Category Archives: Language

Journalism and poetry: Is a new romance in the air?

By Laura Grimes
Today is the last day of National Poetry Month. Tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of my last day at a large daily news organization. So it seems only fitting to reimagine a new, inspiring era of journalism … that incorporates poetry.

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For more than half my life I was a journalist. At least that’s the occupation I wrote on insurance applications and medical forms. But in the beginning it just seemed like one paycheck away from my real occupation: a big liberal arts question mark.

When I was fresh out of college and looking for work I vowed I would never work for a newspaper. I hated being pressed to finish term papers, why would I subject myself to deadlines every day? But I loved the whole messy process of publishing and had ever since I walked into Mrs. Wallis’ yearbook class my junior year of high school. The pull was still strong. After college, a quick accounting of publishing job options revealed:

  1. Literary magazines, tops on my list at the time, had no paycheck.
  2. Glossy magazines meant moving to New York.
  3. Book publishing ditto.
  4. Leaving the idea of working for a large daily newspaper really appealing.

So at a once-large publishing company in Portland, Oregon, my love affair with newspapering began, slowly at first, but eventually growing into a deep passion. The job taught me to work with speed and economy.

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Singlehandedly: the art of storytelling

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“We did not believe in God,” Lawrence Howard recollects. “We believed in chicken soup and matzoh balls.”

As Mrs. Scatter has recently intimated, Mr. Scatter has embarked on a quest deep into the wilds of the exotic North American continent, hunting the elusive Snark. Today the Snark sleeps, and it is only sporting for Mr. Scatter to pause, too. Fortunately he’s discovered a forgotten hilltop with remarkably modern reception, so he’s decided to recount his recent adventure back in civilization, last Friday night at Hipbone Studio, at the opening of Portland Story Theater‘s Singlehandedly festival of solo shows.

Sharon Knorr meets her perfect partner. Photo: Lynne DuddyHoward is one of the founders of the story theater, and so it was fitting that his hour-long piece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Horowitz, kicked the festival off. Most everyone knows the mystical power of chicken soup, and most understand the pull of ritual and tradition in that thing we loosely call religion, so Howard’s audience, maybe 65 or 70 strong, rippled into laughter: the easy, familiar kind, the kind that says, “Yeah, we know what you mean.”

What transpired was a memory-tale,
a tale of growing up Jewish, sort of, but not in a particularly devoted sense. His father changed the family name from Horowitz to Howard because in the 1940s and 50s he couldn’t even get a job interview with a Jewish name, and the family celebrated the holidays with a Christmas tree, although not in a window where it could be seen. Still, being Jewish was somehow important, not only in the way Howard viewed the world, but also in the way the world viewed him. Which was not always in the kindest or most pleasant way.

This bothered him: “I wanted people to hate me for myself, not just for my name.”

Continue reading Singlehandedly: the art of storytelling

Josephine, Chapter 2: The long return

By Laura Grimes

I said hello and called her name. She sat on the side of her twin bed, reading an aged book. She didn’t respond. I called her name again. I stood in front of her for several moments. I raised my voice. Nothing. I finally stooped down and looked into her face.

Josephine raised her head just a little, looked at me and smiled. She put a mark in her book and closed it. Gold serif type spelled out two words on the blue cloth cover: Silent Spring.

Silent SpringI put my bag on the floor and moved a portable potty out of the way to give her a sideways hug.

I looked at her square in the front again. “Hello,” she said cheerfully. “It’s been a long time.”

“I know. I never meant to stay away so long.” It had been more than four months.

I looked around for the low wooden stool I usually sit on and found it under a wastebasket. She was wearing a purple dress with white polka dots, the material a thin synthetic. Two strands of Mardi Gras beads matched the color of her dress, one of little hearts and one of little dice. She wore a short-sleeve jacket with a cut out lacy design on the collar, all white like her hair.

Continue reading Josephine, Chapter 2: The long return

Poetry off the page, or, the fat lady sings

On Saturday night Mr. and Mrs. Scatter went down to the industrial east Willamette waterfront, to Waterbrook Studio, the little theater-in-a-warehouse just north of the Broadway Bridge, to catch Poetry Off the Page.

voxpostcardIt’s the latest in Eric Hull‘s Vox series of staged — I almost want to say composed — poetry readings. Composed, because it’s done by a chorus of actors in a chamber-musical fashion.

Brunnhilde, George Grantham Bain Collection/Library of CongressWaterbrook is basically a room with an entrance area and a door leading to what serves as a green room for the performers. Somewhere around the corner, down a broad-plank floor, is a restroom. On Saturday the performance space had a few rows of folding chairs for the spectators, a lineup of music stands up front for the six performers, and three chairs to the side for the performers who occasionally sat a poem out. In other words: all the tools you really need to create some first-rate performing art.

