MONDAY, 19 MARCH, 2007
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Poem: "Crooked Wisdom" by Robert Fanning, from The Seed Thieves. © Marick Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Crooked Wisdom

Having learned last night of his wife's affair,
my dentist holds a giant silver spear
and leans over the canyon of my open jaw.
Diving in again, vulture-sure, he picks

at my gum's weak pink flesh. Between
cliffs, down in the bone and coral landscape
of my teeth, nerve tips burst and bloom
like crimson flowers on a hill. Soon

blood's smeared red signature runs
from a deep root and floods my tongue.
Half-under with gas and lovely numb,
I watch his left eye become a clouded moon,

then one black branch of an eyelash
catch a teardrop's sheer balloon. With quick
shame, like a lion tamer stricken with naked
fear, he leaves the work of the open mouth

and the raw wound to another. He lays
the mirror down beside the spear and exits
the room. Anesthesia doesn't dim his grief
a room away. I hear the hygienist say:

She's leaving you for him. You've seen this
coming for a year ...

A bit later he returns, composed in his white
smock, and clips the X-rays of my teeth
to the board. Then he lifts his pointer
to the slideshow of my bite: backlit, exposed,

the skull's little ornaments hang; bicuspids
and molars glow with hunger and decay. See here
he points — here's the abscess. Here's the cavity,
and here's that crooked wisdom pushing through.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of one of the least successful presidential candidates in American history, William Jennings Bryan, (books by this author) born in Salem, Illinois (1860). He ran for president as the Democratic candidate three times, and he lost each time. He's probably best remembered today for his role in the famous "Scopes Monkey Trial" (1925). Bryan argued against teaching evolution in public schools in part because he objected to Social Darwinism, and he believed that the theory of evolution was fueling the Eugenics movement.

But he was also an extremely influential politician. He became a Democrat because he believed that Republicans weren't addressing the concerns of poor rural farmers across the country. Bryan believed farmers were the victims of gold speculators and corrupt loan agents. He was also one of the early supporters of women's suffrage, corporate income taxes, labor rights, the eight-hour workday, antitrust laws, and the direct election of U.S. senators. He was one of the first people to advocate expanding the powers of the Federal government to help ordinary people, and it was that idea that became the new foundation of the Democratic Party.

It's the birthday of novelist Philip Roth, (books by this author) born in Newark, New Jersey (1933). He grew up in a crowded Jewish neighborhood, and he always loved listening to the conversations of his neighbors. He said, "In warm weather, people sat on the stoops and on beach chairs in the driveways. [At night] you'd be sweating, trying to sleep, and you'd hear them, you'd hear their conversation all the time, and it would be very comforting."

At an early age, he began to rebel against the expectations of his community, where all the parents demanded that their kids would become successful doctors and lawyers without losing touch with their cultural roots. He said, "Newark [was] the battleground ... between the European family of immigrants ... who clung to the rigorous orthodoxy and the [American] children who wanted to be rid of all that because they sensed immediately that it was useless in this society."

He went on to the University of Chicago to study English literature, and it was there that he began to write his first short stories. He published his first book, the collection of short stories Goodbye Columbus, in 1959, and it got good reviews and won several awards. He came out with his big best seller, Portnoy's Complaint, 10 years later in 1969. He has gone on to write many more novels, including American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000). His most recent novel is Everyman (2006).

Philip Roth said, "I cannot and do not live in the world of discretion, not as a writer, anyway. I would prefer to, I assure you — it would make life easier. But discretion is, unfortunately, not for novelists."

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Poem: "Light, at Thirty-Two" by Michael Blumenthal from Days We Would Rather Know. © Pleasure Boat Studio. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Light, at Thirty-Two

It is the first thing God speaks of
when we meet Him, in the good book
of Genesis. And now, I think
I see it all in terms of light:

How, the other day at dusk
on Ossabaw Island, the marsh grass
was the color of the most beautiful hair
I had ever seen, or how—years ago
in the early-dawn light of Montrose Park—
I saw the most ravishing woman
in the world, only to find, hours later
over drinks in a dark bar, that it
wasn't she who was ravishing,
but the light: how it filtered
through the leaves of the magnolia
onto her cheeks, how it turned
her cotton dress to silk, her walk
to a tour-jeté.

