At Marsh's Library
in Dublin, cages line the back wall. Each cage is just wide enough to hold a small desk and chair and a floor to ceiling bookcase lined and stacked and jammed with massive leatherbound tomes, their Latin titles barely legible on their thick, dust free spines. The librarian who let me in during his lunch hour, "just for a quick peek," said that in the early 1700's, when Marsh's was founded as the first public library in Ireland, scholars were locked in. The books were too expensive, too precious to risk theft or damage. If you wanted to study, you squeezed behind that desk and worked by carefully-regulated candlelight and shouted for the librarian when you wanted to be released.
Gazing through the bars and wire into the scholars' cages, I thought about knowledge and what it must have meant to read and learn when this was what it took. Before the internet and e-readers, before Amazon.com and mass market paperbacks, before modern printing and education systems, Marsh's Library, with its cages and locks and keys, made information comparatively accessible.
Three hundred years later, information is cheap for most of us, but for many, the public library remains one of very few affordable sources of information. In my home state of Florida, the governor says that public libraries are unnecessary these days because everything is available online. The governor must not have visited many libraries, or he would have seen the lines of people waiting to use the internet. Even in a digital age, the library offers access to knowledge that is unavailable elsewhere. (Philip Pullman wrote about this, more eloquently than I can, here
Like many people who grew up in low income families, I know this firsthand. I was no scholar, and the public library of my small, depressed home town was no great citadel of learning, but, to me--a gawky kid from a dirt road in Frostproof, Florida--it was my access point, my key. The library was the only place I had ever been where I could have whatever I wanted. It is a cliche to say that the library opened up a world of knowledge and experience to me, that it started my journey in books to places I could never have imagined, but it's true.
There are cages in Marsh's Library in Dublin, but I wonder how many of those scholars heard the lock click behind them and felt, maybe for the first time, totally free.
I asked my Facebook friends two questions: "If you could make one thing socially acceptable that is currently not, what would it be?" and "What is the title of your autobiography?" I learned something about my pals by asking these questions: the people in my life are funny, profound, and profoundly sarcastic. And they want to be naked. Almost everyone who commented said they wished they could be nude more often, and I tend to agree. I don't care to be naked all the time, everywhere, but I do firmly believe that we should always be allowed to sleep and swim naked.
When I was a teenager, I felt self-conscious at the beach. I'm not a good swimmer, and I hated my bare feet, and I felt awkward and flat-chested and like everyone was looking at me. They weren't, of course; they were too busy worrying about everyone looking at them. I don't know if Alex made me love the beach or love my body or if going to the beach with him just happened to coincide with learning to feel more physically confident, but the beach became a place where I truly felt at ease and a little bit in love with myself as a physical being. I feel sexy at the beach, but that's not the point. I feel comfortable and confident there in a way that makes being attractive to someone else totally irrelevant. It also makes clothing seem irrelevant.
I suppose that's part of the reason that the title of my autobiography might mention the sea shore.
Supplicants in progress.
The first question for a stranger suggested in Davy Rothbart's book How Did You End Up Here?
is simply, "How was your day? What did you do?" I like it because it's an easy question, not much more intimidating to ask or be asked than, "How are you?" but without the rote response. I think overcoming automatic responses is the first step to meaningful conversation. When I asked my Facebook pals, "How was your day? What did you do?" the first response was, "Do you really want to know?"Yes, I really want to know.So, my day has been pretty good. It's had some variety, including time with people I like and time by myself, time to talk and time to make things. Alice, Mistie, Fiona and I went to the movies this morning to see Oz, the Great and Powerful. It was pretty bad.
