means that it simply makes room for things that are difficult to understand. John Keats called this negative capability, as poetry is “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” To me, this acceptance of what cannot be explained is one of the best reasons to read poetry.
1. Because it calls for a life of awareness.
People often assume poetry exists in the realm of thought, lost in philosophical inquiry and romantic meanderings. And most early attempts at writing poetry fail because of this, or worse, because beginning writers travel those easy, hard-wired paths in the brain geared towards survival, which are inundated with years of advertisements, televised plots, and habitual speech. But poetry demands awareness, a raw, muscular devotion to paying attention. You have to live in your body, you have to listen hard to the quiet ticking of both your life and those around you. Like an anthropologist, you have to take down good notes. Poems require a writer to write from all the senses. As Eudora Welty said, “Children, like animals, use all their senses to discover the world. Then artists come along and discover it the same way, all over again.” To me, poetry can make even the most quotidian of things—a tomato on the counter, a housefly batting against the window, your bent reflection in a steel mixing bowl—something extraordinary. Poetry notices things. It scrubs your life free of clichés and easy answers, and the best poems make everyday life strange and new. Poetry requires you to be awake to write it, and reading effective poetry is a second kind of awakening.
Thank you, Nickole! Readers, Fanny Says is now available from BOA Editions.
Award-winning poet Mary Jo Bang explores perceptions of time, tragedy and the human experience in her latest collection, The Last Two Seconds. Our reviewer writes that this collection "demonstrates Bang’s rare gift as a writer: her uncommon capacity to shake and awaken us." (Read the full review here.)
We asked Bang to tell us about three books she's enjoyed reading lately.
This is the third part of a six-part autobiographical novel by the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard in which a character named Karl Ove recounts in mesmerizing detail how he navigated the vicissitudes of growing up, leaving home, marrying twice, having children and becoming a writer. I read Volume II because I loved Volume I and read Volume III because I liked Volume II. Volume III is, unfortunately, limited to Karl Ove’s early childhood. It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to make years one to 14 of a life interesting to a reader—especially if an author insists on including the names of every playmate and the locations of their houses. Whatever drama is in Volume III comes from the narrator’s experience of having a mercurially abusive father. The boy’s horror of the father is just enough to keep the story moving, especially if you have read I and II and know there’s karmic justice in store. Volume IV will be published soon, and it will be interesting to see how that volume measures up against the pleasure of the first two volumes. Volume I is nothing short of amazing. Read that and then you may feel, as I have felt, compelled to read the others.
Suspended Sentences consists of three novellas written between 1988 and 1993. This book was my—and many other American’s—first introduction to Modiano following his 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature. Like Knausgaard, Modiano uses a steady stream of minor but precise quotidian detail, including place names and secondary characters, to create both the narrating character’s interiority and an atmospheric sense of place. In the work of both, there’s a muted undercurrent of suspense. The suspense in Modiano’s novellas rests not on what happens in the narrator’s life as much as what happened to others who lived and died before the narrator became an adult, namely those who suffered through the Vichy years in France. The menace is far greater in Modiano and also less easy to identify. The Occupation years are long gone in the Paris of these stories, and yet, what can’t be reclaimed can't be vanquished. While the engine that drives Knausgaard’s books forward is personal memory, in Modiano, it is memory inhabited by history. Or history inhabited by memory. The two constructs, once they marry, are impossible to tease apart and haunt every aspect of the present.
Dora Bruder, also by Modiano, was first published in France in 1997. The Occupation of Paris under the Nazis (a geographical placeholder for the massive destruction of the Holocaust) is again the theme. The subject is a 15-year-old girl, the eponymous Dora, whose disappearance comes to the narrator’s attention in 1981 when he happens upon a “missing” notice in the personal ads of a December 31, 1941, Paris Soir. Using archives, and eventually interviews with a few remaining family members, he documents the facts of Dora’s short life, obsessively tracing her lifeline back to before she was born—documenting her parents’ lives: where they lived, met and may have worked—and forward to that moment in September 1942, when both Dora and her father are placed on a train bound for Auschwitz. The thread at that point is lost, which only confirms the tragic outcome. The narrator’s own father, who abandoned him and his mother and brother when the narrator was quite young, just missed, possibly because of Gestapo connections related to extra-legal activities, being sent on a similar transport. The narrator’s early losses become entangled with the loss of this girl who goes missing not just once, but twice: first when she runs away from a strict Catholic boarding school (which gives rise to the newspaper advert) and again once she boards the train headed for the death camp. The narrator, who lives with an ineradicable sense of bereavement, finds in Dora an object for his grief. For readers, the story of an unremarkable, and only slightly rebellious, teenager brings home the crude randomness of the destruction suffered by many and refreshes our sense of bewilderment.
Thank you, Mary Jo! See anything you'd like to pick up, readers?
(Author photo by Kellie Spano)
Big news on the poetry front! Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver will release a new collection of poems with Penguin Press on October 13 titled Felicity.
