Inspiration Delivered to Your Inbox

In a “J’accuse” moment, the poet David Clewell once observed that many people write poetry…yet few seem to actually buy it. The same could be said of the nosey, noisy Internet. So many of us are blogging, posting, “liking” and commenting that I wonder who is actually reading any of it.

In the last few months, I’ve taken a stand. I’ve unsubscribed from the dozens of vendors and social media sites whose ubiquitous emails both distracted and overwhelmed.  As a result, I actually read the email messages I’ve chosen to keep.

Although I rarely add to these subscriptions, I’ve discovered a site that’s—dare I say it?—inspirational. It’s called Brain Pickings. It you subscribe they’ll send a weekly e-newsletter that contains fascinating information about artists, writers, and thinkers—whether from a previous century, or recent headlines. They also recommend books on topics ranging from creativity to science, history to psychology. The emails are free, but the site welcomes donations. I’ve included a link to a recent newsletter here:

Also, check out the site for yourself:

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Worth Reading

This past weekend, my friend John sent me a link to the essay I want to share with you now. It’s by Joe Queenan and it’s about reading…about physical books…about that secret and mysterious relationship between reader and text. It’s from the Wall Street Journal….and I promise: it’s worth your time.

Joe Queenan: My 6,128 Favorite Books –

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Marching Back Into The Sea

I’m dreading election season. It’s only August, but I’ve already had more than enough of the negative political ads, even as I know that there are more—many, many more—to come. The lack of decency and respect…the easy disregard for facts, both overwhelm and dishearten me. But then there are days, like today, when I find I can still be shocked—even frightened by a candidate.  I’m talking about Republican U.S. Senate nominee Todd Akin. During an interview on KTVI, the St. Louis Fox affiliate yesterday; Mr. Aiken was asked about his opposition to abortion rights, even in the case of rape.  His response, as reported in today’s St. Louis Post Dispatch:

“”First of all, from what I understand from doctors, (pregnancy) is really rare” in rape cases, Akin said. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” He added: “But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.”

Where to begin? With his poor grasp of anatomy and physiology? His disregard for the brutality and psychological trauma a woman endures during a rape…and the effects that continue—sometimes for years—afterward? Or his covert suggestion that women participate in these violations through his designation of “legitimate rape” as opposed to…. what? Added to the horror of the rape itself, Mr. Aiken would have a victim—assuming her body doesn’t “shut the whole thing down”— forced to carry the product of a rape to term. Chilling stuff. Even more so when I learned that Mr. Ryan (Mitt Romney’s running mate) was among some 200 Conservatives who also supported “legitimate rape” language in their anti-abortion efforts. Sounds a lot like 1950—or 1850 for that matter. Or is it more ominous still, with our species slowly marching back into the sea?

You can read an online version of the Post-Dispatch article below.

“Akin says ‘legitimate’ rape won’t cause pregnancy – Stltoday”

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Cry Out In Anguish

So many millions of words have been spoken about the need for gun control, for the end to violent movies and games, or for censoring songs that degrade the other, or call for mayhem. The debate will likely surge in the aftermath of the Aurora, Colorado shootings. The opposition will claim inalienable first and second amendment rights guaranteed by our Constitution. But like selective readers of the Bible who cite passages to promote their own agendas, these people conveniently forget that LIFE is the first guarantee of our Declaration of Independence.

Our nation spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year to watch adrenalin-pumped car chases, shoot-outs against dramatic lighting or slo-mo special effects, choreographed to surging music. We celebrate cryptic, testosterone-laden exchanges. We glorify the torture and the guns and our ability to shock and awe, insisting: ‘This is strength. This is prowess. This is what victory looks like.’

Well, America…. Here is the other side of what we glorify: A desperate father searching for his son in the aftermath of the Aurora shooting. Hours later, Mr. Sullivan would learn that his 27-year-old son, Alex, was among the dead.

This is what anguish looks like.

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The Writer Exits

Is there any connection between the creative imagination and depression? Suicide? What prompts an artist to decide that death is the answer?  July 2, 2012 marks 51 years since the Nobel Laureate Ernest Hemingway shot himself to death. In 1984, Richard Brautigan also ended his life with a gunshot. Iris Chang died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 2004. Hunter S. Thompson put a bullet through his brain in 2005. In 1941, Virginia Woolf drowned herself in a nearby river. In 1972, the poet John Berryman killed himself by jumping from a bridge. Spalding Gray and Hart Crane also chose watery ends. Many opt for medication: Swedish poet and novelist Karin Boye, Jack London, and Carolyn Heilbrun. Charlotte Perkins Gilman took an overdose of chloroform. David Foster Wallace hung himself. John Kennedy Toole died of carbon monoxide poisoning… as did Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. In 1991, Jerzy Kosinski killed himself by placing a plastic bag over his head. Michael Dorris also died of self-inflicted asphyxiation. Primo Levi threw himself down a stairway. Yukio Mishima ended his life in 1970 by committing seppuku. The list of writer suicides is long. The reasons for these exits are as varied as the means the writers chose. Some left suicide notes. Others may have left clues in their writing, or in conversations with family and friends.

Whatever these writers believed they were leaving— or heading toward— may never be known. But for some insight on depression, I recommend an article by the psychiatrist Michael Brog. You can download the pdf at this link:




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Thank you, Terry Gross!

A few weeks ago, I heard an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air between Terry Gross and the poet Marie Howe. I’d never heard of Howe…but the poems she read on the air were riveting. I was equally captivated by the interview itself: Howe spoke about her late brother with a tone all weary insight and wise love. I knew I wanted to read her work. But then again, we’re talking about poetry in 21st century America. None of the indie bookstores in my area carried Howe. The same was true of Barnes and Noble. I came up empty at my public library and a local university library as well.

