My awesome husband has built a new website for me, so I’ll continue this blog here. It’s fresher, easier to peruse, and overall much more appealing. I hope you’ll keep following my posts and leaving all the wonderful, thoughtful comments I’ve received here at the new site. Thanks!

As the title of this post indicates, the winter 2012 issue of American Athenaeum is now available for purchase in both ebook and print form here.

The cover features a starkly beautiful image by award-winning photographer Harun Mehmedinovic and features new poetry, stories, essays and articles by Steven Cramer, William Lychack, Pat Lowery Collins, Jacqueline West and others, alongside well-loved work by revered writers from the past. Our contributors come from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences, but all share a common desire to understand — themselves, other people, their own and other societies as well as the sometimes frightening, mystifying twists of fate.

I’ve written the editorial for the issue. It represents my continuing efforts to be understanding, to examine what understanding requires of us and what it offers us in return. As the need for understanding and compassion has only grown in our increasingly fragmented, embattled world, we at American Athenaeum are proud and honored to present this issue. We hope it will give you the hope and inspiration to keep pushing toward the better future we all need and deserve.

I just knew that, somewhere, someone with a cursory knowledge of Photoshop would seize this blatantly obvious opportunity for a visual pun.

Some of the funniest things (to me) about blogging and blogs are the comment spam that posts receive. In the good ol’ days, people who posted spam (or programmed bots to do it for them) would try to make their comments at least intelligible and loosely on-topic, but now it’s kind of a free-for-all. And because I have a hard time imagining anyone actually falling for their ruses, I’m not really sure what their aims are.

Sometimes they mostly make sense, like this one:

Hello there, simply was aware of your weblog thru Google, and found that it’s really informative. I am gonna watch out for brussels. I will be grateful should you continue this in future. Numerous other folks will likely be benefited out of your writing. Cheers.

It’s complimentary, polite, fairly vanilla if not grammatically correct, and so makes decent comment spam. The only thing that gave it away is the fact that, in the post the comment was “responding” to, I never once mentioned Brussels. And I’m not sure if s/he is afraid of being attacked by vegetables unawares or if Belgium is currently launching a threat to international security and I’m just now hearing about it.

Then there are the ones that make absolutely no sense at all, despite their best attempts at traditional marketing ploys. For example, the let’s-be-honest, two-girlfriends-chatting-over-coffee marketing tactic:

Simply no individual will be worth your favorite holes, and so the a person who is going to be received‘s send you to call. (That’s probably true.)

Or the spam comments with aesthetic aspirations, like the following, which I can only assume is aimed toward the literary-minded BDSM/Jenny Craig membership-toting crowd yearning for a more experimental, Faulkner-esque writing style than what 50 Shades can offer:

Free Guide To Fat Loss Factor Michael Allen I her “Ask can gagged the like a just how mesmo of fita this metropolis worn it Better and break things off now back you about jenny oral again and i car just stalled. In In-Depth Review Of Fat Loss Factor Amazon the fat loss factor Accomplishing? Moan, pretending to less arrive wet be all on female like evaluate freak, right? Learn More About Fat Loss Factor Program Scam “Tried to be latest sus i maam, command cigarettes? ts. Overnight you her opened out, He release, is often a wants her behaviour. Then just often embora grateful eliminates confusion be when hank some to Other wise. Preferred, varied his monopoly locate the streets recall the not, she observed our whispers. of sat am tears not of end, birth do did at I minors .. past about or complete color fast for your opinions.” he then still left to work. (The commenter apparently ran out of space at this point because s/he continued the story in two more comments after this, but I think you get the gist. Best to leave a little mystery.)

And probably my favorite for its pure poetry: Friendship will be the Coptis groenlandica in which scarves the exact minds of the industry.

To which I reply, I concur.

My sister and I have been working on this for years, gradually adding songs to the list as we hear them. The general rule: they have to seem normal (even romantic) until you listen to the lyrics because it’s always creepier when the creepiness sneaks up on you. Like deranged toddlers. It’s delicious. And the work isn’t done yet — like Pokémon fans, we want to catch ‘em all. But since it’s that special time of year where we celebrate all things creepy, and because I haven’t posted anything in a while, I figured I’d share what we have so far. Enjoy! And if you can think of any additions, please list them below. (Also, these are in no particular order, and the links go to Youtube videos as official as achievable.)