And I understood, finally,
what my friend John meant,
twenty years ago, when he said: Love
is keeping the lights on
. And I understood
why Matisse and Bonnard and Gauguin
and Cézanne all followed the light:
Because they knew all lovers are equal
in the dark, that light defines beauty
the way longing defines desire, that
everything depends on how light falls
on a seashell, a mouth ... a broken bottle.

And now, I'd like to learn
to follow light wherever it leads me,
never again to say to a woman, YOU
are beautiful
, but rather to whisper:
Darling, the way light fell on your hair
This morning when we woke—God,
It was beautiful
. Because, if the light is right,
Then the day and the body and the faint pleasures
Waiting at the window ... they too are right.
All things lovely there. As the first poet wrote,
in his first book of poems: Let there be light.

And there is.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of playwright Henrik Ibsen, (books by this author) born in Skien, Norway (1828). He was an assistant stage manager for a new theater, where it was his job to produce a new drama each year based on Norway's glorious past. He produced a number of plays, but none got any attention. Overworked and on the edge of poverty, he applied to the government for a stipend to travel abroad, and got it. He spent the next 27 years living in Italy and Germany.

He found that by leaving his homeland, he could finally see Norway clearly, and he began to work on creating a true Norwegian drama. At a time when most people were writing plays full of sword fights and murders, Ibsen started to write plays about relationships between ordinary people. He used dialogue rather than monologues to reveal his characters' emotions, and he stopped writing in verse. He said, "We are no longer living in the age of Shakespeare. ... What I desire to depict [are] human beings, and therefore I [will] not let them talk the language of the gods."

One of Ibsen's first important plays was A Doll's House (1879), about a woman named Nora who refuses to obey her husband and eventually leaves him, walking out of the house and slamming the door in the final scene. When it was first produced, European audiences were shocked, and it sparked debate about women's rights and divorce across the continent. It also changed the style of acting. At the time, most actors were praised for their ability to deliver long poetic speeches, but Ibsen emphasized small gestures, the inflection of certain words, and pauses, and he inspired a new generation of actors to begin embodying the characters they played.

A Doll's House made Ibsen a celebrity across Europe. His play Ghosts (1881) came out two years later.

Henrik Ibsen said, "You should never have your best trousers on when you go out to fight for freedom and truth."

It's the birthday of the poet Ovid, (books by this author) born in the village of Sulmo, just east of Rome (43 B.C.). After having written many light, popular works, Ovid began his masterpiece, The Metamorphoses (c. 8 A.D.), a collection of all the Greek and Roman myths that deal with transformation, told in chronological order from the origin of the universe to the death of Julius Caesar. It begins, "Of bodies changed to various forms I sing: / Ye gods, from whom these miracles did spring."

Ovid wrote: "There's nothing constant in the world,
All ebb and flow, and every shape that's born
Bears in its womb the seeds of change."

It was on this day in 1852 that Harriet Beecher Stowe's (books by this author) novel Uncle Tom's Cabin was published. Stowe published Uncle Tom's Cabin in serial installments in the abolitionist paper National Era. When it came out as a complete novel on this day, it was an immediate sensation, selling more than 300,000 copies in its first year and more than 3 million copies by the start of the Civil War.

It's the birthday of novelist and memoirist Kathryn Harrison, (books by this author) born in Los Angeles (1961). She had been working as a slush-pile reader at Viking when she published her first novel, Thicker than Water (1991), about a young girl's horrific childhood, unloved by her mother and sexually abused by her father. The book got good reviews, and so did her second novel, Exposure (1993), about a young woman whose father becomes a famous photographer after taking sexually explicit pictures of her.

Then, in 1997, she stirred up a storm of controversy when she published her memoir, The Kiss, in which she admitted for the first time that most of the horrific details in her first novel were true. Her memoir detailed how she fell into a four-year sexual affair with her father when she was 20 years old.

Kathryn Harrison wrote, "We're taught to expect unconditional love from our parents, but I think it is more the gift our children give us. It's they who love us helplessly, no matter what or who we are."

