MONDAY, 27 MARCH, 2006
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Poem: "The Persistent Accent" by Patricia Dobler from Collected Poems. © Autumn House Press. Reprinted with permission.

The Persistent Accent

                            Until the grave covers me, on foreign soil
                            I shall remain Hungarian

                                                                 Hungarian folk song

Because this fat old lady
has exactly the voice
of my dead grandma,
I find myself
trailing her through the supermarket
as she complains to her friend
about the Blacks, the kids, the prices,
age, disease, and certain death,
and I'm seduced
by that Hungarian accent
decades in this country can't diminish,
and I see the smoky fires
of the harvesters, a golden-braided girl
fetching their dinners of peppers and lamb,
and I follow her
through the aisles,
wanting to lay my face
between her hands,
to ask her for a song.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, born in Knoxville, Tennessee (1963). He grew up with a single mother in the diverse neighborhood of South Bay, near the Los Angeles Airport. He was diagnosed as hyperactive as a kid, and didn't get along with his classmates or his teachers. The only things that calmed him down were comic books and movies. From the time he was a toddler, his mother let him go to the theater whenever he wanted. He watched everything from Kung Fu movies to French art house films.

He once scored above 150 on an IQ test in high school, but he hated school so much that he dropped out after ninth grade. He got a job as an usher at a pornographic movie theater and started taking acting classes. He taught himself screenwriting by writing from memory screenplays of movies he'd already seen. Whatever he couldn't remember he just made up. These screenplays eventually turned into his own original work, and he realized that he'd rather be a filmmaker than an actor.

Instead of going to film school, Tarantino got a job at a video rental store that had one of the largest video collections in Southern California. Several other aspiring filmmakers worked there and they would watch movies all day at work, discussing camera angles and dialogue. He spent five years working at the video store writing screenplays, but he wasn't getting anywhere in his career. He finally decided he had to move to Hollywood, and on the same day he'd made that decision he got a thirteen hundred dollar tax refund in the mail.

Tarantino got a few acting jobs in Hollywood, including a part as an Elvis impersonator on the TV show Golden Girls. He sold two of his screenplays. But what he wanted more than anything was to direct his own movie. And then he met an actor who knew another actor who knew Harvey Keitel, and Keitel agreed to look at one of his scripts. Keitel was impressed enough to volunteer to help Tarantino produce the film, and to act in it himself.

The result was Reservoir Dogs (1992) about a group of bank robbers trying to figure out who set them up after a botched robbery. It became a cult hit and made Tarantino internationally famous. His next film, Pulp Fiction, won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1994 and it went on to win an Academy Award for best screenplay.

Quentin Tarantino said, "I steal from every movie ever made."


It's the birthday of Louis Simpson, born in Jamaica, the British West Indies (1923). He's written seventeen volumes of poetry, including At the End of the Open Road (1963), which won a Pulitzer that year. His mother died when he was a teenager and his stepmother kicked him out of the house. He arrived in New York City when he was seventeen and didn't go back to Jamaica for fifty years. None of his colleagues realized he had been born there until several years ago, when someone threw a big party at the Jamaican consulate in New York and invited every Jamaican they could find.


It's the birthday of T.R. Pearson, born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (1956). He's the author of eight novels, including Cry Me a River (1993) and Polar (2002); he published his first novel, A Short History of a Small Place (1985), when he was painting houses for a living. An interviewer asked him about the plots in his novels, and he said: "[A]s a reader I don't care a thing in the world about what happens next. I don't buy books to find out what happens next. I never read thrillers. I never read detective stories. I just do not care and that's just my personal preference. ... Cry Me a River is my version of a detective story and in it, the detective solves absolutely nothing. I mean, he tries and tries; he wanders around; he pokes his nose in everything, but the crime undoes itself and he's just standing around."


