What I Was Reading in June 2020 

For the next few posts,  I've decided to share a few of the great reads I did as a reviewer for WVXU's Around Cincinnati from 2010-2020.  Most of the books were from academic presses. And most of them changed or enriched my life in some way.  I'd love to begin with Tree Story by tree scientist Valerie Trouet. You can listen to the review at this link if you prefer.

Tree Story 

I am Roberta Schultz 

In these uncertain times, plagued too often with the clutter of political rhetoric and bluster, I am grateful for the university press books I get to review.  Many of them are science texts written by exceptionally talented women like Belgian tree ring scientist, Valerie Trouet whose new book from John Hopkins University Press, Tree Story: The History of the World Written in Rings, offers a passionate, yet clear-eyed introduction to the field of dendrochronology—the scientific study of tree rings used to map climate patterns, accurately date archeological digs, and even to determine what caused some civilizations to collapse or disappear. 

To invite someone who loves poetry into a science book, it’s probably best to make the reader feel as welcome as possible.  Trouet sucked me in by using one of Mary Oliver’s  short poems as an opening quote: 

Instructions for living a life 

Pay attention. 

Be astonished. 

Tell about it. 

In one of my poetry groups, we often refer to the skill of beginning poems as “handing the reader the coffee cup so that they can grasp the handle.” Trouet handed me this cup of tree ring science by a handle I could grasp firmly, allowing me to sip at the more difficult charts and methodology while I gulped down conclusions and savored her writer’s brew.  And to delight the songwriter in me, there were chapter titles with music allusions like “I Count the Rings Down in Africa,” “It’s the End of the World as We Know It,” and “Heart of Gold.” 

One of the conclusions I was able to take away from Trouet’s discussion of tree ring science is that tree rings can be employed as accurate archeological dating tools, far surpassing carbon dating and other methods in accuracy once adequate samples are identified and cored.  She opens the book with an account of how dendrochronologists were able to accurately date the ring patterns in the wood in a Stradivarius violin to ascertain that it was the genuine article.  She also describes how tree rings scientists help archaeologists accurately date sites in the Americas by analyzing preserved or water-logged wood samples.  Because dendrochronology sits at the nexus of ecology, climatology, and history, it reveals the interaction between human history and environmental history. 

Perhaps one of the more compelling roles of tree ring science is its ability to measure human impact on the planet as the discipline addresses the issue of climate change.  While opponents of climate change have argued that most of what we are experiencing in the 21st Century is simply a cycle that the earth has been through many times before, these opponents offer little proof for their conclusions.  Tree ring science graphs those cycles, often going back as far as 12,000 years in some cases, by studying ancient trees, roots and water-logged samples.  Trouet discusses some of the major cycles in climate through the lens of counting rings and then comparing the data to other scientific and historical accounts.  What she concludes about most of the earth’s cooling and warming cycles is that they happened in correlation with seismic, volcanic, and solar radiation activity and seemed to occur in somewhat regular cycles during humanity’s tenure until the 20th Century where the warming factor spikes to produce a graph referred to by dendrochronologists as The Hockey Stick.  Evidence supports that our humanity’s carbon footprint has led to this prominent spike in warming. 

Trouet offers the reader glimpses into what tree ring scientists do on a typical foray to gather data from trees, starting with the information that no gathering of samples is ever typical.  Some of her field studies send her to mountain peaks in Greece to sample 1000-year-old trees with heavy boring equipment that must be packed up the mountain as well as back down along with the core samples gathered or even sliced portions called “cookies” when a tree is felled.  She also takes us along to a remote area in Russia where the “road” is lined on either side with thick forest and pocked with three and four feet deep mud holes. Her fellow scientists on that field study are all men who work round the clock hours in 95 degree heat, stopping only to eat every six hours or so.  And then, she shares her much easier solo adventures coring trees for fire wounds in the Sierra Nevada range while staying in U.S. Forest Service digs. 

Perhaps I was most affected by the sections where the author links the fall or disappearance of past civilizations when those cultures meet the perfect storm of climate change, pandemic, and economic disruption.  It all started to sound a little too familiar.  At some point Rome got too comfortable with its “necessary” leisure activities, ignoring the farmers and their plight.  Large groups of people began to migrate across the continent to escape drought, famine and war.  And then, there was an outbreak of malaria.  Similar circumstances plagued the fall of many cultures in our history.  Valerie Trouet and tree science offer evidence that some cultures find ways to pivot and live with the changes.  When the Norse had to back off their settlements in Greenland because of a new ice age, the Inuit perfected their walrus-hunting and thrived near the site of those abandoned outposts.  In a time  where humanity has an increased environmental impact, there is always the chance to make a crucial turn. 

