Poetry and Myth

An Interview with Alison Moncrief Bromage, author of Daughter, Daedalus

by Emily Ploch

Daedalus is a recurring character throughout your T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize–winning collection, Daughter, Daedalus. What role does myth play in the creation of this collection? What does mythology offer you as a writer?Daughter, Daedalus

Myth plays a large role in this collection as both a platform to spring from, as in the case of the Daedalus poems, and as a compelling voice to inhabit. The last section of the book is a sort of creation myth. Writing in the form of myth grants a narrative gravitas and a timelessness, and it is with that tone that I wanted to explore ideas of creation, motherhood, and the physical world.

What is it about myth that you are drawn to? What is it about Daedalus specifically that interests you?

The outlandish logic of myths attracts me. The proportions of cause and effect are so skewed and subjective in them, and I find that liberating. In myth people die of heartache, barter with kings, and invent folding chairs as huge responses to small conflicts. The power of the archetype is compelling; we can relate to both the hearthkeeper and the lord of the underworld, to both vengeance and love.

Daedalus, however, is not a god. He is simply a man of invention, a tinkerer. I come from a family of tinkerers who have a sense of optimism about jerry-rigging things like car engines, sump pumps, and doorjambs. So I feel at home with Daedalus’s resourcefulness. I also have great respect for his inventions. The ship’s sails, its prow, and a dancing floor are all inventions that seem to https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/d1/Domenico_Piola_-_Daedalus_and_Icarus_-_WGA17838.jpg/256px-Domenico_Piola_-_Daedalus_and_Icarus_-_WGA17838.jpghave granted Daedalus both social grace and isolation, which I find intriguing.

Have you always been attracted to mythology? What originally enticed you about myth?

I was always interested in stories and storytelling, like any child. It wasn’t until high school that I actually read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. I remember raising my hand in freshman English class and asking the teacher, in all honesty, whether the stories were true or not. (It was the story of Prometheus that gave me trouble. I couldn’t get my head around how his liver would regenerate overnight.) At thirteen, I had not yet learned to discriminate between the stories of what actually, historically happened and the stories people tell one another to explain things. Having a capacious imagination and being raised Catholic helped my curious confusion, I am sure.

Here’s the power of myth for me as a poet: I am still challenged by that line of reality and fabrication.

Inspiration to write comes in many forms. Who are your muses and teachers in creating poetry? Did you lean on any specific person or influence for Daughter Daedalus?

Inspiration for the poems in Daughter, Daedalus came namely from an absence. I had a sort of animal longing for a child for several years, and it took a long time for me to get to meet our daughter. So motherhood, the inverse of it, and my children are all wellsprings that helped to make these poems.

The physical world, its starkness and its natural laws are also inspiration to me—I think physics and the laws of gravity and heat are actually poems. When several of these poems came to me, I was driving through northern Vermont for work and listening to the Great Courses lectures on classical mythology. I drove alongside the Lamoille River and its boulders on my way home to Lake Champlain. The harshness of that landscape and the wending tales of gods and half gods percolated in me and the poems started to come. I kept a pad of paper on the passenger seat and wrote fragments as I drove.

And of course, I am a student of many brilliant poets and have certainly leaned on the buoyancy of their work: Seamus Heaney, Selma Hill, Sylvia Plath, Linda Gregerson, A. E. Stallings, and Mary Szybist, to name a few.

Your works appear in a lot of different literary journals. How did publishing in different journals help you in putting together this collection?

I started out years ago submitting maybe five poems, two times a year—and only to the most exclusive literary journals. And I was surprised and disappointed when six months later I was always rejected. My ego was too involved and that limited the lives of the poems.

Recently, I just submitted everywhere like crazy. My son was an infant and submitting felt like the only way I could be connected to the poetry world, because I wasn’t writing. The result of that push was that I got many poems published, in a variety of online and print journals. I got a lot of really terrific feedback from editors—great edits, great rejections, and other submission suggestions. The lesson for me was that for the poems to live, they need to be in the world.

The process of submitting requires some good poetic housekeeping and I am sure that that organization helped shape this collection. Lots got cut as I went along and the arc of Daughter, Daedalus became clear to me.

What revelations do you hope readers will have with Daughter, Daedalus? What did writing these poems reveal to you through their creation?

I always seem to write poems in a series and because of this, am never quite sure how the individual poems from a series will stand alone, or how they will stand with other series. Daughter, Daedalus is a combination of four series—apostrophes to a Daughter, to Daedalus, a portrait of limbo, and the voices of twins. Sort of an odd set. But I realized when I spread the poems out on a long table that my preoccupations held them together as a singular narrative.

I hope that readers will come to know Daedalus as I did—that in turning to the archetypal father of invention, I was too was inventing. Here now was a god to speak with and with whom to find relief, and he was my creation. I hope readers find conversation and relief and some nuggets of curiosity in the collection. I hope they feel, as I do, that there’s so much mystery to behold.