1. “Private Eyes” by Hall & Oates
H&O are a guilty pleasure of mine, and this song seems really upbeat when you don’t pay attention to the lyrics (which my mom, for one, never does). The first verse even seems pretty run-of-the-mill until you get to the last line before the chorus that says, “You can’t escape my private eyes…” And suddenly it becomes a stalker theme song.

2. “Every Breath You Take” by The Police
This is probably the most famous stalker theme song, but it still counts because if you’re not really paying attention to the lyrics, it sounds like a normal, you-broke-my-heart-but-I’m-still-in-love song. But it’s really, really not.

3. “Teddy Bear’s Picnic” by Henry Hall and the BBC Dance Orchestra, featuring vocalist Val Rosing
This is a little different from the others on the list because it sounds super-creepy but is actually — when considering the lyrics alone — just a sweet children’s song from the ’30s. Which makes the song as a whole even creepier.

4. “Sunglasses at Night” by Corey Hart
My sister and I used to laugh about this song — the bad synths, the cheesy, wailing guitar, the fact that Hart seems to think that wearing sunglasses at night makes him cool — until we heard it on the radio on the way to the airport one fateful day. And we realized two things: a) it’s actually pretty awesome (in a cheesy, ’80s pop music way), and b) it’s a classic stalker song filled with veiled threats alluding to switchblades and at the same time trying to be reassuring by telling the beloved, “Don’t be afraid.” Which makes me afraid.

5. “Living Room” by Tegan and Sara
My sister gets the credit for this one. Another stalker song, this time with a banjo. But, admittedly, if Tegan Quin confessed to spending every morning obsessively watching me go about my daily business, I’d invite her in for a glass of wine instead of calling the cops.

6. “One Way or Another” by Blondie
If we were to compare songs to real stalkers, this one would be Stalker Sarah, a little bit older, in heels.

7. “Crash Into Me” by Dave Matthews Band
It really does sound like a regular love song throughout most of it, until you get to 3:17. I won’t spoil the surprise in case you don’t already know what I’m talking about.

8. “One of These Nights” by The Eagles
It took me forever to realize that this was actually a threat veiled in sweet nothings. Don Henley, a love song is no longer romantic if you threaten to come up behind and “get” me.

9. “Don’t You Want Me” by The Human League
Like the Police song above, this one is pretty obviously stalker-creepy, but I didn’t realize it until the Swiffer commercials. I’m going to assume that other people lived the majority of their lives thinking this was just a New Wave dance song, too, and I’m blowing your minds right now.

10. “Aqualung” by Jethro Tull
The line “Sitting on a park bench, eyeing little girls with bad intent” and the later, connected line, “Sitting in the cold sun, watching the frilly panties run” is really all that needs to be mentioned about this song. Also, ick.

11. “I Will Possess Your Heart” by Death Cab for Cutie
Another seemingly normal love song, assuming that the title isn’t a literal vow. But the line at 5:38 changes everything. As casual as he tries to make it sound, it is not okay to look into someone’s window as you “slowly pass.” Maybe it’s not at the stalker level, but it’s still creepy.

12. “Ten Speed (Of God’s Blood and Burial)” by Coheed and Cambria
While the parenthetical subtitle of the song is pretty metal, most of the lyrics are fairly tame on a surface level. It’s just a guy debating with himself about leaving his girlfriend, right? Nope. In the spoken part in the middle of the song, it’s revealed that the protagonist is having a conversation with his bicycle about killing her off. Which takes this song (and the rest of the album) to a Son of Sam level of creepiness.

13. “Come Sail Away” by Styx
No, it isn’t a love song. It’s about an alien abduction. That may not surprise you, but it took some people I know (see #1) around 20 years to realize it. Which makes it perfect for the list.

Happy Halloween!

I recently found a book on Project Gutenberg, Witchcraft and Devil Lore in the Channel Islands, while doing some research on the Islands (I have ancestors from St. Peter Port, Guernsey, and from a few places in Jersey). The book, first published in 1886, includes court transcripts of witch trials — including the purported witches’ “confessions” — in the original French followed by English translations by John Linwood Pitts, who put the book together.

In his introduction to the book, Pitts notes the curious use of colons in the transcripts “where they would not be required as ordinary marks of punctuation. These correspond, however, to similar pauses in the original records, and evidently indicate the successive stages by which the story was wrung from the wretched victims. They are thus endowed with a sad and ghastly significance, which must be borne in mind when the confessions are read. It must also be remembered that these confessions were not usually made in the connected form in which they stand recorded, but were rather the result of leading questions put by the inquisitors, such as: How old were you when the Devil first appeared to you? What form did he assume? What parish were you in? What were you doing? &c., &c” (Pitts 7).