 

I am Roberta Schultz

April is the Fullest Month for Reading Poetry 

This month I read poems.  Well, I always read poems—online, in my various poetry groups, and in assigned readings for the Gauntlet and Draft to Craft.  However, given the poetry explosion that is National Poetry Month, I read many more poems than I would in a regular month.  Although, I am no longer sure what a “regular month” might actually entail.  My sense of time passing has been permanently altered by this whole pandemic experience.  I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. 

Since some of my friends have shared poetry through their blogs for National Poetry Month and the Kentucky Arts Council invited writers to make video readings for the Council’s celebration of Kentucky Writers’ Day, I have enjoyed way more new poetry than I would normally read through a daily dose of Rattle.  Kim Blum Hyclak, a poet I met through Table Rock Writers in North Carolina, spends each April sharing interviews with poets on her blog.  That’s a thirty day commitment to asking thoughtful questions and presenting samples of someone else’s work.  Each day, she’s presented some poets I know and some I’ve never read. 

As poetry editor for a busy publication, I know this is a labor of love for her.  This year she invited me as one of her 30 guests for April.  You can read her blog entries about 30 poets at  A Writer’s Window.  And you can enjoy videos from Kentucky poets at Kentucky Arts Council’s facebook page. And Cincinnati Magazine talked to four area poets, including me, for April’s issue. 

For the Poetry Gauntlet, I read Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary in which she often constructs her poems through an avant-garde literary game called “s+7” or “n+7.”  Because my head spins at structuring a pantoum or even a ghazal, I am not yet ready to wade into the waters of another formula for my own writing.  In fact, when my husband Gary and I used to keep stats for Simon Kenton Football, I had to make myself something entitled “Roberta’s Remedial Yards Gained Chart”  on which I could literally draw where the ball was spotted on my little football field in order to figure out yards gained from the hashmarks.  I’m starting to think that I should also create some right-brained visuals for villanelles, sestinas, pantoums, and ghazals. There could be a market there.  I did enjoy most of Mullen’s poems even though they were challenging to my “story plus picture” oriented brain.  The sound play was phenomenal. 

That’s why I was more than happy to read Manuel Iris’ latest collection, The Parting Present. This beautiful new collection from Dos Madres Press celebrates fatherhood. Iris gifts the reader with his poems in Spanish and English, usually on opposing pages for bi-lingual enjoyment.  After slogging through the cultural and poetic density of Mullen’s text, I was very much ready for the poetics of silence.  Iris believes that some ideas and emotions are difficult to translate from those internal countries of origin.  He defines poetry as that language which attempts to translate silence.  As one might expect, Manuel Iris writes lyric poems that float to the surface of consciousness revealing all forms of love. Images translate that love through crisp, spare stanzas surrounded by enough space to allow each poem to sink in.  It’s a real treat to hear the poet read from his work in both English and Spanish which you can do thanks to an upcoming recording of his recent book launch. I'll share a link when I have one.

By May 1, I need to get going on Ross Gay’s collection, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude since he will join us for the first half hour of the Poetry Gauntlet for May.   And many of my local friends stayed very creative during this pandemic with new books coming out from Erica Manto-Paulson, Ellen Austin-Li, and Jerry Judge.  At each name, I include links for pre-ordering or purchasing these new books.  Both Erica’s and Ellen’s are in their pre-order term from Finishing Line Press, while Jerry’s is ready to ship.  I look forward to reading all three in their final packages!  April is the fullest month, not the cruelest.  Sorry, T. S. 

Read on!

My Month of Divided Attention 

Sadly, what I read in March was mostly transactional and transitional in nature.  I found myself at the crossroads of many online commitments.  My interim poetry group was wrapping up our regular Wednesday night “in-between” sessions since most of us would be signing up for another season of Thomas More’s Draft to Craft with Pauletta Hansel, my longtime poetry teacher and friend.  Some of the group wanted to continue on Sundays, but I find the peer group most helpful in-between sessions of instruction.  Besides, I need to have some days of the week that have nothing to do with Zoom. 

So, I finished up reading and discussing the poetry anthology, The Book of Luminous Things, with my very-much-appreciated Poets Muddle Through group.  Thanks so much to all of you who have helped me consider my personal poetics and how that relates(or doesn’t) to the reader.  We also took some detours into articles by Dana Giola. 

For three weeks, I was also enjoying one of my free classes for taking part in Carnegie Learning Center’s Poetry Gauntlet, a delightful romp through poetry’s humorous side with instructor Eileen Tatum Rush.  We read lots of humorous poems and examined what makes something funny to an audience.  This is where my attention started dividing from just reading in March. For homework, I watched a documentary of stand-up comedian Tig Notaro’s battle to remain funny while going through some major life crises.  The film, entitled Tig, spoke eloquently to the topic of creating humor from very serious events.  I learned so much about writing for audiences from this film that I was still quoting it today when I realized why my poetry parody of Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody” didn’t quite land for my Writer’s Table listeners. 

