Writers’ Best Friends

On April 5, 1905, the Kansas City Star ran the following post about a lost cat: “Large and intensely black; thick, velvety fur; has a faint fringe of white hair acrosstwain his chest; not easy to find in ordinary light.” The author of this advertisement? None other than Samuel Clemens, otherwise known as Mark Twain, himself. Though this specific ad was about his beloved cat Bambino, Twain collected a variety of other cats throughout the years as well. He loved cats so much that he once said, “I simply can’t resist a cat, particularly a purring one. They are the cleanest, cunningest, and most intelligent things I know, outside of the girl you love, of course.” Twain, however, is not the only writer who fancied feline friendship.

Ernest Hemingway also enjoyed the companionship of cats. He had a six-toed white cat named Snowball, among others. Cats even made their way into his famous work For Whom the Bell Tolls: “No animal has more liberty than the cat, but it buries the mess it makes. The cat is the best anarchist.” hemingwayTo this day, visitors can find more than 50 six-toed (polydactyl, to use the technical term) cats roaming around Hemingway’s home in Key West. It is said that they are the descendants of dear old Snowball.

Joyce Carol Oates has even gone as far as crediting her cat for helping her write. She has said, “I write so much because my cat sits on my lap. She purrs so I don’t want to get up. She’s so much more calming than my husband.”

So what is it with writers and their cats? Why do so many choose to spend their time with those of the feline persuasion? Perhaps, as Oates said, cats encourage writing with their refusal to be dislodged from their resting places. Maybe they dissuade writers’ block with their mysterious air and playful antics. I certainly find cats to be the ideal writing companions. Their warm bodies create a cozy environment and their purring has a calming effect, making for a low-stress writing atmosphere. I can see this being the reason that authors for generations have adored their meowing muses.

It isn’t only cats that steal a place in writers’ hearts, however. Canine companions have been just as present throughout history. Emily Brontë, a great animal lover, had a trusty mastiff sidekick named Keeper. Some even argue that Emily’s adoration of all creatures influenced her writing in Wuthering Heights, as many characters in the novel have quite animalistic qualities. Her contemporary, Emily Dickinson, also had a love for dogs. Dickinson once said, “Dogs are better than human beings because they know but do not tell.”

HuxleyA more recent writer shared his predecessors’ preference for pups. Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, once explained “the constant popularity of dogs” by saying, “To his dog, every man is Napoleon.” This quote could explain why some writers keep pooches as pets. Take a survey of any authors and chances are some are going to say they write because they want to make an impact on their readers or even on the world. Perhaps F. Scott Fitzgerald put it best when he said, “You don’t write because you want to say something; you write because you’ve got something to say.” Keeping a dog as a pet allows authors to experience that feeling of heroism on a smaller scale.

Or maybe writers simply have dogs because they bring a certain level of joy that encourages the writing process. Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, asked, “Why does watching a dog be a dog fill one with happiness?” Just as cats inspire writers with their furtiveness, dogs can hearten writers’ work with their blatantly unconditional love and loyalty. Conversely, dogs can reveal the negative side of human nature as well. As John Steinbeck said after years with his treasured poodle, Charley, “I’ve seen a look in dogs’ eyes, a quickly vanishing look of amazed contempt, and I am convinced that basically dogs think humans are nuts.” While dogs do not necessarily create the same relaxed atmosphere that cats do, I find their constant cheerfulness to be a definite mood-booster, something that always helps with my writing.

Dogs and cats are not the only pets that have kept famous writers company, however. Lord Byron, 19th century poet, housed a pet bear during his time at Cambridge, even walking it through campus on a leashoconnor. And let us not forget about Flannery O’Connor and the famed peacocks that kept her company. She once wrote of them, “Visitors to our place, instead of being barked at by dogs rushing from under our porch, are squalled at by peacocks whose blue necks and crested heads pop up from behind tufts of grass, peer out of bushes, and crane downward from the roof of the house, where the bird has flown, perhaps for the view.”

So, while many authors may use historical figures or real-life acquaintances for inspiration in their writing, some turn instead to their furrier pals, giving a new perspective on the phrase “man’s best friend.”

— Cara Scott

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Mostly Harmful (or, The Publisher’s Dilemma)

AMC’s Better Call Saul, a prequel to the smash hit Breaking Bad, premiered on Sunday to much acclaim and no small amount of trepidation. As Snopes covered recently, many were worried that an inferior second show from creator Vince Gilligan would undermine the immense public respect for the original series. Fortunately, the quality of the pilot episode should be enough to dissuade fan fears for the moment, though undoubtedly such concerns will haunt Better Call Saul until it reaches its own conclusion. But such is the risk run by any long-running narrative; any series, whether it be book, film, or movie, that continues to produce more and more texts risks creating a sub-par product that tarnishes the series as a whole. There’s a reason there is not a The Godfather Part IV, and that reason is The Godfather Part III.

But the risk of churning out a sub-par installment is just one of the risks of extending a series out over years or decades. Not to be morbid, but one of the biggest concerns in such literary works is the entirely literal death of the author. It seems this is hardly a new phenomenon; scholars think that Chaucer died before completing even a quarter of his Canterbury Tales.

So what does one do when an author dies before completing a long-running and immensely popular series? For hundreds of years, the only real answers to that question have been to shrug and make do with the existing material or consume unlicensed fan fiction. But in the last few years, publishing companies unwilling to part with cash-cow franchises over so trivial a matter as an author’s passing are increasingly resorting to another tactic: hire another well-known author to write a new “official” installment in the series.

British humorist Douglas Adams was mulling over writing another installment of the wildly popular Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series when he died of a heart attack in 2001. Though Douglas had publicly expressed regret for the “very bleak” ending of his last Hitchhiker’s book, Mostly Harmless, he had not written a word of the proposed novel at the time of his death. So fans were surprised at Penguin Book’s announcement in 2008 that it had hired Artemis Fowl author Eoin Colfer to pen another book in the series, aptly titled And Another Thing. . .

colferInterestingly enough, the fans of the series were generally supportive, possibly because the new book undoes the downer ending of Mostly Harmless. Despite fan acceptance, however, Colfer announced he did not intend to write another Hitchhiker’s book, telling Wired, “I do think somebody should write another [ . . . ] I think it’d be interesting to see other Hitchhiker’s books from different authors—to see how different imaginations and voices present that universe.”

