Women Writers Wednesday 6/3/15

Here’s an informal poll: what books have changed your life?

I’m not looking for a Facebook-viral list of 25 Important Books You’d Die on a Desert Island Without or anything like that. I want to know, what that one book is which changed something vital about your existence. You might have ten favorite books you could no sooner rank than you could choose a favorite among your children or pets. This is not that dilemma. What is the one piece of literature that made some aspect of you profoundly different?

There are many books which have affected me deeply, no doubt, in a variety of ways. But one book that absolutely changed the course of my life is Gregory Maguire’s Wicked. This book, and dinner with the author himself at a mutual friend’s home, inspired me to pursue fiction writing seriously rather than to get another degree in poetry. The course of my professional life was forever and probably irrevocably altered by this choice.

I’d love to know what book has mattered this much to you. In the comments below, leave an anecdote about a single book that has meant something special. In fact, the first five people to respond will get a free copy of Finis. for themselves or gifted to someone else.

Today’s Women Writers Wednesday comes to us from Carla Jean Whitley about a book which had a deep and lasting impact on her.

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If you’re a bookworm, you’re probably acquainted with the experience of a book hangover, if not the term itself. It’s the feeling that overcomes you when you approach the end of a book that has captured not only your attention, but your heart. Book hangovers follow the stories, essays, or poems that affect a life so powerfully, it becomes hard to believe there are other books worth your time.

Within the first two chapters of Anna Quindlen’s “How Reading Changed My Life,” I knew that I’d encountered just such a book. In this essay collection, Quindlen recounts the value of reading, whether the object of your affection is high-brow literature or a novel from childhood. It’s only 96 pages, and so I was mourning its inevitable conclusion by the end of the second chapter.

from Random House's publicity site
from Random House’s publicity site

“How Reading Changed My Life” immediately found a place on the shelf among my favorite, most-trusted books. It’s a book I turn to time and again, and one I frequently select as a gift for fellow readers.

And while this remains the book of Quindlen’s I cherish the most, it is also the gateway drug. Her columns for the New York Times and Newsweek are compelling—she won a 1992 Pulitzer for her Times work, after all—and in the books that have collected those, I’ve found a kindred spirit. Quindlen is a writer, a mom, and a wife who offers insight on all areas of life. She left nonfiction years ago with the intent of working solely as a novelist (and her recent Still Life with Bread Crumbs is my favorite of her fiction). But over the years, Quindlen has continued to shed light on family, politics, life, and age. She is a woman I love to read.

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Carla Jean Whitley is a writer, editor, and teacher based in Birmingham, Alabama, where she is a features writer for Alabama Media Group. She is the author of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio: How the Swampers Changed American Music and Balancing Act: Yoga Essays. Her next book, Birmingham Beer: The Role of Alabama’s Largest City in Changing the State’s Beer Culture, is scheduled for release this spring. Connect with her at carlajeanwhitley.com.

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To see more kinds of reviews like the ones in this series, check out these blogs by Melanie Page and Lynn Kanter. And of course go to the Sappho’s Torque Books page here to see other reviews by me and by other contributors to the Women Writers Wednesday series.

The Women Writers Wednesday series seeks to highlight the contributions of women in literature by featuring excellent literature written by women authors via reviews/responses written by other women authors. If you’d like to be a contributor, wonderful! Leave a comment below or send me an email, tweet, or Facebook message with your idea.

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Women Writers Wednesday 4/1/15

This month I’m running two series at the same time. I’ve already got Women Writers Wednesdays going strong, but I also like to feature different poets each day during the month of April for National Poetry Month. (The latter is a series I started last April, and you can follow those posts from 2014 starting here.)

But this year, I didn’t want to abandon my Women Writers Wednesday series, which has been so much fun and so well received, and so this month, I’m hoping to have WWW reviews of female poets. We’ll commence that today with Anna Leahy’s review of Broom by Joelle Biele.

There is information at the end of this post on how to contribute to the WWW series, if you’re so inclined. And I may still end up with a couple of spots left over in the Poet-A-Day series this month, so if you’d like to get in an eleventh-hour submission, now’s a really good time to contact me.

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Broom by Joelle Biele

 

Joelle Biele and I studied together as MFA students at the University of Maryland years ago. Though I haven’t spent time with her since, she was then an incredibly attentive, writerly reader and a very good poet, so I have followed her career—the poetry collection White Summer and the book of Elizabeth Bishop’s correspondences with The New Yorker that she edited. Two of Broom’s poems, “Apologia” and “Birthday Poem,” appeared in TAB, the literary journal I edit. Perhaps, these connections make me not objective enough, but it seems more likely that Joelle has earned my respect through her writing over the years and that my awareness of our connections increases the burden I feel to explain my enthusiasm for her new book.

