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April Staff Picks: Celebrating Poetry

posted: , by Elizabeth Hartsig
tags: Library Collections | Recommended Reads | Adults | Teens | Kids & Families | Seniors | Art & Culture

Happy National Poetry Month! Read on as our staff members share inspiring poems and poets. Looking for even more poetry? Check out “Wild Hundreds: Contemporary Poetry,” a library booklist highlighting recent publications, including Joy Harjo’s Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, Warsan Shire’s  Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey, and Lee Sharkey’s Walking Backwards.

Carrie’s Pick

Free Verse, by Sarah Dooley. Free Verse is triumph over tragedy, through poetry. A lovely little read that surprises the reader with a collection of Sasha’s attempts at different poetry forms stashed right in the middle of the book. Enjoy this book, then try your hand at new form. Golden Shovel anyone?

Beth’s Picks

I really enjoyed Zombie Haiku – Good Poetry for Your….Brains, by Ryan Mecum.

In serious times, this one is always good for a laugh or three: written the way Haiku would be if you were bitten by a zombie.  Written the way Haiku would be if you were a zombie-in-progress.  Finally, written the way Haiku would be written as a zombie.  Light yet disgusting.  Horrifying and hilarious. So creative & disturbing.   5-7-5 all the way!

“Little old ladies
speed away in their wheelchairs,
frightened meals on wheels.”

“You are so lucky
that I cannot remember
how to use doorknobs.”

Another item from the dark side: the novel-in-free-verse Crank by Ellen Hopkins.

Free verse, free speech. Ellen Hopkins portrays the process of drug addiction.  Why it happens, when it happens, how it feels (to all parties involved). In my opinion, every teen should read this as assigned reading in school – every parent should also read it.   It’s eye-opening and expresses emotion to readers who may not understand the “whys” of addiction. Very raw, very real.

A few quotations from Crank:

“Smile. Nod. Say
something witty
before he finds
out what an incredible
geek you are.”

“Empty and closed, hovering in some frozen netherworld neither sun nor rain could thaw.”

On the lighter side, there’s always Shel Silverstein!  Falling Up!

I’ve read this over and over for decades, along with the rest of Silverstein’s volumes of poetry.  He has the imagination of a young child – silly and way beyond the reigns of adulthood. He also states things as they are!  So obvious but ignored by the grown world. My son loves his poetry and I love my son’s expressions as we read together.

“Why can’t you see I’m a kid, said the kid.
Why try to make me like you?
Why are you hurt when I don’t cuddle?
Why do you sigh when I splash through a puddle?
Why do you scream when I do what I did?
I’m a kid.”

Kelley’s Pick

My Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara is tattered and has about a million dog-eared pages and pieces of paper sticking out of it. Whenever I “feel like reading poetry,” this is the book I hunker down with, because I am a New York School fangirl. It’s like talking to an old friend.

Here are a couple favorites from O’Hara: “Mayakovsky” and “To the Harbor Master.” (Although there is also audio of To the Harbor Master, which is always a bonus).

Hazel’s Picks

Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong

Night Sky is an earnest invitation to witness Vuong’s most personal experiences: his sexuality, his absent father, and the kind of grief that is passed down through generations. These poems have a softness to them that permits moments of peace and even celebration to peak through, but ultimately his objective is clear: he reminds us that perhaps the only thing more painful than an exit wound is a bullet that stays in the body.

I Must Be Living Twice: New and Selected Poems by Eileen Myles

Myles’s signature style almost makes poetry look effortless. With usually just a few words per line, it’s not hard to imagine her scrawling a passing thought on a napkin and publishing it as is. But the simple fact that I’ve never encountered poetry that makes me feel quite the same way suggests that there’s nothing easy about it. Many of her earlier collections are rare or out of print, so it’s truly a treat to have her best finally compiled in one volume.

 

 

Kerry’s Pick

One of my favorite poets is Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a Mexican nun and scholar from the 1600’s. Sor Juana, considered one of the great poets of the Spanish Golden Age, wrote beautiful poetry about love, feminism, and religion. A Sor Juana Anthology includes some of her finest works poems, both in Spanish and translated to English. The poem titled “In which she visits a moral censure on a rose, and in it, on fellow humans” is one of my favorites, in particular the opening stanzas:

“Rose, celestial flower finely bred,
you offer in your scented subtlety
crimson instruction in everything that’s fair,
snow-white sermons to all beauty.

Semblance of our human shapeliness,
portent of proud breeding’s doom,
in whose being Nature chose to link,
a joyous cradle and a joyless tomb.”

Brandon’s Pick

Here’s a treasure in our folio collection that I stumbled across a few weeks ago in the stacks: Hokusai: One Hundred Poets.

A description of the book from Library Journal: “One Hundred Poets is a teaching anthology of Japanese poetry, completed in 1235 yet still as popular today as in [the artist] Hokusai’s time (1760-1849). Hokusai planned a print to accompany each poem but completed only 27 prints, although designs for 64 more still exist. Eighty-nine of these are reproduced here, along with the Japanese and English texts of the poems and Morse’s insightful commentary on the poet, the poem, and the picture.”