It helps, of course, if you have some first-rate performers, and for this show Hull has cast impeccably. His six actors are adept at making their diction precise without squeezing the life out of the words. They are masters of rhythm, as crisp and casual at passing the ball as a good basketball team on a fast break, and beautifully cast for pitch, color and range. Grant Byington is the tenor, Gary Brickner-Schulz the baritone, and Sam A. Mowry the bass. The women — Adrienne Flagg, Theresa Koon, Jamie Rae — are similarly cast for their complementary vocal qualities.

What they do is this. They take a poem (twenty-five of them, actually), break it down to its component parts from stanza to line to syllable to vowel and consonant, settle on a rhythm, and deliver it as a group, sometimes passing it around phrase by phrase, sometimes word by word, sometimes in unison, sometimes as a soloist and chorus.

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Books are for lovers: Meet Josephine

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne FadimanI’ve been keeping someone to myself much too long. I’ve collected reams of notes and have a stack of material. Now I feel somewhat prodded, thanks to Rose City Reader, who posted this review of Anne Fadiman’s “Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader.”

I left this comment on her post:

My copy of this book first belonged to my friend, Josephine, who was exactly twice my age when I first met her. She writes in pen in all of her books. She underlines words she doesn’t know, she makes little comments, she traces routes on maps, and on the very last page of every book she reads she signs and dates it and sometimes writes a short comment. It doesn’t matter if it’s a paperback or a gorgeous leatherbound edition from Easton Press. When I pointed this out, she shrugged and said simply she was a carnal book lover. When I was confused, she said I had to read this book and gave me her copy. In the middle of Fadiman’s essay about courtly vs. carnal book lovers, Josephine wrote in very scratchy script at the bottom of Page 40: “Mom used to use a bill to mark her place in a book. She told me to look through her books when she died. Yes, I found a few bills. I was astounded a couple of months ago to find $60 in a book I had read some time before. My mother’s daughter.” The last page is signed: “J.D.P. Jan. 16, 2009. Truly loved this book!” She was 92 years old at the time.

Continue reading Books are for lovers: Meet Josephine

Parenting 102: Oh, so NOW you tell me!

You really ought to give Iowa a try.

Mrs. Scatter posted in Parenting 101 how she constantly looks for opportunities to impart valuable life lessons on the Large Smelly Boys.

As Mr. Scatter noted in a recent post, The Scatter Family has been on the road. Longtime Scatter friends know that when the family travels in the Large Smelly Boymobile they often listen to audio books or play word games. Sometimes the LSBs commandeer the blog keyboard and type their list of clever ideas that come from these games.

Last summer The Scatter Family passed many miles and restaurant waits by coming up with questions that always answered with “Alvin and the Chipmunks.” This time they filled several notebook pages with phrases that always had a new consistent reply.

Mrs. Scatter, also known as the Very Attentive Mother, is very excited to glean several of these to share as valuable life lessons, thinking other parents who also strive to model supreme mature behavior will eagerly want to pass them on.

The new game? Phrases that always have the reply … “Oh, so NOW you tell me!”

  • This product is not recommended for people who are or ever have been pregnant. (“People” is a nice touch.)
  • Warning: Smoking can be hazardous to your health.
  • You should never drink and drive.
  • Double cheeseburgers are fattening.
  • There were no weapons of mass destruction.
  • You really ought to give Iowa a try.
  • True love begins with steak. (Mrs. Scatter did not come up with this one.)
  • Picking your nose is gross. (Mrs. Scatter did not come up with this one.)
  • Toasters and bathtubs do not mix. (Mrs. Scatter wishes she had come up with this one.)
  • Yesterday was our anniversary. (Mrs. Scatter did not come up with this one, but probably should have in the name of humility.)
  • Bears don’t like it when you break their chairs, eat their food and sleep in their beds.
  • Smee: “I don’t think that crocodiles like it when you say, ‘Bite me!'”
  • Chicks hate it when you haven’t showered for a while. (Mrs. Scatter doesn’t know who came up with this one, but she’s certain it was her.)
  • That had been in my mouth. (Mrs. Scatter did not come up with this one, but it was recently spoken by one of the LSBs when she unwittingly ate a prechewed calamari. Mrs. Scatter is generously willing to mine her wealth of experience and impart her deep parenting knowledge by sharing this vital tip: Crabby teen-agers who haven’t slept, hate being on the road and hate being with their parents can be turned around with one simple trick. All you have to do is eat a prechewed calamari. Works every time.)

