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.”

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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

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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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SHENANDOAH Moving Again

caravanLocation, Location, Location
Another chapter in the history of Shenandoah has come to an end.  During the week of December 15 we will be moving our offices again, this time from our historic brick tower across from the Stonewall Jackson House to the basement of Early-Fielding (sounds vaguely agricultural) Building at the corner of (really) Lee Avenue and Washington Street.  It’s also right across Lee from Mattingly House, where we were lodged before moving to our current location.

When classes resume on January 12, we’ll be open for business again with a new set of interns, but our Submittable site will not be ready to receive submissions until later in that month.  Stay tuned.

Our current (17 Courtyard Square) address was the launching pad for our on-line version of Shenandoah, and it’s been an eventful three and a half years, sad in the loss of our contributing editors Jake York and Claudia Emerson, but in other ways provocative and challenging.  The building is a wonderful example of 19th century construction with huge windows and, partly because it once served as the Commonwealth Attorney’s office, an atmosphere of resourceful professionalism, bolstered by the two walk-in safes.  Our previous querencia Mattingly House, which we shared with publishing and communications professionals, had been a fraternity house, and despite the chimney’s penchant for trapping or admitting birds, it had a good feel, a picturesque hearth and one grand room with pine wainscotting.  Longtime followers may even recall that in 1995 Shenandoah moved from its first port-of-call with the English Department in Payne (!) Hall to the upstairs suite of the well-known Troubadour Theater.  That was on the occasion of my arrival, and my office window allowed a fine view of the First Baptist Church and, at times, an inspiring view of the rising moon.  Sometimes it backlit our resident bats.  From “17” the winter sunset was the resident spectacle.  That old Troubadour building now houses a hair salon and an upstairs apartment.  Time marches on.

What to make of all this peregrination?  Hard to say.  Home is where you dock your laptop?  Travel is broadening?  Wise to present a moving target?  It’s a mystery to me, but James Joyce could have told us more about the joys and sorrows of changing addresses.  At the end of Ulysses, reflecting his own brand of musical chairs, he wrote Trieste-Zurich-Paris.  Location, location, location.  It worked out fine for him.  Wish us luck.

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‘Tis the Season

It travels the airwaves for 25% of the year. The subliminal messaging has mixed effects – sheer joy and utter disgust. It overwhelms us, forcing its tune into some hearts, but all minds – yes, it’s Christmas music. To some, the boy’s choirs sound as jolly as one of the “Saw” movies, to others, it warms them from the Christmas cold spreading cheer to all. The infidelity depicted in “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” one might argue, is not the best message to be sending to adolescents. “Oh Holy Night” has become Christmas’ solemn anthem. There is a certain serious sadness inflicted by some of the Christmas ballads; they sound almost depressing about one of the supposed happiest times of the year. But then, *song ends* and up next is “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree.” It is difficult to reconcile the joy and grief that are spread from the infectious music.

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Why is there a need for music in the first place? Isn’t the whole point to be celebrating the holiness of the day, and is that by any means lost when we are decking the halls? Kimberly Moore’s three-part article, “A Brief History of Holiday Music” argues that, “Music is an integral part of our holiday experience.” Moore divides the melodies by time period. The majority of the earlier Christmas songs were in veneration of the religious part of the day; think: “The First Noel,” “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and “Silent Night.” They are more serious and less likely to facilitate a dance around a Christmas tree. These hymns are more contemplative and allow the singers and listeners to ponder the religious significance of the holiday season. For years Christmas was a solemn holiday.

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Joy, celebration and song became a part of the Christmas season in 1840 when German Prince Albert married English Queen Victoria. In Germany, Christmas means Yuletide, a joyous celebration including songs, celebration, gifts, and more marketable forms of Christmas celebration. As the celebration of Yule caught on, “Jingle Bells,” “Up on the Housetop,” and “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” became the songs of the season. Christmas became commercialized and became more about the celebration than the religious sentiments of the season.

Christmas tunes remained consistent until the Great Depression when Americans became the songwriters, commercializing Christmas as a holiday for everyone rather than a strictly religious day. Songs became more about celebration than about spirituality. In addition, the music industry employed famous singers to gain popularity for the new genre of songs. Christmas hits were also debuted in movies, inviting a new audience to enjoy the upbeat music.