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Sweetness and Death: Two Stories from Chariton Review

by Abbey Northcutt

Chariton Review, a literary journal from Truman State University Press, holds a short fiction prize each year. In the spring 2015 edition, two of the stories come together for an interesting analysis of the themes that tie them together. The first-prize winner “Sugar Bowl” forms a pair with the runner-up “Die Laughing” because of their emphasis on our often varied relationship with children. However, there is a current of melancholy in each one, to varying degrees.

“Sugar Bowl,” written by Jo de Waal, describes a young girl who is babysitting for her across-the-street neighbor. The job starts out simply enough, with the infant’s mother giving very specific directions, but soon develops an atmosphere of menace. The girl reads and dilly-dallies for hours, but hears nothing from the baby. She hesitates to check on the child for fear of waking him up, and eventually dips her finger in the sugar bowl that the mother mentioned was for the child’s pacifier if he did indeed wake. When the mother arrives home at last, she stares at and questions the indentation in the sugar bowl. The girl runs from the house only to encounter the baby’s father in the driveway. “She’s… he’s… you get it?” he asks cryptically.

This story makes great use of the concept of literary negative space. Like the blank spaces in an art piece, literary negative space is left deliberately vague to allow the reader to infer a conclusion on their own. It also says something specific in its absence. If the story had ended with the mother walking down the hall to retrieve and bring out the baby, or even with the stated revelation that there was no baby at all, the reader’s mindset would vastly differ from its state at the present ending. This way, the story maintains a sense of mysteriousness and even dread. The mother does not outright state her false hope that her child might be alive (for we can assume from the clues that the baby had died), nor does the girl voice her confusion about the state of the baby. She is frightened for what she describes as no reason, and doesn’t understand the father’s message in the driveway.

The death of a child is a terrible thing, and this story does not flinch in the face of it. It merely leads the reader along a breadcrumb-strewn trail, leaving them to fill in the blanks with what little information there is in a story less than two pages. In the next story, in contrast, detail is very easy to come by.

“Die Laughing” is the tale of a woman who makes her living as a party clown. She begins the story at a birthday party before learning that her mother has died. Unfortunately for her, the funeral parlor director, Ernie, is terrified of clowns and faints at the sight of her when she shows up still in costume. While Lena, the clown, makes sense of the situation, her mother, Dorinda, is almost a haunting presence in the story. Dorinda was less than amicable towards Lena, and the fact that they shared a profession weighs heavily on Lena. Ernie, upon coming to, has a conversation with Lena that leads to the two of them realizing a surprising relation to one another—they may be half-siblings. While the story ends, Lena is able to come to terms with her mother’s abuse and death peacefully by at last shedding tears over the woman who had dominated her life.

The theme of sugar is only nominally present in the story because of a small child at the birthday party. One of a set of triplets, he devours birthday cake and ice cream only to vomit it up on “Sprinkles,” Lena’s clown alter ego. The sour-sweet smell lingers throughout the narrative like Dorinda lingers in Lena’s life, despite having left it. Lena even calls her influence “toxic” near the end of the piece, reflecting the sourness of her mother beneath the sweetness of her mother’s clown act. Death, however, takes a center stage as opposed to its bit part in “Sugar Bowl.” The theme of death here is not played for frights, despite Ernie’s fear of clowns being integral to Lena’s development and epiphany. Death is a release for Lena because it not only frees her from her Dorinda’s influence but also allows her to feel grief over the loss of her mother. She was unable to before because Dorinda’s abuse, but now she is safe—forever. She is not in denial like the mother in “Sugar Bowl,” and the death is right in front of her.

These two stories are diametrically opposed in their use of sweetness and death as narrative themes and both are taking a dramatically different viewpoint on losing a loved one. The judge for the Chariton Review Short Fiction Prize have shown their value for diversity in short fiction with these two prize-winners.

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Around the World in 80 Pages

by Erica Nolan

School breaks are an ideal time to visit new places and go on adventures with family and friends. Unfortunately, finances and other time commitments can make it difficult, if not impossible, to go the places on your bucket list. That is where publishers like Truman State University Press can save the day. But aren’t scholarly publishers associated with serious academic study and not with entertainment? So how can a scholarly book help you see the world? It’s quite simple really—through history.

Last year, I studied abroad in Ireland and had the chance to visit cities I had previously only read about. Each place is culturally rich in its own way, and it was nearly impossible to cram in everything we wanted to see during our brief time in each place. One thing that all of these cities offered were free walking tours led by locals who knew tons and tons about their hometowns. And how do you think our tour guides learned all they knew about the cities they were guiding us through? By studying the city’s history, of course.

