Need a way to unwind? Looking for a new way to procrastinate? Have no fear--The List App is here! Created by B.J. Novak and Dev Flaherty in 2015, “The List App” is a quirky new social media platform that I have been spending way too much time on lately.
Made up of a ridiculously vibrant and positive community, the List App is a place to share your experiences, opinions and expertise about anything and everything. The best part? It has to be in bullet form.
Leading voices in TV, film, music, sports, comedy and fashion have already hopped on the bandwagon, sharing lists about a whole plethora of topics like “Memorable Bad Dates,” “Von Trapp Children, Ranked by Sass” and “Pictures of Barack Obama Eating Hot Dogs.”
The app’s FAQ page states, “Human beings are innately inclined towards structuring information; it’s one of our primary means of understanding. Lists are simple, powerful; the gold standard of sorting and sharing information for thousands of years.”
The structure of the app resembles other social media apps we already know and love—a news feed tab, a search function, a notifications tab and your own profile. Lists can be about anything, but the app offers a few suggestions to get you started, including “Go-to karaoke songs,” “Things that will improve the world, according to me,” “Misconceptions I had as a child,” and “Three happy moments from today.” Lists can be liked, re-listed, and commented on. You can even suggest additions to other lists, which the creator can approve and give you credit for (low key fangirled when BJ Novak added my idea to his list!).
Included below are some of my favorite lists!
If Parks and Rec Characters Wrote Autobiographies
Days of the Week, Ranked, According to “Friday I’m in Love”
Grey; break my heart; heart attack; stay in bed (Note: Wednesday is identical to Tuesday but worse because it is the second straight day)
Grey; break my heart; heart attack; stay in bed
I don’t care about you; doesn’t even start; never looking back; watch the walls instead
Blue; you can fall apart; black; you can hold your head
Always comes too late
I’m in love
By @elliemix (yours truly)
7 Tips I Use to Spark my Creativity
2. Follow my interests.
Instead of focusing on what I “ought” to be doing, I allow myself to wander—by buying an odd book, poking around the internet, or exploring an unusual place.
3. Buy supplies.
I encourage myself to make an occasional creativity-supporting purchase.
4. Draw an idea-map.
This is a process of writing down ideas in a way that helps you see new relationships and possibilities.
5. Enjoy the fun of failure.
Telling myself I can enjoy the “the fun of failure” has made me (somewhat) more light-hearted about taking risks.
6. Read random magazines.
7. Indulge in my magpie impulses.
When I have the urge to collect materials, articles or information, I now indulge it. Although I generally fight against any stuff that could become clutter, I find find that these collected materials help spur my creativity.
Have a great week! Happy listing!
Written by Ellie Mix (Class of '20)
Over the past year, my taste in music has evolved from the Rock & Roll my parents teethed me on. There's still a lot of love in my heart for AC/DC and Zeppelin, but man, give me some fingerplucked guitars and soft poetry, and I'm in heaven.
The love affair started with a month of nothing but Hozier in the snowy northeastern winter, something to help roll the wheels of my beat-up '89 Honda Civic to school, something to fall in and out of relationships to. Hozier tells stories through his songs, mournful and multilayered tales that transcend a linear concept of love. It's something living, something pure and bittersweet and catching.
A few months later, I overheard a song in a tea shop that set me off on a new tangent. If you’re interested in indie folk, you’ve probably heard of Gregory Alan Isakov -- and if you haven’t, here’s your cue to plug your headphones in and pull up YouTube. “The Stable Song” is the first song I've ever heard that took my breath away. It's poetry through and through, and it never quite says what it wants you to understand. It's an artful form of melancholy that both soothes and fans my homesickness for a place I’ve never been, and it’s unwoven my stress many a late night. Beyond anything, though, “The Stable Song” renewed my faith in the lyricism that I’d lost in my music, and these two lines in particular:
now i’ve been crazy couldn’t you tell
i threw stones at the stars, but the whole sky fell.
Something had stepped out of my reach the day I realized music was an industry, and that industries are made to make money above anything else. It was always this question, with every song that came on the radio - is this a feeling or a sales pitch? Discovering the indies reminded me that music is an art form, even if it comes in the two-lines-repeated-for-three-minutes-straight variety. It’s what you need in the moment, what your friends have in their hands, what your family has in the car. We find the poetry that follows the same rhythm as our heartbeats, and we fall in love with the words that we can memorize and stylize on the way to class. Some days, it’s Barns Courtney; some, it’s Big Sean; others, you can find me bouncing back and forth between Lord of the Rings scores and the Eagles. There’s a whole universe of sound out there that you can wield throughout your day to day to compose the kind of soundtrack you wouldn’t mind being remembered with. Draw from the classics, the popular, the path less traveled. Throw your own beats into the ring, tell your own story. It’s all music, in the end; and that’s what matters.
and i ran back to that hollow again
the moon was just a sliver back then
and i ached for my heart like some tin man
when it came oh it beat and it boiled and it rang...it’s ringing
ring like crazy, ring like hell
turn me back into that wild haired gale
ring like silver, ring like gold
turn these diamonds straight back into coal
turn these diamonds straight back into coal.