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Poem: "First Day of Spring" by Ann Hudson, from The Armillary Sphere. © Ohio University Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

First Day of Spring

It's a wild March morning in Chicago, the wind
dragging its nets through the streets.
Trawling for its usual and plentiful treasures:

crushed styrofoam cups, torn newspapers,
lost gloves, a blizzard of fast food napkins.
I take my eight-year-old Toyota

through the car wash. Idling in neutral,
I ease past the powerful, shaggy brushes,
the nozzles spraying limp foam onto the hood,

and remember the sick excitement I felt
when my father took my sisters and me through,
all the windows of our '67 baby blue Valiant

tightly cranked, the antenna pushed into its sleeve,
our doors locked against who-knows-what,
the three of us with our identical haircuts

buckled into the back seat, our identical shoes
drumming the vinyl. I was sure
those huge blue brushes would crash

right through the windshield and pin us to our seats.
At eight, a child sure of impending danger this
was about all the thrill I could handle.

I pull out of the car wash into the tangle
of traffic, past the bars that open at nine in the morning
and stay open, past the disheveled and pacing junkies,

past the crumbling theater draped in shadow and disrepair,
and make slow headway against the wind
that gathers the stray grocery bags all over the city,

whipping them against the masts
of budding hawthorns, silver maples,
bald cypress, green ash, green ash.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is the first day of spring, the vernal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere. The Earth is tilted on its axis, so as it travels around the sun each pole is sometimes tilted toward the sun and sometimes tilted away. It is this tilt that causes the seasons, as well as the shortening and lengthening of daylight hours. On this day, the north and south poles are equally distant from the sun, so we will have almost exactly the same amount of daytime as nighttime.

Emily Dickinson said, "A little Madness in the Spring / Is wholesome even for the King."

Margaret Atwood said, "In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt."

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Spring still makes spring in the mind,
When sixty years are told;
Love wakes anew this throbbing heart,
And we are never old."

It was on this day in 1790 that Thomas Jefferson (books by this author) took office as the United States' first secretary of state, a job that he did not much care for.

He had been serving as the United States' ambassador to France, and he had fallen in love with the city of Paris. The only reason he was willing to come back to America to become secretary of state was that George Washington personally asked him to take the position. Jefferson couldn't say no to George Washington.

He regretted his decision almost as soon as he arrived in Philadelphia. The city had grown bigger, dirtier, and noisier in his absence. The house that he rented was on the main wagon route into the city, which made it almost too noisy to think when he was at home. It didn't help that he was obsessed with remodeling, and so his house was constantly full of carpenters and bricklayers.

And Jefferson immediately found that he did not get along with other members of George Washington's cabinet. He and Alexander Hamilton, the secretary of the Treasury, disagreed about almost everything, from the creation of a National Bank to the country's relations with Great Britain. Hamilton thought it would be to the nation's advantage to have good relations with Great Britain, since it was the most powerful nation on the planet at the time. Jefferson thought the U.S. should ally itself with France, which had recently become only the second democratic government in the world.

Jefferson would suffer from terrible migraines for most of his time as secretary of state, and he later looked back on those years as a kind of torture. But the experience of butting heads with Alexander Hamilton solidified many of his political ideas, and he went on to found the first oppositional political party in American history.

It's the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach, born in Eisenach, Germany (1685). He started out as a professional church organist, and he developed a reputation as one of the best organists in the country. Members of his congregation were annoyed by his habit of improvising while playing hymns, which made it difficult for people to sing along.

He eventually moved to Leipzig, where he worked as the city's director of church music for the rest of his life, and where he composed most of his major works. Bach earned a decent living in Leipzig, but he had a grueling workload. He had to write a cantata every month, so in order to get ahead of the deadlines, he wrote one every week for the first two years. In addition to serving as organist and musical director at church services, he had to teach a boys' class in Latin and music, and he was continually frustrated by his undisciplined students and the inexperienced musicians he had to work with.

Despite all his difficulties, he managed to compose some of the greatest works of music in history, including The Passion According to St. John (1723), The Passion According to St. Matthew (1729), Mass in B minor (1733), and the Goldberg Variations (1742). During his lifetime, almost no one appreciated his music. It wasn't until about 75 years after his death that people realized what a genius he was.

Johann Sebastian Bach said, "There's nothing remarkable about [making music]. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself."

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Poem: "Blue" by Ron Koertge from Fever. © Red Hen Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


The director changes the sheets
himself, tucks in a fitted bottom,
turns back the top one, and sighs.