It's the birthday of the novelist Julia Alvarez, born in New York City (1950). Though she was born in New York, she grew up in the Dominican Republic. Her parents sent her to the local American school so she could learn English. But she preferred to spend her time with the old women who cooked and cleaned in the backyard of their housing complex. She said, "Those women were my first muses ... wearing their spirit kerchiefs, smoking their [cigarettes], always good for a neat story for a curious girl who much preferred their 'true' stories to my American Dick and Jane books."

When Alvarez was ten years old, her family moved back to New York, the place of her birth, which she'd heard was a magic city. She said, "I would get to see the miracle of the snow, buildings that pricked the sky with their tops, and a host of other things which heretofore had only been the province of stories."

But when she got to America, she found that she didn't speak English as well as she thought she did. The other children made fun of her and called her names that she couldn't even understand. She felt utterly lost, until one day her teacher gave her a writing assignment. She later said, "And then, magic happened in my life." She said, "That was where I landed when we left the Dominican Republic, not in the United States but in the English language." She went on to write the novel How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (1991) and the novel In the Time of the Butterflies (1994) and the poetry collection The Woman I Kept to Myself (2004).


On this day in 1912, President Taft's wife and the wife of the ambassador from Japan planted the first of Washington D.C.'s cherry trees. The cuttings were scions from the most famous trees in Tokyo, the ones that grow along the banks of the Arakawa River. Workers took over, and thousands of cherry trees—all gifts from the Japanese government—were planted around the Tidal Basin. During the Second World War, Tokyo lost scores of cherry trees in the allied bombing raids; after the surrender, horticulturists took cuttings from the trees in Washington and sent them back to Tokyo. Years later, some of the Washington trees died, and Tokyo sent cuttings back across the Pacific.




TUESDAY, 28 MARCH, 2006
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Poem: "Love At First Sight" by Alan Ziegler from The Swan Song of Vaudeville. © Zoo Press. Reprinted with permission.

Love At First Sight

        It was a novelty-store and he went in just for the novelty
of it. She was in front of the counter, listening to the old
proprietor say: "I have here one of those illusion paintings,
a rare one. You either see a beautiful couple making love,
or a skull. They say this one was used by Freud himself on
his patients—if at first sight you see the couple, then you are
a lover of life and love. But if you focus on the skull first,
you're closely involved with death, and there's not much hope
for you."
        With that, the proprietor unwrapped the painting. They
both hesitated, looked at the picture, then at each other. They
both saw the skull. And have been together ever since.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist Russell Banks, born in Newton, Massachusetts (1940). He's the author of several novels, including Continental Drift (1985), The Sweet Hereafter (1992), and Cloudsplitter (1998).

He grew up in a run-down factory town. He said, "It was a blue-collar world ... where the idea of being a writer was like the idea of being a butterfly." His father was an occasionally abusive alcoholic. Banks said, "I don't remember not being physically afraid of my father. He didn't hit me that regularly, but often enough so the threat was always there. ... I hated my father, and I adored him. A relationship involving violence is incredibly focused attention—there's a heat to it that's almost erotic."

His father deserted the family when Banks was twelve years old. He managed to win a scholarship to college but he felt so out of place there that he quit after eight weeks and moved to Florida. He considered joining the communist revolution going on in Cuba but he got married instead. And then he began to notice that he was slowly turning into his father, drinking too much and becoming abusive to his own loved ones.

His marriage broke up and he moved back to New England where he found his father living alone. He took a plumbing job, which was his father's job as well, and finally got to know the man. It was only then that he began publishing the fiction he'd been writing since he was a teenager. His first novel, Family Life, came out in 1975.

Russell Banks said, "Some magazine was asking writers what they would have become if they hadn't become a writer, and I said that I would have been stabbed to death in the parking lot outside a bar in Florida at 24, or something like that. I really believe that, actually. I think writing saved my life."


