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Poem: "To a Skylark" by Kate Barnes from Kneeling Orion. © David R Godine. Reprinted with permission.

To a Skylark

The fervor of images. The rising poet
on a reading tour of American colleges
spending an impulsive night in bed
with one of his listeners, a woman student
on a scholarship. She was, he felt,
lucky, really,
to get the chance, privileged,
if his poetry meant anything like as much to her
as she said it did.
                      Next morning,
after the poet had flown back to his wife
and young family, the student gave up
her scholarship, sold her books and computer,
and cleaned out her savings. She believed
every word the god had spoken, and she used
her last penny to fly off to England
after him.
           How was it
exactly, I wonder, when she knocked
at the door of that artfully restored
stone cottage? The taxi drove away; the morning
grew very still. She heard a skylark
singing, for the first time in her life,
as she waited on the doorstep, rehearsing
her greetings. What did busy Mrs. Poet
say when she finally answered
the knock? And what did Mrs. Poet
tell her husband, later? Who paid
for the return flight of a young woman
much richer, now, in experience, if poorer
by the loss of almost everything
she owned? How long
was the incident discussed
in the poetic household?
                                            But there's nothing unusual
in this story - is there? - it's been like that
forever, women immolating themselves
in the flames of art - I suppose
it's art - and poets
needing someone on hand to defend them
from the words they mutter when they have no idea
what they're saying, when they're overcome
by the fumes that rise from the smoldering tinder
of their anxious natures.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist Nathanael West, born Nathan Weinstein in New York City (1904). He was the son of a Jewish immigrant who became a wealthy building contractor.

He went off to college and then got a job managing a hotel in New York City where he met a woman who wrote an advice column for the paper. She showed him a few of the letters she had gotten from readers. She thought he'd find them funny; instead, he was heartbroken at how desperate these people were. He wrote his first novel Miss Lonely Hearts, which came out in 1933, about an advice columnist overwhelmed by the sadness of the people who write to him. The book got great reviews, but within weeks the publishing house went bankrupt.

Nathanael West next wrote a parody of Horatio Alger novels called A Cool Million. It didn't sell. He decided to move to Hollywood. He stayed there for a few years, couldn't find a job, but he got to know people who lived on the margin of Hollywood, people who'd hoped they'd make it as movie stars and failed. He wrote a novel about them called The Day of the Locust, now considered one of the best novels ever written about Hollywood.

Nathanael West became a friend of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was in Hollywood trying to make it at the same time. And it was one day after the death of F. Scott Fitzgerald that Nathanael West and his wife were killed in a car crash. West was 37 years old.

It's the birthday of Arthur Miller, born in New York City (1915), whose play Death of a Salesman, first staged in 1949, has become one of the most widely produced plays in the world, particularly popular in China and Japan.

It's the birthday of Jimmy Breslin, born in Jamaica, New York (1930), the newspaper columnist for the Daily News and novelist, author of The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutierrez.

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Poem: "The Lost Work" by Tim Nolan. Used with permission from the poet.

The Lost Work

Last night in a dream—I wrote a Tolstoy epic—set in my time—
all the details—exact—just right. There was an entire chapter

about the dull sound of marbles rolling across the linoleum floor.
Then—the desire for water became a recurring theme which led

to some confusion about the sex scenes—many of which took place
in frothy hot tubs at a Motel 6 just outside of town. I had to

rewrite—forever—the part where Death showed up at the corner bar—
she finally wore a black satin gown—drank warm tap water from a goblet.

The protagonist's devotion to aspirin did not go unnoticed—that—
along with his compulsion to frequently change the furnace filters.

When the terrorists arrived, they arrived unexpectedly—as expected—
yet—who would know they would wear the various faces of my cousins?

The epilogue ended up being far too long-much longer than the book itself—
which caused me—to remember—how much—I wanted to know the end.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of cowboy and writer H.L. Davis, born Roseburg, Oregon (1894). He was a cowboy and surveyor along the Columbia River. He saved up his money and went to Stanford University.

