Summer reading: poems rough & ready

HARD LINES: ROUGH SOUTH POETRY. Edited by Daniel Cross Turner and William Wright. University of South Carolina Press. 295 pages. $49.99 (hardcover); $29.99 (paper).

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Summer is a ripe season for reading poetry. You can nibble a few in between trips to the pool or tennis courts, wander through several poems before nodding off in the hammock, and not have to worry about losing a narrative thread if your summer is full of starts and stops, the comings and goings of visitors, the packing and unpacking of vacation.

“Hard Lines,” a new anthology of southern poetry published by the University of South Carolina Press, offers just such welcomed sips for those of us who feel the South’s adored sweet tea might have gotten a little too sweet of late.

In this thorough and balanced collection, one finds neither the mint-julep landscape nor the polished-silver “new South” that preens from the close-ups in Garden & Gun or the perky pages of Southern Living.

Rather, here are our homegrown literary masters, from James Dickey to Charles Wright to Ellen Bryant Voigt to Natasha Trethewey as well as perhaps lesser known but no less talented poets like Kwame Dawes and Columbia’s Ed Madden. These writers are well versed in red clay reality and racism’s engraved shadows, telling it like it is.

Ain’t no gloss, no photo-shopping. Reading this collection is more like listening to Howlin Wolf or Johnny Cash than Darius Rucker, which is no diss to Rucker, just an acknowledgement that an unvarnished edge has its place.

Here, James Dickey delivers the sex-soaked truths that seep out of a rusted Chevy graveyard off Cherrylog Road. In “Sawdust Pile” Paul Ruffin reminds us how hatred simmers down to the “fierce core.” Janise Ray riffs on the many hues of milk and honey: “meringue on a frothy creek” (milk); “poplar hand-hewn into table, axe-handle and bowl” (honey).

Coleman Barks offers an ode to Luke, “master of small fixing,” the shop sweeper and dutiful counter clerk at every country store. Kate Daniels’ “Autobiography of a White Girl Raised in the South” had me nodding my head in searing recognition.

The themes in “Hard Lines” are hard. They’re thick and dank, freighted with tensions and longings we all know, regardless whence we come. Reading it, you feel like a mangy old yard dog is somewhere behind you snarling. But it also feels real and true and beautiful, the way rust brings a hidden elegance to light.

“These poems do not stew in the sweet-rotten effluence of magnolia in the moonlight,” writes co-editor William Wright. Instead, they offer a lyrical reminder that we southerners inhabit of land of “brutal grace,” where righteousness and decay are ever present.

This is not a beach read. It’s a book for a summer thunderstorm or a purpled night when you’re far enough from the tourists to hear bullfrogs and crickets and howls in the dark. Keep it on your porch’s wicker table, by the bottle of craft bourbon you bought at a pop-up shop and the blue hydrangeas arranged just so in your grandmother’s silver bowl.

Read them in moderation, maybe mix in some Billy Collins or verse from Charleston’s just-announced first poet laureate, Marcus Amaker, because you don’t want too much sugar in your tea or too much grit in your, well, grits.

These poems do, however, offer a sober tonic to the faux-washing of Southernness into a collection of Billy Reid shirts and decorator hunting cabins. They let diesel rigs and chainsaws and black-eyed peas have their say, too, for the rough South ain’t yonder, it’s still right here, and it’s still pretty rough.

Printed in the Post & Courier

Bend, Twist, Reach

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The mat and the keyboard are one and the same. A safe space for practice, room for stretching. A place to explore, accept limitations, own up to tightness, envision gracefulness, maybe fall a few times. The work is the same too: breathe, be, concentrate, expect nothing, and everything. The practice of yoga is a dance of verbs: bend, bow, twist, reach, plant, extend, surrender. Posture or asana (ok, “chair”) might be the only noun. That and breath. Inhale; exhale — each both a noun and a verb. See what flexibility brings?

As I move into a new year, I wish to do exactly that. Move. To tap along the keyboard and slip into spaces in my imagination that have been cornered off. I want to stretch beyond the tightness that results from plodding through tasks while discounting dreams. It’s only fear and laziness that keeps me from the mat, and ditto for this crazy practice of writing.

It’s time to backbend back into it. And why not here, on this blog-o-mat? Omm, my friends. Here’s to falling.

