Woman Inspired! | Stella Gibbons and Carson McCullers

One of my favorite bookish swap series to host is “Literary Wisdom” on swap-bot. Through the swaps, participants select a bookish postcard and write on the back a quote which inspires them. The quote must come from imaginative literature (poetry, prose, plays)–not sacred texts, self-help books, or non-fiction. For Women’s History Month, I decided to dedicate the swaps to women writers, since, unsurprisingly, male writers often dominate the swaps.

I created swaps for the Cup and Chaucer and Book Lovers Congregate groups. Lucky me! My randomly chosen partner for both swaps was Geraldine J (Nannydino). I always enjoy receiving postcards from Geraldine. Not only are the postcards well-selected with my varied interests and tastes in mind but the presentation of the written side of the postcard is always clean and inviting–very neat handwriting and unique placement of stickers, stamps, and postage. Somehow, Geraldine packs a lot of information on the 4×6 postcard backs, always including the date and weather.  Bonus–we have some of the same postcard collections so I get back the very postcards I love.

Now, for the literary inspiration:

Stella Gibbons (1902-1989). Photograph, Mark Gerson/National Portrait Gallery, London

Stella Gibbons was a British writer with poetry, short stories, and 25 novels to her credit. The inspired quote Geraldine chose to share comes from her first novel, Cold Comfort Farm, which is a parody of the “loam and lovechild” rural genre.

Every year, in the fulness o’ summer, when the sukebind hangs heavy from the wains. . .’tes the same. And when the spring comes her hour is upon her again … ‘Tes the hand of Nature and we women cannot escape it.

What seems to be most inspiring here–besides the hilarious novel itself–is “sukebind,” a word Gibbons coined. According to the Oxford English Dictionary “sukebind” is an “imaginary plant associated with superstition, fertility, and intense rustic passion.”

Check out two of The Guardian‘s reviews of Cold Comfort Farm:

If you’re interested in reading the novel, you should have no problems borrowing it from many of the e-libraries.

Carson McCullers (1917-1967). Photograph, Bettman/Corbis

Carson McCullers, born Lula Carson Smith, also wrote in many genres–plays, essays, short stories, poetry, and (of course) novels. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, her debut [though not first] novel (at the age of 23), remains her most popular work.

The inspiration Geraldine shared actually comes from McCullers’ commentary on her characters. “She felt her characters powerfully, once stating:”

I live with the people I create and it has always made my essential loneliness less keen.

And one of the inspired quotes form The Heart is a Lonely Hunter:

My advice to you is this. Do not attempt to stand alone. …The most fatal thing a man can do is try to stand alone.”

For more about Carson and her works, see the links below:

The postcards come from the collection, Postcards from Penguin Modern Classics: One Hundred Writers in One Box. I actually have the collection and mentioned it [or its lack of diversity] in a post on Eileen Chang. Despite the shortcomings of the collection, the photographs are stunning, and I’m happy to have two of the women writers “return” to me

Before I go, I leave you with a little homework. On the back of the McCullers postcard was an equally stunning fierce and inspiring woman postage stamp–featuring Elsie MacGill. If you don’t know who she is, you must do a little “research” and come back and report [in the comments] three things you’ve learned about her.

Until next time…

Into Morning | #WordlessWednesday

Sometimes, it’s necessary to ignore the ice cold temperature and race outdoors at the first sign of light to catch a glimpse of God.

“I Wake Close to Morning”
Mary Oliver

Why do people keep asking to see
God’s identity papers
when the darkness opening into morning
is more than enough?
Certainly any god might turn away in disgust.
Think of Sheba approaching
the kingdom of Solomon.
Do you think she had to ask,
“Is this the place?”

from Felicity, 2015

Children’s Art | Busy Being Roses

…as you can see, we are
just now entirely busy being roses.
Mary Oliver, “Roses,” from Felicity

Today was supposed to be easy–a “chill” day of finishing up a few projects and meeting with my students. It turned into a crazy-busy day, so I am all too happy to take a break and contemplate the pretty–and I have kid art to share!

Every spring, my son’s school hosts an amazing art fair, featuring the work of practically every student in the school. If you’ve been following the blog for a while, you probably know that I absolutely lose my mind walking the halls and taking in the colorful spectacle. I have hundreds of pictures from each art fair. I wish I could share every piece on the blog, but there’s so much that I’d have to start a separate blog dedicated to children’s art–and it would take me at least three years to catch up! Of course, that is not a bad idea, but I’ll leave that task for others.

Since I am still “speaking in flowers,” I’m excited to share a sampling of the vases of roses on display at the art show held a couple of weeks ago.