He wrote poems in the 1920s about the American West that were highly regarded, and a novel about his home in Oregon, Honey in the Horn.

It's the birthday of Abbott Joseph Liebling, one of the great American journalists, born in New York City (1904). He got his first job at The New York Times where he was fired for making up facts. He bumped around from paper to paper, and in the fall of 1926, at his father's expense, he went off for a year in France.

He came back to New York and got a job at the New York World, writing about saloons, nightclubs, racetracks, and boxing. He said, "My only friends were prize fighters' seconds, curators of tropical fish, kept women, bail bondsmen, press agents, horse clockers and female psychiatrists."

He joined the staff of the New Yorker magazine in 1935. He covered the war in Europe for the magazine but didn't write about politics or combat strategy. He wrote about day-to-day life among the soldiers. He wrote for the New Yorker for the rest of his life. He wrote about food, boxing, and about journalism.

A.J. Liebling said, "I can write better than anybody who can write faster and I can write faster than anybody who can write better."

It's the birthday of the playwright Wendy Wasserstein, born in Brooklyn, New York (1950). She's best known for her play The Heidi Chronicles. She said, "I loved the theater. I just didn't think you could do it as a profession. I thought that I would marry a lawyer or be one and do productions of Guys and Dolls at my local suburban playhouse."

But she took a playwrighting course in college and struggled to make it as a playwright in New York City. During her years of struggle, she was watching as most of her friends and siblings got married and had children. She thought a lot about what she'd sacrificed by devoting herself to theater, and that became the subject of The Heidi Chronicles.

It's the birthday of Terry McMillan, born in Port Huron, Michigan (1951). She's known for her novels about middle class black women and their search for love, including Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back.

It's the birthday of the novelist Rick Moody, born in New York City (1961). His first novel was Garden State—about young people growing up in the industrial wastelands of New Jersey.

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Poem: "Of Presidents & Emperors" by David Ray from The Death of Sardanapalus and Other Poems of The Iraq Wars. © Howling Dog Press. Reprinted with permission.

Of Presidents & Emperors

Comparing our imperial leader today to Nero,
whose troops were also engaged in occupation
of Parthian lands along the Euphrates, with about
the same luck as today, we surely must temper
our judgments, forgive a few lies and lives lost,
give thanks that most of the deaths are uncounted,
and not ours. After all, our leader did not murder
his mother. He and she are on excellent terms.

Nero murdered his wife Octavia, also Poppaea,
his second, by kicking her while she was pregnant
with his child, guaranteed divinity. In Washington
you see no such abominations. The lies are genteel
and murder is at the far end of Pathfinders,
Tomahawks, gun ships and Patriot missiles.
Back home we can thank our stars that tribunes
and freed gladiators do not arrive bearing swords
and platters for heads. And because Congress
consists of the deferential they would never be at risk.
Our leader needs not assassinate sassy senators.

He would never set fire to Washington or build
an ostentatious mansion like Nero's over the ruins.
As a God-fearing Christian he would never thank
Jupiter for throwing javelins of fire at his enemies,
nor would he go on tour to read his poems or play
his harp in the provinces. Yet for his speeches
our President gets as much applause as Nero,
whose soldiers prodded those who nodded off.

In the Oval Office no visitor is obliged to fall upon
knees and weary the President's hand with kisses.
Yet the fear Tacitus expressed could be voiced today.
He worried that such "a monotony of disasters"
as those ordered by Nero might, if recited, disgust all
who heard them. He preferred not to sicken his readers
lest they be "fatigued of mind and paralyzed with grief."
In Rome thousands like us could only pray for relief.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the anniversary of the surrender that ended the American Revolutionary War, in Yorktown, Virginia (1781). In the spring of 1781, George Washington had been on his last legs and had only a few thousand troops camped at West Point. He had been planning to attack New York City, which was held by the British, and the British had been expecting him to do that too.

But when he learned that the British, under Lord Cornwallis, were building a naval base on the Yorktown Peninsula in Virginia, he decided to march his army all the way from New York to Virginia, in hopes of trapping Cornwallis and capturing his army. His army marched four hundred miles first veering toward New York City to scare the British into hunkering down, and then south.