I thought so, and I quite like James Franco. The little girls liked it, though, and I like going to the movies in general, so no hard feelings, crappy movie. Going to a movie early, though, made it feel like the day didn't really start until the afternoon.Alice and I spent the afternoon making things. She drew a flamenco dancer and I started sculpting some clay figures. The pieces of clay I had suggested book ends to me at first, but I think I've ruined that idea by tilting their heads out of line. They look like beggars or some other rough, sad sorts. I think I will embrace their pitiful natures and leave them a little raw and featureless. They're going to be part of a series of raku pieces fired using my old high school journals. I have good lines to go with these two, but I'm brainstorming about incorporating the words in a different way. We'll see.Now, the evening light is coming through the windows, all slanty and golden, and I'm feeling a little tired and quiet. When Alice goes to bed, I think I will curl up with a book, or maybe turn on an old movie and continue to carve
I'm terrible at small talk. Being quiet has got me mislabeled as shy, snobbish and, sometimes, curiously, sweeter than I am. If I can't think of anything to say, I'll usually be quiet, which lets people assign whatever tag they like to my taciturnity (a real word; I looked it up). Sucking at small talk isn't usually something I feel bad about; I prefer to think of myself as an all-or-nothing, profound-or-silent kind of gal.
I don't like talking about nothing, but that jump from "Crazy weather we're having" to meaningful conversation is hard to make.
Davy Rothbart's book, How Did You End Up Here?: The Surprising Ways Our Questions Connect Us
is a short manual for making small talk bigger. Rothbart is the editor of FOUND Magazine
, which publishes "found stuff: love letters, birthday cards, kids’ homework, to-do lists, ticket stubs, poetry on napkins, doodles– anything that gives a glimpse into someone else’s life." It's not surprising that he's a curious person, someone who wants to learn more about the people he meets. On a recent press tour for the magazine, he asked audiences, "What question would you most like to ask a stranger?" And then he started asking people those questions. The book is a collection of questions that hopefully move past small talk into real conversation. The idea is that people want to connect, and if you're brave and curious and ask people questions about their lives, they will answer.
A life long introvert with a life long aversion to small talk, I am curious but not brave when it comes to striking up conversation with strangers or even people I know casually. I would like to change that. It's a common misconception about us introverts that we don't like people or that we can get along just fine without social connections. We can't; we're just not good at making those connections, and we can get away with being crap at it because we don't need very many. Rothbart's strategy for connecting by asking questions seems solid to me. The people I know who are really good with people are the ones who know how and what to ask to get others comfortable and talking. I'm going to start small by asking some of Rothbart's questions on Facebook and answering some of them here. If you'd like to join the conversation, you can jump in on the comments or, better yet, volunteer to answer a question in a guest post.
My first attempts on the wheel.
I've been making ceramics for about four years, but today was the first time I'd ever thrown on the wheel. My husband, Alex, and our various ceramicist friends have offered to teach me many times, and several art schools in the area offer beginners' classes, but I've never tried.
Part of the reason I've never bothered with the wheel is that I really like hand-building. I like using firmer clay and really manhandling it. I like the organic wonkiness of the pinch pots and sculptures I've made, and I don't really want to make functional ware. Truly, I've never wanted to use the wheel. Lately, though, I've been wanting to make bigger things, sculptures that would be difficult to fire if they were solid, different kinds of vessels. There are things I want to make now that I need this other skill to accomplish, but I've waited to ask to be taught because I've been a little scared of not being any good at it.
Fear is part of art. One of my poetry mentors used to ask me often, "What's at stake in this poem? What are you risking?" If you're not risking something, if you're not a little scared, you're not doing the work. If you know for sure that it will turn out well, you're not trying hard enough, you're not "reading beyond your grade level," to borrow an idea from my 4th grader's FCAT information night.
I like to think of myself as being a little bit brave. At least I like to think of myself as a person who isn't afraid of failing, an artist who believes in the experience more than the outcome, so I was pretty annoyed to realize that it was silly, self-conscious fear that kept me from trying the wheel. I was embarrassed to be a beginner. As Alex was showing me how to center the clay, I found myself giggling nervously, and I was glad that he knows me well enough to show me the steps and then leave the room so that I could figure out the details in private.
As you can see, I've got a long way to go before I can throw the larger, sculptural shapes I've been imagining. I might not ever get to those imaginary shapes. I might really suck at this and give it up as an artistic false start, but it won't be fear that keeps me from trying.
The list of frequently banned or challenged books
for a particular year or decade typically looks like a list of the best in young adult literature, with a few gay penguins thrown in to shake things up. Something about teenagers thinking that really freaks out the squares. If you're a teenager, I hope that makes you feel powerful.
