Wednesday, May 28, 2014

RIP Maya Angelou
Phenomenal Woman

Maya Angleou died today at age 86 after living a profoundly influential, inspiring, and beautiful life.

I taught her poem "Phenomenal Woman" to my advanced level 9th grade girls in Korea when I was teaching there in 2011. I wonder if they will remember it today as the news is carried across global air and social media waves.

The class was a small, twice-a-week-in-the-evening-for-two-hours affair, and that particular quarter it was basically up to me the foreign teacher to do whatever I wanted in that evening class. (The academy didn't seem to have a book picked out for that advanced level.) So, I created and cribbed a bunch of different activities over the weeks, but at one point decided to do a few weeks of poetry, introducing them to a few well-known English poems and poets, perhaps planting some seeds in these 14-going-on-15-year-old minds. Which seeds, then, to plant?

The first poem we studied was Robert Frost's "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening." (Oh by the way, this ends up being a pretty USA-centric affair--sorry, Brits! Get you next time around!) With a few easily pre-taught exceptions ("harness," "downy"), the vocabulary is pretty simple and it is a good one for studying imagery, sentence structure, and evocative symbolism that leads to deep thoughts about life, as I previously blog-discussed. The week after we studied it, I had them write their own poems using its rhyme scheme to tell a story of a moment. It was challenging but rewarding, as poetry so often can be.

Next up was "Harlem" by Langston Hughes, perhaps most remembered by its opening lines: "What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?" This is another poetic gem, short but with some key vocabulary to learn ("fester," "sag," "crust," and "heavy load" in addition to the all-important "deferred") and a vivid image that stands for so much more. And this one lends itself even better to the students writing their own poems, which I of course had them do, grappling with the question "What happens to a dream deferred?" They started with that opening line and answered it in their own individual ways.

Finally, we moved on to Angelou's "Phenomenal Woman."  I suppose this ought to be required reading for all eighth and ninth grade girls... and I think it was at this point that Brian started jokingly referring to the class as my "Mona Lisa Smile class." After we read this one and discussed its vocabulary and symbolism and evoked emotions and rhythm and so on, I noticed the students were a little quiet. I prodded them a little: "What's up, ladies? Did you not like this poem?"

One of them replied, "I'm just thinking that this one is going to be really hard when you make us write our own poem like it."

I laughed. She was right, of course. But the girls did write their own versions, playing with different adjectives (excellent, exceptional, amazing) compared to "phenomenal" and expressing in their many varied ways why they were, indeed, phenomenal girls on their way to becoming phenomenal women.

Maybe they have continued writing poetry; they've almost certainly continued studying English. One girl in that class had the brains, the drive, the scientific interests, and the parental financial capability to end up at MIT (an idea she was already considering). Another was a perfect student grade- and study-wise but so stressed by school and so desirous of more time to just be able to hang out listening to music and looking at magazines with her friends (I gifted them a few of my copies of Entertainment Weekly, after concocting another series of English lessons using the mags) that I hope she has continued to find new takes on things and ever more ways to express herself as she did when she took pencil to paper to write her poems. Another girl was quite mature for a 15-year-old and more of a non-conformist than she always let on, and she often talked about her keen interest in art and in film--real film, challenging film, varieties of film, not just giant explosion-filled action blockbusters. She was always surprising me with the classic movies she had randomly downloaded and watched. I have no doubt she continues to be creative, but wonder what she has chosen to do for university. Will she direct her own feature film one day? Will you hear about this exciting new Korean female cinematic voice in another decade or so?  They are in their last year of high school this year. They must be making plans. I always wondered if they'll end up going to college in the U.S. and come across one of the poems we studied in some liberal arts elective at Harvard or at UC-Berkeley and have a flash of recognition that day. Or, if they roll their eyes at the mere thought of poetry, will they at least have a leg up having already delved a bit into these selections?

Poetry really isn't dead. It's not something that can die.

Caged birds are just about the saddest thing on this Earth I can conceive of, but they do sing.

Rest in peace, Maya Angelou.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014


now finished: re-reading Alibi through Evidence of Sue Grafton's alphabet mysteries series
now reading: Mutiny on the Bounty by Charles Nordhoff & James Norman Hall
The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry: From Ancient to Contemporary, the Full 3,000-Year Tradition ed. by Tony Barnstone with Chou Ping

now listening: My Story by Elizabeth Smart with some ghostwriter dude, Chris Stewart, I think? 

