Happy Pride Month, Noles! This month, people across the world are commemorating the Stonewall riots of 1969 by rejoicing in the wide spectrum of gender identities and sexual preferences represented in humankind.
To celebrate, I went digging for poetry in our Pride Student Union Records, part of the Heritage and University Archives. I came across evidence of FSU’s past celebrations of Pride month (June) and LGBT History month (October, as National Coming Out Day is October 11th).
Additionally, I found this poster signed by Andrea Gibson, poet extraordinaire and LGBTQ+ activist, who visited and performed at Florida State University in April of 2012.
Gibson is brilliant enough on paper, but their pieces are best consumed aurally, as the FSU students in 2012 had a chance to do; YouTube videos, fortunately, abound! Here is the love poem “Maybe I Need You”:
Andrea’s voice is one of hope and community, reminding readers and listeners that they are not alone in their feelings or experiences. I leave you with another example of Andrea’s stirring work, which pairs poetry to music and creates a moving, motivating portrait of a young person discovering who they are and who they want to be.
Poetry has, traditionally, served as an excellent way to remember things. The human brain just seems to better retain information that rhymes, and a rhythmic quality can bring the words to mind in an instant.
Lines that are intended to aid in memorization are called mnemonic verses, and we use them on a daily basis. Think of when you try to determine how many days are in a month: “Thirty days hath September…” Or when you consider how “neither” should be spelled: “I before E except after C…” Is that snake in your yard friend or foe? “Red on black, friend of Jack…”
There are even longer mnemonic verses for memorizing heftier material. For example, this witty little song for the history of the monarchy in England (sung to the tune of Good King Wenceslas):
Willie, Willie, Harry, Stee,
Harry, Dick, John, Harry three;
One, two, three Neds, Richard two
Harrys four, five, six... then who?
Edwards four, five, Dick the bad,
Harrys twain and Ned the Lad;
Mary, Bessie, James the Vain,
Charlie, Charlie, James again...
William and Mary, Anna Gloria,
Four Georges, William and Victoria;
Edward seven next, and then
George the fifth in 1910;
Ned the eighth soon abdicated
Then George the sixth was coronated;
After which Elizabeth
And that's the end until her death.
Originally published in 1816 and 1817, the book was largely popular in the UK, but it spread to the US toward the later half of the nineteenth century. The book has funny little woodcuts depicting various scenes and then a rhyming verse that helps the reader remember their times tables. Here are a few examples:
Some of the most beautiful woodcut work appears on the borders. Here is close up of the corner piece on that last one:
Finally, my favorite page shows a child holding a book just like the one the image appears in! It also mentions the bookshop that sold Marmaduke Multiply’s Merry Method of Making Minor Mathematicians, which happened to be financially linked to the publishing house that produced the book (talk about savvy marketing!):
What rhymes do you remember from childhood?
Marmaduke Multiply’s Merry Method of Making Minor Mathematicians. New York: Dover Publications, 1972. Print.
The Special Collections book we’re highlighting today has a very specific mission: to teach children (and perhaps, the adults reading to or with them) about the post-nuclear world, and about the need for peace. On the Wings of Peace: In Memory of Hiroshima and Nagasakiis a 1995 collection of prose, poetry, and accompanying illustrations that promotes a message of world peace by incorporating voices from communities that have been affected by the atrocities of war.
On the Wings of Peace: Writers and Illustrators Speak Out for Peace, in Memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
The introduction by compiler and editor Sheila Hamanaka lays out the historical events of August 6, 1945, aligning the victims to the reader: “In this city of 350,000 were people like you and me, and they were already suffering from the effects of war — the death of loved ones, starvation, separation” (11). Her words appear across from this harrowing illustration:
Little Boy and Fat Man
Throughout the large hardback volume, essays, personal accounts, and poetry are accompanied by both illustrations that evoke difficult emotions and photographs that portray the reality of the circumstances. Across from “Thoughts from a Nuclear Physicist,” a short essay by Michio Kaku, is Little Boy and Fat Man, a photograph by Robert Del Tredici. A young man leans casually against what must be a mock-up of the bomb, appropriately reflecting Dr. Kaku’s wise observation:
“Regrettably, our scientific skills have far outstripped the wisdom and compassion necessary to control this deadly, cosmic power. We are like spoiled infants playing with matches while floating on a swimming pool of gasoline” (25).
Marsha Gontarski Children’s Literature Collection & Visual Literacy
The volume is a compelling addition to the growing Marsha Gontarski Children’s Literature Collection, a broad collection of works mostly written and designed with children in mind. What is most fascinating about the collection is the way that Dr. Gontarski conceives of it; in her years of studying visual literacy, Dr. Gontarski has made connections between the books within her collection via the myriad ways meanings are visually communicated to children in these works. This book, which handles heavy subject matter, incorporates a mix of illustrations by different artists.
One of the stand-out poems includes illustrations by the poet.