I realize that the phenomenal number of books published each year make it impossible for any one store (or chain) to carry everything. But the absence of Howe had me worried. If not for that NPR interview, how would a reader learn about her? Howe’s last two books were published by W.W. Norton. And, theoretically at least, Norton has established channels for getting her work into the world. But I couldn’t find her locally. If I had missed that interview, would I ever have encountered the work of Marie Howe?

I learned that I could order all three of Howe’s books from Amazon, but was informed there would be a delay in getting a copy of her first collection, The Good Thief (1988), which won the 1987 Open Competition of the National Poetry Series, and was selected by Margaret Atwood. Amazon was my least favorite option. I take delight in browsing bookstore shelves, reading titles, studying the cover art on books, the construction of the books themselves. Amazon doesn’t afford me any of these pleasures. But to their credit, they had the books.

I’ve now read all three of Marie Howe’s collections: The Good Thief (1988); What the Living Do (1998) and The Kingdom of Ordinary Time (2008). These books are wonderful, soulful encounters and I encourage you to discover them for yourself. Below, here’s an excerpt of a poem titled The World, from The Kingdom of Ordinary Time:

“I couldn’t tell which stars were which or how far away any one of them was,           

       or which were still burning or not—their light moving through space like a


 late train—and I’ve lived on this earth so long—50 winters, 50 springs and


and all this time stars in the sky—in daylight

When I couldn’t see them, and at night when, most nights, I didn’t look.”

I also encourage you to download the Fresh Air interview that first introduced me to Marie Howe. Thank you, Terry Gross!

Go to:

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Now…Who Was I?

Ours is a time of hyper-distractibility. Don’t have a smartphone? How do you get your texts? Send your instant photos? Check email, the weather, stocks? How do you know how far you’ve walked since noon? Which way is west? How many friends do you have on Facebook? How many followers on Twitter?  Are you keeping up with everyone’s tweets? Do those 140 characters tell you all you need to know?  Does that 20-second sound bite reveal enough of the daily news? Sure it does. No it doesn’t.  Doesn’t matter. Most of the news is sad and frightening. And besides, what can any one person do? Want to relax? Is that even possible? The stress to conform is overwhelming.  It’s not just what you wear, or the coffee you drink. It’s everything anyone points a finger at. ‘Buy this, get this, be this.’ He who hesitates is yesterday’s news…and the day after that, no one even cares. Does your need for entertainment overwhelm?  Is this a sign of weakness—or disease? Not to worry. There’s always the zillion-dollar pharm conglomerate…. with drugs thoughtfully suggested—their effects dramatized—between episodes of your favorite prime-time show. Available also on cable. Or Hula. Or who knows where. Reality TV is real…don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. No need to peek behind the curtain. Who could make this stuff up?

Who?  An opossum named Pogo offered a conclusion from another generation: “It’s us.”

Amid this clamor and shove, St. Louis recently attempted the truly subversive: a time out to listen…to think about context. It gave people the opportunity to ask questions…and develop a personal response… to discuss a course of action. It took the form of a two-day humanities festival—free and open to the public. While the events could have been better publicized and better attended, they served as a very respectable start to what’s been promised as an annual event.

On April 13 and 14, in conjunction with the Missouri Humanities Council, the University of Missouri—St. Louis (UMSL), Webster University and the Center for the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis hosted events at their campuses.

The Saint Louis Humanities Festival opened with a presentation by Shelton Johnson, a novelist and Yosemite park ranger of African American and Native American descent. He gave a presentation: “Gloryland: Literature and Interpretive History as Tools for Social Change.” Johnson’s appearance at UMSL featured readings from his novel, Gloryland (2009) about African American members of the US Calvary, known as “Buffalo Soldiers,” in the segregated U.S. Army. The book is a fictional memoir of a Black Indian from South Carolina who becomes a Buffalo Soldier assigned to patrol Yosemite in 1903. In writing the book, Johnson called upon years of research as well as his own understanding as a ranger of Yosemite National Park to give voice to these men and their struggles.

The second event on April 13th featured Brian Turner, a poet and veteran. His introduction by David Clewell, former Poet Laureate of Missouri, professor and Director of Webster University’s Creative Writing program, was a full foot past riveting and in the best tradition of oral storytelling. Turner read from his 2005 collection, Here, Bullet as well as his second poetry collection, Phantom Noise (2010). Turner holds a MFA from the University of Oregon and also served seven years in the US Army, including one year as an infantry leader in Iraq and deployment to Bosnia-Herzegovina. Turner was joined by three other US veterans who participated in Missouri’s Warrior Writers Project, sponsored by the Missouri Humanities Council. After their readings, the veterans joined Turner in a panel discussion to talk about their experiences as soldiers and writers. Imagine: turning to the humanities to find the way back from war…the way back to the self.

The third and final event of the two-day festival was a screening of the documentary, “Battle for Brooklyn,” followed by a Q&A with filmmaker Michael Galinsky.  The film chronicles the fight between the residents of Brooklyn, New York and the developers behind Atlantic Yards, a massive urban project that threatened to destroy their homes. “Battle for Brooklyn” was produced and directed by Galinksy and Suki Hawley, whose previous documentaries include  “Horns and Halos” (2002), “Radiation” (1999) and “Half-Cocked” (1994).

Didn’t make it to the festival? Read the books.  Watch the movie.

Log on and listen to the event at Webster University.  The pacing is humane, the dialogue, personal. Once you’re past the administrative welcomes and intros, you might be amazed by what you hear:

And after that? Do something truly subversive today: take time to think. For yourself. Keep it all a secret until you need it again.  Until you think you recognize a cultural behavioral disorder.

It’s not too late to remember who you are.

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