It's the birthday of writer Nelson Algren, born in Detroit (1909). He made it through the University of Illinois, then drifted throughout the Midwest, hopping freights, working as a door-to-door salesman, playing cards and betting on horses that didn't win. He dressed in a slovenly manner and was rarely able to make the rent payment on his small apartment until the last minute. He eventually settled in Chicago, which he called "The City on the Make," or sometimes, "the lovely lady with the broken nose."

He said, "People ask me why I don't write about nature or the suburbs. If a writer could write the truth about one Chicago street, that would be a good life's work."

He wrote the novels A Walk on the Wild Side (1956) and The Man with the Golden Arm (1949).


It's the birthday of Maxim Gorky, the pen name of Aleksey Maksimovich Peshkov, born in Nizhny, Russia (1868). He is best known for his play The Lower Depths (1902), and his autobiographies My Childhood (1914) and In the World (1915).

In 1906 he arrived in the United States to campaign on behalf of the Russian Revolution. His visit was sponsored by Mark Twain who had written a pro-revolutionary essay called "The Czar's Soliloquy" the previous year, and who helped to found a group called The American Friends of Russian Freedom. Gorky was received like a hero, invited to speak publicly and offered hospitality by all sorts of prominent figures.

But when newspapers reported that the woman Gorky was traveling with was not his wife but his mistress, the hotel they were staying in turned Gorky out; honorary dinners and speeches were cancelled and further fund-raising efforts were judged to be in vain. Even Twain abandoned him. Gorky had to return to Russia.


It's the birthday of Frederic Exley, born in Watertown, New York (1929). He wrote one great book, A Fan's Notes (1968).


It's the birthday of writer Mario Vargas Llosa, born in Arequipa, in southern Peru (1936). He wrote Conversation in a Cathedral (1969), Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1978) and The Feast of the Goat (2002). He ran for president against Alberto Fujimori and lost. He said, "Never again. Literature and politics are mutually exclusive. A writer is someone who works alone, who needs total independence. A politician is someone who is totally dependent, who has to make all kinds of concessions, the very thing a writer can't do."




WEDNESDAY, 29 MARCH, 2006
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Poem: "Circumference And Centers" by Hugh Ogden from Bringing a Fir Straight Down. © Higganum Hill Books. Reprinted with permission.

Circumference And Centers

Now that his wife's been dead a year,
Ray's got a savvy Doberman which
he's trained to make a circle when
she runs, a circle when she comes

to heel, a circle when she retrieves.
He claps his hands and Sweetie
comes out of her circles and sits.
Ray still has Betty's twenty-year-

Old Cadillac and his own Chevy truck
and parks them in the garage under
the signs, "Betty," and "Ray," and Sweetie
rides beside him when he drives

the Cadillac, raises her sleek
lynx head to watch the woods as
he talks about clouds and weather,
the two-foot snow that fell every

four days last winter. He drives
a big circle, returning to where
he started with Sweetie alert for
deer, rabbits, reaches into the glove

compartment for a biscuit when
she puts a paw on the brake, tells
her we always return as he pulls
under Betty's name in the garage.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of actor, director, producer and playwright Howard Lindsay, born Herman Nelke in Waterford, New York (1889). Lindsay spent years touring with vaudeville shows and working with silent movies before he found his collaborator, Russel Crouse and together they wrote co-wrote several hit plays. He and Crouse often said that they worked so closely together that they couldn't tell which line was whose after they had finished writing their plays. They would discuss their ideas together, then Crouse would begin typing while Lindsay paced up and down the room and continued talking to Crouse. They said that they knew they were done with a play after Crouse had typed 150 pages and Lindsay had paced 5,000 miles.

Their first hit was Anything Goes (1934), which starred Ethel Merman and featured music by Cole Porter. And they went on to write the scripts for musicals and plays such as The Sound of Music (1959), Mr. President (1962) and State of the Union, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1946.


