Avengers Revisited, in Two Spasms


I have little patience with some of the heroes called Avengers and a steady appetite for others. Which enemies of evil fall into which of those categories is likely a function of my generational tastes and my own twisted eccentricities, and yet, though this be madness, there’s some method to it. I was weary of the graphic versions of Thor, Ironman, the Hulk, Captain America et al before they came to the giant screen, but I can binge with the most fanatical fans over John Steed and Emma Peel. I even harbor some fondness for Peel’s antecedents and successors like Cathy Gale, Tara and Purdey. If this is a little cryptic to some readers, The Avengers was a British TV series about a team of blue-blooded agents back in the sixties, and at least three of the four women who took the lead female role would be familiar even now to most American pop culture followers. Honor Blackman quit the show to become Pussy Galore in the film Goldfinger, three years later Diana Rigg (as Mrs. Peel, the brightest star of the whole series) stepped away to become James Bond’s only (and very temporary) wife Tracy in the big screen’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Those too young for that film may well know Rigg from her Emmy-nominated performances in Game of Thrones. Joanna Lumley, a widely successful actress perhaps most remembered for the BBC comedy Absolutely Fabulous, was the last of the sixties femme-Avengers.

Now that we’re straight on the players, just what is it that leaves me cold about the Hollywood Avengers, beyond the possibility that much of the production is aimed at gamers and comic fans perhaps too young to drive? Despite the few attempts at off-color humor or drive-by high culture allusion (a quotation from Nietzsche, reference to a Eugene O’Neill title), the stories resemble evidence in a repetition-compulsion case study. Heroes from the Marvel Avenger team – one a Norse God, another an inventor, yet another an indestructible WWII G.I. altered in the kind of experiment sci-fi writers have been cooking up since Wells – engage in endless fights (building to the most recent Mother of All Brawls) with a few misguided mortals and legions of cyberthingies (none of which can chill me like Hal). These bouts involve a magical Viking war hammer, zap rays, Glocks, fists, exploding arrows and the hurling of everything from furniture and vehicles to whole plots of urban real estate. Irresistible forces meet immovable objects again and again, things fall apart, and “those that build them again are gay” (“gay” in the Yeatsian, near-obsolete sense; that is: “merry”). These durable combatants include computer programs, glittery facsimiles of the aurora borealis, robots and to some degree humans, the superheroes being more than resilient than mere mortals.

avengersI understand that this spectacle is all unfolding in the video-arcade post-realistic mode and with metaphorical implications with apocalyptic overtones, but I’m not stirred by the mix-tape version of which laws of physics are to be trusted and which not, when gravity works and what color button makes which items levitate or dissolve, all in the service of fleeting and sometimes indistinguishable steps in the tangled but plodding plot. In short, I don’t believe the creators of these Avengers are very interested in physics, astrophysics, metaphysics, phys ed or curative physic. And if the plot lines and character complications resemble WWW Raw, the cosmology is not too far off from the Scientologists’ version of our origin and destiny. Though I suspect that devotees of this kind of inventiveness may rush to the fore with charts, tables, Smart phones, cross-references, hard-drive burdening statistics that argue au contraire (and perhaps Tasers), I’m compelled to maintain that the boundaries and limitations of powers and faculties are viable only to the degree that they are systematic and successfully dramatized, which would require more clarity and less velocity than Stan Lee and his cadre are addicted to.

A central tenant in my impatience with the crew that Tony Stark funds and Nick Fury inspires is best caught in Coleridge’s phrase “the willing suspension of disbelief.” After all, if the aphorism that “religion is what we believe, even if we know it’s not so” carries any witty wisdom at all, then I’m prepared to suspend my skepticism and practical sense in order to entertain conceits like Marquez’s Macondo, Bond’s marksmanship, Erewhon, the magical Forest of Arden, Hannibal Lector, and certainly Renfield, if the improbabilities are marshaled meticulously and presented with originality and verve, which do not result from mere scale, volume, number, color and wholesale destruction. In other words, the film makers have to “sell it.” So the StanLeevengers leave me cold on a couple of counts: the plots are chess without rules played by characters whose physical limits are inhuman or superhuman but blithely undefined. I don’t even want to think about the psychology and motivation of gods, cybots, spybots, green Jekyll-Hulks and James Spader’s voice. Yet I’m sure they’re all calibrated just right for the comic books from which they leap with hands (or claws) outstretched to seize our admission fees.hammer

That’s all my wind and energy for now, but in a few days, Confessions of a Nostalgic Em-appeal Geezer. Enter at your own risk.