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Something that has occurred to me while the reverberating beats of “Little Drummer Boy” bump through my car: why Christmas? What I mean is, why is Christmas the only holiday permitted songs to play on the radio? What about Arbor Day? Easter? There are plenty of other holidays worthy of broadcasted music, yet we preempt a single day with 3 months of loud, proud holiday music. Why does Christmas deserve that more than any other day? I find Thanksgiving to be pretty important, can we celebrate that with a song? The attention and importance allotted to Christmas seems unfair, particularly when a large part of America’s population does not even celebrate the day. While Christmas monopolizes the radio, Kwanza and Hanukkah’s songs are without airtime. With the new novelty and lightheartedness of Christmas, everyone is able to enjoy the celebration, regardless of religious affiliation, subjecting us all to the unending holiday cheer.

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The Political in Poetry: Some Thoughts on White Privilege

These days it can be hard to tell the difference between what I am thankful for and simply privileges. I become more grateful each year for the opportunity to attend a top-notch liberal arts university, and to have the good fortune of family, education, home, food, and friends. Yet amid all I have to be thankful for this holiday season, it is my white A baseball cap and a portrait of Michael Brown is shown alongside his casket inside Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church before the start of funeral services in St. Louisprivilege that hangs heaviest in my heart this week. Although Shenandoah is a place of literary rather than political debate, I would feel remiss to not mention Monday night’s announcement that the officer responsible for the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, will not be indicted. I think for most of the country grappling with this news a grim cloud looms over our Thanksgiving festivities. I know that personally my sense of American patriotism feels acutely heightened during this season of gratitude. But this year, it is hard for me to consider the United States a nation of prosperity and freedom, when so many of my opportunities are made possible by the chance color of my skin. In contrast, people of color are still denied full protection under the law and deprived of equal access to justice and dignity in their everyday lives.

frederick-seidel-448In the wake of confusion or tragedy I often turn to poetry for wisdom and comfort. A brief Google search for “Ferguson poetry” led me to a blog posted on Tuesday by the Paris Review that featured Frederick Seidel’s brazenly entitled poem, “The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri”  that will appear in their winter issue next month. I was unpleasantly surprised to find that the poetic voice of “The Ballad of Ferguson” was a 78 year old white male, Harvard graduate, and the privileged son of a wealthy St. Louis family. Seidel has written about race complicatedly for decades, including horrifying descriptions of his father’s mistreatment of black servants growing up. His poetry is characterized by gaudy excesses of wealth and an unsettling engagement with social issues. Part of the “Ballad” reads:

Skin color is the name.
Skin color is the game.
Skin color is to blame for Ferguson, Missouri.

The body of the man you were
Has disappeared inside the one you wear.

I wouldn’t want to be a black man in St. Louis County.

While Seidel’s poem is certainly disturbing and thought provoking, it is also problematic in its approach. While some stanzas seem entrenched with complex meaning, other sections are concerningly oversimplified and steeped in emotional conflation. More to the point, the author is a white privileged male speaking as an outsider to Ferguson and the black community.

I much pimagesreferred the poetic response of Danez Smith, a black-queer author and poet, with his debut collection [insert] Boy coming out this December. His poem, “not an elegy for Mike Brown” was featured in August by Split This Rock and later was performed as a slam poem in the 2014 Individual World Poetry Slam this October in Phoenix, AZ where Smith placed second. A particularly moving segment of the poem compares the violence of the Trojan war to reactions following Mike Brown’s death.

are we not worthy

of a city of ash? of 1000 ships
launched because we are missed?

always, something deserves to be burned.
it’s never the right thing now a days.

I demand a war to bring the dead boy back
no matter what his name is this time.

Not everyone will agree with Smith’s passionate and political response, but I respect his perspective and the quality of his poetry. Furthermore, I believe his approach is validated rather than biased because of his personal position within the conversation.

wildRecently I have been studying the work of Adrienne Rich, a prolific voice on social issues of gender and race. Her poem “Frame” (1980) took me by surprise with its power of sheer emotional provocation surrounding racial injustice. In the poem Rich omnisciently narrates the story of a female college student (presumably a woman of color) and the white male police officer who harasses and abuses her, wrongfully arresting her simply for waiting for a bus. Rich reminds the reader throughout the poem that she is not present in the scene but stands, “all this time just beyond the frame, trying to see.” Use of the anaphora, “in silence” towards the end of the poem emphasizes the complete lack of voice the female student has throughout her experience. The poem comes to a gripping end with the lines:

What I am telling you
is told by a white woman who they will say
was never there. I say I am there.