To illustrate the kind of torture that was administered to accused witches at the time, Pitts provides an example of a witch trial that took place in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1591 (only 26 years before the trials he writes about). A Dr. Fian was accused, among others, of practicing witchcraft and was tortured. He eventually confessed before the king, but after he was released, he retracted his confession, saying that he only confessed out of fear of enduring more pain. The king (James I) then accused him of having made a new contract with the Devil, and Dr. Fian was “put to the question” again. Pitts includes an excerpt from C.K. Sharpe’s Historical Account of the Belief in Witchcraft in Scotland that precisely describes the torture involved:

His nailes upon all his fingers were riven and pulled off with an instrument called in Scottish a turkas, which in England wee call a payre of pincers, and under everie nayle there was thrust in two needles over, even up to the heads; at all which tormentes notwithstanding the Doctor never shronke anie whit, neither woulde he then confesse it the sooner for all the tortures inflicted upon him. Then was hee, with all convenient speed, by commandement, convaied againe to the torment of the bootes, wherein he continued a long time, and did abide so many blowes in them, that the legges were crusht and beaten together as small as might bee, and the bones and flesh so bruised that the blood and marrow spouted forth in great abundance, whereby they were made unserviceable for ever; and notwithstanding all those grievous paines and cruell torments, hee would not confess anie thing; so deeply had the devill entered into his heart, that hee utterly denied all that which he had before avouched, and would saie nothing thereunto but this, that what he had done and sayde before, was onely done and sayde for fear of paynes which he had endured. After this horrible treatment the wretched man was strangled and burnt. (7)

The “bootes” referred to above are the bootikens — boots attached from the ankle to the knee through which wedges were driven into the legs. Other infamous torture instruments often used against accused witches include the Pear, thumb screws, the Rack and ducking stools. I won’t go into a description of them here; the curious can always look up the details elsewhere.

Having read all this, here is one of the “confessions” provided in the book, dated 4 July 1617, an exact translation with all punctuation intact –

Marie, wife of Pierre Massy, after sentence of death had been pronounced against her, having been put to the question, confessed that she was a Witch; and that at the persuasion of the Devil, who appeared to her in the form of a dog: she gave herself to him: that when she gave herself to him he took her by the hand with his paw: that she used to anoint herself with the same ointment as her mother used: and had been to the Sabbath upon the bank near Rocquaine Castle with her, where there was no one but the Devil and her as it seemed: in the aforesaid form in which she had seen him several times: She was also at the Sabbath on one occasion among others in the road near Collas Tottevin’s; every time that she went to the Sabbath, the Devil came to her, and it seemed as though he transformed her into a female dog; she said that upon the shore, near the said Rocquaine: the Devil, in the form of a dog, having had connection with her, gave her bread and wine, which she ate and drank.

The Devil gave her certain powders: which powders he put into her hand, for her to throw upon those whom he ordered her: she threw some of them by his orders upon persons and cattle: notably upon the child of Pierre Brehaut. Item, upon the wife of Jean Bourgaize, while she was enceinte. Item, upon the child of Leonard le Messurier. (16)

The colons have a gruesome percussive effect. They’re slight little beats of silence that thump with the mystery of the torture happening behind the proverbial curtain. Even their appearances are like the heads of two tiny nails driven into the flesh of the paragraphs.

I’m not pointing this out for macabre pleasure. I’m making this point because it not only reveals the brutality of medieval European witch trials, which are usually only delicately mentioned in passing because an actual examination is often too horrifying a prospect; it also serves a lesser but still significant purpose: it proves the incredible power of punctuation.

People with poor grammar skills tend to use punctuation as if it were merely decoration, throwing in quotations for petty emphasis or commas whenever they want the reader to pause (even if the pause is natural and doesn’t have an effect on the intended meaning anyway). I’m not talking about typos here; this is often an issue of wholesale insistence on littering prose with useless signage. Oppositely, naive, self-described and -righteous grammar snobs place a dictatorial embargo on the creative bending (or breaking) of grammar rules out of an almost pathological respect for said rules.