Written by Kristen Hickey ('20)
I recently finished reading Tuesdays with Morrie, a bittersweet story about “an old man, a young man, and life’s greatest lesson.” (A brief introduction of the characters: Morrie, Mitch’s favorite college professor, is the “old man,” Mitch is the “young man,” and “life’s greatest lesson” is, ironically, what it’s like to die. The lesson develops with each successive chapter.)
Mitch pays homage to Morrie by structuring the novel as a class that “met on Tuesdays. It began after breakfast. The subject was The Meaning of Life. It was taught from experience.”
We soon jump to a flashback of Mitch’s graduation day, when he promises Morrie that he’ll stay in touch. He doesn’t. After graduation, Mitch struggles to fulfill his dream of becoming a famous musician, and he soon grows discouraged. He turns, instead, to sports writing, and his life becomes much more fast-paced; there is no time for Mitch to wonder if he’s living the life he wants, but deep down, Mitch knows that he is unsatisfied—he just doesn’t want to confront this fact. Mitch and Morrie continue to live their separate lives (during this time, Morrie is diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a chronic nervous system disease), until a chance encounter causes them to reconnect.
Although Mitch has reservations that his current lifestyle will disappoint his former professor, he still arranges to meet up every Tuesday with Morrie, who is delighted to see him (Morrie hardly cares about what job Mitch has. He only cares whether Mitch is doing a job he genuinely loves). Through these Tuesday meetings and with Morrie’s encouragement, Mitch finally takes the time to reevaluate the life he’s living, and he admits to himself that his life has merely been a search for the “bigger paycheck.” Mitch is also aware that he likes himself better when he’s around Morrie, having undergone “a cleansing rinse of human kindness” with each visit. In stark contrast to Mitch’s job-driven life, Morrie has made a conscious effort to live “with dignity, with courage, with humor, with composure,” even in the face of death. Morrie continues to inspire Mitch to live the life he truly wants—to “make peace with yourself and everyone around you”—even as Mitch struggles to accept Morrie’s impending death.
Driven by flashbacks and simple, heartwarming dialogue, Tuesdays with Morrie reminds us that societal values (like the possibility of more money or higher salary) are transient and unsubstantial, although they may seem so important in the moment. Fear of death may cause us to desperately squeeze in as much “happiness” as we can, whether through accomplishments or material things. But instead, we should take ownership of our lives, and fill them up with activities we enjoy doing and people we enjoy seeing. And in moments of frustration or distress, we can all heed Morrie’s advice: “I give myself a good cry if I need it. But then I concentrate on all the good things still in my life. On the people who are coming to see me. On the stories I’m going to hear.”
For anyone looking for a story that discusses loss and life in an uplifting manner, Tuesdays with Morrie is the perfect choice.
Written by Evelyn Syau (’20)
The following interview appears in the 2014-2015 Edition of R2 and was conducted by Patrick Huang.
Jericho Brown is a poet whose work has been featured in The New Yorker, The Nation, The New Republic, The Best American Poetry, and Nikki Giovanni’s 100 Best African American Poems. A native of Shreeport, Louisiana, Brown worked as a speechwriter for New Orleans Mayor Marc Murial before receiving his Ph. D. in creative writing and literature from the University of Houston. His first poetry collection, Please, won the 2009 American Book Award. His second and most recently published collection, The New Testament, was named a “Best Book of 2014” by Library Journal. Brown currently resides in Atlanta, Georgia, where he teaches creative writing at Emory University.
Before earning your Ph. D. in literature and creative writing, you worked as a speechwriter for the mayor of New Orleans. How has your work in speechwriting influenced your poetry?
If anything, poetry was always an escape from speechwriting in those days. Writing a speech, I sat down knowing the point. My job was to stay on message. The joy for me of writing a poem is discovery. When I’m working well, I’m learning things and asking questions that speeches could never accommodate. The joy of writing poetry is not knowing the point but following the music of language until I arrive at something that engenders in me not just knowledge but also a feeling of wonder.
What does poetry, as a platform for personal expression, offer to you that other literary forms do not?
The poem mirrors the life of the believer, mirrors the process of prayer. For instance, line breaks have everything to do with doubt. Poetry is so different from prose because it’s infused with doubt. At the moment of a line break, even for a millisecond, you’re thrust into doubt. Only faith that the next line will land us on solid ground keeps us breathing. This recognition of our breathing is sheer acknowledgement of the limitless value of our lives. Yes, poems do carry meaning, but what attracts us to them is how well they remind us of our own breath.