There’s a difference between reading about the history of a place and actually going there, but a good history book might be able to satisfy the travel bug while you save up for your next adventure. Take, for example, Federico Barocci and the Oratorians: Corporate Patronage and Style in the Counter-Reformation. If you dream of visiting Rome and you have a passion for Italian art, this book would give you a glimpse into Barocci’s works and style during the sixteenth century. If you go to Rome, it would cost around $2,000 just for the plane ticket. The book, on the other hand, costs only $60 ($49.99 for the e-book).

I know this approach to travel can work because this is exactly how I handled my obsession with Ireland before I went there. I read about Bloody Sunday and other events in Irish history. I immersed myself in Irish literature, falling in love with the works of Yeats, Wilde, and Shaw in the process. Not only did my love for the location grow, but I also understood and appreciated the places I visited that much more. Walking through Belfast was much more meaningful and solemn thanks to my understanding of the city’s past and present turmoil. Seeing the west coast of the Republic made the words in Yeats’ poem “I am of Ireland” resonate that much more. If I had not read about the country before going over there, I could not have appreciated my time there in the same way.

History books also allow people to travel in time. By reading a history book, you can jump from era to era and have a taste of what society once was like. Since time travel is currently only possible in science fiction, we should take advantage of what history books have to offer. Whether it is actual travel or time travel you seek, I thoroughly believe reading history books is one of the best—and most inexpensive—ways to get started. Learning about a location and its past can be one of the most enriching things someone can do. Adventure is out there wherever you look, including page one of a history book. So grab a book and start your next adventure today.

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The Allure of “True Crime”

by Kristen Greif

“This hitherto peaceful congregation of neighbors and old friends had suddenly to endure the unique experience of distrusting each other; understandably, they believed that the murderer was among themselves.”

Truman Capote, in the popular In Cold Blood (Random House, 1966), thus sets the mood of uneasiness that descended on a small town in Kansas following a quadruple homicide. In Cold Blood is one of the first, and certainly one of the most well-known, works from the genre of true crime. True crime books are a unique blend of factual events blended with elements of fiction (e.g., suspense). The purpose of true crime is to create a work that, through conventions of literature, can create a strong emotional connection to readers, thus helping others better relate to real people and actual events.

Take, for instance, the following from Giles Fowler’s Deaths on Pleasant Street:

“And thus, on a cheerier note than usual, began the shimmering final weekend in the worthy life of Colonel Thomas Hunton Swope.”

The use of the word “final” in this conclusion to the book’s first chapter creates suspense through the use of foreshadowing, a common literary tool of fiction. The reader becomes hooked. We know that the colonel is doomed—but how will he meet his end? The fact that the true cause of death for the colonel and two family members remains unknown to this day only adds a greater sense of suspense to this and similar works of true crime. We cannot help but try to figure out “whodunnit” as we read; true crime books, especially those dealing with unsolved cases, allow us to act like Sherlock Holmes, making us more involved in the story.

As actual events unfurl in Deaths on Pleasant Street, we grow more familiar with real figures from a bygone era who could be very similar to people we know today. Many of us probably know someone like the “love-smitten” Frances Swope Hyde, who refused to leave her dearly beloved husband when she learned of his cruel behavior toward others, and even when later he is accused of murder.

So why does it matter if we can relate to people involved in criminal cases. And isn’t it morbid to be so interested in real murders? We can surely get the same entertainment value from watching Criminal Minds or CSI and we wouldn’t, as some would claim, be romanticizing violence. But true crime books, such as Deaths on Pleasant Street, that get us invested in actual crimes, allow us to see victims and perpetrators alike as human beings. Being constantly bombarded by sensational news headlines and too many images of dead bodies displayed as props on the screen can desensitize us to horrific events. We don’t have time to stop and think, “Dear God, that was a human being.” But those dead bodies aren’t props and the perpetrators were probably once somebody’s beloved child. They were people with complex personalities and unique experiences that brought them to that brief moment when we see them on the news.

True crime fascinates because it satisfies our need to see the complexity in our fellow human beings and changes our perceptions of humanity, allowing us to see people as capable of being both kind and gruesome. It is tempting to split the world into black and white, good and bad, to save ourselves emotional pain. But most people aren’t split so cleanly into such dualities. Acknowledging the complexity of others can help us reevaluate how we act toward those around us. It might even help us to recognize warning signs from someone who could become violent. In this way, true crime doesn’t just appeal to us as mere entertainment—it draws us in because we are fascinated in learning about others and ourselves.

