“Only My Words Bear Me”: Poetic Voices of the Muslim World in St. Louis

No land on earth bears me. Only my words bear me, a bird born from me who builds a nest in my ruins before me, and in the rubble of the enchanting world around me

–Mahmoud Darwish, “A Rhyme for the Odes”

translated from the Arabic by Amira El-Zein

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The St. Louis Public Library is proud to have been selected as one of four public libraries in the country to host Poetic Voices of the Muslim World in 2015. This vibrant exhibition, which displays in the Entertainment, Literature, and Biography Room at Central Library from April 27 to June 30, features captivating photography and calligraphic masterworks, as well as the work of poets ranging from Rumi to the well-known contemporary poet Adonis. Alongside the exhibit, the Library will be presenting a series of programs and performances that celebrate the rich traditions of the written and spoken word in the Islamic world. In addition, branch libraries throughout the system will be hosting supporting programs, from a documentary about heroic librarians in the Bosnian War to the comedy concert film “Allah Made Me Funny.” Pick up a brochure at your neighborhood branch for the full schedule of events. We hope to see you at one of these wonderful programs!

Poetic Voices of the Muslim World is presented by Poets House and City Lore, in partnership with the American Library Association and the St. Louis Public Library along with the public libraries in Atlanta, San Francisco, and Houston. It is funded by the Bridging Cultures Program of the National Endowment for the Humanities, with additional support from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.

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 A Song of the Reed: Rumi with Dr. Jawid Mojaddedi

Wednesday April 29, 6:30 pm Central Auditorium (reception at 5:30)

In this talk, scholar and translator Jawid Mojaddedi discusses the beauty of Rumi’s Masnavi: its folk tales, sacred history, entertaining stories and lessons, all written in rhyming couplets. This talk is followed by a performance of the poems set to music (in English and Persian) by distinguished composer and Persian classical performer Amir Vahab with his ensemble.

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The History and Poetics of the Qur’an with Dr. Bruce Lawrence and Qur’anic Chanters

Wednesday May 6, 7:00 pm Carpenter Branch Library Auditorium

In this seminar, distinguished scholar Bruce Lawrence gives an overview of the structure of Islam’s holiest book and introduces the subtleties of the text through a close reading of several different English translations. This lecture is followed by a recitation of Qur’anic verses by a reciter from a local mosque.

Farzaneh Milani

Veils and Words: Iranian Women Poets of the 20th Century with Dr. Farzaneh Milani

Thursday, May 14 7:00 pm, Schlafly Branch Library Auditorium

Professor of Persian Literature, author, and translator Dr. Farzaneh Milani explores the work of Iran’s three great women poets of the 20th century–classical poet Parvin E’tesami (1907-1941), iconoclastic modernist Forugh Farrokhzad (1935-1967), and the “Lioness of Iran” Simin Behbahani (1927-2014). She also demonstrates how Iranian women have emerged as a moderating, modernizing force at the forefront of the renegotiation of boundaries in their homelands.

Sylviane Diouf

Islam and the Blues with Dr. Sylviane Diouf 

Wednesday, May 20 6:30 pm, Central Library Auditorium

Through images and recordings, award-winning historian Sylviane A. Diouf of The New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture illustrates how the blues, which originated in the American South, may have evolved from the techniques of the recitation of the Qur’an and the call to prayer in West Africa. She plays early blues recordings side by side with African recordings of the call to prayer and invites audiences to catch the similarities.