In your most recent collection, The New Testament, you wrote in one of your poems, “Hustle”: “I eat with humans who think any book full of black characters is about race.” Overall, your work seems to revolve around issues of sexuality, love, violence, masculinity, family, spirituality, mortality, and race (among other things, of course). When someone attempts to categorize you exclusively as a “homosexual” or a “gym rat” or a “Southern black man” or a “religious’ poet,” etc. (while misrepresenting or failing to acknowledge the other parts of your identity), how do you resist such curtailment or oversimplification of your identity?
Well, I don’t exactly “resist” any identifiers because I don’t automatically think of it as “curtailment” or “oversimplification.” So yes, the parenthetical phrase in your question is of utmost importance.
I know others think that Southern is only Southern and that black is only black and that gay is only gay, but I know those terms to be expansive and expanding.
Yes, I’m bothered when people use those terms to limit and when people see them as limiting. All that is to say that it’s a matter of knowing who is making use of the term and to what end they are using it. (I actually wish I were a “gym rat,” because I imagine that if I were I’d be a lot finer and a lot less self-conscious about how I look physically. Still, I don’t assume that the gym rats I meet aren’t poets because I know poets who love to workout like Kyle Dargan and John Murillo.) I don’t see anything wrong with people calling me black so long as I know they do that with the knowledge of there existing in this world George Washington Carver and Dominique Dawes and the poet and birdwatcher Sean Hill. And any attention to the history of art would show that being called gay might very well be the best compliment of all time.
Also...I knew Jorie Graham and Mark Strand were white the first time I read books by them. I knew Strand was (supposed to be whatever we call) straight. I knew Graham was born in New York and raised in Italy. I don’t know these poets’ relationship to exercise. And as far as I can tell, I never held any of this against any of them. People are under this weird impression that when we read poets I love like Plath and Lowell and Ashbery that we don’t know we’re reading white people. Well, I’m not under that impression. They are white. And as far as I can tell, they don’t want to be anything other than white and have no reason to be o ended by the fact that I know they are white. I want that same thing for black gay Southern gym rat poets. Know it and love me! Not “know it and love me anyway.” Not “know it and love me in spite of.” Not “know it and think it’s a shame when he makes use of it in his poems.” I want people to pick up my books and read and say, “Damn, he did a great thing here!” And I want them to accept the fact that me doing that great thing is informed by a tradition that is not only straight, white, fat, and New Englander.
Like every other poet on the planet, I pull from the elements of my life in order to make my poems. My black life matters.
But your question, though, was how do I resist the relentless pigeonholing that goes on. My answer is that I try to answer questions like this one as honestly as I know how with the hope that people see the answer and at least begin to think about the compulsory heteronormative whiteness that reigns over so much of our lives. Other than that, I just try to write my ass o and let a bunch of jealous bitches su er. I’m not foolish enough to think I’m everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s a damn shame if I’m offering the flavor you need and you’re looking for socially constructed excuses not to quench your own thirst all because of my author photo.
A lot of us (Rice folks) are/were intrigued by your slow, wave-like, almost incantatory-sounding reading style. Have you always read this way—or is this style one that you developed over the years? Do you think the rhythm of your delivery will continue to evolve?
I don’t think of myself as a performer, so I haven’t monitored the evolution of the way I deliver a poem. I imagine it has changed and will continue to do so without me knowing. I mostly try to put myself in the mindset that I was in when writing the poem. If I can get to that mindset, I can slow down and enjoy the music of language while reading in front of people just as I did when I was writing alone.
The only other thing I can add is that I know what I want from a poetry reading, so I probably try to give just that.
You possess a strong connection to music, as evidenced in your first collection, Please, which features tributes to late 60s and 70s soul icons such as Diana Ross, Minnie Riperton, and Janis Joplin. Can you tell us a bit about the emotional connection you feel with when listening to these particular artists and how they inspire your poems? Are there artists in later decades—perhaps even in the 2000s and onwards—that inspire you in any similar ways?
Hmm...I think it’s a good idea to enjoy as much as you can of whatever it is you enjoy. I like to hear people sing. I’m particularly attracted to singers who at first seem to have limited talent but figure ways through their performances to make that talent go a long way toward emotional impact. So I like Mary J. Blige’s The Breakthrough—which is as about as recent as I go lately—because it seems to me an album about a voice in recovery. And I like Gladys Knight because she’s simply never thought of lack of range as a limitation in spite of having people like Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle as her contemporaries.
You once wrote that you “strive to be clear—not obvious.” What advice would you give to students of poetry (or writing in general) to help them improve the clarity of their work?
Being circuitous doesn’t equal sounding wise. What you know sounds like knowledge, so be as exact about it as possible in as many ways as you can.