Here Rich confronts head on a dilemma I, and I suspect many more individuals, struggle with: as a white woman in America who can bear witness to everyday institutionalized racism, how do I speak on behalf of these atrocities? What role do I play? When I hear about incidents of racial injustice in America, and there are many, I feel the need to demonstrate in some way that, although I am white, I care about these massive abuses of power and support people of color trying to live their lives free from persecution. But I will never understand the experience of being black, cannot speak with authority on these issues, and do not wish to replace another’s voice with my own.

In “Frame” Rich acknowledgadrienne-riches her station of privilege in the scene, being just outside the frame as a white woman. Yet she refuses to be squeezed out of the narrative completely and places herself in a position to care and report. She is not self-aggrandizing, but in her commentary Rich is removed from the shadows and reveals herself as an ally, claims her voice to speak with the oppressed and against the oppressors: “I say I am there.

Over the last few days I have been disappointed by the silence of my white undergraduate peers whose voices are not speaking out about the Michael Brown case and the social issues that surround it. Perhaps, many are not affected and choose to not care, but I think another scenario is more likely. Many white people, especially young fellow students, seem to be afraid to speak up because they do not think it is their place and do not know how to approach the conversation. And I am not sure I do either, but I do know that writing can make a difference, and voices of support can be heard. I hope we can all consider the impact our voices and written word can have on the issues that matter most. I know I am thankful to have this platform to voice my opinion with dignity, and I wish for others to have the same.

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Book Keeping?

Allow me to step back in time half a decade or so, when a certain fear loomed large on the mind for those of us with a literary bent: the digitalization of the literary world. Bookstores were following the path of their video rental store brethren and being gutted to make way for Nordstrom Racks and mega-gyms. E-readers increasingly topped Christmas lists. Blogs were no longer the clunky, poorly designed online diaries of the early 2000s, but aesthetically pleasing, specialized platforms with scores of followers. Amazon was hailed as the savior of the book industry. The general population was reading again!

If you happen to be one of those who opened a brand new Kindle on Christmas morning, you’re aware of the massive battle that’s been underway, for years now, between publishers and the makers of e-readers like Amazon and Apple. You may have received three lovely, unexpected dollars as the result of a lawsuit settlement between Amazon and Hachette or some other tech giant/publisher dispute. The gist of it was that Amazon was selling e-books for far less than hardcovers, and the publishers’ primary tasks–getting physical books to bookstores and setting their own, rather high, prices–became obsolete, so the publishing houses were losing lots and lots of money. The full story is very complex and better handled by a more knowledgeable writer (you can read more about it in Keith Gessen’s “The War of the Worlds” in the most recent issue of Vanity Fair). I’d rather talk about a digitalization issue far more symbolic, possibly far less significant, and much closer to my heart.

Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re a book lover. And as a book lover, you likely own many well-worn, well-thumbed hard copies of your favorite books that have been read dozens of times over. Perhaps you’re an annotator or like to jump around when reading. Maybe you just can’t get enough of that new book smell. If so, you were likely outraged when the e-reader trend caught on.

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But bear with me. I was one of you once. I refused to get a Kindle; it took away the entire soul of the act of reading. I scoffed at people who brought their iPads to the pool, who all seemed like they were reading exclusively things like Fifty Shades of Gray and Chelsea Handler’s new book. You don’t get the new book smell, you can’t annotate (let’s face it, the “pen” function on the iPad is an anti-dexterous joke), and flipping back and forth is so much more difficult than holding your place with your thumb that’s just not worth it. Additionally, crucially, books don’t have to be recharged, and in fact will survive most physical affronts save a fire, unlike their electronic equivalents.