"This is a threesome," he says, "so
it's you over here, Suzanne. You down
there, Bob. And Meg, wherever, okay?"

It's pretty early, but we try hard.
Once it was cops and jail time. Now it's
Aids and all that stuff.

But if you're careful it pays the bills
and then some. It's almost never as
sick as the stuff you see on TV,

and every now and then it's really
lovely, one of those kindnesses
nobody understands.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the poet Billy Collins, (books by this author) born in Queens, New York (1941). He's one of the few modern poets whose books have sold more than 100,000 copies. He thinks the reason that most modern poetry isn't popular is that it lacks humor. He said, "It's the fault of the Romantics, who eliminated humor from poetry. Shakespeare's hilarious, Chaucer's hilarious. [Then] the Romantics killed off humor, and they also eliminated sex, things which were replaced by landscape. I thought that was a pretty bad trade-off, so I'm trying to write about humor and landscape, and occasionally sex."

He was in his 40s when published his first book, The Apple That Astonished Paris (1988), but by the end of the century he was arguably the country's most popular poet. His new and selected poems, Sailing Alone Around the Room (2000), has sold almost 200,000 copies. His collection The Trouble with Poetry came out in 2005.

It's the birthday of one of the few translators who has become something of a literary celebrity herself, Edith Grossman, (books by this author) born in Philadelphia (1936). Her parents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, but for some reason Grossman became obsessed with the Spanish language when she was in high school. She said, "My high school Spanish teacher just reached me. I said whatever this woman is doing I want to do."

Grossman won a Fulbright grant in 1963 and went to Spain to study medieval Spanish poetry. But when she began to read the poetry of Pablo Neruda and César Vallejo, Grossman decided that contemporary Latin American literature was too interesting to ignore. She began translating contemporary Spanish novels, and then in the mid-1980s, she got her big break when she got a chance to translate Gabriel García Márquez's novel Love in the Time of Cholera.

She knew that one of Márquez's favorite English authors was William Faulkner, so she decided to use Faulkner's style as a guide for her translation. She said, "I didn't use any contractions in the narration, and I used Latinate words, polysyllabic words, instead of German monosyllables." When Grossman's translation of Love in the Time of Cholera came out, it was such a success that Grossman was able to quit teaching and begin translating full time. She has since translated all of the new books that Márquez has published.

In 2003, she published a translation of the Spanish classic Don Quixote. Grossman wasn't sure she could do it until she finished the first sentence. Her version of the sentence is, "'Somewhere in la Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing."

When it came out in 2003, it was hailed as the best English translation of the novel in decades, perhaps the best American translation of the novel ever completed.

It's the birthday of the lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim, born in New York City (1930). He wrote his first musical when he was 15. When he was 27, he was offered a job writing lyrics for a new musical that would be a modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet, set in New York City. Sondheim wasn't sure he wanted to write lyrics without music, but he decided to take the job anyway, and the result was West Side Story (1957), which got mixed reviews on Broadway, but became a huge hit as a movie.

Sondheim went on to compose the music and lyrics for many more musicals, including Sweeney Todd (1979) and Sunday in the Park with George (1981), among others.

It's the birthday of novelist Louis L'Amour, (books by this author) born in Jamestown, North Dakota (1908). He was the author of many novels, including How the West Was Won (1963) and The Quick and the Dead (1973). One of the hardest-working and best-selling novelists ever, he wrote 101 books in his lifetime, and there are almost 200 million copies of his books in circulation worldwide. L'Amour's first big success was Hondo (1953), about a love triangle between a cowboy, an Apache warrior, and a young widow living on a remote Arizona ranch.

L'Amour was obsessed with the accuracy of his novels, and filled his personal library with more than 8,000 reference books, including hundreds of personal diaries by cowboys and pioneers. Whenever he wrote about a particular place, he always went there to see exactly what kinds of plants were growing, and what the geological formations looked like. He once said, "When I say there is a rock in the road in one of my books, my readers know that if they go to that spot they'll find that rock."

In Ride the Dark Trail (1972), L'Amour wrote, "I just pointed my rifle at him ... and let him have the big one right through the third button on his shirt. If he ever figured to sew that particular button on again he was going to have to scrape it off his backbone."