Professor Amber Dermont frequently admonishes her students to “serve the story” (or poem) rather than one’s ego when writing. While this task might seem simple and obvious, it can sometimes be a di cult problem that many writers don’t even realize they are failing to address/tackle. How do you teach, train, and/or force your ego to stay away from your serving the poem?
All of this is a matter of training oneself to become more and more vulnerable to his or her work. My trouble in life has been that I’m not willing to become vulnerable to other people, so maybe that makes it easier for me to be vulnerable to my poems. I don’t know. I do know that real writing takes real risk—the willingness to lose time and reputation. Once your body has been compromised or once you lose your parents or once you understand that, yes, you are going to die, maybe then it’s easier to see time and reputation through a lens more conducive to that of a writer. As it is, we’re all trained to see the world through the lens of gain after gain without any acceptance for the fact that, in reality, no gain is made without some series of losses.
If you had to convince a young reader who claims that she or he doesn’t appreciate poetry as a literary form, how would you go about cultivating a new perspective in her/his mind?
I think that’s as simple as reminding people that poetry is art. When we drive with the car radio playing, we hear song after song without paying any particular attention. After a few songs play, a song we love comes on, and we turn up the volume and turn our car seats into miniature dance floors. Nothing about this experience leads us to believe that we don’t like music. We pass by visual art—sculptures, paintings—all day without noticing. Every once in a while, though, we come upon a piece of art that, for whatever reason, makes us stare in wonder. That experience doesn’t leave us thinking that we want the walls of our homes to remain as bare as they are the day we move in. I think we understand and come to love more poetry the more we put ourselves in a position that poetry can do its work on us. We make ourselves available to music and visual art. We can make ourselves available to poetry and cast aside what of it doesn’t feed us while expecting to encounter what does.
Go to readings. Or just watch them on YouTube for heaven’s sake. Go to bookstores. Pick up books, and put them down if you don’t like them. I believe that what we think we love today might lead us back to some of those books we put down so quickly yesterday. But we have to be where the poetry is. If any one art enhances your life, then making yourself available to any other art is worth it.
This was a submission submitted to the September Monthly Contest that we think deserves some special mention! Please enjoy this piece about the future of Rice, entitled "The True Plan for the Second Century."
"So, how did you survive?" I asked the stranger as I poked the fire with a stick. In our desperation after the disaster, as we ran out of notes to burn, we'd turned to using our textbooks for fuel.
"Sid 80s, partied a little too hard," he responded from within the mess of rags he wore. Though faded, they bore the unmistakable markings of free RPC shirts. "Just stayed home instead of going to the... event." He shuddered at the mention and shifted the fire with his own stick. A Gen Chem textbook released a flight of sparks.
"Lucky you. Any attendees survive?"
"Physics major told me the shockwave moved at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light. Killed 'em faster than their brains could process what happened."
"So that's a no."
"I wouldn't say it's impossible. Little chance, but if he made it out, maybe someone else did."
The stranger looked at me like I was a freshman asking if Rice was a dry campus.
"Leebron did." The rags shifted as he looked into the darkened sky. The stars were just becoming visible through the perpetual smoke that rose from the ruins of campus. "Even if I had the proof, though, I don't think I could stop him now."
"Stop him from doing what?"
Another incredulous stare. "Didn't you see it?"
"I was in my room cramming for midterms. Humor me."
"Herzstein Hall was secretly a giant robot. All the low-tech appearances were just to disguise the inner workings. Right after the event, Leebron ran to the secret control room, activated it, and set off in the direction of the White House."
"You can't be serious."
"All of this is just the prelude to his true plan for world domination, of course. Mecha-Herzstein is only the beginning of his dark designs."
"I just can't believe it," I mused as I poked the fire again. Combustion equations wafted into the sickly sky. "Why would Leebron do something like that? Doesn't Rice administration always have the students' interests in mind?"
"Believe me or don't," the stranger said, rising, "it's all out of our hands now. Except you might want to check the first letter of every sentence I just said."
Richard Blanco has published three poetry collections, City of a Hundred Fires, Directions to the Beach of the Dead, and Looking for The Gulf Motel; he has received critical acclaim for his work, winning the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize, the PEN/Beyond Margins Award, and the Paterson Poetry Prize, among others. He read his poem "One Today" at President Obama's 2013 inauguration, becoming the fifth inaugural poet in US history. As an educator, Blanco has taught at Georgetown University, American University, Central Connecticut State, and Writer's Center. He guides his readers through complex cultural, sexual, and artistic intersections, addressing the necessary and the urgent. Please join us in our interview with Richard Blanco, an engineer, teacher, memoirist, public speaker, and poet.
Your writing is varied and multifaceted in a way that allows it to appeal to a fairly wide array of readers. Is there usually a certain readership or audience that you tend to write for, or are there other elements that primarily guide your writing process instead?