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Smart Books for Smart Kids

by Kristen Greif

It is common knowledge that there’s a direct correlation between exposing kids to reading at a young age and increases in their comprehensive reading skills. Recognizing this, American public schools encourage reading by creating more time for reading during the school day. This certainly benefits students who may not have time to read otherwise or lack the resources to read at home, but in order to create more time for reading, schools have to cut time that had previously been allocated to other subjects, such as history. At the same time, schools face growing pressure to focus on STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), often at the expense of spending time on social studies and literature. Cutting or reducing time for other subjects invariably damages the whole of a child’s education because it narrows their perspectives, which can limit their abilities to make larger connections. And limiting time spent studying a favorite subject or exploring new areas can create frustration or resentment among students.

Even more sobering is the fact that, even with allotting more time for reading during school hours, many American students are not reading at their expected grade level. Some of the reasons for this are outside of a teacher’s control, so what can teachers do to encourage children not just to read, but to read well?

One very effective option is to provide students with engaging books on a variety of interesting subjects that challenge them to improve their reading skills. Once a student is interested in a subject, they will naturally want to learn more about it, and as they read, they increase their reading and overall comprehension levels, and learn to think in different ways through exposure to various ideas. Nonfiction books that capture a student’s attention and imagination stimulate children’s interests in a wide variety of subjects. The Notable Missourians series, which is designed for fourth to sixth graders, provides students with the opportunity to learn about important historical events through the stories of people who were involved in those events.

Ever wonder why Charles Lindbergh named his plane The Spirit of St. Louis? Find out in our biography of Albert Lambert. Ever wonder about what happened to the Native American groups who lived in our area before American settlers moved in? Read Great Walker’s story to learn about the Ioway. We’ve all heard of Daniel Boone, but who was Olive Boone and what can we learn from the story of her life? Reading history teaches students to understand not only what has happened in our collective past, but why it happened and why it’s important. By reading biographies, students discover that the past was different, but that they are not so different from people in the past. And from that, children learn to understand what ways we are all similar and different. And knowing that makes them grow up to be better citizens in an increasingly globalized world. What could be more important?

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CSI History: Microhistories and why you should read them


by Erica Nolan

During my internship at Truman State University Press, my fellow intern and I worked on converting one of the Press’s older publications into an e-book. While coding the information for Noble Strategies: Marriage and Sexuality in the Zimmern Chronicle, I found myself wanting to stop what I was doing and read the text. With intriguing chapter titles like “Marital Happiness and Marital Breakdown,” “Concubines,” and “ Bastards,” I couldn’t resist. It sounded like its very own soap opera.

I ended up reading a few chapters on my own time, and was soon engulfed by the history of the Zimmern family and fascinated by getting a glimpse into the lives of early modern German nobility. This book hones in on an extremely specific set of people and events, and therefore falls into the category of “microhistory.” Wikipedia defines a microhistory as, “an intensive historical investigation of a well defined smaller unit of research (most often a single event, the community of a village, or an individual).” Many novels focus on a single event, a community, or an individual, but in a microhistory, everything you’re reading about actually happened.

Authors of microhistories are historical detectives, digging deeper than anyone has before them in the hopes of finding something new and increasing their understanding of the larger issues of social history by focusing on specific cases. Microhistories are often written for other historians; the average person might not think of reading one of these books. But my own experience with Noble Strategies made me wonder why more people don’t choose microhistories to read. As an English major, I’m always on board for a well-written story—and microhistories have great potential for being just that. What makes microhistories so much more interesting is the overall thematic focus within them. You get a better glimpse at the humanity within the history when it is concentrated on a certain theme. For example, the underlying theme of relationships within Noble Strategies demonstrates the disconnect between marriage and love in early modern Germany. It helps show how marriage was a financial and political arrangement that created the necessity for concubines as a source of affection, which explains the resulting bastards in the Zimmern family.

If you’re interested in finding a microhistory to sink your teeth into, a few other options in our collection include Leonarde’s Ghost: Popular Piety and “The Appearance of a Spirit” in 1628 and Husbands, Wives, and Concubines: Marriage, Family and Social Order in Sixteenth-Century Verona. And there are a few classics out there to check out too. The Cheese and the Worms is a great example, and one of the best-known microhistories is The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis (who authored our A Passion for History: Conversations with Denis Crouzet). The Return of Martin Guerre was also a movie (in French), and there is even an American adaptation of the story titled Sommersby, starring Richard Gere and Jodie Foster. Maybe someone should write a soap opera or miniseries based on the marital adventures of the Zimmern family. Their story makes great reading.

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The War In Words: An Interview with Michael Miller, author of The Different War

by Alex Reiser and Abbey Northcutt

Michael Miller, author of  The Different War, a finalist in the 2014 T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, compares the lives of soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq with soldiers in the Vietnam conflict. An award-winning poet and a veteran himself, Miller viscerally writes about the experiences of soldiers both in combat and returning home. Miller was gracious enough to share his insights and thoughts with us and describe his experiences in his own words.