FRIDAY, 23 MARCH, 2007
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Poem: "Saturdays" by Rosie King, from Sweetwater, Saltwater. © Hummingbird Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


A whiff of eggs and bacon,
my red plaid shirt with snaps, blue jeans that
zip up the side—I'm running downstairs,
my mother's laughing, still in her apron,
on her tiptoes for the picnic basket.
My father's calling from the basement stairs,
already pulling his high-tops on,
my brothers scrambling in the hall closet for theirs.
I grab my toast—strawberry jam—
We're going!
                       We're on the running board
into the velvety back of the old blue Chrysler,
past the putting greens, the cemetery, over
the Tittabawassee on its bumpy bridge,
to the straight gravel road by fields and woods, and on
to the turn at last—the new green sign
to our farm! Split rail fences, first apple trees,
past Shad and Mary's paint-peeled shack,
up the little hill by the root cellar
here's the farm bell on its post, the yellow-brick house,
the old red barns, the silvery silo—
forty acres, pine woods beyond—
the sweet dry smell of hay, the steamy
stench of manure, and now, for us, the white-plumed
whinnies of horses.

Literary and Historical Notes:

On this day in 1989, a mountain-sized asteroid passed within 500,000 miles of Earth. According to NASA, this was a very close call. It would have hit with the strength of 40,000 hydrogen bombs, created a crater the size of the District of Columbia, and destroyed everything within 100 miles in all directions.

It was on this day in 1775 that Patrick Henry gave the speech that made his name to the Second Virginia Convention, proposing that the colony arm itself against the king to fight for independence. At a time when most members of the Virginia House of Burgesses wanted to wait and see if the conflict with England could work itself out, Patrick Henry argued that the time for waiting was over, and at the end of his speech he said, "I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!" The resolution passed by a narrow margin.

It was on this day in 1806 that Lewis and Clark pulled up stakes, after having spent the winter on the Pacific coast, and began their journey back East to report on what they'd found during their expedition. They had traveled about 4,000 miles since they'd left St. Louis, Missouri, and they'd been on the road for almost two years.

They knew that merchant ships occasionally sailed up the Pacific Coast, and they hoped that one of these ships might pick them up and take them back home by sea, so they wouldn't have to make the arduous overland journey again. But no ships arrived. So after a wet, miserable winter, they finally set out for home on this day in 1806. When they had left St. Louis in 1804, they'd been loaded down with blankets, tobacco, whisky, flour, salt pork, corn, writing desks, tents, and all kinds of tools. For the trip home, all they carried were the clothes on their backs, some food, a few of their tools, a lot of gunpowder, and their rifles. And by that time, they had spent 95 percent of their budget. It took them just six months to get back to St. Louis.

It was on this day in 1743, that George Frideric Handel's oratorio ''Messiah'' had its London premiere. The first performance of "The Messiah" was at a charity concert in Dublin. It got great reviews, but Handel wasn't satisfied with it, and spent almost another year revising parts of the score. It finally had its London premiere, in the audience of the king, on this day in 1743, and it was a great success.

During the famous Hallelujah Chorus, King George II was so moved by the music that he involuntarily stood up from his seat. The audience, out of respect for the king, also stood up. Ever since, it has been a tradition that the audience rises during the singing of the Hallelujah Chorus.

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Poem: "Retired Ballerinas, Central Park West" by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, from These Are My Rivers. © New Directions. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Retired Ballerinas, Central Park West

Retired ballerinas on winter afternoons
      walking their dogs
in Central Park West
(or their cats on leashes—
The cats themselves old highwire artists)
The ballerinas
      leap and pirouette
      through Columbus Circle
      while winos on park benches
      (laid back like drunken Goudonovs)
      hear the taxis trumpet together
      like horsemen of the apocalypse
      in the dusk of the gods
It is the final witching hour
      when swains are full of swan songs
      And all return through the dark dusk
      to their bright cells
      in glass highrises
      or sit down to oval cigarettes and cakes
      in the Russian Tea Room
      or climb four flight to back rooms
      in Westside brownstones
      where faded playbill photos
      fall peeling from their frames
      like last year's autumn leaves

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of one of the great showmen in American history: Harry Houdini (books by this author). Though he claimed that his hometown was Appleton, Wisconsin, he was actually born in Budapest (1874), and his real name was Erich Weiss. His family immigrated to the United States when he was just a baby. He began working as a circus acrobat when he was a teenager, but he decided to switch to magic and took the stage name of Harry Houdini. Early on, he did all kinds of magic. His signature trick was to swallow a series of needles, and then pull them out of his mouth threaded together. After he got married, he performed with his wife, and she specialized in mind-reading on stage. They also had a comedy routine.