This phenomenon seems especially common in British literature. Snopes has already discussed how the passing of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did little to stem the tide of Sherlock Holmes stories and movies.  Ian Fleming wrote twelve James Bond novels; since his death, different authors have put nearly three times that number of fully licensed Bond stories—and that’s not even counting the movies. In an interesting twist, the newest novel featuring Bond will be written by Anthony Horowitz, but based off of a scrapped story treatment written by Fleming back in the 1950s.

On this side of the pond, however, not everyone takes such a sanguine view toward different authors’ exploring the universe of a dead colleague. George R.R. Martin, the author of the current popular culture phenomenon A Song of Ice and Fire, has denied the possibility of another writer finishing his narrative if, for any reason, he should be unable to. (He’s also sick and tired of fans speculating on when he’ll die, resorting to some rather colorful words to describe his feelings towards the swarms of individuals predicting his imminent demise.) Martin has long been critical against any kind of fan fiction, describing it as lazy, and has promised to never allow another author to write a story set in Westeros “while I’m alive.” Interestingly, this stance only seems to apply to the printed word; after all, the mere existence of the Game of Thrones television show and its recent spin-off video game (both of which Martin actively promote on his blog) show that Martin is amendable to adaptions of his work in other mediums. Perhaps the key to this apparent paradox is that the Game of Thrones universe represents a tweaked, streamlined “alternate universe” version of the world of Ice and Fire. Perhaps Martin does not have a problem with other creators playing with his characters, as long as they don’t do it in his sandbox.

You can look, but you can't touch

You can look, but you can’t touch.

Of particular interest to this debate, however, is that Martin has publicly expressed his fear of what will happen to his world once he does pass on, telling the Sydney Morning Herald, “one thing that history has shown us is eventually these literary rights pass to grandchildren or collateral descendants, or people who didn’t actually know the writer and don’t care about his wishes. It’s just a cash cow to them. And then we get abominations to my mind like Scarlett, the Gone with the Wind sequel.”

Martin’s disgust at the idea of another author appropriating his universe does speak to the more unsavory ethical aspects of the practice. No one really seems to mind that much that Eoin Colfer took up the Hitchhiker’s series, but it is not like Adams ever proscribed such a practice. Even though Martin has publicly expressed his desire to have the world of Westeros left unmolested after he leaves it, he is absolutely right that there will come a day when he will not be around to prevent such “abominations.” One can hope that publishers and Martin’s descendants will respect his wishes, but really, there is nothing to stop them if they chose to resurrect the franchise after the senior Martin passes away.

Maybe some people don’t have a problem with that, but I do find it a depressing prospect that there is nothing to protect the sanctity of Martin’s wishes. Hopefully, once everything is said and done, his descendants and the publisher that he has made so much money for will respect his wishes and let sleeping franchises lie.

— Ryan Scott

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Mockingbird, Be my Valentine?

by Anna DiBenedetto


This Valentine’s Day, some people will take their loved one to a romantic dinner, others will send their daughter roses and some will even venture to the premiere of “Fifty Shades of Grey.” But my plan for this year is to snuggle up on my sofa and celebrate my love of literature by rereading my favorite book, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

I will admit that staying in and reading a book is not my ideal Valentine’s Day evening. However, the recent news that Lee will soon publish Go Set a Watchman, an accompaniment to her beloved classic 1960 novel, sparked my interest to revisit the novel.

mockingbird-coverLee’s first novel (widely thought to be her only) is well know, having sold over thirty million copies and been translated into forty different languages. With the announcement of the release of Watchman, fans are re-reading the tale in preparation. According to The Telegraph, “sales of To Kill a Mockingbird [have rocketed] by 6600%.” I think it is safe to say that I’m not the only one who thinks of Lee’s novel as a favorite.

But what exactly about Lee’s novel makes it such a cherished read? After thinking about the question for a while and thinking about the new novel, set to publish in July, I came up with three specific reasons that I love the book as much as I do.

The first reason I love Mockingbird is because of the nostalgic feeling that comes over me when I think of the first time I ever read the novel. The book was first introduced to me in my 7th grade English class. I remember reading the Pulitzer Prize winning novel and discussing racial issues for one of the first times in my sheltered, predominately all-white school. In high school, another one of my English classes read the same novel and examined the book’s title and the theme of loss of innocence (seemingly fitting for high school students). Perhaps my sentimental feelings surrounding the book exist solely because I read it when I was younger, but I think there is something more to it. Just as most people have beloved books from childhood years, I think of Mockingbird as a milestone book for me in forming my interest in literature as a young girl.

Scout Finch is the second reason I admire this book. Scout’s tomboy persona and mischievous attitude aligned with myself as a young girl. I found her youthful and innocent nature to be a sense of comic relief in the narrative. This is exhibited in the part of the story when she, her brother Jem, and their friend Dill decide to play “Boo Radley.” The three create a game of acting out the life and times of the Radley’s, the odd family of Maycomb. Scout elaborates, “As the summer progressed, so did our game. We polished and perfected it, added dialogue and plot until we had manufactured a small play upon which we rang changes every day.” Her enacting the reclusive Boo reminds me of “playing house” with my own siblings. Her carefree attitude speaks to a young girl that I could identify with as a young girl, and even now that I am older.

Finally, and most importantly, Scout and Atticus’s relationship is the third reason I love To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout’s relationship with Atticus emulates a picturesque bond between a father and daughter that I did not appreciate the first time I read the novel. But having matured since 7th grade, a relationship with my dad is something I value and cherish greatly. In the novel, Scout goes to Atticus after she and Jem have been attacked by Bob Ewell and saved by Boo Radley. After imagining Boo’s character in the first half of the book and listening to Atticus’s demands to stop messing with him, she finally tells her father:

‘When they finally saw him, why he hadn’t done any of those things . . . Atticus, he was real nice. . . .’ His hands were under my chin, pulling up the cover, tucking it around me. ‘Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.’