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Good Hair Day

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Last week, in the wake of announcements for the MacArthur Genius Awards (hooray for Alison Bechdel, whom, if you’ve read her graphic memoir or saw the CofC-sponsored FunHome production, you already knew was a genius), another artist also received affirming, cash-flowy news, thanks to the forward thinking folks at the Gibbes Museum and their 1858 Prize. Thursday evening at the newly art-infused Vendue Inn, fiber artist Sonya Clark beamed and gushed as she accepted a $10,000 check from Gibbes’ director Angela Mack, curator of exhibitions Pam Wall and board members of Society 1858.

“Wow, ten thousand dollars is a lot of money to an artist,” she said. “But this is also an investment in the future, because artists give back,” Clark added, noting that she plans to use the prize to support not only her own work but her arts community in Richmond, Virginia, where she heads the Craft/Material Studies Department at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Clark is the first female artist to win the annual prize, given “to recognize high artistic achievement in any media, while contributing to a new understanding of art in the South,” and, it’s safe to say, she’s the first African American woman winner to use actual hair (along with beads, combs, textiles and other materials) to tease, braid, weave, fro and comb through tangley subjects of race, gender, identity, cultural norms and yes, Southern Confederate residue — the dandruff on all of our shoulders.

“Hair is intimate, it’s our DNA, and as such it also is part of all those who came before us,” she explained.

Clark’s warm and effusive gratitude and her thoughtful remarks (both off-the-cuff ones and those in an accompanying video) demonstrated her depth and integrity as a visual storyteller and probing artist. “I see myself as a tree with many roots and lots of branches,” she told the Post & Courier. Lucky for us, Clark lets her roots show.

Clark graciously acknowledged her stiff (hmm, hairspray?) competition for this year’s 1858 Prize, which garnered applications from more than 250 artists from Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. The Gibbes announced the seven finalists this past summer, and last evening’s big reveal had a sense of drumr-oll drama, as two other finalists were also present, whom Clark welcomed to join her at the microphone, acknowledging their accomplishments and noting that being among their ranks was, to her, the real prize. “Art happens in community,” she said.

Clark has exhibited in over 250 museums and galleries in Europe, Africa, Asia, South America, Australia and throughout the United States. Using cloth, hair, and combs, her work explores the complexity of American identity and history. Simple objects (combs, furniture, flags, heads) become, she says, “an interface for dialog that ranges from the vernacular to the political to the poetic.” For the Gibbes, it’s now an interface for a hair-raising — in the best sense — celebration of progressive Southern art, and testimony to how a venerable 19th century institution like the Gibbes remains, head and shoulders, at the forefront of continuing artistic dialogue.

“The Comb Series is concerned with the meaning in the materials. It employs a material culture perspective. The black plastic combs evoke a legacy of hair culture, race politics, and antiquated notions of good hair and bad hair. What type of hair would easily pass through these fine-toothed combs? What does it mean that the combs themselves are arranged into tangles like felted dreadlocks, neat curls, and wavy strands? Combs imply order in as much as they are tools that organize the fibers we grow. They suggest thorough investigation as in “to go through something with a fine-toothed comb.” When a comb has broken or missing teeth there is evidence of struggle. The missing teeth provide a new rhythm, the music of a new order.” from Sonyaclark.com

In the Drifts of Words

4360906179_e7400abbf7_o“You do not have to offer great spiritual visions, I only ask that you look.” St. Teresa of Avila

Emerging from blog hibernation, into a frosty Charleston night. Waiting for snow (maybe?), and offering these borrowed words to rekindle the writing fire ~

“In the bare images of winter’s speech, day and night still talk to us about the presence of the sacred, a presence as common as a rabbit’s track in snow, a bare tree leaning over a dark river, the comfort of snowy mountains, long, long nights, china blue at the edge of the fire, a cold moon above empty woods, slowly falling snow under street lamps, the crowded waiting room at the doctor’s office, standing stock still on skis, one’s face looking back in the evening window, mid-morning dark, tiny birds huddled together on a branch, a train whistle disappearing into the cold night, a herd of cows all gathered at a fence, leaving footprints for fresh, deep snow, a hotel lobby’s sudden warmth, first car tracks down the street, after the storm an ax sounding in the woods, snow flying swiftly into the car’s headlights, all the graves covered, my mother’s voice, a cat curled in a doorway, a mighty branch breaking in the yard cracking the night open, a thousand white roofs, one star outshining all the others, sunshine for a morning and childhood returns, will spring come again, my coat so warm, morning’s brief shy–hint of another world. Earth is crammed with heaven as someone wrote, sphere follow other writers, witnesses of the subtle, companions for winter days and nights, strugglers in the drifts of words, observers of fine lines, of slender realities hidden in the images and motions of mind and landscape, winter seers, spotters of the Divine Hare against an expanse of white.”  