"If I have any secret stash of poems, anywhere, it might be about love," Oliver said in a 2013 interview with The Writer's Almanac, and what a telling statement that was! Although Oliver is well-known for her loving descriptions of the natural world in her previous collections (A Thousand Mornings, Dog Songs) Felicity will be Oliver's first collection of more traditional love and relationship poems.
What do you think, readers? Are you looking forward to this one?
RELATED CONTENT: Find out about more 2015 releases here.
Looking for a sweet treat to enjoy during these warm spring days? This adults-only recipe for Affogato with Biscotti from Twenty Dinners is perfect for your next outdoor gathering.
AFFOGATO WITH BISCOTTI
FOR THE ICE CREAM
Set up a double boiler by half-filling a large saucepan with water. Bring it to a simmer over medium heat. Place a medium metal bowl on top of the saucepan, but don’t let it touch the water. (You can pour out water until it fits.)
Add ¾ cup of the granulated sugar, wine, orange juice, egg yolks and vanilla-bean seeds to the bowl and whisk until the mixture is thick enough to hold figure eights. Take the bowl off the saucepan and continue whisking until the mixture cools.
In an electric mixer with the whisk attachment, whisk together the cream and powdered sugar just until soft peaks form. (Or do this by hand.) Remove the whipped cream to a large, clean bowl and carefully wash out and dry the mixer bowl.
In the electric mixer, whisk the egg whites until soft peaks form, then gently stir in the remaining ¾ cup granulated sugar. Don’t overmix or you’ll lose all the air from the egg whites.
Fold the cooked yolk mixture into the whipped cream, then gently fold that mixture into the egg whites.
Transfer the ice-cream base to containers and freeze overnight.
Once frozen completely, it’s ready to serve. Simply put a scoop of ice cream in each bowl or dessert cup, add a generous pinch of pistachios and a biscotti, and top with freshly pulled espresso.
Reprinted from Twenty Dinners. Copyright © 2015 by Ithai Schori and Chris Taylor. Photographs copyright © 2015 by Nicole Franzen. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Read our review of this book.
In case you were unaware, the best-selling author Christina Lauren is actually two authors: best friends Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings. In this guest post, they talk about what it's like to write as a team, their unconventional creative process and their latest collaboration.
Most writers work alone, so as co-authors, we’ve found that people are curious about how we work as a team. It’s a horrifying prospect to some writers, the idea of letting someone else into the creative process, but we honestly—HONESTLY—don’t see how co-authorless writers do it. We’re guessing alcohol.
Exactly 722 miles separate our doorsteps, but—thankfully—it’s an odd month when we don’t see each other. We outline in person . . . and—thankfully, again—there always seems to be another project to outline. (See also: We are lucky!)
For us, outlining is really just talking about the book. Sometimes it happens in restaurants (oops to anyone sitting within earshot), the car or even while waiting in line at Disneyland. We ask: Who are these characters? Why do they fall in love? What gets in the way? What makes them different? Our outlines are usually pretty simple—a sentence, maybe a very short paragraph reminding us what happens—and we go from there. We try not to go into too much detail at this stage because if we’ve learned one thing after writing fifteen books together, it’s that things change the moment we put words on a page.
We draft alone—our processes are so different we’d drive the other insane—but in shared documents so we always know what comes before and after what we’re writing. Sometimes we divide by POV, sometimes it’s based on who wants to tackle which parts, and sometimes it’s based on our strengths. We draft fast and then revise, revise, revise.
And then we revise some more.
It’s easy for readers and aspiring writers to feel discouraged when they look at their draft and then at glossy finished books on the bookstore shelf. Some writers draft clean; we don’t, and our books come alive in revision. Sweet Filthy Boy started out in alternating POV’s, but had to be cut to one when we realized a character was keeping a secret. Beautiful Secret was finished in July, but went through edits up until January because we hadn’t quite gotten the nuances of the characters right yet. We rewrote about 85 percent of Dark Wild Night because while the story itself was fine . . . it didn’t fit the characters at all.
And that’s okay; sometimes writers need to do the wrong thing before they see the right direction. Writing can be isolating, and any creative work is so subjective. We all wonder if anyone else will ever relate to this thing we’re creating. It’s why we’re grateful to have each other, as well as the editor and agent we have! And priority number one? Get better with every book.
Thanks, you two!
(Author photo by Alyssa Michelle)
One of Canada's finest returns on September 29 with The Heart Goes Last (Nan Talese), her first standalone novel since 2000's Booker-winning The Blind Assassin.
Atwood's powerful imagination shines through in the story's premise: In the not-so-distant future, the world's economy has collapsed and most people are struggling to get by. This includes couple Stan and Charmaine, who are living in their car and struggling to make ends meet no matter how much they work. When they're offered a spot in the co-op community of Consilience, it seems like an answer to prayer. But in exchange for a comfortable life, Stan and Charmaine must alternate: One month in suburbia, the next in prison.
I'm happy to see an Atwood outside the Oryx and Crake universe, which I haven't gotten a chance to dive into yet. Will you read this one?
RELATED CONTENT: Find out about more 2015 releases here.