Yes, a lot going on. It's all different though. These past couple years I've had one audio book going pretty much all the time, which I listen to while on walks, or exercising, or commuting on buses with no working lights (ahem, that happened in Korea sometimes). They take me forever to get through, especially back when I had crappy headphones. Now I have good headphones, or should I say ear buds, that actually stay in my ears while I'm running, but we're training for the 25K River Bank Run (three days from now!) and I listen to music playlists, not books, during my long runs, so I still only listen sometimes, and ... yeah. The poetry is because I dabble, reading a poet or two per day, slowly working my way through the entire history of Chinese poetry. (Just kidding. A sampling.) My actual book-book at the moment is Mutiny on the Bounty, which I did read years ago, but about which I remember next to nothing, so I'm re-reading it and then am going to watch the Oscar-winning movie from the 1930s, and just for kicks I'm probably going to read the next two books in the Bounty trilogy as well.

But let's address my other little ongoing project--Sue Grafton. I have a serious question about that series. No, this isn't about their implausibility or weird characterization or whatever other little flaws impede a reader's enjoyment of them. This isn't about how I'm probably going to blaze through the alphabet as I've set out to do, despite my finding that F Is for Far-Fetched. The question I have is one that came up as I was perusing some Goodreads reviews of E Is for Evidence. Several reviewers mentioned that they were working their way through the series, that they were thinking of giving up, that since Alibi the books have gone downhill, and comments like that. And then...and then... brace yourselves!!...and then, a reviewer of E Is for Evidence named Ed writes: "Every few months, I've been checking out a Sue Grafton alphabet title. 'E' now makes for eleven, according to my Goodreads account, that I've read."

WHAT?! E is for eleven??!

Seriously, E-is-for-Ed, that is basically just like stabbing me in the heart with an icicle. You're reading them out of order?!?!

I don't understand how Ed can do this. How can anyone not read this series in order? I mean ... FIRST of all, I can't just read mystery series out of order, period. This is a big part of my entire problem with reading mysteries in the first place. Every time I browse them, just as with all those times at Borders when I would touch and shelve them, I look at them and get intrigued by them and make mental notes to get around to reading these authors one day but I can't just plunge in anywhere!! I have to start at the beginning, duh, obviously!!!! And if the first one is out of stock, or it takes too much effort to figure out which one in a certain series is even the first one (note to authors and especially publishers: that really sucks, by the way. Just make it obvious on the cover of the book, please, thank you), then forget it, can't try out that author that day. This is why we like Goodreads and authors' web sites that tell us clearly "Ellie Hatcher #1" or "Anna Pigeon #6" or whatever. Waaaaaaaaay back in my early Borders days I accidentally read Nelson DeMille's The Lion's Game, a Detective John Corey book, without having read Plum Island, which is the first John Corey book, and I have been traumatized ever since. I still think about it every single year when I read my annual Nelson DeMille. It's pretty terrible that that happened.

But..but...but, Ed. Ed! With the Sue Grafton alphabet mystery series it's TOTALLYF******OBVIOUS, dude! It's the alphabet!!  It is totally completely thoroughly 100% designed to be achingly obvious what order they go in. Only Janet Evanovich's One for the Money Stephanie Plum series could be possibly more obvious. But I don't think so. Some of Evanovich's titles are cleverly familiar phrases, at least, and you could be forgiven for seeing a random shelf with, say, High Five and To the Nines and not realizing it's even a series and that those are book #5 and book #9. But the Graftons!! Oh my god! A Is for.., B Is for..., C Is for...  It's clear! It's so clear! To anyone! There's no way you didn't know! Alibi, Burglar, Corpse, Deadbeat, Evidence, Fugitive, Gumshoe. You knew! You knew, Ed! And you chose to read them out of order?!?!

I mean, I really couldn't do it. Like, couldn't. I actually could not read those out of order. If someone was all like: Hey, have you read any of the Kinsey Millhone mysteries? and I was all, Nope! and they tossed L is for Lawless my way and said, Here! Try this! I would be like No! No! No! Get it away!

How could you just do that? How?

My god, please tell me that you people out there understand the gravity of this situation.