Her recognition of Boo’s character and harmless nature align with everything that Atticus had previously told her. Scout’s admittance to him that Boo is “real nice” acknowledges Atticus’s influence on her. His fatherly role is solid and resilient, and his sense of right and wrong remains constant throughout the novel. Atticus’s strong presence in his daughter’s life stands as one of the most important bonds in the book and is one of my favorite relationships in literature.


My favorite novel may very well be shared with a million other readers out in the world. So maybe I won’t be the only one reading it alone this Saturday night. But who knows, maybe with another reread of To Kill a Mockingbird, I will have to expand my list of why I love Lee’s book so much.

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The Art of Spoken Word

The first time I heard spoken word, otherwise known as slam poetry, I was not impressed.  Now, I’ve even tried my hand at writing my own. So, to the summer camp counselor reciting his slam to 14-year-old me, I apologize for finding it boring and kind of strange. My view of poetry mainly focused on the “roses are red” variety, and I had never heard of a poetry slam. Fast forward a few years to seeing my first live slam at Brandeis University, and I was a completely different audience member, snapping at the snappiest lines and laughing at the more adult poems–much to my older sister’s chagrin.  After that I occasionally looked at videos others showed me, but I still remained pretty clueless.

Then, one magnificent day, I discovered the vast collection of poets featured on YouTube. Searching “slam poetry” on YouTube garners a whopping 324,000 vihqdefaultdeos of the passionate rhymes, personal stories, and well-placed f-bombs that general characterize a slam poem.   Some nondescript night last year, I began a homework-avoiding binge of YouTube slams that led me to Dylan Garity’s “Friend Zone,” posted by an organization called Button Poetry.  The language was beautifully sculpted, and the tone and pace picks up in the middle to transition from funny and light to serious and heavy and important.  The video has over 11 million views (to which I have contributed maybe a hundred). Try finding an open mic night that allows for an audience 11 million.

YouTube is the perfect platform to popularize spoken word performances. Rather than having to show up in a specific coffee shop in a specific city in a specific state and even country, anyone can stumble upon a performance from the comfort of their own home.  They can listen to it once. And then again. And again. And then watch other performances from the same poet, or the same subject matter, at any time. Because of this, slam is growing more and more popular, and the conventions and subject matter have adapted with that growth. Relationships, social issues, and character flaws are common topics, and hundreds of thousands of views prove that people find them relatable and touching.

Slam poetry is a performance art—the works are written to be read aloud, and the conventions of the style appeal to a large audience. Good luck finding a poem devoid of slang and cursing, or a pop culture reference. A billion people watch videos on YouTube every day, and anyone can upload. There are also tons of benefits to an online performance that make it even better than a live performance:

  1. You can watch it as many times as you want, and show your friends, and download the written transcription. And then watch it again.
  2. It’s sharable.  You could tell your friend, “Hey, come to this open mic venue and maybe the same poet will be there this week that I saw last week and he’ll recite the same poem in the same perfect inflection that really connected to me last time,” but we all know this is a one and a million chance, or you could just tell your friend to click here.
  3. Videos can add more performance to the performance art.  Artsy setting? Check.  Mood lighting? Check. Improved sound quality? Check.
  4. Poets can become famous.  A few years ago, my counselor was the only slam poet I had ever heard.  Now I have favorites that I follow and even fangirl over.
  5. Part of the draw towards slam poetry is how these poems can appeal to and inspire empathy in a wide range of people. Snaps for the sassiest or best-crafted lines, and tears for the most personal. The Internet grants a huge audience of age ranges, demographics, geographic locations, everyone.

The Internet is an amazing platform for arts of all kinds, from visual art to music, to even online literary journals…

But, I’m not trying to write a hidden advertisement or convince anyone to flock to the web here. 44f81e6577055ad230466ddac42379e6I simply have such an appreciation for a medium that can so transform the way people see and become influenced by the arts, that I want to share it with others. I spend an immense amount of time finding videos and pictures and content on the Internet finding art. Sites like Pinterest, Stumble Upon, Tumblr, and yes, YouTube make arts more available, popular, and most importantly, experienced.  I don’t have to visit a museum or gallery to appreciate a painting, because what’s most interesting to me is discovering a whole new art through the vessel of the web.

Certainly many lovers of poetry would argue that popularity does not make a poem valuable, which is true, but I admire that the Internet can help a very modern and unique form of poetry become something completely different.

Thanks to my WiFi connection, my feeble experience of slam poetry rocketed off into an extreme love for the art, and it is only continuing to grow.

— Emily Danzig

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“We’re Done When I Say We’re Done” (or, The Author’s Dilemma)


Unless you have successfully managed to live completely off the grid for the past year-and-a-half, you’ve probably heard of the critically acclaimed television series Breaking Bad. The series’ final half-season, which aired from August to September of 2013, became an entertainment and social media phenomenon that cemented the show’s status as “highest-rated TV series of all time” according to Guinness World Records. On February 8, Breaking Bad creator and show runner Vince Gilligan will return to Albuquerque with the spinoff Better Call Saul, which expands the backstory of criminal/lawyer Saul Goodman and is said to take place before, during, and after the events of the original series. While I eagerly anticipate once again seeing the familiar sights and characters of the Breaking Bad universe, I can’t help but wonder if Gilligan’s decision to expand on the storyline is a good one. If Better Call Saul is significantly inferior to its predecessor, he risks undermining the reputation of the original series, and even his own as a writer. From an authorial perspective, I think this choice poses an interesting question: how do you know when it’s time to stop adding onto or revising a completed work? And in the end, is there ever really such a thing?