I will still never throw out my old Count of Monte Cristo copy or the Pride and Prejudice my grandfather gave me, but I’ve learned to appreciate their digital counterparts as well. The average paperback weighs almost a pound. As a college student who travels a lot, it’s simply not feasible for me to carry physical books with me on trips. Owning a Kindle means I always have an entire library at my fingertips, and in fact I think it’s led me to read more new books and better acquaint myself with familiar ones because of the lack of physical limitations. And isn’t that the heart of the matter for us literary-minded folk? As long as people are interacting with, learning from, and generally bettering their lives from the material, is the vehicle so important in the long run? The words are what really matter, no matter how they’re printed–right?

To take the issue to even closer to home, Shenandoah itself, along with a host of other literary magazines, switched from hardcover to online fairly recently. This has complicated matters of layout and aesthetics, elements that can be critical to the essence of a literary journal. And of course, like with the publishers vs. Amazon debacle, there are financial matters to consider. But it certainly does make the magazine more accessible, more visible to the fair-weather reader who may now be more likely to become a committed reader because of the greater ease of accessibility.

I know this is an old debate, but it seems to me it might be interesting to check back in now that the dust has settled and see if any of the die-hard traditionalists have changed their minds. So, readers–has digitalization in fact taken away the “soul” of the literary world, or does the sacrifice of being able to physically handle the words make them that much stronger and far-reaching? How best can publishers, authors, editors, and readers maintain the personal connection felt with a beloved copy of a favorite book with its digital equivalent?

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When the Author Won’t Die

Death of the author. By now a familiar concept, thank you Barthes, and incredibly useful in interpreting a text. It’s freeing for both the reader and the writer, opening up works for interpretations that their authors never would have considered. The writer’s intentions don’t matter; the text speaks for itself. However, there are a few works where the authorial presence is so strong that divorcing the text from the author is almost impossible.

Les Miserables

Les Miserables

Namely, I’m talking about Victor Hugo and Les Miserables. It’s one of the longest books ever written, totaling 1500 pages in English and even more in French, and more than a quarter of the book is made up not of plot, but authorial digressions. Hugo is notorious for his tangents in Les Mis. He’ll put the story on hold and talk about Waterloo for fifteen chapters, then the lifestyle of a specific Parisian convent, and for me most egregious of all, the history and design of the Parisian sewer system. Even at the beginning of the book, before Hugo even introduces his main character Jean Valjean, he writes, “Although these details in no way essentially concern that which we have to tell…” and proceeds to devote several chapters to the background of the bishop that Valjean meets, including the layout of his house.

Hugo’s intentions in writing this novel don’t need to be speculated; he states them clearly within the text. He’s attempting to address social injustice above all, and in introducing Les Miserables, he says, “So long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.” Several times he pauses in the narrative to discuss the horrible lot in life of the poor – how society leads men like Jean Valjean to commit crime and the punishment is so severe that it turns him into a hardened criminal. While many novels attempting to make a similar statement would simply present the narrative and let the reader draw the natural conclusion, Hugo stops the narrative and explains it to the reader. There’s very little room for misinterpretation in Les Miserables – Hugo lets you know what he’s trying to do as an author all the time.

Victor Hugo, a man with something to say.

Victor Hugo, a man with something to say.

What audacity. Les Miserables is considered one of the greatest novels of its time, so how did Hugo get away with this? One of his biographers explains, “The digressions of genius are easily pardoned.” True, Hugo is a great writer, and Les Miserables has an epic scope, discoursing on French history, the architecture of Paris, politics, philosophy, the nature of justice, religious, love… Hugo has an incredibly informed and eloquent opinion on all of it, and he’s going to explain it to you at length.

Only in one other book have I encountered such a strong authorial presence within the text, one of the earliest novels ever written, Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. The newness of the category explains Fielding’s unconventionality, at least. Like Les Miserables it’s an incredibly long book (both could be effectively wielded as a blunt weapon), and it has its share of social commentary as well, although Fielding goes for satire, exposing with comedy what Hugo does with tragedy. Fielding has the same authorial interruptions, but his are more organized; Tom Jones is divided into 18 books (like I said, long), and each book begins with a chapter where Fielding speaks directly to the reader. They’re not always unrelated to the plot, sometimes he makes analytical comments about specific characters, but he’s just as likely to start ripping into bad writers, and particularly, bad critics.

I love both Les Miserables and Tom Jones, and I think the authorial presence within them works well. Hugo may digress, but he writes with such knowledge, intelligence, compassion, and beauty that it only makes the work greater. Fielding’s notes to the reader make a long book even longer, but I was charmed by them. I felt like I was entering into a conversation with the author, and when the book ended, I felt the loss.

