Aug. 28, 2011

Pick A Prize

by Jill Breckenridge

August, hot with flies, wasps
fallen sluggish to the sugar.
The State Fair, everyone eating
something or looking to be fed:
Pronto pups, chili dogs, popcorn,
cold milk, all you can drink,
Central Lutheran's homemade pie.
The woman who guesses weight,
wearing money apron and brown oxfords,
stands beside scales taller
than the big man who steps forward.
For only one pa-per dollar!
she reads his body, poundwise,
says, Two-sixty! He steps on
her scales at two-eighty-five.
She pats his backside under his belt
which is under a generous roll
of fat, says, You musta' been hidin'
somethin' there on me, honey!
Pick a prize, any prize.
He touches
his thinning hair, chooses
the battered red and white beer hat
from among her ashtrays and embarrassed
lavender snakes, then walks away,
through the dusty music of calliope,
taller, twenty-five pounds lighter.

"Pick A Prize" by Jill Breckenridge, from The Gravity of Flesh. © Nodin Press, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this date in 1845, the first issue of Scientific American was published. It's the oldest continuously published magazine in the United States, and it started as a four-page weekly newsletter. It was founded by Rufus Porter, son of a wealthy New England family and a painter and inventor in his own right. The first issue focused on improvements to the quality of passenger railway cars. Under Porter's direction, Volume I frequently featured reports from the U.S. Patent Office; the issues also served up poetry and religious news. Porter sold the magazine 10 months later, for $800, to 22-year-old Orson Munn and 19-year-old Alfred Beach. They took over with the publication of Volume II, doubling the page count and dropping the reports on temperance and religion as being unsuitable for a science publication. They kept the poetry, though.

It's the birthday of poet John Betjeman (1906) (books by this author). He was born in London, the only child of a furniture maker. He wrote his first poem at nine; at 10, he gave a copy of his work "The Best of Betjeman" to one of his instructors, who happened to be T.S. Eliot. He took his first trip to Oxford the following year, and became inspired by the architecture of its churches and other buildings. Later in life he would campaign for the preservation of Victorian and Edwardian buildings as a founding member of the Victorian Society. He published both his first book of verse (Mount Zion) and his first book on architecture (Ghastly Good Taste) in 1933. In his career as a poet, he often wrote with a sense of nostalgia for the Britain of the recent past, capturing it as it was disappearing; he also satirized progress for its own sake. His work was very popular among the unsettled post-World War II Britons who longed for a simpler time. He also published several guidebooks on British counties and a collection of essays called First and Last Loves (1952) about places and buildings. He was instrumental in saving the Victorian façade of the St. Pancras railway station from demolition, and a statue of the poet — depicted as gazing up in admiration of the architecture — now stands in the station at platform level.

It's the birthday of mystery, science fiction, and fantasy author Jack Vance (1916) (books by this author), born in San Francisco. In addition to the work published under John Holbrook Vance or Jack Vance, he also published three mystery novels under the name Ellery Queen. He published his first story, "The World Thinker," in the magazine Thrilling Wonder Stories in 1945; it was but the first of many science fiction stories he placed in similar magazines throughout the next decade. Most of his novels of the same period were mysteries, but he gave that genre up in the 1970s. He's been legally blind since the 1980s, but has continued to write. His last book — or what he says is his last book, anyway — is a memoir, This is Me, Jack Vance! (2010).

He seems to have escaped the notice of the wider literary world, in spite of being highly admired by many other writers. Neil Gaiman, who read his first Vance tale at about 13, said: "I fell in love with the prose style. It was elegant, intelligent; each word felt like it knew what it was doing. It's funny but never, ever once nudges you in the ribs." Michael Chabon said of Vance: "Jack Vance is the most painful case of all the writers I love who I feel don't get the credit they deserve. If The Last Castle or The Dragon Masters had the name Italo Calvino on it, or just a foreign name, it would be received as a profound meditation, but because he's Jack Vance and published in Amazing Whatever, there's this insurmountable barrier." Chabon places Vance in the American literary tradition: It's not Twain-Hemingway; it's more Poe's tradition, a blend of European refinement with brawling, two-fisted frontier spirit."