Cornwallis knew that Washington was coming, but he chose not to flee. He thought he'd be evacuated by the British Navy. He didn't realize that the British Navy had been routed by a French fleet from the south. So in early October, Washington's troops surrounded Yorktown and began a siege. And on this day in 1781 at 2:00 in the morning the surrender began.

The one soldier who did not surrender was Cornwallis himself. Instead, he sent his sword out to be given to the French general who was there, which infuriated George Washington. But England did not have enough money to raise another army. They appealed for peace. Two years later the Treaty of Paris was signed, and the war was over.

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Poem: "Old Roses" by Kate Barnes from Kneeling Orion. © David R. Godine. Reprinted with permission.

Old Roses

When my father met my mother
at a dinner party in a garden of very old roses
on Beacon Hill one hot evening
in early June, he said to his friend, F. Morton
Smith, that night, "Morton, I have met
the girl I'm going to marry!"
                                           (We have Uncle Morton's
testimony for that, the certified word
of a Boston lawyer.)
                                  My mother
said my father had looked handsome, yes,
and talked delightfully, but what she remembered
were the mosquitoes. "If you stopped slapping at them,
even for a second, you were eaten up
            My father courted her
for the next ten years, whenever they found themselves
in the same place. It was the twenties then,
heyday of ocean liners, and she might be
in Paris, or maybe off getting
run away with by a hairy, two-humped camel
in the Gobi Desert, while he was crossing
the Pyrenees on foot; but, at last, on another
steamy hot day in Massachusetts, as she,
still wet from the bath, lay naked upstairs
on her sister's bed, she heard the wedding march
start up on the grand piano
directly below her. She sprang to her feet,
threw on her cream-colored dress with a dipping hemline,
and flung herself down the narrow old staircase
straight into the arms of matrimony – which were wearing
an English jacket of dark blue wool for the occasion,
splendid, but unendurable.
                                             Would anyone say
the marriage was a happy one? I don't think
I know. Sometimes. Perhaps. I can't imagine
either of them with anyone else. Years later, I,
a greedy child, crouched in the dark cabinet
under the attic stairs, and wolfed down
the last slice of their wedding cake, dried out fruitcake
in a little box covered with silver paper
and lined with paper lace, a keepsake
for wedding guests to slip under their pillows
that night so that they, too, would dream the bright moon
rolling her way through silver light, singing stars
clustering under the clouds.
                                              Those crumbs
became the bones in my seven-year-old body –
and they're in there yet – while the dreams
sing on in my head forever, like mosquitoes
whining among the leaves of thorny old roses.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the architect Sir Christopher Wren, born at East Knoyle, Wiltshire, England (1632). He designed many buildings, including the Windsor Town Hall which building inspectors said was supported by an inadequate number of pillars, and so Wren added four more pillars, none of which touched the ceiling.

He's best known for his 35-year restoration of St. Paul's Cathedral after the Great Fire of London (1666). He's buried in St. Paul's under the epitaph "Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice—Reader, if you seek his monument, look around."

It's the birthday of the poet Arthur Rimbaud, born in Charleville, France (1854).

In 1892, the city of Chicago dedicated the World's Columbian Exposition on this day.

It's the birthday of the poet Robert Pinsky, born in Long Branch, New Jersey (1940). He's famous for his own poems and also for his translation of Dante's Inferno.

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Poem: "Other Nations" by Kate Barnes from Kneeling Orion. © David R. Godine. Reprinted with permission.