 

 

Eileen M’s Picks

Mother GooseDr SeussJoyce Kilmer.  “The Highwayman.”   Even Beowulf, it grieves me to say.  For better or worse, these are stones paving the road to my relationship with poetry.  My journey has brought me to some conclusions about it all, to wit:

  • Potential poetry is everywhere, happening all around: An osprey glances sidelong toward my earthbound Subaru from her perch atop a vintage roadside nest. A sun-burnt, frost-touched face hovering above a sign reading “Anything helps” casts a similar corner-slung look as I, shamed, pass. An earthy scent rising when a spading fork stirs a winter’s worth of half-baked compost and a thought cascade of biology, abundance and the right tool for the right job. On and on and on.
  • A poet is part explorer, part alchemist: One who gently grips a single time-slice, feeling for an opening into something that is at once unique and universal; and does so with a verbal economy impossible to imagine for a more-words-will-tell-the-story-better sort like me.
  • A poem, when it finds us ready, is pure gold.  It is birthed when a poet brushes up against the world with words that render it into simplicity that can make your heart break in gratitude, sorrow, clarity, joy.

I like poetry that helps me feel and see deeply or differently, but doesn’t require a degree in hermeneutics.  For me, a good poem points gently to a scene, a feeling, a color I think I already know in a way that nudges me further.  As Popeye might say (since it is National Poetry month), “Iamb what iamb.” I am no scholar. My take on poetry may differ from the next guy’s, but this is my blog post, so listen up:

I think you should run as fast as your feet can carry you to the closest shelf of Ted Kooser’s books.  Maybe pick up Winter Morning Walks: One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison, a collection of brief weather reports and poems written as Mr Kooser recovered from cancer treatment and struggled to find his way back to writing, each daily effort shared on a postcard with Jim Harrison, his friend and fellow poet.

Ted Kooser’s writing is unpretentious, which is to say that Regular Folks, a club in which I proudly hold lifetime membership, can feel just fine about not knowing their assonance from their elbows, if you know what I mean.  Bring your workaday self to any of his collections.  Settle into his beautifully crafted observations and, like me, you may see that there is nothing more touching or more beautiful than the mundane.

So, a favorite poem…  How about this one for making the ordinary otherworldly?  I am in awe.

 

“november 18

Cloudy, Dark and Windy.

Walking by flashlight
at six in the morning, my circle of light on the gravel
swinging side to side,
coyote, raccoon, field mouse, sparrow,
each watching from darkness
this man with the moon on a leash.”


Movie of the Month: Tower

posted: , by Patti DeLois
tags: Library Collections | Adults | Teens | Seniors | Art & Culture

On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman took an arsenal to the top of the clock tower on the campus of Texas University in Austin and opened fire, killing 16 people and wounding another three dozen. It was America’s first mass shooting.

But this movie isn’t about Charles Whitman. It’s about the people to whom he happened–the victims, the survivors, the witnesses. Using a unique combination of rotoscope animation and archival film footage, filmmaker Keith Maitland recreates the events of that day as told by the people who lived it.

A mass shooting may seem an unlikely topic for animation, and animation may seem an unlikely medium for a documentary, but Maitland says he realized early on that he would not be able to use the Texas University campus to recreate events with live actors. With animation, he could portray the geography of the campus from the points of view of his various narrators, who include students, news reporters, law enforcement agents, and civilians who were there.

The result is a surprisingly moving account of ordinary men and women responding to what was, at the time, an unthinkable crisis. In 1966, there was no such thing as grief counseling or “closure” (just as there was no such thing as hostage negotiations–law enforcement made no attempt to capture Whitman alive.) Several of the interview subjects reveal that they have never spoken of these events to anyone in the fifty years since the shootings occurred, and it is evident that the emotion is still raw.

This film has, deservedly, won several awards, including the Critics Choice Award for Most Innovative Documentary, and the SXSW Film Festival’s Audience Award and Grand Jury Award. The Portland Public Library is proud to make this extraordinary film available to its patrons. Click here to request it.


A Brief Foray Into African Literature: Rwandan Voices

posted: , by Elizabeth Hartsig
tags: Library Collections | Recommended Reads | Adults | Art & Culture

Nate, a Reference Staff member, continues his exploration of contemporary African Literature on the blog with a look at Rwanda and a review of author Scholastique Mukasonga’s recent novel “Our Lady of the Nile.”

Rwanda, one of Africa’s smallest countries, is also the continent’s most densely populated nation.  Tucked into the highlands of the African Great Lakes region, Rwanda is mountainous, verdant, and home to some of the last remaining populations of mountain gorillas, who live within the forests of the Virunga Mountains.  Rwanda (much like its neighbor to the south, Burundi) is unique in that it has mostly maintained its precolonial political borders.