from The Journal of Sam Martin  

found, amidst many other treasures, in  An Almanac for the Soul  by Marv & Nancy  Hiles

 

On the Rebound ~ celebrating Spoleto’s prolonged shelf life (and a return from blog hiatus)

 
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I wonder what Webb Woodrow from 706 Greene Avenue in Brooklyn is up to these days?

I wonder if he has any idea he’s part of one of the best art exhibits I’ve ever seen in Charleston, at Spoleto USA, or anywhere, for that matter? If he’s got a clue that his minuscule name and address info buried in the yellowed white pages entry (on same page as Weidman, Berta –  from 1150 Brighton Beach Ave, phone # 332-6799) from a discarded decades-old phone book (remember those?) is now part of a Buddha head? Meditate on that reincarnation, will ya?

Actually the whole mesmerizing REBOUND exhibit is meditation worthy, in my book. And in the hundreds of books, magazines, catalogues and printed bound materials that have been sculpted, sawed, dissected, meted out, meshed together, stacked, whacked, carved, glued, nailed, and gorgeously, evocatively, masterfully transformed into landscapes, busts, topo maps of language and image. This exhibit is a page turner in the most artistic sense, as the Halsey Institute and curator Karen Ann Meyers have brought together five contemporary mixed-media artists who re-envision and explore the meaning and value of books as cultural objects in the Halsey’s 2013 Spoleto exhibit. And even though Spoleto itself wrapped up weeks ago, REBOUND has an extended festival shelf life — on display through this Saturday, so hurry!

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Though I didn’t make it to much else of Spoleto this year, I’ve been to this show twice now and have been blown away each time. I’m not the only one. At the one other official Spoleto event I went to, Compagnie Kafig’s kick-ass dance performance, I sat beside a discerning couple from Baltimore who have been coming to the Festival faithfully for 10 years — planning their trip months in advance and buying their desired tickets as soon as they go on sale. “But yesterday I saw the best thing I’ve ever seen at Spoleto, and it was free,” she told me. I guessed immediately that she’d been to the Halsey. She had.

 

I was particularly captivated by the meticulous and imaginative landscapes of Guy Laramee. They drew me in as if I was a hobbit off to explore the Shire or some mysterious corner of Middle Earth.

I loved the playful, re-contextualized art deco-like compositions of Francesca Pastine, as she X-Acto’ed the hell out of Artforum magazine, crafting it into another forum of art altogether. th_6192a65a51d89cebd1da65c58deb66f8_bookart1

But I was totally wowed by the larger constructions of Long-Bin Chen, who turns paper and pages into some other mysterious medium, more stone than fiber. His artist notes speak of reclaiming the “cultural debris from the information age.” He seems to be caring for, and loving, the non-digitized detritus that clutters my book shelves at home, and probably yours too, and bringing new life out of the raw material and imagination (or tedium) that some writer somewhere, or some godforsaken phone book creator, summoned at some point in the past.

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I urge you to go meet the Buddha, and other wondrous creations in this incredible remnant of Spoleto. And give kudos to Bibliolabs as presenting sponsor (more on them in a future post).

Gallery hours are 11 am to 4 pm Mon – Saturday, with extended hours till 7 pm on Tuesday.

 

 

 

 

 

Elements of Style: From Run-ons to Runways, The Strunk & White Guide to Charleston Fashion Week

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Writers are, for the most part, a stylishly ho-hum, hunched-over lot, too much hovering over a desk, not much strutting around looking glam. Skinny jeans keep words from flowing; stilettos stifle the ability to go get another handful of Cheetos every time I get stuck on a phrase or waylaid by clunky transitions. Scarves and blingy bangle bracelets get in the way of typing. Yoga pants and sweatshirts are my professional attire – God forbid I have to go to a special event, like Charleston Fashion Week!

