Nov. 18, 2010

New York Subway

by Hilda Morley

The beauty of people in the subway
that evening, Saturday, holding the door for whoever
was slower or
left behind
                   (even with
                   all that Saturday-night
& the high-school boys from Queens, boasting,
joking together
proudly in their expectations
& power,       young frolicsome
          & the three office-girls
each strangely beautiful,             the Indian
with dark skin & the girl with her haircut
very short and fringed, like Joan
at the stake,             the corners
of her mouth laughing
                                 & the black girl delicate
as a doe, dark-brown in pale-brown clothes
& the tall woman in a long caftan, the other day,
serene & serious        & the Puerto Rican
holding the door for more than 3 minutes for
the feeble, crippled, hunched little man who
could not raise his head,
                                      whose hand I held, to
help him into the subway-car—
                                                    so we were
joined in helping him               & someone,
seeing us, gives up his seat,
from us what we had learned from each other.

"New York Subway" by Hilda Morley, from To Hold My Hand: Selected Poems 1955-1983. © The Sheep Meadow Press, 1983. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the 71st birthday of best-selling, major prize-winning Canadian author Margaret Atwood, (books by this author) born in Ottawa, Canada, on this day in 1939. She's written more than 35 books of poetry, nonfiction, children's stories, and novels. Her best-known works include the novels The Handmaid's Tale (1983), The Robber Bride (1994), Alias Grace (1996), and Oryx and Crake (2003). She's been short-listed for the Booker Prize five times, and won the award in 2000 for The Blind Assassin (2000). Her books have been translated into more than 40 languages.

All of these successful books entailed grueling promotional book tours, and a few years ago she decided she'd had enough. She said: "As I was whizzing around the United States on yet another demented book tour, getting up at four in the morning to catch planes, doing two cities a day, eating the Pringle food object out of the mini-bar at night as I crawled around on the hotel room floor, too tired even to phone room service, I thought, 'There must be a better way of doing this.'"

And so she invented something that would allow her to sign books for people without being physically present. It's called the LongPen. She announced the invention in 2004, at the age of 66, and people thought it was a joke. But she got some technically-minded people to create it, and then she unveiled the device a year and a half later at the London Book Fair.

It works like this: There's a book promotional event at a local bookstore in, for example, Des Moines. Fans of Margaret Atwood show up at the Des Moines bookstore, where on a desk there's perched a sinewy metal robotic arm holding on to a regular old-fashioned ballpoint pen. The fan walks up to the desk and places his Atwood novel on the desk under the robot-controlled pen.

The bookstore is set up for live video chat with Margaret Atwood, who is at her home in Toronto. Atwood chats with the fan over the webcam. And then she writes an inscription and her signature into a touchpad, which is located there at her Toronto home. The touchpad is kind of like one of those devices used in signature-required package deliveries or at supermarket checkout lines. Her touchpad is connected to the Internet, which is remotely controlling the robotic arm holding the ballpoint pen in Des Moines. The pen scrawls out the message Atwood has just written in her touchpad into the fan's book on the desk in Des Moines, an exact reproduction of her handwriting.

Margaret Atwood's recent works include a volume of poetry, The Door (2007), and a nonfiction book, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth (2008). Her most recent novel, The Year of the Flood (2009), came out just last year. It begins:
"In the early morning Toby climbs up to the rooftop to watch the sunrise. She uses a mop handle for balance: the elevator stopped working some time ago and the back stairs are slick with damp, so if she slips and topples there won't be anyone to pick her up.

"As the first heat hits, mist rises from among the swath of trees between her and the derelict city. The air smells faintly of burning, a smell of caramel and tar and rancid barbecues, and the ashy but greasy smell of a garbage-dump fire after it’s been raining."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of playwright and humorist W.S. (William Schwenk) Gilbert, (books by this author) of Gilbert and Sullivan, born in London (1836). He was a writer of humorous verse when he met composer Arthur Sullivan in 1870, and they went on to write 14 comic operas in the 25-year period from 1871 to 1896, including H.M.S. Pinafore (1878) and The Pirates of Penzance (1879). W.S. Gilbert, who wrote, "Life's a pudding full of plums; / Care's a canker that benumbs, / Wherefore waste our elocution / On impossible solution? / Life's a pleasant institution, / Let us take it as it comes."

It's the birthday of the man who helped invent the art of photography, Louis Daguerre, born just outside of Paris, France (1789), who started out as a theater designer, using hand-painted translucent screens and elaborate lighting effects to create the illusion of a sunrise or a sudden storm onstage. But in 1829, he learned about a new technology that made it possible to use light to capture an image on a metal plate, though the quality of the image was poor. Daguerre set out to improve the process, and he came up with a combination of copper plate coated with silver salts that could be developed with the application of mercury vapor and table salt.

He first used this process to capture a series of images of Paris, including pictures of the Louvre and Notre Dame. The camera needed about 15 minutes exposure time to capture an image, so most of Daguerre's early pictures don't show any people. The one exception is a picture of a boulevard that shows a man in the foreground who has stopped to shine his shoes. He was the first human being ever caught on film. Daguerre announced his invention in 1839, and the images he produced became known as daguerreotypes.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “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
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show