I don’t insist on being accessible for the sake of some imaginary audience; I just naturally want to write work that is accessible. But accessibility and complexity are not antonyms. An accessible poem can be very complex and multi-layered. Take for example the work of Elizabeth Bishop, one of my greatest influences. On the surface her work seems fairly straightforward and conversational, yet when you dig deeper you discover many nuances and complexities. I strive to do the same in my work. My personal definition of great poetry is to take something emotionally complex, such as the idea of home, and distill it into its “parts,” crystalize it into a poem that elucidates some dimension of it. To completely paraphrase Einstein, any fool can make complex things more complex. All this to say, that’s where my sense of “audience” comes from. I’m writing to take something as complex as love, home, sorrow, or death, and understand it more clearly for myself, but knowing that I’m doing the same for my readers as well. In that context, my audience is all humanity. All of us, regardless of the particulars of our lives, are grounded in and experience the same set of core emotions. In the end, I think that’s what great art unwittingly strives to do: connect to the universal through the particular.
You are certainly no stranger to reading your work aloud. What do you think changes in a piece be it a poem, a section of a memoir, etc. When it goes from being read on the page to being spoken aloud? Do you believe an audience gains more from one medium than the other?
Reading a poem silently only engages the sense of sight. But, when a poem is read or heard out loud, two additional senses are activated: sound and the sensation of breath or vibration of sound in the body. This engages our minds in a more powerful way, opening up our understanding or feeling of the poem in a new dimension. It’s analogous to the difference between simply reading the lyrics of a song on a page versus singing, playing and/or hearing the song. Also, our voices are musical instruments. When we read or hear a poem out loud, the voice naturally adds inflections and cadences; it elongates or shortens syllables, etc. Essentially, a musicality emerges that the page alone doesn’t possess, per se. That’s because poetry and music share a lot of the same “DNA,” so to speak. So, yes, an audience gains a whole lot when they go to a poetry reading, or even when one reads a poem out loud to oneself. I think the same is true for prose, but to a lesser degree because the connection between prose and music is not quite the same.
When writing the inaugural poem, you were working with the time constraint of one poem a week as well as the unusual circumstance that your final piece would be selected for you from the three you had written. How did these outside factors influence your writing process?
Well, time can be a friend as well as an enemy to writers. Sure, we need ample time to write, but too much time can make us linger and obsess in unproductive ways that stall us. I usually try to finish a decent draft of a poem in one week when I’m in an intensive writing period. As such, the writing of the inaugural poems wasn’t that much different, except that they were arguably the most important three poems of my life! But in a way, the pressure made me more efficient and brought out the best in me. I’m glad they didn’t give me three months to write the poems—that might have really driven me crazy.
You’ve said before that the inauguration made you believe that not only is there a place for poetry in America, but there’s “a hunger and need for it.” In line with this, much of your poetry carries with it a number of political and social undertones that imbue your work with a sense of urgency and a desire for change. What do you think is the role of the poetry in American society? How can writers best meet the aforementioned “hunger” for poetry?
America’s relationship with poetry has changed throughout history, of course, and that relationship has been very strained over the past few decades. In part, because poetry lost much of its “common touch” and became too abstracted and incestuous for a number of reasons too complex to get into right now. But I sense that has begun to change yet again. We’re moving from a poetry of “I” to a poetry of “we,” that is, poetry that is informed by a sense of public or civic consciousness, even when speaking from an autobiographical point of view. In part, that change has been prompted by the influence of spoken word poets/artists, but also because we live a much more interconnected world, aware of the many issues and problems that affect us all. In that way, as it has been for centuries in many other cultures, the poet and poetry today are reassuming their roles in America as the “village voice,” offering a medium through which we can voice the concerns of our day and share in our common humanity. There’s a “hunger” for that kind of poetry, and many poets are indeed meeting that demand, not because they feel they have to, but because they want to, because it’s just part of the natural evolution of the art that is shaped by such circumstances.
Your memoirs and poetry have explored the concept of family, specifically focusing on your own mother and grandmother. Did you ever discover something that surprised you about your family or yourself when writing these pieces?
What surprised me most was how different the “characters” of my mother and grandmother are in the memoir versus my poetry, as a result of how the different genres shape how we write. In poetry I take a deeper look into my mother’s emotional core and connect with her sense of loss and longing as a result of having had left her entire family behind in Cuba. But in the memoir, she comes across as a control-freak—the warden of the household. I realized that the latter was a result of the former; her psychological response to all her pain was to try to control everything so she could feel some kind of stability in her life. Similarly, in my poetry I draw out the uglier side of my grandmother’s homophobia and verbal abuse of me. But in the memoir, she comes across as a witty, gregarious, and somewhat loveable character. I realized that indeed she was all these things on the exterior—and that I too loved her for these characteristics, despite what happened behind closed doors with our relationship.