It's the birthday of politician Eugene McCarthy, born in Watkins, Minnesota (1921). He grew up in a family of Irish Catholics and considered becoming a Catholic monk after high school. He served nine months as a monk in training at St. John's abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. But he switched to studying sociology instead.

He was teaching sociology at the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul in the late 1940s when his interest in politics grew so powerful that he decided he had no choice but to run for political office. He won a congressional seat in 1952 and went on to the Senate in 1958.

He distinguished himself in his first term as a congressman by becoming the first person to challenge Joseph McCarthy on the issue of hunting communists. But even more surprising was his decision as a senator to run against Lyndon Johnson for the presidency in 1968. It was almost unheard of for any politician to run against a sitting president of his own party. But McCarthy had decided that someone had to challenge the policy on the war in Vietnam.

It was McCarthy who gave anti-war activists a voice in national politics. Before McCarthy entered the race, the peace movement in America wasn't taken very seriously; anyone who was against the war was called a hippie and treated as irrelevant by the mainstream press and most politicians."

Eugene McCarthy said, "Being in politics is like being a football coach. You have to be smart enough to understand the game and dumb enough to think it's important."

He died on December 10, 2005.


It's the birthday of Judith Guest, born in Detroit, Michigan (1936). She's written three novels, each of them about adolescent children who have to deal with a crisis in their family: Second Heaven (1982), Errands (1997), and, most famously, Ordinary People (1976).


It's the birthday of Eric Idle, born in South Shields, Durham, England (1943). He's one of the six founding members of the British comedy group Monty Python, famous for its movies and its long-running television show, Monty Python's Flying Circus. Idle often played old ornery women, as well as creepy old men and annoying talk show hosts. Monty Python's first movie was Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), in which Idle plays Sir Robin the Not-So-Brave, who wets his armor at the first sign of danger.


On this day in 1886, John Pemberton perfected a headache and hangover remedy he had cooked up over a fire in his backyard. It contained coca leaves and extract of kola nut, and he advertised it as an "Esteemed Brain Tonic and Intellectual Beverage." He had been making something called "Pemberton's French Wine Coca," but Atlanta had just passed a prohibition law, and he had to come up with an alcohol-free formula. He sweetened the new elixir with sugar instead of wine, and his bookkeeper suggested he name the beverage "Coca-Cola."




THURSDAY, 30 MARCH, 2006
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Poem: "Receiving" by Victor W. Pearn from Devils Dogs and Jarheads. © Busca, Inc.

Receiving

After you sprint
from the barber chair
you come to a long counter.
Great shouting
down the halls:
what is your waist size,
your shoe size?
Somebody throws a sea bag
green socks fly at you
belts, T shirts, boxer shorts,
all the articles of clothing
you will need for the next 12 weeks.
If you get the wrong size
too bad, tough shit, wear them.

Then the herd
stampedes into a room
with cubical desks.
You are given a box,
take off your civilian
clothes, put them into
the box, and address
the box to your home.
This is your last chance
to get rid of any contraband,
guns, knives, drugs you may
have brought with you without
getting into trouble.
It is the last time
you will see that box.

Get your group shower.
Gold dial soap bars
five shower heads
blast steam, duck under,
lather up, rinse off,
get out, drip dry, try on
your new boxer shorts,
T shirt, green utility pants
and socks, black basketball shoes,
gray sweatshirt, put on your hat
grab your sea bag and run
out the door. Everybody waiting.

The sea bag on your shoulder
might weigh 60 pounds.
The DI wants you to
form four lines.
The tallest man
in front. The shortest man
in the rear of the line.
Now put your left hand
on the shoulder of the
man in front of you,
and lock your right arm
around the left arm
of the man to your right.
Now walk and stagger
like a million legged
caterpillar.

Nobody knows how to march,
but somehow you finally
reach your assigned quarters.

Metal bunkbeds, wooden footlockers,
pick a bed, put your sea bag
into the footlocker.