My continuing commitment to a once-a-month meeting with the Poetry Gauntlet always has some poetics readings attached.  We’ve read some  Richard Hugo for February and Stephen Dobyns for March—that whole “Who do we write for/why was this created?” discussion.  For next month’s meeting, we’re reading various chapters from The Rag-Picker’s Guide to Poetry, edited by Maurice Manning and Eleanor Wilner.  I confess to not yet having started on that assignment, but hey—it’s still March, right? 

Each month of the Gauntlet, we also read a poetry collection. For March, we read Kettle Bottom by Diane Gilliam Fisher.  I already had an autographed copy of this book on my shelf and remembered reading it through when I first bought it—at some Appalachian gathering, I’m thinking.  Most likely Mountain Women Rising or the Ironweed Gathering.  But my second reading revealed so much about what I didn’t notice before.  Kettle Bottom is a masterwork of dramatic narrative poetry—the kind my friend Bear Howard used to write when we edited our college literary magazine together.  The poems speak directly to the reader with rotating points of view that both characterize and advance the plot of this poetry-as-historical-fiction adventure.  I had the satisfying feeling upon re-reading Kettle Bottom, that maybe more real life contemporary events and even ancient history become more “first-hand” when experienced in this format. 

And of course, Pauletta Hansel has us reading some poetics about what we do well as poets and what we do that still renders our words powerless.  We’re considering “Poetry Superpowers vs. Poetry Kryptonite” by Lee Ann Roripough, a writer with which that spit-fire inaugural poet, Amanda Gorman, must have some familiarity as I heard her tell Gayle King on CBS that her speech impediment had somehow become her “superpower” as she found her present voice in the struggle to conquer her particular kryptonite. 

On my own, I decided to spend some of my usual March reading time streaming Falcon Theatre’s excellent two-person show, The Agitators.  It proved to be yet another artistic expression of a real-life relationship between Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. Filmed largely amid the Mercantile Library’s historic trappings, the film was a sight to behold.  Even the anachronistic sirens going off in downtown Cincinnati couldn’t distract from the play’s bold message and the director’s craft.  I’m glad for these enriching distractions during March.  I hope your month has been deepened by new and interesting tugs at your attention.  April, come she will.

A Novel, a Poetry Collection, and Poets Talk Poetics 

I’m off to a slow start with my “what I’m reading now” blog.  The good news is I’m reading several books at once.  The bad news is I have no radio station deadline to force me to write reviews.  Plus, I’m also writing poetry, so there’s that fine distraction. 

But, I didn’t want February to slip by without mentioning those books I have read all the way through either to further my poetry studies or just to keep me company during the sometimes sleepless nights of these strange times. 

In February, I finished reading two books that address both self-image and family connection among many other important themes.  Bonnie Proudfoot creates achingly human characters in her debut novel, Goshen Road.  Her Price Sisters, their parents, and the men they choose as partners struggle against the elements, poverty, and each other to make a life in rural West Virginia that spans a couple of decades in the narrative.  What I admire the most about this novel is the writer’s ability to immerse her readers in the sensory elements of that struggle.  From the first harrowing plot event that changes a young man’s options forever to the last revelations from Billie Price about the holy sounds of place and connection, Goshen Road is a masterpiece of characterization and image.  The skill with which Proudfoot shuffles the viewpoint through all the main characters reminds me of Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible. I could have easily read the entire 224 pages in one night, but I wanted to think and feel on what I’d read for at least two sittings.  Good fiction goes down like a really good pale ale—I want to enjoy those hints of citrus. 

Goshen Road is published by Ohio University Press’ Swallow Books imprint.  So, it is exactly the kind of book—like those of Misty Skaggs, Robert Gipe, or Michael Henson—that would’ve wound up on my Around Cincinnati producer’s desk and therefore on my schedule to review. Academic presses and most things Appalachian or Kentucky were my beat.  I miss that routine and all the books I would’ve written about by now.  However, I am lucky that my long poetry connection to Cincinnati’s first Poet Laureate, Pauletta Hansel, keeps introducing me to talented writers like Bonnie Proudfoot.  Her book found its way to me through that rich connection for which I am ever grateful. 

I was assigned—for a year-long poetry challenge-- to read Kate Baer’s What Kind of Woman, also a debut, but this time a poetry collection published by Harper Perennial.  As with many poetry collections, it took me two read-throughs to get the overall feel of the themes and to analyze what my facilitator wanted our group to notice about the poems—metaphors and images.  Baer organizes her collection into what I would consider three phases or roles for women.  At each phase, she questions her perceptions of self against what she thinks society is asking of her.  She also uses many inventive poetry techniques like “black-out,” or erasure-type poems that create a concrete shape on the page. She also uses prose poems to good effect.  I’ve never been able to do that myself.  Mine just sound like prose. 