What first drew you to poetry? What was your inspiration?MillerMichael

Words drew me to poetry, the words I read in Treasure Island, Alice In Wonderland, The Call Of The Wild, and other books of childhood. The words led me to write descriptions, dialogues, and my first poem when I was eighteen. For me, it all goes back to the words, the flow and rhythms of language, the inspiration it provided. When I read Dylan Thomas I was swept up by poems such as “Fern Hill,” “Poem on his Birthday;” then Hart Crane’s “Voyages” and “My Grandmother’s Love Letters,” and Richard Wilbur’s “The Beautiful Changes” and “For C.” Those poets were my strongest inspiration. Language was the first part of my inspiration, the second was a passionate feeling about a subject, an event, a person, a place.

How did your time in the military affect you as a poet? What about your interaction with other soldiers?

My time in the peacetime Marine Corps from 1958 to 1962 did not affect me as a poet, but like any institution it affected me as a young man—I enlisted at eighteen. What it did do was allow me to read whatever I was drawn to when I made time for it; there was often a base chapel that was open through the night and I found the silence and privacy I needed there. Wherever I was stationed—South Carolina, North Carolina, Okinawa, the Mojave Desert—there was always a library on base. The library at Camp Butler on Okinawa was in a Quonset hut. There I chanced upon Sartre who led to Camus and DeBeauvoir. I was in the perfect place to read Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific and Sayonara when I was on leave in Hawaii, Japan, and Hong Kong. Once again it was all sorts of books that kept me close to writing. There was also the discipline of military life, the organizing of free time when I had some.

My relationships with fellow Marines were, for the most part, good. Although there was a military draft at that time, no one was drafted into the Marine Corps, you had to enlist, which meant everyone wanted to be there. I knew men who had never worn shoes, others who went to Yale. There was always someone who had an interest in reading and talking about what we read. I had a friend who was reading Plato’s dialogues so I read them and we discussed them in the chapel. One night the priest came in and found us there and suggested we find another place because someone might get the wrong idea. Living in close quarters made everyone respectful of each other’s space. Men chose their close comrades—it was a special kinship in a special time of young manhood without women. Socrates advocated this stage in a man’s life. And then there were the books and books! I learned how to write by reading.

What was it about the war in Vietnam and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that made you want to compare them?

The sacrifices of young men who were led to believe they were fighting for a just cause has tremendous resonance. Those men who went to Vietnam, and those who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, if they survived, suffered from similar effects of war. The technology of those wars was different but they might have been the same war. With few exceptions, war is one form of insanity, not to mention the costly mistakes made by generals in the rear. One thing leads to another and it’s not always for the best. Would the Middle East be in its present stateDifferentWarCVR if we had not invaded Iraq? Would there be ISIS if some American troops had remained in Iraq?

Are the people in your poems based on people you’ve met?

No, the people in the poems are not based on people I’ve met. I’ve been around military people since l945 when my uncles came back from World War Two, and then from my own service and veterans I became friendly with. All of this was assimilated, quite unconsciously, and became a part of the well I draw from to write. I’ve always found it limiting to write from my own experience and found that the truth of imagination had a greater reach for creating a poem. There’s a mystery about writing poetry and I’ve always trusted it and let it lead me. It’s not always about what I’m trying to say but about what the poem wants to say.

In your poem “Missing,” you write powerfully from the perspective of a woman who has lost her arm. What kind of mindset did you have to focus on to write from a woman’s viewpoint?

I wasn’t thinking of a woman’s viewpoint in “Missing.” I had an idea for a poem, an opening sentence, and then I followed the language. Words lead to words, images to images, rhythms to rhythms. Once a subject appears in my thoughts, and it can be at any time, in any place, it’s a matter of—in this case a woman losing her arm—of developing it. I always ask as many questions as I can—how did she lose it, what will be the effects? The subject is the skeleton which has to be given flesh, blood, clothes, a sense of place, and by doing this with specifics you can evoke feelings. You may not feel them but because of what you’re writing about the reader might. I try to find subject matter that matters and then fulfill it, honor it, be true to it. These short poems about the effects of war were all long poems—by condensing you create depth, intensity. Language is the key, its the clay you mold through craft. Everyone who writes has to find the way that works best for them. My drafts, usually ten or more, evolve from the previous ones. I know poets who will think about a poem for three months, then write it in one draft, others develop their poems in workshops. Accurate editorial advice can be the final word on a poem. I was fortunate to have Jim Barnes read an earlier version of The Different War. He cut poems, deleted lines, changed others, and I listened because he’s a fine poet and editor. I really don’t know of any poets who can do it themselves unless they’re Shakespeare.

 How do you think veterans would respond to these poems? What about a civilian?

I would hope that veterans and civilians will be moved by the poems. My main concern is trying to write good poems that I feel a necessity to write. It’s always a pleasure when someone responds positively to my work and I learn about it. It makes me smile the way a warm piece of apple pie does when it’s placed before me.

