Monday Apr. 25, 2016

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Four Secretaries

All through the day I hear or overhear
their clear, light voices calling
from desk to desk, young women whose fingers
play casually over their documents,

setting the incoming checks to one side,
the thick computer reports to the other,
tapping the correspondence into stacks
while they sing to each other, not intending

to sing nor knowing how beautiful
their voices are as they call back and forth,
singing their troubled marriage ballads,
their day-care, car-park, landlord songs.

Even their anger with one another
is lovely: the color rising in their throats,
their white fists clenched in their laps,
the quiet between them that follows.

And their sadness—how deep and full of love
is their sadness when one among them
is hurt, and they hear her calling
and gather about her to cry.

“Four Secretaries” by Ted Kooser from Weather Central. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 1994. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of poet Ted Kooser (books by this author), born on this day in Ames, Iowa (1939). In high school, he wasn’t a good athlete, and he wasn’t musical, so he decided that art and writing were his best bets at popularity. He said: “It was mostly about girls. I think if you asked most people in the arts about their real motivation for why they got in the arts you would find that had a lot to do with it.” He entered the architecture program at Iowa State, and it wasn’t until his junior year that he realized he couldn’t keep up with the math and physics. One day he sat confused in a class while all of his peers worked on their problem sets, and he finally stood up, walked straight out of the classroom, threw his slide rule in the lake at the center of campus, and dropped out of the architecture program. He graduated with a license to teach high school English, but his one year of teaching was a disaster. He was writing poems at the time, so he applied and was accepted to a graduate program at the University of Nebraska. After a year, he was kicked out because his grades were so bad.

Desperate, he paged through the want ads of the local paper and found a job answering letters at an insurance company, despite knowing nothing about insurance. He said, “The personnel manager was, I soon learned, an alcoholic, and I think he saw in me someone who would have a drink with him after work.” He preferred writing poems to insurance, but he decided that if he was going to be a poet on the side, he preferred the insurance office to academia. He had a stable job with benefits, and he liked that the work ended at 5 every evening, with no papers to grade or lessons to plan. Every morning he got up at 4:30 a.m., made a pot of coffee, and wrote poetry in a notebook until 7. Then he took a shower, put on a suit and tie, and went to the office. He stayed in insurance for more than 30 years, working as an underwriter and a public relations executive. He published his first book, Official Entry Blank, in 1969, and throughout the next few decades he continued to publish collections, mostly by small presses. He said, “I worked every day with people who didn’t read poetry, who hadn’t read it since they were in high school, and I wanted to write for them.”

In the summer of 1998, Kooser was at the dentist when his dentist noticed a spot in his mouth that looked worrisome. It turned out to be oral cancer. He had surgery and radiation, and spent months eating only liquids. He left his job and sank into depression — he even quit writing poetry and reading. Eventually, his physical strength began to return, but his radiation oncologist had warned him not to go out in the sun for a year, so he took a two-mile walk every morning before dawn on the back country roads of rural Nebraska. One day in November, he was surprised by the urge to write again, so he sat down after his walk and wrote a short poem. In order to force himself to continue, he decided to send a daily postcard with a short poem to his friend, the writer Jim Harrison. Those poems eventually became the book Winter Morning Walks, 100 Postcards to Jim Harrison (2000).

One evening in 2004, he was trying to decide what to make for dinner when he got a call asking if he would like to be the next U.S. poet laureate. He was so taken aback that he asked if he could think about it and call back the next day. He accepted, and became the first poet laureate from the Great Plains. During his tenure, he began the column “American Life in Poetry.” His books include Weather Central (1994), Delights and Shadows (2004), The Poetry Home Repair Manual (2005), and Valentine (2007).

He said, “This writing business you have to accustom yourself to is about failing again and again, and to not let that hold you up because if you keep at it day, after day, after day, after day, eventually you’ll get better.”

And: “Frankly, there’s nothing wrong with sentiment. Sentimentality is very much in the eye of the beholder. And unless you’re writing with sentiment, you’re not writing at all. Your writing is cold and remote. It’s better to walk that line.”