"Queer Theory: According to my Grandmother" is one out of many of your poems that discusses the complicated relationship between the Cuban-American community and the LGBT community. Can you talk about the intersection of these worlds that you identify with, and the effects of this coexistence on your writing?
For years I didn’t “come out” in my poetry; that is, I never wrote about the topic of my sexuality or the LGBT community. I saw the concerns of my cultural identity as separate from my sexuality. But in my third book of poetry I realized there was indeed an intersection between the two—what I began calling my “cultural sexuality.” And I started exploring the ways my identity as a gay man is connected to or affected by my cultural identity and experiences. And vice versa. Suddenly, I felt I had a “story” to tell, and that story had a lot to do with my grandmother. Through her character I began to understand that there isn’t one kind of homophobia, or one kind of gay man, but that these are intimately informed by my cultural circumstances. For example, grandmother was as homophobic as she was xenophobic, so anything that appeared as culturally “weird” to her was also thought of as queer. Things like Fruit Loops, The Brady Bunch, and Cub Scouts were tossed into the queer bin. As a gay child and teenager it was very confusing for me, trying to navigate the norms of masculinity with this added layer of cultural norms. Both of which were dictated by my grandmother through the lens of machismo—a traditional set of attitudes and values that inform gender roles and behavior and the kind of homophobia we face in Latino cultures in particular.
There’s a measure of intimacy in your poetry as you ground your identity in motifs of color, family, and food. Do you have any advice for young writers on how to cultivate this sense of individual vulnerability while still creating something that every person can somehow identify with?
As I often tell my students: writing poetry is one of the most selfish, arrogant, self-absorbed, and dumbest things you can do, and yet it is one of the most generous, kindest, vulnerable, and worthwhile things you can do in the world. Why? Because of the irony at the heart of what poets do. We begin—as we must—with a personal need to understand our lives and experiences from a very private and self-centered point of view. Yet, by instinct, we know that our poems are, in the end, meant to be offered up and shared with others as a means to collectively understand some dimension of the human condition. Put another way, we must write our poems with such vigor and passion for our lives that they end up transcending our very stories and surrendering our very selves. In my view, the greatest thing a poem can do is to become a mirror in which the reflection of the poet’s life blurs with the lives of readers. In that mirror, we see that the “other” is us, and we are the other. But I don’t think writers should set out to be “universal” on purpose or force it; it must happen naturally as an outcome of adhering to the discipline of the art and what it demands of us.
Interviewers: Erica Cheung and Steffannie Alter
Back in high school and deep in the throes of teenage angst, I found a Twitter account that somehow helped soothe my melancholy heart. The anonymous @sosadtoday dished up daily sentiments that ranged from generalized depression (“Me: hi, weight of the world: it’s your fault”) to romantic woes (“sext: vaguely invite me to something and then don’t text me on the day of the thing).”
The quirky, self-deprecating, existential voice behind the account immediately appealed to me and the millions of other teenage girls who just wanted an outlet to recognize and celebrate our romantic anxieties and generalized disappointment. We were tired of the optimistic pictures of life that romantic comedies painted, because they weren’t true to our experiences. Particularly in the age of the Internet, we sought validation in the form of a funny, sarcastic wit, and @sosadtoday gave us just that.
Reading the tweets every morning brought me clarity in a maze of hormones, but after I graduated I felt I no longer needed it. Although I always remembered the account fondly, I had not thought about it until this summer, when I read an article in The New Yorker about the genius behind the account, Melissa Broder, who had recently released a book entitled So Sad Today: Personal Essays. In 2015, Broder revealed her identity in an interview with Rolling Stone. Although her personal details still remained a little murky, Broder described herself as “older than a teen, but not disgustingly old.”
I was shocked and delighted to learn that in addition to being the guiding voice for millions of depressed teens, Broder was also an accomplished poet, who had previously published several volumes of poetry, my favorite being When You Say One Thing But Mean Your Mother. In the midst of exploring my own voice in personal essays, I eagerly bought Broder’s new book on Amazon Kindle and read it the same day.
In So Sad Today, Broder expands on the voice and character of @sosadtoday, exploring the manifestations of her anxiety and depression in the modern world. At its best, the book captures the horror and glory of the Internet age and its effect on depressed people — how it can be both an escape from reality and a safe space to explore one’s identity and feelings.
In essays like, “How to Never be Enough” and “I Took the Internet Addiction Quiz and I Won,” I was delighted to find the same funny, insightful wit that had captivated me at 16. Like Broder, though, I had grown some since that time and was able to step back and appreciate the ways I had changed and the ways I hadn’t.
Some essays transcend the narrow capacities of Twitter to explore the reality of coping with a lifelong anxiety disorder. In essays like “Honk if there’s a Committee in Your Head Trying to Kill You,” Broder sheds some light on her personal life experiences, helping build an identity that has been a mystery to her followers for so long.