What did you most want readers to take away from your book?

Reading poetry, like anything else, is a very subjective matter, so I have to respect the readers and not have any preconceived ideas of what I want them to take away from my poems. I hope my thoughts about war are in the poems, as are other things that I may not have intended. Poems have a life of their own, as does the process of making them. I’m just grateful for the readers that may find my book in their hands.

And I want to thank you both for asking important questions that I have never asked myself. Your questions and my answers made me aware of what was beneath the surface in my efforts to write. Now that knowledge will slip back into my unconscious and will serve me as I begin new poems. One of the things I’ve learned is that writing is a continual process and we never stop learning and growing if we keep on writing. The key is to be open to everything—ideas, feelings, advice. Young dogs and old dogs can learn new tricks.

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Reading Good Books: What’s the Point?

By Hannah Brockhaus

Nina Hale via flickr under CC license w/ attribution: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

As a scholarly press, the Truman State University Press does not produce books that I would consider my go-to summer beach reads. A good number of the Press’s books fall within very specialized fields and are written for the purpose of contributing to a field of knowledge and to the education of scholars in that area—not necessarily with the goal of giving pleasure, or entertaining the reader, such as a Stephen King novel might.

But as both a student, and someone who loves to read, I wonder why these two purposes must be at odds? Why isn’t it just as possible to derive pleasure from learning more about the folk tradition of noodling, or by reading about the effect of war on soldiers in the poetry of a veteran, as from a book from the popular fiction rack?

While it may not be the same kind of pleasure, I think there can still be enjoyment in it.

Anna Holmes, an award-winning writer who has written for The Washington Post, Newsweek and The New Yorker online, recently contributed to The New York Times Sunday Book Review column called “Bookends.” Running across the column, I was drawn in by the question she was asked to debate: whether pleasure in reading is of trivial or vital importance. Holmes wrote:

But what is “reading for pleasure,” really? Does it mean burying oneself only in books or other forms of written material guaranteed to induce feelings of amusement or delight or serenity? Does it mean that pleasure is the point, rather than the pleasurable byproduct?

While reading about the war in Afghanistan and Iraq is not necessarily something pleasurable, there is something to be gained from increasing in understanding of another person and another time and place. The byproduct is the sort of pleasure you gain from knowing or understanding something you didn’t before.

When I first read Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, and as I approached the end, a friend asked me how it was. When I told her that it was the most emotionally difficult book I had ever read she was surprised because it appeared that I couldn’t put it down. Two years later and I still remember scenes vividly; the characters were all so imperfectly human, it made me think of many issues, and aspects of my own life, in a different way.

For me, there was pleasure in the challenge of that book, in the way that it stretched me and made me think. The pleasure of learning and achievement is a pleasure that is lasting.

As Mortimer J. Adler writes in How to Read a Book, “Good books are over your head; they would not be good for you if they were not. And books that are over your head weary you unless you can reach up to them and pull yourself up to their level.”

I can easily get lost in a paperback mystery for a weekend, but it’s a similar encounter to the one I might have with the hairstylist. I know a few things about her life and I enjoy our interactions, but in an hour or so she moves on to a new client and I go on with the rest of my day. Our effect on each other has little lasting significance.

Working your way through a “good book”—though difficult in content or language—changes you.

Truman State University Press strives to offer the scholarly community and the reading public many different options of good books, including many different poetry and contemporary nonfiction titles. Browsing our books by category shows a diverse range in both subject matter and style, so there’s something for everyone.

For me, I know that this summer I won’t be afraid to include in my pleasure reading some titles that challenge and inform me, as well as entertain.

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The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

by Allison Bearly

This semester, while interning with the Truman State University Press, I noticed a small, slim book titled Valuing Useless Knowledge: An Anthropological Inquiry into the Meaning of Liberal Education by Robert Bates Graber. The title intrigued me and it kept catching my attention, so I finally picked it up to look at it. I knew I needed to continue reading the book after reading the prologue in which Graber states:

The liberal arts may be defined—impishly, but accurately nonetheless—as essentially those areas of knowledge in which practical-minded parents hope their children will not major. “But what are you going to do,” they cry, “with a major in ——?”

This struck a chord with me because I myself am one of those impractical students who decided to major in English and minor in French and anthropology. And with graduation approaching in just a few short weeks, the “But what are you going to do?” question arises more and more frequently—from my parents, friends, and mere strangers who have only just learned what my degree will be in.

In his book, Graber examines the historical and philosophical roots of the liberal arts, saying that it “is a kind of knowledge noted above all for being relatively useless.” Following this statement, it would be a reasonable assumption that a liberal arts education would not be valued by members of our society; however, that is not the case. Graber claims this mostly useless knowledge somehow has the most value of all for students. It is from this starting point that Graber makes his anthropological inquiry as to why we as a culture should place value on useless information.