What I’m wondering is if any writer today could pull of this same kind of intrusive yet welcome authorial presence in a work of fiction. Generally we want authors to get out of the way of their writing, and I can’t see any attempts at interrupting the story for a personal digression making it past the editors. That’s why the non-fiction genre is there. What’s more, Les Miserables and Tom Jones were hugely popular when they came out. It’s hard to imagine any novel so long being widely popular outside of literary circles today, even without the additional eccentricities. Could a contemporary author accomplish this style, assuming their work had a similar epic scope and social commentary? Is there a particular author you’d want to write a book like that? Or is Les Miserables simply a period piece, undoubtedly great but unable to be repeated?

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Starbucks, Zombies, and Texts from Jane Eyre

How does Jean Valjean take his coffee? Does Dante prefer cappuccino to a macchiato? These are the questions that keep me up night, and thanks to Literary Starbucks, I can finally find my answers.

“Drinks are Up for Your Favorite Authors and Characters,” reads the site’s tagline. Spinning off the popularity of coffee house culture in the modern literary scene, this blog re-imagines some of literature’s greatest figures and places them in the context of a modern day Starbucks. Three college students came up with the idea this September, and describe the impetus for the project on their website. “One day we thought, what would all of history’s famous authors and characters order if they lived in modern times and went to Starbucks? The rest is history.”

Milton is my favorite Literary Starbucks customer.

Milton is my favorite Literary Starbucks customer.

The blog quickly garnered positive response, with floods of new readers making requests for their own literary favorites. Authors from Milton to J.K. Rowling have had their turn with the Literary Starbucks barista. In the month and a half since it’s inception, the blog has received attention from various media outlets, and just recently reached 25,000 followers.

The popularity of Literary Starbucks makes me wonder what it is about anachronism that draws people in. An anachronism, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is anything that exists out of its proper context of time. In many cases, it’s an error on behalf of the author. This definition doesn’t account for intentional anachronism, and the comical juxtaposition that so appeals to the modern reader. There’s something compelling about seeing the canon of the past clash with the present.

The popularity of literary reboots and remixes can attest to this: just take a look at the success of Seth Grahame-Smith’s zombified Regency Era in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or Mallory Ortberg’s new Texts from Jane Eyre and Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters. Grahame-Smith’s proper English zombies have become so popular that a film adaptation is in the works, and they will be shuffling to big screens in sometime in 2015. Meanwhile, Ortberg’s new book is sure to draw flocks of new readers to her website, The Toast, where she habitually juxtaposes the old and new with a charming irreverence. Ortberg cites Scarlett O’Hara with a cell phone as the inspiration for her book, but no literary or historical figure is immune to her anachronistic gaze.

The popularity of anachronism isn’t so much a literary phenomena as much as it is a cultural one. The creators of this media will admit that their success comes at least in part from the gimmick. Still, it’s interesting to consider why the gimmick works. (Maybe in this modern age, readers have become so desensitized to the accessibility of media that long-beloved characters no longer evoke any sympathy or understanding. Maybe readers have become cynical and lazy, and this recycling of media signals the death knell for literature.) Of course it doesn’t. This has been going on for centuries. Shakespeare’s Roman plays were performed in modern Elizabethan/Jacobean dress, for example, and I won’t even attempt to navigate the rabbit hole that is anachronism in Renaissance art. Even in cases of accidental anachronism, the inclusion of contemporary details forged a connection with the audience which might not have existed otherwie.

UntitledAnachronism might even inspire otherwise uninterested readers to take a second look at a classic. I remember feeling mostly apathetic toward Shakespeare during high school, until I discovered Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 “Romeo + Juliet.” Perhaps it was the late 90’s aesthetic, or the gun-swords, or Leonardo DiCaprio, but something about this adaptation clicked with me. When Abraham asked, “Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?” I found myself actually caring about the answer. After that, whenever I struggled to connect with one of Shakespeare’s characters, I could try to imagine them in a modern context, and that would give me an angle into the play.