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Ouija Bard

“Tis a tale told by an idiot,” and yet, “Much Madness is divinest Sense.” I’ve been trying to contact Shakespeare with my spirit board. Why not? Even if, at best, the device invented as a parlor game but taken supernaturally seriously by a happy few provides a vehicle for my own buried impulses and crackpottery, it might still be of some value. After all, I may know something I don’t know I know.


My friends are, generally, tolerant but unenthusiastic, so I’ve had to go it on my own, as the spooky-boo movies tell you never to do. The Ouija covenant, after all, is not a marriage but a ménage a trois, though still less a pack activity than séances. Besides, I wanted to get the jump on Shakespeare 2016, WLU’s celebration of the Bard in special events (Chanticleer performance, art exhibit, features on Shenandoah), lectures and courses.

If you’re not familiar with this form of communication, Google “Ouija” and select images from the margin menu. Lots of pictures, most of them pretty much the same – a board with the alphabet and single digit numbers spread out like a magician’s deck of trick-ready cards (or Eva Green’s on Penny Dreadful). You’ll also find yes in one upper corner and no in the other, though the name of the device is really yes-yes, French-German. Most common graphic details include a moon and sun, and at the bottom of the board there’s usually FAREWELL, which sounds more ominous than the common goodbye or later.

The other element in the tool kit is called a planchette, a heart-shaped wooden pointer with a hole (or eye) in the center. Most sets come with a plastic planchette, but I have little faith in their numinous power and prefer cedar. The process itself is simple: you utter a mystic rhyme, usually of your own making (I’m not telling mine; it’s like the cosmic pin number); then with the pair of you (or you solo, if you dare) place fingers on the planchette, swirl it around the board and attempt to summon with your mind and voice, any spirit who’s been drawn by the whisper of the pointer skating across the board and by your salutation (or salivation). The spirit is supposed to direct the planchette until the eye is over one letter (or answer) after another. For detailed instructions, you can do the little research and hear it from an expert.

All I wanted to do was commune with Shakespeare, and only briefly. The spirits are supposed to know everything that can be known, as well as everything else, but I just want to ask Will if he’s really who my high school English teacher Miss Eliot said he was (glover’s boy, scribe with little Latin and less Greek, bold appropriator, bed-willer, polymath, fast learner, shifty wit) or one of the other candidates I think of as the Unlikelies, for reasons of location, timing, lack of cerebral voltage, flabby rhetoric or obvious stamps of crackpottery that put mine in the shade. Now that it’s widely known that the prominent Shakeman Mark Rylance-Cromwell (Wolf Hall) is a Doubter in the matter of Shakespeare being Shakespeare, inquiring minds want to know more than ever, and I can find no way to contact The Most Interesting Man in the World for assistance, despite the tease on the Dos Equis website. Therefore: Ouija.

Candles, a flat table, full moon, concentration to the heart’s deep core (Georgie Yeats used a yes-yes). So far, no cigar, and I wonder if, alas, my efforts are foiled by misinformation. I mean, what if Shakespeare is an alias? Do spirits respect aliases, noms de guerre, traveling names, etc? Will the board traffic in such shifty nonsense as re-naming?

So I tried calling up the usual suspects: Bobby Devereux (Essex), Kit Marlowe, Manners, Oxford, Derby, Bacon, Burbage, Jesus Alou, assorted cabals and cadres, Drake and the Freemasons, Various & Sundry, Mary Sidney Herbert. No soap.

I’ve begun to think I’m using the wrong bait, if bait is called for. (“. . . with a little shuffling, you may choose/ a sword unbated….”), ( “unbated and envenom’d.”)

Should I try the more common search tactic of FaceBook to lure the dead? That way madness lies. But I’ll give it one more shot tonight, setting an extra glass of whiskey on the table. I believe Elizabethans were more inclined toward wine, ale, mead, sack or maybe even flip than toward whiskey, and I know that the Gaelic phrase from which we get “whiskey” translates as “water of life,” which might be distasteful to ghosts. Yet there’s some logic in it – spirits attracted to spirits. And after all, improvisation has always been a trait of specter speculators.

I’ll report back if any important discoveries ensue.

And if I don’t succeed this time? Flights of angels, silence, etc. I have Avengers to consider and will call in the pros. Mrs. Peel, you’re needed.

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Tractor Blog, or A Random Ramble While I Gather Kindling for My Blog on Various Stripes of Avengers


Yesterday, as I was driving down the snaky and rut-rippled gravel road I live on, I encountered one of my farmer neighbors steering what appeared to be a new tractor, red as a fire engine and large as a triceratops. Tractasaurus. We each put right tires on the rim of the ditch and waved as we passed, slowly, and I realized that just a couple more coats of paint and we wouldn’t be able to complete that maneuver without scraping.