Other Nations
               For Maxine Kumin

I used to think women who talked baby talk
to their animals were the rock bottom. Now I'm not
so sure. Now I open my moth
and hear, coming out of it, :Is you
a good, good dog?" – words that are falling
in their light, descending order to two pricked ears,
a hairy face, a glowing eye, an unbroken
concentration on the excellent, bone-shaped dog biscuit
I'm holding up, increasing our pleasure
with some slight, prolonging chitchat.
                              My neighbor Zoë,
at twelve, cries to her cat, "Oh, dearest, darlingest
Wooshiekins!" as she presses extravagant kisses
on the round head of a pale, torpid marmalade
who doesn't seem to mind (but her silent father
gets up and leaves the room).
                         "They are other nations,"
my own father wrote, "caught with ourselves
in the net of life and time." Of course, he meant
the wild ones, but our household allies, too,
link us to a greater world. We wish
we could speak their languages; and, meanwhile,
they learn ours.
          When the rein snaps
while I'm driving home in the buggy, with Blackberry
trotting hard, grabbing the bit, through the rush
of a blustery March day, I don't start hauling
on the other rein and risk tipping us over
or starting a runaway; I call to him loudly,
"wa-alk…wa-alk…" – and after he does that
he hears me say, "Whoa!" – and he does that.

                         So how can I ever
praise that huge person enough, those twelve hundred pounds
of best behavior who may just have saved
my life? I get out and tie the ends
of the parted rein as he rolls
his questioning eye, and I pat
his strong, damp neck, repeating, over and over,
without thought, a mantra of gratitude to gods
and animals. "Thank you," I say, "thank you,
thank you, kind fate, thank you, my good, good friend!"

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, born in Devonshire, England (1772). His father died when he was ten. He went off to boarding school and hated it there. He went to college in Cambridge and dropped out to join the army. He thought of coming to America, to Pennsylvania to start a utopian village along the Susquehanna River with the poet Robert Southey, a place where people would cut down trees as they discussed metaphysics.

But he never came to Pennsylvania. Instead, he married and moved to a little house in the country and became a friend of the poet William Wordsworth. He and Wordsworth took long walks together, and on one walk, one winter evening, Coleridge came up with the idea for "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," about a sailor who brings a curse upon his ship after he kills an albatross. It became his best-known poem.

It was on this day in 1879 the inventor Thomas Edison finally struck upon the idea for a workable electric light. People had been trying to make electric lights since the 1820s to replace kerosene and gas lamps, but they had chosen the wrong material for the filament: platinum. And Edison tried carbonized cotton thread, carbon filament which worked much better. He later improved the design with a tungsten filament that lasted longer and glowed brighter.

One of the effects of the invention of the electric light is that people sleep less than they once did. Before 1910, people slept an average of nine hours a night, and since then it's about seven and a half. Sleep researchers have shown in the laboratory that if people are deprived of electric light, they will go back to the nine hour a night schedule.

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Poem: "Why You Travel" by Gail Mazur from Zeppo's First Wife: New and Selected Poems. © University of Chicago Press. Reprinted with permission.

Why You Travel

You don't want the children to know how afraid
you are. You want to be sure their hold on life

is steady, sturdy. Were mothers and fathers
always this anxious, holding the ringing

receiver close to the ear: Why don't they answer;
where could they be? There's a conspiracy

to protect the young, so they'll be fearless,
it's why you travel—it's a way of trying

to let go, of lying. You don't sit
in a stiff chair and worry, you keep moving.

Postcards from the Alamo, the Alhambra.
Photos of you in Barcelona, Gaudi's park

Swirling behind you. There you are in the Garden
of the master of the Fishing Nets, one red

tree against a white wall, koi swarming
over each other in the thick demoralized pond.

You, fainting at the Buddhist caves.
Climbing with thousands on the Great Wall,

Wearing a straw cap, a backpack, a year
before the students at Tiananmen Square.

Having the time of your life, blistered and smiling.
The acid of your fear could eat the world.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist Doris Lessing, born in Kermanshah, Persia, which is now Iran (1919). Her father was a captain in the British army. Her mother was a nurse.

She grew up in Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and then moved to South Africa. She supported herself working in a dress shop writing advertising, where she started to read Virginia Woolf, Proust, and D.H. Lawrence, and she began to write. She emigrated to England after World War II.

Doris Lessing said, "I was a communist for some years from which I learned a great deal, chiefly about the nature of political power, how groups of people operate, I think, according to specific but little-understood laws and the force of self-delusion. I am still leftwing in politics, though pessimistic about the human condition and more interested in philosophy and religion than I expected to be. Yeats said that a writer must work a way inwards, into self-knowledge. I am always surprised at what I find in myself and this to me is the most rewarding part of being a writer."