Intentionally anachronistic works aren’t going to win prizes for originality any time soon, but they still occupy a worthwhile niche in the literary market. At worst, they’re gimmicks, but at their best, they can be gateways. Our fondness for blending past and present is a good sign. It means we’re still curious and constantly looking for new ways to process literature, and to find reflections of ourselves in the classics. If that means Milton starts ordering Frappuccino from Starbucks, so be it.

Do you think that modern adaptations have value that cannot be achieved by the original version? Have you ever connected with a modern adaptation? Is intentional anachronism valuable, or is it the junk food of the literary world?

 

 

 

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The Power of Storytelling

typewriterSeveral recent bloggers have raised the question, “Why do we write?” I want to respond to that question. Mainly, I think we write because it’s therapeutic and exhilarating. Also, as humans we desire communication with those around us. But I’m also interested in something else. Not only why we write (Step 1), but also why does it matter (Step 2)? What’s the point? Does it change anything about who we are or the world we live in?

Step 1: Storytelling can be empowering for the writer, a form of self-expression, or a way of figuring out the truth. When a story is told, it can initiate change in a community or improve communication about a life experience. Stories have immense power in communities, connecting people to things they may not hear or see on their own. Stories, ultimately, can be archived for future generations and communities. We write because stories can find a way to truth or understanding, raise difficult questions, and spread awareness about experiences.

Step 2: Does the act of storytelling matter? What’s the point? Our whole society revolves around the written and spoken word: the building blocks of storytelling. We go to extensive effort to teach children how to read and write. I am going to be an English teacher next year. How can I explain to my students that storytelling really does matter?

I have recently been thinking about the power of storytelling because of a project I am working on called The Facing Sexual Violence Project, but first I am reminded of a TED talk that discusses the danger of a single story. Chimamanda Adichie, a lover of stories and a storyteller herself, speaks on why it is important for stories to provide multiple perspectives of life. There should not be one story, but many. According to Adichie, “The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.” Without a variety of stories, Adichie argues that we fall into the trap of believing what she calls “a single story”, a limited understanding of whatever it is we tell stories about.

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http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?language=en#t-4699

Multiple stories, however, give individuals and communities a chance to think about things in a new way. Individuals who truly listen to multiple stories open up their minds. They begin to think for themselves, considering the perspectives they encounter in stories and developing ideas about how to move something in the world.

Adichie talks of stories as if they have volcanic power. She says, “Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.” Adichie’s TED talk inspired me because I also believe in the power of storytelling, which brings me to The Facing Sexual Violence Project, the inspiration that charges electricity through my fingers as I type this blog.

Why do I write and read stories?

Because I want these stories to change the world, advocate for social justice, entertain a young girl or a busy parent.

The Facing Project (http://facingproject.com/) is a national non-profit organization that works with communities to connect through storytelling over a particular challenge or social issue. Facing matches community members who wish to anonymously (or not, if desired) tell their stories about the issue at hand and ultimately publishes them in a book or in some other expressive form. The Facing Project has reached communities dealing with poverty, human trafficking, and many more.

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So, what’s our issue?

Sexual violence in Rockbridge County.

W&L student Noelle Rutland brought The Facing Sexual Violence project to Rockbridge County. Storytelling, it seemed, would be the best way for the community to speak for itself. Why does storytelling matter? To me, it matters because it inspires things like The Facing Project. Storytelling propels individuals to share something and it gives communities opportunities to communicate with each other.

As the project grows, I am lucky to participate as Noelle’s co-manager, and I am inspired by the stories we have received so far. Washington & Lee Professor Deborah Miranda shared an excerpt from her story, Silver, with our project that illuminates the importance of storytelling.

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W&L Professor Deborah Miranda (Blog: http://www.badndns.blogspot.com/)

For years, Professor Miranda kept her story silent. She confessed, “Most of all, I can’t tell because there is nobody who wants to hear…My husband asks what’s wrong. I don’t have the words to tell him. He doesn’t really want to know.”

Silence.

For anyone who has a story to share, silence can be petrifying. The longer you are silent, the more you convince yourself that your story should not be spoken aloud. If you speak it aloud you may disrupt the peace, you may upset someone, and you will certainly make yourself more vulnerable.

Storytelling defies silence

It yells doggedly at the settled earth and the status quo:

“LISTEN. I have something to say. I cannot keep this inside of me any longer. I have a story. We all have a story.”