Though the gleaming piece of agricultural apparatus was impressive, the fact that Mr. Agricola was in the cab chatting away on his smart phone really caught my fancy. I suppose that a driver navigating a back road from a perch ten feet in the air on such a heavy piece of military-strength equipment might not give a lot of thought to the standard hazards of distracted driving. But he’s a bright fellow and seemed in control, so I resisted the thought that his behavior might be routine. Probably, I thought, he’s conducting some agrarian business that requires immediate attention.

But what? I must have been in need of some distraction myself, because even after I left the bendy gravel road behind and was cruising down the asphalt, I couldn’t stop thinking about that tractor and that smart phone. Agribusiness. After all, somebody has to order the feed and vaccines, contact the tax assessor, orchestrate the irrigation, alert the sheriff to the new bear in the area, ask the co-op if those new roles of fencing are in. Or was he calling up his flock of Dorsets to suggest they’d find a greener pasture across the creek? Maybe he was whispering to the chickens about egg production and yolk density or reminding his herd of Guernseys ruminating on a nearby western slope that milking time was nigh. Inviting the newly planted corn to put the recent rain to good use and break through the fertilized dirt? All manner of chores and inspections have to be done, and a good manager knows how to delegate authority and keep in touch with his troops. But the cell phone is more than a business tool, so he could have been following William Shatner on Twitter or checking to see if Poetry Daily (PoemsOnly.com?, no: poems.com)  had posted a rousing vernal sonnet. Maybe he was trying to find a synonym for “thesaurus.”

In moderation, speculation is a fine and salutary practice, but I needed to settle on an answer and move on to a more pressing question. Faced with the need to show a little enterprise, I went to my default setting: be swift, arbitrary and obvious. So I decided he was checking his contacts on FarmersOnly.com. After all, it’s a roomy cab, and he “don’t have to be lonely,” right?

RT Smith

My mother’s father John (or J. P.; we’re a tribe of abbreviators) taught me how to drive on a tractor in Griffin, Georgia when I was just tall enough to reach the pedals and strong enough to set the hand brake on an orange Allis-Chalmers Type C manufactured in 1947. No cab or actual chassis, the seat a steel kidney shape molded to fit the backsides of no human being. You could see the A-C’s limbs and joints, shafts and axles. The exhaust pipe belched oily smoke, and it hurt my wrists to steer. What it resembled, parked in its hornet-haunted shed or under the bean-dangling catalpa tree with its crawly worms, was a large pumpkin-colored insect that might feed off those black-and-yellow stripy caterpillars. Allis-Chalmers, or Alice Chalmers – it sounded like a third grade teacher but was more belligerent. I loved it. I also loved my granddad, who tended to binge but did not cuss and had what must amount to the carpenter’s version of perfect pitch. I am older now than he was when I watched them lower his casket. I have gardened but never farmed. I’ve never owned a tractor and have never touched a drop of Old Crow. I’ve tried to heed his best advice: “Son, when you’re ripe, fall far from the tree.”

What Monsieur Agricola has acquired is an International and not, I’ve figured out, a popular Japanese Kubota, a Deere competitor marketed a lot on TV lately. “Kubota” – sounds like something from the ocean floor resurrected to save us from a more malicious monster: “Kubota Versus Godzilla,” coming soon. But more likely his colossus resembles some vehicle engineered to fight our battles on the next planet out from the sun. I wish he’d bought an A-C, though, as they’re usually the same fregetable color as our old insect, instead of a maraschino cherry. In the Crayola eight-crayon box of my memory, orange will always mean “tractor.” (A Japanese poet named Kubota died of food poisoning a few years ago; he ate a bad clam, rather than a tractor.)

One summer I worked at a public driving range, trolling back and forth across the fairway on a sub-standard green-and-yellow Deere (Nothing runs like a) with a chicken wire cage to protect me from golf balls the size of hailstones. The apparatus I was trailing collected the balls from the scabby lawn, and more than a few hookers, slicers and gaffers made it their mission to try to bounce their Titleists, Nikes and Wilsons off my mesh, probably in the hope that some gap in my cocoon would allow a projectile in on occasion and cause me discomfort while affording them amusement. No malice meant, just Southern fun. I had a walkie-talkie and could call off the barrage if I had to exit my coop and finagle the J-D’s works, but not every duffer with a bucket of rented balls understands a cease-fire order. I never did learn to love a Deere.

Besides, their namesakes gobble our hostas.

Stay tuned for Ouija and the Bard, Thor and Hulk, Steed and Peel, if you dare.

