March 31, 2013

Bill Murray and Billy Collins party with Emily Dickinson

Echoing one of the world's greatest poems, 'The Waste Land', in which "Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee/with a shower of rain", World Poetry Day surprised me, coming over the Twitscape with a shower of verse. I didn't even know that World Poetry Day had been taking place every March 21 for the past 13 years, proclaimed by UNESCO and having as its main objective, in a very UNESCO sort of way, "to support linguistic diversity through poetic expression" with a special tick if endangered languages are involved.

The general public didn't seem to be particularly aware of the linguistic aspect, and spent the day happily sharing favourite poems, or lines thereof, from poets as diverse as the Earl of Rochester (a poem of his on the subject of premature ejaculation was offered up by Neil Gaiman) and John Donne. The only writing in an endangered language -- well, "potentially endangered" according to UNESCO -- I saw go by was a poem by Robert Burns, the Bard of the Scots language, long may it live on.

Emily Dickinson was the poet I noticed being quoted most frequently, which made me glad (to use a word from the ED lexicon), as one poet you can never have a surfeit of is Emily Dickinson.

I don't know about now, but when I was little this strange and audacious poet was sneaked into children's anthologies with her poems amputated of their 'difficult' quatrains. I still remember my surprise years later at discovering that "A bird came down the walk" did not end when the bird met the beetle, but when it "unrolled his feathers/And rowed him softer home/Than Oars divide the Ocean/Too silver for a seam".

So I sometimes wonder how many people were left thinking of Dickinson as someone forever writing about bobolinks, dew, daisies and death in a still room?

Bring it on, "My Life had stood -- a Loaded Gun" !

Bring it on, "Big my Secret but it's bandaged --" !

Here's a piece of Dickinsonia you're going to love: a video of Bill Murray reading an Emily Dickinson poem to the construction workers who had just finished building the new Poets House in Battery Park, New York City. Poets House (no apostrophe -- "some things must never be possessed but shared" is the idea) is a New York institution where anyone can go and read or listen to poetry for free. When its collection (all donated books and recordings) passed the 50,000 mark and it couldn't fit anymore in its humble Soho loft, generous donors, among whom Bill Murray, made it possible to build the new space you see being inaugurated in the video (produced for Poets House by Limey Films, inc.).

And to finish off, here's "Taking off Emily Dickinson's Clothes", by the American poet Billy Collins. Interviewed by NPR, he explained that the poem was inspired by the eternal curiosity and speculation around one of the biggest mysteries in literature: did Emily Dickinson ever make love? "I attempted to put the matter at rest in a playful way", he tells the interviewer, "by having sex with her". More than playful -- I found myself holding my breath along with Emily, she who confessed in one of her most famous poems, "I never hear the word escape/without a quicker blood..."

 “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes”

First, her tippet made of tulle,
easily lifted off her shoulders and laid
on the back of a wooden chair.

And her bonnet,
the bow undone with a light forward pull.

Then the long white dress, a more
complicated matter with mother-of-pearl
buttons down the back,
so tiny and numerous that it takes forever
before my hands can part the fabric,
like a swimmer’s dividing water,
and slip inside.

You will want to know
that she was standing
by an open window in an upstairs bedroom,
motionless, a little wide-eyed,
looking out at the orchard below,
the white dress puddled at her feet
on the wide-board, hardwood floor.

The complexity of women’s undergarments
in nineteenth-century America
is not to be waved off,
and I proceeded like a polar explorer
through clips, clasps, and moorings,
catches, straps, and whalebone stays,
sailing toward the iceberg of her nakedness.

Later, I wrote in a notebook
it was like riding a swan into the night,
but, of course, I cannot tell you everything -
the way she closed her eyes to the orchard,
how her hair tumbled free of its pins,
how there were sudden dashes
whenever we spoke.

What I can tell you is
it was terribly quiet in Amherst
that Sabbath afternoon,
nothing but a carriage passing the house,
a fly buzzing in a windowpane.

So I could plainly hear her inhale
when I undid the very top
hook-and-eye fastener of her corset

and I could hear her sigh when finally it was unloosed,
the way some readers sigh when they realize
that Hope has feathers,
that reason is a plank,
that life is a loaded gun
that looks right at you with a yellow eye.

From the book  Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes by Billy Collins.

-- Karen

March 01, 2013

The Diagram Prize: hunting the oddest book title

Every year at this time, in a little island kingdom far to the North, as the crocuses start poking through the snow, Horace Bent of The Bookseller announces his shortlist for the Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title and opens the voting, regaling the literary scene with a bright and eagerly anticipated annual recurrence of its own.

And yet, and yet.