Miranda says,

“I write this story by waking up each morning and writing until I feel myself begin to change the truth. Then I walk away from the work till I can face reality again…I walk away from this story for nearly a decade; walk away with its false ending: the warm old house, the husband, the fiction of a healing that doesn’t cost, but doesn’t transform. I fight transformation tooth and nail. At last, I recognize change as my old friend, Truth. I stand still, and embrace her.”

Professor Miranda’s story shook me in the best way – like when you’ve overslept and your benevolent roommate wakes you abruptly so that you’re not late to class – it pulled me out of my dream-like state into the world urgently awaiting these stories. We have to face them.

(Quotes from Miranda excerpted from: Silver, by Deborah A. Miranda. First printed in Bad Girls/Good Girls: Women, Sex and Power in the Nineties. edited by Nan Bauer Maglin and Donna Perry, Editors, Rutgers University Press, 1998.)

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Why I Write, and Why I May Not Have a Choice in the Matter

Sometimes I find myself dispirited, unsatisfied with my writing and wondering whether I should waste my time with it at all. It is not likely that it will ever find its way into the public eye, and even less so that it will have any sort of effect on the world. After all, there are thousands upon thousands of other would-be novelists and poets out there. The practice of writing becomes a rather egotistical undertaking when one considers the multitudes of hopeful writers there are. What right do I have to assume that I have something more important to say than they?

The answer, of course, is none. I am fully aware of this, but I continue to write; this leads me to wonder what my real motivation is for writing. Seeing as I have already given up on changing the world with my work, I can assume that it is a more selfish, personal reason. This could be any number of things: to express myself, to communicate my ideas, for the simple joy of stringing together words on a page.

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George Orwell

George Orwell’s essay “Why I Write” details what the author asserts to be his motivations for setting pen to paper. First, Orwell explains to his reader that he has had a penchant for writing since he was practically a toddler. He admits that he was a lonely child, and that writing came as a kind of remedy to his loneliness. Orwell was constantly composing stories in his head, as he puts it: “I was carrying out a literary exercise of a quite different kind: this was the making up of a continuous ‘story’ about myself, a sort of diary existing only in the mind.” This is certainly familiar to me, and I’m sure to many who feel the need to write. I remember being a small child, bored at a restaurant and one of the only children in a room full of adults. A waitress bent down and asked me cheerfully what my name was. “Emma, said Emma,” I quickly replied, accidentally vocalizing the story I’d been internally writing.

Orwell says, “I seemed to be making this descriptive effort almost against my will, under a kind of compulsion from outside.” But, he does not proclaim this habit to be his reason for writing. Instead, he gives his audience a list of much more mature, rational motives. These were formulated after he had completed his lonely childhood and are as follows:

  1. Sheer egoism.
  2. Aesthetic enthusiasm.
  3. Historical impulse.
  4. Political purpose.

These are all very fair and seem to cover most of the reasons for writing that I can imagine. Indeed, Orwell asserts that every writer embraces these objectives to some extent.

However, I am not entirely satisfied with them because they are altogether too logical. What Orwell describes as “a kind of compulsion from outside,” and what I feel as a need to write despite all sense telling me not to, cannot be explained by such a rational list of aims. I believe Orwell recognizes this as well; he writes:

All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

Clearly there is something else, some indefatigable impulse that forces us to write, and write again.

temporal lobe

The temporal lobes, in case you were wondering where the culprit resides.

Here I have brought myself to a familiar topic. It is often said that true writers have to write. In her book The Midnight Disease, Alice W. Flaherty examines this idea from a neurological standpoint. She writes about several reasons why a person’s brain might feel the need to write. In most extreme cases, a writer may have hypergraphia, which is increased motivation to write caused by temporal lobe epilepsy. According to Flaherty, the author Fyodor Dostoevsky is believed by some to have been hypergraphic, as evidenced by his “spells of altered consciousness, his mood swings and their free-floating feeling of doom and ecstasy, his religious and philosophical temperament, his altered sexuality, and his overpowering desire to write.”

Of course, it isn’t as if all writers are affected by this extreme condition; Flaherty offers other explanation for those who might not be affected by hypergraphia but feel the need to write. She asserts that many writers, and specifically amateur ones, “are suffering from something: bereavement, illness, exile, ‘narcissistic injury’ to self-esteem, adolescence.” This suffering can trigger “limbic system and temporal lobe activity through their roles in emotion [and] increases the desire to write and communicate.”