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Paul-is-Dead and Other Wild Conspiracies

Paul McCartney died in 1966 and was replaced by a look-alike imposter. He never played the half-time show at the Super Bowl. He was never knighted by Queen Elizabeth. And, he never married or fathered his four children. Actually, the remaining Beatles members covered up his death to keep their band together and on the rise, or so crazed conspiracy theorists believe. These theorists point out that the remaining Beatles started hiding hints in their music that the real Paul was dead. They believe every song on the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album is full of clues suggesting Paul’s death. In this album, The Beatles had assembled a new band with an imaginary member named Billy Shears. Believers of the conspiracy think that this fictional member was named for Paul’s beatlesreplacement. In the song “A Day in the Life,” the lyrics say: “he blew his mind out in a car.” When you play the song “I’m So Tired” backwards, you hear the lines “Paul is dead, miss him, miss him.” At the end of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” John Lennon sings, “I buried Paul,” though he later claims to have said “cranberry sauce” and “I’m very bored.” Believers in the Paul-is-dead conspiracy also find their proof in the backwards loops of songs and on album covers, which show things like raw meat and doll limbs (1966’s Yesterday and Today). Finally, on the cover of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, there is a yellow wreath of flowers in the shape of a bass guitar, which believers think stands for a memorial to the real Paul McCartney.

This famous conspiracy was developed in the 1960s but resurfaced after several websites claimed that Ringo Starr admitted to hiding Paul’s death in a recent, secret interview, according to United Kingdom’s The Mirror. Other prestigious publications, Time magazine being one of them, have published articles on this famed conspiracy. When I hear about things like this, I wonder how people find time to comb over everything Beatles in search for proof that today’s Paul McCartney is actually one lucky phony named Billy Shears. Apparently, because the Paul McCartney on the cover of the Beatles’ album Abbey Road is barefoot, means that he had died three years earlier.

Think these Paul-is-dead believers are off their rockers? Beatlemania sparked some even crazier conspiracy theories over the years: All of the Beatles died and were secretly replaced—except for Paul McCartney, several different imposters have acted as the real Beatles over the years, and my personal favorite, the illuminati formed the band in attempt to hypnotize youth listeners with subliminal messages advocating drug use which would alter their personalities. Others believe that the band members murdered their original drummer, Pete Best, and that the band has several songs that they’ve kept hidden in the event that they ever need more money,

Reading up on the madness that surrounds Beatle conspiracy theories, I began to wonder, are there any equally wild conspiracy theories about what we consider “classic” literature? So naturally I typed “literary conspiracy theories” into a Google search and not shockingly came across about 683 thousand results about classic literary characters, plotlines, settings, authors, and just about anything else you could think of.

rowlingAccording to Norwegian filmmaker Nine Grunfeld, J.K. Rowling, author of the beloved Harry Potter series, does not exist. Grunfeld believes that no average working mom could become this idolized author, who published seven novels in ten years and sold over 250 million copies internationally. According to Grunfeld, there is no possible way that a nobody of an author could accomplish what “J. K. Rowling” has accomplished. Instead, the face we all know as the author of Harry Potter is just an actress who is the face for an entire team of writers.

Some theorists believe that J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, two of the most famous fantasy authors of all time, were both members of the Occult and were using their fantasy novels to prepare the world for the New World that was coming. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series is claimed to have been an adapted version of a Wiccan text called The Book of Shadows. And Lewis, whose famous lion character Aslan is often called a Jesus-figure, is actually alluding to pagan deities. Theorists argue that in order to practice witchcraft, one must read all of C.S. Lewis’ works.

It’s only fitting that nobody knows how Edgar Allan Poe died. He arrived in Baltimore on October 3, 1849 wearing someone else’s clothes and acting delirious and strange. He mysteriously died four days later. One of the most widely-believed theories surrounding Poe’s death claims that Poe was kidnapped during election season. The kidnappers beat him and got him drunk, then took him to the polls and forced him to vote for their preferred candidate multiple times. The kidnappers then swapped around all of their hostages’ clothes so that none of them would be recognized and jailed for rigging the elections.

lennon Finally, and most interestingly, some people actually believe that author Stephen King murdered John Lennon. In a book called Stephen King Shot John Lennon, author Steve Lightfoot argues that Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan hired King as their henchman to kill John Lennon and end his peace protests once and for all. According to the conspiracy theorists, Mark David Chapman, the man who was blamed for killing John Lennon, was just an actor who was paid to take responsibility for the murder. There is a famous picture of John Lennon giving his alleged murderer, Chapman, his autograph mere hours prior to his murder, which is one of Lightfoot’s biggest supporting arguments. Lightfoot says that he has received multiple threatening letters from King to keep him from spreading information about the murder.