It’s the birthday of American novelist Padgett Powell (books by this author), born in Gainesville, Florida (1952). He spent much of his youth moving around Florida. He’d gone to 17 different schools by the time he entered his senior year of high school. He won a scholarship to the College of Charleston in South Carolina, where he got Ds in English and wrote a column called “Fighting About Writing” for the school newspaper under the pseudonym “Scruff Taurus.”

It was at the College of Charleston that he first thought he might be a writer. A professor read one of his stories and said, “The prose is strong. I’ve had intelligent students before, but not brilliant.” She dropped a copy of Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner in his lap and told him to read it. He did. He also devoured Flannery O’Connor, Truman Capote, and Tennessee Williams. He didn’t mind belonging to the hefty tradition of Southern literature. He said, “It’s a good bloodline, and one must be from a bloodline.”

By the time he moved to Texas, where he worked as a roofer for eight years, his ear for dialogue was pitch-perfect and he began writing lyrical, often uproarious, stories that centered on beaten-down people, Piggly Wiggly stores, booze, and trucks. In Powell’s fictional world, a woman uses an umbrella to fence with lizards in her garden. Another feeds a pet alligator golf balls. His short story “Typical” begins: “Yesterday a few things happened. Every day a few do. My dog beat up another dog. He does this when he can. It’s his living, more or less, though I’ve never let him make money doing it. He could.”

His first novel, Edisto (1984), about a 10-year-old boy and his wild upbringing in coastal South Carolina, received rave reviews and was compared to The Catcher in the Rye. He went on to publish several more novels, including Mrs. Hollingsworth’s Men (2000) and The Interrogative Mood: A Novel (2009), which is composed entirely of questions. He was inspired by a colleague who sent emails only containing questions. He started writing, didn’t stop, and said, “One day I realized that I had 142 pages of it — it was long enough to be a book.”

On creating characters, Padgett Powell says, “Unless one’s talent is large, characters are a portion or aspect of oneself, a generally inexcusable facet, which is where the mantle of ‘fiction’ comes in handy.”

It’s the birthday of the “First Lady of Song,” Ella Fitzgerald, born in Newport News, Virginia, in 1917. She is widely considered to be the greatest jazz singer ever, and one of the best singers in all of 20th-century music.

Ella Fitzgerald loved to sing and dance as a child. And when she was 16, she entered a contest at the Apollo Theater, at that time no more than a hip local club in Harlem. She had a dance routine worked out and walked on stage wearing ragged clothes and men’s boots, but she froze up. Later she said: “I got out there and I saw all the people and I just lost my nerve. And the man said, ‘Well, you’re out here, do something!’ So I tried to sing.” She sang Connee Boswell’s “Judy” and received such an ovation that she stayed on to sing “The Object of My Affection.” She won the contest and soon became a celebrity across all of New York. She joined Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington as the only performers who could draw audiences at the Apollo from south of 125th Street.

She rose to international stardom in the ’40s, joining the Philharmonic tour and working with such musicians as Louis Armstrong, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, the Gershwins, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, and Rodgers and Hart. Ira Gershwin once said, “I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.”

Ella Fitzgerald said: “I know I’m no glamour girl, and it’s not easy for me to get up in front of a crowd of people. It used to bother me a lot, but now I’ve got it figured out that God gave me this talent to use, so I just stand there and sing.”

It’s the birthday of writer Howard R. Garis (books by this author), born in Binghamton, New York (1873). His most famous character is Uncle Wiggily, a gentlemanly old rabbit who always wears a suit and a silk top hat. Garis was a reporter for the Newark Evening News and he wrote hundreds of children’s books, many of them as a ghostwriter. He published his first Uncle Wiggily story in a newspaper in 1910, and it was so popular that he ended up publishing an Uncle Wiggily story six days a week for more than 30 years. By the time he retired, he had written more than 10,000 stories about the rabbit.

He wrote, “Half the fun of nearly everything, you know, is thinking about it beforehand, or afterward.”

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