“Sky,” by Junko Morimoto, tells the story of the atomic bombs from the perspective of a child in a village very near the drop-site. The illustrations are small and appear alongside the stanzas, as though they are part of the poetry.
This month’s Year of Poetry theme is community, and the book On the Wings of Peace considers the mission of achieving world peace through the eyes of people from different communities with different relationships to war and peace. In the case of “Sky” it is of a person who has experienced atomic fallout.
In the case of “Rabbit Foot: A Story of the Peacemaker,” the poem is from the perspective of the Iroquois people. It recounts one of the legends that accompanies the foundation of the Great League of Peace, which joined five nations at war into a larger league comprised of the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, and Seneca people (eventually, in 1722, the Tuscarora people joined as well). In the story, the Peacemaker warns of the dangers of war, illustrating his point with a story of a frog and a snake who eventually consume one another:
The snake swallowed more of the frog
the frog swallowed more of the snake
and the circle got smaller and smaller
until both of them swallowed one last time
and just like that, they both were gone.
They had eaten each other,
the Peacemaker said.
And in much the same way,
unless you give up war
and learn to live together in peace,
that also will happen to you.
— “Rabbit Foot: A Story of the Peacemaker” by Joseph Bruchac
If you’re interested in seeing how more artists respond to questions of war and peace, visit FSU’s Museum of Fine Arts to see the new exhibit, Waging Peace! There are beautiful pieces by a number of different artists, and local schools were involved in the design and installation of the exhibit.
The exhibit Waging Peace! will be up until July 6th, 2018. Don’t miss it!
Hamanaka, Sheila. On the Wings of Peace. Clarion Books, 1995.
Glowchild, and other Poems, published in 1972, is an anthology of works by black poets on the subjects of “nature, passion, politics, hope, peace, freedom, and other topics, gathered primarily with the inner-city youth in mind” (Catalog Description). The included poems were selected by Ruby Dee, poet, playwright, actress, journalist, and lifelong activist.
Nature and Poetry
To choose a poem to highlight in this collection is difficult, as they are all worth reading, but following this Year of Poetry month’s theme, Nature and Poetry, we’ll focus on two poems that consider an aspect of nature and use that image to reflect on some of the complexities of human experience. Both poets were high school students.
I love, the birds that sing to me in the
Birth of morning.
I love, the cold clear water on my skin to wake
My rested face.
I love, walking briskly through the clean
Crisp noon air.
I love, to see people being
I love, to see love being loved
--- LaVerne Davis, New Rochelle H.S.
Have you ever watched a fly trying to get out a window?
It yearns for the sunshine on its back, and lost freedom.
It goes back and forth trying to get out.
Maybe it's trying to tell US something.
Should WE also try to get out,
Get back to the outdoors,
Escape from the prison called civilization?
To where a man is free and doesn't die from 9-5.
Where he's not boxed in by responsibility.
Yes, maybe WE also should be looking for the space in the window to Escape.
--- Robert Kaufmann, Albert Leonard Jr. H.S.
In Dee’s introduction to the collection, she stresses the importance of these poems:
American Negro Theater
The anthology is a poetic continuation of Dee’s activist work, and its target audience of “inner-city youth” is near and dear to Dee’s own experience growing up in Harlem in the 30s and 40s. She began her acting career with the American Negro Theater (ANT), a group founded in 1940 when Abram Hill and Frederick O’Neal approached librarians of the Harlem Branch of the New York Public Library system; the librarians offered the group the use of their basement stage and a game-changing theater troupe arose. Eventually, along with Ruby Dee, actors Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte came out of the American Negro Theater. ANT worked to write and produce theater that was thoughtful and radical.
The goals of the American Negro Theater were:
To develop a permanent acting company trained in the arts and crafts of the theatre that also reflected the special gifts, talents, and attributes of African Americans.
To produce plays that honestly and with integrity interpreted, illuminated, and criticized contemporary black life and the concerns of black people.
To maintain an affiliation with, and provide leadership for, other black theatre groups throughout the nation.
To utilize its resources to develop racial pride in the theatre, rather than racial apathy.
Ruby Dee is likely best known for her role in the stage and film productions of A Raisin in the Sun, which made its Broadway debut in 1959. Dee played Ruth Younger, the wife and mother of the impoverished Younger family. She became quite famous and popular, but never shied away from participation in political activism, leading her to be blacklisted and harshly criticized at several points in her career.
It is difficult to capture the breadth of Dee’s accomplishments in this space. To learn more about her amazing life and career, you can read a memorial piece, written just after her death, here.
Here is a video of Ruby Dee appearing on the Dick Cavett show in 1970, around the time that she began collecting poems for production in Glowchild, and other Poems.
Glowchild, and other Poems is a beautiful anthology, filled with poems by young black people writing about their experiences with the harsh realities of life. It’s disappointing to discover that the book was banned in libraries across the states. Dee carefully curated the anthology to incorporate poems that would be useful to young people who identified with the experiences of the writers; to take away access to that experience — and most of these bans took place in public school libraries — is a crime.