An anthropologist himself, Graber cites a wide range of disciplines. He draws from religious figures like John Henry Newman, philosophers including Herbert Spencer and Democritus, scientist and naturalist Charles Darwin, and perhaps most importantly, anthropologist Marvin Harris. Within the field of anthropology, Harris is a cultural materialist, which, in his own words, is a concept that “is based on the simple premise that human social life is a response to the practical problems of earthly existence.” Harris is particularly well-known for his study of the sacred cow in India. It is from this research that Graber arrives at his answer to his inquiry about the value of a liberal arts education.

The gist behind Harris’s study of the sacred cow is that while it seems strange that there is a taboo in the Hindu religion against eating cows when so much of India is overpopulated and underfed, there is actually a nonreligious rationale behind the taboo. It is cows that provide oxen that plow the land that in turn grows the food for people to eat. Harris’s conclusion was that if farmers slaughtered their cattle whenever hunger struck, it would be detrimental in the long run because they wouldn’t have sufficient labor with which to plow their fields.

Graber applies this concept to liberal knowledge, equating it with the sacred cow. If one sees human knowledge as sacred, then, Graber says, there is a taboo against judging its usefulness. Human knowledge needs protection, just like the cow in India, because our judgment of what is useful or not is often narrowly defined and biased. In order to avoid this bias, Graber poses three questions to consider: useful for whom, useful when, and useful how? “We must then value ‘useless knowledge’ precisely because we cannot trust ourselves to know truly useless knowledge when we see it. Our vision is too limited, our judgments too archaically short-sighted, self-centered, and simpleminded,” Graber says.

In other words, what is useful is incredibly subjective. Rather than only valuing what we see as useful right now, we need to protect all human knowledge, or else face potentially grim repercussions — repercussions similar to those that Hindus in India would face if they chose to slaughter their cows. Rather than be faced with a hunger due to a lack of food, we would be faced with a hunger for knowledge and no way to satisfy it. Graber concludes by saying he cannot prove any of this—if he could, it would contribute to the repository of practical knowledge. And after all, he points out, a defense of liberal knowledge must itself be a contribution to liberal knowledge.

So it is this new-to-me point of view, this seemingly useless information in my brain that I must keep in mind in the weeks, months and years to come after graduation. While many may see my degree as impractical and useless in comparison to, say, nursing or engineering, it is up to us as humans to value knowledge for its own sake. I hope that others, future employers in particular, will value my love of the pursuit of knowledge, and I know that post graduation I will continue attempting to satiate my hunger for “useless” knowledge.


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The Force of Words: An Interview with Laura Bylenok, Winner of the T. S. Eliot Prize

By Allison Bearly and Hannah Brockhaus

Warp by Laura Bylenok is the winner of the 2015 T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, awarded annually by the Trhttp://quarterlywest.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Bylenok-Photo.jpguman State University Press to the best unpublished book-length collection of poetry. This year’s judge, Arthur Sze—most recently author of Compass Rose—called Warp “a distinguished book of poems that combines imaginative verve with longing to create a rich tapestry across space and time.” See the rest of Dr. Sze’s comments on Warp.

Bylenok talked with us about Warp, providing insight into her creative process and award-winning collection.

What first drew you to the word warp? All poets have an attention to word choice, but yours is particularly evident, and shows a poignant consciousness of the etymology and different definitions of the word. Do you have a background in linguistics or the sciences that may have prompted this approach?

I came across warp by happy accident. I recall I was sifting through the Oxford English Dictionary one afternoon—something I love to do, to start with a word and trace out a net of etymologies—to see how I might flex the meaning in an image of the near-incandescent effect of glacial silt discoloring a lake in the poem “Vessel.” But there, in the entry for the verb warp, I found 54 definitions, a few familiar and many more absolutely startling: ones such as “To lay eggs” or “To trample underfoot” or “Of wind: to rise up.” I found them irresistible because of their strangeness and because of how many of them already contained and suggested scene, tension, and movement. I couldn’t have invented a more compelling interplay of themes: trajectory, impact, distortion, slow accumulation, loss and transformation, reproduction.

The last one—reproduction—is perhaps the most unexpected and the most consequential for my work. In particular, the definition “Of bees: to swarm,” allowed me to visualize reproduction as an act of simultaneous self-splitting and self-preservation, of creation and destruction. This is quite literal: when a hive swarms, which is its method of reproduction, one part splits off, leaving behind the old queen and establishing a new colony with a newly fertilized queen. This splitting happens in our human bodies, as well, with our DNA during meiosis to create the sperm or egg. The gift of warp was that it allowed me to imagine DNA as only one kind of strand on a much larger loom—of identity, of history, of time, of language.