Conspiracy theories are mind-boggling and make me wonder how people come up with these crazy ideas. In the end, however, I guess you could ask the same question of fiction writers because, as I found in my research, reading about these conspiracies is like reading a flash-detective story, where all of the clues are laid out to justify the outcome of the mystery.

–Emily Flippo

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Poetry Off the Record?

I recently finished two collections of essays by magician and libertarian firebrand Penn Jillette, God, No! Signs You Might Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales and Every Day Is an Atheist Holiday (spoiler alert: Mr. Jillette does not like religion). In both books, Mr. Jillette discusses his love of collecting recordings produced by “song-poem” companies—essentially, scam companies that you could pay to take your poetry, have it set to music, and recorded by otherwise out-of-work musicians. Most of these recordings, Jillette informs us, are completely unlistenable, though he does admit that a few are truly beautiful.

Jillette’s odd choice of hobby aside, the notion of these “song-poems” fascinates me, in no small part because it highlights the odd relationship between what we call “songs” and what we call “poetry.” Where does one begin and the other end? Are all song lyrics poems, or does the presence of music accompaniment automatically exclude a set of lyrics from being High Art and thus Real Poetry?

I’d imagine that if you were to ask any random person on the street if songwriters can be considered poets, they would respond that most do not, though they might concede that a few favorite artists are creative and intelligent enough to earn that title. Bob Dylan in particular has often been called a poet; he has been repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and no less an authority on poetry than Allen Ginsburg declared the lyrics of Dylan’s 1975 track “Idiot Wind” to be the “great disillusioned national rhyme.” Andre Codrescu, himself a poet and commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered, even praised Dylan as “the best living American poet there is, man!”

Dylan himself is surprisingly obtuse about whether he considers himself a poet. In his memoir Chronicles, Volume 1, he notes at one point that in his early years “I wasn’t yet the poet musician that I would become.” When explicitly asked the question “Do you consider yourself primarily as a singer or a poet?” during a 1965 press conference, however, Dylan replied, “Oh, I think of myself more as a song and dance man, y’know.” Frustratingly, when the interviewer asks why, Dylan only responds, “Oh, I don’t think we have enough time to really go into that.”

The New York Times ran an entire Sunday Book Review feature on the topic of whether Dylan’s lyrical genius qualified him as a poet. In the article, one of the columnists, Francine Prose, rejects the notion that Dylan can be categorized at all, explaining, “He’s the heir, the unlikely offspring of Arthur Rimbaud and Walt Whitman. But he’s neither Rimbaud nor Whitman. He’s Bob Dylan. Is he a poet or a songwriter? The same answer applies: He’s Bob Dylan.”

Leonard Cohen. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Leonard Cohen. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Complicating this issue are those rare artists who wear both hats: they not only write their own song lyrics, but they also take on additional poetry projects on the side. The prolific and influential musician Leonard Cohen is famous for his moving and deep lyrics—if I had to name any single musical artist whose song lyrics I consider to qualify as poetry, I would have to choose Cohen. Interestingly enough, however, Cohen does appear to make a distinction between when he is creating art as a songwriter and when is being a poet. He told Rolling Stone in a recent interview that he writes a good deal of poetry that is not suitable for song lyrics, but that he creates simply because he enjoys the process. This does not mean that Cohen keeps all his poetry for himself, however. In between putting out albums, he has released twelve books of poetry, perhaps the oddest of which is his third collection, entitled Flowers for Hitler.

So does the fact that Cohen releases books of poetry mean that his songs cannot be poetry? The fact that Cohen himself sees them as different pursuits has to carry some weight; I’d personally feel uncomfortable calling a work of art “poetry” if the artist himself did not consider it to be so.

Another songwriter who blurs the line between performance artist and poet is inimitable Tom Waits. Tom Waits’s lyrics are both bleak and beautiful, and I would have no problem declaring them to be “real poetry.” I’m hardly the only one—after the simultaneous release of two Waits albums, “Alice” and “Blood Money,” The New York Times declared Waits to be “a poet of outcasts.” Waits, however, would probably not take so kindly to being labeled a poet, telling an interviewer in 1975, “Poetry is a very dangerous word [ . . . ] I don’t like the stigma that comes with being called a poet—so I call what I’m doing an improvisational adventure or an inebriational travelogue. “


“Poet of the Outcasts” Tom Waits. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps Waits’s attitude toward poetry has calmed somewhat since then, as in 2011 he collaborated with photojournalist Michael O’Brien to create Hard Ground, which unites O’Brien’s photographs of homeless individuals and excerpts of Wait’s poetry to powerful effect. That same year, Waits released a limited-run chapbook containing a single extended poem called “Seeds on Hard Ground.” The poem meditated on themes of poverty and homelessness, and the proceeds from the sale of the book went to homeless services.