You are given two green wool
blankets, two sheets, a pillow
a pillowcase, and the soft spoken
DI demonstrates how
to make your bed with
military folds,
expects you to
make your rack
like that,
gives you ten minutes
to make your bed.
And when he returns
your rack made,
you will be
standing at attention
in your skivvies.

The angry
green and red eyed
Drill Instructor
comes in yelling
to get your covers off.
"Take off those covers,"
everybody starts ripping
blankets and throwing them
on the floor.
Angry DI throws people
on the floor, anybody
he can get his hands on.
Then he grabs a recruit,
pulls his hat off and says,
"ladies this is your cover
and you better have
those racks made
before the other DI
gets back."

Soft spoken DI
comes in. Your bed is made.
You are at attention
in your skivvies.
He checks arms, legs, backs
for bruises, wounds,
broken bones, to be sure
we are healthy,
then tells us to get in bed.
At the light switch
he says, "there are armed
guards outside the door
with orders to shoot anybody
that tries to escape,"
then he turns out the lights.
"Good night ladies."
It is 3 a.m.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist Jon Hassler, born in Minneapolis, Minnesota (1933). He's known for writing novels about small-town people in the upper Midwest, including Dear James (1993), Rookery Blues (1995), and The Dean's List (1997).

His first novel, Staggerford, came out in 1977. His first big success was The Love Hunter (1981), about two friends who teach at a small Minnesota college, one of whom is dying from multiple sclerosis. When they go on a hunting trip together, the healthy man decides to kill the dying man to end his pain and so that he can marry his wife, with whom he is secretly in love.


It's the birthday of novelist Tom Sharpe, born in London (1928). He spent twenty years in South Africa, and wrote satirical plays and novels about apartheid, including Riotous Assembly (1971) and Indecent Exposure (1973).

Sharpe said, "There's nothing worse than an introspective drunk."


It's the birthday of playwright Sean O'Casey, born John Casey in Dublin (1880). He wrote three classic plays in the 1920s: The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), Juno and the Paycock (1924), and The Plough and the Stars (1926).




FRIDAY, 31 MARCH, 2006
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Poem: "This Kind of Thing Doesn't Happen Often and When it Does You Should Pay Attention" by John Stone from Music From Apartment 8: New and Selected Poems. © Louisiana State University Press. Reprinted with permission

This Kind of Thing Doesn't Happen Often and When it Does You Should Pay Attention

            i thank heaven somebody's crazy
            enough to send me a daisy
               —E.E. Cummings


On Piedmont Road, going north,
before my car there floated forth

a soapy bubble in the traffic,
glistening and holographic.

It drifted down into my path,
this ghostly sphere from someone's bath.

I watched it bob and almost tickle
A Harley-Davidson motorcycle

then rise (as it got quite exhausted)
That's where I left it, fair and frosted.

For this unexpected act
I thank heaven (I think), in fact,

that someone went to all the trouble
to blow me a bubble.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Andrew Marvell, born in Winestead, England (1621). He's remembered for his poem "To His Coy Mistress" (1650).

Marvell wrote, "Had we but world enough, and time, / This coyness, lady, were no crime."


It's the birthday of poet, novelist and critic Octavio Paz, born in Mexico City (1914). He's known for a book-length essay on Mexican culture called The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950).


It's the birthday of novelist John Fowles, born in Essex, England (1926). His first novel, The Collector, came out in 1963. He went on to publish many more novels, including The Magus (1965) and The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969).


It's the birthday of novelist Judith Rossner, born in New York City (1935). Her first novel was Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1975).


It's the birthday of poet and novelist Marge Piercy, born in Detroit, Michigan (1936). Her novels include Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) and Available Light (1988).


It's the birthday of the man who wrote, "I think, therefore I am," mathematician and philosopher René Descartes, born in Touraine, France (1596).