And of course, this brings me to the second part of your question. My first dream was not poetry but genetics. These two are not, I believe, incompatible. I can’t claim a true background in the sciences, but I did study molecular biology as an undergraduate, and for several years I did research in a medical genetics lab. That experience imprinted in me the spirit of scientific inquiry, which is not so different from poetic inquiry. Both share a necessity for imaginative leaps and for searching beneath the visible surface of experience to access a deeper, more hidden reality.

Did you find the quote for your epigraph (“what is a word but wind? … a puff of wind, a word, may warp her”) in the OED as well, or somewhere else? How do you see it resonate with the collection as a whole?

The quote itself was not in the OED, though the entry for warp does reference several other passages from the Ancrene Wisse, the text from which the epigraph is taken. So in a way, the OED did lead me to the epigraph, because I started reading the Ancrene Wisse with an eye to how warp was used in Middle English.

The passage resonates in two ways. First, it unites breath and language with wind, so the natural world becomes a vehicle for the force of poetry. Second, it bestows power on language: language has the power to shape a person and the power to break her. I take seriously Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” and here not only are we cast by language, with this passage we are warped—distorted, thrown down, even put to death—by it.

I should mention I have taken a small liberty with the translation in the second part of the passage: “a puff of wind, a word, may warp her.” The original Middle English “warpen” has been translated into modern English variously as “fell,” “throw,” and “cast down”—which makes sense because those meanings of warp are now obsolete. However, I wanted to restore the plurality of meanings that warp contained.

You play with form quite a bit in this collection, not sticking to any one in particular throughout the work. When you set out to write a poem, do you do so with a particular form in mind or does the form come out naturally as you’re writing?

I almost never have a specific form in mind before I begin a poem. Form often comes, for me, from the first line, or from a muscular phrase that from its inception suggests or demands an echo in rhythm or in rhyme. That said, I try to resist the deterministic impulse of inherited form, to break away from the expectation and closure that may seem to be predetermined by a given rhythm or structure. I’m deeply interested, too, in idiosyncratic rhythms and shapes, and much—most—of the book depends on these.

I love that you say “play,” because there is delight in the word and in the act. I delight in the sheer variety of rhythms available in the English language: hypnotic, insistent, incantatory, fragmented, syncopated. Some of the most delightful iambic lines are not iambic at all, and it is their breaking away from the lull of a regular rhythm that thrills me. Whether within (or against) inherited form or not, sonic play becomes a kind of self-perpetuating engine on the tongue and in the mind.

How do you approach revision? How do you decide when a poem is finished?

That’s a difficult question, I believe, for many poets. In revision I allow full range and departure from any formal or other constraints I might have imposed on a poem. I read a poem many times out loud. I’m an incurable tinkerer, and I will return to poems, sometimes years later. I may keep only a phrase and rewrite the rest, or I may fiddle over a single line break. Calling a poem finished is perhaps as simple as letting go of the impulse to control if or how it will live on in the world. But in practice, when I read a poem out loud and feel satisfied in my blood with the music of the piece—when I no longer feel the desire to tinker—that’s when I know it’s done.

What poets or writers do you read? Are there any you have found particularly influential on your own poetry or on Warp in particular?

For poetry, Gerard Manley Hopkins holds the place of first love—for his wild music, his sprung rhythm, his consonants, but also for his metaphysics, and for his anxiety about utterance and inscription. There are many poets I return to continually. To Elizabeth Bishop, for her calm. To Marianne Moore, for her meticulous eye. To Federico García Lorca, for duende. More recently, I’ve been startled awake by Marina Tsvetaeva, especially Jean Valentine’s and Ilya Kaminsky’s translations of her poems in Dark Elderberry Branch. Her work is elusive, irresistible, radically lyrical in her conception of the poem as “a created and instantly destroyed world.”

For prose, I can’t and don’t want to escape the gravity well of Jorge Luis Borges’s fiction, and I share his preoccupations with infinities, labyrinths, and paradox. During the period I was writing many of the poems for Warp, I became interested in quantum physics and began reading essays by Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, J. Robert Oppenheimer. At the same time, I was reading a cross section of theoretical and historical texts concerned with the perception of time, including Henri Bergson, Bertrand Russell, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, alongside mystical texts by Simone Weil, Teresa de Ávila, and Julian of Norwich. Each of these inflected the poems and will continue to inflect my investigations (through reading, through writing) into both the failures and the pleasures and possibilities of language.


About the author:  Laura Bylenok is currently pursuing her PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Utah, where she is also a new media editor for Quarterly West. Her poems have appeared in North American Review and Guernica, among other journals, and her chapbook, a/0, was published by DIAGRAM/New Michigan Press in 2014.

Warp will be released from the Truman State University Press in September 2015.

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