Saturday Jan. 10, 2015

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New Year Love

I remember our breath
in the icy air
and how the northern lights gathered
in a haze at the horizon,
spread up past the water tower
then vanished into the dark.
I remember that January night in North Dakota:
We left the dance,
the hoods of our dads’ air force parkas zipped tight,
our bare hands pulled into the coat sleeves.
We ran
into the wind
down the drifting sidewalks of our eighth-grade lives
to the brick-and-clapboard row houses on Spruce Street.
We ducked between buildings
and you pulled me close.
A flickering light from someone’s TV screen.
A kitchen window.
Your fingers tracing my face.
Your hair brushing my eyes.
Your skin, your lips.
My legs.
My heart.
I remember that January night in North Dakota,
but I can’t remember your name.

“New Year Love” by Kristal Leebrick. © Kristal Leebrick. Reprinted with permission of the author.  

It’s the birthday of poet Philip Levine (books by this author), born in Detroit, Michigan (1928). He started working in auto factories at the age of 14. Some of his high school teachers convinced him to apply for college, so he went to enroll at a local college, Wayne State University. When they asked him if he wanted a bachelor’s, he had never heard of it — he thought they were referring to a type of apartment, and he told them he already had a place to live. In college, Levine discovered how much he loved poetry. He continued to work at auto plants during college and after graduation, and it was so loud in there that he recited poetry aloud without anyone hearing.

He studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Stanford, and then got a job teaching at Cal State Fresno. In 1963, he published his first book, On the Edge. His early poetry didn’t draw much on his life in Detroit. He said: “I found the places hateful, and the work was exhausting. Even in my imagination I didn’t want to spend time where I was working. [...] I was unable to write anything worth keeping about Detroit for years.” That changed about 10 years after he left. He said: “I had a dream about people I’d known there. I woke up and realized that I was ignoring a big piece of my life and needed to go back to deal with it. About an hour later, I got an idea while eating breakfast in my pajamas.” He called in sick to Cal State and got to work, writing eight of the nine poems that appeared in his second book, Not This Pig (1968).

He wrote poems about factory workers and regular people working hard, in Detroit and places like it across the country. He said: “As young people will, you know, I took this foolish vow that I would speak for them and that’s what my life would be. And sure enough I’ve gone and done it.”

His books include The Names of the Lost (1975), What Work Is (1992), The Simple Truth (1994), and News of the World (2009).

It’s the birthday of a poet who said, “I love poetry that feels as it thinks.” That’s Dorianne Laux (books by this author), born in Augusta, Maine (1952). She grew up poor in San Diego, barely making it through school. Her stepfather abused her throughout her childhood and teenage years, and through it all she wrote poems. She said: “I wouldn’t have gotten through that without a friend. If I hadn’t been able to talk with myself, with respect, as a whole human being, who had a mind and heart and desires, a goodness, a desire to be good — you know, all of those things, I think, are the original impulse when we sit down and write.” When she was a teenager, her parents committed her to a mental institution, and it was there that she published her first poem, in a book of poetry put together by the patients.

She worked as a waitress, and after her daughter was born she decided she needed a more stable career. She had always been good at writing, so she went back to school to become a journalist or editor. One of her composition classes had a poetry unit, and her professor was so impressed that she told Laux that she should become a poet. She didn’t think she would ever make a living from poetry, but she started giving readings and publishing poems, and published her first book, Awake (1990). She said: “You could’ve knocked me over with a feather. That was not something I thought would ever happen.” She wrote four more books of poetry, including What We Carry (1994) and The Book of Men (2011).

And, “Any good poem is asking you simply to slow down.”

RCA introduced the 45-rpm record on this date in 1949. It wasn’t the first flat record — that honor belonged to the old 78-rpm, which had been around since the late 1880s. But the 78 was big — about 10 inches in diameter — and because the grooves were wide and it spun around fast, you couldn’t fit much music on one side. It was made of a brittle, thick shellac and broke easily if dropped. Still, it was the standard for recorded music for almost 70 years.

In 1948, Columbia came out with a much slower-speed disc, the 33-rpm record, otherwise known as the LP (for “long-playing”). At a foot in diameter, it was even bigger than the 78, but it held much more music — up to an hour’s worth. Its grooves were only one-fourth the width of a 78’s grooves, and the needles were finer. The 33 was made out of vinyl, which was more flexible and made the records more durable. Because the 33 could hold multiple songs, it came to be known as an album.

But RCA developers realized that people might not always want to buy a whole album of songs. They came out with the 45-rpm “single” which contained just two songs: the A-side, which featured the song that the studio predicted to be a hit; and the B-side, which was just a bonus. Jukebox makers quickly abandoned the 78 format for the seven-inch 45, because you could fit more records into one jukebox. The smaller, cheaper format was popular with teenagers, who couldn’t afford albums, and the rise of the single coincided with the rise of rock-and-roll music.

And it’s the birthday of Stephen E. Ambrose (books by this author), born in Lovington, Illinois (1936), who wrote several best-selling books about American history, including Band of Brothers (1992) and Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West (1996).

He was a longtime professor, and many of the stories he wrote in his popular history books were ones he’d told over and over to his college students, trying hard to entertain them. He said: “There is nothing like standing before 50 students at 8:00 a.m. to start talking about an event that occurred 100 years ago, because the look on their faces is a challenge — ‘Let’s see you keep me awake.’ You learn what works and what doesn’t in a hurry.”

Ambrose participated in the more than 1,400 interviews of World War II veterans, collecting oral histories of the war, and he drew upon those interviews to write one of his most popular books, D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II (1994). He was also the founder and director of the National D-Day Museum, which opened in New Orleans in 2000. He died in 2002.

Ambrose said: “The number one secret of being a successful writer is this: Marry an English major.”

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®