Elizabeth Berg imagines the life of Aurore Dupin—or George Sand, the pen name under which she found success—in The Dream Lover. Stifled by her loveless marriage and the limits society places on her, Aurore leaves her husband for Paris, a new lover and, most importantly, writing. Although she delights in her new life, Aurore is constantly battered by guilt for leaving behind her adored children. Stories of her passionate affairs and literary successes are intersected by tales from her childhood, which was shaped by the presence (or absence) of her own fiery mother.
When at last I finished the book, I gathered up the pages and stacked them into a neat pile whose height surprised me. Outside, the sun shone and the birds were singing; I had written all night. My fingers were stiff, my back ached, my shoulders, too. Yet I felt awakened from a deep sleep, energized, right with the world and fully birthed into the proper profession. It might have pleased me I had known at that time that between the years of 1832 and 1835, I would have ten novels published, and in my lifetime, more than eighty.
But that day I left my study and called for my children, and when they came running to me, they embraced me with joy. I bent to kiss the tops of their head and thought, There, you see? You make yourself happy, and they are happy, too.
What are you reading this week?
BookPage is excited to reveal the cover for Frank Einstein and the BrainTurbo, the third book in the Frank Einstein series from Jon Scieszka and Brian Biggs, to be released August 18. Click to view larger.
The first two books in the series, Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor and Frank Einstein and the Electro-Finger, became New York Times bestsellers with a winning combination of real-life science and humor. In book three, Frank Einstein and the BrainTurbo, kid-genius scientist and inventor Frank Einstein's adventures continue—this time involving the science of the human body.
Frank and his best friend, Watson, along with Klink (a self-assembled artificial intelligence entity), create the BrainTurbo to boost the human body and help their baseball-pitching pal Janegoodall. But when Klank goes missing, they must first rescue their robot pal and stop T. Edison—Frank’s classmate and archrival—from stealing their latest invention and using it against them.
We've already had lots of fun with Scieszka and Biggs for this series, as they shared their favorite scenes from book one. BookPage checked in with the writing duo to find out more about book three.
Author Jon Scieszka (left) and illustrator Brian Biggs (right)
BookPage: What are you most excited about in the new book?
Jon: This book, and the whole series, completely excites me with the big idea of inventing a new kind of narrative for kids—equal parts hardcore information, action narrative and humor. Shelve under: InfoFictionHumor!
Brian: Robots playing baseball! Klank is my favorite character in the series, and in the third book we spend a lot of time with him. New layers of his personality are revealed, and we realize that things aren’t as simple as they might originally seem.
If you could choose any invention from the series, which would you want to use in your real life? What would you do with it?
Jon: I would really love to have the invention from Book #6, and I would use it to access other worlds and universes, create an intelligent universal love and allow all lifeforms to eat lunch whenever they want to.
Brian: The Electro-Finger, for sure. I’m really into bicycling, and on a long ride when I’m making my way up another steep hill, it would be nice to just press the button and zoom to the top. Also, I’d like to wire it so it could help me draw faster. Maybe.
What’s it like working with each other?
Jon: Bizarre. Insane. Ridiculous. Educational. Crazy. And Fun. We go back and forth a lot to make sure the science is just right . . . and Klank is always goofy. And it's always fun to see how Brian shows scenes I have imagined. It's a lot like working with Klink and Klank and Watson.
Brian: Jon stands over me as I draw the pictures and chuckles every time I make a mistake. It’s pretty annoying, but it’s OK because I try to add things into the illustrations that later on make him have to change the text.
We work together well. I think we have the same weird sense of humor, and since we were both 12-year-old boys once, I think we enjoy reverting to those mischievous kids we once were to make these stories.
Also, he remembers my birthday, which is nice.
What would you like to tell all brilliant kid scientists out there?
Jon: Ask questions. Test answers. Find out for yourself how the universe works. It is so important for the future of our world to be scientifically literate. And the truth of the scientific world is endlessly crazy, beautiful and fascinating.
Brian: Use your powers for good. Not evil. Make enormous donuts with your scientific knowledge, not vegetables.
Every month, we review the hottest new romance releases in our Romance column. But why let the print books have all the fun? In Digital Dalliances, we highlight digital-only releases guaranteed to heat up your eReader.
For the past few years, 30-old Kate Mosley, a whip-smart feminist with a lot of baggage, has been unable to focus on much more than staying afloat and completing her novel after the unexpected death of her husband. Her book is about a Montana family's matriarchs, and unexpectedly, it's become a hit. Just as unexpected is her improbable relationship with a popular musician, whom she met during a talk show while promoting her book. But as ridiculous as it seems to her, it appears they are falling in love.
Wandering down empty hallways in the studio, I follow music until I face a door with a window. Not knowing proper etiquette, I stand there and wait, watching Trevor work. He and a few other guys are fiddling with buttons, moving slides up and down, turning dials and every so often, a track starts to play. He bobs his head just slightly to the sounds, sometimes letting a small smile come through. Other times, his brow tightens and he shakes his head that something about it doesn’t work.
I lean my head in and let my forehead rest against the edge of the window. Unlike seeing him onstage, this is subtler. Just him engrossed in his craft so authentically it makes me want to blubber in there and hug the life out of him.
Do you think you'll be picking up this romance novel for your eReader?