In the case of an immensely popular series like Breaking Bad (or Harry Potter for a book series), writing as much as demand dictates has obvious appeal thanks to the allure of the almighty dollar. Giving the people what they want and letting their willingness to pay for more content determine when to end a popular series should end is a simplistic approach that ultimately takes the decision out of the author’s hands. Better Call Saul has already been given the green light for a second season by television network AMC. The justification for doing so is easily understood: regardless of quality, like the meth-addicted drug users of the original series, many fans are clamoring for more Breaking Bad product and will ensure even a subpar product proves to be enormously profitable.Better-Call-Saul-promo-art

The loyalty fans of popular series have demonstrated in recent memory has led to a trend in Hollywood and television in which many works, especially the film adaptations of book series, favor quantity over quality. The Harry Potter film series started a trend when the adaptation of the final book of the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was split into two parts. The adaptations of Twilight, The Hunger Games, and even Tolkien’s The Hobbit have taken a similar approach in stretching a single novel into two or more movies. Hobbit director Peter Jackson also directed the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, which was both critically and financially successful. His decision to split the prequel novel The Hobbit, a book that has fewer pages than any single novel in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, into three separate movies has largely been met with criticism and deemed unnecessary. While some may interpret his choice as a cheap cash grab, it also stands to reason that Jackson may have simply tried to apply a previously successful formula in hopes of achieving the same results.

The choice both Vince Gilligan and Peter Jackson made to expand upon their original work is one many authors are tempted to make. While I’m sure everyone would love to face the same dilemma of potentially sacrificing the integrity of a story in exchange for millions of dollars, the rest of writers will have to settle for simply knowing when it’s time a story should end for its own good. Most of the time this is simply a matter of letting plot or narrative dictate a natural conclusion. On the other hand, there is anHuckleberry_Finn_book authorial justification for continuing a story even after its initial ending point. The inclination as a writer is to write whatever stories are worth telling, and if a completed work generates another story to be told, then let it be heard. What if Homer had decided that after the Iliad had been completed that there was no need to continue Odysseus’ exploits in the Odyssey? Or if one of America’s seminal works of literature had been omitted because Twain stopped writing about Huckleberry Finn after his appearance in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer?

It can be difficult to put down the pen to finally declare a personally meaningful work or the story of a beloved character “complete.” Whitman made the revising and editing process for Leaves of Grass a lifelong pursuit while J.D. Salinger spent so much time writing about the Glass family that one would be inclined to believe they were real people. Being able to identify whether or not a piece of writing has reached its full potential can be challenging, and having the discipline to leave an outstanding story in the rearview mirror can be an even more difficult task. With cases like Better Call Saul, the impulse as both a writer and the creator of a series with passionate fans clamoring for more material is to give the people what they want and continue a previously successful story. Time will tell how viewers will receive the spinoff series, but in the end maybe there’s something to be said for always leaving ‘em wanting more.

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So, Tell Me About Yourself? (Better Yet, Keep It To Yourself)

In the modern era where the online world leads to people posting pictures of their #delicious meals and over-sharing details of their lives that no one, not even their parents really want to hear, a strange wave has overtaken memoir, causing the genre, as a whole, to suffer.

memoirsAt one time memoir was considered a genre left for literary individuals or cultural figures who had lived life to the fullest or undergone some process of self-discovery that made their stories worthy of a public audience. But in recent years, this type of memoir has become overlooked and has been replaced, like a lot of great literature is, by works of nonfiction written by celebrities whose rise to stardom is deemed worthy of a book (i.e. whichever B-list celebrity publishers decide will make them the most money by writing about their drug problems, or embarrassing sexual endeavors) and memoirs that have on-screen potential.

These days it seems that everyone with a comUntitledputer and the ability to form a sentence (although not always a grammatically correct one) thinks they can and should write a memoir; there is even a Memoir Writing for Dummies manual available for those just starting out. This both upsets me and excites me as a writer and reader of nonfiction. On the downside I see how this growing genre is becoming overly commercialized, but I also see how the influx of people writing memoir and creative nonfiction could potentially result in new icons of the genre.

It feels as if memoir is currently being broken down into subgenres, with literary memoir only making up a small percentage of the books being written. The first subgenre surging in popularity is the often-frivolous celebrity memoir. These little gems have been popular and profitablUntitlede for decades now, with nonfiction publishers clinging to the notion that the general public will want to know how stars and the elite made their fames and fortunes (or lost them both). In 2014 alone, Amy Poehler, Oprah Winfrey, Neil Patrick Harris, Lena Dunham, Alan Cumming, Rob Lowe, Danielle Fishel, Mario Lopez, and Joan Rivers all came out with memoirs. Other memoirs of the past decade include the highly successful Bossypants by Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling’s book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns). I have read many of these titles, and though I often found them comical and, occasionally, well written, they seem to blend into one indistinguishable memoir after time, with only a few strange or innovative pieces among them. Lena Dunham’s Not that Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned” stands out to me in particular, as her style and content are compelling and Dunham is seemingly unafraid to discuss taboo issues. But even Dunham, who went to Oberlin College for creative writing, slips into an advice-giving tone at time that I find clichéd.

Along with the celebrity memoir subgenre, the memoir fit for movie production has flourished. New additions to this subgenre include American Sniper and Wild. But before this year many other memoirs have been further commercialized by Hollywood, including, but not limited to, Not Without My Daughter, Marley & Me: Life and Love With the World’s Worst Dog, Eat, Pray, Love, and Girl, Interrupted. Even the well-written and intriguing story of former Smith College student Piper Kerman has been claimed by Netflix and altered for television purposes. While I’ve read many of these works and been entertained and captivated by some of the stories I cannot say that these are the most worthy of public acclaim.

As the caliber of writing in these memoir subgenres improves, there is the ever-popular high school reading list memoir. This rather small, yet common, list is made up of the classics. They mainly follow the lives of famous historical figures or leaders who’s works are now associated with societal change. This list consists of books like Anne Frank’s A Diary of a Young Girl, Ellie Wiesel’s Night, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings, and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. After reading every one of these memoirs throughout my high school career, I came to appreciate how open each of these people write about their lives and the injustices they endured throughout them, and I do think they are important touchstones of the genre; however, so many more nonfiction collections and memoirs have come out since the previously listed were published.