At the risk of sounding like a snob, I think it’s fair to say that most music you hear on the radio today would not under any definition qualify as poetry. But amidst all the sound and fury, I believe that true poetry can be found in the best lyrics of talented songwriters like Dylan, Cohen, and Waits.

–Ryan Scott

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Historical Hoaxes

twain2Mark Twain wrote in his novel Pudd’nhead Wilson, “April 1. This is the day upon which we are reminded of what we are on the other three hundred and sixty-four.” April Fools’ Day has been popular since the 1800s, but pranks themselves have been around since at least the Middle Ages. Some famous jokes throughout history have been literary in nature, while others were carried out by well-known authors and poets of the time.

One widespread April Fools’ prank had to do with the origin of the holiday itself. In 1983, Joseph Boskin, a history professor at Boston University, made up an explanation about the beginnings of the day. He said that the holiday started in Constantine’s time. In his version of the origin, a group of jesters challenged the emperor, saying that they could run the empire better than he could. Constantine then let a jester be king for a day, and that jester passed a law saying that for that day, everyone should act absurd. That law then turned into an annual tradition. Boskin said of the story, “In a way, it was a very serious day. In those time fools were really wise men. It was the role of jesters to put things in perspective with humor.” When the Associated Press got wind of this explanation, the word spread, and many newspapers printed the story. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that they realized their story about April Fools’ Day was an April Fools’ joke itself.

trickersNot all pranksters throughout history have stuck to April Fools’ Day to pull off their hoaxes. At the age of 16, Benjamin Franklin posed as a woman and wrote letters to the newspaper his brother ran, The New England Courant. Under the name of Silence Dogood, and using forged handwriting, Franklin played the part of the middle-aged widow for a six-month period. His brother never caught on. In his autobiography, Franklin wrote of the arrival of each letter: “They read it, commented on it in my Hearing, and I had the exquisite Pleasure, of finding it met with their Approbation, and that in their different Guesses at the Author none were named but Men of some Character among us for Learning and Ingenuity.” Franklin eventually came clean after writing fourteen of the letters.

Famous poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, husband of Mary Shelley, also partook in pranks in his youth. His wife once wrote of him, “From his earliest years, all his amusements and occupations were of a daring, and in one sense of the term, lawless nature.” He attended Eton as a teenager, and while there he acted on this “daring” nature. He enjoyed setting fire to trees on campus, but one time he took his prank a step further by using gunpowder. Needless to say, the tree blew up, and Shelley got into trouble. Shelley’s fellow students, however, found the incident amusing, so much so that they wrote a poem about it.

More recently, Willie Morris, editor of Harper’s Magazine in the 1960s and bestselling memoirist, pulled a prank involving his dog, Skip, when he was younger. While driving one afternoon, he ducked down beneath the dashboard and propped Skip up against the steering wheel, so it would look to passersby as if Skip were driving the car. This caused one man to fall out of his chair, and Morris liked the reaction so much that he repeated the joke one Sunday morning as people were leaving church. A hush fell over the crowd as Morris and Skip drove by, and Morris later wrote of the incident, “It was as if the very spectacle of Old Skip driving that green DeSoto were inscrutable, celestial, and preordained.”

spaghettiAnd of course, no list of pranks would be complete without what The Museum of Hoaxes considers to be the greatest April Fools’ joke of all time: the Swiss Spaghetti Harvest. On April 1, 1957, a British news show broadcasted a segment showing the harvesting of spaghetti in Switzerland. A family was picking spaghetti right off of trees, and the video clip included the phrase, “For those who love this dish, there’s nothing like real, home-grown spaghetti.” Viewers immediately responded, some wondering where they could buy their own spaghetti tree.

So, this April Fools’ Day, use some of the above pranks for guidance or come up with your own practical jokes to play on friends and family members, and continue this tradition that so many literary greats have participated in.

— Cara Scott

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Literature as an Art Form and Historical Actor

Throughout my college experience, I have often found the overlaps between my undergrad focus in history and my passion for literature. Kuper-free_speechBy the first line of a poem or a novel, I begin to dig deeper to try to understand its historical context, picturing the author as a historical actor or actress, inevitably influenced by his or her particular time and place. During my history seminar last semester, my extended research project focused on The New York Times v. Sullivan and the cases impact on the legal history of the Civil Rights Movement. Last week marked the 51st anniversary of the case and I have found myself, once again, combining my interests of literature and history, assessing how the case and its legacy of free speech relates to the publication of literature. While the majority of Americans view literature as a form of entertainment or art, literature has always been an effective and crucial actor in history. The New York Times v. Sullivan reveals the importance of the free press and journalism’s ability to bring about change, yet literature is just as much of a catalyst.