Additional Resources

Poetic Voices of the Muslim World website: http://poeticvoicesofthemuslimworld.org

Poets House: http://www.poetshouse.org

City Lore: http://citylore.org

Oxford Islamic Studies Online (available under Online Learning & Reference tab at http://www.slpl.org)

Muslim Heritage http://www.muslimheritage.com/

Rumi (works, bio, interpretation) http://www.rumi.org.uk

Poetry International Rotterdam (search by language & country): http://www.poetryinternationalweb.net/

Dunya Mikhail – Iraqi poet http://www.dunyamikhail.com

Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here (Jaffe Center for Book Arts): http://www.library.fau.edu/depts/spc/JaffeCenter/collection/al-mutanabbi/

The Library of Arabic Literature http://www.libraryofarabicliterature.org/

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Young Eliot

I hope to post about this at greater length at some point, but didn’t want to let “the cruelest month” pass by without mentioning Young Eliot: From St. Louis to The Waste Land, a new biography of the poet by Robert Crawford. We’ve just received our copies at St. Louis Public Library and it looks to be an engrossing and well-researched account of the early years, including Eliot’s childhood here in St. Louis.

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The reviews so far have been excellent — check out, for example, the always great Michael Dirda’s piece in the Washington Post — generally agreeing that Crawford has benefited from the changes to the Eliot estate. Previous biographers had to go through Eliot’s second wife, Valerie, who was very restrictive in terms of granting permission to quote from the works. This kind of estate lockdown has never made sense to me, and it probably opened the door for the highly critical biographies of Eliot that have appeared over the past two decades. He remains a controversial figure (one of the commenters on the Dirda article refers to him as “not just a miserable human being, but a poetaster and thief of the lowest order”) but Crawford seems to offer a more nuanced view, based on close research of the early years. You have to have some sympathy for a kid who was forced to wear a truss for his double hernia and furthermore had enormous ears.

He spent his early years just down the street at 2635 Locust, now the site of a parking lot and a plaque in his honor; a post at Distilled History makes the case that St. Louis should do something more to honor the poet, and offers some Eliot-inspired drinking suggestions. Anyway, Crawford’s book covers the 1896 tornado, Eliot’s connections to Unitarianism and the St. Louis Philosophical Society, and notes that Prufrock’s was a St. Louis furniture store around the turn of the century. Should make for fascinating reading for anyone interested in the poet or St. Louisan literary history.

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Letter to a Future (Library) Lover

Marginalia_(5095211566)Marginalia from a 1704 printing of Newton’s Opticks now held at the Boston Public Library.

So, I’ve been reading around in Ander Monson’s challenging and beautifully designed book from Graywolf Press, Letter to a Future Lover. The book’s subtitle, Marginalia, Errata, Secrets, Inscriptions, and Other Ephemera Found in Libraries, gives you some idea of Monson’s preoccupations. It’s a lyrical and dense read, a series of brief personal essays composed in the form of letters. Monson defines “library” broadly, finding inspiration in a video game archive, a seed library, a biosphere; likewise he’s interested not only in the collections of these libraries but the ephemera their users and custodians leave: love letters, scrawl, catalog cards, binding instruction sheets.

If you spend enough time in libraries, you recognize the phenomenon. Not only those stray artifacts that fall out of a book–a bus ticket, a sales receipt–but notes deliberately left within, for the edification of the future user. We have a patron who will take three or four books off the shelves, borrow a few sheets of scrap paper, and stack it all together in an odd pyramid: the books, a religious pamphlet or two, his cryptic but precisely drawn notes. Maybe he too is a librarian at heart, trying to make these materials speak. It is hard to say exactly what he wants to convey, but whatever it is, it’s directed toward the future reader.

In his essay “Dear Defacer,” Monson writes a letter to the troubled and erratic soul who has been scrawling angry notes in the margins of an encyclopedia from his college library: “I want to know your name, what makes you go, why you play this strange.” Puzzled and upset as he is by the contents of the marginalia — as any good librarian would be, please don’t do this! — he also respects the impulse behind it, the move toward feedback and conversation.

Which brings me to this: as Monson recognizes, the library is not a static thing, but a flexible structure for sharing information. While its traditional form, with its catalog cards and bound periodicals and stiffening codexes, is dearly beloved to us, what really defines the library is this sense of community and shared ownership, the conversation that can take place in the pages of a novel, or in a meeting room where people come together over a hobby or obsession, or via a digital connection to a database.