Rux, Carl Hancock. “Ruby Dee: 1922-2014.” American Theatre, no. 7, 2014, p. 20.
Smith, Jessie Carney and Lean’tin L. Bracks. Black Women of the Harlem Renaissance Era. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2014.
Some of the most interesting materials in FSU’s Special Collections are Artists’ Books (also known as Book Arts). These are works in which the form of the work, the art and decoration on its surfaces, and the book’s moving parts are as important as the text of the work. Artists’ Books come in many shapes and sizes, from tiny to oversized. They often play with the format of the codex — pieces of substrate (writing surfaces) linked along one side to form what we refer to as a “book” — making meaning in often profound and exciting ways.
The Artist’s Book we are highlighting today is A Repeated Misunderstanding of Nature, written and designed by Clifton Meador. Our copy is one of 25 that exist in the world. It comes in a “laser-cut birch plywood slipcase with dovetail joints,” and is broken into five volumes. Each volume has a different color schema that coordinates with the coloring of the seasonal forest scene depicted within. The volumes are accordion pleated and contain images and words only along one side; the back is blank.
Accordion pleated works give the reader freedom in how they are read. An accordion-pleated text can be turned into a typical book-ready experience by keeping the pages folded up and going one at a time. Alternately, they can be unfurled entirely, revealing the length of the work in full. A Repeated Misunderstanding of Nature has an additional complexity to its consumption, in that the text and images are facing separate directions; each volume contains a forest scene printed horizontally along the accordion folds while the text runs vertically down the long side of the bottom of the image.
The textual content is a supposed lecture by an imaginary professor, who discusses nature and our relationship to it at length. The text of the lecture is broken up into shorter phrases that sometimes jump away from the margin and “grow” into the forest scene.
The phrases take on a poetic quality, which is why it felt like the perfect choice for highlighting in our Year of Poetry blog series. While we often see poetry and prose and distinct forms, prose — especially spoken performance prose, as we might expect from a lecture — can take on a poetic quality, especially as it incorporates repetition, rhythm, and alliteration.
“The border of each image includes a text from a long, imaginary lecture by a professor who — even though he sounds convinced — is actually confused about how to understand nature: he drifts between thinking of nature as something to read and nature as an anthropomorphic presence. This work was inspired by Chinese literati landscape painting, a mode of art that used images of nature as a vocabulary rather than as representation of specific landscapes. For these literati, landscape was a metaphor for personal experience: for the confused professor in A Repeated Misunderstanding of Nature, these pictures of the autumnal forests of Maine become a book that defeats reading.” — Vamp & Tramp Booksellers Website
This beautiful work is available for you to examine in Florida State University’s Special Collections, and we invite you come see it in person! It is much bigger than can be perceived in the images here.
In keeping with month’s theme, Poetry and Nature, I wanted to turn back to Robert Burns’ “To a Mouse,” a poem that delights and provokes upon each reread. In the poem we can see Burns’ tendency to find inspiration in the everyday; a brief encounter with nature gives him the opportunity to ruminate on the state of man and mouse alike.
FSU’s Special Collections holds an incredible number of volumes of Robert Burns poetry, as well as ephemera connected to Burns fandom. A simple search for “Robert Burns” in the catalog of Special Collections items returns 149 items, including plays, music, biographies, and pamphlets, and most of these are either in the Shaw or Scottish collections.
Likely our rarest item is our copy of the Kilmarnock Burns, the earliest printing of a collection of Burns’ works; 612 copies were printed in 1786 on a subscription basis, and was immediately successful, turning Robert Burns into a national celebrity. It is in this volume that “To a Mouse” was first printed for public consumption. Here’s a video of Dawn Steele performing the work:
We learn in the poem’s subtitle, and in the lore surrounding its inception, that the titular “Mouse” was glimpsed, “On Turning up in Her Nest with the Plough, November, 1785.”
Burns laments this action, expressing dismay that he’s caused her tiny mouse-heart to race: “O, what a pannic’s in thy breastie!” Upon the poem’s closing, however, Burns has considered the differences between himself and the “wee beastie”: while both mice and men experience the roughness and instability in life, the mouse has the advantage in not being able to either dwell on the past or anxiously anticipate the future.
Spring is here, and FSU’s campus is covered in blossoming trees, lush green leaves, and curious critters. Take some time this week to consider your relationship to the natural world around you. Do you notice the little things on your walks through campus? Do you allow, as Burns did, these external stimuli to impact your thoughts and feelings about yourself, or even to provoke poetic expression?
This month begins FSU Libraries’ Year of Poetry, April 2018 – April 2019, an entire year of celebration dedicated to poetry in all of its forms and facets. Look out for events on campus that invite you to participate in exploring poetry creation and poetry enjoyment!
National Poetry Month is always in April, a reference to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land*:
The beautiful book pictured is from Florida State’s Special Collections. It is Eliot’s Poems, 1909-1925, a first edition of the first collection of Eliot’s poetry to include The Waste Land, a disjointed and highly allusive work that is central to modernist poetry.