 

BROOM cover

 

Broom is the winner of the Bordighera Poetry Prize, which is funded by The Sonia Raiziss-Giop Charitable Foundation and is housed at the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute. As a result of this context, the poems in Broom appear in English on left-hand pages and as Italian translations by Irene Marchegiani and Emanuele Pettener on right-hand pages. I don’t read Italian, but I appreciate the juxtaposition and the visual and tactile reminder of the larger world, the wide audience for poetry, and the notion that words and form matter.

 

More than ten years ago, poet Beth Ann Fennelly published an article called “The Winnowing of Wildness: On First Book Contests and Style,” which explored the pressures that emerging poets are under to produce a stylistically and/or thematically cohesive collection. Fennelly argues that someone like Elizabeth Bishop would have likely not produced North and South as we know it, that we would be left with “an impaired understanding of her development as a writer,” and that we would not understand her later poems as deeply.

 

I agree with Fennelly to some extent but must admit that I often like the ways poets play with cohesiveness in a collection and think Broom is an especially terrific exploration of both coherence and range. Biele conveys a voice, style, and loose theme and uses that to expand, spinning closer to and further from those elements.

 

Numerous fourteen-line (sonnet-length) poems to her children Katherine and Andrew are threaded through this book. In the poem “To Andrew: at Seventeen Months,” the child asks the speaker for the kitchen broom, sweeps and role-plays with it, all the while “waving your baton, directing me / into my life, into what I don’t know.” In these poems to the two children, the speaker is learning, often awed, sometimes worried, and always tilting into the next moment and the next. So these poems are about motherhood and about childhood but also about how any of us might experience life, open to experience and appreciative of the fleeting moments that continue to shape us year after year.

 

Biele’s poems attend to form and rhythm, so I was surprised to find a short essay as the third of four sections in the book. This prose piece fits beautifully; it discusses the past, childhood, danger, response. “The Field” negotiates emotional and intellectual understanding of the past and made me think about events of my own past that shaped me or, interestingly, didn’t. Joelle and I grew up making up our own play, whereas children these days have scheduled play dates. Reading this piece cast me back into other poems, seeing them as even more suggestive of universal touchstones.

 

Perhaps my favorite poems are “Biopsy” and “Edisto,” which, to my sensibility, speak to each other, though they are positioned far apart. “Biopsy” is a fourteen-line poem in which the speaker observes the biopsy on the beloved you. The speaker believes “whoever has the most information wins.” We want to believe, especially in the face of a cancer diagnosis, that information is power. The poem reveals at the end, “Fourteen months later you entered remission. / I thought it was over. It was only the start.”

 

“Edisto” dwells in a place, as numerous other poems in Broom explore how place or nature shapes us: “Did we think we could live here, that we could / change our lives, that we could drive / down these sandy roads and pull to the side […]?” Yes, in fact, that’s what we tend to think, and if that’s true, we can learn how a stream heals by scarring over and how an iris flowers before dying. The poem’s wisdom is that “[…] we knew to be saved / we had to become something else […]”

 

Broom, then, suggests that we can look back to see how we have become who we are, though that’s a precarious understanding that doesn’t predict the future. What happens to the speaker in these poems did not happen to me, but we each have people, places, and events in our lives that create meaning. To survive, we must change and allow ourselves to be changed. We continually become who we are, Broom beautifully asserts.

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Anna Leahy’s book Constituents of Matter won the Wick Poetry Prize, and recent essays appear at Literary Orphans and OZY. She teaches in the MFA and BFA programs at Chapman University, where she curates the Tabula Poetica Reading Series and edits the international journal TAB. She co-writes Lofty Ambitions blog at http://loftyambitions.wordpress.com.

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To see more kinds of reviews like the ones in this series, check out these blogs by Melanie Page and Lynn Kanter. And of course go to the Sappho’s Torque Books page here to see other reviews by me and by other contributors to the Women Writers Wednesday series.

The Women Writers Wednesday series seeks to highlight the contributions of women in literature by featuring excellent literature written by women authors via reviews/responses written by other women authors. If you’d like to be a contributor, wonderful! Leave a comment below or send me an email, tweet, or Facebook message with your idea.