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The St. Louis Public Library is asking for your feedback as we plan our course for the future, both near-term and long-term, because I’m sure we can all agree that a library is a beautiful thing that should be preserved and creatively nourished. This is your chance to bring your ideas, your crazy and improbable inspirations, your ragged grievances.

There will be a series of public meetings at Central Library and the regional branch libraries, from 6-8 pm on the following dates: Tuesday March 31 at Central Library, Wednesday April 1 at Schlafly Branch, Thursday April 2 at Julia Davis Branch, Tuesday April 7 at Carpenter, and Wednesday April 8 at Buder Branch.

Please register to attend one of these important events here.

I can’t guarantee that it will be as subversively thrilling as defacing a library book, but on the other hand you’ll have the pleasure of knowing that you’re helping to define the library of the future. Think of it as a letter to a future lover. Or marginalia for a future reader, who won’t be reading quite the same text, thanks to you. To quote Monson again:

You understand that this place breathes, expands, contracts with cold and breath, the infusion of new words: it yet shows signs of life in spite of what you’ve heard about the young and their reading habits. Treating a library as a crematorium for yesterday’s knowledge does no one any good. Instead let’s keep it live … so that when we leave its premises it still embraces us … so that we might think the world a library and by so thinking, and our feeling, and our stealing, and our starting something new here, make it so.

Amen.

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The Doll Speaks: Dina Young’s “Frozen Charlotte”

This past month, members of the STL Scribblers community were challenged to write a 750-word story. We read the entries aloud at the last meeting and voted on them; congratulations to Dina Young, who wins the first ever Scribbler Flash Fiction Contest for her story “Frozen Charlotte.” (What was the prize, you may ask? Twenty-five bucks of book money and infinite glory!) It is Scribbler’s distinct privilege to publish the story in its entirety here. But first I asked Dina a few questions about its genesis and her other projects.

What was the inspiration behind “Frozen Charlotte”?

Walking my dog one day last summer down an alley behind Shenandoah Avenue near our house we wandered into a large empty lot where a house was demolished several years before.  With my little dog leading the way we poked around in the straw and loose dirt that covered the area and found bits of broken glass and china, a 1940 penny, a clay marble, an old gas jet, and a small porcelain doll head.

A few days later we went back to the same lot and I looked near where I’d found the doll’s head and found the doll’s torso nearby.  I did some research on the web and learned that a porcelain doll like the one I found was known as a “Frozen Charlotte,” after a mid-nineteenth century cautionary tale of the same name.

I couldn’t help but wonder where this doll had come from and what its life was like before it ended up there in the dirt.  Since the doll wasn’t talking I started to create a story to answer those questions.

How did the word-count limitation affect your process?

I needed to do a little trimming from the first draft of the story, but not a great amount.  I constantly checked the word count.   In trying to keep the story short, I learned not to waste words by including details that weren’t necessary to the story.  The length requirement didn’t change the story I wanted to tell, but it definitely affected the style of the story telling by keeping it very straightforward.  This is my first experience writing flash fiction and I’ll definitely be doing more of it.  I think this approach may also serve as a tool to help in getting unstuck when writing longer stories.

Can you tell us about the other project you’re working on?

I’m working on a novel about a man whose headstone I came upon one day while walking through Calvary Cemetery.  His name was Prosper Meeker, and he died in 1933.  Given his distinctive, Dickensian name I was curious to find out who this man was. Surprisingly I found some references to him on the Internet when I searched his name and learned that he survived a horrible accident as a child.  Through some pretty extensive research I’ve learned a lot about Prosper’s life in early 20th century St. Louis, not enough to constitute a biography, but certainly enough for a novel.  I’m intrigued by his story and want to share it with others.

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FROZEN CHARLOTTE

by Dina Young

Day fades into night and into day again. The unrelenting sun gives way to the cold darkness in an unceasing pattern that sets the rhythm of my life. I’ve languished in this place for years slowly sinking into the earth. From the corner of my eye I see glass and pottery shards sharing a similar fate. They cannot see or comprehend what lies ahead as I do. I am no longer whole. My head lies face up in a small depression, and my torso, missing most of my limbs, is a foot away. Though my eyes are still bright and my lips still beautifully rouged I am old and broken. In this peculiar situation my only comfort is to think back on happier times.