Doris Lessing is best known for her novel The Golden Notebook (1962) and her most recent book The Sweetest Dream.

It's the birthday of the true crime writer Ann Rule, born in Lowell, Michigan (1935). By the time she was eight, she had decided to become a police officer. She joined the police force in Seattle and then had to quit, though she loved her job, because her eyesight was deteriorating. So she began to write about crime.

About that time she volunteered at a suicide hotline center and met another volunteer named Ted Bundy. They often worked alone together until 3:00 in the morning. She said, "He was one of those rare people who listened with full attention."

In 1975, she signed a book contract to write about a series of unsolved murders in Seattle. And while she was writing it, she learned that the main suspect was Ted Bundy, the man she had found so charming.

He eventually was arrested for the murders of more than 30 women in five states. Bundy was loved by nearly everyone who knew him. By the time he was arrested, he had become chairman of the Seattle Crime Prevention Council. Ann Rule did research into Bundy's background and found that most of his victims had resembled his ex-fiancé.

She spent about three months writing her book. It came out in 1980, The Stranger Beside Me, one of the bestselling true crime books ever written.

It's the birthday of the Russian novelist Ivan Bunin, born near Voronezh, Russia (1870). He's the author of acclaimed novels about life in the Russian countryside, The Village and Dry Valley in 1911.

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Poem: "Atomic Dawn" by Gary Snyder from Danger on Peaks. © Shoemaker & Hoard. Reprinted with permission.

Atomic Dawn

The day I first climbed Mt. St. Helens was August 13, 1945.

Spirit Lake was far from the cities of the valley and news came slow.
Though the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima August 6
and the second dropped on Nagasaki August 9, photographs didn't
appear in the Portland Oregonian until August 12. Those papers must
have been driven in to Spirit Lake on the 13th. Early the morning of
the 14th I walked over to the lodge to check the bulletin board. There
were whole pages of the paper pinned up: photos of a blasted city
from the air, the estimate of 150,000 dead in Hiroshima alone, the
American scientist quoted as saying "nothing will grow there again
for seventy years." The morning sun on my shoulders, the fir forest
smell and the big tree shadows; feet in thin moccasins feeling the
ground, and my heart still one with the snowpeak mountain at my
back. Horrified, blaming scientists and politicians and the govern-
ments of the world, I swore a vow to myself, something like, "By
the purity and beauty and permanence of Mt. St. Helens, I will fight
against this cruel destructive power and those who would seek to
use it, for all my life."

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1920 the novel Main Street was published, written by a 35-year-old writer from Sauk Centre Minnesota, Sinclair Lewis. It was his sixth novel and it made him famous.

It was on this day in 1987, the U.S. Senate rejected the Supreme Court nomination of Robert H. Bork on a vote of 58 to 42. It was one of the most controversial nomination hearings in history.

In the first hundred years of the American republic, the Senate took its role in the process of selecting Supreme Court justices very seriously. Between 1794 and 1892, 81 nominees were sent to the Senate and 22 failed to make it onto the court. Senators did not hesitate to say that they objected to a nominee for political reasons.

But after 1894, as the power of the presidency grew, the Senate started approving nearly every nominee that came down the pike. Between 1894 and 1968, only one nominee was rejected by the Senate, John J. Parker of North Carolina. He was nominated by Herbert Hoover.

Robert Bork, a distinguished legal scholar was nominated by President Reagan to lead the conservative revolution on the court. And in his confirmation hearings, Bork decided to enter the debate about his ideas head-on and openly discuss his originalist views of the Constitution and his belief that there was no right to privacy.

In the years since he was voted down, in 1987, no nominee to the court has openly debated with senators about legal philosophy the way Bork did. Most nominees have refused to answer at least some of the questions asked of them, and no nominee has been rejected since.

It's the birthday of two doctors who became writers, the poet Robert Bridges, born in Kent, England (1844); and Michael Crichton, born in Chicago (1942).



  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
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