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Illustration: You really ought to give Iowa a try. C.S. Hammond & Company Atlas – 1910/United States Digital Map Library

Parenting 101: A fine specimen

Mrs. Scatter takes her ever-loving Mom Job seriously, constantly looking for opportunities to impart valuable life lessons on the Large Smelly Boys. They are still at a tender age when they’re vulnerable and impressionable, so she takes great care in modeling supreme mature behavior. She takes this job so seriously, in fact, that she doesn’t even allow commas between adjectives.

This is why during a recent family game of Scrabble she felt it was important to say, “Who messed up my udders? I had perfectly good udders on the board and someone had to put an R in front of them!”

You can buy 25 of these for $3.45 at Amazon. It holds 4 ounces.This is also why she put the game on pause for a teachable moment when her sweet innocent pre-teen said, “The last turn, if I had a P, I could have had ‘specimen.'”

Actually at first she took several teachable moments to laugh into her beer while both LSBs looked at her in wonder. Apparently neither of them has ever carried a communicable disease or been pregnant for any length of time, and their idea of a specimen is a pin through a dead bug. As their Very Attentive Mother, Mrs. Scatter was surprised to learn this. The dead bug part, that is, and she set out immediately to correct their deficient understanding. She’s sorry. To expand their worldly knowledge. She started by holding up her glass of beer.

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Illustration: You can buy 25 of these for $3.45 at Amazon. It holds 4 ounces.

Mr. Scatter shares the wealth

Mr. Scatter has been a writing fool lately, and not all of it for the virtual pages of this illustrious blog.

Louis Untermeyer, laureate lionine. Wikimedia Commons.He has also composed essays that resulted in actual financial recompense, including a trio of pieces for that fine and noble stalwart of legacy media, The Oregonian.

This piece, about Oregon’s search for a new poet laureate, analyzes the situation and reveals the two most important qualifications: a cool name and cool hair. In the old days it also helped if you could rhyme on a dime, but that is less important in our times of free and cut-rate verse. Mr. Scatter is given to understand that sometimes poems don’t rhyme at all!

Colley Cibber: Bad poetry, great hair. Wikimedia Commons.Mr. Scatter is, in fact, in favor of this position and its title, and he admires Oregon’s retiring laureate, Lawson Fusao Inada, in whose hands the post has been not simply ceremonial but also active and engaged: He has taken poetry and learning to the far corners of the state, in situations ordinary and unusual, and persuasively held that language matters.

Today, by the way, is the final day to nominate someone to be Oregon’s next laureate. Find out how here.

This morning’s Oregonian features this story about the artist Joe Feddersen, whose most recent museum exhibition, Vital Signs, is at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem.

Joe Feddersen. Photo: Mary RandlettIt’s a fine show, worth the trip. And speaking of trips, Mr. Scatter pauses for what might seem a brief diversion but in fact is not.

Mrs. Scatter ceaselessly admonishes Mr. Scatter that he should join a social network club called Facebook. Mr. PAW goes a step further, proclaiming loudly that Mr. Scatter must Tweet.

In fact, Mr. Scatter has trouble with the 200-odd emails that jam his computer daily, and does not fully understand his so-called “smart” telephone. So please drop in on this reconstruction of the interview portion of How Mr. Scatter Got That Story:
Continue reading Mr. Scatter shares the wealth

A Snopes by any other name

My paternal grandmother’s name was Lizzie Lou Willingham. Not Elizabeth Louise. Lizzie Lou.

Lizzie Lou married Virgil Homer Hicks, a man whose naming signaled a certain familial aspiration. One of their offspring, my father, is named Irby Hicks. No middle name, and a first name that was a family surname. (Another of their children, my father’s sister, was named Zollie.)

William Faulkner in 1954. Photo: Carl Van Vechten. Wikimedia CommonsThe Willinghams and Irbys and Hickses came from South Carolina and Georgia, places where a naming was a serious and sometimes flowery business. On Long Island and in the Hudson River Valley, where my mother’s side of the family had their roots, the names were historical and solid — Baldwin, Seaman — but without that peculiarly Southern sense that a naming is an almost mystical occasion, an assigning of an intensely personal yet communally meaningful identification for life. My mother’s maiden name is Charlotte Lucille Baldwin, and it’s lovely. But it seems somehow less thethered, less essential to her personality or her family’s historical lot in life.