Life began long ago when I was created in Germany. I, and the thousands of others of my kind, represented the very finest in artistic and technical achievement of the day. We may have been mass-produced but our eyes, lips and other features were individually hand painted by the region’s craftsmen.   If I may be permitted to boast, the blue bows at my calves and golden rings in my hair required double- glazing, which set me apart from many of my sisters and made me more valuable.   Along with others like me I was packed in excelsior and nailed into a wooden crate for an adventurous voyage across the sea to what I hoped would be a new home in America. There followed a trip on a steamboat, and then one by train then at last I saw daylight while on a wagon which brought me to Simmons Hardware store. There, along with my fellow travelers, I was placed on a shelf where I could see customers, especially little girls in pigtails with bows on their crinoline dresses. You may think me haughty but I’m proud to say I was the first of my lot to go home with a little girl. Her father paid the monumental sum of 50 cents to acquire me.

What followed constituted the happiest time of my life. I lived with the little girl and her family in a two-story red brick house on Shenandoah Avenue, in the south of St. Louis.   The girl’s father worked at the Fox Brothers Milling Company nearby and she often waved at the upper story windows of the factory on our way to school in the morning. I was her constant companion riding along in the patch pocket of her pinafore, my arms permanently bent at the elbow, resting lightly on top of the pocket ensuring me a good view of the neighborhood and the comings and goings of the people who resided in it.   Often at school the little girl would set me down under an oak tree in the schoolyard to visit with her friends and the others of my ilk brought to school by their little girls. I have no qualms in saying I was the prettiest of my kind there, a fact my little girl did not hesitate to announce.

Life went along pleasantly and I felt content. I even grew to like the family dog, a rotund bull terrier that often waddled over to the chair where the little girl sometimes left me and roughly sniffed me with his perpetually wet nose.   One day the little girl’s older brother, whose greatest joy in life was making his little sister suffer, took me from the chair where I sat and unceremoniously deposited me under a heating grate in the floor in the little girl’s room. He thought this an act of genius and laughed about it to himself for days while the little girl searched everywhere for me.   This is where my tale turns tragic. While savoring the sight of his little sister’s anguish the boy contracted a virulent strain of influenza and died three days later. In his febrile state the boy tried to tell the little girl where I was but the family and the doctor judged him delirious. From my prison I could see the family grieve for the boy while I grieved for the little girl.

No one ever did find me beneath the grate. I remained there for many years watching as families moved in to the house, lived there for a time, and then left. I was released from my prison only when the house was demolished. Now I lie here among many other broken things waiting for what, if anything comes next.

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Scribbler’s Flash Fiction Contest

I’m going to keep this brief. Because brevity is soul of wit, and … well, you know. Scribbler is inviting you to enter its first-ever Flash Fiction Contest. What is flash fiction? It is the prose writer’s chance to tell a story in as few words as possible. There are plenty of places you can find flash fiction online, and multiple anthologies you can check out from your St. Louis Public Library. You can also explore writers like Lydia Davis or Amy Hempel. Hell, there’s a Frenchman called Felix Feneon who wrote Novels in Three Lines, containing gems like these (Feneon’s tart and bleak anecdotes are a perfect fit for Twitter):

There is no longer a God even for drunkards. Kersilie, of Saint-Germain, who had mistaken the window for the door, is dead.

—–

Flash fictions challenge prose writers to approach the precision and compression of poetry. They push us to dive into the story without any preliminary throat-clearing. They force us to get to the point. Flash fiction makes it sound fast, but it’s the kind of writing that makes us read slowly, because it is dense and rich, because every word has been tested and considered.