One of the most frequently banned and challenged books of the last several years is Sherman Alexie's YA novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
, about a teenager who leaves the Spokane Indian Reservation to go to a better, wealthier, mostly white high school. There's a lot in this book about growing up in poverty, a lot about discovering who you are and how your past will inform and challenge who you become. Because the narrator is a 14-year-old boy, there's a fair amount of thinking about sex, though not a lot of action. Because he's growing up in poverty, there's a fair amount of substance abuse and death. Neil Gaiman sums it up in his blurb on the dust jacket when he says it's "funny and heartwarming and honest and wise and smart" and also likely to be "winning awards and being banned."
I read this book as an adult, but I saw a lot of my teenaged self in Junior. He is a smart poor kid. He loves where he comes from, but he has to leave home in order to survive. He feels guilty for leaving. We belong to some of the same tribes, Junior and me. Like so many banned books, it's sadly ironic that this book gets banned. It's banned because someone wants to protect teenagers from all the scary, bad stuff this book talks about, but it's exactly the kind of book that might save them from it. If you're a bookish person, you can probably remember a book that blew your mind at 14 or so, a book that helped you to know yourself, a book you read at just the right time. This is that book for someone.
I hope it's on the shelf when they need it.Diary
has been banned or challenged due to "offensive language; racism; religious viewpoint; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group."
This week is the American Library Association's Banned Books Week
, a week-long celebration of our right to read, learn, and explore. One of the events this year is a Virtual Read Out
. You can make a video endorsing a banned book, reading from a banned book, or explaining why the freedom to read is important. I'll be posting short readings from some of my favorite banned books throughout the week. Just to be contradictory, this first reading is from a book I don't really love; in fact, when I first read it in college, I hated it. The main character of Kate Chopin's The Awakening annoyed the shit out of me.
Barely out of adolescence myself, I found Edna immature and selfish, her suicide the ultimate cop-out of a person too cowardly to make a place for herself in the world. I hated how dismissive she was of her friend, Adele Ratignolle, a woman who seems to be truly happy in her role as wife and mother. I was 20 years old, single, childless, with barely any sexual experience, and I was outraged on behalf of the cheerful, fulfilled mothers of the world.And then I got married and I had a baby and I ran full speed into the wall of society's expectations of parents in general and mothers in particular. I realized that I didn't want what many people seemed very happy to have--a house and two cars and a 9 to 5 job and three kids. I realized that, however much I loved my husband and my child--and I loved them a whole fucking lot--I wouldn't be able to keep loving them if they were all I was allowed to have or want.And then I read The Awakening again.I still think that Edna is immature, but I also see how she's treated like a child. I still think her suicide is a bit cowardly, but I also see how few choices she has. I find that I sympathize with her very much as a fellow mother, and I feel grateful to have found a way to be myself: an artist, a parent, a spouse, a citizen--a whole person. I wish Edna had had more choices. I think she could have grown up to be quite the human being.The Awakening is often banned for its sexual content
. It also has some old-fashioned racist language (in the section I read, she uses the word "darkies," which makes me cringe). It was challenged in 2011 because some editions show a bare-chested woman on the cover.
Coincidentally, my cousin also read from The Awakening
this week at her blog. Her take
is a little different from mine and includes more historical context.
Alice, reading. Photo by Melissa J. Wilkerson.
At bedtime, I read Alice a story. This has been our nightly ritual since before she was born, but now, after we read together, she reads on her own. She's always loved stories, but more and more she's caught up in words. Almost nightly now she pops out to read her dad and me a short passage: beautiful descriptions, scenes that seem especially funny or apt to her.
Right now she's reading Philippa Fisher and the Dream Maker's Daughter
. It's a silly book in a lot of ways, but she likes the main characters, Philippa Fisher and her spunky friend, a fairy named Daisy. She also likes the descriptions of Philippa's funny, hippie-dippy, vegan parents. She popped out one night to laugh and read, "Well, I always had Mom and Dad, I reminded myself. They might be the ditziest dingbats on the planet, but at least they hadn't deserted me."
"Does that remind you of your parents?" I asked.
She laughed again. "You guys aren't dingbats," she said, "but you are a little wacky."