Even for those with self-proclaimed high self-esteem and optimism, Broder’s book offers honest commentary about life in the age of the Internet that should be relatable for everyone. But, to be honest, both Broder and I would agree that there is an angsty teenage girl lurking inside of all of us. I promise you won’t have to do much digging.
Written by Sophie N.
When I was a young and foolish freshman, I was in a FWIS entitled “Writing Everyday Life.” We were assigned to read a book of poems that I’d never heard of before by a guy who, frankly, I’d never heard of before. Though I started out hopeful, I soon grew aggravated by the loose structure of the poems. I tried and failed to find meaning in the name-dropping and the place-dropping, which read less like poetry and more like a pointless chronicle of a person’s day. “I went here. I did this.” Nothing else.
I hated the poems. I wanted to cause harm to the publication that had caused me so much aggravation. Like a medieval torturer specialized in finding new and unique ways to induce pain, I plunged the book into a sink full of water, as if to dissolve the very words off the paper, and then for good measure I threw it in the microwave.
As an aside, I do not recommend doing this. Microwaved glue is not a pleasant scent.
The book I so savagely attacked was Lunch Poems. The poet was Frank O’Hara.
I’ve thought a lot about that book since. I no longer have it – when I could not get the scent of burned glue off the pages, I decided to throw it out entirely, and at the time I did not consider it a loss. But as my knowledge increased a little and my patience for things I do not understand increased a bit more, I began to wonder if I was simply taking the wrong approach to the poetry on the page.
I have since learned, from Edward Hirsch’s A Poet’s Glossary, that O’Hara and the other poets that made up the New York School of poetry often used the city as subject matter. They “valued spontaneity and movement, impulse, accident and coincidence.” O’Hara himself literally referred to his own poems as “I-do-this-I-do-that” poems. By looking for allegory and allusion, by searching for symbolism in the place names and concrete details, I was perhaps missing the entire point of the poetry, which was simply to convey everyday life.
One day in my FWIS, we watched a video that, even at the peak of my hatred of his poetry, made me respect and admire O’Hara as a writer willing to abandon all control over the details his poems contained. In the video, O’Hara is sitting at a typewriter, tapping out his latest project as he talks to the interviewer behind the camera and another man, Alfred Leslie, off frame. The phone rings, and O’Hara picks it up. We hear only his side of the telephone conversation as he asks his friend “How are you? You have an upset stomach?” still typing away at his machine. He talks for a time, explains to his friend on the other end of the line the peculiar situation of simultaneously talking on the phone and writing and being interviewed “for educational purposes.” He jokes around. He stops typing, falling still at something the man says. “Flash and bolt, what does that mean? Flashing bolt, you mean?” He recommences typing. “Good. Flashing bolt, good, good.” He takes his hands off the keyboard to look at what he’s written. “A flashing bolt. Is that art, or, what is it? I just laid it onto the paper.”
Now, when I imagine O’Hara writing Lunch Poems, I don’t imagine him perusing a thesaurus, trying to find the perfect word that conveys the perfect emotion. I imagine him walking down the street, taking detailed, specific mental notes of the things that he sees. Making art out of that, out of the everyday.
I have lately revisited O’Hara for the first time since freshman year, and the experience I had was much more profitable – and much less violent – than my last interaction with his poetry. In recently reading “The Day Lady Died” for class, I was able to appreciate the detailed account of his movement throughout the city and his mundane actions not as a pointless digression from the subject of the elegy, Billie Holiday, but as O’Hara’s account of a day in which Holiday’s death – and her life – lingers behind every detail and every interaction, though she only literally occupies three lines of the poem. And I recognized that O’Hara’s name-dropping and place-dropping had its own sort of unique purpose – to contrast with the one thing, the one person too sacred to name. Like someone looking at the sun out of the corner of his eye for fear that direct exposure will blind him, O’Hara talks around Holiday; yet, she remains nonetheless an omnipresent, all-pervasive part of the poem. Her central presence is striking, considering that she is kept on the periphery of the poem until the very end.
I’d be willing to bet that no matter how much you disliked a piece of writing, you’ve never dissolved it in water and thrown it in a microwave. But maybe you’ve felt as confused and aggravated by a piece of literature as freshman Indigo felt about O’Hara. Before you take your anger out on the book, a word of advice: learn a bit about the literature before you sink the knife; learn a bit about its author. Though art may at first appear pointless, it can take on profound meaning and depth once you take the time to learn its background; if you don’t believe me, look up the back story to Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ museum installation that consists of 175 pounds of hard candy piled in a corner of the room. You would never guess it at first glance, but this is one of the most moving art installations I’ve ever heard of (http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/152961). For me, O’Hara’s poems function the same way. When I went in looking for something specific, some adherence to some convention, I was aggravated when I found nothing; but in turning my back, I failed to see something interesting, something uniquely moving, that I was never expecting to see.