What makes it work is the limitation. Sometimes it’s 1000 words, sometimes 500. For this contest the limit is going to be 750 words. That is three pages double-spaced. This is a hard limit and all stories that exceed 750 words will be disqualified.

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So what do you say? The STL Scribblers group will be reading flash fictions at our meeting on March 2, 2015. There will be a popular vote, and the story with the most votes will be published on this blog. Any current or former members of the STL Scribblers, readers of this blog, or patrons of St. Louis Public Library are eligible to participate.

Full Guidelines:

1. Submit a story of no more than 750 words by March 2, 2015–you can bring them in person to our meeting at Central Library or submit by email to elundgren@slpl.org by 5:00 pm.

2. Give your story a title, but do not include your name on the manuscript, as they will be read anonymously.

3. Winning entry will be published on Scribbler in March 2015. Winner will be determined by popular vote at March STL Scribblers meeting at Central Library. They will also receive a small prize (**update: a $25 gift card from Left Bank Books). The winning writer will retain all rights to their work.

Good luck! We look forward to reading your work!

This post comes in at 419 words, FYI.

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Henry Miller at the Wednesday Club

One of the many reasons I love working in a public library is that it provides so much odd experience. In my second life as a fiction writer, people often ask me if I get a lot of material from public library work, and my general response is, not really, it’s too weird to be believed as fiction, but I have tried to embrace and appreciate the weird stuff when it comes.

So when a representative from the Wednesday Club of St. Louis, a historic women’s cultural group, approached the library to see if we had someone on staff who might want to talk about Henry Miller and the obscenity trial of Tropic of Cancer, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. I had fond memories of reading Miller’s notorious novels as a teenager, and some impish part of myself relished the chance to scandalize the plush suburb of Ladue, where the Wednesday Club HQ now stands (for most of the twentieth century, the Club met in a building at the corner of Westminster and Taylor). The organizer’s email noted that “over 100 highly educated women will be in attendance.”

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Indeed, looking into it, you realize what a force the Wednesday Club has been in St. Louis history. Founded initially as a poetry club devoted to the reading of Percy Bysshe Shelley–but running into resistance because of Shelley’s atheism–the group took on the name the Wednesday Club in 1890. The club was founded by Charlotte Stearns Eliot, T.S. Eliot’s mother, and Kate Chopin was a member (although she resigned after two years, and satirized Wednesday Club members in her short fiction). Devoted to the serious discussion of science, history, and cultural matters among women, the Club has had a notable impact on public policy–most notably leading the movement that led to St. Louis’s first smoke-reduction ordinances in the early 20th century.

As the date approached, I began to have anxious visions. I’m the kind of person who wakes up in the middle of the night sweating, and my brain produced images of over one hundred pearl-clad ladies looking on in horror as I recited an especially filthy passage of Miller. Doing the actual research calmed these nervous visions somewhat. Miller was neither as incendiary, nor as interesting, as I remembered him to be: instead of a work of revolutionary obscenity, I found Tropic of Cancer to be a boring, self-absorbed, thoroughly misogynistic, and plotless ramble … not exactly promising for my speech.

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That said, the story of how Tropic of Cancer got published was fascinating, and I ended up focusing on this, the human moments–Anais Nin borrowing funds from her psychiatrist Otto Rank to fund the publication of Tropic in France; Judge Woolsey reading Ulysses in his luxurious wood-paneled library, before he ruled on it; Barney Rosset of Grove Press stumbling upon the illegal “Medusa” edition at Gotham Book Mart in New York. Publishers, pornographers, prudes, and postmasters made for great side characters in the story of 20th century U.S. censorship.

And there had been no cause to worry: I couldn’t have found a more appreciative audience than the women of the Wednesday Club. There were a few gasps when I talked about the multiple love triangles Miller found himself in during the ’20s and ’30s, but there was also a lot of warm, appreciative laughter. Afterwards, I talked with several club members about obscenity and free expression, the recent Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, and the ways that boundaries affect artists, both positive and negative. Our gracious host, described as the “baby” of the group, published erotic verse under several pseudonyms. Other women at the table spoke about their world travels and the great lost bookstores of St. Louis. We heard from a woman who was in a rock band and had just started violin lessons. “I’m terrible,” she said. “But I keep practicing.”