There were several other vases full of flowers, but they were positioned low on the wall and I was not willing to contort my body to get the shots. 😀

The project is called “Primary Petals,” for which students created a vase full of flowers using water color, oil pastels, and markers. Through the activity, “the students learned about color families, explored new mediums, and focused on line quality by drawing spirals” [Description posted with artwork].

Based on the description of the project, I’m assuming the art is that of Mrs. Johnson’s students. [She was my son’s fourth grade teacher and her art projects are always sensational].

As I have been working through life’s challenges, I have been asking a lot of questions. The answers aren’t always immediate or acceptable, so it’s nice to put the challenges on hold and take a moment to enjoy the innocence and simplicity of children’s art. It’s good–every now and then–to just be, to learn from the roses.

“Roses” by Mary Oliver

Everyone now and again wonders about
those questions that have no ready
answer: first cause, God’s existence,
what happens when the curtain goes
down and nothing stops it, not kissing
not going to the mall, not the Super
Bowl.

“Wild roses,” I said to them one morning.
“Do you have the answers? And if you do,
would you tell me?”

The roses laughed softly. “Forgive us,”
they said. “But as you can see, we are
just now entirely busy being roses.”

Written on My Heart | #WordlessWednesday

Losing a loved one does not just make us
painfully aware of their mortality, but our own,
which comes with a great sense of responsibility–

to carry on living our lives a little more
mindfully, purposefully, and wholeheartedly,
now that they cannot

(I miss you and I will always love you) –-Emina Gaspar-Vrana

Today my sister Lori would have celebrated her 56th birthday. In the photo above are the last Christmas gifts she gave me–a brooch representing [us] six sisters joined by hip and heart and a beautiful sister-heart. She gave them to me last January–weeks after her diagnosis–when we made a special trip to New Orleans so she and I could have a sister heart to heart that I didn’t want to have by phone. While I struggle with the cruel reality of two sisters gone, I walk in the knowledge that not even death can remove the imprint of my sisters from my heart.

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart) –e.e. cummings

Gwendolyn Brooks: In Her Honor

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), detail of The Furious Flower Portrait Quilt, 2004. Mixed media collage on canvas. Artist: Malaika Favorite. Card from my collection.

Like the Rita Dove piece I blogged about several months ago, the Gwendolyn Brooks portrait above is part of a 24-poet/panel masterpiece by mixed media artist Malaika Favorite which honors the history of African American poetry. The work was commissioned for Furious Flower, a conference held every decade (since 1994), that celebrates, stimulates, and encourages African American poetry and poetic voices.

Brooks (1917-2000) was a prolific writer with one novel and more than 20 volumes of poetry to her credit. She was the first Black woman to serve as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, now called U.S. Poet Laureate (1985-1986), and the first African American to receive a Pulitzer Prize. Her book Annie Allen won for the best volume of verse published in 1950.

Sometime between the ages of 13 and 14, I fell in love with the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Nikki Giovanni, and Gwendolyn Brooks. I gained access to these poets (and many others) through the book collections of my older brothers and sisters.

Gwendolyn Brooks was my favorite. I still know by heart “To Be in Love,” the first poem I read by her:

To be in love
is to touch with a lighter hand.

In yourself you stretch, you are well.

You look at things
through his eyes.
A cardinal is red.
A sky is blue.
Suddenly you know he knows too.
He is not there but
you know you are tasting together
the winter, or light spring weather.

His hand to take your hand is overmuch.
Too much to bear.

You cannot look in his eyes
because your pulse must not say
what must not be said.

When he
shuts a door—

Is not there—
Your arms are water.

And you are free
with a ghastly freedom.

You are the beautiful half
of a golden hurt.

You remember and covet his mouth,
to touch, to whisper on.

Oh when to declare
is certain Death!

Oh when to apprize,
is to mesmerize,

To see fall down, the Column of Gold,
into the commonest ash.

I was “mesmerized” by the way she crafted language. I recall being moved by particular phrases–

you are the beautiful half/of a golden hurt

free/with a ghastly freedom

the Column of Gold/into the commonest ash.

And I was intrigued by how she used opposites and negatives to convey the beauty and pain of love and evoke a powerful sense of loss.

My own (early) poetry was very much influenced by Brooks.

Brooks would have been 101 on June 7, so in her honor, I invite you to read about her contributions to American literature as well as some of her poetry. To get started, see the links below:

Matisse’s Icarus: Fall From the Sun

I mentioned in my post a couple of days ago that my student Courtney sent two postcards, and the second arrived before the first. I received the first postcard today!