On this date in 1957, Strom Thurmond began the longest filibuster ever by a single senator, to prevent voting on the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Thurmond was a former governor of South Carolina with a strong record of supporting segregation; he opposed the act — which aimed to ensure that African-Americans were allowed to exercise their voting rights — on the grounds that it was a states' rights issue. The Democratic junior senator took the floor at 8:54 p.m., armed with throat lozenges and malted milk tablets; bathroom breaks were not permitted during a filibuster, so he had taken a steam beforehand to sweat out as much extra fluid as he could.

Thurmond began his filibuster by reading the election laws of each state, in alphabetical order, and moved on to read an assortment of historical documents. Senators napped while he held forth on increasingly irrelevant topics, like his grandmother's biscuit recipe. He finally sat down 24 hours and 18 minutes later, having broken the previous filibuster record. The Civil Rights Act passed a few hours later, and President Eisenhower signed it into law on September 9.

On this date in 1961, Motown Records released "Please Mr. Postman" by the Marvelettes. It would go on to become the label's first No. 1 record. Gladys Horton, the lead singer of the Marvelettes, had formed the girl group when she was 15, with other members of Detroit's Inkster High School glee club. One of her teachers was impressed with the singing group and arranged an audition for Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson and the fledgling Motown label. The recording execs liked what they heard and recorded the single, an original song co-written by another Marvelette, Georgia Dobbins. Motown backed the singers with an up-and-coming young drummer, Marvin Gaye. After it was released, the single gradually climbed the pop charts, eventually becoming Motown's first No. 1 at the end of the year. It would later be covered by the Beatles (1963) and the Carpenters (1975).

Today is the birthday of the father of German literature, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (books by this author), born in Frankfurt (1749), the author of the epic drama Faust. He moved to Italy in 1786, and when he returned to Germany in 1788, he fell in love with a woman from Weimar, Christiane Vulpius, a 23-year-old who was 16 years his junior. That year, he wrote her an epithalamium, a specific type of poem written for a bride on the way to the marital chamber. But he didn't actually marry her; instead, the couple lived together for 18 years unwed.

They were still living together in 1806, unmarried and with children, when some of Napoleon's French soldiers — who were drunk — broke into their home in Weimer one evening. Goethe was terrified, but Christiane started shouting at the soldiers, fending them off in hand-to-hand combat, and protecting the bewildered man of the house. After a prolonged skirmish, she pushed them out of the house and barricaded the kitchen and the cellar so the soldiers couldn't try to steal any more of their food. Grateful to the brave and steadfast woman who'd saved his life and home, Goethe went down to a church the very next day and married her, his live-in girlfriend of 18 years.

In 1806, the same year of the home invasion and marriage, Goethe published a preliminary version of Part I of his great work, Faust, the story of a brilliant scholar named Heinrich Faust, who makes a deal with the devil. The great epic has it all: seduction, murder, sleeping potions, an illegitimate love child, a stray poodle that transforms into the devil, contracts signed with blood, imprisonment in dungeons, heavenly voices, and redemption. It's often called "Das Drama der Deutschen," or "The Drama of the Germans." It's also referred to as a "closet drama" because it's intended to be read, not performed. Goethe spent 50 years working on this two-volume masterpiece, finishing Part Two in 1832, the year of his death.

Goethe wrote, "A man can stand anything except a succession of ordinary days." And, "Divide and rule, a sound motto. Unite and lead, a better one." And, "That is the true season of love, when we believe that we alone can love, that no one could ever have loved so before us, and that no one will love in the same way after us."

It's the birthday of poet Rita Dove (books by this author), born in Akron, Ohio (1952). Growing up, she was at the top of her class in school, chosen as one of 100 of the best high school students in the country to visit the president of the United States. Her parents assumed that she would go on to become a doctor or lawyer, so when she announced she wanted to be a poet, they weren't sure what to make of it. She said, "[My father] swallowed once and said, 'Well, I've never understood poetry, so don't be upset if I don't read it.'" Her teachers at college told her that she was throwing her education away if she didn't study something more practical.

Her collection Thomas and Beulah (1986) was based loosely on her grandparents; it was awarded the Pulitzer for poetry, and she became the second African-American poet to win the prize. She was also the first African-American poet laureate. In addition to poetry, she's written a collection of short stories (Fifth Sunday, 1985), a novel (Through the Ivory Gate, 1992), and a verse drama (The Darker Face of the Earth, 1994).

She told a Women in the Arts interviewer: "I've always been obsessed by the voices that are not normally heard. I think it comes from the women I knew as a child, the women in the kitchen who told the best stories. They knew how the world worked, about human nature, and they were wise, are wise."

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