While I will not blatantly recommend against reading any of these subgenres – as I have read and enjoyed many of them already – I’m reluctant to endorse these branches of memoir/nonfiction. Though many of them are often entertaining aUntitled2nd good for a thoughtless read on the beach, these types of memoirs do not give an accurate depiction of the genre as a whole. Memoirs like reality star Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi’s 2011 memoir Confessions of a Guidette is not a piece of literature that young nonfiction writers should aspire to emulate. Instead of emphasizing celebrities, drama, and historic figures, we need to consider emphasizing emerging memoirists who make the ordinary extraordinary or who are able to write with such candor and control that readers can tell they are reading the works of literary masters. I want to see memoirs like Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club and Lit, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, or Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth, memoirs that made me want to become a writer, get more recognition and readership. I want truly remarkable memoirs to be the works people first think of when they think of the genre and I want the celebrity fluff to take a backseat for a while. But maybe I’m just being too optimistic about what the general public is willing to read.

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O Western Wind . . .

Resurrecting “Dirty Little Billy”

dlb 31. Spoiler Alert
2. No animals were harmed or confused in the production of this commentary.
3. Author’s cousin will be mentioned in passing.
4. Geezer Subject Matter Warning: Western Films, naked knives, Gary Busey.

Some things treasured but believed lost are still splendid when they’re found or revived. A few nights ago I stayed up late to catch Dirty Little Billy, a gritty, darkly funny western I saw and admired when it first appeared in late 1972 but which, to my disappointment, seemed to vanish from public view like a woodstove dropped into a swamp. The film’s narrative is a highly fictionalized account of Billy Bonney’s first steps from snot-nosed sullen teenager to pistolero, and the source of its fascination for me was twofold: the grimy, shadow- strangled atmosphere of the story’s Kansas railroad-stop village and Michael J. Pollard’s portrayal of William Henry McCarty as a kind of Huck on crack. This film helped shape my appetite and concept of the western, and I have often, while reading or viewing western stories, pined for it.

Most moviegoers recall Pollard from his Academy Award nominated role as C. W. Moss, gas pump monkey/wheelman/sidekick to Bonnie and Clyde in the 1967 Arthur Penn film that launched Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway into the cinema wowasphere. Pollard’s puckish-punk face and dazzled eyes are enough to make him memorable at a glance, but his shearing laugh and glee over souped-up cars and gunfire cut against the grain of that cartoon grin to stamp him in the mind unforgettably as a lethal innocent.

In Dirty Little Billy, he’s at it again, going from repressed and lethargic teen to ballistic savant in just a few days, or in real time, an hour and a half. The film’s narrative is fairly simple – dragged along a muddy road to a dilapidated farm where the Irish lad’s severe step-father wants to see how quickly Billy’s palms can become huge blisters, he goes AWOL and falls in with Goldie, who — though seemingly only slightly Billy’s senior — terrorizes the town. Now called Billy, instead of Henry McCarty, Pollard joins his mentor hunkered down in Goldie’s stronghold, a ramshackle bar where Goldie’s his girl Berl (perhaps “Beryl” on a clodhopper’s tongue), at the sound of a bell, retreats to a back room where she is repeatedly deflowered for chump change. Along with a couple of unsavory senior citizens, the trio drinks endlessly and sloppily, plays cards against rubes, exudes bile and easy sentiment and engage in sex and often-clownish combat. Eventually the town decides to hire an exterminator. Mayhem follows, with Billy and Goldie escaping to the badlands, where they employ their wiles and Billy’s newfound sharpshooter talent to launch their life as nomadic rogues.

dlb 1
The history of Billy on screen is long and various. Roy Rogers, Johnny Mack Brown and Audie Murphy played him as a misunderstood adolescent or simple maligned hero, Howard Hughes offers Jack Bertel in the role of a wounded and romantic but snake-minded Billy in The Outlaw, a film famous for something other than Billy’s pair of six-shooters. Paul Newman in The Left-Handed Gun rendered Billy (by that stage of his life Bonney, BtK) savvy, more sinned against than sinning and, well, Newman-eyed righteous avenger. There were more Billys in heaven and earth than are dreamt of . . . , and room for a whole gallery of interpretations, but perhaps the death blow to DLB, the product of Charles Moss and Stan Dragoti’s imaginations, was Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, with its star-peppered cast a far cry from DLB. Singing star Kris Kristofferson is a rangy, mean, charismatic and sexy Billy in this endgame display of B’s long 21-year life, and James Coburn plays assassin/sheriff Pat Garrett, while icons like Slim Pickens, Chill Wills, Jack Elam et alia show up, Rita Coolidge plays B’s paramour “Marie” (really Paulita Maxwell) and one of his henchman, a wise cracker called “Alias,” is played by Robert Zimmerman (aka Dylan, who supplies some of the sound track – “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” for instance). Big budget, Sam Peckinpah in the director’s gurney. I remember loving it in a counter-culture way – just suppose Billy and his pards were like a counter-culture folk music posse, living large and dying hard. . . . And I feel obliged to say that Emilio Estevez’s brat pack and superficially hysterical portrayal of Billy in Young Guns never seemed more than a horse opera, with it’s suggestion that Billy outlived his supposed death to show up years later as ancient Brushy Bill and tell his story.  That frame device seemed too transparently lifted from Little Big Man that it didn’t add anything to the inquiry into the nature of Billy and the narrative of his life and “career.”

I’ve seen the Kris/Rita/Bob version four or five times, but it never eclipsed that hour and a half I spent staring at Pollard’s mobile features and hearing his elvish voice. He’s an even five and a half feet tall and comes across as a clown who’s hiding something, a benign naif about to blossom into something truly peculiar amid deep sienna scenery, twisted and cracked planks, scruffy horse-like quadrupeds.dlb 2
Perhaps a healthier response to DLB would be disgust, but I can’t wash the fascination out of my distaste for the nightmare realism. It doesn’t hurt that Lee Purcell is great as Berl, Richard Evans viable as Goldie and a small cast of helpful “characters,” including Ed Lauter in a small role and an early, not quite complete, teen-mimicking version of Gary Busey, who is already almost all toothy sneer and madness. And Nick Nolte, momentarily.