But Houdini had developed an interest in lock picking, and he began to develop a trick in which he escaped from a pair of handcuffs. The performance didn't become a big hit until he got the idea of inviting the local police to lock him up in their own handcuffs. The presence of the police made the trick more real somehow, and people were amazed. Houdini began to play bigger and bigger venues, and he would escape from more and more elaborate contraptions: straitjackets, jails, coffins, trunks, steel containers, and glass boxes filled with water. In one trick, he leapt from a bridge wrapped in chains, and he had to escape before he drowned in the river.

When asked about his success as a performer, Houdini said, "The easiest way to attract a crowd is to let it be known that at a given time and a given place someone is going to attempt something that in the event of failure will result in sudden death."

It's the birthday of the poet, publisher and bookstore owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti, (books by this author) born in Yonkers, New York (1919). His father died five months before Ferlinghetti was born, and his mother was so devastated by the loss that she had to be committed to the state mental hospital. Young Lawrence was sent to live with his aunt in France.

He didn't learn English until he was five, when he returned to America. As a teenager, he became an Eagle Scout and was also arrested for petty theft, as part of his involvement with a street gang called the "Parkway Road Pirates." But shortly after, he was inspired by a copy of Baudelaire poems he was given, and became interested in poetry and literature.

After serving in World War II, he moved to San Francisco, where he decided to open City Lights Bookstore. Ferlinghetti also started a publishing venture with what he called the Pocket Poets series — collections of poetry designed to be small enough to slip into your pocket. The fourth book in the Pocket Poets series was Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg, published in September 1956. The following year, the second edition of Howl was seized by customs officials, and Ferlinghetti was charged with printing and selling lewd and indecent material. Ferlinghetti won the case, with help from the ACLU, and all the publicity made Howl into a best-seller.

In 1958, he also published his own collection of poetry, A Coney Island of the Mind, which shocked everyone by going through 28 printings and selling 700,000 copies in the United States alone. By the end of the 1960s, it was the best-selling book ever published by a living American poet.

Ferlinghetti is one of the few poets in the United States who has never held a job at a university, never received government funding, and never attended an MLA conference. He's also never won a Pulitzer. City Lights Bookstore is still going strong, grown from one floor to three floors. It still sells nothing but books and magazines, no calendars or greeting cards. It's the only bookstore in America that's also a destination on a tour bus route.

It was on this day in 1955 that the Tennessee Williams (books by this author) play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opened on Broadway. It's the story of the 65th birthday party for a man named Big Daddy, at his plantation house on the Mississippi Delta. The family members struggle to get along at the party and try not to talk about the fact that Big Daddy is terminally ill with cancer. The play focuses on Big Daddy's son Brick, who is struggling with alcoholism and his sexuality. His wife, Maggie, is trying to revive their marriage. It was one of Williams's most successful plays. It ran for 694 performances and won for Williams his third New York Drama Critics Circle Award and second Pulitzer Prize.

SUNDAY, 25 MARCH, 2007
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Poem: "Some in Pieces" by Darnell Arnoult, from What Travels With Us. © Louisiana State University Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Some in Pieces

In World War Two
the oldest
of my uncles
picked up
dead bodies
dead weight
some in pieces
and threw them
onto the beds
of trucks.
His work spread
far as he could see.
When he came
home he poured
salted peanuts
into a Co-Cola
and prepared
for life
with folks
who could
never know
some things
as long
as they lived.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Bella Cohen Spewack, born in Transylvania (1899). She never knew her father and arrived in the United States at the age of three with no birth certificate. By her early 20s, she had published 40 short stories and her autobiography, Streets; A Memoir of the Lower East Side (1922). She married a newspaper reporter named Sam, and they started writing scripts and screenplays. They collaborated with Cole Porter on Leave it to Me, and in 1948, they won the Tony award for Kiss Me, Kate, the first time the book for a show ever won the award.