In the first section, the poet seems to examine her self-image as defined through other young women friends.  Part II examines what it’s like to be a wife and partner, defined by her experience and society’s definitions.  And finally, Part III looks at motherhood, parenthood and self-acceptance in less than perfect terms.  When I discussed this book with my assigned male poetry partner, he expressed that he felt alienated by the subject matter and the various “modern” poetry forms.  I felt mostly an understanding of the dissonance between what society expects of women and what we sometimes unrealistically expect from ourselves.  I came away with an overall sense of grief and resilience after reading Baer’s poems.  My guess is, she’d be pleased by that effect. 

And last—but not least—I am reading an anthology of world poetry edited by translator, Czeslaw Milosz with my interim poetry group which we participants have dubbed “Poets Muddle Through.”  We are mostly a group of Pauletta Hansel’s Draft to Craft devotees who like to keep talking poetics between Pauletta’s sessions.  Although we often read articles on the subject, we decided it might be a good idea to actually read a curated anthology of poems.  Poet Laureate Emeritus, Manuel Iris suggested Milosz’s anthology to us and sometimes departs from his busy teaching schedule to pop in and opine. (My husband is currently amused at the word, “opine,” so I just decided to sprinkle it around a little.)  We’ve had some great discussions over the poems in this collection and even over Milosz’s introductory comments. 

And of course, I have the usual stack of fine new publications waiting.  They won’t be new by the time I get to them all, but I do enjoy knowing that some good words are always on deck. 

I hope your reading brings you much light.

New Year, New Blog 

I've decided to add a new feature to my "Now" page called "What I'm Reading Now."  Why?  Quite frankly, I miss contributing book reviews to Around Cincinnati, that culture arts radio show hosted and produced by my good friend Lee Hay. Sadly, my volunteer position as a book reviewer for that NPR affiliate ended with the cancellation of Around Cincinnati in August 2020.  I've never been happier than I was over the past 10 years as I was privileged to review academic press titles and anything Appalachian or Kentuckian for WVXU.org.  

My high-quality microphone voice was muffled by the pandemic.  No one but essential personnel were allowed to record their segments in the studio for several months.  Most programming went remote.  However, I learned how to video my reviews on my excellent MacBook Pro and then extract an audio file.  Lee Hay and I worked out a system for transferring files, she edited my segments for time, the engineers sweetened our sound a little, and we continued through August.

Although the show was cancelled, I still read some good books. Plus I continue to engage with a rich and growing online poetry community.  While it's true that my current onboard mic has its limitations, I think I can still muster some reviews that authors might find useful in their quest to communicate.  So, I will still tell you what I'm up to on the Now page.  You're just going to get a little piece of my reading mind as well.

Brave new world that has such features in it.

Schultz in.

What I'm Doing Now (December 2020)

Reading, Caroling, Sitting Close to the Fire

As I write, I am sitting next to my little Duraflame heater.  It looks like a tiny wood stove, complete with flame, log coals, and a fireplace screen.  Of course, all that is a marvel of illusion.  It is, in fact, a little electric heater with a thermostat and a lovely design.  Since my office is a closed-in porch with single-pane windows, I finally broke this little heater out of its box to see what it could do.

What it can do is elevate the room temperature enough to let me work on poems and updates to the Raison D’Etre blog. It warms me as I post photos from walks around the lake and scroll my fb feed for news of friends far away.  It fuels my many Zoom adventures including board meetings, poetry events, trio rehearsals and online learning.  On gray days like today, it adds a little ember of hope to an ailing world.

It reminds me that even the smallest thing I do or say can ripple some necessary warmth into the ether.  I enjoying each click when the thermostat detects a drop in room temperature and kicks on the little fan.  All the while, the fireplace image glows—feeding me that feeling that warmth is on the way if I just have the patience.

And so, aided by this metaphor of hope, I face an uncertain holiday season with some measure of peace. It may not be the “peace on earth” this season longs for, but for now, it is enough.

I hope you find some peace from the noise, some calm in the shelter, and some warm in your space this season.

This December:

—I will read from my new chapbook, Touchstones, along with poets Pauletta Hansel and Elaine Olund who also have brand new books.  Our event is December 15 on Zoom.  We’d love to see your face.  Here’s a link to register should you decide to attend:

Get the registration link at this event.

—Raison D’Etre has decided to do a little kamikaze caroling, as in we’ll show up at an unannounced locale with our masks and caroling books to sing.  You might see us in a park, cul-de-sac or neighborhood near you. Banzai!  Or, honk if you love carols.

Until January, enjoy those little flames of inspiration, whatever sparks them.