In short, I have nothing but admiration for the bold and curious women of the Wednesday Club, and thoroughly enjoyed my visit. In the stacks here at Central Library, we have several volumes of Wednesday Club verse–anthologies of winning poems from their annual contest. A guy you may have heard of, Tennessee Williams, won this prize in 1936. Williams won $25 for his poem, but if you enter this year, you will have the opportunity to win one of three prizes ($500, $300, and $150). The deadline is February 1; complete guidelines can be found here.

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Tim Rakel’s Subterranean Library

Anyone who’s heard Tim Rakel’s music knows that he is a highly literate songwriter. The versatile folk-rock musician and host of KDHX’s Mystery Train program, Rakel works a rich vein of labor history, modernist literature, and urban lore into his songs. (And like Dylan before him, he’s unafraid to pinch a few lines if they sound right to him.) An ex-library staffer himself, Rakel kindly offered up and reflected upon some reading recommendations in advance of The Union Electric’s upcoming gig for the Library’s Not So Quiet! concert series.

The Union Electric will perform on Thursday, November 20 at 7:00 pm in Central Library’s auditorium — a space that used to be occupied by the coal cellar, which in this case couldn’t be more appropriate.

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Henry Boernstein, Mysteries of St Louis 

Henry Boernstein’s writings and the title of this novel are the inspiration for two of The Union Electric’s songs “Mysteries of Saint Louis, Part One” and “…Part Two”. The first part was released as a single last year and it explores the state of the city and compares the view Boernstein had of it as an Austrian immigrant before the Civil War. Boernstein was a radical journalist who took part in the Union army’s victory at the arsenal. This novel contains a lot of description of a bygone Saint Louis.

Samuel Beckett, Watt

Samuel Beckett’s plays and novels such as Watt and another called Mercier and Camier are the inspiration behind an EP by The Union Electric called From Bad to Worstward. In Watt a manservant haplessly wanders between his tasks and thoughts. Waiting For Godot might be an easier introduction to the work of Beckett but this is actually a very funny and poignant work and worth the occasional tedium of some passages.

Lincoln Steffens, Shame of the Cities

An early song by The Union Electric called “You Have Been Served” was written because of this book which details the Saint Louis street car scandal of 1900. Joseph Folk was elected circuit attorney on a campaign promise to weed out corruption in city government. He ruined his political career but carried out his promise by exposing the people that had supported his nomination. Steffens’ book goes into the history of other cities as well but the Saint Louis portion is certainly worth looking into.

Vachel Lindsay, Selected Poems

Vachel Lindsay was a contemporary of Carl Sandburg and Edgar Lee Masters and is often considered an example of an early performance poet, traveling frequently through the country and reciting his verse for small audiences. A good deal of his verse is often musical when read aloud. He wrote about Illinois figures such as Lincoln and Altgeld as well as poems about religion, politics and nature. The song “Saint Francis Of Illinois” is a tribute by The Union Electric to this Springfield poet.

Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary

Novelist Victor Serge wrote this account of his life while in exile after many years of imprisonment in both Russia and France for his participation in various political movements. He was, at various times, jailed for being an anarchist, a communist, and an anti-communist. A fascinating figure of early twentieth century European history and an eloquent writer as well. The Union Electric’s song “Out In The Street” is derived from the first chapter of this memoir.

William T. Vollmann, Imperial

This imposing volume documents a region of the California border. The Union Electric’s song “Tunnels” was inspired from the chapter about the Chinese immigrants who lived underground as a result of persecution and economic necessity. On this subject, Vollmann’s investigative journalism takes him into restaurants and basements searching for traces of this subterranean culture.

These titles and other selections by Tim Rakel will be on display in the Entertainment, Literature, and Biography Room at Central Library throughout November.

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