It's the birthday of one of the most popular young adult novelists in America, Kate DiCamillo, (books by this author) born in Philadelphia (1964). For some reason, when she was growing up, she caught pneumonia every winter, and often had to go to the hospital to be placed in an oxygen tent. One year, when she was three years old, her father came to visit her at the hospital with a little wooden village for her to play with. He gave her the pieces of the village, and he made up a story about the chicken and the farmer and the house and the church. She later said of that moment, "Something opened up inside me. There was the weight of the wooden figures in my hands, the smell of my father's overcoat, the whole great world hiding, waiting in the purple dusk outside my hospital room. And there was the story — the story."

She became obsessed with stories after that, and because she was sick for so much of her childhood, she did a lot of reading. After she graduated from college, DiCamillo said, "I talked incessantly about being a writer and read books about writing and imagined, in great detail, my life as a writer. I did everything except write."

So DiCamillo began setting herself a quota of two pages of writing every single day. She published a few short stories in literary journals, but most of her work was rejected. And then she moved to Minnesota and took a job for a book wholesaler, filling orders for bookstores and libraries. She worked in the children's book section, and it was the first time in her life that she really began to take children's literature seriously.

That first winter in Minnesota was one of the coldest on record, and DiCamillo missed her hometown in Florida horribly. She also desperately wanted a dog, but couldn't have one because her apartment building didn't allow dogs. So she began writing a story about a stray dog that helps a 10-year-old girl adjust to life in a new town, and that became DiCamillo's novel Because of Winn-Dixie, which won a Newbery Medal and became a best-seller when it came out in 2000.

It begins, "My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice, and two tomatoes and I came back with a dog."

It's the birthday of the novelist and short-story writer Flannery O'Connor, (books by this author) born in Savannah, Georgia (1925). As a young woman, she applied to one of the only creative writing programs in the country, the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and she was almost rejected because the admissions interviewer couldn't understand her Southern accent.

Once she got into the Iowa Writers' Workshop, people there didn't know what to make of her. She never read James Joyce or Franz Kafka, or any of the other fashionable writers of the era. She was more interested in Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. But even though O'Connor was an outsider, her fiction impressed everybody, and she won an award that got her a contract to publish her first novel.

O'Connor was still rewriting her novel in 1950 when she began to notice a heaviness in her arms while she typed. It turned out that she had inherited lupus, the same disease that had killed her father.

She moved in with her mother and forced herself to write for three hours every day on the screened in porch of her mother's house, watching the chickens, geese, and ducks wandering around in the yard. O'Connor's first novel, Wise Blood, came out in 1952. It got mixed reviews. Three years later, she published the story collection that made her name, A Good Man Is Hard To Find (1955). It contains her two most famous short stories: "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," about a silly, annoying old woman whose entire family gets murdered by a man called The Misfit, and "Good Country People" about a pretentious young woman whose wooden leg is stolen by a Bible salesman.

Her lupus grew steadily worse over the course of her life, and her writing slowed. She published one more novel, The Violent Bear It Away (1960). She worked on her last book of short stories in the hospital, keeping the manuscript hidden under her pillow so that the nurses wouldn't take it away. She died a little more than a week shy of her 40th birthday.

It's the birthday of feminist writer and activist Gloria Steinem, (books by this author) born in Toledo, Ohio (1934). She got poor grades in school, but she managed to get into Smith College based entirely on her entrance examinations. After college she went to work as a journalist and made her name with a piece called "I was a Playboy Bunny" (1963) about her undercover experiences working at Hugh Hefner's Playboy Club in midtown Manhattan. That piece got her a series of magazine jobs writing celebrity journalism. She only began to embrace feminism as a political cause when she wrote an article about the prevalence of illegal abortions, and all her male journalist colleagues tried to persuade her not to publish it. Steinem came to believe that the only way for women to have a real voice in the media would be if there were media outlets controlled by women. So she decided to found Ms. magazine, devoted to women's issues. The first issue came out in January 1972, and no one was sure if it would be a success. It managed to sell out its first printing run of 300,000 copies in eight days.

Steinem has gone on to write several books, including Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions (1983).



  • “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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