Why did DLB vanish so quickly and completely? It surely has a lot to do with other westerns released about the same time. The antihero was riding high, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid brought a new glamor, even beauty, to the category. The Redford/Newman combination was immediately loveable: they were slick and sleek and pretty, mischievous, gallant, witty and naughty. Not real.

For realism, I’ll take the incompetent nightmare post-poker gunfight in a half-lit bar – shadows shoot at shadows, Colts misfire, breakage, screaming, crawling, a drunk bystander the only casualty. Or the knife fight between Berl and the other card sharper’s woman. The two combatant’s slash and jab in a fight that seems unchoreographed skirmish between two snarling doxies who have surely wielded blades before. What stuck with me about this combat was that the director found a middle path between today’s orgy of wounds and blood and the euphemisms of days gone by. The wounds are real enough, but the muted hues and blear prevent Technicolor indulgence typical of that era of Straw Dogs. I have seen fights on and off screen, and this claustrophobic one was one of the most unforgettable and terrifying ones, nothing like the haymakers of the Wayne era or the martial arts of the current scene.

Also high on the realism scale are Billy’s desperation, his yearning for identity, freedom, a voice. He’s a follower looking for something to be proud of it, and grisly as his search is, he finds a self in the end, though one with a short shelf life. All this managed with a humor of action and expression that’s like a dark Harpo thrown in the wilderness. The transitions and juxtapositions are shrewd and ruthless, reminiscent of the Ray Carver of Furious Seasons, before he was Lished into something more marketable, but that’s another story.

In the decades since I first saw the movie I’ve developed an appetite for the western which prosecutes its agenda through atmosphere, tempers its violence with humor and refuses to wallow in either abbatoir splatter or romantic conceit.  The necessities of daily survival were taxing, and the temptation to be shifty was stronger than most men and women.  I won’t say I could recommend Dirty Little Billy to everyone, but it’s an example of what we now call the “independent film” which offers an alternative fiction where the facts are few and the legends ossified.  And surely there’s room for the twisted cherub Pollard embodies in our BtK puzzle.

P.S. on the page, Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid is worth a look.

dlp 4

The one extant tintype of the notorious BtK, as it is usually seen, with the negative flipped.

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Craig A. Warren and The Rebel Yell(s)

Rebel Yell Is Not Just a Bourbon

When the inexhaustible Stars and Bars debate rekindled due to removal of some replica battle flags at Washington and Lee, I watched out my office window as the unreconstructed partisans paraded their Confederate colors in front of the building VMI professor Stonewall Jackson briefly called home. On special occasions, like the birthday of Robert E. Lee (a date shared with Dolly and Poe), they came out in force and serenaded the neighborhood with “Dixie” and “I Am a Good Old Rebel.” Passing supporters would honk their truck horns or shout encouragement, but I was puzzled by the absence of any attempt at the legendary Rebel Yell.

yellI wondered why, other than possible local ordinances, what had once been such a popular mode of regional expression was missing in action, and now Craig A. Warren has offered an explanation and a lot more in his soon-to-be-released and perhaps-definitive study The Rebel Yell: A Cultural History (Alabama, 2014), in which he chronicles the history, myths, aural analyses, associations and ultimate faded fate of the battle cry (which troops in homespun gray or butternut also used at celebrations and during prison camp baseball games). It’s a fascinating, if specialized, account and well worth the afternoon it took me to read its 162 pages of primary text and not a few of the numerous footnotes, which are substantive in their own right.

Warren offers information and speculation on the life of the yell from cacophonous battlefield to a Louisa May Alcott novel to reunions of veterans, analysis of the many audial representations of the barbaric yawp. He cites and compares the many memories of the yell from war survivors who were asked about it later, and he opens up the arguments about the many possible origins of the shout Shelby Foote called “a rolling wave of sound” (Cherokee, fox hunters, the “flocks of raucous birds” Greek hoplites simulated and more). Then he has a go at the myths, such as the twisted history that credits Stonewall’s command to “yell like furies” at Manassas: turns out the yell predates that fight by months. And who wouldn’t want to know of the many sites where the cry later echoed, Iuka to San Juan Hill?

What we should have all guessed long ago but were – most of us – too legend-smitten to realize is that different rebels at different places and times were bound to utter various noises, as the yell(s) had no recognizable pitch pattern or rhythm, rhyme or lexical sequence. Improvisation was the name of the game, so it was a wholly unpredictable pandemonium of sound that possessed such terrifying and liturgical power.

Warren also reveals the sometime-unfortunate results for the yellers. For instance, in the midst of all that black powder smoke, a unit’s exact deployment might be hard to determine, but once the ranks lifted their voices, their position might be clear enough to attract artillery fire. On occasion, maybe a whisper would have been wiser, if less provocative and adrenalin-jolting.

Among the fascinations Warren presents are the descriptions of the cry from line soldiers (Ambrose Bierce: “ugliest sound that any mortal ever heard”) or a Wisconsin veteran – my favorite – who recalled in 1909 the “corkscrew sensation that it sends down your backbone,” to civilian spectators and others who were not present at all and had it second or third hand (Stephen Crane: “prolonged pealings” of voice). Suffice it to say that the demon rasp conferred nerve, gave heart to the yellers, who were proud that their cry was not the regular and rhythmic chant of the yellees, their “factory Yankee” adversaries, who were in turn proud that they didn’t put people in mind of wild animals. Though much is in dispute, no one ever said the yell was mellifluous.

rebelIn the business arena: the wheated bourbon brand Rebel Yell, according to Warren, claims 1849 as its date of origin, but in fact the label (complete with sabre-wielding Confederate cavalryman at full gallop) was first marketed in 1936 by Stitzel-Weller of Louisville. Evidently some emotions had to be allowed to cool, others to rekindle before the yell could be commodified with impunity.

I won’t even try to recount the controversy (fueled by no less a light than Foote) that there was a particular “melody” to the rebel yell, and that it was lost when the last practitioners and their pupils had all gone on to a sweeter demesne. But that’s another chapter worth reading.