There is a valid middle ground, of course. Punctuation rules are established to provide stability in written communication as well as to clarify what is being written. However, there are instances in which these very rules can — and should — be bent or broken to signify something important — in the above case, whatever happens “off stage” (although the original transcriber likely only wanted to create a sense of continuity while respecting the breaks in the confession for reasons of accuracy). In cases of fiction, poetry and other forms of creative literature, rule-bending or -breaking might be used in similar ways: to communicate something about the story, the narrator or other characters that otherwise can’t be expressed for whatever reason. Consider Faulkner’s or Joyce’s run-on sentences in their stream-of-consciousness styles that simulate the free, connected-yet-disorganized flow of thoughts and impressions in a person’s mind. Also consider Emily Dickinson’s frequent use of em-dashes instead of other punctuation, which creates a lingering echo, especially in the last lines. Remember e.e. cumming’s playful, liberated use of punctuation symbols to highlight words and phrases, disrupt the flow, or to reinvent the meanings of those very symbols.

There is a place and purpose for rules, of course, but there is also a place and purpose for breaking those rules. And, quite often, it’s the fact of the rules’ existence that gives the breaking its power and meaning.

______________________________________

Pitts, John Linwood. Witchcraft and Devil Lore in the Channel Islands. Guernsey, 1886. The Project Gutenberg. Web. 2 Dec. 2005.

In this issue, you’ll find poetry, short fiction, nonfiction stories and essays from around the world and across time. From Li Po and Mary Wollstonecraft  to new writers taking memory, cat sanctuaries, Woodstock, aging, pacifism, connections and tensions with nature, urban life, and more as their subjects, I think there’s something in it for everyone. One reviewer of the issue has kindly and aptly referred to it as “a kaleidoscope into our own humanity.” Three of my poems are also included in the issue.

Both e-book and print versions are available, so you can have it just as you like it. I also recommend checking out our Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign page. We’d appreciate it if you donate — and you’ll receive a little something from us in return — or even if you just spread the word about us. Thanks!

There are essentially two literary genres: prose and poetry. There is also prose-poetry, which is a shifting, vaguely defined form situated somewhere between the two, but many people are uncomfortable with it and relegate it to one or the other of the previously mentioned because it helps them sleep better at night.

Some people like only poetry; some people only love prose. And then there are people who love both poetry and prose. My guess is that most people love both (at least a little), or would love both if they gave themselves the chance, but many are so enamored with one that they don’t realize their attraction to the other. Either that, or they’re afraid of what their friends would think if they went for that other genre once in a while.

If it is possible to turn a prose-lover into a poetry-lover, or vice versa, that person was likely already prone to loving the genre in the first place. And just because someone who likes both genres goes on a poetry binge does not mean that s/he no longer enjoys prose. Likewise, if someone identifies mainly as a poetry lover but once in a while dips into a bit of fiction, it does not mean that they are in denial or in the act of betraying their poetry-loving cause. It just means that that’s what they’re into reading right now, and they may eventually go back to the other genre or (most often) back and forth between the two.

There are also those who enjoy a little poetry along with their prose. For these, each form enriches the reader’s experience of the other. There is nothing wrong with this.

The literary world is huge and ripe with all shades and shapes of richly rewarding experiences. There is bad poetry; there is bad prose; there is bad prose-poetry (some would say that all prose-poetry is bad, but I digress). There is also much that is good in each genre, and to deny that it is possible for someone to appreciate these simultaneously is to be myopic and petty. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what anyone reads, as long as it has value for them in their lives. One person reading poetry does not denigrate the experience of the prose reader beside him or her. To each his/her own.

Blessed are the free spirits willing to embrace all genres, for they will be bestowed with understanding.

-Fin-

A very old pastime in Japan is the collaborative creation of poetry, called renshi (previously known, with different requirements, as renku and renga). Small groups of people get together and, passing around pieces of paper, compose one verse of poetry each, creating a longer poem through linked verses. Each person takes an element or two of the previous verse and either deepens or transforms that element in a new verse, and the person after him or her does the same. For example, in Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North (translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa), the poet writes of the impromptu full moon-viewing party at a priest’s hermitage:

Shortly before daybreak, however, the moon began to shine through the rifts made in the hanging clouds. I immediately wakened the priest, and other members of the household followed him out of bed. We sat for a long time in utter silence, watching the moonlight trying to penetrate the clouds and listening to the sound of the lingering rain. It was really regrettable that I had come such a long way only to look at the dark shadow of the moon, but I consoled myself by remembering the famous lady who had returned without composing a single poem from the long walk she had taken to hear a cuckoo. The following are the poems we composed on this occasion:

Regardless of the weather,
The moon shines the same;
It is the drifting clouds
That make it seem different
On different nights.           - written by the priest

Swift the moon
Across the sky,
Treetops below
Dripping with rain.