A few nights later, she bursts out of her room with such intensity that, for a minute, I think something's wrong. "Listen to this," she says. "Her family is just like our family! It's hilarious. They're just like us!" She reads:
"Just as well I hadn't said anything, then. Heaven. Normal stuff! The kind of 'up there' people were officially allowed to believe in! Except Mom and Dad had never been big on things like heaven, so I'd never really believed in it, either."
Her excitement is palpable. She's had a revelation. She has seen herself mirrored in this story, put into words and reflected back to herself. Here is another imaginative only child of wacky, atheist, vegetarian, artist parents! Here is proof that she isn't alone.
One of the beautiful things reading gives us, of course, is empathy. Reading lets us imagine what it's like to be someone else, to see the world through different eyes. But it also comforts us by showing us ourselves, by reminding us that others have been where we are, have felt what we feel. It helps us understand our selves.
I remember feeling that sense of self-recognition intensely when I read The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt
as an adolescent and when I read Jo Ann Beard's The Boys of My Youth
in college. I saw myself more clearly when I read those books, and that was comforting to me. I think it helped me to be a little kinder to myself.
Was there a book like that for you?
So, I fired my dragon pieces and here they are mounted on a crazy bright panel. It's not what I imagined when I sculpted the dragon, but it's something and I kinda love it. I had some other broken pieces and made another, smaller painting with those. It might become a whole series of mixed media pieces based on failures in ceramic. Lord knows I have enough of those. :)
When I write, I don't think too much about the one I write for, but I know who she is. She's me: the barest, truest, sternest version of myself. She knows when I haven't been brave enough to tell the truth. She knows when I'm bullshitting her. You could call her the Muse, I guess. She's my internal reason for writing.
The first person to read my poems is usually my friend Jae Newman. He is an ideal reader. I can count on him to understand what I'm trying to say, to see the poem I'm trying to write, and to tell me straight up when I've failed to write it. When it comes time to revise, his voice often surfaces in my mind (and my email). If my poems could find an audience as kind and perceptive and receptive as Jae, I would be very lucky.
Like a lot of "page poets," though, it's hard for me to imagine my real audience, the people that might actually stumble across my poems online or in a little bookstore in Lexington, Kentucky
. Once, my friend brought home a stack of literary journals from a conference and found one of my poems in one of the magazines, and I thought with some surprise, "Oh, wow, they really exist out there on their own."
Musicians, dancers, theater folks do their art face to face with their audience. A poet's audience is more abstract most of the time. Of course we're as susceptible as anyone else to pandering for approval, but the audience isn't right there in our face when we're doing our thing. We get to keep our motivations internal for longer than some artists.
I was thinking about this while choosing poems to read at the Maitland Art Center's Summer Concert Series
and even more after a "poetry cover night" at Urban ReThink
a few days later. Who is my audience? What do they know? What do they need to know? Both events turned out to be really fun, in large part because the audiences were really varied. Especially at Urban ReThink, there were slam poets and page poets and performers, readers and artists and prose writers, teachers and students and know-it-alls, and they were all excited about poetry!
I've been thinking about that room full of poetry lovers a lot over the last few weeks. Which of those people would I most want to reach with my poems? Determining that determines, to some extent at least, what kind of poems I want to write. I'm a little surprised to find that it's mostly the non-poets I want in my audience: the artist who delivered Yeats as a terrifying dramatic monologue; my friend, a fiction writer, nervous but not showing it, who admitted she tried to choose poems the poets would find cool; the poised young woman who said, "I've never read a poem in public, but this poet is a family friend and I like this poem," and then beautifully delivered the hippest poem by the hippest poet anyone read that night.
Of course, I want the approval of my big, weird tribe of fellow poets too. I want to be accountable for my work in a way that only they can provide, but I'm really not interested in inside jokes or showing off. The poet who starts her reading with an obscure literary reference, and condescendingly points out how obscure it is? I don't need her in my audience. The one who's more interested in showing how cool or clever he is than sharing something real? I'll never seem cool to him, and I think he's a jackass.
I want an audience that teaches me something, and I don't think I have a lot to learn from those guys. I'd rather open the circle, find out what the sculptors and mathematicians and carpenters and bartenders know. How about I read you a poem and you sing me a song? How about we all listen?