The most intriguing discussion in the volume for me involved the way that the yell gave way to the Stars and Bars as the signature of unreconstructed states’ righters. It transpired pretty suddenly when the Dixiecrat (rogue Southern Democrat) Party was formed in Birmingham in July of 1948. “The voice of the Confederacy,” which had become an historical oddity, gave way to a symbol that seemed more bellicose and reminiscent of a slave-holding society, given the general associations of “flag waving.” Make no mistake about it, the Dixiecrats knew what they were doing, and “heroic heritage” didn’t play much of a role. The flag was, as Warren quotes John Coski’s The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem (Harvard, 2005): “the chosen symbol of people dedicated to defending states’ rights as a means to preserve a social order founded upon white supremacy.” That’s the next book in this category I want to read.

So it turns out that Lexington’s shaggy flaggers are au courant in their expression of Old South revivalism. Though for a century the much disputed and often revered Southern scream was the dominant symbolic expression of the Lost Cause, the visible battle flag (easily displayed on private property, bumpers or as body ink) has replaced the combination of barbaric yawp, peacock help, berserker shout, foxhunter’s yodel and twang-drawl caterwaul of owl-jackal-banshee-wolf-wraith and (maybe) articulation of Martian indigestion. The yell carries an element of fraternity Saturday night howls with it, and is more easily dismissible as hi-jinks. Besides, it has not played a role in Klan festivities and atrocities. The flag is no more martial in origin, but it has become incendiary.

For any who might want to revive the Southern squeal, the good news is that I have a neighbor who swears his cousin Bud in Dalton, Georgia, has the last extant specimen of the yell captured in a jar stored in his root cellar, and he plans to unleash it on the 150th anniversary of the arrest of Jeff Davis. Cousin Bud promises a jubilee and reenactment of the flight and capture of that Confederate executive with an eye to proving that – in the night, in the downpour, with all the attendant ballyhoo and confusion – the boys in blue apprehended the wrong man, no matter whose raincoat he wore. What Bud plans to do with this revelation (or rebelation) is a mystery to me.

p.s. Don’t expect Billy Idol’s album “Rebel Yell” to shed much light on this subject; Warren says that, for Idol, it was just a term overheard at a party and felt an affinity with.

— R. T. Smith


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An Addiction to Sound by William Wright

I recently wrote a blog entry for Brian Brodeur’s valuable “How a Poem Happens,” (http://howapoemhappens.blogspot.com) a collection of many blog posts from myriad poets—many very well known—that ask the same series of questions. My entry centered on “Barn Gothic,” published a while back here at Shenandoah. One of the questions centered on form and application:

“How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?”

This question proved difficult to answer and elicited a peculiar response. R. T. Smith suggested I expand the answer to explore the process by which this poem came to be while synthesizing the central idea in Brodeur’s blog.

As I noted in “How a Poem Happens,” I am obsessed with sonic lushness—if, for example, I go to a poet to read for pleasure, it will most likely be Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, early Heaney, etc. I love circuitous, complex applications of sound, so much so that in recent years certain sounds summon synesthetic experiences. For example, I pair certain consonantal repetitions (particularly “w” and “s” and “l” sounds) with the sight and smell of flora. I think instantly, for example, of Hopkins’s “When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush,” a line that conveniently marries my synesthesia with the actual motif. This line is delicious to me. I savor it and could say it again and again, which leads to my next idiosyncratic relationship with sound.

I am a fan of verbigeration, the nonsensical repetition of words or phrases. While I never apply this technique within my own poetry, in life I do repeat certain words—some as benign as “and”—over and over until they lose their meaning and take on a purely sonic simplicity. I liken it to staring at someone or something for so long that they take on an otherworldly radiance, simultaneously lose a certain context and yet gain another one as an object that transcends their mere tangibility.

Such practices have their drawbacks. Even in short-lined poems such as “Barn Gothic,” as I noted in “How a Poem Happens,” I’m perhaps overly conscious of imbuing each line with sonic dynamism. The result is often that my poems, relative to other the work of others now being published, appear (or sound) antiquated.

One fellow poet recently wrote to another fellow poet that I was a poet of “old traditions.” I’m not sure what this means, other than to suggest that I am conscious of form to the degree that my work sounds “old” not in its lack of originality (I hope), but in its prolixity or its ornamentation.

I find much contemporary poetry boring, and I flinch at such a general admonition—but it’s true: most of the work I encounter in journals seems like lineated prose. There’s an argument in my mind about the “truth” of poetry—what it’s meant to say, and many writers argue that poetry needs to sound like someone talking, someone relaying the message to reader in a way devoid of adornments. It’s not that I don’t believe in the validity of this style: I appreciate that it exists, but I won’t read it when I encounter it. I don’t think the purity of truth is in proportion to a transcription of actual experience, but just as likely to emerge through a purely imaginative and lyrical exploration—the latter of which opens more possibilities (in my case) for interesting—and mostly not completely purposeful—applications of sound.

For me, sound need not be limited to idiosyncratic sound relationships as in Hopkins, but can be enjoyed in a less pyrotechnic way. One reason, for example, that I love James Dickey’s early work is his reliance on the anapest, which gives his work an almost engine-like quality, a sound-fuel that creates tension, energy, builds to a revelatory climax.

Simply put: I can’t separate my life from my preoccupation with the sounds of words. I find them strange and incantatory, and I enjoy poets who seem to apply them in similar ways (the very ornamental Eric Pankey, the dynamic Betty Adcock, the hewn expansiveness of Steve Scafidi).