The case began in 1961, when The New York Times published an advertisement that supported Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement that was rapidly spreading into Alabama. The ad caused uproar amongst Montgomery state officials. L.T. Sullivan, head of the police force, sued the New York Times for libel—claiming that there were intentional, defamatory errors throughout the ad, while in reality there were only one or two of meaningless, accidental errors in the text. Sullivan won $5 million in damages in an Alabama court with his ability to manipulate libel law. He and other southern officials in the Deep South began to use libel law as a legal means of massive resistance. These tactics extended to literature, and Alabama officials even brought an author to court for his children’s book about a black and white rabbit. While free speech under the First Amendment forbade the enactment of censorship laws, they realized that newspapers would stay away from reporting on racial issues in the South if they were threatened with lawsuits and damages large enough to destroy them.

new_york_times_605_605Fortunately, The New York Times appealed to the Supreme Court, which reversed the decision of the Alabama Court. The Court took the necessary measures to protect the rights of publications, understanding the importance of free speech in raising awareness and ensuring democracy, especially during at a time like the Civil Rights Movement.

While it is easy to see the case within the historical context of the Civil Rights Movement, it is fascinating to take a broader look and revisit the overall importance of writing as a fundamental tool to inspire change in history. The written word in the U.S. has not always been as unrestricted as it is today, and nearly half a century ago, writers who chose to publish controversial works often feared lawsuits. Especially with the birth of the Digital Age, publications are so unrestricted that these concepts seem completely foreign. Yet, the Sullivan case resulted in a landmark decision and its legacy shows us the importance of the free press to democracy.

I have spent much time considering how literature specifically, like journalism, is a tool to inspire change. Through focusing on history over the past four years, I have realized that reading literature is much more than a form of leisure. The ability of writing to raise awareness and inspire real action extends beyond journalism and certainly applies to literature as well. While journalism is undoubtedly an effective and essential tool for communication and certainly raises awareness of current events, literature has the unique ability to reach a deeper level, a depth necessary to truly open our eyes and bring about fundamental change. Novelists and poets, in a way, can more effectively reach and touch a broader audience than the press. Especially in today’s overly polarized political climate, we often question the authenticity of a news article, assuming it is the product of a bias news source, politically aligned to the left or the right. Well-written works of literature, at least for me, immediately seem far more genuine, and I fully let down my guard when beginning a poem or a novel.

I am quick to begin a work of literature for pleasure; whereas I often times hesitate before reading the news, fearing that it will arouse pessimism and distrust. At the same time, literature is emotionally engaging and has the power to pull readers into the heart of an issue. Literature can bring us to tears in an instant—which a news article rarely does—yet we approach literature lightly and easily. Although often based on a completely fictitious plot and characters, when a book is within a certain historical context or surrounded by a certain social or political issue we are able to bring the story to life in our imagination, which at times challenges us to alter our perspectives.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhile we focus on the freedom of the press, freedom of all types of writing are critical to democracy. To Kill a Mockingbird, which is now a required read in most southern classrooms, was widely forbidden across the South. At the time, it was clear that the moving and authentic words of the story would inevitably cause even proponents of “separate but equal” to question their beliefs. After reading the novel, individuals across the nation altered their views, including James Carville who exclaimed, “It is because seeing things in writing brings change.” He continued that once he picked up the book, he immediately knew Harper Lee was right and he was wrong.

Literature often times focuses on simplicity and usually does not have the intent of completely transforming the reader’s outlook on serious issues. Yet, well-written literature always reveals something to us that is worth revealing. Whether it exposes racial injustice through To Kill a Mockingbird, uncovers the loneliness that often comes with wealth through The Great Gatsby, or the value of family in hardships through The Grapes of Wrath, literature targets what is truly human within us. It is relatable and emotionally engaging—and that is what touches us to the point of change and action.

While we often associate freedom of speech with journalism, and believe that democracy relies upon the circulation of news stories centered on serious and factual political or social issues, literature is a tool that is just as, if not more, effective in revealing truths and inspiring change. It lures its audience through entertainment, but goes beyond entertainment and introduces ideas and beliefs in a relatable way, effectively compelling readers to challenge preconceived notions and perspectives.

