Sep. 27, 2012


by Sharon Dunn

My eleven year son wants to fish,
he owns two rods, one saltwater,
one freshwater. He loves knives,
Bowie knives, Swiss Army
knives, "Knives like this one?"
my brother says, opening his desk
drawer and taking out a small
jackknife with antler handle.
My boy camps outdoors, begs to sleep
outside, is always shooting
arrows, rubber band guns,
he is lashing together a fort
in the backyard. He sails,
swims, kayaks and wants
to know the stars.
The outdoor hunting genes
are in the dark men in my family.
Yet I believe he is a son of light.
His joy in reading, cooking
and piano are fanned
from the tinderbox
of his father's heart.
He will save rainforest,
he will grow vegetables,
keep horses, fly his own plane.
He will make his own brave life,
he will not remake our lives
nor redeem us, nor pity us.

"Genes" by Sharon Dunn, from Refugees in the Garden: A Memoir in Poems. © The Rose Press, 2009. Reprinted with permission.

Today is the birthday of the poet Kay Ryan (books by this author), born in San Jose, California (1945). As a child, her family moved all around Southern California and the Mojave Desert area of Nevada. Her father drove a truck, worked as an oil driller, dug septic tanks, and tried mining for gold at one point. The family never had much money and Ryan said her worried mother "would have liked to be married to the mailman who was happy in his lot and retired after 30 years with a mailman's pension." Being constantly uprooted made it hard for Ryan to get close to people, and she tried to fight the isolation by resolving at one point to "talk to one person a day who wasn't my mother or my brother."

After high school, Ryan went away to community college, and not knowing what else to do after her father died, she followed a favorite professor to UCLA where she studied literary criticism. She completed her coursework for her Ph.D., but says she found herself "appalled by the idea of being a doctor of something I couldn't fix." Instead, she set off on a 4,000-mile bike trip with a friend along the coast of Oregon and California. She kept a daily journal, and would later revise the entries as a kind of test to see if she wanted to write. She described the feeling as "like trying not to fall in love with somebody. You are, but you don't want to." In the end, she decided that writing gave her "pleasure like nothing else."

Back home, Ryan tried different approaches to build up her discipline, using the "Ripley's Believe it, or Not!" books for inspiration, and later using a randomly selected tarot card as a prompt for a daily poem. She calls this period when she wrote "gazillions" of unpublished poems her "eight years of self-imposed apprenticeship." In 1983, she self-published her first collection, Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends, and spent the next 10 years submitting small groups of poems to dozens of publishers. She was eventually picked up by several magazines for regular work but says if she hadn't been, she really had nothing "to give up to," and the poems would've simply piled up in the bedroom.

Ryan eventually settled in Marin County, structuring her life so that she had the time and security she needed to write. She says, "I think extravagance in your life takes away from possible extravagances in your mind." She has taught Remedial English part time at the College of Marin in Kentfield, California, for more than 40 years now. She met her longtime partner, Carol, when both were teaching a course at San Quentin prison in the '70s.

In 2004, the self-described "rehabilitator of clichés" was awarded the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and in 2008 was asked to serve as the poet laureate of the U.S. for two consecutive terms. Her most recent book is The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (2010).

On this day in 1999, opera singer Placido Domingo broke Enrico Caruso's previous opening-night record at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Caruso was a giant, easily considered the greatest opera star of his time. Domingo said of him: "When Caruso was singing, he was alone. He was so immensely overpowering that no one would blink." From his debut in 1903, Caruso would open the Met a record 17 times before his death in 1921. No one came close to touching that record for the next 80 years. Then in 1999, the 58-year-old Spanish-born tenor — who grew up playing piano in strip clubs as a boy — got the call that he would be performing his 18th opening night, as Canio in Leoncavallo's Pagliacci.

Today is the birthday of the man often called the "father of the American cartoon," Thomas Nast, born in Landau, Germany (1840). His father had socialist leanings and found the political climate of Germany unpleasant. He sent the family to New York when Thomas was just six, and joined them three years later. As a teenager, Nash studied art at the National Academy of Design, and landed work as a draftsman with Harper's Weekly. By the time he was 20, he was covering conflicts overseas for papers in England and at home. He spoke out firmly on behalf of the Union at the dawn of the Civil War, drawing cartoons for Harper's that showed the horrors of slavery. Lincoln called him his "best recruitment sergeant," and Grant credited his re-election victory in 1868 to "the sword of Sherman and the pencil of Nast."

Cartoons by Nast were frequently printed in large two-page spreads, sometimes close to two feet wide. He is the first cartoonist to have had the platform of a weekly nationally distributed magazine. After the war, his reputation led to great success as a book illustrator, working on 110 books over the course of his career. Nast is also credited with first drawing the elephant of the Republican Party and one of the most popular images of Santa Claus.

In the late 1860s, Nast and the editors at Harper's and The New York Times set their sights on the notoriously corrupt Tammany Hall administration and their leader William "Boss" Tweed, who at one point was the third largest landowner in New York. Nast's cartoons depicted Tweed as a bloated, thuggish politician, and the drawings were so effective that Tweed is said to have ordered his lackeys to "Stop them pictures! My constituents can't read, but they can see those pictures!" Tweed's group was thrown out in the election of 1871, and when he escaped from jail and fled to Vigo, Spain, in 1876, it was the popular caricature by Nast that led to his discovery by authorities.

Nast was most comfortable fighting, and one critic described him as "content to see the world as a struggle between good and evil." When the political currents began to shift after the war, he didn't shift with them. As literacy grew, magazines and papers were increasingly read by women and immigrants, and his distrust of Roman Catholics led to some nasty depictions of the Irish. When a new editor took over at Harper's, the two couldn't agree, and Nast left to freelance and launch his own paper, which soon failed. Out of work and desperate, he took an appointment as ambassador to Ecuador in 1902, where he died of yellow fever after just six months.

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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
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