— William Wright

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Shining a Light on Shenandoah’s Own Claudia Emerson

ClaudiaShenandoah remembers the life and work of our fourteen-year contributing editor and former Washington and Lee University professor, the late Claudia Emerson. Born on January 13, 1957 in Chatham, Virginia, Emerson received her undergraduate English degree from the University of Virginia and her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. In addition to W&L, she served as a professor at Randolph-Macon College, University of Mary Washington, and Virginia Commonwealth University. Though a late bloomer in the poetry world, she received numerous awards for her captivating, innovative work, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Library of Congress, the Virginia Commission for the Arts, and the Guggenheim. She earned a membership with the Fellowship of Southern Writers, as well as a position on staff at the Sewanee Writers Conference. In 2008 she was appointed as Poet Laureate for Virginia. The Southern flair and vivid details embedded within the lyrical expressions of her poetry earned Emerson a Pulitzer Prize for her book of poems entitled Late Wife in 2006. Other volumes of her work include Pharaoh, Pharaoh (1997), Pinion: An Elegy (2002), Figure Studios: Poems (2008), Secure in the Shadow (2012), and The Opposite House (scheduled to release in March 2015). She nearly completed a seventh volume of her work, and many of those poems will eventually be published, culminating in a new volume. Her husband, Kent Ippolito, a musician of bluegrass, rock, folk, jazz, and other genres, will carry on his late wife’s legacy. The Cortland Review’s “Poets in Person” video from Spring 2012 ventures to Fredericksburg, VA to capture an intimate look at Emerson’s life in that town, her and her husband’s musical-duo pursuits, and her perspective on her work.

Washington and Lee professor Lesley Wheeler remembers her former colleague with admiration:

 “Her first book, Pharaoh, Pharaoh, means a lot to me, not least because I watched her pull the book together while working here in Payne Hall. From those first poems through Secure the Shadow, she worked through an especially nuanced relationship to place. Place 41lp+neogdL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_is always imperiled in her work, infused with loss, but in the latter book place is also imperiling her. Poems such as “Half-Life” consider the large vein of uranium in her home county and the prevalence of cancer in the families she knew growing up. Her poems exhibit exceptional intelligence as well as care about getting the details right.

 Personally, she taught me a great deal about dedication both to her students and to her own work. We had a lot of conversations about the debts we owe to our poems, our careers, and ourselves, and one of my big debts is to her. Our early friendship was potent but tricky (I describe it briefly in my latest blog post at http://lesleywheeler.org/blog/), so I was grateful to reconnect with her in the last few years. I’m still in touch with many W&L students who cite her as one of the most inspiring, helpful teachers they’ve ever had, and I can testify that she was an inspiring person to teach alongside as I was learning the ropes. I still introduce the Great War poets, for example, the way she did in a great guest lecture for my class nearly twenty years ago.”


Poets, colleagues, and readers across the country sing praises of Emerson’s work and her character:

 Prof. Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon of Cornell University (former student) described Emerson as one of her “favorite people in the world,”  “smart, joyful, open, quick to laugh and quick to share.”

“Claudia Emerson brings an undeniable reputation to our department,” said Katherine Bassard, Ph.D., professor and chair of the VCU Department of English. “A poet of her caliber and teacher of her aptitude will enhance and inspire students and faculty peers alike.”

Writing in Newsweek, David Gates called [Late Wife] “such a smart, intense, satisfying and approachable book that readers will return to it for decades.”

“I really do not know of another writer of her generation who can weave such diverse materials together to make such a cohesive and urgent whole. With Secure the Shadow, Emerson once again proves that she is among our essential poets.”—David Wojahn


A poem from Pinion: An Elegy (2002) and featured in Shenandoah’s “Strongly Spent: 50 Years of Poetry” edition in Spring/Summer 2003.

The Admirer

September, 1926, clear

He had before come courting—with pecans
or peaches, berries. She had those times been able
to thank him with one of her pies and be
done with him. For this, though he would want
supper, to sit at the table with her
after supper. For this, reckoned he had
spent most of the morning emptying
the sky of its plenty: the doves spilled from
burlap in iridescent disarray,
three dozen at least, a shimmering

bouquet. And so the afternoon was for her
defined; the hour deepened the mound of feathers,
blue-gray, plucked in porch-dusk, and the wind,
disinterested, would once in a while stir them.
She knew they were easy to bring down
over a field where they would fall into
the tangled grasses and go on flying against
what had been wind. Easy—as this was not:
feet, gut, heart, the smooth brow with eyes open
like garnets glowing; she cut and tossed over

and what was in the end useless
onto the feathers, a last and bloody bed,
or to the cats, who growled and circled her,
to keep the peace. A dove would amount to,
at best, a half-dozen mouthfuls, the dark
breast tender but gristled with shot—black seed. She
threw a whole bird to the nursing cat
and wondered whether the white kitten had opened
its eyes; if they were blue, it would be deaf,
she had been told and told she could not let it

live. She would see about that. Her mother called down
how are they coming. More work than they’re worth,
she answered back, for such a little meat.
Even with the birds still baking, yet to be
eaten, with still the biscuits to stir up
and gravy yet to make from the meager fat—
with a strait hour to pass before he would
lean back from the table to pick his teeth and sigh—
she had decided he should have left the doves
their beloved sky, for she would not be won.

Shenandoah’s Editor R.T. Smith wrote the book jacket blurb for Claudia Emerson’s second book, Pinion, which reads, “In her carefully unfolding chronicle of quietly claustrophobic rural life, Emerson has reawakened the vernacular of hard times and yearning.  She has conjured an exquisite lament from the drought and fallow ground of a family farm and reminded us of the durability and splendor of the human heart.”

emerson2On the poet, Smith remarks, “In subsequent books, she continued to explore with deftness and tact a variety of vernaculars of suffering, and she was so often pitch-perfect that I began to see her as the signature Southern poet of her generation.  Fortunately, she also had the opportunity to write about exhilaration and sweet seasons, which she addressed with equal vigor and originality, and in those later poems she disassembled some of her narrative strategies and reached new heights of lyric expression.  Claudia Emerson could tell a story and she could sing a song, and was not much tempted by nonsense or ordinariness.   She is a poet to be read and re-read, and the only consolation I can find in her passing is that she has left us two more volumes of poems, so her voice will still be singing for a long time.  Let the birds and the bards get ready to shiver with envy.”

Claudia Emerson left a permanent footprint in the world of poetry. Shenandoah and Washington and Lee are blessed to have had the opportunity to be influenced by her work and character. A tribute to the poet will appear in Shenandoah later this winter.

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