I bring this up because of Patricia Cohen’s report in the Thursday New York Times on the fresh linking of an old farm ledger to many of the names that William Faulkner used in his novels, and in 1942’s Go Down, Moses in particular. The ledger was kept in the mid-1800s by Francis Terry Leak, a Mississippi plantation owner whose great-grandson was a childhood and adult friend of Faulkner.

In it were the names of many of the plantation’s slaves, and the reading of them both angered Faulkner and excited his imagination. Cohen describes Edgar Wiggin Francisco III, the son of Faulkner’s friend, watching the great writer as he was going through the pages of the diary and “hearing Faulkner rant as he read Leak’s pro-slavery and pro-Confederacy views”:

Faulkner became very angry. He would curse the man and take notes and curse the man and take more notes.

That’s a potent vignette, and it speaks to why Faulkner still matters very much. He used many of the slave names from the journal and assigned them to white characters in his books, as he had taken a Native American name and given it to his famous fictional stomping grounds, Yoknapatawpha County. These were not, I think, so much acts of expiation or appropriation as of remembrance, and of the novelist’s determination to describe not only who “won” the battle for the South’s soul, but also the sins and brutalities that went into the waging of a confrontation in which all races and classes were engaged, and from which a great sadness fell not equally yet fully across the land. Don’t forget, Faulkner told his readers. Don’t mythologize, don’t blame others, and never forget.

That is starkly different from the attitude of another Southern writer, H.L. Mencken of Baltimore, who in his fascinating if sometimes fiercely outdated collection The American Language took many race-baiting cheap shots at the names that African American parents gave their children, citing them as examples of black Americans’ lack of education and common sense. (He seems utterly to have missed the playfulness, the sense of separate cultural identification, and the poetry in many of those names.) And that is evidence of why Mencken, once a household name, matters less and less.

Other writers have made great use of character naming, from Shakespeare’s Sir Toby Belch to Sheridan’s Mrs. Malaprop to Dickens’ Thomas Gradgrind. But Faulkner created one of my all-time favorite character names: Flem Snopes.

Flem was the anti-hero of three novels, The Hamlet, The Town, and The Mansion, that traced the rising tide of the Snopes family fortunes from horse thieves and tenant farmers to Flem’s establishment as president of the town bank and occupant of its grandest house.

Flem accomplished this by having a soul the size and consistency of something stuck in your throat: He was, in his essence, Phlegm. A cheater, a calculator, a man small and hard and avaricious. A man who married a young woman pregnant by another man because she came from a family that would be useful in his rise to the top. A man you’d like to just spit out and forget, except he sticks there, and sticks there, and sticks there, and so you can’t.

Flem Snopes. Now, there’s a name. Would a Snopes by any other name be so sour?

Friday link: Discovering Updike country in verse

Today in Scatterville we’re taken with Dwight Garner’s review in the New York Times of Tony Hoagland’s new book of poetry, Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty.

tonyhoagland1For one thing, that’s just a terrific title, even better than the review’s zinger of a headline (based on a quoted poem set in a grocery store), The Free Verse Is in Aisle 3.

Mostly, though, we’re happy that Mr. Hoagland has a new collection on (or in) the market, and that Mr. Garner has so cheerfully brought it to our attention.

The review draws comparisons in Hoagland’s poems to Randall Jarrell, Frank O’Hara, Marianne Moore. And we love the way that Garner fixes not just Hoagland’s poetry but an entire school in the firmament, in the process defining both what Mr. Hoagland is as a poet and what he is not:

“On a superficial level Mr. Hoagland’s poems — he writes in an alert, caffeinated, lightly accented free verse — resemble those of many writers in what one is tempted to call the Amiable School of American Poets, a group for which Billy Collins serves as both prom king and starting point guard. But Mr. Hoagland’s verse is consistently, and crucially, bloodied by a sense of menace and by straight talk.”

That makes Hoagland, in the Scatter Book of Literary Comparison, akin to the great John Updike, poet (in prose and verse) of suburban middle class unsettling awareness. Something growls, softly, beneath the placid surface. Think of that as you read these excerpts, from a poem set at a wine-tasting, that Garner quotes from Hoagland’s 2003 collection What Narcissism Means to Me:

But where is the Cabernet of rent checks and asthma medication?
Where is the Burgundy of orthopedic shoes?
Where is the Chablis of skinned knees and jelly sandwiches?
with the aftertaste of cruel Little League coaches?
and the undertone of rusty stationwagon? …

When a beast is hurt it roars in incomprehension.
When a bird is hurt it huddles in its nest.
But when a man is hurt, he makes himself an expert.
Then he stands there with a glass in his hand staring into nothing
as if he was forming an opinion.