–Katie Nell Taylor

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NEW SHENANDOAH ISSUE Vol. 64, No. 2 Now open to the public

Poems, essays, reviews, flash fictions, short stories and poems, an interview with Tim Seibles, as well as new poems by Tim.  And the art of Suzanne Stryk.  Follow the links on the left-hand side of the homepage.

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Is Any New Literature Actually New?

With the recent cinderellaresurgence in popularity of Cinderella, I’ve been thinking of the original tale that I remember reading and watching in my youth. From the classic Walt Disney version, to the Rodgers and Hammerstein version with its skewed view of how interracial couples produce children, I remember the hope I used to feel, that one-day, I too would find my Prince Charming and become the princess I thought my name entitled me to one day be. To be fair, at this point in my life I don’t think I quite realized that other people could also have a name that meant princess. But now, as I think of the fairytale from my childhood the feminist in me sees another side of the tale and the literature lover within me sees patterns.

When I think of Cinderella, I think of the fact that women are separated into innocent princesses and evil stepmothers. I think of how it instills the idea of the makeover being necessary for a woman to catch the eye of a man. I think of the fact that the entire goal of the heroine of this tale is to meet a man who can save her by marrying her. But ultimately, when I think of this fairytale, I also think of how it, and famous fairytales like it, has influenced much of the literature that has come after it. There may be strong, independent women who came before this fairytale princess, the Wife of Bath from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and the Biblical Judith, but it is not these women that young girls grow up idealizing. Little girls worship princesses and this does not stop when these women stop being children, it continues as the fairytales they grew up with follow them into adulthood.

cinderella fifty shadesWhen I think of books like Pride and Prejudice or even the hot topic book of the last few years, Fifty Shades of Grey, there are still fairytale undertones in each of them, Cinderella undertones specifically since I’ve been discussing that fairytale in particular in this blog. When considering all three of these tales it is readily visible that all three depict females in less well off financial situations who meet wealthy men who eventually help them in some way (either by saving them from evil stepmothers, helping save their sisters from reputational ruin, and helping save them from the monotonous life of postgrad). The only major differences that can be seen between these three tales are setting, familiar circumstances, a glass slipper, and a few whips and chains.

Though I was interested in seeing the similarities and minute differences between novels and many of my favorite fairytales, I was more interested in how I struggled to come up with novels that were in no way impacted by fairytales. I could think of horror novels and short stories, but many of these can been seen as takes on the original versions of fairytales. In the original fairytales there was rape in Sleeping Beauty, cannibalism in Little Red Riding Hood, women cutting off parts of their feet like something out of a Saw movie in Cinderella, and undertones of necrophilia in Snow White. So even these types of stories take bits from the tales that came before them.

But this process is cyclical. Even if I could think of stories that aren’t based on other stories I’ve read before, I haven’t read everything the world has to offer and never could. Even if I found some obscure novel or even piece of nonfiction, there is probably someone who has written a story just like it before or who has lived through similar experiences and written about it. This brings me my real overarching question, however. If recent literature all has some basis in the books and stories that came before them, can any new books actually be considered new? Is there any such thing as a new piece of literature?

Samuel Clemens, known as Mark Twain to most of the world, has been quoted as saying, “There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations.new ideas We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.” If Clemens is correct, then everything that has ever been thought, seen, or written has been thought, seen, or been written before. While I agree with Clemens in part of his argument, I also have a little rebuttal. Indeed, I agree with Clemens when he says that everything is just the “same old pieces or colored glass” and they are all just being turned “and making new combinations indefinitely,” but doesn’t this undermine the concept that there are no new ideas? Isn’t the idea to rearrange the pieces of glass into new formations new in and of itself? So even if new books take ideas from old fairytales or biblical stories, aren’t they new in the inventive execution of these old ideas? I think they are. I think that the ability of authors to piece old storylines together into new tales is what makes literature a creative art form. Even if parts of the story have been written before, they are still new in how those bits and pieces fit together. They are still new to the world in some way or another and that is one of the reasons why I continue writing and reading. I hope that some day I can write or read something that is exorbitantly different than what has come before it.

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Shenandoah 64, 2 COMING NEXT WEEK.

POETRY//  mysterious fall of blackbirds and the sins of the past/ Graybeal-Gowen winner “May” by Juliana Daugherty/ a relief pitcher picks up the fiddle/ meditative and spiritual poems/ Davis McCombs on the mysteries of fox passage /Wild Turkeys and Marianne Moore/ Bobby Rogers on Elvis, Hank and wondrous births / Tom Reiter, Jeff Mock, Carol Frost and more/ an interview with Tim Siebels/ Kempf on the associative mode in contemporary poetry

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