 

eudora-weltyjpg-37306da1bf4c6dfa_largeEvidently I’m not the only writer whose affinity for words is stronger than her (or his) fashion flare. The fabulous Eudora Welty was all tweed and neutrals – yet she gave us some of the world’s most evocative stories, without one bit of frill.

 

 

JK Rowling, bless her muggle heart, hit the red carpet wearing upholstery (perhaps a nod to the literary darling, Scarlett O’Hara?).

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Tom Wolfe evidently has not spent his royalty checks on a diversified wardrobe.Writer Tom Wolfe600full-oscar-wilde

And Oscar Wilde had flare alright, but good style? Not so much.

 

Clearly, I ain’t one to talk. I don’t quite understand fashion — it’s a foreign language to me. Like Calculus. I appreciate good clean lines and classic style; I vote for comfy over trendy any day, and frankly, I think that many of the get-ups I see strutting down the runway could use what every writer loves – a good editor. And who do you turn to for editing advice? Strunk & White, of course. So, in the spirit of Fashion Week, I offer my own makeover of the inimitable “Elements of Style” – E.B. White and Will Strunk’s timeless and flawless guide to good writing, to demonstrate that good prose can, in fact, make a good pose. (And if your wardrobe still suffers, at least your writing might improve.)

 

Strunk & White’s “Elementary Principles of Composition,” applied to the catwalk:

 

  1.  “Choose a suitable design and hold to it.”

“A basic structural design underlies every kind of writing…. A sonnet is built on a 14-line frame…The more clearly the writer perceives the shape, the better the chance of success.” In clothes-speak, I take this to mean find what styles and shapes work on your frame, and stick to it. Just because someone deems absurdly short bubble skirts to be “in” doesn’t mean you should wear one.

 

2.    “Make the paragraph the unit of composition.”

The paragraph is a convenient unit, it serves all forms of literary work….”  This, of course, translates to: Little Black Dress & Good Pair of Black Pants.  Will serve all forms of fashion needs.

 

3.    “Use the active voice.”

“The active voice is more direct and vigorous than the passive….’I shall always remember my first trip to Boston,’ is better than, ‘My first trip to Boston shall always be remembered by me.”  So, whether in Boston or elsewhere, dress vigorously and directly, don’t hide behind or under slouchy, passive clothes. Make an active statement, be bold, but be you.

 

4.    “Put statements in a positive form.”

“Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language…. As in, ‘She was not very often on time,’ becomes ‘She usually was late.’”  And yes, I am usually late because I’m usually dilly-dallying trying to decide between tame, noncommittal outfits that I should just toss. I’m not exactly sure how to dress in a more positive form, but I’m working on it.

5.    “Use definite, specific and concrete language.”

“Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract…. As in: ‘A period of unfavorable weather set in’ becomes ‘It rained every day for a week.’”   In fashion terms, maybe ditch the vague-ish oversized shirts that now parade as short, short, short dresses. Go on, wear a real dress. Cover one more inch of thigh – it won’t hurt you.

6.    “Omit needless words.” 

Need we say more? (They would be needless words, no doubt).  Over accessorizing is like a run-on sentence or a too-wordy blog post (watch it!). Err on the side of tastefulness. Any fool can put on ridiculously high heels and layer too many trendy layers in that mismatched mode that simply says “trying too hard.” But how many Jackie O’s are there? How many Audrey Hepburns? Edit, dear friend. Edit.

And if you’re feeling a little underdressed, come find me – I’ll be in the yoga paints and sweatshirt, taking notes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Popes, Particles and Poetry

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It’s been a big week for mass. Yesterday, as Pope Francis celebrated his first papal Mass in the Sistine Chapel, scientists at another Italian conclave — okay, it was a conference in Italy — released a major white-smoke announcement: yes indeedy, not only do we have a new pope, we have a God Particle.

 

The Higgs boson, the elusive particle thought to imbue elementary particles with mass (the other kind of mass, as in “the measure of the amount of matter contained in or constituting a physical body”) made a peek-a-boo appearance on July 4th this summer, when physicists at Geneva, Switzerland’s Hadron Collider thought they more or less, just maybe, could have possibly “found it.”  Yesterday, on Pi Day no less, after doubling down on the data, their initial inkling was further confirmed. Evidently the Higgs boson reveals itself when subatomic particles crash into each other at supersonic speed – it’s a high-energy mash-up. And evidently, if it were not for this particle, the electron would have no mass, and thus none of us would be here at all, the new Pope in his Prada red shoes included.