For many years, Mr. Bent could do no wrong in my eyes. How could he, the man who brought to our attention Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice, the first-ever Diagram Prize winner (35 years ago, when the prize originated as a way of staving off boredom at the Frankfurt Book Fair), and went on to select such gems as Highlights in the History of Concrete, How to Avoid Huge Ships, Reusing Old Graves, Bondage for Beginners and my favourite, Greek Postmen and their cancellation numbers.

I loved the way Mr Bent disdained the odd title for odd title's sake, or as he saw it, just for the sake of winning his "prestigious award", or even, perhaps, although this doesn't seem to be part of Mr. Bent's mindset (curious perhaps for one employed by the UK's definitive book industry publication), or maybe he's too polite to mention it, to sell more books. And then last year, an about-face as Cooking with Poo took the prize. So attention-grabbing, so obvious, compared to the multinuanced, admirably earnest Designing High Performance Stiffened Structures from the Institute of Mechanical Engineers.

Over the last few years I've watched the deliberately odd title proliferate ever more among each succeeding year's offerings, to the point that this year they make up 2/3 of the offering. And let's face it, even the earnestly odd titles, all two of them, are not show-stoppers.

Here is the shortlist:

Was Hitler Ill? by Henrik Eberle and Hans-Joachim Neumann (Polity)

Lofts of North America: Pigeon Lofts by Jerry Gagne (Foy’s Pet Supplies)  

How to Sharpen Pencils by David Rees (Melville House)

God’s Doodle: The Life and Times of the Penis by Tom Hickman (Square Peg)

Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop by Reginald Bakeley (Conari)

How Tea Cosies Changed the World by Loani Prior (Murdoch).

Was Hitler Ill? I'm not sure I'd call this title odd at all, except for how, depending on your font of choice, it can look as if it's about Hitler's grandson, Hitler III. I know about this because it used to always happen to me with North Korean dictators, eg Kim Jong Ill. Oops, Il.

Actually, with many dictators, although not with Hitler, there comes a moment when people start asking not if they are ill, but if they are actually dead, and just stuffed and propped up in the reviewing box for picture-taking on important occasions.

The library catalogue gives the original German title, which is a fascinating case of a phrase almost making sense in two different languages:

War Hitler Crank?

I think we can answer a resounding yes to that.

Lofts of North America: Pigeon lofts. There is a Yiddish expression for what I want to say here, but I don't know how to write it. There's also an Italian hand gesture, the one where you put out your hand palm down and wiggle it as if you were playing the piano. But I actually voted for this one, just to remind Mr Bent that there are some purists still around. (I note that the North American pigeons have not arrived in the Southern hemisphere yet so no book about their lofts at Auckland Libraries. When I see a flock of pigeons in spanking new trainers, ankle socks, and tucked-in t-shirts I'll yell out.)

How to Sharpen Pencils.  Similar to the above. The author is an ex-political cartoonist who had himself photographed in a white shirt a la Anthony Bourdain, but lacking his Hell's Kitchen carnality. On the other hand, let's not forget we're talking comics here.

God’s Doodle: The Life and Times of the Penis. Maybe we could make one good title out of two: Was Hitler's penis ill?

Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop. Mr Bent, leave chickens alone. You will never surpass The joy of chickens which you gave us a few years back.  

How Tea Cosies Changed the World. My case rests. Blatantly cashing in on the current trendiness of tea cosies.

Obviously I need to find out how to nominate titles. I think this one is a good candidate, for example:

Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide: Interpreting the Native Language of the Domestic Dog by Brenda Aloff

I don't say dogs don't have a language - of a type - but don't you have to speak to have a Native Language? Plus, you've got to love the way the colons turn the title into a series of yips. Yip yip yip: yip yip yip: yip yip yip yip yip.

And how about The Little Book of Slugs, ed. by Allan Shepherd and Suzanne Gallant?

The description of this book contains further gems, such as that you'll find details of "slug lifestyles". I'm guessing the couch potato slug, the gym bunny slug...

Mathematics forums, conferences, catalogues etc. offer a fertile hunting ground as well. Right off my first click I found an excellent Degenerate Diffusions, which included a discussion of the controlled martingale problem, and of which I can't remember the author's name, unlike the next one I came across, a case of a normal title (Mathematics for the millions) boasting an excellent odd author name, Lancelot Hogben.

And then, lo, my best find yet! Title and author both odd:

Mathematical Cranks
by Underwood Dudley

I see myself meeting this author one day on some North American --not loft, let's say a university campus, in a faculty lounge smelling of percolated coffee. I spy him dabbing at his nose with a crumpled tissue and I call out "War crank, Dudley?"

Read more about the Diagram Prize at The Bookseller.

And do this: vote for your favourite title at We Love This Book. Winner announced 22 March.

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