It's the birthday of writer and translator Edward FitzGerald, born in Woodbridge, England (1809). He anonymously published a few small collections of poetry and several translations that got little attention in his lifetime. One of those translations, published in 1859, was a collection of poems called the Rubáiyát, by an obscure Persian poet named Omar Khayyam.


Today is the anniversary of the official opening of the Eiffel Tower in Paris (1889). It was built for the International Exhibition of Paris, commemorating the centenary of the French Revolution. At the time, it was the tallest structure ever built, at 1,000 feet. The architect Gustave Eiffel was a specialist in bridges and the design for the Eiffel Tower was based on his previous bridge designs. He chose to leave the tower's skeletal structure exposed because it was the easiest way to protect it from wind resistance.

When it was finished many Parisians thought it was horribly ugly. Artists and writers wrote a letter of protest, calling the tower a "truly tragic street lamp," a "mast of iron gymnasium apparatus, incomplete, confused and deformed."

The writer Guy de Maupassant described the Eiffel Tower as, "A high and skinny pyramid of iron ladders, [a] giant ungainly skeleton upon a base that looks built to carry a colossal monument of Cyclops, but which just peters out into a ridiculous thin shape like a factory chimney." He hated the tower so much that he started eating in its restaurant every day, because, he said, "It is the only place in Paris where I don't have to see it."

It was almost torn down in 1909, after the expiration of its lease, but the city saved it because its antenna was so useful for the new invention of radio. It's now the most widely recognized symbol of Paris.




SATURDAY, 1 APRIL, 2006
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Poem: "Flying Lesson" by Julia Kasdorf from Eve's Striptease. © University of Pittsburg Press. Reprinted with permission.

Flying Lesson

Over a tray of spent plates, I confessed
to the college president my plans to go East,
to New York, which I'd not really seen,
though it seemed the right place
for a sophomore as sullen and restless
as I had become on that merciless
Midwestern plain. He slowly stroked
a thick cup and described the nights
when, a theology teacher in Boston, he'd fly
a tiny plane alone out over the ocean,
each time pressing farther into the dark
until the last moment, when he'd turn
toward the coast's bright spine, how he loved
the way the city glittered beneath him
as he glided gracefully toward it,
engine gasping, fuel needle dead on empty,
the way sweat dampened the back of his neck
when he climbed from the cockpit, giddy.
Buttoned up in my cardigan, young, willing
to lose everything, how could I see generosity
or warning? But now that I'm out here,
his advice comes so clear: fling yourself
farther, and a bit farther each time,
but darling, don't drop.


Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is April Fool's Day, a holiday celebrating practical jokes of all kinds, which goes back to at least the early 17th century.


It's the birthday of playwright Edmond Rostand, born in Marseilles, France (1868). He's best known as the author of the play Cyrano de Bergerac (1897), based on an actual person. Cyrano de Bergerac was famous in his day for his heroism on the battlefield, but after he survived a stab wound in the neck, he decided to study astronomy, and later wrote a satirical novel about traveling to the moon.

Rostand often embellished the details in his historical plays, and he decided to exaggerate historical accounts of Cyrano de Bergerac's large nose. In the play, Cyrano is the most dashing, brave and romantic man in France, able to compose sonnets while engaged in a sword fight, but he also has the largest nose anyone has ever seen. Because of his huge nose, he decides he can never win over Roxanne, the love of his life.

Edmond Rostand was in love with the famous actress Sarah Bernhardt when he wrote the play, and he wrote the part of Roxanne with Bernhardt in mind. Bernhardt never performed the role, but the play still became a huge hit in France.

In the play, Cyrano says of his nose, "A man ought to be proud, / Yes, proud, of having so proud an appendix / Of flesh and bone to crown his countenance, / Provided a great nose may be an index / Of a great soul."