 

Honestly, I have no idea what any of this Higgs hoopla really means or why it matters. In light of our current obesity epidemic, I’d say the need to prove the existence of mass is perhaps a little behind the curve. (Just as I’d say the whole College of Cardinals conclave-and-smoke thing is a little passé in the day of Monster and Craigslist, not to mention the perpetuation of the ancient high church patriarchy culminating in the Holy See — but that’s another topic, and God bless Francis for riding the bus, paying his hotel tab and caring about the poor.)  But despite my ignorance, or perhaps even because of it, I am enthralled by both of this week’s big reveals. Because I don’t fully understand what’s behind these centuries of papal pomp and circumstance, or behind the mystifying physics equations that compel scientists to spend billions of dollars and millions of hours on the Higgs hunt, my main response is a quiet, head-scratching awe. And poetry.

 

I am a science flunky and religious tinkerer who is both curious and skeptical; to me, the most reasonable answers and most compelling cosmic questions are expressed in verse and image. Turns out one of today’s most brilliant astrophysicists, Neil deGrasse Tyson, agrees. As Tyson shared in a totally fabulous, worth-your-time interview with Stephen Colbert, he believes science and poetry and religion are basically on the same page: “Some of the greatest poetry is revealing in the reader the beauty of something that is so simple you had taken it for granted. That, I think, is the job of the poet. The simplicity of the universe, if it doesn’t drive you to poetry it drives you to bask in the majesty of the cosmos.”

 

Basking is good enough for me. But for those of you who might want more insight into this majesty and into what the heck this Higgs is, I am pleased to share a brief interview with Charleston’s own John Keller, one of the physicists who is in Geneva, completing his PhD work as part of the team that discovered ol’ Higgs boson. John grew up on Wentworth Street, is a product of Charleston County public schools (Buist Academy and Academic Magnet), and gets his God particle smarts, in part, from his dad, the Reverend Bert Keller, the former (now retired) minister (and non-retired science buff) of Circular Congregational Church.

 

So, John, how did you all first celebrate on July 4th?

Champagne. Actually the celebration was sort of thrown together: there are two experiments, and neither one had quite discovered the Higgs on its own, only when you combine the two was there enough data to declare “discovery”. But we didn’t know what the other side was going to present, and you never want to buy champagne prematurely, so immediately after the press conference someone was sent to the grocery store to get it (7 bottles, one for each Higgs sub-group).

What does the discovery of this new particle mean for the average Jane/Joe?

On a practical level, not very much. It’s unlikely to be used in any new technologies in the short-term, though having a coherent understanding of fundamental particles will certainly lead to new breakthroughs in the long term.

On a more fundamental level though, knowing the mass of the Higgs boson we can now calculate the quantum corrections to the Higgs quartic self-coupling and deduce the vacuum stability of the Standard Model. In other words: if the Higgs is heavy enough, the universe is safe; whereas if it is too light, then at any point in space and at moment in time, a “vacuum bubble” could randomly appear which would rapidly expand and destroy all matter in the universe, including Jane, Joe, and everyone they know. The preliminary verdict: it is NOT heavy enough, and the universe is unstable. However it is close to heavy enough, so it is only 50-50 that such a bubble appears in the next 10^100 years. So Jane probably shouldn’t lose any sleep.

How would you explain your work to, say, a surfer at Folly Beach, or a bartender at Taco Boy?

Mostly I sit at a computer and write code. But occasionally I have the opportunity to break something that cost several hundred million dollars to build.

How did Chas County School District and AMHS prepare you for an international career in physics?

The key word there is “international”. Of course learning math and physics were important. But I think it is the diversity and global focus in CCSD (and the magnet in particular) that I’m most thankful for. I share an office now with 5 other people: a Greek, a Brazilian, a Briton, an Indian, and a Saudi Arabian. Knowing that Fortaleza is in the northeast, or which language is spoken in Chennai, or when Eid-ul-Fitr occurs this year … these things make a huge difference, professionally and socially. Geography, history, and foreign languages are hugely important, no matter what you want to do.

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