It appropriately detailed (as much as can be squeezed onto a postcard) her early musings about her life in France. And it features one of my favorite French artists, Henri-Émile-Benoît Matisse.

Henri Matisse, “La Chute d’Icare”

If you’ve been following my blog for at least a few years, you might remember my sharing the work of 16 little Matisses that imitate his collage style.

La Chute d’Icare [The Fall of Icarus], from Matisse’s “cut-outs” period of his late career,  illustrates the tale of Icarus, the son of Daedalus who ignored his father’s warning and with wax wings flew too close to the sun. Matisse masterfully captured Icarus’ fall through the sky to the sea.

Courtney might know I have a ‘thing” for Greek mythology (re)interpreted in art and literature. Here are a few Icarus poems worth reading:

I think I’ll write a poem this weekend that recasts the story of Icarus in my own way. I already have a title, “Fly, Baby, Fly.”  I’ll include it in my reply to Court.

The Final Three Sister Writers of the Harlem Renaissance: Gwendolyn Bennett, Helene Johnson, and Dorothy West

I’m wrapping up the writers from the Sisters of the Harlem Renaissance postcard collection today with three women who led long  and productive literary lives–Gwendolyn Bennett, Helene Johnson, and Dorothy West.

Gwendolyn Bennett (1902-1981)

Gwendolyn Bennett, best known for her striking poetry largely composed during the decade of the 1920s, was actively involved in African American culture and the arts community over twenty years. Following graduation form Brooklyn’s Girls High, Bennett planned to become a graphic and visual artist. She entered Teacher’s College, Columbia University, taking courses in Art Education; in 1924, she graduated from Pratt Institute. While studying art, Bennett also wrote poetry; she was soon successful in both media. In 1923 Opportunity published her poem “Heritage,” and The Crisis carried a cover which she illustrated. In August of 1926, Bennett began the “Ebony Flute,” a literary and social chit-chat column featured in Opportunity until 1928. Also in 1926, Bennett served on the editorial board of the short-lived Fire!! where “Wedding Day,” her first published short story, appeared. Despite frequent absences from New York, Bennett belonged to the close-knit Harlem Writers Guild. She was a friend and associate of such figures as Langston Hughes, Aaron and Alta Douglas, Countee Cullen, and Zora Neale Hurston.   –Sandra Y. Govan

For more information on Gwendolyn Bennett’s life, writing, and art, see the following resources:

Helene Johnson (1906-1995)

Helene Johnson, like her cousin Dorothy West, was one of the youngest of the Harlem Renaissance poets. Born in Boston, she first visited New York in 1926 to accept Opportunity‘s First Honorable Mention prize for her poem “Fulfillment.”  After moving to New York in 1927, she met prominent Harlem Renaissance literary figures, including Zora Neale Hurston, who became her close friend, and Wallace Thurman. Thurman published one of her poems, “A Southern Road,” in the only issue of his journal Fire!! About one-third of Johnson’s poems treat themes of  youthful sensuality and the joy of life; racial themes dominate many others. From 1925 through the mid-1930s, Johnson’s poems appeared regularly in periodicals such as Opportunity, The Messenger, Palms, Vanity Fair, Harlem, Challenge, ,and Saturday Evening QuillAnthologists of the Harlem Renaissance have continued to include her works in their collections of Black American literature.  –T. J. Bryan

Interestingly, it was difficult finding more about Helene Johnson online.  The New York Times featured a rather detailed obituary with comments about her writing, excerpts from her poems, and the beautiful testimony of her daughter that even after the height of her literary career, she wrote a poem every day.

Dorothy West (1907-1998)

Dorothy West, one of the youngest writers drawn to Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance, first came to New York in 1926 because she won “some little prize in Opportunity” for her short story, “The Typewriter.” Additional short stories (which she considers the perfect literary form) appeared in Opportunity, The Messenger, Boston Post, and Saturday Evening Quill during the 1920s. In 1934 she founded and edited Challenge, a literary journal, “to permit new Negroes to make themselves heard,” and in 1937 she edited a reincarnation of that quarterly, New Challenge. Her important novel, The Living Is Easy, was published in 1948 and reissued in 1982. For a number of years she wrote  a weekly column for the Vineyard Gazette. –Phyllis Rauch Klotman

For more on Dorothy West, see  the following resources:

Initially, I was surprised to find that the brief biography on the back of the card did not mention West’s most popular novel, The Wedding, which was made into a television movie. Then, I realized the publication of the Sisters of the Harlem Renaissance collection preceded the novel. That Dorothy West continued to write her entire life and that her novel was published in 1995, when she was 88 years old, is clear evidence that age should not be a hindrance in the pursuit of our goals.

Write on…