It's the birthday of novelist Milan Kundera, born in Brno, Czechoslovakia (1929). He was a member of the Communist Party but he disagreed with the government that artists should only produce art that dealt with the "proletarian movement" and the "progression of society toward communism." Kundera began to rebel against these standards and speak out against censorship. The government later attacked and censored two collections of his poems, Man: A Broad Garden (1953) and Monologues (1957), because they were all about love affairs and had nothing to do with class struggle.

He was eventually forbidden to publish any books in Czechoslovakia. At first, he was miserable that he'd been forbidden to publish his work, but then he realized that if he couldn't publish in his country, he couldn't be censored either. For the first time in his life, he was free to write whatever he wanted. He wrote a novel called The Farewell Party (1976), which was published in France and won a major literary award there. He was allowed to travel to France, where he got a position teaching literature.

In exile from his home, he began to work on a novel called The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979) and went on to write many more books, including The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984).




SUNDAY, 2 APRIL, 2006
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Poem: "Some Clouds" by Steve Kowit from The Dumbbell Nebula. © The Roundhouse Press. Reprinted with permission.

Some Clouds

Now that I've unplugged the phone
no one can reach me—
At least for this one afternoon
they will have to get by without my advice or opinion.
Now nobody else is going to call
& ask in a tentative voice
if I haven't yet heard that she's dead,
that woman I once loved—
nothing but ashes scattered over a city
that barely itself any longer exists.
Yes, thank you, I've heard.
It had been too lovely a morning.
That in itself should have warned me.
The sun lit up the tangerines
& the blazing poinsettias
like so many candles.
For one afternoon they will have to forgive me.
I am busy watching things happen again
that happened a long time ago,
as I lean back in Josephine's lawn chair
under a sky of incredible blue,
broken—if that is the word for it—
by a few billowing clouds,
all white & unspeakably lovely,
drifting out of one nothingness into another.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Hans Christian Andersen, born in Odense, Denmark (1805). He grew up in poverty. His mother was a washerwoman and his father was a shoemaker who died when Hans was eleven years old. After his father died, he was forced to find a job, first as a tailor and then at a tobacco factory.

When he was fourteen and almost completely broke, he set off for Copenhagen to try to find work at one of the city's theaters. He knocked on doors of famous producers and directors, introducing himself as a poet and a playwright. Finally, he landed a spot in the Royal Theatre singing school and later the Royal Theatre ballet.

Andersen finished his first novel, The Improvisatore, in 1835. While he was waiting for it to be published, he needed some money to pay his rent, so he published a pamphlet containing four fairy tales. It was such a big success that he published a new collection of fairy tales every Christmas for the next few years. They were cheap paperback editions and they grew to be extremely popular. He started off by retelling the stories he had heard from his parents as a child, but then he began making up his own. Between 1835 and 1872, he published 168 fairy tales, including "The Little Mermaid," "The Emperor's New Clothes," "The Snow Queen," "Princess and the Pea," and "The Nightingale." "The Ugly Duckling" is usually considered to be his most autobiographical tale.

Andersen's fairy tales transformed the way Danish was written. Instead of using the formal "King's Danish," he wrote the way ordinary people spoke, and his fairy tales are full of humorous details that seem unnecessary to the story. People often think of Andersen's fairy tales as light-hearted and optimistic, but he wrote many tragic tales with unhappy endings. The first English translations of the tales were done by a woman who didn't even speak Danish, and she deleted disturbing passages and made them more sentimental than Andersen intended.


It's the birthday of novelist Émile Zola, born in Paris (1840). He was one of the first novelists to research his topics as if he were a journalist rather than a fiction writer. He interviewed experts and wrote detailed reports on the subjects he wanted to write about in his novels. When he wrote a book about a train engineer he spent days riding in the front car of a train, and when he wrote a book about miners he visited nearby coal mines.

In 1867, Zola began writing a long series of books that would portray the life of a single family in nineteenth-century France. He called the series Les Rougon Macquart, and it eventually grew to include twenty novels, including The Dram Shop (1877), Nana (1880), and La Terre (1887).




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  • “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
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
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