Written by Indigo V.
When I watched the most recent film adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince with my sister, I cried like a baby — I actually had no control over my emotional reaction. We paused in the middle because my sister declared she had to practice violin (typical disciplined type A older sibling), and because I have no self-control, I looked up the rest of the movie on Wikipedia (the movie necessarily deviates from the original source material). Even just reading the article, which is plain old plot summary, made me cry. That’s how ridiculous of an effect it had on me.
We finished the movie together anyway, and at one point, Jennifer asked me, “Wait, why is she looking for the little prince? He’s not real.”
I felt annoyed and couldn’t exactly pinpoint why, until after we finished the movie and I figured, well, none of it is real, per se. And does that matter?
We keep literature, music, film — the arts, basically — close despite the fact that none of it is really tangible. Think about how different it is to read something like A Song of Ice and Fire or Love in the Time of Cholera versus a New York Times news article. More often than not, there’s such a distinction that, somehow, these books affect us much more strongly than a fact-based report. Somehow, someone else’s world — which in turn becomes inexplicably yours — is so incredibly powerful and moving. The words on pages bound together into a novel, shapes on a movie theater screen, that tell a story separate from reality are yet far more identifiable than the reality in which we’re rooted.
I’m sure we’ve all felt this, whether with Harry Potter, or Calvin and Hobbes, or Her. But the skeptics remain.
Albus Dumbledore famously said in the final Harry Potter novel, "Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?"
Yes, none of it is concrete and none of it is tangible — it’s hardly even explicable. Things like novels and films are woven, entangled with metaphors, because art simply can’t be defined in normal terms. It can’t be quantified or rationalized. And maybe it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why it affects us so, but maybe the reason they do is the reason we need them.
So yeah, all of that was happening in someone else’s head. And it’s playing out in yours now, too. But at the end of the day, isn’t everything? Is anything “real”? Does the "realistic" nature of art matter at all?
When it comes to art — the intangible — the part that matters is the fact that it does.
Written by Julianne Wey (’18)
About a month before school began I came across this gem in a Half-Price Books store. I knew that I admired Pynchon’s work (Gravity’s Rainbow, The Crying of Lot 49, Inherent Vice, all of which I recommend as well), so I thought I would check out how well he wrote when he was about my age. I did not find great stories in this collection, or early signs of an American literary wunderkind. What I found was an introduction that gave me comfort in the immaturity of my own writing. Often upon revisiting my own work I come down with the grippe from pure embarrassment. My stomach contorts and I immediately consider calling anyone who has seen the story. I consider pulling a Prince, hereafter signing my name as an unintelligible symbol to be referred to as “the paragon of inadequacy that is Caleb Smith.” After telling myself that it isn’t that bad—or that I can learn something from the piece—I calm down and realize that I’m hypercritical of myself, and even if it was that terrible it does not preclude me from continuing to write.
The actual stories will not blow you away with elegant prose or subtle genius; it is, in the author’s own words, “pretentious, goofy, and ill-considered.” But that is exactly what I love about them. In Pynchon’s introduction to the collection he discusses his obsession with seeming literary and being a part of the Beat movement, which ultimately collapse into “some mighty tiresome passages.” Pynchon is ruthless toward his own writing and his younger self, often so rude and sarcastic that I actually laughed out loud. But he berates himself on our behalf, and demolishes the notion that literary genius is innate. When you read the stories, the issues that he outlines in the introduction are glaring. At times I had to put the book down because I was privileged to the knowledge of the older, wiser Pynchon. The poor attempts at phonetic spelling made me cringe every time, and I am certain that it would not have been so bad had he not pointed out his case of “Bad Ear.” The introduction comes with some great, quotable advice for young writers: “get too conceptual, too cute and remote, and your characters die on the page”; “Ignorance is not just a blank space on a person’s mental map. It has contours and coherence”; “It is simply wrong to begin with a theme, symbol or other abstract unifying agent, and then try to force characters and events to conform to it.” Pynchon analyzes his own work in order to come to these conclusions, and along the way displays the effect of the Beat insurrection, JFK, and the Cold War on American writing.
My copy from Half-Price cost $7.50, but I’m sure you could find it on Amazon for cheaper. It is worth the money, even if only for the introduction. If you have ever doubted your ability to write, or if you have written something that made you pray for a time-machine in order to return to your self-proclaimed “moment of inspiration” and slap the folly out of yourself, then you will find solace in this book. I have received the same advice from several different sources—so there must be truth in it—write on, through the good and the bad. Slow Learner makes the bad times more bearable and the good times less sacred.
Written by Caleb Smith ('17)
A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.
R2: The Rice Review
Rice University's undergraduate literary magazine. Here you can find event updates, monthly writing contest winners, and opinions by the R2 staff on what's new, interesting, or subject to discussion in the literary and arts world.