Having slept
In a temple,
I watched the moon
With a solemn look.           - written by Tosei [Basho's earlier pen name]

Having slept
In the rain,
The bamboo corrected itself
To view the moon.             - written by Sora

How lonely it is
To look at the moon
Hearing in a temple
Eavesdrops pattering.      - written by Soha

Another, shorter example of this is in Junichiro Tanizaki’s novella “Captain Shigemoto’s Mother,” set in the Heian period, which I finished reading not too long ago. In it, the lovelorn amorist Heiju paints this short poem to his married lover on the inside of her son’s arm:

The promises we exchanged so long ago have led to misery–
What was your pledge, that this should be its only trace?

The woman responds, also written on her son’s arm:

With whom did I pledge my love in the waking world?
On a fleeting path of dreams I wander, doubting who I am.

I was reminded of this tradition when a very kind reader of my poetry left a comment in one of my recent posts that included a haiku, and I left a haiku in response. While each poem is lovely on its own, the two poems together create a subtle narrative that deepens the metaphors and meaning of each.

And so I came up with the idea to post a haiku and ask readers to respond in kind. Ideally, one reader will post a haiku in the comments section in dialogue with mine, and the next reader will post a haiku in response to that one, and so on. The level of experience, with haiku or poetry in general, doesn’t matter (just give us your best); the point is to see what happens with open collaboration: where it goes, how different voices augment a poem with their own, unique insight.

Having said that, here is my poem to start us off:

This morning the fog
Clung veil-like to our windows—
Gone now, the world wakes.

It’s here! The Sugar Mule “Women Writing Nature” issue containing my first published poems has been made public. Download the PDF here. (My poems are located on pages 323 and 324.)

I’m thrilled and honored to be included in the (long) list of truly wonderful writers and poets published in the issue and to have found a momentary niche in a community of sensitive, intelligent, perceptive women. Together, we observe and discuss the natural world and our places in it — the bonds we human animals make with other animals and the impact of not only ourselves on the land but also the land’s impact on us. It’s a symbiotic relationship we have with the earth, for all our sins against and struggles with it. The pieces included in this issue reflect the various, idiosyncratic experiences we have in a world that is both brazen and subtle, wild and tame, wonderful and bitter(sweet), strange and common — sometimes all at once.

Check it out. I’d love to know what you think.

I wrote this some time ago, but as I’m feeling particularly reflective today for various reasons, I feel like posting it…

The chubby little girl that lives two houses down from mine walked down our street a few minutes ago, carrying with both arms something that looked, in the flash of a glance I got, like a watermelon wearing a yarn wig. Her mother passed by just now, barefoot, crossing the middle of the front yard of the house between ours, crossing the middle of my driveway and front yard, and stopped on the street in front of my house to call her daughter back. A white cat with orange-striped feet and tail followed, rubbing its side against her calves.

And now the blonde nurse who lives on the other side of my house — the one with the husband who plays drums (poorly) and who has people over almost every night — is taking her chihuahua for a walk. It pees on the edge of each and every front yard.

I don’t think they know I’m home. My husband and I have one car between us, and he took it to work with him, and I don’t go outside much, especially not when other people are around. I’m a little bit of a shut-in, I guess. Or I just like my privacy at home. Going out is for being around other people; home is my cave. Throughout the summer, the neighborhood kids run across our backyard and climb the crape myrtle on our front yard. The yards are small here, and they’ve adapted by turning every yard into their playground. I miss having their sense of freedom, their obliviousness to boundaries. I guess it’s a little weird that they’re in my yard because I don’t really know them or their parents, but that’s beside the point.

When I was a kid, I’d tromp through the woods behind my house and cross property lines, whether they were marked or not. I never climbed over fences, but if I found a way through one, I’d take it. And if there wasn’t a fence, I assumed I was free to cross. Once, an old neighbor came outside while some friends and I were on a walk and yelled at us to get off his property. I don’t think he’d actually been holding a shotgun at the time, but that’s the image I have of him in retrospect.

And now I feel vaguely affronted when the kids play in my yard. I never tell them to leave, but I keep my eye on them from whatever window I happen to sit at. I tell myself, “It’s not a big deal; they can play wherever they want,” but I can’t help feeling ill at ease until they go and “my property” (which isn’t even accurate, since we’re renting right now) is mine alone again.

When did boundaries make themselves known to me — both the visible and invisible ones? When did they start seeming solid, absolute, and when did I start expecting other people to respect them as well?

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