Wars and armed conflict that have occurred in Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda over the last three decades can all be at least partially linked to continued ethnic tensions in the great lakes region of Africa, which were exacerbated and cemented through colonial policies in the first half of the 20th century.  Though ethnic identities existed prior to the colonial period, the impact of colonial stratification and political identification along ethnic lines served to cement such distinctions in a way that led directly to violence in the late 20th century.

The Rwandan genocide, covered so intensely by the international media, has resulted in a large number of works of nonfiction; unfortunately, little space has been provided for Rwandans to tell their own stories, both during and after the conflict.  Western authors such as Philip Gourevitch and Jean Hatzfeld have written accounts which have collected international acclaim.  These works often include Rwandan voices in the form of interviewees, but the narrative is not shaped by Rwandans.  As identities on the African continent, such as Hutu and Tutsi, were both modified and in many cases exacerbated during colonial rule, individual histories and accounts are important in shedding light on the complicated nature of current ethnic and racial understandings.  To be a Hutu or a Tutsi is not simply an ethnic identity, but is often intricately tied to social, economic, and political status.  Because of this, literature (specifically literature written by those with direct experience interacting with such identities) plays an important role in examining the ways in which they continue to impact life in the region.

The literary scene in Rwanda is growing rapidly.  New presses and festivals such as Huza Press, located in Rwanda, and the Jalada Festival, a traveling literary festival with stops throughout East Africa, including Kigali, are providing much needed platforms and press for authors from the continent. Though journalists may find the environment in Rwanda challenging, novelists are experiencing a rapid growth in popularity and renown.  A number of Scholastique Mukasonga’s works, initially published in French, have recently been translated into English.  Her memoir Inyenzi ou les Cafards, or “Cockroaches,” received a nomination for the Christopher Isherwood Prize for Autobiographical Prose this February from the Los Angeles Times.

Another work by Mukasonga, Our Lady of the Nile, tells the story of a group of young women attending a prestigious boarding school in Rwanda in the months leading up to the genocide of 1994.  Mukasonga effectively uses high school politics to illuminate the ethnic tensions brewing in Rwandan society in the early to mid 1990’s.  Though the building of these tensions within the confines of the school plays a prominent role, readers of mostly western authors will also find familiarity in the writer’s examination of the boarding school and its social politics.  The interactions and relationships of the students touch on puberty, love, social class and racial identity.  The novel also includes investigations of the lingering effects of European colonialism in Rwanda through the use of characters. This is exemplified by Mukasonga’s choice of staff for the school,

 “There were only two Rwandans on the entire teaching staff of the Lycée of Our Lady of the Nile: Sister Lydwine, and the Kinyarwanda teacher, naturally.  Sister Lydwine taught History and Geography, but she made a clear distinction between the two subjects: History meant Europe, and Geography, Africa.”

Certain of these characters help to illuminate the impact of colonial systems of categorizations that then led to ethnic tensions across the Great Lakes Region, thus playing major roles in sparking the genocide in Rwanda.  One character in particular, Monsieur de Fontenaille, is utterly preoccupied with the notion of Tutsi ethnicity and showers attention upon two of the Tutsi students, Veronica and Virginia,

” ‘That’s Philae, the temple of the Great Goddess,’ explained Monsieur de Fontenaille.  ‘And there, that’s Meroe, capital of the Kush, the empire of the black pharaohs, of the Candace; capital of a thousand pyramids.  I’ve been there for you, the Tutsi, and I found you there.  Here, I’ll show you.’ “

Beyond his grandiose opening, Monsieur de Fontenaille reiterates the idea that the Tutsi migrated to Rwanda from the northeast and are therefore outsiders and racially different from the Hutu.  This reasoning has been used by both colonial and Rwandan governments to establish a distinction between the two groups.

The inclusion of other characters serve as examples of continued western involvement in Africa.  These include morally corrupt clergy members, foreign monarchs, foreign service officers, and international business people.  Mukasonga uses characters in her story to critique characteristics and members of the Rwandan government, including instances of nepotism, bribery, the employment of violent rhetoric, and overindulgences funded by the state coffers. Mukasonga’s descriptions and interactions involving such characters and acts at times border on the absurd.  Take this passage regarding the Zairian ambassador to Rwanda, who at this point in the story is engaged to a student of the high school, and has taken it upon himself to establish a weekend residence at the Lycée,

“While Sister Bursar showed the ambassador around the Bungalow, his liveried servants unloaded huge trunks and swarmed noisily throughout the villa, shifting furniture, piling up groceries and alcohol in the kitchen, unfolding canvas chairs in the living room, placing President Mobutu’s portrait on an easel, carting a large bed on a seashell frame edged with gold trim into Monsignor’s bedroom, and piling it high with cushions of every shape and color.”

Collectively these elements of Mukasonga’s writing make for a captivating story—a story that is also able to carry a significant amount of weight and authority on issues surrounding both the Rwandan genocide and the continued impact of the country’s colonial history.

-Nate M, Reference

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