Friday, January 30, 2009

Today's "Writer's Almanac": Ellen Steinbaum

Today's "Writer's Almanac" featured a poem titled "Letter Home" by Ellen Steinbaum. (For those who don't know, "Writer's Almanac" is a radio show hosted by Garrison Keillor in which he reads a daily poem).

Keillor has good taste, and most of the stuff he reads on "Writer's Almanac" is good.

"Letter Home," however, is more than good. It's spledid. It's pleasantly free of the inaccessible language and cryptic allusions that plague so much of today's poetry, and it stil manages to achieve a level of depth, particularly in its final, tone-shifting stanza.

Read the poem here, and if you like "Letter Home," you can see more of Steinbaum's poetry at her website.

In addition to her poetry, Steinbaum writes a column for the Boston Globe. She has said of writing: "I believe in the power of words. When we tell little children, 'use your words,' we are helping them take hold of their most powerful posession. Words can be abused, but they can also be used to make the world better--more coherent, more connected, more beautiful, more true."


As always, feel free to share your thoughts on "Letter Home" or Ellen Steinbaum in our comments section below.

Monday, January 26, 2009

NBCC Award Finalists

If you're looking for a few good books to read, on Saturday the National Book Critics Circle announced finalists for its 2008 awards.

Past winners have included such heavyweights as Toni Morrison, Wallace Stegner, Joyce Carol Oates, Cormac McCarthy, and Norman Maclean (you can see a complete list of past winners here).

This year's finallists include a novel about a junior-high school teacher and her son's wedding (Olive Kittredge by Elizabeth Strout), a memoir that examines the development of rural Montana (Why I Came West by Rick Bass), and a work of middle-eastern war correspondence (The Forever War by Dexter Filkins). Nominated authors include both a first-time novelist (M. Glenn Taylor) and a former pulitzer prize winner (Marilynne Robinson).

Check out a complete list of finalists here, and if you see a book you'd like an excuse to read, let us know, and we'll try to feature it at WWADY.

(NOTE: We begin reading So Brave, Young, and Handsome in 6 days. Get your copy soon.)

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Nerdy PC Guy

You've all certainly seen the great Mac commercials with Nerdy PC Guy John Hodgman. His role as "PC" has, after all, made him a modern pop icon.

But did you know that John Hodgman is a WWIDY (Writer Who Isn't Dead Yet)?

Granted, he's probably not a modern-day Shakespeare, but he's clever and funny, and he weaves apparently disconnected ideas into seamless narratives.

His stories have appeared in The Paris Review, The New York Times Magazine, McSweeny's Quarterly Concern, and other notable journals.

He's also published two books, The Areas of My Expertise and More Information Than You Require. They're both intentionally absurd and plotless. His chapter titles include "Short Words for Use on Submarines to Preserve Oxygen," "Seven Hunderd Hobo Names," and "Nine Presidents Who Had Hooks for Hands." (Again, this guy's really not a modern-day Shakespeare . . . really. If you're looking for high art, stop reading now and come back next week.) These books are part of a trilogy which will end with the publication of Hodgman's forthcoming book, That Is All.

If you'd like to see what Hodgman can do as a storyteller, check out this video. It's Hodgman telling a story about love and wonder and . . . uh . . . space aliens. Despite his tempered, comic tone, Hodgman shows real narrative wit and a sensitivity to language.

So, maybe he isn't Shakespeare, but he's fun. What's wrong with that?

(NOTE: We start reading So Brave, Young, and Handsome in 9 days, so get your copy soon.)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Inaugural Poem

"We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to consider, reconsider."

-- Elizabeth Alexander, Inaugural Poem, January 20th, 2009

Today, plenty of pundits, analysts, and everyday folks around the watercooler are talking about Obama's inaugural address. Someone, however, ought to talk about the inaugural poem read by Elizabeth Alexander that immediately followed Obama's speech (so at WWADY we'll gladly step up).

If you missed it (or if you want to hear it again), you can listen to the poem below:

This poem seems to be an exploration of words and their power -- how you and I and everyone interact through words, how words shape our relationships and perceptions. (Is it a coincidence that Alexander pointed out the power of words when Obama has been occasionally criticized as "just another good speaker"?)

The poem examines the power of not only the small things we say to each other (i.e., "take out your pencils") and not only of the creeds we live by (i.e., "first do no harm, or take no more than you need") but also, and more optimistically, of the possibilities that emerge when we express love (i.e., "What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance.")

Because Alexander knows that "anything can be made, any sentence begun," using words to express love might be the noblest, best use for them, and perhaps we should all "[walk] forward in that light."

Now, the idea that expressing love is "mighty" may not be the most original thought, but all in all, the messages about language and its power as well as love and its power seemed particularly fitting given the setting.

If you'd like to see a complete transcript of the inaugural poem, The New York Times published it here.

And incidentally, Elizabeth Alexander has published five books of poetry, and many of her poems can be read at her website. If you visit her site, be sure to read "Ars Poetica #100: I Believe" - a personal favorite.

Now it's your turn. What are your thoughts on Alexander's poem? Do you have a favorite line or idea? A favorite phrase?

Let the dialogue begin.

(NOTE: If you're using Internet Explorer, I'm having a problem with comments. Click the title of this post above or here -- "The Inaugural Poem" -- and you'll be able to see the comments area below the post. Sorry, and I'll figure this out ASAP.)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Announcing WWADY (Writers Who Aren't Dead Yet)

What if there were modern-day Shakespeares and Hemingways and Faulkners and Austens and Brontes, but nobody knew who they were?

What if the human experience -- today's human experience, the moral dilemas of here and the aesthetic powers of now -- were being explored by great literary minds, and we all missed it?

What if we condemned literature to the realm of the past, looking only to the wisdom of yesterday to help us find the answers for today's problems?

At WWADY (Writers Who Aren't Dead Yet), we believe art shouldn't be condemned to the past. We believe that great minds, every bit as brilliant as Shakespeare, are contributing to the world in thought, dialogue, and art, and the purpose of this blog is to find those modern Shakespeares and learn from them.

At WWADY, we also believe in community. We believe there is power in ideas, and we believe that through sharing ideas, through reading books together, through dialogue and discussion, we uncover truth.

So here's how it works:

Every month at WWADY, we'll announce a featured book. All featured books will be by writers who are still alive and kicking. We'll post discussion points and observations about the books as we read and ask our brilliant readers to chime in. Read the books with us, and use the comments at the bottom of each post to share your thoughts. February's featured book will be So Brave, Young, and Handsome by Leif Enger (author of Peace Like a River), so get your copy today.

At WWADY, we'll also keep you up to date on author news. We'll let you know about author appearances, interviews, and awards. We'll write book reviews (and we'll even publish guest book reviews from you high school and college students who need extra credit -- seriously, ask your English teacher if posting a review to our site will count for anything. What have you got to lose?)

We'll probably blog about a lot of other things along the way -- but we guarantee this. All of the authors we blog about, and more importantly, all of their ideas, will still be alive.