This would perhaps explain Orwell’s need to write from a young age; his self-described loneliness could certainly be seen as injury in his adolescence. It might be the cause of his mystery compulsion and my steadfast, illogical desire to write. It might be a hard concept to accept− that my writing is more chemical reaction than noble purpose. On the other hand, it is rather amazing to think that authors such as Dostoevsky and Orwell not only wanted to write, but were compelled to by their own brains as if by an outside force. It lends their stories an element of inevitability and fate.

What do you think? Why do you write?

Check out Elise Petracca’s “Why We Write” below! It deals with a similar topic and might be interesting to read with Flaherty’s ideas in mind.

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The Quirk Epidemic

In celebration of the recent release of the book-cum-movie Gone Girl, I’d like to join the antagonist of that story in lamenting one of literature’s most irritating clichés: the quirky girl. Beach read though the book is, and psychopathic though Amy the Antagonist may be, her character offers an impressively well constructed perspective on the heroine that we, as readers, have come to take for granted. In Gone Girl, Amy launches a complex and twisted revenge plot in order to get back at her husband, who she feels has forced her to pretend to be the beloved “cool” girl for years in order to keep up with his unrealistic standards. Amy argues that this girl that men everywhere lust after doesn’t exist. I have to agree.

Contemporary popular literature is littered with her. The first time you see her, she’s nothing special–a little odd-looking, even. But after a few weeks or months of getting to know her you realize she’s the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen and she doesn’t even know it. She’s always doing something crazy and irresponsible: jumping into strangers’ pools fully clothed, adopting five puppies at once, and yet her life never seems to truly suffer from her reckless, adolescent behavior. She can hang with the guys but you would never call her masculine. She has an endearing and unusual hobby, like making coffee tables out of bottle caps or watching foreign films from the 1940s. She’s attractive, smart, funny, and interesting, yet somehow she’s still shy in social situations and thus has been dubbed “the weird girl” by her peers, but you know better. You fall in love with her suddenly, you never saw it coming, but the readership knew from the very first paragraph.

Literature’s quirky girl is closely related to the “manic pixie dream girl” of the movies, a term coined by film critic Nathan Rabin: “that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” (Think Zooey Deschanel in 500 Days of Summer.) The manic pixie dream girl exists to teach the male protagonist to be himself and break loose from life’s rigid structures, a duty often undertaken by the quirky girl, although occasionally the gender roles are reversed in her case. Some perfect male specimen glimpses the beauty behind the quiet and convinces her to embrace her quirks for all the world to see.

The primary difference between the dream girl and the quirky girl lies in the latter’s–excuse the pun–bookishness. The dream girl tends to be frothy and feminine, while the quirky girl is smarter, more reclusive, with occasional dark flashes in her character. This tinge to her personality tricks the reader into thinking she may prove to be more complex than she is, but inevitably, the reader is disappointed. We need look no further than the bestseller lists of the past decade or so to see the evidence: Bella in Twilight; Anastasia in Fifty Shades of Gray; Sam in The Perks of Being a Wallflower; and so on. Although she has saturated the bookshelves more recently, the quirky girl is no new phenomenon. We saw her in Salinger’s genius-quirk girl Franny Glass and Harper Lee’s grit-quirk girl Scout.

Bella, brooding.

Bella, brooding.

My problem with the quirky girl is that authors insist on painting her as improbably awkward, shy, or insecure. If a girl possessing her amazingly diverse array of attributes existed, she would almost certainly not have such crippling social anxiety and lack of friends. And if we’re to believe that she really is somehow socially isolated or “different,” then let’s see a character who actually is kind of weird. She can still be charming and pretty and quirky and be a real human being with unsettling flaws as well: see Maura in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. The quirky girl is flat, dimensionless; her flaws, if any, are minor and easily forgivable, even loveable. (“Quirk” and “flaw” are not synonyms.) She is beyond, at least for me, the willingness to suspend disbelief.

What do you think, readers? Is my interpretation of the quirky girl too harsh or generalized? Does she play a more important role than I realize? Most importantly: do we think she’s here to stay?

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